LOS ANGELES — With macho-sounding names like Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and the Spartan Race, obstacle course races have turned mud, sweat and tears into a flood of revenue.
Over the past year, obstacle races have surpassed marathons in popularity, with an estimated 1.6 million participants paying hefty fees to slosh through mud pits, crawl under barbed wire, scale 10-foot walls and plunge into troughs of ice water. Course organizers are raking in millions of dollars in the process.
But race organizers and participants say the adrenaline-pumping races may have reached a crucial point, with course designers now forced to dream up new obstacles and themes or risk losing the novelty that has driven the hugely profitable sport.
“We are going to have to continue to be creative,” said Dave Iannone, chief executive and co-founder of the Hero Rush, a race with obstacles designed to mimic the physical challenges of being a firefighter. “Everyone is trying to find something of a niche.”
It’s a crucial challenge because obstacle-course races draw as many as 13,000 participants per event, with entry fees of $65 to $180, plus parking charges. The race distances range from three to 12 miles. But the obstacles are often very similar at many of the races.
In the past year or so, a wave of new race organizers have entered the fray, hosting disorganized events with unchallenging obstacles. Among the obstacles at the Mud-a-Palooza race in Camarillo, Calif., last year were plastic hula hoops and Styrofoam cubes.
“We have started to reach a saturation,” said Matt Robinson, race director at Red Frog Events, a Chicago organizer of obstacle races, including the Warrior Dash and the Great Urban Race. “That is why it is important to continue to reinvent the Warrior Dash.
To keep adrenaline junkies happy, a few races push the danger level to an extreme. The popular Tough Mudder races direct competitors to run or crawl under live wires, charged with up to 10,000 volts of electricity, enough to make you cringe and scream but not enough to kill you.
Race organizers declined to disclose their profits, but revenues for many of the events have surged in the past few years to include entrance fees, sponsorships and merchandise sales. Advil recently became the official pain reliever of the Tough Mudder.
Red Frog Events started with one obstacle race and 2,000 runners in 2009 and plans to expand to 50 races in places around the globe, such as Queensland, Australia, and Torino, Italy, with more than 600,000 participants by the end of this year. The company reported about $1 million in revenue in 2009 and approximately $50 million in 2012.
“I don’t think you could have ever imagined that it would grow as fast as it did,” Robinson said. “People are willing to pay for such experiences to escape from reality.”
Another hugely successful race organizer, Tough Mudder, began with three events and 20,000 participants in 2010. Last year, 35 Tough Mudder races drew more than 460,000 participants. Organizers plan 52 events in 2013 with as many as 700,000 competitors.
The organizers of Tough Mudder say they are on track to collect $100 million in revenue in 2013.
“It’s definitely a great return on investment,” said Tough Mudder Chief Culture Officer Alex Patterson.
The races appeal to athletes and thrill seekers looking for bragging rights or a new challenge that surpasses the once-popular five- or 10-kilometer races.
“They’re challenging, and I love to compete,” said Aracely Rodriguez, 25, a Cal State San Luis Obispo graduate student who has competed in about 15 obstacle races in the past 18 months.
Attendance numbers continue to climb, but race organizers say they must continue to push the thrills to new levels by increasing the distance on some races and adding more difficult obstacles on others.
The organizers of the Spartan Race now host a three-mile Spartan Sprint, an eight-mile Super Spartan and a 12-mile Spartan Beast. In some races, competitors who can’t complete an obstacle must endure a penalty, such as a plunge into an ice bath.
The organizer of the Rugged Maniac races is pushing the risk factor even higher by replicating Pamplona’s running of the bulls in the United States. The race series, known as the Great Bull Run, drew 12,000 participants who sprinted alongside angry bulls at the first event in Virginia in August. The bull run will swing through Southern California in March.
“I think it’s going to be an arms race,” said Rob Dickens, the chief operating officer of Rugged Races, who also founded the Great Bull Run. “I think people will try to differentiate the obstacles.”
When the obstacle race trend began a few years ago, organizers said they couldn’t find insurance companies willing to cover such events. There are no national safety regulations for obstacle races, but race organizers have appeased the insurance industry by staffing the races with emergency medical teams. They also require runners to sign long liability waivers.
New obstacles with increased risks are now what drive many competitors to keep returning to the races.
“If it’s new and not the same old, same old, I like that,” said Justin Henderson, a systems technician from Chino, who has completed four obstacle races in the past few months.
But organizers must walk a fine line in designing such obstacles.
In April, Avishek Sengupta, 28, drowned at a Tough Mudder race in West Virginia after jumping from a 15-foot-high Walk the Plank obstacle to a muddy pit of water below. No one was charged in the death, which authorities ruled an accident.
“As organizers, we take our responsibility to provide a safe event to our participants very seriously,” Will Dean, CEO of Tough Mudder, said in a statement after the death.
It is believed to be the fourth death in an obstacle-course race since 2011.
Some race directors are moving in another direction by reducing the risk factor to appeal to families.
Red Frog Events, for example, recently expanded its offerings to include a beer festival and Illuminite Runs, three-mile nighttime races with participants who wield neon glow-sticks and dance to the music from live DJs after the run.
Said Robinson, events director at Red Frog: “Who knows how long the mud run fad will go on?”