Run, jump, crawl...get electrocuted.
These are just a handful of the activities runners might perform during obstacle course races—also known as OCRs or mud runs—which are exploding in popularity.
Each year, millions of participants take to obstacle courses around the world to challenge their athleticism, toughness and determination on miles of dirt paths, in muddy water and past semi-insane obstacles. And each year, participation numbers continue to grow.
According to statistics from Running USA on non-traditional running events, the number of people taking part in mud runs and obstacle course races has significantly risen from 2009 to 2013, while half marathon and marathon participation has seen only modest growth.
Meanwhile, the number of OCR events is certainly keeping up with the demand. A search for mud runs and obstacle course races on ACTIVE.com, for example, yields more than 2,000 races to choose from. No longer are road races the only option for those looking to become healthier and more active.
The History of Obstacle Course Races
There's some debate about who put on the first modern obstacle course race, but many trace the event's history back to the U.K.-based Tough Guy race, first held in 1987. Billed as the "toughest race in the world," the Tough Guy event is still run every year in January and is meant to test participants' biggest fears, including heights, tight spaces, fire, water and electricity.
Adventure racing, which requires more orienteering and can last multiple days, is also sometimes tied to the creation of OCRs. These events date back to the late 1960s and usually require participants to use maps, bicycles, kayaks and rock climbing gear.
As far as modern OCRs go, participants have their pick from thousands of events across the world. Two of the most well-known obstacle course races on the scene today, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, both claim 2010 as their founding year—with no specific date that establishes one before the other. Warrior Dash lists a more specific inception of July 18, 2009, for their inaugural event. Regardless of who beat whom to the punch, the OCR industry has exploded in popularity and participation.
The Appeal of the OCR
To understand more about why the OCR industry has taken off at such an unprecedented rate, we went straight to the source. Joe De Sena, CEO and co-founder of Spartan Race, believes that obstacle course races are a more appealing kind of commitment for the average person.
"Very few people love running long distance. It's a tiny sliver of the population that actually loves it," he says. "We make it easier in a sense that every quarter mile, there's something to distract you from what you're really doing—which is running."
And athletes aren't the only ones interested in getting involved—brands want in on the party, too. In 2013, Reebok signed on as the title sponsor of Spartan Race, and Merrell recently announced a similar partnership with Tough Mudder.
"Even before the partnership came about, we were very keen on getting closer to the obstacle course racing challenges," says Gregg Dixon, product line manager for trail running at Merrell. "Looking at data, we saw it as one of the quickest growing sports in the U.S., so we wanted to find a way to start moving into that territory. And with Merrell being an outdoor brand, it's kind of a perfect fit for us."
While Merrell has long been a leader in the hiking boot industry, the company has now created a shoe that is part trail running, part obstacle course racing. The All Out Crush will be available in Spring 2016, allowing runners to take them from the trail to an OCR—and back.
As the Tough Mudder partnership evolves, Merrell also plans to create an entire line of apparel, shoes and accessories to appeal to mud runners and obstacle course racers across the world.
"We also love the fact that this might expose a lot more people to the outdoors," he says. "And maybe they might enjoy it and start to do more outdoor activities than they would have had they not participated in Tough Mudder."