does obstacle racing have the feet of clay?

By SOLO

In the Book of Daniel, one of the books of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, king Nebuchadnezzar keeps having a disturbing dream. He dreams of a huge statue, made up of various metals and having the feet of clay.

When the king approaches his prophets about the dream, he gets the following interpretation:

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.
 

And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay.
And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.
And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.

[The Book of Daniel, 2:31-33, 2:41-43, emphasis – mine]

Today, the expression refers to “a hidden weakness in someone apparently strong and without failings, which could cause his or her downfall” [Source.].

Given the recent developments in the world of obstacle racing, it seems that the giant has the feet of clay, indeed.

In the latest interviewwith Matt B. Davis, Ray Upshaw, the infamous Tough Mudder with the pledge tattooed into his flesh, describes himself as “frustrated”.  “Just because I see the changes coming, doesn’t mean you do”, he says almost ominously. “There are a lot of storms that I predicted that have happened in obstacle racing. […] I used to think that people care about that, they really don’t. Days of Our Lives Obstacle Racing edition does not fucking sell registrations, it’s not gonna make people happy.”

While blunt as usual, Upshaw points out the underbelly of obstacle racing that few usually discuss.

New races are popping up every week. There was a time when I actually knew all the races in the sport. Now, I simply lost count. There are family runs, scavenger hunts, all women runs –  all wanting to cash in on the obstacle racing. I swear if I hear from yet another race director, putting on yet another race series, promising to deliver “tonnes of fun”, “family blast”, “muddy delight”, “most insane adventure race” and whatever the hell else, I will scream.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to put together a bad ass marketing video with thunder, lightening, barb wire and rock music in the background than to put together a good obstacle race.

An easy cash grab is simply too tempting. One “obstacle race” in Toronto last year spent months advertising the event on the radio, and social media. Hundreds have paid the $100 race entry only to show up to what amounted to little more than a road 10k. I think someone handed me a sandbag at some point. I did not share any negative feedback on public forums at the time, because I was sent to the event as an ambassador by one of my sponsors, and simply did not want to step on anyone’s toes. However, I was hardly the only disgruntled racer. As one fellow runner succinctly described it was a case of “marketing amateurs pretending to host a race”. It became very clear very quickly that there was not going to be a repeat in 2013. In fact, the race website is no longer live, and anyone associated with the race seems to have disappeared.

While luckily this is more of an exception than a rule, the above example does demonstrate one of the main issues in the sport – the unsustainable rate of growth. The popular media refers to the “cult” of obstacle racing, to the sport that has “exploded”, to the racers who are “obsessed”.

Herman Daly, an economist and professor at the School of Public Policy of University of Maryland, discusses sustainability and the optimal scale of growth in his essay, suggesting that:

“An economy in sustainable development adapts and improves in knowledge, organization, technical efficiency, and wisdom; and […] stops at a scale at which the remaining ecosystem (the environment) can continue to function and renew itself year after year.”

I assert that in the field of obstacle racing, the improvements in “knowledge, organization, technical efficiency and wisdom” are not currently happening at the same rate as the sport itself. Alas, unsustainable rate of growth too often results in a collapse. We have witnessed a number of “storms”, to use Upshaw’s expression, in the recent months.

Epic Racing Arena started out strong in the second half of 2012, promising a four day festival of obstacle racing and headliner bands in a stadium venue, and challenging athletes to submit applications for entry. At the time, the idea was, indeed, brand new. Since the initial announcement, however, the novelty appeal of the stadium venue has been dampened somewhat, as Spartan Race took obstacle racing to Fenway Park in Boston and Citi Field Stadium in New York.

After the second challenge was issued to the competitors in the late fall, the Epic Racing Arena seems to have dropped the ball. The last official message was posted in February, and we have not heard from the organizers since. At my expression of disappointment on the event Facebook page, the organizers announced that the next official challenge is to create the next official challenge from within the group of athletes. I’m sorry but this seems a little too easy of a cop-out.

Similarly, after lots of hype the Extreme Nation announced a (yet another!) new obstacle race series, only to pull registrations, and issue refunds weeks later. A tragic death in the family was one of the factors, and I sympathize deeply with the loss. However, as reported by the EN itself, it was hardly the only reason, as the company experienced multiple management changes over the course of few weeks, as “the previous event director strayed from the original vision for Extreme Nation and its focus, venue and business plan”.

To go back to the king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream:

“This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.”

Excellent ideas. Fine gold.

Poor execution. The feet of clay.

In the king’s dream, a stone strikes the statue at its feet, and the giant crumbles into dust. Let’s hope there aren’t too many more stones around. For the sport’s sake.

Signing off,
Solo

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Posted April 11, 2013

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