does obstacle racing have the feet of clay?


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,

Posted April 11, 2013

20 responses to “does obstacle racing have the feet of clay?”

  1. Marvin Mitchell says:

    Wow – this post was excellent on so many levels. Well done. I suspect that the sport will endure these adolescent pains, learn from them, and continue to prosper for years to come.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Completely agree – my head hurts every time a new ad pops up or another venue is adding me on twitter. The sport is expensive as is, and it’s only going to get worse and more confusing for new racers and even experienced ones. However, for the original OCRs, it could work in their favor. I stick to what I know, so I know certain events put on a great show for my money. But at the same time, these “hyped” races could put a big black eye on OCR as a whole just because of “bait and switch” factor these races/organizers do.

    Some regulation of this sport I think needs to happen in order for people not to be taken advantage of or let down – however we’ll see just how long that takes. :-

    Love the write up, Solo!

  3. Shauna says:

    Completely agree – my head hurts every time a new ad pops up or another venue is adding me on twitter. The sport is expensive as is, and it’s only going to get worse and more confusing for new racers and even experienced ones. However, for the original OCRs, it could work in their favor. I stick to what I know, so I know certain events put on a great show for my money. But at the same time, these “hyped” races could put a big black eye on OCR as a whole just because of “bait and switch” factor these races/organizers do.

    Some regulation of this sport I think needs to happen in order for people not to be taken advantage of or let down – however we’ll see just how long that takes. :-

    Love the write up, Solo!

    (Not too sure why my first post went in as anonymous!)

  4. Patrick Saile says:

    You totally captured how I’ve been feeling about OCR at the moment. The explosion of high priced races with nothing unique about them.
    I’m making it my rule of thumb not do any new races – wait for them to get a year or 2 of experience under their belts and if they get good reviews, then I’ll go. It’s just too hard to sort the wheat from the chaff right now. Hopefully natural selection will work with OCR 🙂
    I also don’t like the ‘too much running, not enough obstacles, design races for spectators’ movement that’s starting to form – the bottleneck of racers on most obstacles races is bad enough, I don’t know how adding more will improve that.

    • Solo says:

      Thanks, Patrick. I’m finding that with a lot of these “too much running, not enough obstacles” races, I’d pretty much always rather just run a trail race! 🙂

  5. Miles says:

    Great write-up! Couldn’t have been stated any better!

  6. Amy Lawson says:

    Excellent! I think you have intelligently and succinctly stated what has been on multiple minds lately. Every week (at least that’s what it seems) a new race is announced in South Florida, after completing two of those and having very bad experiences, I’ve decided not to register for any OCRs for awhile. While the commercialization of the established companies is a little nauseating to me, at least they’re delivering on their promises.

    As for Epic, I had high hopes in the beginning, but stringing along their athletes is not cool.

  7. Dave C says:

    Very well put. Some marquee races have done an epic job with the marketing and have backed that up with excellent events. Hard to argue with the success of TM, Spartan and Warrior Dash.

    That said, however, having run two Tough Mudders and like 9 Spartans (including two Beasts) in the last 2 years, I am starting to look for other local races with something interesting to offer, and also am making obstacle racing a part of my regular training regimen. It’s just so goddamn GOOD for you!

    For those reasons, I am constantly (and some would say annoyingly) pimping out my buddy Rob Butler’s Shale Hill Adventure / ORTC Course in Benson VT because it’s a great local venue and it’s available to train year round. Shale Hill ran two races last year and though small, they were awesome fun and Rob’s obstacles mixed with the natural terrain make the course really, really hard. (You can read the online reviews, I am not making this up!) So in my view, hopefully there will be more of those types of smaller, legit venues cropping up to serve those of us who have families and limited travel and registration budgets, and for whom the the novelty of the big marquee races has worn off a little.

    Love the blog – very thought provoking posts.

  8. mattcave says:

    I was scared. Very scared. An article about OCR that starts with a biblical reference? This could go badly… But no, just common sense coupled with a bit of Joan Rivers-style bluntness. I’d be interested to hear where you think the sport/industry will end up 3, 4, 5 years from now. What are your predictions?

  9. MC says:

    Obstacle racing is suffering from the same boom-bust cycle that most everything does.

    The original series of races started small and were attended by a dedicated few. Then a few TV news spots about this “crazy” and “insane” race generate some interest among athletes looking for a new challenge. These people then tell all their friends ” you HAVE to do this race”. Repeat a few times and the whole thing explodes. Meanwhile the race series expand with shorter and easier races to make everything more accessible so the organizers can maximize their profits while the fad is in full swing (and so they should).

    Fast forward say 2-5 years. Everyone has done at least one race just to say they did it and the masses retreat back to the relative safety of the treadmill and May long weekend 5Ks. A bunch of the veterans have moved on to something different, more hardcore or whatever. The various race series will then shrink back to a more sustainable level or disappear altogether only to be revived in 20 years as the next new thing. (or, even better, as a long lost style of racing that your hard as nails grandparents did)

    Think of the various popular race styles from the past 20-25 years. Remember Eco Challenges? They’re still around, but you don’t hear much about them any more. The same will go for Obstacle Races. You’ll always be able to find one if you look for it and the main brands (Spartan, Tough Mudder) will probably still be around.

    Also, do not underestimate people’s desire to feel unique/special. For a huge number of people being the only one in your peer group to have finished a Spartan Beast feels better than if everyone has done one. This is what drives the creation of all these new events and what causes people to tire of and ultimately abandon previous events.

    The obstacle race format is not inherently weak or unstable. It’s simply going through the standard huge surge in popularity at the moment. The various problems that many races are seeing are not the fault of concept itself.

    As I always say, once you see something on TV and everyone is talking about it then the real money has already been made and it’s actually already on the decline from its peak.

    • MC says:

      Just an add on.

      I expect CrossFit will go through the same boom-bust as well. It’s currently leaking into the view of “the masses” and will probably be quite popular for the next 5 years or so. Then it too will fade back into the background as something else jumps up to replace it.

      • Solo says:

        Hmm… interesting perspective. Although I don’t know if I agree. CrossFit already HAS been around for a while. It’s not as new as people think, and it only got more popular.

      • MC says:

        Does this comment system not allow multiple stacked replies? For whatever reason I can’t reply to your reply. Interesting…

        Even though CrossFit has been around for a while, there’s nothing stopping it from have a huge surge in popularity followed by a fall off back to its present level.

        Here’s a non-fitness example: Flipping Houses

        The practice of flipping houses has been around forever but it was limited to a relatively small group of skilled business and trades people. A number of factors converged to make the practice extra lucrative and all of a sudden you have a huge number of people giving it a try. Several TV series started up and ran for a few years showing the practice as well. Fast forward a few years and it’s back to the same level/popularity/difficulty it was before 2002-2003.

        Any activity or business model can run in relative obscurity for years before exploding into the mass market. At that point you get tons of bandwagon jumpers that will dilute or damage the original brand. Like any fad, the popularity will fade, perhaps hastened by bad experiences with unscrupulous or uneducated individuals. However, the original business will live on because at its core, it has value and there are a sufficient number of people to keep it viable.

        That’s just a really long winded way of saying that Obstacle Racing in itself will always have a healthy market. I just think the market is approaching saturation at this point and there will be a fall off in the number and types of events.

        My prediction for the next “big thing” is military/Special Forces style events. GoRuck is a good example as an early innovator that would likely survive a boom-bust cycle.

        • Solo says:

          very thoughtful comment – thank you. And a very interesting perspective. I agree with your point that the market is pretty close to being saturated right now. Many individuals are holding off signing up for new races, until those races hold up to a test of time.

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