Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Tale of Two Races...or is it Three?

The future of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR)?  For some reason I keep thinking about this.  Maybe it's because of the Spartan Citi Field race on the 13th.  A different sort of obstacle race than most of "us" are used to.  It begs the question, how do those fit into the future of the sport?  The other reason is the post I read from Ekaterina Solovieva. (Ekaterina Solovieva - Does obstacle racing have the feet of clay?)  Seems like she's the only other person writing about it.  Maybe not though...you see, I don't get out much.
Most of what you do hear revolves more around the type of races...the differences in distance and the density of obstacles on the course.  They also seem to be concerned about the rise of new races showing up almost weekly.  Many of these races end up being disappointments in any number of ways.  Unorganized...long lines for entry, parking and obstacles.  Poorly designed or "imitation" courses which have few, if any, real obstacles.  Some don't even get off the ground after much hype and promise.
However, to me there really is no question that the sport of obstacle racing will endure.  Of course it will likely reach it's peak in the next few years and then contract back to a more solid core of race promoters and a stable base of racers.  But here's where the race structure will start to differentiate to accommodate a diverse racing population.
The original style events are generally run in natural settings, if not in the actual woods, and include barbed wire, mud and assorted other hard-core (read: relatively dangerous) physical challenges.  Right now, there are two groups that make up the OCR base for these events.
The first group are the serious racers, meaning people who will do at least a few races a year, will travel regionally to compete and will likely do races from different promoters.  These "traditionalists" like the format we have now and really prefer to see that remain the same.  They will continue to train seriously and continue to attend these events for as long as they challenge and motivate the racers.
There is also a "casual" racer who will probably just do one or two of these traditional races a year.  For them it becomes an annual event and they focus on it like they would a holiday event or a company picnic.  Well, a company picnic with eight-foot walls, rope climbs and sand bag carries.   A challenge to look forward to every year, to prepare for and probably attend with a group of like-minded friends.
The new type of events are the "stadium" style, like the one at Citi Field.  A third group of racers...which is just beginning to be tapped...is the "urban warrior".  The physical challenge is real and many of the racers are serious athletes!  Many of the same obstacles can be found there too.  But you won't find the barbed wire...or the mud!  There are fans in the stands...there is big screen video of the event from all over the venue.  Music blaring from the sound system...it's a true festival atmosphere.  Some of the "traditionalists" (like me) were there mostly because it was a first.  I mean, how often were we going to have a chance to run through (and on) Citi Field?  Without being chased down by security or police I mean (which I guess could be a whole new level of OCR). 
There is also a strong contingency of teams at the stadium events, seemingly much more than at the traditional races.  Many use the race as an platform to fund raise or bring awareness to their cause.  The accessibility to fans also makes this a great opportunity for family and friends to watch the racers...something that is all but impossible in most of the traditional venues.
The third race "style", if you can call it that, is the newest...and least proven.  All the top tier races right now are "mobile" courses.  They come to a venue for a weekend of races...or now we have Spartan Race doing a second weekend at their Tuxedo venue...then it's off to the next city.  This new style is the "fixed" course.  The course is stationary...and logic would say that they can develop larger and more challenging obstacles by the very fact that it doesn't have to be moved every week.  The big question though is how many people can you attract.  Certainly the local racers will flock to it initially, to try it out.  Maybe use it periodically to test there progress and condition.  But how many people will travel to these locations just to race?  Even if it's near a vacation destination, considering the nature of at least a day or two recovery after racing (for normal people), how many people will give up half their vacation week just to run the course?  We'll see how this one plays out too...maybe I need to get out to one of these and check it out!
Which promoters will be left standing at the end is unknown of course.  An interesting observation is that it's not usually the company that's first out of the starting gate, but the company that makes the necessary adjustments and has the most attractive product that becomes number one.  In my opinion though, there will be OCR in the future and I think it will have a substantial following, whichever promoters are left.  The fact that races are popping up and disappearing is inconsequential to this future.  In fact, I believe it's just a healthy sign of the growth and evolution of OCR.  It will be very interesting to watch the progress and development of OCR over the next few years. It's not often that we have a chance to see the birth of  a new sport or industry.  And I'm guessing this won't be the last thought on the topic....so until then....

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Personal thoughts on coping with the tragedy in Boston

An attack on any one of us is truly an attack on us all.  When those attacked are innocents and children, so much greater our anger...so much greater our outrage.
Monday night was going to be a time to reflect on the Spartan Race at Citifield on Saturday.  Maybe take some time to respond to a blog from a fellow writer over the weekend.  But just before 3pm on Monday we were stunned and saddened with news of a bombing at the Boston Marathon.
So many times now in the last twenty years, America has been rocked by senseless and indiscriminate violence.  Oklahoma City, 9/11, Columbine, Newtown and now the Boston Marathon.  For me personally, there can never be any adequate answers.  All I can ever feel is the heart-wrenching sadness and the helplessness in knowing that this evil exists in the world.  An evil which is forever beyond my ability to comprehend.  At the same time we realize that we are all vulnerable.  That there can be no ultimate security.  And that can be a frightening revelation.
Yesterday's victims were, once again, innocent bystanders just trying to take part in an American tradition....the 117th running of the marathon in Boston.  All they wanted to do was share in the accomplishment of family or friends.  To show their support by being there at the finish...a day that should have been a celebration for each and every runner.  Instead, some lost their lives.  Others will never be the same, physically or emotionally.  In fact, none of us will ever really be the same after this. 
We have come to understand that terrible things happen in war...but not to people on the street of an American city.  Not until now anyway.  America though, is a strong and resilient nation.  Boston is a strong and resilient city....
We will mourn for those we've lost....
We will care for those who are injured....
We will be stronger on the other side of the pain....
We will search for answers....
Make no mistake though...we will not be threatened; we will not live in fear; we will not retreat from the freedom our way of life has bestowed upon us, the freedom that Americans have died defending; justice will be served upon those responsible for such a cowardly act!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Present and Future of Obstacle Course Racing...and other secrets of the universe (Part deux)

[continuation from part one (the present and future of obstacle course racing - part one)]

In part one, I talked about the need for fans...and to have fans, the need to be able to watch a good portion of the races in real time...whether at the race or from somewhere else.

The fact is, that the only fans of the sport you have right now are the very racers attending the events. I would be surprised if many others (outside of some family and friends) were following any of these races at all.  Even if anyone wanted to watch or follow them, there's no practical way of doing it.

So what you have right now is the typical OCR racer paying to race and indirectly providing whatever prize money the elite racers receive (with some corporate sponsors of course). However, most of the racers don't know even a quarter of these elite racers and the ones they do know, they rarely get to see other than a few Facebook pictures. Many may not even care...the focus of these events so far has been primarily on the racing itself and the competition/teamwork.  Neither the NFL, the NBA or any other professional sport is like this...why would one expect OCR to somehow become successful in this strange fan arrangement...or in the absence of any fan base to speak of?

[Editor's note: in the time between part one and part deux, a blog was written on the definition of "elite"...(Ekaterina Solovieva - "Are You Elite?" blog)...so, in all likelihood, the elite racer is actually a figment of the author's deranged imagination anyway]

There are also other factors in the sport that vary greatly from promoter to promoter.  Some events don't even keep times...they consider the challenge to finish and value teamwork over times.  Race lengths vary from 3 miles to over 26 miles...and that isn't even considering the World's Toughest Mudder or Spartan Death Race.  Not only do the race lengths vary, but so do the number of obstacles and density (obstacles per mile).  Some people feel there should be a balance between the running and obstacle challenges.  That will be another aspect that will play itself out in the competition between the events themselves.

The greatest efforts will likely have to be made in the area of viewing the races.  Initially it will be the families and friends of the racers and the racers themselves that want to see.  Spartan Race has recently started using their chip technology for tracking the racers to identify their personal videos.  What if you used that same technology to track a racer over the course.  A smartphone app could be developed for their fans to monitor their progress.  Maybe even use this tracking to notify their fans that the racer is approaching a particular obstacle.  Then they could watch a monitor at the event that was live broadcasting the obstacle and actually watch...or even watch remotely.  I'm sure there are many other ways to bring this about, and some may already be in some stage of  planning.

Coincidentally, another blog post came out since yesterday after part one of this blog.  It seems like the changing of the "sport" has been on a lot of people's minds.  It's another perspective on the growing trend towards the reality of professional obstacle racers. (Amelia Boone - "Walking a tightrope")  Certainly, money will change things...some things for the better, some for the worse.  And which is which depends on who you ask.  But there will be opportunities for people in all types of ancillary areas...training, equipment, health products too.  It might be a few years from now, but make no mistake big changes are coming to OCR.

However, as with any change, there are always those that feel it's the wrong direction.  Sometimes it's because they just like the way things are and have no interest in seeing anything change at all.  Sometimes it's just about the way it will change the sport for the racers themselves.  Personally, I like the idea of each race course being unique...and changing from year to year.  I really believe that not knowing what's ahead is one of the greatest challenges these races offer.  Others think course standardization is the way to go.

What motivated me to finally write about this was a post I saw on Facebook...actually a link on another racers timeline to this post (Ekaterina Solovieva post).  Whatever you think about the future of OCR, the only certainty is that the sport will change...that is guaranteed.  It may grow into the Olympic sport that some want to see.  It may peak soon then fade back to what it is now...a weekend challenge for people that enjoy the feeling of accomplishment by simply finishing.

The one thing all the OCR powers-that-be should remember is that the golden geese are the racers.  Whatever lofty plans they have and whatever changes they make to reach their particular goals, they'd better make sure the hordes are with them.  Because once you lose them, getting them back is like herding chickens...or maybe geese!  Now that would be a real challenge....

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Present and Future of Obstacle Course Racing...and other secrets of the universe (Part one)

I've only been observing the sport of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) for around 2-1/2 years now.  My introduction to the sport was purely accidental, but I can truly say, I will never be quite the same.  I've also been racing for almost two years...although it's not what you would call competitively or even regularly until this year.  Normally, two years would not be considered a very long time to be involved with a sport.  But since this sport is relatively young itself and really has only become popular in the last year or so, 2-1/2 years has seen much change.

There are many different races and it seems that a new one pops up every week (a sure sign of their growing popularity).  Each has it's own story, which I'm not going to try to recount here.  But there are a few that stand out as the leaders in the field.  In all fairness, I have only run the Spartan races so far (Spartan Race homepage) so I don't have first hand knowledge of the others.  However, by most accounts, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder (Tough Mudder homepage) are the top two race promoters.  I've also heard that Warrior Dash (Warrior Dash homepage) is another promoter that puts on similar races.  There are others too, but many of these seem to be more concerned about gimmicks than serious, challenging events.
The big question though is, what is the future of OCR?  Last year I first started hearing talk about the subject.  I heard people talking about a racing circuit, sponsored teams in competition across the different courses, standardized courses and even talk of an Olympic sport.  Of course there's always someone looking towards the future of any activity...and that's important.  Seems to me though that before you can talk about professional OCR racers, you have to develop fans!

When that question was posed last year, that was my first thought.  How can you have a sport without fans?  And how would you have fans when the only view of the race was the start and the finish?  In fact, at that time, the only real interest in these elite racers was from...well...from the non-elite racers.  One of the unique qualities of the sport was the very fact that any racer could run the same course, the same day...even during the same heat...as the elite racers.  You could appreciate the accomplishment of these racers because you could test yourself against the very same course.  I mean really, what other sport allows virtually anyone the chance to get on the same field as the very best and compete equally?  Baseball, football (American or the rest of the world's version), track and field?  Try it at those events and they arrest you!

Two problems were evident immediately though.  The first was that, even at the race, the elite race was started and finished before most of the other racers were even there.  Even if people wanted to see the race, more than likely you were either on the course or about to be go on when they were finishing or awarding medals.  And these non-elite racers are your most likely candidates for "fan-dom"...at least to begin with.  They have to spread the word.  Right now, they're spreading the word about participating...but not about watching.

The other, more serious problem, was that even at the race, there IS no way to watch it.  There's no leader board, no announcements...nothing to tell you what was going on.  If you were lucky there may have been an announcement at the end...if you were lucky.  And if you were interested in following a race that you couldn't attend...well, all you were likely to hear is an update or two, then a Facebook post of the winners.  Could you place cameras throughout the course, at various obstacles and some key points...so people can watch the racers and their progress?  The excitement is knowing where you favorite racer is and rooting them on during the race.  They actually did this very well at the Olympics with mountain bike racing.  While I had no particular interest in the racers or sport as a whole, the way that they broadcast the race, I was not only able to follow it, I found the race exciting and entertaining.  Lesson number one I guess, is learning what's already working successfully.

....so ends part one....more thoughts and ideas on the present and future of OCR in part deux (that's French for "what didn't fit on the first page" I think)....

Part deux...[link to the second part of this blog post]