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Discussion: newspaper article on obstacle and novelty races

in: Orienteering; General;

Jun 6, 2012 12:05 PM # 
in today's Wall Street Journal, on the business of obstacle and novelty races, with mud, barbed wire, tanks of cold water, fire pits, and zombies: a growth business.
Jun 6, 2012 12:15 PM # 
it's an epidemic of newspaper articles on the topic. Here is another news article, printed on the same day
Jun 6, 2012 1:05 PM # 
Man, these things make me mad. Some really guy writes that he's completed Tough Mudder on his Resume?! Is he insane?
Jun 6, 2012 1:59 PM # 
Two people, one of them a friend of mine, died at a Warrior Dash in KC last summer, and a number of people ended up in the hospital. The WSJ article gives a kid gloves treatment to the safety of these events. I suppose giving attention to that might interfere with the free-market.

2nd man dies after KC extreme obstacle race
Jun 6, 2012 2:00 PM # 
People are impressed by simple things. I put simple things on my resume. Completing a Tough Mudder might actually be out of reach for plenty of people who can claim a US Orienteering Champs medal.
Jun 6, 2012 2:08 PM # 
Given the people who just completed one in my lab, I don't think that's true. Unless you compete in the small "elite" section, it's untimed and you can still "complete" without doing any of the obstacles.

Eelgrassman, I am very sorry to hear about your friend, but the sad thing is that it doesn't surprise me. My lab mate said the worst thing by far was the cold water, and that many people were pulled almost immobile and on the edge of hypothermia from their ice filled puddles. This seems pretty dangerous to me. Edit: I see it was actually very hot that day, outside of NCAA regulations for anything other than heat acclimatised athletes.
Jun 6, 2012 2:36 PM # 
These are a fad, and will pass. Orienteering will endure and putter along.

That is neither good nor bad. Fads can be great for those whom are positioned to exploit them.
Jun 6, 2012 3:05 PM # 
My son participated in the Spartan race in Ottawa last weekend, see his log
Jun 6, 2012 6:15 PM # 
Pink Socks:
The mudders have two BIG things going for them:

1) They are social and take full advantage of social media.
2) They give off a hard-core appearance without actually being hard-core.

Referring to #1 in the WSJ article:

His team stayed after the race to enjoy the bands and pig roast. and End with a party and cold beer.

And for #2:

One of the field's biggest challenges is to be accessible to casual and less-fit participants without alienating committed marathoners and triathletes. The race is hard, but not so hard that you have to recalibrate your whole life.

The vast majority of participants are professionals who sign up with co-workers, and most don't see fitness as part of their daily life. Seventy percent of our people just came off the couch.

On these two points, orienteering is the exact opposite. We are one of the least social sports around. We don't start at the same time. We're out in the woods all day. Groups and teams are frowned upon. There's not a good social aspect to the sport, so it's hard to share that with others.

And then on the second point. The mudders have the perception of being really difficult, but they aren't in reality. Orienteering events have the perception of being esoteric and boring, but for the beginner, the reality is either a non-gratifying two mile walk, or the complete embarrassment that he or she couldn't even finish the course.

Are they a fad? The attendance numbers may drop, and some of the businesses may fold, but I don't think these obstacle course mud events are going away. How many people expected the continued growth of 5K fun runs and marathons? (The Rock'n'Roll marathon series certainly maximizes the social aspect, for example.)

If a fad looks like this, I'd love to be a fad:
Tough Mudder, founded in 2010, plans to run 35 events world-wide in 2012 and projects 500,000 participants, up from 140,000 in 2011. Spartan Races plans 48 events and projects 300,000 total participants this year. As participation numbers balloon, the events are attracting consumer-product sponsors including Under Armour, Merrell shoes, Subaru and Dial for Men.

Unless orienteering addresses #1 and #2, we're never going to get the mudder participants to come to our events.
Jun 6, 2012 6:47 PM # 
All your points are true.

Fads can have a long half life. Marathoning was more a fad in the past (with respect to prominence in the American psyche and cover pages in the WSJ) in the US but has hardly disappeared. It has shown steady growth in numbers. Arguably, adventure racing was also fad, but a lot of us do it. Clearly, both are still extremely healthy. It is just that they mature and evolve. We see this play out across all things that achieve broad, rapid prominence, often attended by marketing. I think it is fascinating to trace this out in consumer product marketing, which is the drosophila of my amateur marketing research (soon to be deprecated, I suppose, by various social media "products"?)

In any case, orienteering has never really attained fad status, but arguably, was more in tune with the cultural zeitgeist of the late 70s, IMHO, than it has been with some subsequent periods.
Jun 7, 2012 3:41 AM # 
@Pink Socks
I agree that "the mudders" give a hard-core appearance without actually being hard-core, and that it to a large extent explains their success.

I don't agree, however, that orienteering is one of the least social sports around; quite on the contrary, I think orienteering by it's very nature gives lots of reasons to socialize with your competitors after each race (to compare route choices, splits, mistakes etc). I have competed on a reasonably high level in several other sports but neither of them offer any such natural reasons to socialize with you opponents after the games.
I am well aware, though, that many smaller U.S. events have large start windows and free start times, thereby "preventing" participants from meeting afterwards - and that should perhaps be thought about - but look at an event like the Flying Pig for example, or the upcoming Jukola relay in Finland - very social weekends indeed!

Concerning the appearance of orienteering, I think it depends entirely on how it is presented. The recent article in Men's Journal was a good example, I think, of how it should be presented to appear tough and attractive ("dense forests, vertiginous cliffs and shoe-sucking swamps" - "navigating the country's harshest terrain" -"the original adventure race" etc). At least my non-orienteer neighbor was impressed and asked where/how he can try orienteering after I showed him the article.
Jun 7, 2012 12:43 PM # 
One of the social things about the Mudders is that unless you're superman, you've got to be part of a team to get round. The walls and things are so high that they need people helping you up from above.

But I also agree with everything you say about O actually being pretty social.
Jun 7, 2012 3:09 PM # 
I'd like orienteering to continue to both appear and actually be hard-core (for those who want that and therefore choose to do the courses that provide that - though it's no doubt a bit tricky to convey that in marketing the sport without tarring the beginner courses with the same brush). If that loses us most of the tough mudder and the like crowd, so be it. We want more participants but we don't need hundreds of thousands of them to be in much better fettle than we are currently.

Not to say I'm opposed to offering forms of navigation racing other than orienteering as we know and love it, just not instead of orienteering as we know and love it.
Jun 7, 2012 10:49 PM # 
Maybe the solution is to jack up event prices. Many participants at these alternative events seem to think you get better value the more you pay for it. Sure you might lose the entire existing orienteering crowd in the process but just look at all the new entrants you'll attract! They'll surely hang around for a few events before getting bored and moving onto the next new thing.
Jun 7, 2012 11:03 PM # 
What orienteering needs.. is FREE BEER. :)
Jun 8, 2012 1:56 AM # 
There's lots of posturing about what orienteering does and doesn't need. I remain convinced that we don't need to change much at all. What we really need is some focused attention to marketing and publicity.

It's not boring, it's challenging for those that want a challenge, it can be easy enough for everyone to complete, there are opportunities for socializing (assuming the event is set up appropriately of course), our large events have food at them, etc.

People will come out to try orienteering if only they knew about it and it's presented in a good positive light in the correct manner to the correct audience. It helps of course if people hear about it regularly and from different sources. None of this should be particularly surprising, nor is it that hard to do. All it takes is someone to put a few ads together and contact media outlets whenever something newsworthy happens and a willingness to allot a budget to promotion.

That said I'm curious to know what percentage of people in these sorts of obstacle and novelty races are return costumers. As a sport I wouldn't exactly consider it a success if we have a million new people try orienteering thanks to some promotional push but none of those million people try orienteering a second and third time. As a money making business plan sure that might work. As a plan for sustainable growth in orienteering it's not very helpful.
Jun 8, 2012 3:26 AM # 

Orienteering needs to hire color commentator Andrés Cantor.

Personally I am not envious of Tough Mudder type of even recent success, I am not too concerned about if it is just a fad or something that's going to stay for long haul.

What I think is underutilized at orienteering meets are mass start races. I love mass start races (except score-O and Rogain), I think they are exciting, I think they encourage more socializing then regular meets since all competitors start at the same time and competitors from the same course will finish withing 30-45 minutes. I am aware that some other folks might not be as found of mass start races then I am. However mass start racing format is legit orienteering discipline that could appeal to some folks - and I almost hate to say this - but mass start racing format might appeal to tough Mudder type of crowd.
Jun 8, 2012 5:12 AM # 
Yes I agree, many people do like mass starts because they can see other people on their course and know the result before the finish rather than 'Well X is still out there and started 10 minutes after me so could still win - poo to him'.
Jun 10, 2012 3:48 AM # 
Relays are another kind of mass start events and by far the most "social" events over in Scandinavia (where everything from two-man sprint relays to 25-man - and woman - relays are popular). I realize the different circumstances over here (smaller clubs and bigger distances) but I still think we could have more relays - especially as a part of multiple-day A meets.
Jun 10, 2012 7:25 AM # 
Yes, more relays.
Jun 10, 2012 9:57 AM # 
I ran a little market research round here. Put on a weekend with a sprint, a middle, a long and a relay. 447 people came so it was a reasonable sample. The long was the most popular. The middle got 93% of the long numbers. The sprint got 86%. The relay got 58%.
Jun 10, 2012 12:23 PM # 
Relays are great but they are another aspect of the European orienteering experience which doesn't export well.
Jun 10, 2012 1:24 PM # 
We had our annual interclub relays today on a uni sprint map, first time we've done that. Loads of fun and plenty of rivalry with a fairly decent turnout of members. From my understanding, back in the day we'd have enough of a turnout for four person teams but these days to get enough teams we have to resort to running two person teams with two courses each.
Jun 10, 2012 1:25 PM # 

That is all.
Jun 10, 2012 1:40 PM # 
I agree. I'd start with at least one. It would be nice if someone would organize the US Relay Championships this year.
Jun 10, 2012 1:57 PM # 
OCIN is thinking about it (weekend after US Thanksgiving).
Jun 11, 2012 2:05 AM # 
Relays are fun to participate and to watch. I don't think it's an issue of that it does not export well, but it's more of an issue that it's hard to form enough competitive teams.

This is not a first post where it's implied that orienteering in NA is one of cheapest competitive racing formats. That's what it looks like on surface but if you really start adding up all the numbers and analyze it more carefully - I don't agree that orienteering is cheep. ROC has 21 event scheduled for 2012 racing season. For sake of simplicity let's assume that participation cost at every event is the same - $4,- for members; $8,- for non-members. Total annual cost for non-member - $168, however if someone is committed to all 21 events more economical option is to join the club for about $20- annually bringing total annual cost to $104,-. On average it's about 30 miles round trip to get to meet locations. This means that committed member of ROC commits about 600+ miles annually commuting to O-meets. Based on my experience it takes about 6 hours out of my day when I go to local O-meet - I start my timer when I start packing (and not when I get in my car) and when I am fully unpacked, showered. It's about 130 hours (I rounded up) annually spent only on local meets.

In case member decided to volunteer at the meets - time spent goes up, member volunteers as course-setter - mileage and time goes up, and so on.

Time and money spent participating at all local ROC meets is kind of comparable to participating at one major marathon.
Jun 11, 2012 2:33 AM # 
Mr Wonderful:
Is it fair to put 21 events up against one race? Where are the 10k and 1/2 marathon tune up race fees? Don't most serious marathon types run two marathons a year?
Jun 11, 2012 2:38 AM # 
But, because it is hard to form competitive teams, the issue doesn't export well. It is sort of like building a little sailboat but not being able to get it to the water. It is still a sailboat, but not nearly as much fun.

Time and money spent participating at all local ROC meets is kind of comparable to participating at one major marathon.

If that is true, it sounds pretty cheap. (Of course it's true, because that is the pricing model for most orienteering clubs across the US.)
Jun 11, 2012 2:52 AM # 
It is as fair as comparing chess with checkers. It's tempting to do and I have done similar comparisons in the past till I realized that I am trying to compare apples and oranges. Could orienteering learn something from other racing events - most likely. But I think it's important to understand that orienteering is different.

And speaking of numbers - when I made up ROC member for calculations I did not send him/her to neighboring Buffalo or Syracuse meets nor to A-meet nor to Tuesday night training sessions.
Jun 11, 2012 3:02 AM # 
Relays are fun to participate and to watch. I don't think it's an issue of that it does not export well, but it's more of an issue that it's hard to form enough competitive teams.

Definitely the case in our relays yesterday. There are four clubs in our association and the current top four sprint orienteers are all from different clubs. Worked out well though.

Is it fair to put 21 events up against one race?

I agree. What serious marathon runner would do just a marathon and not train for it in the buildup? You'd have to count all the time and energy consumed in training, lead up races, etc.
Jun 11, 2012 3:31 AM # 
is it fair to put 21 events up against one race?

Point of my calculations was to point out that orienteering is not as cheep as it's implied on other posts. Also keep in mind ROC member I made up for my calculations has little aspirations.
Jun 11, 2012 5:59 AM # 
Some time ago, HVO used to hold an annual local event called the Egalitarian Relays. It involved 3-person teams, each of whom would run one of three courses (O/G/R, O/Br/G, Br/G/R, etc.); the courses could be run in any order.

The catch was that all teams would be formed by the event organizers. After a registration cut-off time, the relay registrants would be divided into 3 groups, one for each course. A random draw -- one from each group -- would then be used to form the teams. This eliminated the need to "know people" in order to form teams -- IMO, a major barrier to newbies.

IIRC, Jon Nash was the creator of this format.
Jun 11, 2012 6:50 AM # 
I'm confused. $104 for 21 orienteering events sounds like a great deal to me. What constitues "cheap"?
Jun 11, 2012 7:08 AM # 
People will spend a lot of time and money on a hobby if they have fun with the other people doing it. With the grumpiness some people express on this site I'm amazed there are as many US orienteers as there are! (Especially since it's so cheap!)
Jun 11, 2012 8:14 AM # 
More relays!
Jun 11, 2012 9:10 AM # 
I'm confused. $104 for 21 orienteering events sounds like a great deal to me. What constitues "cheap"?

You seem to have missed the rest of the rant about the cost of travelling to and from events, the cost of getting ready, the opportunity cost lost of being able to participate in a marathon, the cost of buying a watch to time how long it takes to get ready for orienteering, cost of water for the shower afterwards, etc.
Jun 11, 2012 1:39 PM # 
On the theme of creating excitement on O races by making them mass-start, socially interesting and interactive, etc etc etc, was looking for, and found a event flier that was produced a couple of years back in the which the O word was replaced with the A word (Adventure). The photos used in the flier were actually stock images not from an O event, but from a HHH event (Hash House Harriers).

Now, gotta clone that flier a bit for a similar event in late October. Unsure how to name it or title it. Gotta find the right balance/formula to a wide range of people, hikers, racers, runners, mushroom hunters, geocachers, scouts, families, social-club folks, meetup folks, naturalists, hashers...
Jun 11, 2012 1:43 PM # 
Geofamilyclubhashishnaturerunrun day.
Jun 11, 2012 5:43 PM # 
Pink Socks:
I don't think I've encountered a non-orienteer that says that our events are too expensive. At the last Road Runner Sports event that I staffed, our orienteering table was in between one of an annual 8K road run, and one of the mud runs.

When I was asked what our events were like, my stock quote was "We're basically like the guys next door [pointing at the mud run], but we're barebones, we don't have gimmicks, we make you think, and it's only $9 a race."

"OMG, that's so cheap! I could run your entire Choose Your Adventure Series for less than one of those other races"

Jun 11, 2012 6:21 PM # 
On the front page of yesterday's Denver Post...yet another Tough Mudder article:

Obstacle courses give ski areas some summertime crowds
Jun 11, 2012 9:07 PM # 
Unsure how to name or title it

We went with Raid the Sanctuary. Some info here, more to come.

PS Didn't realise CNYO Rogaine was on the same weekend till now. Damn.
Jun 12, 2012 12:40 AM # 
Geofamilyclubhashishnaturerunrun day.

Did you intentionally put "hashish" in the middle of that? I mean, serving beer is one thing, but...
Jun 12, 2012 2:33 AM # 
I figured the hash house harriers and "mushroom" hunters might both be into it.
Jun 12, 2012 2:52 AM # 
Didn't realise CNYO Rogaine was on the same weekend till now. Damn.

Can't blame you/HVO if their event wasn't on the Planning Calendar
Jun 12, 2012 2:48 PM # 
The Rogaine Committee also lists rogaines on the Orienteering USA rogaine calendar page and will accept tentative listings.
Jun 13, 2012 6:42 AM # 
Regarding zombies, mudders, etc.
The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.
Orienteering should keep a clear distance away from those exercises.
It’s quite unfortunate already that it’s confused with all kind of treasure hunts, adventure races, reenacting of Blair witch project. Let those who have no brain to say that orienteering is “boring”to compete for their ultimate prize of Darwin Award.
Jun 13, 2012 2:14 PM # 
I'd tend to suggest the opposite. GHO embraced adventure racing over 10 years ago and if it wasn't for that I imagine that our club would be floundering like some other once-strong clubs in southern Ontario. Instead we have a strong kids program that between participants and coaches will add 450 to COF's membership total and a race series that is the largest in the country. Many of Orienteering Ontario's board members and key volunteers were introduced to orienteering through adventure racing and there is great cross over. So much so we are no longer in the 'labelling' of us and them. If the end game is to get more people to participate in our sport then we have succeeded. More so since that has allowed the club and the sport in Ontario to stay afloat. I imagine that the large number of mudders will be looking for another challenge soon. Orienteering is a logical choice. Embrace it that more runners are getting off the roads
Jun 13, 2012 2:22 PM # 
I'd tend to respectfully disagree with the "large number". If I understand anything about the mudders' demographic, orienteering doesn't stand a chance with most of them (nor do "real" adventure races). But, a few percent of oh about a million? is still a lot of people.
Jun 13, 2012 2:30 PM # 
I wasn't implying 'most of them' but rather the few percent of a million approach.
Jun 13, 2012 3:40 PM # 
...and the influx of newcomers should be because orienteering in itself ("the traditional way") is interesting and not because we adapt to some "mudder concept"!
Jun 13, 2012 6:01 PM # 
People talk like obstacle courses are some new gimmick. But if I recall correctly, the ROTC on my college campus had an obstacle course. The steeplechase is a couple hundred years old, at least. Even this new wave of marketing isn't really new. A group out of Portland (X-dog) has been selling out off-road running races and mud-runs for ten or fifteen years.

Obstacles aren't a gimmick, they tap into something primal in the human psyche. Orienteering is perhaps the ultimate obstacle course; where the obstacles are unadulterated logs and bushes and streams and mountains.

Maybe where modern orienteering has dropped the ball, is in failing to connect those dots. Newbies are forced to start out by pacing around, deciphering a bunch of symbols. They don't get to taste the thrill of hurtling their body over obstacles until they've done a half dozen events. Of course, it doesn't have to be that way.
Jan 1, 2016 10:43 PM # 
Pink Socks:
3.5 years later, OCR has gotten to the point that an obstacle course race series was the title sponsor for a major football bowl game (the Battlefrog Fiesta Bowl, which featured heavyweights Notre Dame & Ohio State). Not to mention ads all over the front page of today.
Jan 3, 2016 1:47 PM # 
Obstacle racing seems to have died a quick death in our WA. Very strange because from all accounts it was quite popular but I think all the providers were based on the other side of the country and CBA bringing it over here.
Jan 3, 2016 2:56 PM # 
Here is the 2016 evolution of the mud race - urban race - adventure fun race: a virtual race.

It can be done ANYTIME (there is no race day...).

All one has to do is register online, show up at a designated spot with friends, and with smartphones connected to the Internet, communicate with a host that may very well be sitting in an office thousands of miles away, and follow instructions on challenges to be performed.

The closest in concept to orienteering is the race done in pairs where one is in the field without a map, and the other is at base with the map, relaying instructions on how to reach the controls with the use of portable two-way radios.
Jan 3, 2016 11:40 PM # 
I wouldn't trust that concept. You'd probably end up with a gamer on the other end who'd send you over a cliff as the shortest way to collect the bonus item (you'd only lose a few hit points, surely?) or have you fragged for XP.
Jan 4, 2016 7:25 AM # 
Fly on the Wall:
tRicky - the fire that burnt Turia Pitt might have ended adventure racing in WA. Sprint and Park O in high-visiblity locations are the way to get newcomers into O. Otherwise you have to offer a 5km green (easy) course to get them into the bush.
Jan 4, 2016 7:51 AM # 
Certainly made it a bucketload harder to get approval to do *anything* resembling an adventure race/ultra marathon. One of our local ultra organisers has thrown in the towel after getting mired in government approvals, and eventually running last year's event without any insurance.
Jan 4, 2016 9:46 AM # 
AR unlikely given anyone running ARs here was typically local. Obstacle racing didn't become big until after the above incident and it only hung around a few years.
Jan 4, 2016 1:51 PM # 
A couple of years after that infamous run authorities the only noticeable change was the requirement for evacuation plans within the existing requirement for ERPs (Emergency Response Plans). Some local authorities already did, but it certainly seemed to become more common. The bigger challenge remains not fire ERP, but crossing/using roads - - - which I think was the primary problem in what Juffy refers to. I've found that if you speak to enough people in the [insert bureaucracy] sometimes someone actually pays attention to the fact that in loooong distance stuff participants are happy to be stopped instead of cars = reduction in traffic management problem.
Jan 5, 2016 1:47 AM # 
Yeah, Northam council's demands for a Traffic Management Plan for all 80-odd road crossings (most of which weren't in Northam anyway) drove Rob spare, but what killed it was one department furiously covering its arse and sending requests off to every entity that had a mining lease (tip: there's a lot of them, and very few have actual mines attached) covering any part of the route, to make sure they weren't going to do blasting on a Sunday morning in a mine that doesn't exist.

The department then waited until the Friday before the race to tell Rob that not all of the companies had replied, and therefore they were revoking their approval.

The overall trend seems to be simply more ass-covering, more people writing risk registers and then demanding you account for everything down to "This Will Never Happen/There Are No Consequences Whatsoever." :)
Jan 5, 2016 2:36 AM # 
You should have seen Tash's risk register for Spooks, sheesh! When Cockburn council asked for one for the MTBO event in March, she suggested I copy it. I said not a chance. I just threw in two or three of the main ones, mainly about roads and pedestrians on paths.

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