mud running obstacle course racing multisport tough mudder spartan race outside dispatches
Events' next obstacle: playing nice. (Evan Burns/Tough Mudder)

Mud Running’s Biggest Hurdle

Will leaping fiery hay bales amount to nothing more than an adrenaline-fueled fad? Or could it one day become an Olympic sport? That all depends on what comes next.

mud running obstacle course racing multisport tough mudder spartan race outside dispatches

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Obstacle course racing has seen explosive growth since 2010. Participation has soared by an estimated 4,000 percent since 2009, and race organizers have made millions on the events. But success doesn’t mean the industry is one big group hug.

“There’s a lot of infighting,” says Adrian Bijanada, the 35-year-old owner of apparel company OCR Gear. Tough Mudder’s Will Dean and Spartan Race’s Joseph De Sena are notorious rivals, and directors of races large and small have resisted collaborating with each other, giving Bijanada something to think about. “I took a step back and asked, What does the sport really need?” he says.

That’s a good question, and there are two competing answers. Companies like Spartan Race want to continue to grow while carving out more market share for themselves. The model has been hugely successful for the individual brands, but it’s also similar to the way adventure races like Eco-Challenge once operated—go it alone and become a largely forgotten niche.

Bijanada sees a different way forward: an independent world championship featuring elite athletes from each of the industry’s major races. It’s an idea he’s energetically pursuing, even though the organizers of the biggest races aren’t cooperating.

This October, Bijanada will launch the two-day Obstacle Course Racing World Championships, to be held outside Cincinnati, Ohio. So far more than a dozen top racers—including Americans Junyong Pak, Amelia Boone, and David Magida; Canada’s Ryan Atkins; and Mexico’s Alex de la Huerta—have signed on to compete. Like the Boston Marathon, the main field will include several thousand racers who must qualify by notching top finishes at other events earlier in the year. And like Kona’s Ironman World Championship, they will start in heats organized by gender and age. There will even be drug testing for top finishers, a rarity in events of this sort.

Bijanada hopes the lack of affiliation will solve another big-picture problem: as races battle for market share, they miss opportunities to promote the sport. “There’s too much attention put on brands and not enough on athletes,” he says, while also pointing to minor irritations like charging spectators an admission fee. “I can’t imagine people paying to watch the New York City Marathon,” Bijanada says.

Even the major companies want an organizing body, in large part because that’s a requirement of becoming an Olympic event, a sport-wide goal. But there are currently three competing bodies, each supported by different factions. Which helps explain why not everyone is thrilled with the idea of an overall championship.

“We don’t recognize the race,” says De Sena, who signed a multiyear contract with NBC this summer to air Spartan’s 2014 world championship in November. (Tough Mudder is also hosting its own world championship this fall.) And because many of the sport’s elite have contracts with branded events, the big-name races could conceivably pressure their athletes to skip the event and prevent it from becoming OCR’s Super Bowl.

However, many smaller races are on board with Bijanada’s vision, which allows them to serve as qualifiers for a high-profile event and attract more participants (and their registration fees). Even Warrior Dash—which bills itself as a social event first and a competition second—has all but endorsed OCRWC. “We don’t have any formal affiliation, but we’re certainly pleased to see a more globally recognized sport,” says Tad Jenkins, VP of marketing for Warrior Dash. “And sport is the key word. We think that helps the industry in general.”