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Is Obstacle Course Racing Dead?

Is Spartan’s new move toward more traditional racing a death knell for the OCR trend? Not quite.

Spartan Race, the world’s largest obstacle race series, sent ripples through the endurance community this week when it announced its latest venture: Spartan Trail, a 12-race series on trail systems around the United States. A simple trail run is a decidedly tame venture in comparison to the brand’s trademark races, which feature mud, climbing challenges and fire.

The announcement left many wondering if Spartan and its ilk had finally run its course. After all, obstacle course racing has been largely dismissed as a fad by running purists, who scoff at the trend as nothing more than a one-and-done lark. Though OCRs and other non-traditional races saw a steady rise in registrations from 2009 to 2013, where it peaked at more than 4 million participants, rates declined by 30 percent in 2015 and haven’t recovered.

Is Spartan’s move toward more traditional racing a death knell for the OCR trend? Hardly, says CEO Joe De Sena.

“We are always looking to innovate and create new and exciting experiences for our customers—while also working to rip people off their couches to create healthy and active lifestyles,” says De Sena. “We see Spartan Trail as a means to expand our community as we attract more trail and traditional runners who may not have experience with the sport and will decide to test it out.”

Spartan’s move is in line with what many endurance corporations are doing. Take, for example, Ironman’s acquisition of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, which utilizes strategic marketing to create a clear and direct message: If you’ve finished a marathon, why not a triathlon?

“Spartan, like many other companies, is looking to expand and take advantage of growing niches such as trail running which has seen a boom in various parts of the world over the last few years,” says Rick Jenner, Director of Strategy and Insight for Limelight Sports. “The majority of people interested in running will always want the combination of regular, informal running for fitness combined with the standout, single experiences in running or other similar sports. People will continue to drift away from the middle of the market—those events and brands that struggle to differentiate themselves or create any long-term loyalty.”

In other words, if Spartan—or any other race, for that matter—wants to survive, they have to do something both casual and spectacular; they must cater to the beginner and the elite; they have to be everything to everyone.

“In the last several years, with a stagnation of the standard road race, endurance events are having to evolve at a much more rapid rate. Especially, with a younger demographic moving up in the ranks, we’re seeing a strong desire for new experiences and, of course, fresh digital content,” says Ryan Dawkins, CEO of Mascot Sports. “We’re seeing a craving for shorter, more digestible distances, especially with millennials and parents. Our registrants want to have a unique experience with less commitment.”

Dawkins cites a recent industry study which found that 70 percent of female runners carry their phone during races. “This tells us that they care less about time and are hungry for a social, content creating experience that is very unique and enviable.”

“People like the challenge of the new and being amongst the first to have new experiences, especially ones that then become popular,” says Jenner. “This is why it’s important even established events continue to innovate and adapt, always presenting new elements to even the most loyal participants.”

For Spartan, this means offering an opportunity to do the badass, Instagram-friendly OCR or tackle some seriously selfie-worthy trails. “While Spartan Trail races will appeal to current obstacle course racers and more traditional runners, trail may also feel more approachable than our OCR events to someone taking the first step off their couch and help further our goal of making the world a healthier place,” says De Sena.