2014 State of the Sport - Part I: Non-Traditional Running Events

Running USA
April 27, 2014

Historic explosive growth continues as overall finisher total doubles from 2 million to 4 million; more than 35 non-traditional running series nationwide


SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - (April 27, 2014) - In 2010, Running USA published its first annual Half-Marathon Report because of the impressive growth in the 13.1 mile distance in the United States, and now, because of the explosive growth in another sector of the sport, we present our Non-Traditional Running Events Special Report. In just five years, the number of estimated finishers in U.S. non-traditional events has grown from low six figures in 2009 to a staggering 4 million in 2013, a nearly hard-to-believe 40-fold increase. In addition, a handful of mass participation adventure series in 2009 has rapidly expanded to more than 35 non-traditional or themed running series that included mud, color, foam, electric, zombie and even ugly sweater runs by 2013.

Across the country, themed races and obstacle events have attracted a loyal audience of fitness-minded people who want to be active, but not necessarily competitive; many just want to have fun, enjoy the camaraderie of others and focus more on the social, team-building aspect rather than serious competition. This proliferation of themed races appeals to nearly everyone and offers a unique twist to the straight-laced classic road races of the First Running Boom by providing participants a less-competitive atmosphere where they can focus on fitness, fun and the experience that they can and do share with friends and family; in addition to possibly contributing to a charitable cause.

The goal of these non-traditional running events is simple: to create a unique, doable experience beyond just running and crossing the finish line. In fact, about 60% of The Color Run entrants have never even run a 5K. Most are brand new runners of all ages with an approximate 50/50 gender split that wouldn't even dream of signing up for their typical local road race.

The unprecedented growth is a result of replicating this same experience across the country by producing a national series that creates loyalty, engagement and "buzz" as well as drawing in the crowds. With a business strategy driven by a large social media footprint, start-up companies such as Tough Mudder and The Color Run have attracted hundreds of millions of revenue dollars in just a few years of operation.

By the Numbers
Obstacle races appeal to those athletes who are looking for a new challenge to display their strength and skill, while themed races such as The Color Run attract those looking to cross the finish line for the very first time and celebrate their accomplishment with friends. The success of these non-traditional running events is so sweeping that it cannot be ignored by the traditional running industry. In 2012, founder of the Tough Mudder Series, Will Dean, predicted that in the not so distant future, "more people will be doing obstacle races and mud runs than will be doing traditional marathons and half-marathons," and in 2013 this occurred for the very first time in the United States.

Running USA estimates that the popularity of non-traditional running events in this country drew a record 4 million participants in 2013, surpassing the record 2.5 million finishers of both the half-marathon and marathon combined last year. The non-traditional events are growing exponentially and each year the number of participants has nearly doubled. See chart below.


SOURCE: Running USA and Athlinks

Eventbrite commissioned a study with Harris Interactive about getting involved in themed runs and obstacle challenges. They found that obstacle challenges and themed runs have spiked in the past few years and are already as popular as traditional marathons and half-marathons. While 6% of those surveyed had participated in marathons or half-marathons previously, 5% had participated in an obstacle challenge and 7% in a themed run.

According to the ACTIVE.com endurance community panel survey of 1,200-plus MOB-sters (mud, obstacle, beer) - those people who wear costumes, crawl through mud, scale obstacles, chase zombies, run through color or foam and more - the top three motivators to participate in these non-traditional events included fun, uniqueness and being with friends. Of those surveyed, 27% participated in mud runs, 26% in obstacle races, 21% in paint runs, 11% in adventure races, 10% in night/glow runs and 4% in zombie runs. Who are these MOB-sters? Females represented 60% participants and more than 90% were over the age of 29. Greater than 50% of those surveyed participated with one or two friends and over 40% stated they were part of a team. Most learned about events through social media or friends and 64% planned to participate in a MOB event in the next 12 months. Some of the key takeaways for the survey results were that spending time with friends and the social component was one of the top motivators for participating in these events and social media drives participation and engagement.

In the past five years, according to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), participation in adventure racing was up 211% and ranked in the Top 5 of most popular outdoor activities tried by first-timers. In 2012, the OIA predicted 2.2 million participated in adventure racing.

Power of Community
Many non-traditional running events are packed with an adrenaline rush, an appeal of camaraderie and a sense of accomplishment. Some weekend events attract as many as 25,000 participants and often look less like a running event and more like Woodstock re-invented. According to Eventbrite, the driving factors behind themed runs and obstacle events include supporting a cause, doing it because it's fun, and participating with friends and family.

"These types of alternative endurance events are the perfect mix of fun and fitness, and they are created with groups of friends and family in mind. Participants sign up, join in, and want to celebrate together, which explains why social media is such an important driver for registration. The focus on community is also why we're seeing so much growth in obstacle challenges and themed runs," stated Christine Bohle, Senior Endurance Marketing Manager at Eventbrite.

The Social Network Factor
Social media is the driving force and the backbone of the explosive growth in non-traditional running events. Posting a photo after being splattered in color or covered in mud is sure to initiate a response from friends, family and co-workers. When these photos are tagged with names, shared with others, and elicit a thumbs up on social networks such as Facebook, the reach is exponential and ubiquitous. And it is this reach that has caused these events to spread like wildfire. In a society driven by visual imagery, these wow-factor photos and videos are contributing to more and more participants registering for themed running events. In the Eventbrite and Harris Interactive study, they found that people are influenced by social sharing and more likely to participate when they see friends and family sharing photos and info from these events on social media channels.

Warrior Dash's Race Director, Munirah McNeely, says social media is their lifeblood: "I think that's really allowed for growth to occur as quickly as it has."

The chart below reflects the huge social media footprint of non-traditional running events. By comparison, the largest Facebook traditional event or series that Running USA could find was the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Series with 714,000 Likes, followed by runDisney with 377,000.


What the Future Holds
It is uncertain what the future holds for these themed race events, but we think they are here to stay, at least for the near future. These non-traditional events will continue to draw in novice runners seeking fun and friendship or attracting the thrill seekers with new obstacles and challenges as they enter into new markets. In fact, Eventbrite reported that 50% of those who ran a non-traditional race the previous year wanted to add more themed and obstacle events to their roster the following year.

However, the explosion of these new races and ideas in the industry may also present unexpected concerns or safety issues. Mud runs will continue to face concerns related to the delicate balance of fun and safety and will continue to source out vendors willing to insure them. As organizers continue to be innovative and provide new obstacles and challenges, they also introduce new risks and costs into the market. It will also be important for race organizers to continue hosting challenging and unique events while keeping registration fees reasonable.

Event organizers are scrambling to join the popularity and introduce the next new series. But as new themed races are added across the nation, at some point, there will be market saturation. With too many choices for mud runs, color runs, night runs, zombie runs and the like, participants are showing less and less loyalty to any specific series.

Probably the greater questions will be: Where will these runners go when themed races no longer engage or appeal to them? Will they transition to traditional road racing as the next new challenge? These fun, engaging and viral events may possibly be a pipeline into traditional road racing. Maybe The Color Run was their first trip across the finish line, and they had an incredibly positive experience. But it wasn't timed, and they mostly walked, and the crowds and paint slowed them down. Part of them might begin to wonder what they could accomplish at a traditional road race. Maybe they will begin running on a regular basis or start training for their first road race and maybe they will sign up with a friend. Traditional road races can be just as fun and exciting as non-traditionals as many have costumed runners, bands and large crowds too, and like non-traditional events, millions of race photos and videos are posted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well.

And perhaps, and moreover, this historic explosion of non-traditional running events could mark the start of the Third Running Boom!

Contact: Ryan Lamppa, (805) 966-7747 or ryan@runningusa.org


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