Is Ultrarunning the New Adventure Racing?

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Is Ultrarunning the New Adventure Racing?

When even the top female racer in obstacle course racing turns to ultrarunning as the new challenge she wants to tackle, what does that say about the future of obstacle course racing?

Amelia Boone’s turn to long-distance trail running isn’t the only sign times are changing: This year, Tough Mudder — one of the largest obstacle course races in the world — announced it was removing all prize money for the pros and is currently seeking new media partners.

While Obstacle Course Races (otherwise known as OCR or adventure racing) are still popular, numbers have been slowly declining in recent years, while ultrarunning and trail running participation rise. In fact, the number of races and participants have doubled since 2015.

Here are a few thoughts on this emerging trend:

PARTICIPATION NUMBERS PEAKED, THEN DROPPED

Like any trendy race (remember color runs?), obstacle courses had their time in the spotlight, peaking in the early 2010s. But by 2015, numbers were declining, and haven’t perked up since. Meanwhile, classic ultra-running races like Western States 100-miler are actually getting harder and harder to enter. Even the lottery system is over-booked for that race, and while originally, if you were in the lottery for seven years, you were guaranteed an entry, that’s no longer the case because there are so many applications.

MEDITATION AND BEING IN NATURE IS TRENDING

In the last couple of years, meditation and mindfulness have grown hugely in terms of health trends. What’s more meditative than a long run on quiet trails? No wonder trail-running numbers are starting to rise — as more studies tout the benefits of spending time in nature, trail-running numbers are at an all-time high: According to Statista, in 2017, there were approximately 9.15 million participants in trail running in the U.S. — up from 8.58 million the previous year.

THE TRAINING IS – STRANGELY – EASIER

In some ways, training for a 50K race is easier than training for an obstacle course, since it only requires one thing: running. You don’t need to worry about doing pullups or the dreaded burpees and there are no wires to crawl under. You just need to run. It’s also free to head out and run on trails or on the road, versus the potential costs of gym/boot camp memberships you’d need to be ready for an OCR.

IT’S A SOLO ENDEAVOR

Ultrarunning lets runners have the best of both worlds: You can train with buddies if you want, but racing is typically done solo. You can head out on the trails for that solo time away from the stress of work and family. On the flip side, most obstacle course races at an amateur level are done as teams or with friends, leaving the introverts searching for something a little more quiet.

MARATHON RUNNERS ARE LOOKING FOR THE NEXT STEP

There are two obvious options for marathoners after you’ve conquered your first marathon and want to do more: You can go faster or you can go longer. A 50K only adds 5 miles to the distance, and when you swap roads for trails, your training is less pace-oriented and more about distance. It’s a gentler way to train, if you’re just hoping to finish and have fun doing it.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO BURPEES

While obstacle course racing may appeal to some people, for many who’ve tried it, it’s a one-and-done bucket list item, not a lifetime pursuit. The nice thing about ultrarunning, especially on the trails, is it’s a hobby suited to a lifetime. The satisfaction you’ll feel at never having to do another burpee again might just make it worthwhile.

THAT SAID, OCR IS STILL TONS OF FUN

There’s something to be said for the overall athleticism and the camaraderie that comes from an obstacle course race, so if you haven’t tried one yet, don’t cross it off of your to-do list entirely. It’s doubtful we’re going to see adventure racing disappear anytime soon, so there are still plenty of opportunities to test your ability to dive into a murky pool, carry a sandbag through a mud pit or help hoist a teammate over a wall.

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside, travel and athletic style on TheOutdoorEdit.com, or she’s interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete Podcast. You can follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat at @mollyjhurford.

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