“The sport of running is now a social sport,” says Stephanie Mezzano, vice president of operations for Red Frog Events.
It’s also a business sport. Non-traditional races sprinted to an impressive finish last year, with about 4 million participants — double 2012’s tally — braving obstacle courses, flying cornstarch, and trenches full of mud.
With entrance fees ranging anywhere from $35 to $145, race events have transformed what was once a primarily solo activity into a lucrative production that has netted event organizers such as Red Frog Events and The Color Run a combined $250 million .
What’s driving such interest in events organized around themes such as dressing up like a zombie and trudging through three miles of mud? The answer is rather straightforward, according to a recent study by Running USA: “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.”
Yet Mezzano attributes her own company’s success to the culture’s embrace of all things social.
“Red Frog has really pioneered that social running space. Our mission from the start was to take the sport of running and turn it into something that you could do with other people,” Mezzano says, crediting social media with allowing the space to “continue to grow.”
For some runners, it’s about incorporating a bit of the thrill of competition into their workout regimen. “I found out about obstacle races around the time I started working out so it seemed like a good way to test my strength conditioning,” says Chris Buttita, an engineer from Parsippany, New Jersey who has participated in Red Frog’s Warrior Dash. “And come on, who doesn’t like playing in the mud?”
But many runners are also drawn by the social atmosphere generated by the events. “The Color Run event was easily the happiest race I’ve ever run,” says Gina Muir of Los Angeles. “I’ve already signed up for another and got more friends coming with me this time. As I was running, I couldn’t stop smiling because the music was upbeat and the colors were flying.”
For Tatiana Morales of Whippany, New Jersey, participating in a Color Run event wasn’t about finish times, but having a good time with her friend. “I wanted something that took the pressure off and somehow made exercise fun.”
Color Run participants, who can either run or walk during this “race,” are doused in cornstarch based paints along the way. They’re also treated to a free concert upon completion.
“The Color Run is not a timed event and the emphasis is placed on having fun while reaching your fitness goals, which makes it lack the intimidation factor that other organized fitness events can have,” says Jessica Nixon, spokeswoman for Color Run. “Because of this, it has become an event where people gather friends and family to participate with them.“
This year alone, Color Run is hosting 220 events in 50 different countries. Nixon emphasized that the race is open to all, but notes that the typical runner is an 18- to 40-year old woman, which is likely the result of the organization’s “bright, happy, and uplifting” marketing strategy. To date, approximately 60% of Color Run participants have never even participated in a traditional 5K. They help make up the 50% of non-traditional runners planning to participate in an event for a second time.
Though Warrior Dash is geared more toward serious competitors, Red Frog’s events also attract a diverse group of participants, including those who prefer fun over competition. Red Frog offers something for everyone: beginners can eat all the bacon they want during the Bacon Chase, while more experienced racers can aim to qualify for world championships and large cash prizes in events such as Warrior Dash.
The overall goal is to create events that are “accessible yet challenging,” says Mezzano. “The industry has allowed new runners to really come and get lots of different experiences while doing something that promotes a healthy lifestyle.”
Even if that lifestyle includes all-you-can-eat bacon.