Inside Events: The Warrior Dash
25 Jan, 2017By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Michael Coco, Senior Director of Operations
The Warrior Dash is a 5K obstacle course race with 12 formidable obstacles, including lakes, slides, mud, netting and barbed wire, as well as others. Many events tend to exceed 10,000 participants, and many races with participants and spectators reach 20,000-plus. The Warrior Dash has had over three million participants and 300 event days since its founding in 2009. The event has as its beneficiary St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and has raised approximately $13.5 million for that cause.
SDM caught up with Michael Coco, senior director of operations, as he was on his way to a meeting at the site of an upcoming Warrior Dash in Oklahoma. As it turned out, this was a perfect time to talk about the business side of the event.
Sports Destination Management: You’re on your way to look at the site of an event.
Michael Coco: Yes, we’ve used this location before, and it is a great area.
SDM: So it’s not a site evaluation?
Coco: No, it’s a different part of the process. When we have a location we come back to, we like to go in and check it out and figure out how we’re going to lay things out this year. It’s different from actually scouting locations for events, since this one is already established.
SDM: When you’re looking at sites for events, what are you looking for?
Coco: Primarily, we want to know how close it is to a population center like a city; in other words, we need to know it has enough folks in the area to support the event. Beyond that, we’re looking for about 150 acres of land, with 20 to 30 acres of that being used for parking cars and for the festival area. We’re also looking at the terrain – we want to find something with woods, water and elevation changes.
SDM: As the obstacle racing industry has evolved, do you think it has made site selection more challenging?
Coco: Yes, we always try to challenge ourselves to find the bigger and better things for each event. It’s definitely something we strive for; in fact, finding those things is what the industry strives for. There’s lots of competition out there and you don’t want to follow what everyone else has done.
SDM: One thing we often hear is that because obstacle racing keeps attracting larger and larger groups, good infrastructure is needed when it comes to roads leading into events.
Coco: One of the big things we look for is access off a main road. Any venue that has that gets bumped up on our list.
SDM: What else?
Coco: Water is another big one. We like to give our participants a chance to clean off before they get in their cars and head home. That takes quite a bit of water. If we find a property that has a water source, it’s like a godsend. But in general, we just need enough water for participants to get clean enough to get in their cars; it doesn’t have to be a true shower. At these races, you get mud in places you never expected.
SDM: So finding a location can take a lot.
Coco: It can, but sometimes you’d be surprised at how simplistic our methods are. If we like a certain city and don’t know where to look, it’s not like there’s a website that shows places for this. If we’re striking out, a lot of times, we’ll pull up Google Maps. That can give us a better idea of what’s out there. We obviously have a good idea of what we need and what we look for.
SDM: What are the demographics like for races?
Coco: We’re pretty rare in the obstacle race space. We have an even 50/50 male to female split. Sometimes it’s 49/51, but it’s almost always even. And something we’ve noticed is that females will race with a group of friends whereas males might come and race alone. That even split is not typical; most races are more male-focused.
SDM: Are there economic impact figures?
Coco: It varies from location to location, but in general, it’s $1.6 million to $1.8 million per event, with a third of that if not more, coming from people staying in hotels. That’s a big part of what we do – driving dollars to the local economy.
SDM: If someone wants to host a race, who do they contact?
SDM: What is the age group like?
Coco: Most people are around the 30 to 34 age range but we’re one of the only mud runs that allows people to race starting at age 10, although they have to have their parents sign a waiver. We really see all shapes, ages and sizes racing, though. We had someone recently finish who was 88 years old, and did really well, too.
Our marketing team just does an amazing job to get the word out to people in a community about the race, including people who aren’t really runners. We’ll work with local cross country teams and other groups. We’re marketing at gyms and using social media. One thing we’ve done is target groups. We recently had a big group from Amazon participate; there might have been 500 people or more. It was a fun thing for them to do and it was great to see them there. We’re doing more of that and trying to target some of those groups.
SDM: Are there children’s events?
Coco: The kids can participate along with everyone else in the race, as long as they’re old enough, but we also have fun activities in our festival area, with things like volleyball and tug of war. You think that maybe if they come out for the festival, they’ll stir up the courage and participate in the race the next year.
SDM: How many races do you host?
Coco: Currently, 24 races across the U.S. and Canada.
SDM: The Warrior Dash is known as one of the ‘big three’ in the obstacle racing world (Editor’s note: Tough Mudder and Spartan Race are the other two). What do you attribute that to?
Coco: I honestly think a big part is providing an operationally sound event. From the time people pull into the parking lot to the time they go home, we want them to have a good experience. We strive for that every time. I think participants notice that. I also attribute that to the fact that we seem to have become Everyman’s race. People can come out and take part.
SDM: Is there participation at the college level, such as intramural or club sports?
Coco: One of the greatest things recently is that there is a Division III college in Oregon that is starting up obstacle course racing as an elective. That’s the first I’ve heard of it on the college level. I have heard of high schools trying to start it as a club level activity, but this is the first college course I’ve heard of. It’s a fun way to get people excited about running the races.