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When a Road Race is Not Just a Road Race

12 Nov, 2014

By: Tracey Schelmetic
Themed, Novelty Runs on the Rise – But So Are Problems

When is a road race not just a road race? While simple races remain popular with hardcore runners, there is a growing subculture of themed road races designed to attract participants with the promise of more fun. Runners can dash from zombies, dress like turkeys, coat themselves with mud or get pelted with colored powder.

One of the most prominent themed races today is the Color Run, a 5K race in which participants have colored powder lobbed at them after each lap. The event, which was first held in January 2012, has now reached 50 cities nationwide and sees about 600,000 participants putting on their running shoes to get messy. For those interested in turning the mess up to 11, there are the popular 10 to 12 mile “Tough Mudder” military-style runs combined with mud-filled obstacle courses. The Tough Mudder runs stress military principles such as collaboration and overcoming fear, and as a result, are popular for corporate team-building initiatives. (Here is a great list of some of the most popular themed races in the country.)

While some have criticized the fad, others point out that it’s a great way to encourage new runners into the sport on a competitive basis, according to a recent article by U.S. News & World Report’s Danielle Kurtzleben.

“As a sport, running is experiencing tremendous growth, and these novel racing series are feeding off of the recent boom, both benefiting from the new interest in running and inspiring new athletes,” she wrote.

Capitalizing on the general popularity of zombies thanks to movies like “World War Z” and AMC’s successful television series “The Walking Dead,” the zombie-themed Run for Your Lives 5k was first launched in 2011. Twenty-one zombie-themed races will be held across the U.S. this year and are expected to attract about 150,000 participants who will either dress as zombies and be “obstacles” to the runners, or run the race to escape the “zombies.” Runners wear three flags on their belts, and they’re disqualified if zombies managed to snag all three flags.

Supporters of theme road races say they’re a way to attract more participants – and more revenue – by adding to the road race experience. With the rise of themed races has come an increase in participation, according to running association Running USA, which says the number of road race finishers has tripled in the last 20 years, from 4.8 million in 1990 to nearly 14 million in 2011. The growth has been largely thanks to women and young people. Some serious runners express support for the races, as they help cull those runners (or walkers) who are only interested in hoopla from more traditional races.

Critics of the events have called them silly and poorly planned, the product of neophyte race directors hoping to rake in a pile of cash in entrance fees. Some participants have been disappointed after turning in fees for events that were haphazardly planned or canceled altogether. The Web site, Obstacle Racing Media, published an article last year with good advice regarding how to spot a problematic event.

“Check their website,” wrote ORM’s Paul Jones. “Do they have a website or just a Facebook page? Also, do they have photos? Do they have video? Is this media their own? Or, did they fall into the trap of using race photos from another race? Is their video stolen material?”

Red flags, according to Jones, include new races with events planned all over the country, which indicates an event that is three thousand miles wide and an inch deep. In addition, events that don’t seem to have any support or back-up from the cities or communities in which they’re located should also warn participants considering writing a check. It’s not uncommon for poorly planned new events to cancel dates when they don’t attract enough registrants.

In either case, the trend toward themed races shows no signs of slowing, and they may turn out to be a great way to get some former couch potatoes moving. Ultimately, if the races turn even a few people into serious runners, the more traditional (read: zombie-less) race events may also benefit. 

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