Color Run photo courtesy of Dani Hess
The daughter of a college cross-country coach, Erin Feldhausen grew up running small 5-kilometer races around Green Bay, her hometown.
Just as other families went to the movies or bowling, the Feldhausens went to the Rainbow Classic Run for Children with Cancer, the Algoma Shanty Days 5K Run/Walk and the Run for the Roses to Strike Out Arthritis. Dad paid $25 entry fees for the family of five, and they eyed the competition at the starting line, gathered their T-shirts, plaques and medals at the finish, and joined other families for leisurely postrace picnics. They snacked, swapped race stories and hoped to win raffle prizes donated by local businesses.
Feldhausen is now 31 and a financial analyst for MillerCoors. She’s also president of the TriWisconsin Triathlon Team and competes in some 25 athletic events a year, from 5Ks to marathons to the Ironman Triathlon. But her favorite races are the ones “where they do a paper entry and give out the awards from a card table.”
Those races still exist, many connected to a church or town festival, but they’ve become an anachronism in the sport, overwhelmed by events with spectacle – mud pits, zombies, towering obstacles, barbed wire, electric shocks, flashing lights, pulsing music and flying color packs. It’s not about competition, time or prizes. It’s about camaraderie, fun and experience.
The pace of this change has been more sprint than marathon.
Events that didn’t exist a few years ago are now the biggest game in running or walking, sliding or crawling. Altogether, they draw thousands and generate millions in revenue, dwarfing the 5Ks of Feldhausen’s childhood.
If Waukesha’s edition of the Dirty Girl Mud Run – an adventure race series that started in Wisconsin in 2011 – sells out this year and reaches its capacity of 10,200 on back-to-back days, it will become one of the state’s largest racing endeavors.
The Color Run, something of a grown-up recess in which participants get pelted with packs of dyed corn starch, projects a nationwide participation of 1 million in 2013, a year after its first event (nobody calls them races). In one year, it surpassed the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure’s 5K option as the biggest 5K in the country.
On their current trajectories, Dirty Girl, The Color Run, LoziLu, the Electric Run and similar offerings will quickly surpass traditional timed 5K races, which drew 5.3 million finishers nationwide in 2011. And that’s not counting the millions who pursue the more extreme challenges of Tough Mudder, Spartan Race or Warrior Dash.
“For me, I shake my head and go, ‘Wow,’” says Ryan Lamppa, a founder of RunningUSA, a nonprofit that compiles data on races and participants. “Four years ago, if you had told me these nontraditional runs were approaching 2 million people, I would say, ‘I’ll take that bet.’”
Scavenger races, mud runs and bigger obstacle challenges have added more than a dozen events to calendars across the state, most of them within 60 minutes of Milwaukee, in just the past three years. The online Running In The USA database tracks running-related events. In early May, a search for such events in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties returned more than 90 listings for June, July and August. On some weekends, more than a half-dozen options are taking place within a short drive.
“I wouldn’t say it’s saturated,” says Jeff Graves, president and founder of Vision Event Management, based in Carmel, Ind. “Milwaukee is starting to fill up and will get there pretty quickly, but I think there’s room for more.”
Still, for Lamppa, the growth is stunning. “I’m astounded,” he says. “There is something here that our sport, on the traditional side, hasn’t tapped into.”
It may be what they avoid: competition, clocks, intimidation.
“It’s an experiential event you can do with your friends and put competition aside for the day,” says Francis Donovan, a founder of the LoziLu series of women’s-only mud runs. “The prizes are for best costume and best team.”
Today, spectacle is expected.
“If you have a race in a neighborhood, with bananas and water after, that’s not going to cut it,” says Chris Ponteri, a race promoter who operates Longrun Athletics. “There’s so much competition out there. You have to have an angle, a charity or something that draws people.”
And most of them do.
Based on its entry fees and expected turnout in Waukesha Aug. 17 and 18, Dirty Girl could generate $1.5 million that weekend alone. Organizers, however, have set a goal to contribute $500,000 to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, in total, from more than 60 events nationwide*.
In many cases, such as this one, less than 10 percent of entry fees go to charity. Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing and CFO of the Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog, says participants should demand transparency.
“It’s important to know, for the participants, how much actually goes to the charity,” she says, “not just that they donated millions.”
Even with small shares on a percentage basis, charities often find partnering with a race valuable.
The Summerfest Rock ’n Sole Runs, for example, have donated $90,500 to the Ronald McDonald House Charities Eastern Wisconsin. The largest charitable race/walk in Milwaukee, outside of Susan G. Komen, is the Briggs & Al’s Run, which has contributed more than $14 million to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin over 35 years.
“We take very seriously any charitable event or special event that we do,” says Ann Petrie, president and CEO of the local Ronald McDonald House charity. “If we had to put it on ourselves, it would cost a significant amount of money.”
One local option does, however, donate 100 percent of proceeds to charity: InStep’s Run for a Reason. Participants make a $10 suggested donation for each of the nine, untimed fun runs from the InStep Physical Therapy & Running Center store at 403 E. Buffalo St., and funds go to charity.
The devotees for these locally organized races are small potatoes in comparison to nationwide attractions like Dirty Girl, Tough Mudder and the Color Run, which have all raced ahead of the fitness pack, building followings on Facebook. As of early May, Tough Mudder had 3.3 million likes on Facebook, and the Color Run boasted 1.3 million. In comparison, the ING New York City Marathon had just 81,000 likes.
And the popularity of these unorthodox races is growing. Unlike Feldhausen, most of the mud- and paint-covered thrill-seekers are new to running entirely. Lamppa estimates 75 to 80 percent of participants “weren’t in the sport at all.” Some are even working moms or younger participants whose idea of training is a boot camp or yoga session, not intervals on a track.
Reagan West, a fitness instructor in Menomonee Falls and Warrior Dash and Dirty Girl veteran, understands the appeal.
“There are not many times when you can cannonball into a mud pit or crawl through a muddy swamp,” she says. “So to be able to release your inner child every now and then is strangely liberating.”
*Update 6/3/2013: The National Breast Cancer Foundation is no longer involved with Dirty Girl. A spokesman for Dirty Girl says it expects to donate $300,000 to breast cancer cancer charities nationwide in 2013.