Anyone who knows me has heard my rants about the new class of “pseudo-races,” including Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and the like.
Last week, Kevin Helliker of the Wall Street Journal published a story that largely summed up my contention with the events. Unlike traditional road races that have an inherent competitive element, pseudo-races don’t time participants or post results. By describing them as “less about your 10-minute mile and more about having the time of your life,” events like the Color Run become more about participation than competition.
Many critics of the Wall Street Journal article commented that there isn’t anything wrong with simply participating rather than racing. After all, running a pseudo-race is better than sitting on the couch.
Though partially correct, these critics forget that competition doesn’t necessarily imply the painful struggle to get to the finish line before other runners. Part of running’s appeal is the ability to compete against one’s self. The average 30 minute 5k runner is never going to compete for national championships or participate in the Olympic Games, but eliminating the stopwatch lessens the chance they choose to consistently train in hopes of achieving their personal goals.
The “better than sitting on the couch” justification is also iffy at best. Visit the finish area of any local road race and you’ll find a host of vendors offering free samples of Jamba Juice, complementary chiropractic checkups and deals on the latest model of running shoes. Pseudo-races, on the other hand, “feel more like counter-cultural happenings than athletic events” by including “costume contests, live music, and staples like free beer at the finish.” The more that these events become just another fun thing for people to do with their friends (not unlike attending a music festival or hitting the bars on a Friday night), the less they emphasize the healthy lifestyle and training that’s implicit in the traditional road race. There’s even a pseudo-race variation called the Run to Rave (warning: clicking on the previous link will expose you to heavy levels of dubstep) that’s modeled off a lifestyle of illegal drug abuse. How’s that for healthy?
Freelance writer Scott Keneally published an exposé in the November 2012 edition of Outside Magazine on some of the Zuckerberg-esque business tactics practiced by the likes of Tough Mudder founder Will Dean. Keneally’s findings were quite poignant.
The obstacle-racing industry raked in a whopping $250 million in 2012, including $70 million by Dean’s top-grossing Tough Mudder series. Yet unlike the Sacramento Running Association (SRA), the nonprofit 501(c)(3) that puts on the Cal International Marathon and other prominent Northern California races, organizers of pseudo-races are solely for-profit, meaning organizers donate just a measly portion of proceeds to charitable endeavors while keeping the rest as windfall.
The recent Color Run in Sacramento, for instance, netted more than $500,000 in proceeds but sent just five percent to a local charity. Nonprofits like the SRA that put on the majority of traditional road races are mandated by their federal tax status to spend all proceeds on charitable programs.
Boasting tag-lines like “ruining other races since 2012,” pseudo-races are starting to impact the fundraising efforts of causes desperately in need of money. Local road races like the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure that funds breast cancer research have seen significant declines in registration in recent years.
With such a heavy emphasis on their bottom line and so little regard for charity, events like Color Me Rad are better off called “Color Us Green.”