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Saturday, Jun 10, 2023

Pay and Suffer

Just a few years ago, amateur athletes who wanted to test their mettle indulged in triathlons, endurance fests that combine the rigors of swimming, biking and running. Now, in an age of extreme, that is not enough. The latest craze among amateur athletes? Getting kicks climbing over 10-foot walls, crawling under cargo nets and balancing on beams. And if that wasn’t enough, doing it while coated in mud – and paying $50 to $100 for the privilege. Based on military-style obstacle races, the events are popping up all over the country and Michael Epstein Sports Productions Inc., an Agoura Hills company, is cashing in. The company, which has made its name locally as the producer of the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, is the company behind the Merrell Down & Dirty Obstacle Race. “It’s crazy how this has all exploded,” said owner Michael Epstein. “This has doubled our revenue.” Since the craze took off, Epstein’s staff has grown from five to 10, while hundreds more volunteer on event days to set up the complicated obstacle courses. In 2010, the company produced only four events with 16,000 participants. This year, it has planned 11 events and expects about 50,000 participants. Yet even with those numbers, Epstein’s outfit is relatively small. Spartan Race Inc. of Pittsfield, Vt., one of the larger race producers, boasts 60 events for this year and estimates more than 600,000 people will participate. Joseph De Sena, co-founder of Spartan Race, said the appeal of the race comes from its extreme nature, including swinging from monkey bars and jumping over fire. “This is your opportunity to be a Navy SEAL for a day,” he said. “This thing has gone to the moon. We’re seeing insane growth.” Boom and bust The events have their origin in the military, which has been using obstacle courses as a method of training for decades. Twenty years ago, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton near San Diego started its own mud run, which it dubs “The World Famous Mud Run.” It started as a small, community outreach event, said race director Jill Prichard. “It was just a way to take what the Marines do to prepare for combat and take it to the masses. It was like an open-house,” she said. Epstein’s own path to being a promoter of obstacle races has been long, starting with the Malibu Triathlon. The half-mile swim, 18-mile bike and four-mile run event was started out of the bedroom of his Calabasas condo in 1986. After he got laid off from a previous job, Epstein decided to turn his hobby into a business. He moved into a 700 square-foot office in Agoura Hills, before relocating to the 3,200 square-foot office at 29395 Agoura Road where the company is today. The company expanded to produce triathlons in Hermosa Beach and South Beach, Fla. And in 1996, Epstein began a series similar to the obstacle races of today. The Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series featured monkey bars and a tire wall similar to obstacles found at the Merrell Down & Dirty course, but also included a cycling segment. That race evolved into the Muddy Buddy Ride & Run Series Epstein produced between 2003 and 2010 that featured two alternate legs of biking and running before a crawl through a mud pit at the finish line. He said the latest version of the mud run is more accessible to the average consumer, who may not bike or swim at a competitive level. “This attracts a completely different customer. We cater to moms, dads, kids and athletes alike,” he said. Epstein had his first Down & Dirty mud run of the year in Castaic on April 14. More than 5,000 people participated, some 800 more than last year. A typical event will feature runs of five or 10 kilometers that include military-style obstacles, such as monkey bars, balance beams and a row of tires, as well as huge mud pits and an inflatable slide. In addition, there are two events for children, which range from a 100-yard event for ages 4 to 6 to a 1-mile course for ages 7 to 13. Costs range between $55 and $85 for adults and $20 and $30 for children, depending on how early a participant registers. Some participants come from the local business community. Deana Pinto is a nutritionist who runs a weight-loss clinic at Garrison Family Medical Group in Palmdale. She organized a team of 30 people, comprised of half employees and half patients, to run in the Castaic event. She said her team, which was called Ric’s Rangers, after the group’s founder, Dr. Ric Garrison, considered the run life changing. Once she decided to organize a group, Pinto said it took less than three weeks to put it together. “It was so great for camaraderie,” she said. “Everyone wanted to be a part of it.” Logistical obstacles A challenge for Epstein is building the courses. His company has two 50-foot semi-trucks that carry everything from wood and metal for obstacles to the tents where runners register. By the time racers arrive on a weekend morning, the company has another 200 to 250 volunteers who help with everything from parking to registration. From set-up to cleanup, the company can spend a week or more at a site. But add in evaluating potential new markets to site visits and race-course design – and the work never ends. “It’s a large production,” he said. “It’s literally a year-round process. We never stop.” And costs can be high. For example, a new obstacle added to the events this year is a 20-foot tall and 50-foot wide cargo climb. It cost about $40,000 to build, Epstein said, but will be used all season. Some of those costs have been defrayed by Merrell, the title sponsor. Epstein reached out to the premium adventure footwear company, a subsidiary of Wolverine World Wide Inc. in Rockford, Mich., and landed a deal before launching the series in 2010. Under the agreement, Merrell pays a sponsorship fee that Epstein declined to disclose. In exchange, Merrell gets its name on the event and access to promote Merrell merchandise at the events. Epstein keeps all income from racer registration. “Things like this are an extension of the marketing of its brand,” he said. “At the end of the day, a company sponsors anything to increase their product sales.” Although consumer mud runs have only recently reached critical mass, the fear of market saturation already exists. New events are popping up constantly, such as Rogue Runner, the Gladiator Rock’n Run and the Superhero Scramble, produced by various companies and run nationwide. De Sena, from Spartan Race, said that competition is prompting venues to increase their rental rates at the same time insurance and marketing costs are rising. “Growth isn’t slowing down, but margins are definitely getting squeezed,” he said. Epstein expects to see a shakeout process soon, though he claimed his costs have lowered as his operation has gained efficiency. “What you will likely see is smaller races will just fade away,” he said. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of sports at market research firm NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, N.Y, said the trend’s longevity is questionable. “Odds are, it’s just a cool and trendy thing that will just come and go,” he said. De Sena doesn’t agree. He hopes to get obstacle racing into the Olympics, but acknowledged that for the races to survive they need accepted rules establishing them as a credible sport. As for Epstein, he has no problem with the idea that obstacle races will evolve in the future. Though he isn’t sure what type of events will stem from these mud runs, he sees this iteration of obstacle racing as part of a process. “This was just another step in a progression,” he said. “We’re looking at this to be a 10-year sport.”

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