As themed runs grow in popularity, cities that host participants - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

As themed runs grow in popularity, cities that host participants enjoy revenues

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Photo courtesy of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County CVB Photo courtesy of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County CVB
TOM DEARING / KDMC TOM DEARING / KDMC
TOM DEARING / KDMC TOM DEARING / KDMC
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It's said the best business ventures are those that get people to pay for what is free.

One look at thousands of men and women scaling 12-foot-high ramps, crawling through icy, dirty pools of water, pushing through wires sparked with live electricity and stomping through thick pits of mud brings one big question to mind: People pay for this?

They do — and handsomely.

Walking outside to pick up the pace for a leisurely jog is an activity with a fairly low economic impact, but the business of extreme running events in the name of fitness, fun and sometimes a good cause is picking up, and it's one host cities are happy to grow.

Tough Mud

The Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau is preparing to host "Tough Mudder" in October. It will be the second time the 10-to-12 mile course with between 18 and 25 military-style obstacles designed by British Special Forces has come to the 1,000-acre Peacemaker National Training Center in the Eastern Panhandle. 

It's a production by all accounts.

"It's basically the largest gun range on the East Coast; he's got 1,000 acres," explained Martinsburg-Berkeley County CVB Executive Director Laura Gassler. "So the Tough Mudder people come in, they'll work with Peacemaker, decide on the route, the terrain, and then they'll come in and manicure and bulldoze to make it match what their needs are."

Gassler said the entire region is involved in the planning of an event that big. Tough Mudder brings 10,000 cars with it — a traffic load too heavy for Peacemaker's narrow, winding road.

"They worked with the development authority and brought a bus company in from Pennsylvania," Gassler said. "You have to work with the sheriff's department and emergency services any time you have an event like that."

Gassler said the run came to town in April for the first time, and Berkeley County's 20 hotels were full.

Tough Mudder has been surging in popularity. The event has hosted 700,000 participants worldwide. The event had just three runs in 2010 and grew to more than 460,000 participants in 2012, according to the event's website. The average participant is 29 years old, and 76 percent of participants are men. It takes an average of 3.5 hours to finish, which only about 78 percent do.

"You see these guys running, and all of a sudden, they get zapped, and the base is made of mud, so they're just face-planting down into the mud," Gassler said. "There's no first place, no prize money, no ceremony when you're done, just a Tough Mudder headband, which means you completed it.

"It's total personal satisfaction."

Gassler said area restaurant owners all told her they wished they could host the event every weekend.

"There's a definite boost to the tourism aspect of it," she said. "You couldn't go anywhere in town Saturday night without seeing them all out in their headbands.

"It was a serious boost to my hotel-motel tax."

No Competition

But really, why would anyone want to do something like that?

Charleston-area fitness expert Cindy Boggs, who has worked in the industry more than 30 years, can list several reasons why mud runs, color runs and zombie runs are picking up in popularity.

First and foremost, they're fun.

"These tend to be for all fitness levels … and many are untimed," Boggs said. "Basically they're substituting fun and games for the competition.

"It lures the adventurous off the couch, calling upon groups, families, coworkers, women and/or men to try something new. Exercisers are notorious for getting bored."

Boggs said when runs have food, concerts and sometimes even beer built in, it can make parting with the entry fee pretty easy, especially if the event is affiliated with a cause.

A participant ticket for Tough Mudder can cost anywhere from $90 to $155, depending on whether the participant is a veteran, a member of a team or if the participant raises more than $150 for the Wounded Warrior Project. Spectator tickets cost $40. Tough Mudder has raised more than $5 million for Wounded Warrior. 

Run or dye and Color Vibe runs are another popular way to get a little messy while walking or running. Both events partner with causes in their host communities.

Run or dye has plans for runs in more than 50 U.S. cities throughout 2013, and they average 6,000 runners.

The dye part comes from an all-natural, chemical-free powdered dye made of cornstarch, which douses runners at all stages of the event.

Matt Young runs the Genesis 5K training program in Charleston and is a Road Runner Club of America-certified running coach.

He schedules group 5K training programs that usually last about nine weeks, with a race he plans for the big finale. But the popularity of one themed run in particular scared him.

"I saw the popularity of these runs, and I knew the color run was coming to town, so I thought maybe I'd do a group for that, but honestly, I didn't know if I could handle the response," Young said. "I have 100 now."

Young said he did a class in the winter, and two participants who were anxious about being prepared for the 5K signed up for the Dirty Girl Mud Run in the middle of the program.

"They weren't even halfway trained for the 5K, but the mud run … they were comfortable with that," he said. "The anxiety that comes from a 5K is because it's a race."

Destination Fitness

Young said just as people shell out money for a rock concert, spending money on the atmosphere of an extreme run is an investment in the experience.

And sometimes the takeaways can be pretty appealing too.

"When it comes to a race, you want to enjoy that experience with other people, and you have to do an event to have that," Young said. "It often comes with a T-shirt. People like to wear those around, or medals … a lot of adults haven't gotten a medal since field day in grade school."

Anything that keeps people active is a good thing, Young said.

Lindsay Gardner, communication manager for the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the estimated economic impact for hosting events such as the Dirty Girl Mud Run, the Color Vibe or the Ugly Sweater Run ranges from $200,000 to $250,000.

She said the recent Biggest Loser Run Walk the city hosted brought in participants from 20 states and 296 zip codes. Gardner said the Biggest Loser event partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Color Vibe, scheduled for Sept. 9 in Charleston has partnered with Special Olympics West Virginia, so those races boost the city's bottom line as well as local charitable organizations.

"Themed runs incorporate exercise, fun, companionship and teamwork," she explained. "The Charleston CVB has seen the popularity of these types of events grow and has worked to bring more activities to Charleston that promote healthy lifestyles and habits."

Gardner said Charleston's varied topography and natural beauty offers an intense, challenging course, while the flat city streets host moderate and kid-friendly events.

As Pat Riley, founder of TriStateRacer.com and TSR Timing Group, explains, the fitness industry is all-encompassing, and the demand is growing too — everything from fitness clubs to personal trainers, timers and marketing firms that set up the extreme events.

While he likes to focus on charity events — he said he's helped raise $250,000 for charity in 2013 alone — more people are attending more events, and more running is always a good thing.

He has one suggestion for even more untapped potential in West Virginia — its most natural obstacle course.

"I was part of the Ragnar Relays, near Morgantown in the spring," Riley said. "They had 150 or so teams, with 10 on a team, who competed in a 24-hour relay race. It was a great event and people from up and down the East Coast came. 

"I was amazed at how well the event was organized and how many people came. I know West Virginia can do more of that."