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Can we learn from obstacle racing?

We’ve been talking to the publisher of Obstacle Race Magazine about some cross promotion ideas, so last weekend I went along to a mud run to see what it was all about. The event took place in delightful countryside just outside of Cheltenham and my sister was taking part, along with 7,999 other people.
This was the first year of the event. I only know of one open water swimming event in the UK, and only a handful in the world, that attract those kinds of numbers. Is there something in obstacle racing that we could learn to boost participation in swimming events? I think doing an open water swim is much more appealing than crawling through muddy fields but clearly not everyone agrees. What are the barriers that prevent more people from signing up for swimming events or that are putting people off open water swimming when they will quite happily do an obstacle race?
One of the things I hear people say about open water swimming is that they don’t like the idea of putting their feet in mud and slime on lake bottoms – but that seems like a poor excuse. I didn’t actually see my sister – or possibly I did see her and didn’t recognise her – because everyone looked pretty much the same. They were all covered head to toe in mud. Getting covered in mud was part of the fun. Why would people seek out getting plastered in dirt if they were squeamish about it?
Secondly, people say cold water puts them off outdoor swimming. The Devil Run I watched was 8km long and contained 31 obstacles, which ranged from hedges to crawl through to haystacks to climb over and the clear favourite – muddy ditches filled with near freezing water to wade through. The organisers added ice cubes to one of the water obstacles to cool it down even further. Getting cold didn’t seem to be too much of a worry.
So if it’s not the cold and not the mud that’s discouraging people from swimming, then what is?
Is it that open water swimming is seen as too competitive? Do you need to consider yourself to be a good swimmer before giving it a go?
One thing the organiser made very clear is that this was not a timed event:
“The Devil Mud Run is all about the experience of running off-road and completing the course… The main aim is to complete it rather than winning it,” according to their website.
There were no timing chips and no published results. From what I could see, this seemed to encourage mutual support and groups of friends completing the course together rather than racing each other. In contrast, the swimmers I know – fast, slow or medium – are usually really keen to know their times. Could you get 8,000 swimmers to an event that didn’t record and rank them?
Like open water events, the Devil Run attracted participants of a wide range of ages and physical abilities. There was a large proportion of women taking part, including one wearing a tutu. While it was marketed as tough and challenging, it was also seen as achievable.
Apart from people who already swim outdoors I think there is a perception that open water swimming is both really difficult and potentially dangerous – partly fuelled by the media and the owners, managers or custodians of suitable open water swimming locations who are anxious to keep people out as they fear the legal consequences if someone drowns.
Just as you don’t have to be an elite runner to complete an obstacle race you don’t need to be a top class swimmer to do an open water event. Those of us in the sport (including us at H2Open) need to do more to show how accessible open water swimming is. In terms of safety, I also suspect your chances of injury in a mud run are much higher than in an open water swim, yet people still think of open water swimming as dangerous.
The other comment I heard about the obstacle race was how much fun it was. People were doing it in groups, with friends or work colleagues, and they were having a laugh. Do we take ourselves too seriously in open water swimming, and is there scope for more ‘fun’ events? Or do we just need to do more to show non-swimmers how much fun swimmers are having?
We don’t have all the answers but we do think lots of the people doing obstacle races would also enjoy open water swimming, and vice versa (although doing a mud run hasn’t made it onto my to do list yet). It’s therefore exciting to be working with Obstacle Race Magazine. We hope some of their readers will try open water swimming and we encourage swimmers to try other sports – but don’t desert us!
You can find out more about Obstacle Race Magazine here.
But if you’re looking for a really fun, and challenging swimming event this year, come along to the Open Water Show at the Henley Mile. Do it twice as a suits versus skins challenge and take part in the Big River Jump.