Montreal entrepreneur Eric Poulin was inspired by the adventure race, Run for Your Lives, where participants ran through difficult terrain and obstacles, dodging zombies along the way. But he thought this concept had limited appeal when he decided to create a race series of his own.
"I liked the intensity of Run for Your Lives, but it was more appealing to teenagers," says Mr. Poulin. "I needed a brand that appealed to adults, men and women."
But what could participants be running from, he wondered, if not zombies? At the time, he was watching the television show Prison Break, and a business idea was born. He created an adventure race series in 2013 called Prison Break, where participants, jailed for crimes they didn't commit, break out and run an obstacle course while fleeing prison guards and police.
In 2013, Mr. Poulin operated his first three races in Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa. Combined, they drew more than 7,000 participants and generated about $500,000 in revenue. This year, he's added three more races in Toronto, Halifax, Val D'Irene, Quebec, with estimated revenues in excess of $1-million.
Mr. Poulin has found his niche is a style of adventure racing that has grown in popularity in Canada since the inception, five years ago, of what sports administration professor Norman O'Reilly calls the "Big Three" races: Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, and Spartan Race. These U.S.-based companies have made their founders wealthy, he says, and countless Canadian entrepreneurs are now trying to find successful niches of their own.
Dr. O'Reilly, chair of the department of sports administration at Ohio University, is a triathlete who has run dozens of adventure races in the last few years. He has 25 years experience as a race administrator, participant, consultant and professor, yet he remains surprised entrepreneurs didn't catch onto the potential success of this style of race until relatively recently.
"It still perplexes me that no one picked up on this mass market demand until then," he says.
For decades, he says, athletes and race organizers believed that "harder is better, pain is good," and they focused on events that emphasized hard– won achievement, such as marathons and triathlons. He says these types of individual events scared off "a large market of people who just want to be fit and do something cool with their friends or family members."
The newer events are physically demanding, he says, but the distances are shorter and they emphasize having a good time and teamwork over individual performance.
Since big U.S. players have cracked the Canadian market, says Dr. O'Reilly, new entrants have had to differentiate. He says they do that in two key respects:
location and race design. They need to stage an event in a place where there aren't similar adventure races, and/or come up with a "cool" or different twist.
Prison Break is mainly staged in large urban markets with competing adventure races; Mr. Poulin needed a twist and settled on the 'jailbreak' concept. He successfully pitched a small group of investors that provided $120,000 in start– up capital. Last year, the former in-house lawyer for LeChateau drew thousands out to three races, and has doubled the number of races this year.
Mr. Poulin got his idea from a popular U.S. show Prison Break, which didn't hold copyright on the name. Ontario entrepreneur Josh Howard was similarly inspired by a U.S. reality show – in his case, Survivor. He's staging The Element Games for the first time this August in Bracebridge, Ont. It's taking place at the Tamarack Adventure Centre in a small town with no competing adventure races, but Mr. Howard says the concept is what will differentiate his event.
Over a period of two days, which is longer than other similar events, participants will participate in squads to overcome physical and intellectual challenges. For example, squad members will help each other move through a series of swinging tires, or locate bags of puzzle pieces in shallow water and bring them back to shore to solve a puzzle.
"It's not just about a run through the mud, overcoming challenging obstacles," says Mr. Howard. "It's for the Tough Mudder folks looking for a new challenge, or people getting bored with marathons."
The Element Games has another distinguishing feature: a $10,000 cash prize for the winner. But Mr. Howard says the winner will have to be a team player to win the Grand Prize. There will be up to 576 participants, competing in squads of six.
Participants will be voted out by their peers over a series of rounds until one is voted overall champion. "The winner will have to play a good social game to succeed," he says.
Entrepreneurs like Mr. Howard seek a different niche from the already crowded field of mud runs that includes Tough Mudder and the Canadian-based Mud Hero.
John Reed, on the other hand, still sees untapped 'mud run' markets to explore. The owner of B.C.-based Mudd, Sweat, and Tears just finished staging an event in Cochrane, Alberta, and he's operated two others this spring in Kelowna, B.C., and Niagara, Ont. There are two upcoming events; one on Vancouver Island in July and another in Saint John, N.B. at the end of August.
A twenty-year veteran of the outdoor adventure business, Mr. Reed is following a simple prescription, according to Mr. O'Reilly: "Go where it isn't being done."
In its second years of operation, Mudd, Sweat and Tears is staging events in "under-tapped, mid-sized markets," says Reed. For example, they will be the first to enter the N.B. market. By locating in Saint John they hope to draw participants from other nearby small cities, such as Fredericton and Moncton.
"People don't like to travel far for these events," says Mr. Reed. "We're trying to be within an hour's drive for people."
They're also trying to stand out by tailoring their events to local landscapes and cultures. For example, they incorporated local features into the Cochrane course, including barns, riding stables, ponds and bogs. Next year, he says, they may "dress it up" by incorporating oil patch and cowboy themes.
Even though the adventure race business still has growth opportunities, the new entrants market aggressively. Mr. Poulin says he spent a lot of start-up capital on a strong web site and social media tools, traditional advertising and a Groupon campaign. They also distributed flyers near the sites of Spartan Races.
Mr. Reed relies on street teams to help spread the word in local markets. In Saint John, for example, that includes the city's leisure services department and tourism agency and local beer company Moosehead Breweries.
"You need local people on the ground," says Mr. Reed. "We learn how we can be good partners with them."
The adventure race companies also see the potential to expand to new markets, at home and abroad. Mr. Poulin hopes to attract new participants, and bring back old ones by incorporating new elements into Prison Break. But he says there may be a shelf-life of five years in each market, so he eventually plans to expand to Europe and places such as Egypt and Dubai.
Mr. O'Reilly also sees plenty of room for new entrants and expansion into new markets. "These events are jam-packed wherever they're held," he says.
Mr. Reed, who is already planning to stage Mudd, Sweat and Tears events in Australia later this fall and next year, says these adventure races are here to stay.
"I don't see it going away, though the players will change," he says. "There are just too many growth opportunities.
"People have been running for hundreds of years. This is way more fun than running. It's addictive."