Although they don’t get much exposure in North America, Toughest, a race series based in Sweden, has been making waves on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s not hard to see why: they are putting on large-scale races, spectacular special events and have come up with exciting solutions to some of the problems most talked about in OCR circles (penalties, elite waves, obstacle difficulty, TV coverage…).
I am really excited to participate in their upcoming race in Oslo, along with fellow Canadians and Battlefrog Team powerhouses Claude Godbout and Marco Bédard, as well as Platinum Rig mastermind Dom and his long-suffering better half Chantal.
To learn more about Toughest, I did a little Q&A with Adam Felt, Marketing Director for Toughest.
When did Toughest start as a race series?
First race 2013. First full race series (Tour with Championship) 2014.
How many races do you hold every year?
How many people show up for your races (racers and spectators)?
From 1 000 to 6 000 racers and 2 000 to 15 000 spectators depending on event.
What is the typical race distance for Toughest, and how many obstacles do you usually have?
8km with 40 obstacles.
What do you think makes Toughest unique compared to other races?
High obstacle density, fast lanes and penalty rounds making it challenging for beginners, weekend warriors as well as the world elite (World Champ Jon Albon is one of our ambassadors).
What is the ultimate goal or philosophy driving Toughest?
To be at the very frontline of OCR races, keep developing the sport and hosting unique races.
Could you explain how the “fastlane” concept works?
It means that some obstacles have a tougher path that you can choose to gain time. It can be a flying monkey (monkey bars spaced far enough apart that you have to leap from one to the other, letting go before grabbing the next) instead of normal monkey bars. When you approach the obstacle you choose your lane and if you do the regular lane, you have a crawling obstacle right after the monkey bars, but if you choose the technical, more difficult flying monkey you just get a clear running lane after the obstacle.
Can you try an obstacle more than once before getting a penalty? What is the penalty for failing an obstacle?
For most obstacles you can try several times. At some occasions we have had “one try only”. The penalty round should punish you both time wise and endurance wise, giving a fair reflection of the complexity of the obstacle you have missed. Meaning that a really tough obstacle will have a tougher/longer penalty round. The penalty round could consist of a 200m run, or carrying a log or jerry cans back and forth up a hill.
Do you require people to qualify for the “Elite” wave? If so, how? How many racers do you normally have in the “Elite” wave?
Yes. You have to qualify and typically we have 30-40 racers in each category (men/women).
It seems some of your obstacles are really big structures. How do you overcome the challenge of transporting and building those structures at every race?
We have found a way of handling logistics in a way that we can set up really big obstacles for all our races. Exactly how we do it is of course part of our business secret 🙂 . However, there is no magic way to avoid paying for it and I do believe that we put more money on each course than most other races. If you aspire to be in the frontline you need to put more money on the course and less in your pocket. Unfortunately too many organizers think the other way around. They are probably richer than us but we sleep well knowing we give the most value for money to our racers and spend our money making awesome events! It is of course amazing to be able to give the world special events such as Toughest ICE even if it has a high price.
TV coverage: how did it happen? What is Toughest getting from this? How have the televised races been received, did people actually watch? Did they like it?
TV is another thing we invest a lot in. To produce a high quality broadcast is expensive both in time and money. We have had great feedback from viewers and are confident that this is the ultimate TV sport. Needless to say it will take some time to build awareness to a bigger audience, but we have had great numbers indicating that this has the potential of being big on TV.
How can one see the TV coverage if they are not in Sweden?
It is available through the (Swedish TV) channel’s online stream at tv4play.se. The final will be broadcast October 10th and we hope OCR-fans from all over the world tune in to watch it!
(Note: this is completely different from Spartan’s NBC coverage. Races are covered live, from static cameras as well as from the back of ATVs, and the focus is solely on the top athletic performance. Replays of past races are available on tv4play’s website. Registration is required with a free trial.)
What is the relationship between Toughest and Jonathan Albon?
He is one of our ambassadors and we are so proud to have him on the team. Needless to say he could have chosen other (bigger) races to maximize the financial gain, but he chose us. He has several times said that we are building the best obstacle courses out there and that is of course an honor since he has tried most races over the years. From our point of view, he is the ultimate athlete being humble and likable outside of the race but being a machine on the field crushing opponents in a lot of different races from OCR world championships to Skyraces.
Toughest Ice and Toughest 24hrs: what was the concept for those two races? How did they go? Will you do them again?
Between our standard races we try to squeeze in events that are truly unique. Toughest ICE was the world’s first obstacle race built mainly in ice and snow. It was located up in the north of Sweden at the world famous ICEHOTEL. Toughest 24H Xtreme is a team relay OCR with teams of four trying to make as many laps as possible for 24 consecutive hours (one person per team running at a time). Both those races were crowd pleasers and they might come back again but we have not decided if or when. They take a lot of effort to produce and are likely to become every second/third year events. We might also come up with other special events, so stay tuned.
Some race companies are closing or having difficulties in the USA. How is the OCR scene doing in Europe? Is it different in Scandinavian/Nordic countries compared to the rest of Europe? Are there any major players apart from Spartan?
As mentioned above, OCR is not a money making business even if many think so. To produce world class courses you need to put in substantial investments. You have to handle and succeed in everything from logistics to marketing. There have been races over here shutting down as well and a lot struggle with very few racers. However, we see the sport of OCR growing steadily and more and more people still discover it over here. There are a few players over here that are serious and could keep growing. Europe is quite differentiated with several local players but few or none controlling the full market. We get a lot of requests from other countries and by announcing our UK entrance we have also said that we are looking into and have started expansion towards Europe. Our focus is however always on a few really unique races rather than bulking up numbers and developing an industry.
Do you think a federation is needed for OCR to become more of a legitimate sport?
To become a legitimate sport at some time it will demand some kind of federation/organization that is not funded by one race organization. If the sport keeps developing it is just a matter of time until that happens.
What do you think about the burpee (or other exercise) as a penalty?
Well. If you don’t have mandatory completion you need some kind of penalty. A penalty should fill two functions. 1 be fair and equal to all. 2 mirror the complexity of the obstacle meaning for really tough obstacles it should slow you down/cost more than for a less hard obstacle. We have done a lot of trial and error to find good penalties and it is hard. We have chosen a way with penalties now that we think are equal for all and mirror the obstacles complexity. Our view on burpees, pull-ups etc. is that they are hard to overview and could be done in so many different ways hence not a truly fair measure. The penalty should never be the quicker or easier way of beating an obstacle.
What do you think about mandatory obstacle completion?
For some races this could be right. We truly understand why for example OCRWC chose it. But for our part we do like the fast lanes and penalty rounds meaning that the overall fitness is really tested. The problem if you don’t have any penalties and/or mandatory is that only good runners win. On the other hand there is also a risk with mandatory obstacle completion if really complex obstacles removes the running aspect, ending up being a sport only for obstacle experts. We have tried to find a way that even out the odds for all athletes just as MMA lets different martial artists meet under common rules.
Are the Open waves or the elite waves more important for Toughest?
A – They are both important for us. Again, our fast lanes and penalties means that we build courses that are a challenge both for world champions and beginners/weekend warriors. We want to develop OCR as a sport, but at the same time host races that are big feasts with all kinds of people and huge crowds. We also built Scandinavia’s first indoor obstacle gym with 600 square meters of OCR playground that helps beginners discover OCR and try for example a monkey bar for the first time at the same time as Jon Albon will come over to fine tune his technique. For us it is not either or. The sport and the elite inspire more people to try it and the more that try it, the better the level gets – the elite gets better every year and more people discover OCR.
Where do Toughest go from here? Do you plan on expanding, and if so, where?
We are the leading OCR organization in the Nordics and our next step is Europe. We have announced London 2016 and more countries/cities will follow. But again not focus on quantity but quality.
Are you getting a lot of international runners?
We often have racers from 10-15 countries and next race in Oslo will have racers from all continents.