On Saturday, April 25th, 2015, the Atlas Race obstacle course race (OCR) hit Kansas City for it’s inaugural showing in the Kansas City region. The series has been around the California area since 2013 and races in Southern California and San Antonio, Texas, had already been ran in 2015 before Kansas City. Next stop for Atlas is Dallas, Texas, on May 9.
We took on the Ranger course, which is the longer option between the Boss and Ranger courses. It was advertised as 7 to 9 miles with around 25 obstacles. After heading out to Lawrence, Kansas, for the race, running the course and living to tell about it, we wanted to share our take on the course and the Atlas Race series from the perspective of a weekend endurance warrior.
We’ve raced the likes of Ruckus Run, 3 to 4 miles of around 30 obstacles, and Warrior Dash which around 3 miles with 12 obstacles. This would be the first OCR we’ve attempted over the 3 to 4 mile range, hoping for similarities you might find at Spartan Race or Tough Mudder.
Below is our opinion, with a couple facts mixed in. Nothing is meant to hurt anyone’s feeling, but it will be a critical look from a competitor vantage towards organizers and series owners.
Registration : A
It was relatively straight forward. Some online registration is clunky and has technical problems, but the Atlas Race site was user friendly and very direct on how to register for each course. Racers could also pay on site race day if they preferred. If you had a bead on the site for early registration, you could have saved around $55 compared to signing up the day of the event. The price point is about on par with other OCR events of that distance and magnitude. Warrior Dash allows substantial savings on early bird pricing as well (coincidentally Warrior Dash Kansas City was the same day as Atlas Race).
Branding and Outreach : B
Online Atlas Race has over 69k likes on Facebook and updates the feed one to two times a day with race related postings or price related content. The brand, logo and bravado online far exceeds in-real-life reach. They partnered with 24 Hour Fitness, which is a national fitness chain, but if you don’t belong to their gym, more than likely you wouldn’t have heard about Atlas Race outside of social media or from a friend that signed up. They partnered with Whole Foods and some other outfits, but that connection seemed loose and a stretch as we never saw any traction outside of 24 Hour Fitness. There were so many opportunities to be had with cross-promotional events and activities to get more people signed up and aware of Atlas Race, but it’s too late now.
Their printed brochures and posters at 24 Hour Fitness were a thing of beauty. You can definitely see where some of the overhead cost has gone, and it didn’t disappoint. Their printed marketing material was spot on with the big boys.
There was an issue with the lack of response from the Facebook and event pages. When questions were posted, no one from the official event page seemed to respond. It was more banter from fellow racers speculating on what they know and have heard. If you’re going to open up a sweet Facebook page and event page, man it an answer the questions.
Planning and Strategy Leading up to Race Day : C
Atlas created a Facebook event page for the Kansas City race and most posts were poles for the sake of social interaction and somewhat superfluous to the actual Kansas City race. At the last minute, there was a Facebook event page post two days before the race for a cross promotion with Whole Foods the day before the race. The staffers missed it since their flight from Dallas with them and their promotional items got cancelled. Luckily they posted on the event page what had happened so the few people that saw the post weren’t aimlessly wandering the Whole Foods aisles getting odd looks from the staff when asking about the Atlas Race. A great cross promotional opportunity missed due to unforeseen circumstances, but had it planned earlier in the week or month, might have been a key recruiting action.
Race day directions were sparse at best. Some participants received EventBrite emails two days before the race listing times and information that wasn’t exactly accurate. Official Atlas Race emails came out the same day, one with packet pickup times for the next day and generic race day information, the other with a correction for start times for the Ranger course. Elite athletes were to start at 8am. Ranger open heats started at 10am. Maybe Boss course racers received different emails with times? How often was a heat started? Were the Boss course people running separate from the Ranger course runners? How much was parking? Confused? So were we. When you arrived on site, the registration tent attendants said that heats started at 8am and ran every 30 minutes, with Boss and Ranger runners starting all together. Not one answer seemed to match.
The Atlas Race web site contained no race information other than OCR Warrior information. Each link under Event Info lead to a generic page that contained no race specific information essential for planning for race day. There was no race course map, no race day instructions, but at least they had the park address. One problem was that there are multiple park entrances, and unless you are a veteran of Clinton Lake State Park, you probably got lost trying to get to the event. Luckily the part allowed free entry and the booth attendant knew where to send race participants. At minimum most events, OCR or not, have maps to park, where to go for the start and other basic race day information. Even if it’s a hand drawn map on a napkin, it would have been something to grab on to.
We would be remiss if we didn’t bring up a major strategic mistake on the part of Atlas Race. If you’re looking to expand in the ever growing and seemingly overpopulated OCR market, it’s probably not wise to schedule the race the same day in the same city as the market leader, Warrior Dash. Without knowing the details, surely there’s a binding issue that forced them on the same day, but you probably want to avoid competing head on the same day with the big boys until you have a few sustainable years under your belt.
Arrival to Event : C
If you made it to the right park entrance, congratulations. You were then greeted with what can be described as a cluster of parking and bad decisions. No one was directing parking at all, so it was a free for all. Parking along the main road, cars barely being able to get down the main road and foot traffic impeding car traffic created a very dangerous proposition before you even stepped foot on the course. At least entry into the park was free after all.
After you fended parking for yourself, it was up to you to find out what was going on. The announcer was on only to start the heats, but unless you asked someone at the registration and bag drop tent, you had no indication of what the schedule was. It looked impressive to see all of the Atlas banners flying, but a sign board with what the agenda was would have been helpful. Luckily the booth attendants seem to be with the program, or at least they exuded enough confidence that we believed what they told us. This was where we got informed that all heats started at 8am and ran every 30 minutes with Boss and Ranger courses going at the same time. That would have been nice to know in order to have raced earlier to account for other personal stuff that needed to be done for the day.
When you have to go, you have to go. Unfortunately the port-a-potties, while seemingly plentiful enough for the “crowds”, were on other side of a muddy trail portion of the actual race course. Hopefully your spectators brought their mudding shoes as well. Also, did anyone else find a trash can for the used paper towels at the hand washing stations? Just asking.
The Course : B
If not for the rain the day and night before, no mud other than a pond and a creek crossing would have been on the course. Lucky for race organizers, mother nature stepped in and made the entire course an adventure in mud trekking.
If you like cross country running, this is your event. With the advertised 20 or so obstacles, it was more like a cluster at the front, a few sprinkled in the middle and a cluster at the end. I large majority was straight trail running on mud. You can take that one of two ways. You can be miffed that the obstacles were spread out odd and consisted of wood wall climbing for the majority, or excited that you’re endurance is awesome and trail running gives you a chance to make up for slow obstacle traversing. It would be a great course for beginners, but unless you wanted to run trails as a challenge, those looking for tougher obstacles needed to look further than Atlas. Ranger runners were also treated to two loops of the same course. Again, if trail running is your niche, rock on. But, some athletes wanted something different on the extended course, and didn’t get it. Another issue was advertised versus actual course distance. Ranger was advertised as 7 to 9 miles, but by GPS, the course only added up to a fraction over 6 miles. If you wanted your dollars per miles maximized, guess you needed to run another lap.
They did incorporate Wreck Bags at junctures that appeared to be a new product on an older OCR obstacle. A lot of OCR’s incorporate carrying something at some point, or throwing, but this is the first we saw with a specific product for the purpose. Props to Atlas for finding something new in a space quickly filling up with old ideas.
One disappointment was the consequences of not being able to perform an obstacle. Most you could just run around, or if you did “fall”, it was a 1 to 2 foot drop to grass. A lot of events dig pits and fill with water or have something that makes is equally difficult to get through or by an obstacle instead of just skipping it and running by.
Another big issue was course direction. Some volunteers gave conflicting directions on the course, especially at the loop section for the Ranger. Did runners cut the course short, or did some do more than they needed to? Know one seem to have an answer and volunteers at the wall obstacle didn’t know. Oh well.
Post Race Swag and Vibe : B+
They had music, a food vendor and wide open area for people to mill around and chit chat about the race. It was a nice laid back area and congregating point to relax after the race.
The swag was a pretty nice t-shirt that was course specific along with a huge medal, but word has it they ran out of medals and had to promise to mail them out for later finishers. 24 Hour Fitness also threw in a hand towel at the finish line, so you could wipe your hands off to grab a sandwich. They also had ample bottled water. Bravo for this, as racers were land locked in the park and had no options. Nothing’s worse than death by nickel and diming.
A nice addition was the timing chip for those competitive types. Who doesn’t like to check their time and compare their athletic aptitude to total strangers in their age groups? We do.
Someone mentioned event pictures, but if memory serves, there were few, if any actual photographers on the course. The Atlas Race Facebook page posted two pictures from the event, and that was it.
Overall : C+
Yes, this evaluation may be overly critical and one-sided, but in today’s world when families go broke eating out all week, where you spend your discretionary income and time is a big deal. Who doesn’t want what they paid for? If you’re going to put your product out there, expect some critiquing.
There is a tremendous amount of planning and effort that takes place to organize events like this, and when you’re going to locations you don’t have boots on the ground, amplify that by 20 or 30. But, if you’re trying to get a foothold in a leveling and overcrowded market like OCR, then you better bring your A game or you’ll be done in 2 to 3 years. You only get one shot at a first impression. Atlas Race got their shot, and it’s a mixed bag. They have some polish with branding and social media, but they lack substance in real life interaction. It’s hard to build a real relationship and loyalty when you’re hundreds of miles away. They missed some key opportunities to cross promote and get more participants involved and feeling like they are a part of something special. They also missed the mark on race day execution and actions they could have taken days, weeks and months leading up to the race with existing registrants. There might also be something to be said for maximizing marketing while minimizing overhead (think large events, small paid staff – or even race owners that are not paying themselves until the race makes money). Races cannot exist and succeed on volunteers that don’t share the same passion as the owners and directors, or lack of volunteers.
If racers were real about their expectations with a first time event and got in very early for discounted entry fees, then you probably got what you expected or might have even exceeded expectations. If you waited until race day to pay and skipped Warrior Dash for Atlas Race, you may have had a totally different experience.
Unfortunately we’ll be surprised to see Atlas Race back in Kansas City in the future. They might be better suited to stay local and succeed where they call home, but there’s a large learning curve to overcome now that they have thrown their hat into the traveling OCR circuit. The bottom line is if you lose money putting on events because of low turnout, you can’t survive. They won’t come back from a lack of want, but a lack of economics.