The Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun is also known as “The Mother of All Obstacle Runs”. Continental GripWorld talked with Simon Huff, Project Manager for the German edition of the run. We asked him about the challenges of plotting an obstacle course that will have 10,000+ runners splashing through mud and covered in soap suds – and why he needs 20,000 car tires.
Simon Huff, you’re one of the organizers of the Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun in Germany, so the first thing we have to ask you is: have you ever actually taken part and, if so, what does it feel like when you emerge from a mud bath?
As a matter of fact, it feels great. It’s fantastic fun. I must admit I’ve never taken part in the German edition of our obstacle run. As project manager I have my hands full just getting the event organized and I’m responsible for making sure everything runs like clockwork. But I’ve lined up with the rest of the field for our obstacle runs in Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands. And of course that always involves a nice refreshing mud bath (laughs).
That’s not something that many marketing managers are called upon to do in the line of duty − because you actually work for the Fisherman’s Friend brand.
Yes, but it’s vital to have experienced the event from a runner’s point of view. It’s only with that experience under my belt that I can really do my job as project manager and trigger improvements, because sitting at a desk and making plans is one thing, but pushing yourself in an obstacle course race is quite another. Out on the course, shots of adrenaline are constantly being pumped through your body – a sensation that gets countless runners coming back to the next Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun for more. Because there’s no doubt about it: events like this are addictive – in a positive sense. And I don’t say that because I want to market the runs; I’m speaking from experience. Another big magnet is the flair surrounding the events and the big crowd of high-spirited people all in one place and looking forward to sharing an adventure, an achievement. That’s something very special, because in this fast-moving world of ours, shared emotional highlights like this can be few and far between.
There’s a lot of hype these days surrounding ultra-tough foot races. Some people opt for obstacle course races, others run in the Arctic or across deserts at temperatures of 70°C. What is it that makes people want to suffer like this? The Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun, for example, features obstacles like the “double waterfall” where the runners get soaked with ice-cold water.
You have to distinguish between ultramarathons and the world of obstacle course racing. Ultra-runners have something to prove to themselves and are out to push themselves to the limit and beyond. And while only very few people in the world will ever enter, say, a desert race, just about anyone at all can take part in obstacle course races like the Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun – and set themselves their own personal challenges.
Obstacle course races are more popular than ever, with lots of organizers around the world. What is it that attracts people to these mud baths?
Well, I can only speak for our own event, of course, but I’d say that a sense of being part of something bigger – being part of a team − plays an important part. People who maybe don’t otherwise see themselves as particularly sporty or carry a couple of kilos of extra happiness around with them, are unlikely ever to sign up for a marathon. But with obstacle course runs like ours, you’re more likely to register as a team. And no matter how sporty you are – or aren’t − everyone can do it. If one person is mad keen on obstacle course running, they will persuade a few friends to have a go, and suddenly people who would never have thought they had it in them, find themselves clambering over logs and wading through water splashes. And then they all cross the finish line together. It’s not about personal bests. It’s more about having fun with your friends and getting across that finish line together.
Runners like to dress up as anything from Vikings to policemen. You have live bands playing at the warm-up session. The atmosphere is more like a huge party than a sporting event…
Everyone can decide for themselves whether they treat the run as a giant celebration or a sporting challenge. Of course there are obstacle course runners whose sole aim is to be first across the line. They’re likely to be so focused that they barely notice the music or the supporting program. But most of the participants want to be entertained and revved up by our unique start show before squaring up to the challenge and simply enjoying themselves.
Last May you staged the run at the famous Nürburgring racetrack and hosted the world’s biggest breathing meditation session. So how does meditation fit in with dressing up as a Viking and splashing around in the mud?
This year’s motto is “Breathe. Focus. Go!”, which of course aligns neatly with the Fisherman’s Friend brand, above all in a sporting context. Because the lozenges and their menthol content help runners to take a deep breath, get focused and then race away together. The breathing meditation session helped everyone to pause and reflect before the run, become aware of their breathing, focus on their personal goal and feel inspired to get there. To set a new world record we needed at least 1,000 participants – in the end we had almost 2,000!
In what is a growing market with an increasing number of organizers offering obstacle runs, are special events like the meditation session one way of setting your event-brand apart?
Sure. As “The Mother of All Obstacle Runs” we have a long and proud heritage, which means we can draw on a great deal of experience. And by combining that experience with new elements and obstacles, we can serve up a string of new highlights for our runners. Think, for example, of our unique start shows, where we have live music and more than ten thousand people share a party atmosphere as they get in the mood for the run. But what we also find important is that every single individual can master these runs and choose the challenge that suits them. That’s why we offer three different distances: six, 12 and 24 kilometers.
Are you under pressure from the competition? After all, series like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race or Strong Viking and your Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun are all targeting the same clientele.
Of course we keep an eye on what’s going on around us, but it’s a measure of our self-confidence that, here in Germany – an important market – we’re known as “The Mother of All Obstacle Runs”. That’s because here we were the first on the scene. Back in 2007 we triggered the hype with 2,000 participants in the Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun – and today we’re at something like 10,000 runners. But yes, there is pressure from the competition. The main thing is to set yourself apart in terms of content, and to keep on offering the runners a unique experience.
Every year sees the arrival of new and spectacular obstacles in almost every series of runs. You recently had runners drenched with water by snow cannons and chased them through a bubble bath…
We are constantly on the lookout for new ideas and structures to act as obstacles because ultimately we’re out to serve up new thrills for our community every year. At the same time, work on the courses never stops either, as we naturally keep an eye on what the competition are doing or our colleagues at the Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRuns in Switzerland and Italy. But that said, we are definitely not interested in getting into some kind of “race” to create the toughest obstacles. Of course our runners approach the event with a fair amount of sporting ambition, but with enough willpower anyone can complete the course – and the fun factor should never be forgotten.
How do you set about creating obstacles like the “Matscho Matscho” mudhole or the “Rubber Luck” installation that has the runners clambering over 20,000 car tires?
We have an event builder who is tasked with coming up with new obstacles every year – and with making sure they are structurally safe. The emphasis here is always on safety. On top of that we always try to tie in the surroundings of the venue. In Cologne, for example, we start the run beside Fühlinger Lake, where the participants have to swim and dive. So the surroundings can also provide us with a natural obstacle. And at the Nürburgring with its association with car racing, it was only natural to build an obstacle out of used car tires.
Have you ever built an obstacle that proved too tough and had to be withdrawn from your repertoire?
No. With us there’s no such thing as an obstacle you can’t overcome. But like with most outdoor events, exceptional circumstances can arise that will change the course of an event. Like this year at the Nürburgring: On the very day we’d planned the Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun it started to snow – and this was May 4! We responded to the plummeting temperatures by eliminating a large pool of water that the runners would otherwise have had to cross. We didn’t want to be responsible for people running in wet clothing in such ice-cold weather.
The Fisherman’s Friend company not only sponsors the series but actually called it into being in the first place. From a marketing point of view, what were you aiming to achieve by creating the StrongmanRun?
With our slogan “Taste Your Strength.” Fisherman’s Friend challenges people to find out what they’re really made of. With events like the Fisherman’s Friend StrongmanRun, we offer a fun way to discover what it’s like to leave your comfort zone when the going gets tough. The unique spirit of these events is founded on a blend of fun, craziness, togetherness, goosebump moments, and a fantastic atmosphere. What we’ve succeeded in doing here is to build this blend into an event that matches our brand.