“It takes a special breed of person,” said Janice “JJ” McClean as she watched veterans of NBC’s popular obstacle course show “American Ninja Warrior” and “Ninja” hopefuls scale a 14-foot-3-inch warped wall, an intimidating concave structure that mimics one on the show. Then they took turns walking tightrope-style across a slackline — essentially a strap tied to two poles. Next, they competed to see who could hold a handstand the longest.
“It’s just a typical night in here,” McLean said of CrossFit Loudoun and Northern Virginia Ninja, which she co-owns with Casey Passafaro. In its first year, NoVa Ninja has become a destination for people who seek more than a standard weightlifting or cardio challenge.
The idea to incorporate ninja-style training came from Passafaro, who wanted a place to train to get on the show — a goal she accomplished in May, when she and two other coaches competed on “Ninja” Season 8 in Atlanta.
“I didn’t in my wildest dreams think that Ninja could support itself as a business,” Passafaro said. “I thought that CrossFit would be a great way to support Ninja. Now, the Ninja definitely supports the CrossFit.”
Obstacle course racing, or OCR, is a $500 million business, with the number of races increasing by 2,300 from 2014 to 2015, according to Running USA. “American Ninja Warrior” has seen applications to compete rise from 1,000 in its first season to 70,000 in its eighth.
A British man who goes by the name Mr. Mouse was the first obstacle course race creator with his Tough Guy competitions in the late 1980s. OCR caught on in the United States within the past decade. Competitors typically pay about $50 to $150 to slog through mud, climb nearly vertical walls, feel like they’re being waterboarded, wade through ice baths and even receive electric shocks, all while covering several miles, often as fast as they can.
“I think there are a lot of forces driving this phenomenon,” said Scott Keneally, a self-described OCR addict and writer and director of “The Rise of the Sufferfests,” a 2016 documentary that studies such races. “Part of it is the narcissism epidemic — the rise of social media, the ability to brag and look like a hero on Facebook. That, I think, is an entry point for a lot of different people, but for other people it’s an excuse to get into shape in a fun way.”
But the industry didn’t grow from about 50,000 participants in 2009 to about 5 million in 2015 based purely on fun. OCR appeals to primal fears — and overcoming them.
For example, participants in 2017 runnings of the Tough Mudder, which started in 2010 and attracts 10,000 to 15,000 participants per event, will tackle Augustus Gloop, which “requires participants to climb up a 12-foot vertical tube while water is pouring down on top of their head,” said Nolan Kombol, Tough Mudder’s senior director of product design.
Why would someone not only willingly try that, but pay to do it?
“People want to conquer their fears and do something that they maybe thought they never would have done,” said Tanya Prewitt-White, a clinical assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
For Keneally, fear is a major motivator.
“I was freaking terrified in a way I hadn’t been in memory, and when I got through that, I felt amazing,” he said of his experiences.
That would be the adrenaline rush, says J.R. Fuller, a 46-year-old Burke, Virginia, stay-at-home dad who had to overcome a fear of heights to compete on “Ninja” Season 8.
“You get a real adrenaline rush when you push yourself, when you force yourself to get up there and try it,” Fuller said. “Even though you fall 20 times, you get back up. You keep trying.”
That physical-mental combination is at the heart of OCR’s appeal. Joe De Sena, co-founder and chief executive of Spartan Race, which has 180 events a year, says Americans’ boredom is driving OCR’s success.
“I finally figured out what human beings want and need, which is to get outside, start breathing heavy, to sweat, to do all the things that we don’t do anymore,” De Sena said. “We have such easy lives, where everything is right at our fingertips, that you just don’t feel alive.”
The teamwork involved in completing a course is also an appeal. Scaling a 20-foot wall at a Warrior Dash, another OCR event, often requires a physical and psychological boost.
“It’s a no-judgment zone as well,” Prewitt-White said. “Everyone is really trying to support and help one another.”
Ashburn resident Verne Dickerson, 36, made it to the top of NoVa Ninja’s Warped Wall recently and savored the accomplishment before heading down. He said he sometimes is off his game and can’t reach the summit. When that happens, he refocuses and tries again.
“Anybody can have the physical ability to do it. A majority of it is mental,” Dickerson said. “You become stronger as a person as a whole.”