This September, I had the opportunity to race at one of the most unique adventure races I’ve ever done. I guess that the vast majority of adventure racers in North America have never heard of the Atmosphere Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race (MOMAR), which is a crying shame, because it’s a fantastic experience that needs to be on everyone’s race bucket list. What’s critical to understand is that the MOMAR isn’t just a race – it’s an experience across an entire weekend. Where the majority of ARs focus on keeping costs low for both racer and race director, MOMAR tacks in the opposite direction and invests heavily before, during, and after its race. The results speak for themselves:
- MOMAR sells out 5-6 weeks after registration opens… NINE MONTHS BEFORE THE RACE
- Close to 700 people sign up for the MOMAR, with a nearly 50-50 split between newcomers and veterans
- MOMAR has been running for 17 consecutive years (with 37 races in that time span), making it the longest-running AR in North America
- MOMAR has become a part of its region’s DNA, with tremendous local support
- MOMAR has become multi-generational, with previous racers’ children now getting on the winner’s podium
Now if you’re a race director, any one of those five results should set your mouth watering. 600 racers? Sold out nine months in advance? 17 consecutive years? These things just don’t happen in adventure racing. In our sport, we’re lucky for a race to stick around five years. That’s why after racing at the MOMAR, I knew I had to pick the brain of its race director, Bryan Tasaka.
The race takes place in the small town of Cumberland, out on Vancouver Island, in the province of British Columbia. So unless you’re a local, you’ve got a bit of travel to get to the race location. Recognizing that racers are giving up at least two days to participate in his race, Bryan and his team make sure your time is well spent. The Friday night registration is held at the Riding Fool Hostel with music, free beer, team photos, and swag. It’s clear to every racer upon showing up that this race is about having fun. The race itself is a fantastic production–PA systems at the start and finish, a massive inflatable arch for racers to finish under, drone photography, MCs hyping up the racers, tons of locals and families cheering on each racer, manned CPs with plenty of water and food, etc. The level of production is akin to what you might see at a marathon in a large city. The course itself is a wonderful paradox – accessible, easy orienteering, plenty of volunteers on the course, but it also features the most technical and difficult mountain biking I’ve ever done in an AR. Cumberland, BC is world-renowned for its mountain biking trails, and MOMAR takes full advantage of this, sending its racers off massive 10 ft. drops, across monster roots and rocks, and plenty of mud. My team found itself completely humbled as 16-year-olds and racers in their 60s flew past us with smiles on their faces. And then there’s the after party… MOMAR’s after party has become almost as famous as the race itself. Held at a mountain resort 30 minutes away because it’s the only venue big enough to hold over 700 racers and volunteers, the party starts with a huge buffet and goes until 1am when the live band can’t keep singing anymore. MOMAR’s after party is a critical part of the overall experience, as it’s where marriages have begun, life-long friendships created, and new teams forged. MOMAR doesn’t settle for just being a race, and the results demonstrate that Bryan has found a great formula for success.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Bryan Tasaka, race director of the MOMAR.
ARHub: Bryan, can you walk me through the history of MOMAR? I just don’t understand how a race is able to persist through 17 years. That’s got to be a record, at least in terms of consecutive years a race has been run.
Bryan: Yeah, sure. So like most adventure racers, I was inspired by the Eco-Challenge, as well as the Sea2Summit races. There was a Sea2Summit held out here in BC at Whistler and I volunteered for a few years. Until that race, I was your standard 10K runner and I had never really gotten out on the trails. But I was so impressed by the Sea2Summit that shortly afterwards, when I heard that a local guy was looking to put on an AR, I volunteered my time and skills (I was a cartographer at the time). We met at his outdoor gear shop along with two other guys who were interested. We formed a partnership and decided our first race would be in Duncan, BC. Before the race even took place, one guy dropped out. It was totally grassroots, no-frills, and I think we made around $700. But word spread and we scheduled three races in 2001. At that point, the two other partners dropped out and I assumed sole ownership of the race series. I continued to conduct races, going up to as many as five ARs across multiple venues in one year. From 2004 to 2007, I left my full time job and focused solely on directing races, so on top of MOMAR, I owned the GutBuster Trail Running Series and took on contracts with BC Bike Race and the Edge to Edge Marathon. In 2008, I got a full-time government job that was event planning focused, so I had to scale down. Oh, and I got married and had a couple of kids too. So time became a much more valuable commodity. I consolidated down to two races in Squamish and Cumberland, and then down to just Cumberland. And the Cumberland MOMAR just kept going year after year, getting better and better. Now we’re selling out five to six weeks after registration opens, with about 700 racers signing up. We’re financially solid now, but there were years that we definitely lost thousands of dollars. But now it’s a second source of income and I can hire a good contract crew which makes a world of differences in execution. I also have a great team of sponsors who have provided amazing support. And I couldn’t achieve this success if it weren’t for my sister, Janine, and my friend Lisa — the core crew that executes the race.
ARHub: Wow, there’s so much I want to unpack in what you just said. Let’s peel apart that first year. What was the difference between you and those other three guys who quit? Why did you persist?
Bryan: Well, I’m definitely passionate about producing events. I also have a background in project management and over the years I’ve managed a celebration site for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, as well as many large music festivals. I just love producing big events. I can create maps, I like marketing and managing brands, engaging on social media, etc. A lot of these skills have been sharpened through the 17 years of executing MOMAR and managing festivals. Even when we lost money, it’s been a lot of fun. Getting that positive feedback from racers on how much fun they’ve had, and all the friendships that have been made along the way has made it worth it even when it’s been exhausting. There’s something really rewarding about knowing you’ve created something people like that gives them a ton of great memories.
ARHub: Let’s talk about that consolidation. How did you measure the health of your organization and races so you knew when to expand vs. consolidate?
Bryan: Well, with the closure of the Eco-Challenge and Sea2Summit, a lot of racers moved on. I knew we had a good product, our after-parties were always great, our venues were fun, the races were super accessible. But 150-200 racers didn’t make the races financially sustainable. I think obstacle course racing definitely helped us regain some ground, as it started bringing people back into the woods, getting them comfortable with mud and hard work instead of just running on a road.
ARHub: 150 to 200 wasn’t sustainable? Most ARs are happy with 50 people showing up.
Bryan: Yeah, but we spend a lot more than most races because we aim to provide a full weekend experience. If you’re just expecting folks to show up, race, then maybe get some snacks or a quick BBQ after the race and then ‘see you next year‘, then sure, you can make the race work with 50 people. But I can tell you after doing this for 17 years, if you don’t spend money on your event, if you don’t invest and provide people with a real experience they’ll remember, you won’t see them again and you won’t turn a profit. 50% of MOMAR’s racers are return racers. And they’re young. Our average racer is in their early 30s.
ARHub: No kidding? I’d say the average adventure racer is later 30s, maybe even in their 40s.
Bryan: Not for us. Things like the after-party, the social media engagement, the quality production of the race really helps draw out a younger crowd. We have a much longer average customer lifespan thanks to bringing in racers when they’re younger, so that they return year after year. On top of that, our race is more appealing to female racers. 45% of our racers are women. I think that’s because of the accessibility of the race, not just logistically, but also in terms of easy adoption to a sport that most people are intimidated by. We also have marketing efforts that emphasize that anyone can finish the MOMAR, not just extreme endurance athletes. So we see groups of friends doing the race together, and people who have the MOMAR on their bucket list. We’ve been in Cumberland since 2001, so we have a really strong base of support here. Cumberland is a cool little destination town with awesome pizza and taco shops, great coffee shops, bike stores, breweries, and black bears walking down the main street. We also do the race at a good time of the year. The end of September avoids most other races so we don’t compete with all of the mountain bike and trail races. And for those who take MOMAR seriously, they have all summer to train for it.
ARHub: I can’t get over the fact that you’ve got 600 racers doing an adventure race. That kayak start was crazy. How on earth do you pull that many people?
Marketing. The majority of our marketing efforts are through social media and leveraging our mailing list. After 17 years, I’ve got a mailing list of more than 4K and a solid following on social media. But a lot of it is word-of-mouth thanks to the consistency of the race. We’ve seen impressive results from our social media content and we invest in paid social media ads. We’ve also invested in a high-quality video, which really allows new racers to get a feel for the MOMAR. A good race video can sell your race, as it makes the entire event come to life and it’s easily shareable. So you can imagine someone who’s already done the race trying to recruit their friend by showing them the video as a way to explain the whole thing. People are visual, you can’t expect them to just read a detailed explanation of the race and “get” it. We spend money to make sure our website looks great (it does), that our graphics are good (they’re beautiful), and that images are frequent so that it tells the story of the race. You have to keep telling the story over and over again. People are giving us a weekend, so we owe it to them to give them a fantastic experience.
ARHub: The guiding mission of ARHub is to help spread best practices by reducing the difficulties both racers and race directors face. What can we learn from the success of MOMAR that’s scalable across the entire sport?
Bryan: Race directors have to understand the importance of spending marketing budgets wisely. I remember reading this article about the birth of the first obstacle course series, Tough Mudder. The article talked about how the guys who started it spent $2K on the website and permits and put the other $8K on Facebook ads. And they ended up getting a massive following, which put them on the road to the success they have now. Race directors can’t just expect to focus on setting courses, getting permits, and just throwing the race info up on an uninspiring website and expect racers to show up. You’ve got to inspire, create a narrative, and promote that story to the broadest audience–and that all takes effort and money. In the weeks leading up to the MOMAR, we spend a lot of our advertising budget to boost Facebook ads. We run multiple giveaways and promotions that reach 14K+ people. If we didn’t boost the ads, they would have only reached a few thousand people.
If you’ve got a great brand with a solid website, professional race photos, interesting social engagement, and you’ve got a strong product in terms of venue, race production and course design, then you’re setting yourself up to have a chance at success.
ARHub: Okay, this has been awesome. Last question, I ask everyone I interview the same thing. If you were to become an Adventure Racing consultant, what would be your specialty? What should race directors be calling you to learn more about because you’re the master?
Bryan: I think my strength lies in building a complete experience for racers. Memorable experiences. There are plenty of race directors who are better course designers or better at managing race logistics but when you look at the MOMAR not just as a race – but as an experience from start to finish – from Friday night check-in right up to Sunday morning at 1am when the band stops playing, I think you’d have a hard time finding a better overall production. So if a race director wants to know how they can improve the full racer experience, hit me up!
So there you have it folks. There’s a lot of gold nuggets of information, so if you’re a race director, I recommend you bookmark this interview and reach out to Bryan with your specific questions about how to improve your races so that you’re delivering a memorable experience to your racers, because that’s what keeps bringing them back. Here are the key takeaways:
Racers: Put MOMAR on your bucket list. Unless you attend a huge AR with lots of production value like Cowboy Tough, you’ll likely never experience something as fun as the MOMAR.
Race Directors: Beware the “field of dreams” fallacy. Just because you built it, doesn’t mean they’ll come and race. It’s easy to fall into the trap that because you’ve built an awesome course or fought extra hard to get the permits in time, that everyone who’s interested in your race will automatically register. If you’ve got a good product, you owe it to yourself to let people know about it. And that can take money to do effectively. Invest early, invest often. Get your story out there!
Oh, and seriously, after-parties. It doesn’t have to happen at every race, but if you want to build a strong tradition, nothing helps quite like a few brewskies and a band…