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Obstacle course racers: The new marathoners

It's one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, corporate sponsors are getting behind it, and there is a push to one day make it an Olympic sport: It's obstacle course racing.

"It's primal. Deep down, we're all wired to climb, crawl, run and swim," Spartan Race CEO and Co-founder Joe DeSena told CNBC's "Squawk Box."


Over the last four years, races such as Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash have exploded in popularity, both in the United States and overseas. An estimated 3 million athletes crossed an obstacle course finish line last year, compared with only 50,000 in 2010.

To put that in perspective, that 2013 number is higher than all the marathon and half-marathon runners combined, according to reports.

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"There has been a dramatic shift in how people are living their social lives. They are now blending them with their fitness lives," said Jonathan Ages, CEO of the website Blood, Sweat & Cheers.

Courses span miles, with participants scaling walls, climbing ropes and hoisting oversized tires. Tough Mudder's obstacles include electric shocks, Spartan contestants throw javelins, and Warrior Dash participants leap over fire. Many make use of mud.

Tough Mudder endurance race in Henley-on-Thames, England, in April.
Tolga Akmen | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Tough Mudder endurance race in Henley-on-Thames, England, in April.

Thanks to the growing popularity, Obstacle course racing has emerged as a big business. Advil inked an endorsement deal with Tough Mudder in 2013 and Reebok has partnered with Spartan Race to become the title sponsor of its events, as cross-fit sneakers gain more traction among racers.

NBC Sports recently signed a multi-year deal with Spartan to bring its brand of obstacle course racing to television. NBC plans to broadcast six races annually, giving the sport added exposure as it tries to go mainstream. (NBC Sports and CNBC are both units of NBC Universal.)

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"Cottage industries are being built around the sport," said DeSena, who added that everything from shoes to climbing rope to gyms are being customized to meet the growing demand of obstacle course racers.

DeSena said he hopes to one day make obstacle course racing an Olympic sport, a possibility that could be considered if Spartan can expand successfully to 42 countries. It currently operates in 17.

"Skateboarding, snowboarding—ping pong was a fad. They are Olympic sports now. This doesn't feel like a fad, this is here to stay," DeSena said.

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