Survival of the Fittest is having it's farewell event this October in Nottingham. It's a shame to see it go as it has been a fantastic event over the years. We hope to be able to send a good group of Mudstacle bods for shenanigans and a video! We took the chance to have a chat with Rat Race founder Jim Mee about why he has decided to call time on Survival.
Hi Jim, Thanks for taking the time out of an incredibly busy schedule to speak with us about Survival of the Fittest's swansong on October 5th. Survival of the Fittest has been one of the most popular events here at Mudstacle for a number of years,with great memories of day night races and fun laps around Wembley. Why have you decided that this October will be the last Survival event?
Well, I don’t think anyone would disagree that Rat Race has been and continues to be one of the major innovators in the adventure challenge sector. For a long while, that meant obstacle running. Survival was doing OCR before OCR existed and we innovated loads with these events – not least the urban setting. But also, Survival was the first event of this type to use the wave system and it was (to our knowledge) the first ever obstacle running series. We created obstacles that no-one has ever replicated and we created classics that many others replicated (!). In general, over 12 years these events have acted as many many peoples’ ‘gateway drug’ to more obstacle-based endeavours and indeed many other endurance events. But like anyone will tell you who has experienced a sticky dancefloor in a nightclub at 2am, you don’t want to be the drunk guy minesweeping drinks and still looking to pull when everyone has gone home. We want to bow out now, pre-kebab. Survival has had its day and we (and the market as a whole) has largely moved onto other things. We want to continue to innovate and lead the crowd, not follow it. At the 10k obstacle racing level, Survival innovated and led much of the way for a long long time. Many followed and many left and in my opinion, many left not really having added much to the market either. We’re now moving onto other projects as we always have done and Survival has been a brilliant (and very long) chapter in Rat Race’s story. All good books have a happy ending though and we look back fondly. We’ve chosen when to pull the curtain down and it’s all on our terms. We do it knowing the time is right and the future is full of very shiny new stuff, which people are already loving. Sorry for all the clichés in there!
Are there plans at Rat Race for a new event to replace SoF?
Yep definitely. But not with obstacle races. Many folk will know that RR has never really identified with being a part of an ‘OCR’ scene - we’ve always ploughed our own furrow and our events reflect that – they are Rat Race events and not ‘OCR’ events or otherwise. We have brought a whole host of new events into the arena in recent years, all the while operating the UK’s largest portfolio of adventure events alongside Survival. The Man Vs series is a brilliant example of where folk are coming with us, graduating from OCR and returning to the outdoors, with a whiff of obstacles but with far more adventure and trail flavours introduced to these events, too. Likewise our multi-day Ultras and multi-sport events are going gangbusters and our international Bucket List series has been a real joy for us to bring to market. So yep, there is plenty to replace Survival. Just less obstacles and more ‘big adventure’ I would say.
When you ran the first SotF back in 2008 did you know how big and succesful it would become?
We got an inkling that first year (2008 I think!) that we were onto something. The growth was fairly meteoric and back in 2012 – 2014 I think it was where we had 12000 people lining up for an assault on Battersea Power Station, I was thinking, yep, this is definitely what we envisaged…! It was nuts. The venues got crazy and the action was always really really unique. That was the time when many of the other players were entering the market. It was a bit like the wild west – some good operators emerged but plenty of cowboys too! How many events can say they closed down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh so folks could throw themselves off an articulated truck, with 1000s of tourists cheering on?! For me, that sort of thing was real success.
How did you develop the event over the years, as you at one stage included elements such as archery?
Yep the very first event had an archery activity in a nod to Robin Hood. We were in Nottingham after all. It was OK with 1000 folk (just!) but once we started getting to 2000 folk, 5000 and beyond, that sort of activity just was not suitable. There was definitely a period there it was all about shock and awe – raising the game each time with ever more elaborate creations. ‘Building cathedrals out of matchsticks’ I used to call it! The urban flavour was pretty key in the earlier days and we got to grips with huge structures in scaffolding, stacking shipping containers, incorporating famous landmarks like the Millennium Stadium, Man City Stadium, Wembley, Battersea Power Station. We also got interactive and had rave sections in old warehouses plus loads of funky water sections including 3 different white water courses. (The storm drain in Brent, adjacent to Wembley, being a highlight or a lowlight depending on which way you looked at it!). Ultimately, we ended up I think one year in Wembley with a 10k course with over 100 obstacles. Frankly, that was too much. It was too much for the course, folk really didn’t want or need that much content and it got to the point where more sometimes most definitely wasn’t more. We then focussed on developing high-impact ‘big ticket’ obstacles such as the stunt jump with our massive airbags, our Big Cheese slide, the Big Rig technical rig, classic Wall of Fame (at every event since the beginning) and other staple calling cards, such as the haybales immediately after the start line, the rope climbs rigged off telehandlers and the floating cargo nets rigged off these vehicles also. Survival is and was built out of a lot of ‘classic’ kit. Some of those obstacles we had right at the outset are still going strong today 12 years on and that has got to be the hallmark of something that folk could get behind.
Working with Men's Heath seemed to be a great partnership that raised the profile of the event, how much do you feel they contributed to it's success?
A lot. We worked with them for 10 years and we developed a very good partnership. They looked after the media work and the sponsors and we produced the event. It was very symbiotic. We all became great friends too. They had had their fill a couple of years ago and moved onto other things – fair’s fair. No hard feelings – it was just the end of an era in that respect.
SotF became a very popular competetive event from it's fun beginings, even being featured a number of times on C4. Why was the decision made to move away from the competetive element in the last few years?
I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that RR has never really been about the competitive strands. It’s not in our DNA and as such, it always felt a little counterintuitive to us, having to deal with a fair amount or post-event ego-mongering and admin that simply always comes with that element of things. It’s just not our jam. So we binned it.
What is your best memory of the last ten years at SotF?
I think going up in the construction elevator at Battersea, standing on top of one of the chimneys and looking down at a sea of ants running around the place with all of London spread out before me, as the floodlights came on and folk started to gear up for the night race, was pretty special. Switching such an iconic venue like that on for something so unique, with all of its planning permission foibles, venue liaison, licensing and other challenges was tricky. No-one had ever approached them and asked ‘Er, can we run around your massive derelict building site with over 10 000 people and build some obstacles in there?’ In fact, no-one had done much in there for half a century. We even had to come up with a way of issuing everyone with a hardhat to go into the building itself due to the regulations and the chance of falling debris from the colossal brick structure. But the reward was great. That type of event was a truly innovative first. Rat Race’s roots were in the city – our first ever events were about bringing adventure sports out of their traditional environments in the hills and wild places and putting them on the streets of the city. Survival underlined that approach in spades. But taking an unused urban landscape, filling it with people, wrapping a 10k course around it and filing it with a sports event – that was something very special indeed. I was and still am very proud of those Battersea events. I’m also especially proud of how much folk drank afterwards at the after party inside the power station – they were indeed legendary drinkers those early Survivors!
We used to love the day / night SotF events, did you ever consider bringing these back?
The night version was in fact brought into the London events as we physically could not squeeze any more folk into the day-time waves, so we extended proceedings into the night. It was always exciting as dusk fell and the lights came on. These events then took on a persona all of their own. They were very different to the daytime equivalents. Especially with the quarter inch of ice that would form on some of the water features as those November temperatures plummeted!
Are there any plans for the final event to say goodbye and celebrate the last 10 years?
We will do a special edition ‘Last Ever” tee. And I will raise a glass.
The obstacles developed over the years and sunflower spread on slip walls became a thing of the past will you bring out some 2008 obstacles this year?v
The Wall of Fame will always be there! No sunflower spread though. Far more vegans around now than back in ’08. It would not go down well. [Ed's note: Fairly sure you can get vegan spread!]
Do you think there is still a market in the UK for an urban OCR event?
No. If we did, we would be doing them still.
Will we see the end of any other Rat Race favourites as you look to create more adventure and bucket list events?
Yep definitely. We are innovators. We always have been. The Bucket List is a fantastically exciting project for us. Closer to home, we are enjoying foraging back out to those wild places from whence we came – the fringes of the British Isles are being ratified faster than a Rat up a drainpipe! We’ve seen major action at Land’s End, all over the Highlands, we’ve crossed the water to stage challenges on islands (with more to come on various islands – watch this space!) and a whole host of international plans on the horizon. It is a very exciting time for us and we are relishing the fact folk are loving these new events and coming with us on this adventure journey. It does mean that some old favourites will go, though. But happily, it seems that for many who were with us in those early years and trusted us on Survival, are still there with us now, albeit doing different events in different places.
Thanks for your time Jim, any last words for our readers?
I would like to finish by thanking every single person who has come and done a Survival. There’s nigh on 300 000 of them out there and you have trusted us in summer, winter, up high, down n’ dirty, in the water, swinging off stuff and generally running amok throughout the Land (and on a few foreign shores, too!). You are the reason Rat Race has become what it has become and Survival was indeed the backbone of our business for many years; and where many many folk cut their teeth in obstacle running and in their wider challenge endeavours. We salute you and we look forward to welcoming you to many, many more RR events. And to the chap who worked for Nottingham City Council, who drove the Tractor and ran the park crew in Nottingham, he was there every year we were for 10 years. Having delivered over 500 events in my career, you work with a lot of people. There are some folk that just stick in your memory and I remember him fondly. We worked together, drank some tea together, shared the odd yarn and joke together. He could not have been more helpful and after each event, I would load him up with leftover T-shirts and other swag. In general that sort of dynamic underlines to me why I love working in this industry: It’s a hell of a lot of work but when you can go back to a location every year for 10 years and just ‘click’ with the guys who work there every day of the week, then we’ve got something right. It was an absolute pleasure to have delivered these events with good people everywhere helping us to do so. With good people enjoying them too.
One more cliché: Survival may not have survived, but the Survival spirit lives on at Rat Race forever….
We would love to see a sea of yellow wave farewell to one of the gamechanging events on the UK Obstacle racing scene. Rat Race have given us a 25% discount code that will be valid for the final Survival of theFittest event this October Just use SUMMER25 and join the fun!
Since this interview was conducted, we have heard the sad news that Survival Lakes will not be going ahead. Jim has this to say on the subject:
Unfortunately Survival Lakes has had to be cancelled this weekend as the venue is literally underwater due to very heavy rains that are continuing. It is totally out of our hands. We can’t park cars, build an Event village or even a course. It’s pretty gutting all round. Onwards to Nottingham for the last ever!