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For-profit fun run craze south of Boston attracts crowds, criticism

Above, runners tackled the Shape Diva Dash in Marshfield in September. Top, scenes from this month’s Electric Run at Gillette Stadium.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Above, runners tackled the Shape Diva Dash in Marshfield in September. Top, scenes from this month’s Electric Run at Gillette Stadium.

On a sunny Saturday last month, thousands of women descended upon the Marshfield Fairgrounds in a sea of tutus, cowboy hats, and neon and leopard prints, to take on an obstacle course featuring monkey bars, colorful seesaws, and a climbing wall.

Among the participants at the Shape Diva Dash were the “Diva Warriors,” a group of 18 friends and relatives, ages 13 to 44, decked out in hot pink running shorts with zebra print side trim, black knee-high tube socks, and tank tops.

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The Diva Warriors’ leader, Jessica Pastrana of Dracut, said the $55-per-person registration fee for the women’s-only event was worth the opportunity to reconnect with friends she hadn’t seen since high school. She presumed a portion of the entry fee went to charity, but said she did not know how much, or to which charity. But it didn’t matter.

“We’re just doing it for fun,” Pastrana said.

Teammate Lily Ducharme agreed.

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“If it goes to charity it’s great, but [if not] it’s not like, ‘No, we’re not going to do it.’ ”

Shape Diva Dash is among the rapidly growing number of 5K fun runs, obstacle races, mud runs, and endurance activities put on mostly by for-profit, out-of-state companies that bill them more as social events punctuated with concert-like celebrations, rather than traditional road races.

Most of the companies align themselves with national or local charities. But critics say that because the companies are private, they are not required to divulge how much of the proceeds go to charity. And the organizers of traditional nonprofit road races say the rapid growth of fun runs, muscling into an already crowded local road race calendar, hurts their fund-raising efforts.

“These fad runs are sponsored by national companies. . . . They only have so much money and they basically put it into these national, larger events where they can get more attention,” said John Childs, one of the founders of the South Shore Road Race Guide , and the Massachusetts representative for the Road Runners Club of America . “Say you were looking for a race in Quincy next weekend, I bet you would find three or four races the same day in bordering towns. . . . Some of my participants and some of my sponsors could go to another race, so it does cut into my fund-raising.”

Nonprofit industry tracker Running USA estimates that approximately 2 million people participated in these nontraditional events in 2012, up from just over 1 million in 2011, and over 800,000 in 2010, positioning them in the fastest-growing sector in the sport, said spokesman Ryan Lamppa.

Participants pay from $50 to $200 in entry fees to trudge through muddy obstacle courses, wear zombie costumes, or get sprayed with rainbow-colored cornstarch in events tailor-made for sharing on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Industry experts estimate the mud/obstacle course niche alone generated about $250 million in global revenues last year.

Many of the event organizers donate a portion of revenues to national or local charities. Tough Mudder , for instance, supports the Wounded Warrior Project , having donated over $5 million. The Color Run , started in 2012, has partnered with The Global Poverty Project and boasts raising more than $600,000 for local and national charities. But the bulk of entry fee revenue for this emerging industry is geared toward profit. The most popular endurance events currently pull in annual revenues averaging between $30 million and $50 million, Lamppa said.

Other fun runs like Ruckus , coming to the Marshfield Fairgrounds Nov. 2, and the Electric Run , held early this month at Gillette Stadium, have grown exponentially over the last couple of years alone.

Shape Diva Dash , now in its third year, takes place in cities around the country. The event is sponsored by Shape Magazine and organized by Adventure Fit , a Colorado-based sports-marketing company.

Sharon Cutler, event manager at Adventure Fit, challenges the notion that for-profit fun runs hurt nonprofit road racing. Fun and obstacle runs, she said, appeal to a wider demographic than the average 5K, 10K, and half and full marathons, by being less intimidating to a wider age range of individuals with varying fitness levels.

“For a lot of people, they wouldn’t do a 5K because they would think running three miles is super boring. But because we have an obstacle, it’s super fun,” Cutler said. “I don’t know how many marathon runners we’ll get, but we’ll probably get people off the couch. We get them up, moving, and out of their comfort zone, and it can be completely life-changing for them.”

Cutler said 6,200 women, ranging in age from 12 to 81, registered for the Diva Dash in Marshfield at $55 to $75 a head. The company partnered with nonprofits Boston Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the Plymouth Rotary Sunrise Club to be part of the event’s volunteer staff, paying them a donation of $50 per person. The event raised $2,450 for the charities, Cutler said.

For many participants at the race, including the Diva Warriors and the 14-member Wild Flowers team, colleagues at a Lexington-based biopharmaceutical company, a donation to charity was not a factor. The women, donning neon running skirts paired with leggings and peace sign-adorned tank tops, ranged in age from 27 to 55.

“We discussed [charity] and, because we all work in a pharmaceutical company that deals in rare and genetic diseases, we would’ve preferred to have done something like that — giving to a rare disease or something like that,” said group leader Carla MacMillan. “But it wasn’t the deciding factor, and we wanted to do it anyway.”

People who sign up for nontraditional races tend to do it for the fun, social aspect of it, said Rick Jakious, chief executive director of the advocacy group Massachusetts Nonprofit Network . But for those who want to know exactly where their money is going, Jakious suggests research.

“I think it’s very important for participants to understand the fundamental difference between a fun run, or recreational opportunity, and an event put on specifically to support a charitable cause,” he said. “We welcome, as a sector, new ways to engage people in getting to know an organization and learning about it. These fun runs are a great way to learn more about these charities and connect people to the charities. But there’s a buyer beware aspect to it.”

As with any rapidly growing, profitable venture, scam artists are bound to crop up, said Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America. The organization has blacklisted at least one race organizer who, on more than one occasion, canceled events with only days to go and kept registration fees under a “no refunds” condition outlined in the fine print, Knaack said.

“A lot of them will put ‘no refunds’ on there, so it reverts back to a buyer beware situation,” Knaack said. “It’s hard to prove that they had the intent, or not, to put on the race.”

State law requires that certain for-profit ventures raising money for charity register with the state attorney general’s office as commercial co-venturers, meaning they would have to report the results of a charitable campaign. If the entity is encouraging donations go directly to a charity, it might not have to register.

However, it is unclear how many of the for-profit companies that put on fun runs in Massachusetts must register as co-venturers because their fund-raising structures are so varied, according to the attorney general’s office.

Wild Flowers member Michelle Parker, a trainer and manager at a corporate fitness center, said some of the criticisms lobbed at for-profit fun runs might be deserved, and that the genre is so trendy, it could very well collapse on itself. But, she added, the events are fun and encourage fitness.

“If you’re a purist, you wouldn’t want to do this kind of race,” said Parker, sporting a pink running skirt, carnival beads, and mismatched tie-dyed knee-high socks. “You can see from being here, it’s all ages, all fitness levels — you’re not going to see that in a marathon.

“I think it’s a positive thing, but it will probably die out like any other trend. But why not ride the wave? Enjoy it.”

Visit www.boston.com/marshfield to see a gallery of photos from the Shape Diva Dash and the Electric Run.
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