Competitive races are changing, and they may never be the same. Thanks to a group of small, innovative companies, traditional 5Ks are now muddy, obstacle-filled, and sometimes even zombie-infested. Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, and Run For Your Lives are just a few of the leaders in an industry that's become increasingly tough to define, and one type of event is gaining momentum.

A TV-inspired run
I recently spoke with Red Frog Events, the company responsible for Firefly Music Festival, and most famously, Warrior DashBased in Chicago, Red Frog is introducing what it calls a "TV-inspired 5K," Epic Fail Challenge. The event appears to capitalize on racers' desire to reenact television shows like Disney (DIS -1.62%) and ABC's Wipeout and Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, on Viacom's (VIAB) Spike TV.

According to Rachel Brinda at Red Frog, the company's "strategy is to create events that [its] employees would like to participate in [themselves]." Whether it's Epic Fail or Great Urban Race -- a scavenger hunt inspired by CBS's (PARA -1.25%) The Amazing Race -- the goal is to "bring those unique experiences to the masses." 

Debuting in New York City this May, the event's organizers anticipate "several thousands" of entrants. Warrior Dash, for example, typically hosts between 8,000 and 25,000 racers per location. And while just one Epic Fail is currently on the calendar, Red Frog says, "expansion is always a possibility."

It's not the only one
Epic Fail isn't the only one, though. ROC Race, which calls itself the "original gameshow-inspired 5K," has been active since 2011.

ROC Race, Instagram.

It has nearly 30 cities on its schedule this year, and the company's debut run had an estimated 6,000 racers.

Insane Inflatable 5K, meanwhile, is visiting more than 15 cities this summer, and its officials told me they "hope to average around 2,000 to 3,000 people per event for [their] first year." By my guess, revenue of $200,000 to $400,000 per race is a reasonable expectation for each member of this trio, considering entry prices typically range between $50 and $75.

How big is this industry?
Some call it active entertainment, others say obstacle race, while the acronym MOB (mud-obstacle-beer) is also used to define this industry. Regardless of the terminology, though, it's booming.

As ObstacleRacers points out, The Outdoor Industry Association reported an 85% jump in extreme event involvement between 2006 and 2010. In terms of dollars, The Huffington Post pegs the industry's annual value at roughly $250 million. SportsBusiness Daily estimates it has over two million participants per year, and includes at least three events that generate revenue of $50 million or more.

The Color Run. Image via Visit Tuscaloosa, Flickr.

The key question
There's no doubt the obstacle race industry is expanding. But much of this growth is attributed to mud runs like Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder, not niche events, which is what I'd call Epic Fail ChallengeROC Race, and Insane Inflatable

The key question for them, and other non-mud runs -- The Color RunElectric Run, and Bacon Chase are just a few -- is: Will runners return after their first race? We'll know in the next few years, and the answer will indicate where this industry is headed.

In my humble opinion, though, moving beyond mud runs is a step it must take. Diversification can benefit the long-term health of any market, and in this case, over-reliance on one type of race could be ill-advised. That's why even if these niche events eventually miss the mark, it's still promising that companies continue to innovate.