United States Obstacle Course Racing (USOCR) Association was once a bright shining star in the industry promising to unite the sport, elevate safety concerns and offer an excellent insurance package for race organizations. The organization promised it would create a national governing body in which the sport could flourish under in the United States and possibly even Canada*. Co-founders Sam Mansfield and Mark Ballas offered at first the answer to many of the growing pains of the burgeoning sport. Over the last couple of years, this bright star has all but fizzled out and, USOCR has become an organization fraught with false promises and lies. To understand the rise and fall of USOCR, it is important to look at the last couple of years of the organization.
USOCR – The Beginning
USOCR started to reach out to individuals in Spring/Summer of 2013 including this writer after I published, Time For an Offical Governing Body on Dirt in Your Skirt. The first to reach out was Mark Ballas and after that the first of many lengthy conversations with Sam Mansfield. At first, this writer, as well as many other influencers in the industry were excited about the thought of having a body to unify the sport. The hope for many was it would weed out the frauds and elevate safety levels for the sport. It was in 2012 that the industry was riddled with Groupon scams selling entries for races that didn't exist, dangerous obstacles such as a ladder on two-by-fours as monkey bars, the race that only had coconut water, and other questionable race day operations. Those serious about the industry saw a need for SOMEONE to help make sure this did not continue.
USOCR looked like it would be that organization. On January 6, 2014, USOCR officially announced it's intentions, sending out press releases to those in the community. It was shortly after that at the end of January that the first “summit” was held with industry insiders. This summit was attended by top racers, race organizers, and OCR media. It was an intimate meeting with about fifteen participants. Manfield spoke of his vision, ESIX insurance about their insurance program and everyone left feeling hopeful about the future of USOCR.
Over the next couple of months, those who attended the first conference waited for the action items to be implemented, instead another summit was held in April 2014, this one comprised top athletes, some race organizers, OCR Media, Timing Companies, and the heads of all the major community groups in the United States. After the second conference, everyone walked away still hopeful for the future of USOCR. Paul Jones of New England Spahtens penned this after attending the event:
USOCR aims to standardize safety requirements (which is not the same as standardizing obstacles, I hasten to add), and provide minimum requirements for entry to their program – and they are working with the right people to do this. From ESIX insurance, to Home Depot, to STAT Medical and more.
OCR will change. OCR will have to change. I hope that this conference is the first step in that happening, because if it is – then the right people are driving it, and as a community leader, it’s clear we have a voice in that.
It almost sounded too good to be true, or as the say beware of a wolf in sheep's clothing. Everyone left on a high, but some cracks had started to form in the USOCR model.
USOCR Begins to Crack
After the first two meetings, it seemed that USOCR was poised to elevate the sport. Leaders around the industry waited for the next step and the programs described in the summits to officially launch. The industry waited and waited and waited. Each conversation with Mansfield promised, something big coming, and when pressed about which race organizations were on board the answer was always a vague “we are working with a number of races” a follow-up to this would always include, “we aren't under contract yet so we can't discuss which race companies those are”. This pattern continued for months.
During this time, Mansfield flew around the country meeting with several people who he tried to lure into his organization with promises of large paychecks and fancy offices. None of these offers turned into jobs. Instead, they faded into the fray with the same vagueness as his race partnerships.
Mansfield did eventually hire Valerie Smith one of the leaders of the Georgia Obstacle Racers and Mud Runners to work initially as HR Director then later that role was changed to Director of Events. Over the next few months, Smith and Ballas would continually assure many of us of the work that USOCR was working hard and would be launching soon. The months continued to pass with no further developments from USOCR.
In early December, Mansfield sent an email announcing December 31, 2014, launch date as well as several documents regarding the organization, including the business plan for the company. Within that document, the first of many red flags was included. Below is an excerpt from the business plan highlighting the key partners.
At first look the list was impressive. Many notable companies were seemingly on board. The first tip-off that all was not what it seemed was Mud & Obstacle Magazine, which had closed shop a month earlier. This led to a greater investigation and opened a pandora's box of lies.
When Mud Run Guide reached out to Adrian Bijanada to ask if he had ever been involved with USOCR, he said,
“Other than phone calls and attending a conference OCR World Championships and OCR Gear have never been a part of USOCR.”
When we spoke with Bob Holm formerly of The Battlegrounds said,
“After we met with Sam he copied me on all group emails as a partner but we never were. [I] thought it was odd and made me more feel like not trusting the guy even more.”
Julie Johnston, the owner, and founder of Camp Rhino said that Mansfield called her and “asked for quotes for setting up obstacles” but indicated there was never a partnership and neither party ever committed to working together. As we reached out to more of the companies listed in this document, the same sentiment was echoed over and over from Extreme Field Day, Goliathon, BattleFrog Series, the now defunct Atlas Race and more. A pattern of lies was emerging from Mansfield and USOCR. After speaking with these organizations, it brings up the question, how many other “key partners” were part on these lies and false promises.
Only two of the races listed as partners have actually been associated with USOCR – Terrain Racing and Bone Frog Challenge and both only in the capacity of using the insurance.
This was a the first major red flag for the organization. The second was the launch date. According to an email, Mansfield sent on December 8, 2014, to the OCR media and race companies it stated,
“Good morning all,
I'm with our web team wrapping up the website this week. We're running free marketing for all of our partners in the OCR space. Please feel free to send photos of races, products, gen media packages, etc. Vector formats preferred. Dimensions and website link (for your review) to follow shortly.
Also, we would like a brief paragraph from each of you about your company: goals, culture, etc. We'll be posting this info on an “About” page after you all vet the site prior to the launch on December 31.
Any questions, comments, concerns feel free to reach out to me directly.
All the best,
Sam Mansfield, CEO
United States Obstacle Course Racing”
On December 31, 2014, we emailed USOCR to get a press release regarding the launch date and the new website. The email was sent to Mansfield and Ballas. Ballas replied,
Happy New Year Margaret!
Thanks for the email. Not sure where 1 January was mentioned, however USOCR will go live in January. It would be way too difficult to orchestrate such a launch given the holiday season while most folks out of the office during this time. Sam and I will be working on our press release within the next week or so… We appreciate your continual interest in USOCR and look forward to an awesome 2015 season!
The second red flag was firmly in place. This was when many began to question the integrity of USOCR. Many in the industry still wanted the organization to succeed but began to question if this was the right organization to take on such a prominent role in the young sport of OCR.
Over the next year, Smith and Ballas would continue to keep the OCR world updated with developments within USOCR but because of Mansfield's request of secrecy neither were ever able to divulge more than a vague, “we have things in the works” or “we haven't gone anywhere”. This continued and in late 2015 an email was sent about a third summit, this summit never took place.
USOCR Launches (Sort of)
It wasn't until January 14, 2016, the general public got its first look at the USOCR to decide for themselves if OCR athletes and events in the United States are ready for a national governing body, and also whether USOCR is the right choice for the sport of OCR.
The day before the launch a teleconference was held with leaders across the OCR industry to preview the ambitious project USOCR had launched. During the hour-long conference call Sam Mansfield, CEO and co-founder of USOCR, lead the presentation outlining the development process, company goals and previewed the website. Mansfield described his plan including a USOCR storefront, Prepackaged obstacles for race companies to rent, race discounts for members, insurance coverage at races, and what intrigued most was the reimbursement for members if they cannot attend a race they previously were registered.
During this teleconference, Mansfield mentioned some race series specifically by name that were “on board.” A few were notable players in the OCR world. Shortly after the teleconference, Mud Run Guide reached out to three of the most notables ones Mansfield mentioned. No representatives from these races were on the original call.
BattleFrog Series – “I've never heard of them and will ask the team to investigate.“
Rugged Maniac – “Not true at all. We've never even considered being a member. In no uncertain terms, he [Mansfield] cannot use our name to promote his business.”
Terrain Racing – “We choose to use USOCR’s Esix Insurance at our events, but currently there are no other resources or programs provided by USOCR that benefit the athletes or race directors.”
For those who had watched the development of this organization, the meeting sounded like a broken record. Many of the same promises still unfulfilled years later. One person was notably missing from this teleconference, and no mention of his name was mentioned during the meeting, that was Mark Ballas, who for years had been the face of USOCR to much of the obstacle racing community.
Having attended the first USOCR summit back in 2014, Mud Run Guide had a front-row seat for the twists and turns USOCR over the past few years, so our interest was piqued when we received a message from USOCR founder Mark Ballas less than 24 hours before the January press conference:
“I am no longer affiliated with USOCR or Sam Mansfield. I want to ensure that my name is never associated with this organization ever again.” – Mark Ballas
Mud Run Guide has known Mark for a few years outside of USOCR as the owner of Green Beret Challenge, he being a member of US Military Special Operations forces and has always been a credible guy. His no-nonsense personality has never been one to mince words. Mud Run Guide spoke at length about his departure from USOCR, and it became abundantly clear that this was not an amicable split at all. Based on emails, it is clear that Mansfield drove his former partner Mark Ballas from the company.
Ballas went on the record for the first time to speak about him leaving USOCR.
“From my perspective, everything sarted to change last spring (2015). I noticed a significant shift in Mansfield’s demeanor towards the project and myself, his partner. Around May/June of 2015, I was monetarily forced out of the company from an equitable partner perspective, and my $50k investment returned to me. The concern on the part of Mansfield was my ability to meet “capital call” as more money would need to be invested into the company. I might add, this was their selling point. According to Mansfield, “we don’t want to see your equity depreciated”.
As the co-founder of USOCR and a part of this venture since its inception, I was absolutely concerned about losing my equity in what I had been working so hard for and believed in. I spent 3 years working two jobs, trying to grow my own race company, devoting countless hours to USOCR, while trying to maintain my financial stability.
During this period, I reached out to a business mentor of mine and he indicated there were very simple business processes that make provisions for business partners in these exact situations. He walked me through how this worked and reaffirmed how this could be handled in a very simple fashion. He concluded our call with this last bit of advice, “Mark, if your partner is not willing to do this, this is not someone you want to be in business with”.
Fast forward a few months, Mansfield continued to slowly push me away, with less and less inclusion surrounding the daily business. What started out as daily phone calls over the course of 3 years, turned into a weekly update on things. If my military background taught me anything, it was patience, in situations like this.
The final straw was during last September, USOCR insured a brand new event. This went against all the previous sanctioning and insurance discussions since the companies formation. Original documents stated “incumbent events must have one year of validated history of events, with a measurable amount of success.” If I recall correctly, the insurance provider required the same. The program was sold on the premise that all the races being insured by USOCR would be of the highest caliber. This would ensure the insurance carrier limited their exposure and potential claims within the association. I was out of the loop the last few months on most discussions, so maybe something had changed.
However, being the author of the first few drafts of the sanctioning requirements, I know it was in there originally. This new race never took place and a cover story was developed by the race organizer about some “high winds” destroying several obstacles, etc.… this resulted with the race being postponed by the race organizer. The truth is, the course was never finished. I was on the ground and investigated the entire course, there was zero wind damage. These are the exact reasons why USOCR was developed in the first place.
There was a confrontation with the race organizer about his dishonesty. The race organizer then approached Mansfield and apparently didn’t like how I handed the situation. That was it. That was the ticket that Mansfield was looking for to finally push me out of the company.
On October 2nd, 2015 I was placed on a “90-day probation”. This was Mansfield’s attempt to assert his benign dominance over me. Apparently, he was more willing to take the word of someone he didn’t know over the man who stood by him for 3 years. I defended him when everyone warned me about him. I was too close to the situation to really see the lies, empty promises, etc…
The “90-day probation period” came and went with zero contact from Mansfield. I never expected to hear from him again. He got what he wanted, but to go on the phone during his conference call and tell the world we had an “amicable split” is complete bullshit. He knows it and so do I.
The following day after the conference, I was called by several people and the burning question was, “Mark, why would you walk away from your 3-year project you worked so hard for?” My rebuttal was pretty simple, “Yes, why would I, on my own accord, weeks before the launch of the company, walk away from my own venture?” …
As I stated in my formal resignation letter, “I do not care to be named co-founder, previous partner or anything of the sort. Quite frankly, I am ashamed to have been your partner.”
The full content of Ballas's resignation letter dated January, 15, 2016 is reproduced in full with his consent:
This letter serves as my formal resignation from USOCR, United States Obstacle Course Racing, LLC. The route you consciously chose in conducting yourself has brought discredit upon you, the organization and the OCR industry.
Your ridiculous “probation” period power trip instituted against me has come and gone. No surprise that you avoided contacting me to tell me to my face that you no longer were interested in working with me. A face to face, man to man conversation would have been warranted, I believe I’ve earned it. The approach in pushing me out monetarily and finally with the cowardly Muddy Brute catalyst has brought us to this point. We both know what the real story is there and your intentions for quite some time.
I spent 3 years of my life working on this venture with you, supporting and defending you across the OCR spectrum and quite frankly, only to be duped by you. When everyone said to watch out for Sam Mansfield, he speaks from both sides of his mouth. Several others contacting me about your inconsistencies and empty promises. Or receiving a certain email touting “military experience” to a potential client, I continued to support & defend you (minus the latter, which is an entirely separate issue). The deception and less than ethical behavior actually makes me embarrassed for you. Money and a swift tongue might buy you things in this world, but the most valuable things in life cannot be purchased with any amount of currency. Those things surround integrity, honesty and respect; of which you have lost all of mine. Your conduct has not only affected me, but everyone close to me; my parents, Shanna and many others.
Why me Sam? What did I ever do to you in my life that warranted this? I am a pretty humble dude that spent most of his adult life, along with other great men providing that protective blanket, so you and your family business can continue to thrive. I don’t ask anything in return, but I am not some insignificant used rag to be tossed aside once you’re finished with it. Clearly the level of respect you have shown me over the past 7 months is a sign of your indignant personality based on greed and self entitlement.
The sad part is, everyone around me and the predominance of the OCR industry called this one a long time ago. They saw you for what you are. I was too close to you and too blind with passion for what we set out to do in 2013. There was a significant tectonic shift in USOCR about 7-8 months ago and that is when I knew this was nothing more that about money, not creating something amazing and sustainable. I have my suspicions on what took place, but it really doesn’t matter at this juncture. Two things foster within us as we grow older, wisdom and experience. I may not have led on to what I knew, but make no mistake my friend, I watched and listened intently.
I am sure you will continue on your path in your attempts to conquer the OCR industry, however keep in mind who kept your reputation afloat this long in the industry, and the person that introduced you to all of the influential people in OCR to include some of your current clients. I spent 3-years of my life assisting in the development of the company to depart on my own accord weeks before the launch of USOCR? Mark didn’t leave the company “to focus on the Green Beret Challenge”; Mark was forced out of the company.
I recall one of our last conversations which took place on Tuesday, September 29th when you said to me, “our bond is stronger than anything, no one or no thing will get in between us” … 3 days before you pushed me out of the company. I was your greatest fan and a significant conduit to the industry for you, and you threw me away. There comes a time in all of our lives when we learn valuable lessons, how we have treated others and ourselves. One day you will reflect and realize this. You call yourself a man of faith, take a moment and reflect on the story of Judas… not too far off.
I do not care to be named co-founder, previous partner or anything of the sort. Quite frankly, I am ashamed to have been your partner. I will leave you as you left me; “I am available by email.”
Future of USOCR
The number of clients working with USOCR is unknown, but estimates range from ten to twenty race organizations. Most of which are very small local events. In the process of this story, Mud Run Guide received more than one phone call from race directors about their less than positive experiences with the organization and Mansfield. These included false promises and one race director who had signed on to use the USOCR insurance, only to have Mansfield not return his emails and force the race director to find alternative insurance right before the race.
With Ballas gone and varied experiences from race organizers the cracks within USOCR have become chasms. Recently, Mud Run Guide found out that the second most visible person at USOCR, Valerie Smith, was let go from her position at the company. Shortly after her departure the USOCR Team was dissolved as well. With the two most vocal advocates for the organization gone as well as the departure of the team, USOCR has fizzled into nothing more than a string of broken promises and pie in the sky dreams.
We reached out to the once supporter Paul Jones of New England Spahtens, who attended the second conference as well as the teleconference he said,
Two years ago, a group of OCR industry professionals, elites and enthusiasts left a USOCR conference in Georgia expecting a revolution in the OCR space – and if they had delivered on those promises two years ago, this would be a very different world. But they didn't – and two years later, they launch a website and program that doesn't change much at all, if anything, for pro's, elites or enthusiasts.”
While many industry insiders would still like to see some governance over the sport of obstacle racing, it seems that USOCR will not be the company to do that. Of course, the possibility remains the phoenix could rise from the ashes, and they could regroup, however, given the history, this seems highly unlikely.
Instead, an alternative is already taking place at the local level. Currently, the best hope for the industry, at least among smaller companies, is through initiatives like the #RACELOCAL movement started by New England Spahtens and now adapted by GORMR, Cornfed Spartans, and Lone Star Spartans. It is these groups working at the micro level that is overseeing the development of the sport for the future. It at this micro-level that the industry has seen companies work together and show a bright future for a cohesive industry.
As the sport of Obstacle Course Racing continues to grow and age, companies come and go. The future is wide open for the sport but doesn't look to include USOCR.
*Mansfield mentioned off hand during the teleconference on January 14, 2016, the possibility of expanding and USOCR governing the USA and Canada.