Cerulean Sports Group is a sports marketing agency specializing in the creation, brand development and production of athletic events within the realm of running. Its mission is to inspire and encourage fitness, and provide a more appealing, more engaging experience for runners. The Group founded Hell Run, “the most kick-ass mud run on earth,” which is held in eight cities nationwide and growing. Hell Run is a mud-crawling, obstacle-conquering, beer-drinking run to hell and back. Its 5K course features 12 obstacles and offers participants mud pits and obstacles with music and beer waiting at the finish line.
We recently sat down with Nathan Barnhart, founder of Cerulean Sports Group and race director for Hell Run, to ask about how he does it.
Q&A with Nathan Barnhart, Founder of Cerulean Sports Group
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED CREATING MOB™ EVENTS?
Before founding Cerulean, I was a vice president at a commercial real estate branding firm. Essentially, it was in the start-up stages, so I was fortunate to see firsthand what it takes to start a company. One day out of the blue, I received an email from Muddy Buddy and it reminded me of when I ran that event ten years ago. That was sort of the “a-ha” moment. I remember going home that very day and “pitching” Elaine, my fiancée, on the idea. At the time, I’m pretty sure she had no idea what I was talking about, but she said she believed in me and that we would make ends meet one way or another. I know it was a big risk and words can’t explain how thankful I am to her.
I went in blind. Creating events was something that really interested me but I needed to do some research. I knew Fleet Feet Sports put on great events, so I volunteered for them over and over. Mark Colpoys, the vice president of marketing, was a great mentor to me and helped me learn as much as possible. Beachathon was our first event and then we started Hell Run. Our blueprint continually gets stronger and our events are getting better and better—I feel like we’re just getting started.
HOW BIG IS THE STAFF THAT HELPS YOU MANAGE ALL OF THE HELL RUN EVENTS?
By design, our staff is small. Full time it’s just me, Elaine, and our Labrador, Brooks. Our business model is focused on outsourcing everything we can to keep overhead low. We bring in key personnel for each event, and many of our events are powered on volunteers.
For example, we get help from non-profit volunteer groups like sports and club teams and in exchange we donate to their cause. This works really well for both parties.
HAVE YOU SEEN AN INCREASE IN REGISTRATION NUMBERS?
Our numbers have been steady at about 3,000 to 4,000 participants per event. As we continue to grow, we feel we can finesse the marketing to get the numbers we need. Our priorities are to make sure the events go off without a hitch before we do big marketing pushes.
JUST HOW IMPORTANT IS SAFETY IN MOB EVENTS LIKE HELL RUN?
Safety is paramount in our events. That’s why we work with established architects, engineers, medics and construction companies. It’s very important to have frequent water stations, safe obstacles, and paramedics throughout the entire course. The more events we organize, the more we realize how important safety is.
"A majority of an event’s success starts with branding...We’ve built an identity around Hell Run."
HOW DO YOU DIFFERENTIATE HELL RUN FROM THE OTHER MOB EVENTS THAT ARE SPRINGING UP?
The biggest misconception is that you can throw out a few obstacles and get an event to catch on. A majority of an event’s success starts with branding, which is what we like to do. We’ve built an identity around the Hell Run and we know we need to have the best medals and t-shirts. We also give out capes, which no one else is doing.
We have a nickname generator on our website and our registration form asks if participants want that nickname on their bib. So you see people running in capes with “Captain Kick Ass” above their bib number, which participants love. And we make sure participants are entertained—we bring in names like Coolio and Tone Loc to our post-race parties.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MOB PARTICIPANTS AND MORE TRADITIONAL RUNNERS?
I think the Hell Run participants are primarily out there for fun, whereas 5K and 10K runners tend to be more competitive.
DO YOU SEE A LOT OF SOCIALIZING AROUND HELL RUN EVENTS?
Absolutely—nobody runs alone. Mob events are a big social scene. They grow and grow through word of mouth and social media.
DO YOU INCORPORATE FUNDRAISING IN EVERY EVENT?
Our participants use our events as a vehicle to raise money for LIVESTRONG...we’re hoping to raise $50,000 this year. When we first started out, we sponsored a bunch of different charities, but then we decided to focus on LIVESTRONG and they’ve been great to work with.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN USING ACTIVE’S RACE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE?
We have been using it since the beginning. It’s the best. People call us every day to switch but we aren’t interested. Considering all the reports and tools that ACTIVE supplies and the fact that we love our account manager, I would never leave. We have a really strong relationship with ACTIVE.
“Considering all the reports and tools that ACTIVE supplies and the fact that we love our account manager, I would never leave.”
Founder of Cerulean Sports Group