Russel Johnson is a man who lives his brand. As the co-founder of the Red Bull Champion Dash, that means that the vast majority of his time is spent designing challenges for other people to overcome. As the company prepares for its sixth obstacle course race, which takes place in Hanoi on Oct. 21, you won’t find him behind a desk in an office, but in the trenches, masterminding a course that will cover a gruelling 8km and push thousands of competitors to their limits. As he tells us: “Some people come back a little bit broken.”
What makes the growth of the Champion Dash a refreshing success story in Saigon’s entrepreneurial scene is that Russel is an enigma. He did not go to business school or university.
There was no financial backing when he and business partners Onslo Carrington and Bank Trinh poured their time and savings into a concept entirely untested in Vietnam and spent two years bootstrapping the business from a windowless room on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City in Thu Duc. And there was certainly no plan B if they failed. He’ll tell you that the values the Champion Dash hopes to instil in competitors — grit, resilience, and teamwork — have been the recipe for the company’s success.
“The team got a little worked up recently,” Russel says, referring to a curved, four-and- a-half-metre wall shaped like a half-pipe that competitors would have to ascend. “I tried it and realized once the surface gets warm, it has a pretty good grip. That was unacceptable, so I sprayed some cooking oil on it.” His team sent angry messages to him as they struggled with the increased difficulty of the climb.
“But then three people did it and all that says to me is go train harder. There’s a big difference between possible and impossible.”
Hard as Nails
Growing up in Canada, he comes from a self-described labour background where one’s work ethic is a point of pride and “aunties and uncles would first check your palms for callouses before giving you a hug at the family reunion.” After spending years working construction jobs and later as a fire rescue first responder, he eventually made his way to Vietnam in 2011, working in the outdoor rock climbing industry on Cat Ba Island, where he and Onslo (co-founder of Asia Outdoors — formerly SloPony Adventures) met. Three years later they moved to Saigon with little more than an idea.
“We actually almost didn’t make it off the ground,” Russel says of the early days and long nights struggling. “We had a US$30,000 budget in mind. That quickly turned into US$60,000 and then US$90,000, and so on.” With expenses rising, disaster nearly struck when would-be competitors caught sight of a small course they had built for team-building exercises and, underwhelmed, began pulling out of the competition.
“We lost a huge percentage of participants before the race even started,” he says. But once they began construction of the actual course, they managed to coax enough people back to pull off their first event and ultimately land a partnership with Red Bull that has allowed them to further develop their vision.
No ‘I’ in Team
Since then, the number of participants has more than doubled in three years, with ages ranging from 14 to 64 years old, though that’s not the only way in which the company measures growth. “We’ve had to slowly build the culture of teamwork, helping strangers, and being safe. I would rather see a person come in sixth place who was at the front of the pack but saw someone in need and decided to stop and give up that position for teamwork. For me, that’s what the value of what this whole thing is all about.”
The course’s obstacles, too, have grown in difficulty as competitors gain experience. Russel says: “I’ve had a level of obstacles in my head that I’ve wanted to see since the beginning, but I couldn’t introduce [them] from day one because it would have scared everybody. That’s why we’ve now started to unleash new ones like Pipe Dream and Hero Hoist. Some of these have a 75% to 80% failure rate, but that’s good. It exposes a general physical weakness in the fitness world and then we can incorporate that with trainers.”
Promoting a healthy and active lifestyle inevitably means that they have to walk a fine line when creating a fun, yet potentially dangerous, environment.
“We want to make it as scary as it can be, while being as safe as possible,” says Russel. “I’ll be the first to say that people can get hurt. People can get hurt doing anything. That’s life. But it’s not due to the failure of a design or a lack of attention to detail. People get some nicks and scratches from barbed wire and rocks. It can get a little demoralizing out there, but when you get to the finish line, that’s a hell of a feeling.”
For more information on Red Bull Champion Dash, click on championdash.com