JIM MEE was trekking in the mountains of Peru, often under overcast skies. One day the clouds parted — and as the weather cleared he scribbled a note that would change the course of his life.
“I was in my tent throwing ideas around in the hope that one would fly,” said Mee, recalling the expedition in 2004. “That’s where the concept of an urban adventure really came to life.”
He returned to Britain, envisaging playgrounds for extreme sports in towns and cities with potential for mass participation. In July 2004 he hosted his first event, a 60-mile assault course in and around Edinburgh, and Rat Race Adventure Sports was born.
“Edinburgh has cliffs, hills, sand and sea and we used all of them,” said Mee, who sold his house to fund the £100,000 venture. The event spread to Manchester, Nottingham, Cardiff and London as part of the annual Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest series, which attracts 25,000 competitors. Entry costs of up to £110 are subsidised for charity fundraisers.
Rat Race is hosting 18 events in 2014, including ultra-marathons, coast to coast trekking, biking, mountaineering and Thames river racing. The company is based in Clifton Moor, York, and has 24 staff. It ran up sales of £4.7m in 2013.
“I see adventure everywhere, whether it’s Battersea power station or the Highlands of Scotland,” said Mee, 36. “Bringing the wilderness into the streets has captured people’s imagination.”
Mee was born in Malta, where his father, an RAF navigator, was stationed. His mother was a chiropodist. The family moved air stations several times, though Mee spent most of his childhood boarding at St Peter’s School in York.
In 1996, he went to Bristol University to read law. While there, he began pilot training with the RAF, who part-funded his degree. “Three days a week I was sticking on a flying suit and becoming a pilot part-time. I loved it. Flying was my other world.”
His younger sister joined the RAF but Mee’s experience as a student brand manager at university changed his mind. He was employed by Red Bull to promote the drink in sports clubs and, on graduating in 1999, accepted a marketing job.
“I saw what my life would be like in the air force,” he said. “The opportunity with Red Bull was appealing, different, so I decided to take a chance, knowing it might lead to a business of my own.”
He cut his teeth on big-budget events management. Posted to Scotland, he developed a love for the outdoors. “I was working at all-night raves in Glasgow, then at ski resorts in the Highlands. I had a lot of fun.”
In 2003, he left Red Bull to go adventuring. He spent a year climbing in the Alps, Russia, Alaska and South America, where the idea for Rat Race Adventure Sports was formed.
The company has grown in line with the popularity of mass participation adventure sports. Among its more popular challenges is the Rat Race Dirty Weekend, with 200 obstacles across 20 miles, and the Mighty Deerstalker, a muddy six-mile off-road run, now in its eighth year.
Rival organisers moved into the market, most notably with Tough Mudder, which started in 2010 and is now an annual 10-mile obstacle course.
Mee is unfazed. “Good competition is healthy for us and the customer,” he said. “The growth in the market means there’s enough for everyone and it drives in more participants. We are catering to 65,000 people a year. I’d love to double that.” He is also aiming to make a profit from the retail arm he added three years ago, having struggled to shift stock. The showroom and website sell branded kit such as footwear, rucksacks and nutrition packs.
“Retail felt like an obvious diversification,” said Mee. “We knew people would trust our judgment with the type of kit they would need to take our challenges.”
But it was a steep learning curve. “We bought a lot of the wrong stuff, which ate into our funds.” He was able to restock with more relevant brands such as Adidas and North Face, using capital from events.
Mee invests heavily in health and safety. “Things go wrong, the weather can be bad, people get injured, so we need to be properly prepared. Rather than take on volunteers we employ a team of medics and safety professionals.”
The cost, with insurance, is high but worth it. “There have been events where we’ve toiled in epic conditions. It really takes it out of you and the team but at the finish people respect that more than on a sunny day. They have been through the mill and there’s that collective feeling of, ‘Wow, we really pulled that off’.”
Mee lives in Skelton, North Yorkshire, with his partner Dannii, who is expecting their first child.
He advises entrepreneurs to “keep it simple. Try different things but ultimately if you have a product that works, stick to it. And keep an eye on your cashflow.”