Jurica Barac worked his dream job as a sports marketing manager for Red Bull after being signed to the brand as a BMX athlete.
While working at Red Bull, Barac had his own businesses that he ran and began his MBA process. The pinnacle of managing major events on a weekly basis, his studies and life in general literally drove him to burnout. How could it be that you felt so exhausted when you were doing what you loved and getting used to it?
In 2017, a friend of Barac's approached him with the idea of Highlander, and life hasn't been the same since. Highlander is recognized as the world's first and largest global long-distance walking event series. Since its launch in Croatia it has grown to over 100 events in over 20 countries throughout the year. What makes the series great is the simplicity. There is no race, just you, the necessities and nature on excursions of 60 miles in five days or 30 miles in three days.
Barac spoke to Muscle and Fitness about the origins and growth of the series since its inception. The Highlander CEO also spoke about how the beauty of the series lies in its simplicity, the impact it has had on him and others, and how quickly it continues to expand.
A friend of mine who did events with me as a freelancer. He came up with the idea for Highlander and I supported him from day one. We wanted to organize something that is simple and like an outdoor festival, but something that requires some stamina, like 100 kilometers or 60 miles in five days. He managed the project without any marketing at the time.
We founded Highlander in Croatia in 2017. Without any marketing, 70 people came to the event. We charge a $250 registration fee for a non-existent event. Of those 70, 10-15 were true hikers. Five days and five nights and it rained. People were wet, angry, hungry and it was rough. At that time it was only 60 km. About 30 percent of the people couldn't continue, but the rest finished the race, and they were happy, crying and drinking beer at the finish line. We liked it and said we would do it next year. The next year 150 people came.
Courtesy of Highlanders
I left Red Bull in 2016 to develop my company. From there we wanted to get bigger, see how we could develop the routes, give some merchandise to the participants. What I loved about Highlander was that there was no televised coverage, no sponsors, no road closures, no VIP guests, or all those extra things to worry about. And people love it. They enjoy nature, the friendships they make. They bring their dogs and children with them. When I saw the potential I stopped most of my projects and focused full time on Highlander. We started licensing and called on our friends in Europe to start licensing there. Everyone was happy with the concept and we sold four stores for 2020. We were very motivated because we wanted to build a global brand.
Courtesy of Highlanders
From attempt to triumph
Then COVID struck. With all the time and resources we put into it, it all seemed doomed. About 80 percent of our business was lost during COVID and it was a huge struggle. Every day someone calls you and tells you that the deal is up and we should wait until next year. What happened is that the mountains were never closed and it was recommended to go outside in nature. Somehow we managed to open 10 new markets this year. Although everyone was in a difficult situation, we received very positive feedback from the organizers.
Later that year my boyfriend was in New York having breakfast. He saw a guy with a kettlebell around his neck. He asked the guy about it and it was Spartan's owner, Joe [De Sena]. He told my friend about Spartan and my friend told him about Highlander. After hearing it, Joe wanted to meet us. We had a call and he was super happy with our concept and it was a big milestone for us when they wanted to invest in our company. They wanted to make Highlander a global series.
At the beginning of 2020 it looked like we wouldn't be around long and in six months our fate had changed. We continued what we were and in 2021 we hit 10 more markets - most of Europe, most of the Middle East and then we made plans for the US. Finally, we created the first US event in January of this year in Big Bear Lake, California.
Courtesy of Highlander Adventure
Take primitive life
We really wanted to make it primitive, so just the core values. You have fire, water, air and binding. There are no phones, no fancy restaurants, suits, or cars. Everyone looks the same and you have the conversation. When you are with people for so long you start talking about life and you have so much free time that you start talking about everything. There is a super strong connection between people and you will see people at the finish line hugging and crying. We see many people repeating the same Highlander event.
That's not the case with Ironman because you're not returning to the same race - you want to finish a different one. You are there, concentrating on yourself and not talking to too many people. Here it is the other way around. We wanted to make it a group experience. People will take their dogs with them. You will put a small bag on the dog that has its food. That's how we wanted to do it. That's why we call it an adventure and not an event. It's all an adventure.
Courtesy of Highlanders
The different phases of the Highlander experience
We have about 15 percent of the hikers who come and are 100 percent ready because they hike every weekend. A large part of the group is the normal person who works every day and is out in nature maybe once every other weekend. These are the people who are very curious and don't know what to expect. We call it an adventure because there is no GPS tracking, it's 100 kilometers long and it's not small. People come ready and the first day is very tough. We always put the longest distance first and you can see the exhaustion in people.
On the second day you wake up in nature and realize you are under the stars. There isn't the feeling that you have to do this or that and you're already on the mountain. You probably don't have a signal on your phone and you're starting to relax. You even enjoy the pain in your muscles and start this recovery process. People ask why we don't do one day adventures and that's because after the second or third day the stress release and this recovery process starts. You're kind of born again. After the third day you stop thinking about the pain because you are super relaxed and you realize how powerful nature's effects are on the body. You sleep like a baby, wake up early and you feel the difference in your body and mind.
This is Highlander's secret sauce - you fight, but you get happier. It's hard to describe. What struck me is if you're in your town you might have a plastic bottle and you know if you throw it away someone will pick it up and there's no blame. When you're in the mountains you might want to throw something away, but you'll feel guilty because there's no one to pick it up. This feeling of protecting nature is so important. These adventures also boost your confidence because you feel like you can take on anything after completing an adventure.
Courtesy of Highlanders
What's next for Highlander?
When you get to the mountain, you change your frame of reference. You realize you don't need 10 pairs of shoes, 3 cars, or 10 hats. All you need is a good bed and a warm shower. You are resetting your mind and my goal as well as the company's goal is to definitely reach as many people as possible just to give them the Highlander experience to motivate them to do something for their health that Protecting nature and sharing positive energy. I'm sure that in the next few years we will be on every continent, in 35-40 countries and over 100 events throughout the year because it's spreading so quickly and we're getting such positive feedback from people, media and other sponsors . It's very easy; Let's motivate people to get back to nature, teach them how to behave in nature and take care of their mental, physical and emotional health. We want to reach everyone with this Highlander momentum