Jurica Barac was working his dream job as a sports marketing manager for Red Bull after having been signed to the brand as a BMX athlete.
While working at Red Bull, Barac had companies of his own that he managed, and he was beginning the process of pursuing his MBA. The culmination of managing large events each week, his studies and life in general literally pushed him to burnout. How could doing what you loved and become accustomed to make you feel so exhausted?
In 2017, a friend of Barac approached him with the idea of Highlander, and life hasn’t been the same since. Highlander is billed as the world’s first and largest global long-distance hiking event series. Since its start in Croatia, it’s grown to over 100 events throughout the year in 20-plus countries. What makes the series great is the simplicity. There is no racing, just you, the necessities and nature on excursions of 60 miles over five days or 30 miles over three days.
Barac spoke with Muscle and Fitness on the series origin and growth since its inception. The CEO of Highlander also discussed how the beauty of the series is in its simplicity, the impact it has had on him and others, and just how quickly they continue to expand.
A friend of mine, who was doing events with me as a freelancer. He came up with the idea for Highlander and I supported him from Day 1. We wanted to organize something that was easy and like an outside festival, but something where you needed some endurance, like 100 kilometers or 60 miles in five days. He was leading the project at that time without any marketing.
We started Highlander in Croatia in 2017. Without any marketing, 70 people showed up to the event. We put a $250 registration fee up for a non-existing event. Out of those 70, 10-15 were actual hikers. Five days and five nights and it was raining. People were wet, angry, hungry and it was rough. It was only 60 miles at the time. About 30 percent of the people couldn’t continue but the rest finished, and they were happy, crying, and having beers at the finish line. We loved it and we said we would do it the next year. That next year, 150 people showed up.
I left Red Bull in 2016 to develop my company. From there, we wanted to go bigger, see how we could develop the routes, give the participants some merchandise. What I loved about Highlander was there was no TV broadcast, no sponsors, no road closures, no VIP guests or none of that additional stuff to worry about. And people love it. They enjoy nature, the friendships they make. They bring their dogs and kids. Once I saw the potential, I stopped most of my projects and went full Highlander. We started with the licensing, calling our friends in Europe to begin licensing there. Everyone was happy with the concept, and we sold four markets for 2020. We were very motivated because we were creating a global brand.
From Trying To Triumph
Then COVID hit. With all of the time and resources we invested, it seemed that everything was going to fail. About 80 percent of our business was lost during COVID, and it was a huge struggle. Every day, someone is calling you, telling you the deal is off and let’s wait until next year. What happened is the mountains never closed and it was recommended to go outside in nature. Somehow, we managed to get 10 new markets that year. Even though everyone was in a tough situation, we started getting very positive feedback from the organizers.
Later in that year, my friend was in New York, eating breakfast. He saw a guy with a kettlebell around his neck. He asked the guy about it, and it was the owner of Spartan, 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 about 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 start of 2020, it looked like we wouldn’t be around long and in six months, our fortunes had turned. We kept doing what we were and in 2021, we hit 10 more markets — most of Europe, most of Middle East and then we made plans for the US. Finally, we launched the first U.S. event in January of this year in Big Bear Lake, CA.
Take Primitive Living
We wanted to make it really primitive, so only the core values. You have fire, water, air, and bonding. There are no phones, no fancy restaurants, suits, or cars. Everyone looks the same and you have the talk. When you’re around people for that duration, you’ll begin to talk about life, and you have so much time that you’ll start to talk about everything. There’s a super strong connection between the people and you’ll see people at the finish line hugging each other and crying. We see that many people repeat the same Highlander event.
This isn’t the case with Ironman because you don’t go back to the same race — you want to finish another one. You’re there, focused on yourself and you don’t speak to too many people. Here, it’s the opposite. We wanted to make it a group experience. People will take their dogs. They will put a small bag on the dog that has his food. This is how we wanted to make it. It’s why we call it an adventure and not an event. It’s all an adventure.
The Different Stages of The Highlander Experience
We have about 15 percent of hikers who come and are 100 percent ready because they’re hiking every weekend. A majority of the group is the normal person who works every day and might be in nature once every other weekend. Those are the people that are very curios and don’t know what to expect. We call it an adventure because there’s no GPS tracking, it’s 100 kilometers and it’s not small. People come ready and the first day is very hard. We always put the longest distance first and you can see the exhaustion on people.
The second day, you’re waking up in nature and you realize you’re under the stars. There’s none of that feeling that you have to do this or that and you’re there on the mountain. You probably don’t have a signal on your phone, and you start relaxing. You even enjoy the pain in your muscles, and you’ll start this regeneration process. People ask why we don’t do one-day adventures and it’s because after the second or third day, the release of the stress and this regeneration process starts. You’re kind of reborn. After the third day, you aren’t thinking of the pain because you’re super relaxed and you realize how strong the impact of nature is on the body. They sleep like a baby, wake up early and you feel the difference on your body and mind.
This is the secret sauce of Highlander – you are struggling but you get happier. It’s hard to describe it. What was impactful for me is when you’re in your city, you might have a plastic bottle and you know if you throw it away, someone is going to come pick it up and there’s no guilt. When you’re in the mountain, you might want to throw something away, but you’ll feel guilty because there is no one to pick that up. This feeling about protecting nature is so important. These adventures also help your confidence because you feel you can take on anything after completing one.
What’s Next For Highlander?
When you get onto the mountain, you change your frame of reference. You realize you don’t need 10 pairs of shoes, three cars, or 10 hats. You just need one good bed and a warm shower. You reset your mind and my goal as well as the company’s goal is we definitely want to reach as many people as we can just to give them the Highlander experience to try and motivate them to do something about their health, protecting nature and sharing positive energy. I’m sure in the next few years, we’ll be on all continents, 35 to 40 countries, over 100-plus events throughout the year because it’s spreading so fast and we’re receiving such positive feedback from people, media, and sponsors. It’s very simple; lets motivate people to go back to nature, educate them how to behave in nature and do something about your mental, physical, and emotional health. We want to reach everyone with this Highlander momentum