By Pete Williams
Ever since Tough Mudder exploded onto the endurance sports scene in 2011 – after a modest slate of events in 2010 – it always has seemed more Fear Factor than physical challenge.
Sure, it’s a 10-12 mile course with plenty of obstacles requiring strength and stamina. But more often it’s about electric shock, plunging into a Dumpster full of ice water, jumping from 15-foot platforms into water, or navigating claustrophobic spaces. When last we left Tough Mudder in May of 2013, after a stretch of three races in three months and five dating back to late 2011, it seemed the only trick left up Tough Mudder’s sleeve was adding more electric shock obstacles – and cranking up the voltage.
The problem with a Fear Factor-style event is that it tends to inspire a one-and-done mentality rather than repeat customers. It didn’t help that Tough Mudder was a rip-off of the British Tough Guy event – Mudder founder Will Dean basically stole the idea under the guise of studying it for a Harvard MBA project and later paid Tough Guy a reported $750,000 to settle. Nor did it help that the Florida-based Savage Race stole everything from Tough Mudder, compressing the course into a six-mile version for those who found excessive running too strenuous. Savage changed its colors and website under threat of legal action from Tough Mudder (How dare you copy something we copied!) but Savage remains Tough Mudder Lite when it comes to obstacles.
The idea, Patterson says, is to make the event 20 percent more challenging every year. Which means it should be twice as challenging after five years. Many of the new obstacles will be drawn from the “World’s Toughest Mudder,” the year-end, 24-hour version of Tough Mudder.
“Tough Mudder is meant to be a mix of both mental and physical challenges,” Patterson says. “Unlike, say, a CrossFit gym where you get just the physical aspect, Tough Mudder is supposed to be a physical fitness test but also one of toughness, and some of that is electroshock, a Dumpster of ice, crawling through space that makes you claustrophobic. But we don’t want to be characterized as Fear Factor or Jackass. It’s not just about electroshock.”
The “Electric Eel,” the more painful of Tough Mudder’s two electroshock obstacles, apparently is no more. But Tough Mudder has drawn much attention for its new “Cry Baby” obstacle, which will use a tear gas-like substance that Patterson says is a mix of water, citric acid and fog juice. “It will make you tear up, cry, get red in the face, cough a bit, and then you come out on the other side,” Patterson says. “In 30 seconds you’ll be back to normal.”
There also will be a “Ring of Fire” obstacle where participants ascend a platform 35 feet in the air, slide down a pole through gas flames – you’ll feel the flames on your legs apparently – before plunging into water. In “Birth Canal,” athletes will crawl under a plastic liner through a mushy, watery substance dyed red.
“If you have claustrophobia issues, this will be tough,” Patterson said.
We like how Tough Mudder always is a great team-building exercise, perhaps still the best for office groups and large contingents of friends of varying athletic levels. Spartan Race, with its timed, every-athlete-for-himself format, likely will attract more repeat competitors. But Tough Mudder has established its niche.
Tough Mudder plans more than 50 events worldwide for 2015. Its U.S. schedule kicks off on March 7 in Milton, Fla., not far from Pensacola.