Tag Archives: Tough Mudder

Savage Race: Ready to Go National (April 13, 2013)

By Pete Williams

Savage2013DADE CITY, Fla. – The fourth edition of the Savage Race proved that this Florida-based obstacle event does a lot of things well. Perhaps more than any other obstacle race, it attracts a younger, gender-balanced demographic with an event not as demanding as Spartan Race but certainly challenging enough.

The one knock on Savage Race, which drew about 10,000 to Little Everglades Ranch here on Saturday, is that it’s a shorter Tough Mudder, which is fine if you’ve never done the most high-profile event in the industry or have no intention of doing so. Since debuting in August of 2011 in Clermont, Savage Race has adapted many of Tough Mudder’s signature obstacles, including an ice plunge, electroshock crawl, 12-foot leap into water, and a run up a half pipe.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Tough Mudder founder Will Dean, after all, studied the British “Tough Guy” event as a Harvard Business School project and pretty much copied the blueprint. So for Tough Mudder to say Savage aped Tough Mudder sort of reminds us of when Hooters sued Winghouse for trademark infringement.

IMG_7562aWinghouse won that battle when the courts ruled you couldn’t trademark hot busty women serving chicken wings. And so it is that you can’t trademark obstacles, though Tough Mudder did exert enough leverage to inspire Savage to change its color scheme from orange to blue and re-do an initial website that bore a striking resemblance to Tough Mudder’s.

Perhaps the best thing Savage Race did was move into a venue Tough Mudder abandoned. Little Everglades Ranch, the scenic, well-manicured, 2,050-acre property in Pasco County, is the best site we’ve encountered in Florida for obstacle racing. With multiple access points from the highway, a convenient location to major metro areas (Tampa, Orlando), acres and acres of parking, and a festival footprint already in place from hosting major steeplechase and high school cross country events, Little Everglades offers something of a turnkey operation for obstacle course promoters. No wonder it’s the first stop race organizers make when coming in from out of state.

Dirty Girl held a 2,000-woman race here in February and Spartan Race will be coming here late this fall. Tough Mudder held a wildly-successful event here in December of 2011, attracting nearly 20,000 over two days, before making the poor decision not to return, staging a traffic-marred event in Sarasota in December and a lightly-attended race in Homestead last month.

Missing from first two Savage Races

Missing from first two Savage Races

Savage Race, meanwhile, has grown its numbers by hosting out of Little Everglades, first in October. We missed that race, having done the first two events in Clermont, but there was a sense of deja vu harkening back to the 2011 Tough Mudder event here.

It wasn’t just the venue or the similar signature obstacles. Others were in the exact same place as Tough Mudder, including a log carry through a pond and a backward, supine crawl along a wire through water. Great obstacles, to be sure, but it only contributed to the Tough Mudder feel. The walls were shorter (though plentiful), the electroshock was turned down compared to recent Tough Mudder events (not that we’re complaining), and Savage, ironically, eliminated its own most challenging obstacle from its former race venue in Clermont.

IMG_7589aThat was a 150-yard swim toward the end of the course. When Savage debuted in August of 2011, we thought this differentiated the event a great deal. Athletes could attempt the swim or take a five-minute penalty and do 30 Burpees. When Savage returned to Clermont in March of 2012, it shortened the swim and placed ropes and floats all over the swim course, again offering the Burpee option for those still uncomfortable with the water.

Perhaps Little Everglades does not have a sufficient body of water. Perhaps liability is a concern. Perhaps there are too many people like me who do not learn to swim properly until later in life. Perhaps Savage did not want to be at a market disadvantage as the only obstacle race requiring a swim – or at least sort of requiring one.

Savage markets its race as “more obstacles per mile,” so if you want to do a Tough Mudder in 6.7 miles instead of 12, Savage is your race. But we’d still like to see more obstacles that we’ve never seen, especially at Tough Mudder. Admittedly, that’s becoming increasingly difficult in a flooded marketplace, no pun intended. But we’ve seen races like Hero Rush and even the Florida-based Hog Wild Mud Run come up with some creative new material.

IMG_7573aSavage does have Thor’s Grundle, a crawl under submerged upright boards. It does combine the half-pipe (Colossus) with a backside that’s the best waterslide in the industry. Its Sawtooth (monkey) Bars are also the best in OCR, with an A-frame format broken up by a jog in the middle, producing an up-down-up-down challenge.


Savage2013aSavage also has a big-event feel, with a massive registration area that handles traffic well, merchandise tent, and event branding all over the course, right down to the army of volunteers in Savage Race T-shirts. We wish Savage still provided on-site race maps — something Tough Mudder seems to have copied from Savage Race, ironically – but can understand eliminating that expense, especially in the digital age. It seems to have minimized wait times at obstacles, even in later waves. Savage also continues to go with Tultex T-shirts, something we wish more endurance races of all sorts would follow. Its post-race party seems to keep people hanging around as long as any obstacle event with the possible exception of Warrior Dash. And it’s worth noting that, depending on when you register, Savage Race can be 30 to 50 percent cheaper than Tough Mudder.

Bottom line? Savage Race is a terrific, all-around value that manages to be all things to all athletes. Next month it moves out of Florida for the first time with an event in Georgia, followed later this year with races in Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas, along with a return visit to Little Everglades in October.

SavageLogoWe’ll see how Savage Race’s compressed Tough Mudder-like event will sell outside of the Sunshine State, especially at venues that might not rival Little Everglades in terms of location or amenities.

Maybe the business model of offering a shorter, more affordable race that offers all of the challenges of Tough Mudder will capture a broader demographic of athletes not interested in running 12 miles.

After all, it has played well in Florida and it would not be a surprise to see it take off elsewhere.




Tough Mudder Partners with Advil

By Pete Williams

The author deals with the Electric Eel (courtesy Tough Mudder)

In need of Advil?

After completing a grueling race like Tough Mudder, athletes sometimes feel like they could use some pain relief.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that Tough Mudder has partnered with Advil as part of Pfizer’s “Advil Relief in Action” campaign. Starting in May, a portion of the proceeds from sales of certain Advil bottles will go to support Habitat for Humanity International and the Wounded Warrior Project. The Advil Relief in Action program also will be onsite at Tough Mudder events in conjunction with Wounded Warrior. Tough Mudder has raised more than $5 million for Wounded Warrior since the event’s debut in 2010.

In May, Tough Mudder will hold events in London, Toronto, Chicago, and near Jacksonville, Fla.





Tough Mudder to Appear on Wheaties Boxes


Tough Mudder participants attack the "Walk the Plank" obstacle on Saturday in Arizona. (Photo courtesy Tough Mudder/Zach DeLaune)

Tough Mudder participants attack the “Walk the Plank” obstacle on Saturday in Arizona. (Photo courtesy Tough Mudder/Zach DeLaune)

By Pete Williams

In the latest sign that obstacle racing is becoming recognized in the mainstream sports world, Tough Mudder today announced a deal with Wheaties that will include Tough Mudder images and logos on 2 million boxes of the iconic cereal starting in May.

The activation of the year-long agreement already had begun with Wheaties branding for recent events on Tough Mudder’s “Walk the Plank” obstacle, where athletes leap from a 12-foot platform into water and swim a short distance to shore.

Courtesy Tough Mudder/Zach DeLaune

Courtesy Tough Mudder/Zach DeLaune

“Tough Mudder is helping to redefine what it means to be a champion,” said Kimberly Seifert, Wheaties associate marketing manager. “At Wheaties, we recognize that some of the biggest champions are those who don’t just compete against others, but who strive to challenge themselves.”

“Wheaties is one of the world’s most iconic brands when it comes to leading sporting events and we are excited to announce them as our official partner,” said Matt Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer of Tough Mudder. “Every Tough Mudder participant is deemed a champion once they cross the finish line and receive our coveted orange headband, so it only made sense to align ourselves with the Breakfast of Champions.”

Tough Mudder, which debuted in 2010 and is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., will stage 52 events worldwide in 2013 after holding 35 events in 2012 that together accounted for $70 million in revenue. The untimed Tough Mudder, billed as a challenge rather than a race, features off-road courses of 10 to 12 miles with 20 to 25 military-style obstacles testing the fitness, strength, mental grit, and toughness of participants. The events, typically located outside major markets, are based on rugged terrain, steep inclines (where possible), and water hazards.

A competitor face plants at Tough Mudder's Mt. Everest Saturday in Sarasota

A competitor face plants at Tough Mudder’s Mt. Everest in Sarasota, Fla. in December.

Tough Mudder was the first national race to partner with major sponsors and work the branding into the course itself. Its “Mt. Everest” halfpipe challenge has been sponsored by Degree antiperspirant. The “Funky Monkey” bars is sponsored by the Clif Builder energy bars. Other Tough Mudder sponsors include Under Armour and Dos Equis.

Tough Mudder took an early lead in sponsorship sales over the rival Spartan Race, whose founders view their event as a competition that’s leading the movement to make obstacle racing an organized sport. Spartan Race has begun to bridge the gap in participants and revenue. In recent months, the Vermont-based Spartan Race has taken on private equity investment and signed Reebok as title sponsor.

Courtesy Tough Mudder

Courtesy Tough Mudder

“Reebok is great for Spartan,” said Dan Weinberg, Tough Mudder’s director of strategic partnerships and licensing. “But we’ve been talking with the big boys and will have some other big announcements soon.”



Read our coverage of the 2013 Tough Mudder Arizona HERE

Read our coverage of the 2012 Tough Mudder Florida HERE

Read our coverage of the 2011 Tough Mudder Florida HERE

Read our interview with Tough Mudder founder Will Dean HERE

The Ever-Changing Obstacle Course Racing Fee

By Pete Williams

IMG_6862One of the more puzzling, and at times frustrating, aspects of obstacle racing is figuring out the actual price to do a race.

There’s the race entry fee, which can vary by 50 percent depending on when you sign up. This isn’t much different than triathlon or road racing, however.

But then there are assorted other add-on fees unique to obstacle racing that at times leave athletes feeling like they’re buying a car – or at least a plane ticket. There’s parking, which almost always is $10 per vehicle. There’s the insurance fee ($10 to $14), which increasingly is broken out as a separate charge. And then there are Groupon and Living Social deals, sometimes last minute, that annoy those who signed up earlier for a larger fee.

One frustrated athlete posted the following on our EnduranceSportsFlorida website in response to a comment by Sam Abbitt, race director for the Savage Race.

Here’s Abbitt’s original comment:

“I do agree that the daily deals like Living Social and Groupon are TERRIBLE for the sport. They are bad for organizers, bad for participants, and generally make for an extremely watered-down event where the only people making any money are the daily deal providers. Participants should remember that they are going to get what they pay for. If you want a great race for the money, come try Savage Race. Yes it costs more than some other events, but we make it worth it. We focus on producing the best event experience possible for our participants – not on the lowest possible price.”

Here’s the reader’s response:

“Funny, I just signed up for a Savage Race and I got a different perspective. In the future I may only do it again if I get a Groupon or LivingSocial discount. (I just search the Internet and found Savage Race is offering a LivingSocial deal for one of their races). Their regular $79 or higher entry fee quickly increases with additional mandatory fees: $12 for insurance, $7 or $8 processing fee, $10 for parking out in the country. Funny how they feel it is appropriate to basically (add) on their cost of doing business as additional fees to their prices. How would you like it if when you checked out at Wal-mart they added a parking fee, an insurance fee, a credit card fee, and a cost of having a building fee? They have those costs, but they are factored into their prices. They like to treat their customers with respect instead of trying to game them into paying more. Why not just make the price the total price, so you don’t leave your customers feeling tricked or taken advantage of with all the “additional fees?” And you wonder why people go for Groupons? Because if you don’t you feel like an even bigger sucker after you see them offered and you already paid full price plus all the fees. Just my two cents…”

Abbitt’s response:

“Thanks for the message. Below is my response to your points.

1. Parking fees, insurance fees, processing, etc: Yes we charge for this stuff. We have to. These a-la-carte fees are legitimate costs that we have to pass on to the participant. If you want the kind of obstacles that we shell out the big bucks to build, that money has to come from somewhere. Our courses cost hundreds of thousands, our insurance is expensive, and we pay a big premium to get the best venues too. There are certainly less expensive events out there. We don’t pretend to be the cheapest. You compare us to Wal-Mart in your comment. We’re not the Wal-Mart of obstacle races.

SavageWall2. We don’t “game” people into paying more. In fact, we are very forthcoming about the cost of our events on our website. Look on our event page. It’s all there. Not to mention that the fees we charge are all pretty much industry standard stuff when you compare us to other events in our class.

3. We recently ran a Living Social offer in a new market. Living Social has changed their marketing format since I made my original post. They are now more willing to work with vendors and will negotiate deals that do not require race producers to LOSE money on sales. I did say that I would never use them before, but they’ve changed the way they do business so that it makes sense for us. Things change. The important thing is that we are able to manage it without ruining the integrity of our events because we don’t have the funds to finance a decent race.

Your analysis is unfair.

I think that this only fair comparison for our business is the event industry, not retail, where margins are often 100% or greater. More specifically, take a look at the obstacle racing industry.

Event Industry Overview

1) Almost all major events sold via online platforms with credit cards have to charge a processing fee. Look at sporting events, concerts, marathons, triathlons, and other major obstacle races. In this space, it’s an expectation of the customer to pay a fee like this. We are not dishonest about it. It’s plainly listed on our website and the fees are presented prior to purchase.

2) Most events have to charge for parking too. Look to major players in the categories I listed above and see what they are charging.

Savage20123) Insurance fees are unique to our industry. The major players in obstacle racing all charge for this, with the exception of Warrior Dash. Warrior Dash has smaller obstacles and presumably do not have to deal with the same insurance rates we have to pay. They do, however charge $20 for parking last I check. (Editor’s Note: Warrior Dash did advertise a $20 parking fee prior to its Florida event last month, but charged $10.) I’m guessing they do this to offset insurance cost. Again, the insurance fee is plainly listed just below our pricing schedule so that the customer may consider that when making the purchase.

4) Living Social deals are kind of a scary thing for promoters. Usually they are loss leaders, and the hope is that they will encourage their friends to come later. I’m opposed to using them in general, but sometimes it is necessary to kick off a buzz in a new market. The fair thing to do with a Living Social deal is to offer it EARLY so that people don’t feel like they are getting swindled later as you describe. We have only tried Living Social ONE TIME as a test, and we did not wait until the 11th hour to send it. Were you personally affected by our Living Social deal?

I think your characterization of our company is unfair. We are extremely customer oriented, and I take great pride in being an honest person and in creating a product that provides tremendous value to our customers. We do things like send out random thank you gifts to our loyal customers ALL THE TIME.

I’m sorry if you dislike our pricing structure, and we don’t really have the influence to rewrite those rules.

Just as an FYI, here’s a breakdown of some of the major obstacle race players pricing schedule as of this month:

Tough Mudder

Entry $95-180
Parking $10 to $20 depending on venue
Insurance $15
Processing 7.125%

Spartan Race

Entry $95-145
Parking – $10
Insurance – $14
Processing – 9.5%

Savage Race

Entry $79-109 (Florida)
Parking – $10 disclosed on site
Insurance – $12 disclosed on site
Fee – 5%+3 visible at checkout”

(End of Abbitt’s response)

HeroScaffoldFor many athletes, it’s not the cost of an obstacle race entry fee (which is significant), but all of the add-on costs as outlined above. The one many take issue with is parking. Would you be surprised to learn that obstacle races pay, at most, $30,000 to rent property for a weekend event that could gross in excess of $1 million? (In the case of Tough Mudder; most events gross far less.) In effect, they’re more than covering their rent money with parking.

I’ve never been to a triathlon that charged for parking, though a lot of triathlons have five-figure costs associated with shutting down roads. Triathlons take care of insurance costs by paying a nominal fee to USA Triathlon, which in turn requires all participating athletes to be USAT members. Obstacle racing does not have a governing body to provide similar insurance. We can see a day when there might be such an organization, but it’s hard to imagine an insurance provider offering coverage across the board the way USA Triathlon does for tris or USA Track and Field does for road racing. (The USATF insurance coverage specifically forbids obstacles in any USATF-sanctioned race.)

Hey, more power to obstacle races for, in effect, boosting income by breaking out the charges. It’s what the market will bear. We’re certainly not picking on Savage Race; they don’t do anything differently from Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, and everyone else.

DavyJonesStill, we’re betting that obstacle racing is soon going to become a buyer’s market, at least judging by the increasing number of Living Social deals we’re seeing, even from the likes of established tours such as Spartan Race and Rugged Maniac. A cottage industry has sprung up with obstacle-related websites partnering with races to offer coupon codes. The races kick back money to the sites each time the code is used.

With so many discount codes floating around, nobody ever expects to pay full price for an obstacle race no matter how early they register. As a result, the race directors break out more and more of the costs to make the base price look lower. It’s an endless cycle, one that gets more confusing all the time.

At the very least, this will be good for the customer. With no end to the number of events, nobody can sustain attendance and that will mean more competition for athletes. Perhaps they might even start providing free post-race refreshments like triathlons and road races.

Warrior Dash drew 9,000 to Lake Wales, Fla., last month, which was about the same as last year. But Warrior offered deep discounts early and presumably made less money. Dirty Girl drew a modest 2,000 or so to Dade City last weekend for its Florida debut. We’re wondering how Tough Mudder will do with three Florida events in 2013 when it had just one Florida event in 2012 – and that was just in December.

We’re bullish on obstacle racing, of course. But we’re also guessing the winners in this ever-competitive field will be the ones who provide the best value. And that likely will include slashing some of the add-on charges, including them in one lower base rate.



Gentlemen, Start Your Tough Mudder (Nov. 21, 2012)

By Pete Williams

Athletes tackle a hay bale pyramid at Tough Mudder Florida in 2011

Athletes tackle a hay bale pyramid at Tough Mudder Florida in 2011

(Published Nov. 21, 2012) – Tough Mudder, the popular obstacle mud run, has staged events all over the world, typically in rural areas, ranches and at ski resorts in the summer months.

Now Tough Mudder is coming March 2-3 to Homestead-Miami Speedway, best known as the site for NASCAR’s season finale race, which was held on Sunday.

Tough Mudder has worked with other racetracks, including Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., an NHRA venue that hosted the “World’s Toughest Mudder” competition last weekend. In January, Tough Mudder will return for a second year to Phillip Island, a grand prix venue outside of Melbourne, Australia.

Dan Weinberg, Tough Mudder’s director of strategic partnerships, said Homestead-Miami Speedway was chosen because of its vast infrastructure, parking, and experience handling large crowds. Tough Mudder events have attracted up to 30,000 athletes over a two-day period, a fraction of the speedway’s 65,000-seat capacity.

ToughMudderAZ“Racetracks are good fits for us from all aspects,” said Weinberg, who said Tough Mudder is exploring other NASCAR venues for U.S. events. “From parking to concessions to logistics, they make for a great overall fan and participant experience.”

Weinberg said the event layout was still being determined, but said it’s likely the course will go both inside and outside the venue, which is a 45-minute drive south from Miami and just over an hour from Fort Lauderdale. The track is a 1.5-mile oval and the infield includes a man-made lake big enough for swimming. In August of 2011, Homestead-Miami Speedway hosted Olympic-distance and sprint-distance triathlons consisting of a swim in the infield lake, transition in pit road, bike through Homestead, and a run around the golf cart path surrounding the track. The track is surrounded by vast stretches of parking lots and undeveloped areas.

Tough Mudder, at roughly 12 miles, requires only a fraction of that space. The bigger key to the event will be the infrastructure. Since debuting early in March of 2010, Tough Mudder has grown exponentially, with revenue of more than $70 million in 2012. With that has come growing pains, such as a September event near Washington D.C., where massive traffic back-ups and weather caused the cancellation of the event’s second day.

toughmudderlogoHere in Florida, Tough Mudder had to move its planned Tampa area event from Dirty Foot Adventures in Fort Meade after Polk County officials refused to issue a permit for a 20,000-person event. That event takes place next weekend (Dec. 1-2) at the Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota.

The Homestead-Miami Speedway race will be Tough Mudder’s first Florida event beyond the greater Tampa Bay/Sarasota area. Tough Mudder debuted in the Sunshine State in December of 2011 at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City and also has events planned for 2013 in Jacksonville (May 18-19) and at a to-be-determined Tampa site (Nov. 2-3).

Unlike Central Florida, with its many sprawling ranches and thousands of acres of undeveloped land, South Florida has fewer wide-open sites for obstacle races. This year, Spartan Race and Superhero Scramble debuted South Florida events at Oleta River State Park in North Miami. Spartan Race will return to that venue in Feb. 23-24, the weekend before Tough Mudder in Homestead. Superhero Scramble shifts to Amelia Earhart Park, also in Miami, for a Jan. 12 race.

Tough Mudder’s move to a larger sports venue is part of a recent industry trend. Last week Spartan Race staged an event at Boston’s Fenway Park, attracting 8,000 racers over two days to the storied baseball facility.

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit will be in Phoenix the weekend of March 2-3, which will make it impossible for any drivers to participate in Tough Mudder at Homestead. Top drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne posted impressive times at a triathlon in Charleston in July, competing the morning after a NASCAR night race in Daytona Beach.

An Interview with Tough Mudder Founder Will Dean (Sept. 18, 2012)

By Pete Williams

(Published Sept. 18, 2012) – We recently interviewed Tough Mudder founder Will Dean for a story on the growth of obstacle racing that will appear in next week’s edition of SportsBusiness Journal.

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana/Illinois in June (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana/Illinois in June (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

We spoke to more than a dozen people for that story. Dean talked at length about Tough Mudder and the future of this growing endurance sports category. Since only a few of those quotes were part of the SBJ story, we thought we’d include more of the interview here.

Dean, 31, might be the modern version of Fred Smith, the billionaire founder of FedEx who as a student at Yale in the early 1960s received little reaction from his professors after writing a paper proposing an overnight delivery service.

ToughMudderAZIn 2009, Dean’s Harvard Business School professors thought his project for an event that would become Tough Mudder was unrealistic. These days Dean, who once worked as a civilian counter-terrorism officer in Great Britain, heads up the hottest race property in the endurance world. This year the Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder will attract 470,000 participants to its 35 events  and generate $70 million, including six-figure deals with a dozen sponsors. Dean says revenue will double in 2013.

Tough Mudder, which only debuted in March of 2010, is not a race but a challenge. Athletes are encouraged to participate as a team in the 12-mile, off-road course, which includes obstacles that challenge the mind as much as the body. There are plenty of walls and ropes, but the event is best known for its dumpster of ice water, its electrically-charged gauntlet of wires, and its signature orange finisher’s headband.

Tough Mudder exploded at the same time Facebook became ubiquitous and that’s no coincidence. Dean says Tough Mudder has been Facebook’s No.1 advertiser, having spent millions on the social networking site. If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen pictures of muddy friends in their orange headbands. In many ways, Tough Mudder and its competitors such as Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have become the new triathlon, the Monday morning water cooler or Facebook bragging rights.

Crawling under charged wires in Colorado (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Crawling under charged wires in Colorado (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Tough Mudder, which debuted in Florida last year at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County near Tampa, returns to the Sunshine State Dec. 1-2 at the Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota.

Here’s our interview with Dean:

Q: How big can this obstacle mud category grow?

A: In my mind you have really three distinct obstacle racing events. It’s like looking at road racing and putting 10K and marathon in the same group. They’re clearly quite different. Marathon is a category. Obstacle race is a pretty wide category. We would actively choose to exclude ourselves from the obstacle race group. There are no prizes at Tough Mudder; it’s not timed. There are no medals and the focus is on teamwork and camaraderie and lots of people helping each other. There are really few people treating it as a race.

ToughMudderVancouver2There’s also Warrior Dash, which is a fantastic concept and absolutely no way am I belittling them. They’ve had phenomenal success, very smart guys. Great company culture, but they use the term “race” loosely. They’re as much about enjoying the post-race fun, having some beer and listening to music. I’m not saying anything controversial when I say that for most people in reasonable shape, Warrior Dash is not a very onerous event. It takes 20 or 30 minutes for most people. You spend more time in the post-race party than the event itself. Then you have Spartan Race, a very different business model than ours and doing very well but clearly an obstacle race

Q: What’s fueling interest in these events?

A: First, from a fitness perspective, the shift to functional fitness with P90X and CrossFit.  At Tough Mudder, we’ve positioned ourselves, if there is a category, at the high end of that. We expend a phenomenal amount of money on obstacle innovation and construction. I’m pretty confident that our budgets are significantly higher than the other muddy obstacle course challenges out there.

People come for the obstacles, but it’s about creating a whole integrated user experience. It’s really a whole weekend concept and that speaks to the second thing, which I believe in very strongly: Experience is the new luxury good. Not just in the endurance space. People talk about what restaurant they’ve eaten at, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, bungee jumping, whatever. That’s far more important than what sort of iPhone you have and I think we’ve captured that.

One thing I realized early is that when people do their first marathon, they talk about how they hit the wall at mile 20 or mile 22 and how some person they’ve never met comes along and they run it in together. They talk about how meaningful that is for them, that shared experience and the bonding that comes with that.

Navigating the balance beam at Tough Mudder Georgia (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Navigating the balance beam at Tough Mudder Georgia (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

At Tough Mudder, we try to create a variety of obstacles that test you in different ways. Regardless of your body type, shape and fitness, there will be something that will get you outside your comfort zone. We try to create that moment every 10 minutes, that moment of intense bonding on the course. I’m not a sociologist, but with Tough Mudder you realize that even though we live and work in a world where we’re surrounded by people, we really don’t have much meaningful interaction with people. Here in New York, we specialize in avoiding eye contact with each other on the subway or getting out of the car. There’s this irony that all this social networking gets us connected with more people but on the other hand it gets in the way of more meaningful connections.

At Tough Mudder, we created this very earnest, sincere, frankly kind of irreverent event that’s not a race, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We position ourselves as the opposite of the Ironman culture. You can help someone if they want assistance. Tough Mudder is about conquering your own Everest and being proud of what you’ve achieved. For some people it’s about getting around the course in an hour and 45 minutes and for other people it’s just about doing it.

Log carry during Tough Mudder Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Log carry during Tough Mudder Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Looking at the industry, Warrior Dash is in the fun mud run space. Tough Mudder is the tough obstacle course challenge and Spartan Race is about an integrated racing experience. And while superficially they look similar – we all have mud and walls – they’re three very different events and value propositions. People often ask me if Spartan Race is a competitor and I say not at all. It’s good for us in exactly the same way that for Boston that New York exists and vice versa in the marathon space. Tough Mudder is and always will be an event that’s about more than just the obstacles. People will call it a race because we have a start and a finish line and water stations in between that make it look like a race but that’s not what we aspire to do.

Monkey Bars at Tough Mudder Florida last December

Monkey Bars at Tough Mudder Florida last December

It’s this whole weekend experience where guys – and it is 80 percent men – get together for a weekend away and it’s almost a bachelor party for a lot of people. Tough Mudder is tough and it beats you up, but if you’re in good shape you’ll finish Tough Mudder and still walk to the bar that evening. You see a lot of people wearing their headbands to bars after and that speaks to the experience component of it.

Q: Your Harvard Business School professors didn’t think too much of Tough Mudder. What made you think it would work?

A: The vast majority of my professors said, “How are you going to sell a race that’s not a race?” You’re going to have huge liability issues and it will be a real challenge trying to scale this event. Business school professors are very intelligent people but it’s hard to imagine something that doesn’t exist. And a lot of (professors) struggled to envision a world where people would spend this amount of money on an event like this.

At the time I was in my late twenties doing triathlons and marathons and all people would ask is what my time was. That was the only metric. I’ve done races where people were screaming at me to get out of the way, especially in triathlons. I remember asking for help to get my wetsuit off in a triathlon and a guy said he couldn’t. It would have taken all of three seconds. It’s not like this is your profession. There’s no prize money at stake.

Dealing with iced barbwire in Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Dealing with iced barbwire in Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

I believe there’s no such thing as a good business idea; there’s just good business execution and that comes down to having good people on the team. It all comes down to understanding what problem you can solve and why. I was this guy in my late twenties who enjoyed staying healthy, but I had a full-time job and I couldn’t spend lots of time in the gym. I wanted an event I could focus my training on that required more than aerobic fitness and I wasn’t looking for it to be a race. I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking that way. A lot of professors said it was a bad idea and that I should take a job with a large management consulting firm but I think you have to believe you’re an entrepreneur even if everyone else in the world is telling you that the baby you’re holding is ugly. You have to believe that it’s not.

Q: How do you address the liability issue?

Confined spaces and darkness are always part of Tough Mudder (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Confined spaces and darkness are always part of Tough Mudder (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

A: Any activity is potentially high risk. It’s about building world-class systems and we’re very proud that nearly half a million people will do our events this year – after more than 150,000 last year – and we’ve had no fatalities. Statistically, over the course of any day at home watching TV, at least one of that many people might have had a heart attack.

toughmudderlogoTough Mudder is about getting you out of your comfort zone. The adrenaline is pumping when you’re jumping into a dumpster full of ice, but it’s a somewhat controlled environment. And in some ways it’s like a high ropes course. You can say that if you fall it doesn’t matter because the harness is going to catch you after three feet. But your brain doesn’t think that way. What it sees is that, ‘Wow I’m 50 feet up here and if I fall I’m screwed.” One of our concerns is that there are hundreds of smaller events popping up. From a commercial perspective, having them do well is good for us. If the Des Moines Marathon does well, it’s good for Boston. But there’s always the danger of putting a lot of new players into the market. You have people who might not be aware of best safety practices. Tough Mudder has spent a lot of money working with the relevant safety people here and overseas to see that we meet and exceed safety standards. We have a $50 million general liability policy with Lloyd’s of London and we have to meet standards. It’s a big cost for us, but the far greater cost is providing all of the safety stuff, including 100-plus personnel at any event. We have ambulances, local hospitals briefed, and Medevac helicopters in place at more remote events.

ToughMudderVancouverQ: How has Tough Mudder drawn so many sponsors?

A: The days of being able to drop a lot of money on NBC and reach men in their 20s and 30s are gone. They’re looking for ways to engage with me. It’s a challenge and that’s why you see Super Bowl commercials selling for what they are. We’ve had 1,100 people have the Tough Mudder logo tattooed on them and that speaks to the engagement people have.

Tough Mudder is a real life Fight Club. You have obstacle racing, but Tough Mudder is this beast in an off itself. We have very high levels of Facebook engagement. If you look at our major sponsors – Bic, Under Armour, EAS, Dos Equis – they know there are lots of places with 20,000 or more people in one place. A stadium, sports event, wherever. But where else can you have this many people with a clear purpose in mind? They’re not just thinking about a game for two hours, but thinking of this experience for weeks leading up to it and they have real pride. They’ll wear the headband to work. Brands realize that we have something really unique, a fantastic activation program.

Q: How fast is Tough Mudder growing?

A: We’re hoping for a million participants in 2013. We’ll be at $70 million this year and that should double next year. We have a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Brooklyn and six 53-foot trailers. That will double next year. We also have warehouses in the UK, Canada, and Australia. It’s like a traveling circus. For a typical event, we’ll have 10 to 15 of our headquarters-based staff and another 200 staff plus volunteers. At out Sydney (Australia) event (Sept. 22-23) we’ll have 40,000 participants and easily could have had 70,000 if we did not have to cut it off because of the venue’s capacity.

ToughMudderNEQ: It sounds like Tough Mudder is huge in Australia.

A: Earlier this year we had an event in Melbourne. I touched down at the airport, having never been to Australia. The immigration officials assumed I was from Great Britain, but I said I lived in New York and worked for Tough Mudder. When I mentioned I was the CEO, all these immigration officials came over. Many were doing the event that weekend. It’s all still amazing to me because if you look at the original business plan, which I have new employees read, we projected 7,500 people competing in year four. Now we’re heading into year four and will hit one million.

Going Inside the Box (Sept. 4, 2012)

By Pete Williams

InsideTheBox(Published Sept. 4, 2012) – There’s a popular perception of CrossFit, the bare-bones fitness craze that has swept the nation in the last three years. Think lean, ripped, tattooed Millennials grinding their way through intense anaerobic sessions in sweaty Spartan “boxes” lasting as little as 10 minutes. Lots of Olympic lifting, Burpees, and cheating – er “kipping” – pullups.

Running? That seems like it has little to do with CrossFit.

T.J. Murphy, a longtime endurance athlete and journalist who joined us today on The Fitness Buff Show, says that’s pretty much the view of CrossFit he had 15 months ago when he stumbled into a CrossFit “box” in Los Angeles. Newly-divorced, 47, and suffering from a litany of injuries from 15 years of heavy endurance training, Murphy was willing to try anything.

What he found, as chronicled in his terrific new book Inside the Box: How CrossFit Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body, is that a lot of the popular perceptions of CrossFit are inaccurate. CrossFit coaches spend a lot of time identifying and helping athletes correct muscle imbalances and ease athletes into the program so they don’t blow out a joint performing a deadlift of overhead squat. CrossFit places a heavy emphasis on nutrition, advocating a hybrid plan of Paleo and The Zone Diet. As for the kipping pullups, even the most skeptical trainers see the value in them for developing core strength.

TNLTampaMurphy’s book chronicles his own journey into CrossFit and how ex-gymnast Greg Glassman built a loose empire of 4,000 CrossFit affiliates (up from just 13 in 2005) based on the notion that “constantly varying” workouts of short duration and high intensity that prepare athletes for any physical challenge imaginable are the best way to train.

CrossFitters are notorious for disliking running. Though CrossFit has a sister program, CrossFit Endurance, most CF disciples seem content to focus on body-sculpting WODs that stay inside the box. Even though Tough Mudder and Spartan Race closely align themselves with CrossFit, some CrossFitters struggle with the distance of longer obstacle races.

That’s not to say CrossFit can’t be good training for endurance sports. Quite the contrary. We’ve found the obstacle race training sessions very effective at CrossFit affiliate TNL Tampa, where trainer Eric Stratman includes runs ranging from 400 meters to 2 miles into a typical obstacle training WOD on Saturday mornings.

Murphy, now 48, thought he needed knee replacement surgery in the summer of 2011, but plans to return to running now that CrossFit has corrected his muscle imbalances, eliminated his back pain, and left him feeling energized in the morning rather than like a creaky old man getting out of bed. He’s going to apply CrossFit to his marathon and triathlon training, figuring the efficient nature of CF will enable him to get faster while logging far fewer miles.

Though there now seems to be a CrossFit box in every office park in America, we’re guessing CrossFit will only get bigger – especially as endurance athletes discover the value of getting inside the box.

Listen to our Fitness Buff interview with T.J. Murphy HERE.

Spartan Race Coming to Fenway Park (May 23, 2012)

By Pete Williams

(Published May 23, 2012) – Spartan Race, the grueling obstacle race series featuring penalties of 30 Burpees for each challenge not completed, is taking its show to Fenway Park, the historic, 100-year-old home of the Boston Red Sox.

Spartan Race: Coming to Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

Spartan Race: Coming to Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

Spartan Race typically sets up in remote areas, staging events of between 3 and 12 miles and consisting of 15 to 25 obstacles. The Fenway Park event will be a one-mile time trial taking place entirely within the ballpark on Nov. 17.

Unlike other obstacle events, Spartan Race does not provide course information beforehand. Joe DeSena, the creator of Spartan Race, would say that Fenway’s signature feature, the Green Monster left field wall, will come into play.

DeSena, who is friends with former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, says he was contacted by the Red Sox to put on the race, the team’s latest foray into non-baseball events. For about 30 years beginning in 1973, Fenway Park was used exclusively for baseball. Since 2003, the Sox have staged everything from Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones concerts to the NHL’s Winter Classic.

Though the Fenway version of the Spartan Race is just one mile long, it’s priced like a regular Spartan event – or a Red Sox game. It’s a whopping $110 to register through June 17 and escalates to $150 through Nov. 9. DeSena says the event is likely to sell out by Aug. 1, with 10,000 competitors expected to participate in what likely will end up being extended over two days.

Even spectator tickets cost a whopping $40.

“You go to Starbucks for breakfast you end up spending forty bucks,” DeSena says.

SpartanRaceLogoDeSena, a Queens native who grew up a New York Yankees fan, made a small fortune on Wall Street before moving to Pittsfield, Vermont, where he operates a small resort hotel. An avid endurance athlete who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in a year, he created the Spartan Death Race in 2005 because he believed Ironman and other ultra-distance events did not present a big enough challenge.

Athletes competing in The Death Race, held annually in Pittsfield in mid-June, do not know how long the event will take place, what it will entail, or even the exact starting time. Last year’s event kicked off with competitors deadlifting rocks for six hours. The event had a religious theme and at one point athletes carried logs on their backs for 24 hours. The Death Race continued for 45 hours before DeSena called it with just 35 of the 155 athletes remaining.

The Spartan Race, launched in 2010, is a scaled-down version of The Death Race consisting of the Spartan Sprint (3-mile), Super Spartan (8-mile), and Spartan Beast (12-mile plus) events. Athletes typically haul heavy objects such as five-gallon buckets of gravel, drag concrete blocks, climb walls, flip tires, and run a race-ending gauntlet of guys dressed as 300 Spartan warriors wielding double-sided mallets.

Athletes also must perform challenges relating to the host property. At a Virginia event last summer at a paintball facility, athletes had to dodge gunfire and successfully hit a target from 10 yards away.

Failure to do so earned the athlete 30 Burpees, the standard penalty for not completing challenges. Athletes typically do three or four sets of Burpees, which makes Spartan Race arguably tougher than other events in the category, including Tough Mudder, which do not issue penalties.

Tough Mudder, like Spartan Race, debuted in 2010 and now hosts dozens of events worldwide. Each series is likely to clear $50 million in revenue this year. Unlike Spartan Race, which issues timing chips and awards points in a year-long race series, Tough Mudder does not market its events as competitions but team-building exercises.

Boston’s average high temperature for November is 52 degrees with a low of 38. DeSena said the cold and threat of ice and snow will only add to the Spartan challenge. The Fenway Park race could be the first of several ballpark Spartan Races, though athletes in Central Florida should not get excited about a Tropicana Field event.

“We put on very unique events, the only truly competitive events and fans of the Red Sox are pretty competitive people,” DeSena says. “We want to do more of these – but only in the best of the best stadiums.”

Savage Race Heads to Little Everglades for Fall Race (May 14, 2012)

By Pete Williams

(Published May 14, 2012)Savage Race, the popular Florida-based mud run that adopted several of Tough Mudder’s obstacles for its race in March, now will use a venue Tough Mudder had great success with in 2011.


In March, Savage Race attracted more than 5,000 athletes, including ESPN anchor Stuart Scott (above/photos courtesy Savage Race)

In March, Savage Race attracted more than 5,000 athletes, including ESPN anchor Stuart Scott (above/photos courtesy Savage Race)

Little Everglades Ranch, which drew nearly 20,000 participants over two days in December for the inaugural Florida edition of Tough Mudder, will host what will be the third edition of Savage Race on Oct. 20. Little Everglades is located in Pasco County in Dade City, more convenient to Tampa than the Clermont site Savage Race used in March and for its first race last August.


Savage Race is the most successful of the Florida-based mud runs, drawing more than 5,000 participants in March. Building on the success of its first race in 2011, Savage Race in March expanded its course to nearly 5 miles and added several obstacles similar to those of Tough Mudder, including a “Shriveled Richard” ice plunge like Tough Mudder’s Chernobyl Jacuzzi, and a 10-foot leap off of “Davy Jones’ Locker” into a lake.

Sam Abbitt, the co-founder of Savage Race, says the intent has never been to mimic Tough Mudder. He points out that Tough Mudder stresses camaraderie and a non-race format. Savage Race, on the other hand, is a chip-timed event with awards to top finishers. Savage Race packs about the same number of obstacles – roughly two dozen – into a course less than half the length of Tough Mudder.

SavageRaceLogo“A lot of races have similar obstacles but we’ve done a lot to differentiate ourselves from other races,” Abbitt says. “We call our race a race and give you more obstacles per mile so you spend more time on the obstacles and less time running.”

Tough Mudder’s decision in February to move the 2012 event away from Little Everglades was a surprise, though a Tough Mudder official said at the time the race series likes to vary its venues. Tough Mudder will take place Dec. 1-2 in Fort Meade at Dirty Foot Adventures, which will host its own event, the inaugural Dirty Foot Adventure Run, on June 9.

Abbitt said Savage Race moved to Little Everglades because it had outgrown its Clermont location, where a lack of parking had become an issue. Though the Little Everglades property, which hosts major equestrian and high school cross country events, can host long races such as the 12-mile Tough Mudder, Abbitt says he does not plan to expand Savage Race beyond six miles.

A number of Florida-based mud runs have sprung up in the last two years to challenge national event series such as Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Spartan Race, all of which have built eight-figure businesses in a short period, staging dozens of events around the world. Savage Race seems the most likely to grow beyond the Sunshine State.

Abbitt says Savage Race will expand beyond Florida in 2013, with dates planned in Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

Florida Obstacle Race Calendar Filling…for 2013 (March 7, 2012)

By Pete Williams

A competitor in last summer's Savage Race. Obstacle events are multiplying for 2013.

A competitor in last summer’s Savage Race. Obstacle events are multiplying for 2013.

(Published March 7, 2012) – We’re still not sure if obstacle racing and mud runs are here to stay or just a passing fad. But Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, and especially Tough Mudder already are filling their calendars for 2013, with numerous dates in Florida.

A year ago, Tough Mudder held 14 races in North America, Spartan Race 27, and Warrior Dash 35. That was impressive considering Warrior Dash only debuted in 2009 and the other two races in 2010. This year, the three race series already have combined to schedule 125 events, including races in Canada and Europe, and planning for 2013 is well underway.

Warrior Dash, which has two races in Florida this year, announced a third-annual event at Lake Wales for Feb. 2, 2013 shortly after its January race concluded. Spartan Race officials followed suit after their race in Miami last month and will return to South Florida on Feb. 23-24, 2013.

Expect more ice plunges in 2013

Expect more ice plunges in 2013

Now Tough Mudder has announced dates and locations for a whopping 51 events for 2013. Tough Mudder will have just one Florida event this year – coming to Fort Meade’s Dirty Foot Adventures on Dec. 1-2 – but will visit the Sunshine State at least three times in 2013.

Tough Mudder will make its Miami debut Feb. 16-17, 2013 – just a week before the Super Spartan Race, the eight-mile version of the event which has been held at Oleta River State Park in North Miami the last two years. Tough Mudder also will come to Jacksonville on May 18-19 and visit the Tampa Bay area for what will be the third time, moving its date from December to Nov. 2-3.

Obstacle races, which feature 12 to 30 challenges over a 3-to-12 mile course, have exploded in popularity in the last 18 months, especially among the coveted 21-to-35 demographic that’s generally underrepresented in distance running and triathlon. Marketed to groups and featuring lively post-race festivities with free beer, obstacle races have thrived even amid a difficult economic climate. Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash each should gross more than $40 million in 2012.

The races have inspired numerous competitors, including several Florida-based promoters. Savage Race, which drew 2,000 athletes to its inaugural event in Clermont in August, is expecting 3,500 for its second race on Saturday, also in Clermont.