Tag Archives: Will Dean

Tough Mudder 2.0

By Pete Williams

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

Electric Eel: Retired by Tough Mudder for 2015

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.

ToughMudderAZThat means we’ll likely soon see Savage Race ape some of the new Tough Mudder obstacles, which TM vice president Alex Patterson calls “Tough Mudder 2.0.”

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.”

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

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana in 2013

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.


Tough Mudder “Jacksonville” – Florida Fatigue (May 19, 2013)

By Pete Williams

TMJVilleEverestPALATKA, Fla. – If a Tough Mudder is held in the forest and only 3,500 runners show up, does it still make an impact?

We’ll let the local economists figure that one out. This much we know: After drawing more than 15,000 to its inaugural Florida event in December of 2011, Tough Mudder has seen its numbers cut in half twice – to 7,500 at Homestead Miami Speedway in March and now 3,500 this weekend, including what couldn’t have been more than 1,200 runners today at the Hog Waller Mud Bog.

The market for obstacle mud runs is saturated, especially in Florida, but Tough Mudder hasn’t helped its cause in the Sunshine State. The Brooklyn-based company should have stuck with its original Florida site, Dade City’s Little Everglades Ranch, which might be the best venue in the state. Instead Tough Mudder toyed with Dirty Foot Adventures in Polk County last year before moving to Sarasota’s Hi Hat Ranch for last December’s event, a modest 10-mile course marred by traffic delays of up to three hours.

TMJvillePineWe liked today’s venue, a 750-acre pine plantation with a clearing in the middle used for off-road 4×4 racing. Runners spent more time in mud and muddy water than in any of the five Tough Mudders I’ve done. There was one half-mile stretch in thick calf-deep mud that got a bit scary. As part of the first of just three waves, I found myself alone in the muck, wondering what might happen if an alligator or one of the property’s namesake wild hogs sprung from the palmetto.

The problem with the Hog Waller location – and this is a typical mud run organizing mistake – is that it’s not far from everywhere but not close to anything. Though billed as Tough Mudder “Jacksonville,” Palatka is about 90 minutes from most of J’ville and more than two hours from Tampa. It’s not far from Gainesville but, alas, the student Gators are home for the summer.

Tough Mudder trotted out all of its signature obstacles among the 20 it staged, including the Arctic Enema, Funky Monkey, Mount Everest half pipe, and race-ending Electroshock Therapy. The “Cage Crawl,” the on-your-back, claustrophobia-inducing challenge through water under chainlink fence that we saw for the first time in Phoenix in February, returned, though we were disappointed not to see “Just the Tip,” a clever horizontal wall obstacle that appeared in March in Homestead.

Walk the Plank, the 12-foot leap into water that during a race in West Virginia last month accounted for the first fatality in Tough Mudder history, also returned. There was “Strong Swimmers Only” signage leading up to the obstacle and noticeably absent were the “You Signed a Death Waiver” signs usually posted along the course.

After doing Tough Mudder in February at a former General Motors proving ground near Phoenix and at the Homestead Miami Speedway in March, we’ve found Tough Mudder puts forth more effort on its obstacles when its not working out in the woods. The diversity of obstacles was far better on the racetracks. Admittedly, it’s tough staging in the forest. Then again, Hog Waller is a major timber operation with plenty of interior roads.

Shock, shock and more shock

Shock, shock and more shock

Our biggest beef with Tough Mudder is that it’s now all about the electroshock. In 2011, there was only the race-ending Electroshock Therapy, where most athletes felt little. By the end of last year, a second electric obstacle was added but the jolts still modest. But the three events I’ve done in 2013 have gotten progressively more intense. During today’s Electric Eel, the 40-foot crawl through water underneath electrically-charged wires, I took at least a dozen major tasings, including one to the back of the head that left me loopy for the next half mile.

I’m all for a little Fear Factor in my obstacle race, but it’s getting ridiculous. At least today’s Tough Mudder didn’t throw in “Dark Lightning,” where athletes crawl through pitch-black underground tunnels with wires hanging from the ceiling. This, of course, is the signature feature of the British Tough Guy event, the race that Will Dean studied as a Harvard Business School project and pretty much copied for Tough Mudder.

Speaking of copying, since Tough Mudder didn’t introduce anything new this weekend, we’re wondering what the Savage Race will do for new material. Savage, of course, is the Winghouse to Tough Mudder’s Hooters, compressing the 12-mile Tough Mudder into a six-mile course – or 4.5 miles at Savage’s most recent affair near Atlanta.

Savage has succeeded with its more-obstacles-per-mile strategy since many athletes have no interest in tackling a 12-mile course. Actually, today’s Tough Mudder was only about 11 miles and even that was a stretch. Athletes exited the woods at the 10-mile mark and then were looped around the main festival area to go through the Funky Monkey, Mount Everest and Electroshock Therapy, all lumped together.

TMJVilleBarsPerhaps the oddest part of today’s event was the lack of people, including spectators. Because of the woods, sandy terrain, and long stretches of running, I went periods of up to 10 minutes without seeing anyone. As part of the lead pack in the first wave, I not only never encounter a line, I was the only person at an obstacle on several occasions, including Mount Everest. (Good thing I was able to make it without assistance.) The guy in front of me at the Wounded Warrior alternating-piggyback carry had to wait a minute for me to show up. (As usual, I got the worse end of that deal, carrying a 185-pound dude who only had to sling my 155 pounds around.)

Such isolation is not unusual at smaller, local mud races but not at Tough Mudder. We’re wondering if Tough Mudder will scale back its Florida events for 2014 or even go to one-day affairs like some Spartan Race events. It’s also worth asking if Tough Mudder is having its Muddy Buddy moment in the Sunshine State. Muddy Buddy thrived for years in Florida until other local events sprung up and national competitors like Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash arrived. After Muddy Buddy drew modest crowds in Orlando and Miami in 2011, it pulled out of Florida and scaled down from 18 to eight events nationally.

Of course, Florida is like no other state when it comes to obstacle racing, with several dozen local races. Tough Mudder still draws legions globally and in most of North America, parts of which it’s only now hitting for the first time.

toughmudderlogoLocal race organizers must not worry too much about Tough Mudder anymore. There were no planes flying banners overhead on Sunday. And I can’t remember the last endurance race of any sort I went to and didn’t find a single race flyer on my windshield afterward.

Unlike Spartan Race, Tough Mudder has not revealed specific dates for 2014 events. It will return to Florida on Nov. 2-3 for Tough Mudder “Tampa” in River Ranch, Fla., another no-man’s part of the state that’s not especially close to anything – and 90 minutes from Tampa.

River Ranch could be another Palatka. Or perhaps because Tough Mudder has staged three Florida events in five and a half months, what it really needs is the six-month break.






Tough Mudder Death Raises Water Obstacle Concerns

By Pete Williams

TMplankSunday’s death of a 28-year-old man following Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic in West Virginia raises the question of water-related safety at endurance sports events.

According to The Baltimore Sun, Avishek Sengupta was with a half-dozen friends on the course Saturday when he encountered the “Walk the Plank” obstacle, where participants jump into a deep pool of muddy water 15 feet below a wooden platform. Sengupta jumped in but did not resurface and was later flown to a Virginia hospital, where he was taken off life support Sunday.

According to The Sun, Sengupta was taken out of the water by Tough Mudder staff and resuscitated by emergency medical technicians. But his brain was compromised because of how long he was submerged.

The death was the first in the three-year history of Tough Mudder, which has held more than 50 events, hosting more than 750,000 athletes.

“As organizers, we take our responsibility to provide a safe event to our participants very seriously,” Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean said in a statement. “Tough Mudder is devastated by this tragic accident.”

TMPlank2Tough Mudder’s website noted that the company’s obstacles “are designed by trained engineers; the process includes a thorough safety check and inspection by safety experts and third party engineers.” Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic was staffed with more than 75 ALS, EMT, paramedics, water rescue technicians and emergency personnel.

The death came just over a year after Tony Weathers, 30, drowned during a river crossing obstacle at the Original Mud Run in Fort Worth, Texas. Weathers, an avid competitive athlete training for an Ironman 70.3 race, did not resurface after entering the water. Divers found his body the following day.

That these two obstacle racing deaths took place in the water rather than elsewhere on the course is perhaps not surprising. Most triathlon fatalities occur not from bicycle crashes or heat-related exhaustion while running but during the race’s opening swim leg.

In 2010, researchers from the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation investigated fatalities in 2,971 USA Triathlon-sanctioned events held between January 2006 and September 2008, publishing their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Fourteen participants died – 13 of them while swimming and one while biking. Swimmers who died were between 28 and 65 years old and 11 were men.

A triathlon swim start is a chaotic situation. Depending on the size of the race and the format, dozens, hundreds or even a thousand-plus swimmers can leave at once. The more crowded the race, the researchers found, the greater the odds of drowning.

TM Sarasota in December

TM Sarasota in December

Even advanced swimmers and triathletes can panic in an open-water situation where they’re getting struck by other swimmers, struggling to find a clear path and stay above water. Constricting wetsuits contribute to the stress.

At the Original Mud Run, the Texas obstacle race, a sense of panic ensued when a large number of athletes went into the river at once and could not grab hold of support ropes.

Tough Mudder’s Walk the Plank obstacle, widely emulated by other obstacle races, consists of a 15-foot jump into water at least 10 feet deep and a swim of about 20 feet to shore. Tough Mudder, like other races, stations lifeguards in and around the water. Staffers at the top of the platform make sure athletes do not leap until there’s nobody left below.

For many athletes, the Walk the Plank challenge is not about the water and the swim but a fear of heights. Some linger at the top for minutes before summoning the courage to leap.

The soaring popularity of obstacle races in the past three years is due in part to the fact that obstacle events, unlike triathlons, do not require athletes to know how to swim. Obstacle races typically involve mud and waist-deep water. Anything deeper – such as Walk the Plank or water beneath monkey bars – typically requires just a short doggy paddle to shore.

Spartan Race, Tough Mudder’s chief competitor, features fewer water obstacles. Savage Race, which has emulated several of Tough Mudder’s signature obstacles, including Walk the Plank, included a 150-yard swim in its initial two races.

Water obstacles like this former Savage Race challenge likely are a thing of the past.

Water obstacles like this former Savage Race challenge likely are a thing of the past.

Savage Race organizer Sam Abbitt, speaking after his most recent race two weeks ago, said lifeguards had to rescue or assist more than 100 people at the March 2012 Savage Race in Clermont, Fla. Abbitt said several of those rescues were due to people competing in weighted rucksacks – even during the swim. When the race moved to Dade City’s Little Everglades Ranch, the swim was eliminated.

“We decided that this risk factor was too high,” Abbitt said following his most recent Savage Race, which did not include a lengthy swim but again featured a Walk-the-Plank style obstacle called Davy Jones’ Locker. “We do take pride in kicking your ass, but we also take safety seriously.”

Walking the Plank at TM Arizona in February

Walking the Plank at TM Arizona in February

Tough Mudder, perhaps more than other races, creates obstacles that aren’t just challenging but have the highest “Fear Factor” rating. Those include claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, plunges into Dumpsters full of ice water, and the signature runs and crawls through electrically-charged waters. For those afraid of heights, there’s Walk the Plank, which Tough Mudder brands with Wheaties signage as part of a recent sponsorship deal that will include featuring Tough Mudder images on boxes of the iconic cereal.

Triathlon drownings have not deterred other triathletes and it’s unlikely athletes won’t continue to flock to events. Obstacle races are known for their lengthy liability waivers and, unfortunately, the sheer volume of athletes increased the odds of a fatality. Dean, the Tough Mudder CEO, had said as much in interviews over the last year.

In a first-person article written for Inc. magazine in February, Dean wrote: “Safety is a huge concern. We invest phenomenal amounts of money on safety. We have a medical staff at each event. We probably have more lawyers on staff than some law firms do. We have a book of contingency plans that every employee reads and takes a test on. If you don’t pass, you have to go through training and have a discussion with a senior manager.

“We’ve sold more than 500,000 tickets, and somehow, we’ve had no deaths. Statistically, it’s amazing. You take that number of people, and if they were sitting at home that day, statistically, we should have had a few heart attacks. I have to tell the team, it’s coming. We have to accept that it’s going to happen at some point and work to ensure it never does.”







Tough Mudder Arizona: Full Throttle (Feb. 23, 2013)

By Pete Williams

Courtesy Tough Mudder/Zach DeLaune

Photos Courtesy Tough Mudder (Zach DeLaune)

MESA, Ariz. – Less than three months ago, Tough Mudder seemed to be suffering growing pains. The December event we did in Sarasota, Fla., provided three-hour traffic delays, a modest 10-mile course, fewer obstacles, electroshock challenges that delivered little-to-no electricity, and an overall experience that left some wondering if the popular obstacle mud run had jumped the shark.

Meanwhile, competitor Spartan Race continued to market its strenuous race – featuring 30-Burpee penalties for each failed challenge – as the most badass obstacle experience. With Spartan signing Reebok as title sponsor, taking on private equity, and scheduling high-profile events at Major League Baseball venues, it seemed Tough Mudder was not up for the challenge.

But if today’s Tough Mudder Arizona is any indication, event founder Will Dean and his Brooklyn-based brethren executed a winter pivot in anticipation of an escalating mud war with Spartan.

TMAZ2013bIt helped that Tough Mudder returned to the former site of the General Motors Proving operations, where for decades the automaker tested the limits of its cars. These days, it’s a rugged swath of desert and asphalt chunks, giving it a Mad Max or Repo Man vibe, with the occasional jackrabbit taking off in the shadow of the Arizona mountains.

It helped that unseasonably cool temperatures made Tough Mudder a constant shivering experience. A race-day start of 41 degrees and a thermometer that never saw 60 might be ideal for road running, but makes for a long, cold day when you’re regularly dunked in chilly water over a journey of just shy of 12 miles.

Tough Mudder, which had a relatively dry course in Florida of all places, did an impressive job creating mud and water in the desert. The signature Actic Enema ice plunge and the Walk the Plank 12-foot leap into water came early. The Funky Monkey bars, which had a 90 percent success rate in Florida, dropped nearly everyone here into more icy water.

TMAZ2013cDesert mud that’s impossible to wash off made the bars slippery. Ditto for a new variation — the “Hangin’ Tough,” where athletes had to swing between five rings over water. Then there was the “Cage Crawl,” a more miserable version of the “Ball Shrinker,” where athletes typically go across water backwards on a rope, submerging in the middle. In the “Cage Crawl,” chain link fence was laid about six inches over the water and the only way through was on your back. Even the “Fire Walker,” usually a run along a safe path through the flames, required athletes to leap over fire at the end — into more neck-deep cold water.

Tough Mudder is at its best (or worst) when it comes to Fear Factor-style obstacles. The claustrophobia-inducing dark tunnels of Trench Warfare and the Boa Constrictor tube crawl through more water again delivered.

TMAZ2013dNewcomers to Tough Mudder worry about the Electroshock Therapy, though we’ve twice done Tough Mudder in Florida and never felt a thing. At the Electric Eel in Sarasota, athletes crawled along a tarp under hanging wires that delivered little-to-no charge. For today’s Electric Eel, athletes maneuvered through a foot of cold water. It was impossible to miss the hanging wires, which delivered the nasty equivalent of a dentist’s drill to all parts of the body for an expletive-filled slog of about 40 feet. A dozen jolts was the average assault.

I was privileged to run as part of the 21-member “One Tough Team,” a combination of employees, friends, and family of Athletes’ Performance, the Phoenix-based company created in 1999 by Mark Verstegen, with whom I’ve had the honor of writing five (and counting) Core Performance books.

We wore tight adidas long-sleeve ClimaCool shirts with the Core Performance logo on front and  “One Tough Team” on the back. Most wore black leggings. Our wardrobe was typical, a stark contrast to Florida races, where the rule of thumb seems to be the more skin the better.

TMAZ2013eThat was not an option today, though we finally were warming after a group run up Tough Mudder’s Everest halfpipe. We had to wait for Electroshock Therapy as attendants toyed with the voltage. That gave an emcee enough time to encourage our One Tough Team to lock arms and go through together.

We knew what was coming and many of us went down hard. Unlike Florida’s dry terrain, we face planted into more mud and water and crawled to the finish on our bellies under the wires. This was the first obstacle race I’ve attended where foil blankets were offered – or needed.

Tough Mudder continues to have the best post-race finishers chute in the obstacle industry, with the Under Armour T-shirt (a new variation for 2013), orange headband, Clif Builder Bars, and Dos Equis beer. There were adequate rinse-off hoses and changing tents for men and women. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Tough Mudder’s opening emcee, a combination Tony Robbins/Chris Rock guy who travels the country to provide the best pre-race motivation anywhere. As usual, Tough Mudder’s merchandise tent was doing brisk sales.

TMAZ2013It’s funny. Two weeks ago, I was disappointed to learn business travel would prevent me from doing the Super Spartan Race in Miami. I figured the Burpees and whatever else came out of the twisted mind of Joe De Sena would be far more challenging than Tough Mudder Arizona.

Instead, Spartan athletes raced in 79-degree temperatures in South Florida and we got shocked and chilled in the desert.

Let the mud wars continue.








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.

Tough Mudder Coming to Pasco County (March 19, 2011)

By Pete Williams

toughmudder3(Published March 19, 2011) – Tough Mudder, perhaps the most challenging of the growing field of adventure mud runs, is coming to Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City on Dec. 3-4.

Billed as “the toughest endurance test on the planet,” Tough Mudder is a grueling 10-to-12 mile trail run containing 20 military style obstacles designed by British Special Forces.

Conceived by CEO Will Dean while at Harvard Business School, Tough Mudder seems to delight in providing a far greater challenge than other mud runs. Only 78 percent finish the course during a typical race, with an average time of two and a half hours.

According to the Tough Mudder press materials, USMC participants say the race is just as hard, if not more difficult, than USMC basic training and “significantly different from other mud events like Warrior Dash or Muddy Buddy because the courses are three times as long and held on hostile terrain.”

Tough Mudder “is not your average lame-ass mud run or spirit-crushing ‘endurance’ road race,” the race Web site says. “It’s Ironman meets Burning Man, and it is coming to a location near you. Our 10-12 mile obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. Forget finish times. Simply completing a Tough Mudder is a badge of honor.Tough Mudder is 3-4 times longer and much tougher than a typical mud run such as Warrior Dash.”

Tough Mudder’s obstacles are not of the pegboard or giant inflatable variety. Obstacles include running through fire, mud, freezing water, jumping off 15-foot planks and being shocked by 10,000 volts of electricity.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

There’s also something called the “Ball Shrinker,”which is appropriate since the Tough Mudder is a bit of a sausage fest, with a field that’s typically 80 percent male. (Perhaps Will Dean has a brother Jimmy?)

The Tampa Bay event is expected to draw 10,000 participants over two days and is a great value compared to triathlons and other mud runs – if you register early. The Sunday race, though identical, is cheaper and the current pre-registration price is $100 for Saturday and $80 for Sunday through June 15. (Those who got in before March 16 paid $80 or $60.) The prices go up on the 15th of each month before topping out at $180 and $160.

There’s plenty of jocularity involved, including free mullet haircuts and Tough Mudder tattoos post-race, along with various costume prizes including one for least clothing worn. (Presumably nudity is not allowed.)

Tough Mudder is one of at least a dozen mud runs coming to Florida this year. The Sunshine State leads the nation in this category, to the point where Tough Mudder is going up against the inaugural Muddy Buddy “world championship” at the Red Neck Yacht Club in Punta Gorda on Dec. 4.

Though Tough Mudder only debuted on May 2, 2010, it’s up to 14 events for 2011 and in 2012 will expand to Canada, Japan, Australia, England, and Scotland.

We’re not sure it’s the “toughest endurance event,” at least not compared to The Death Race in Vermont in June. But we wouldn’t bet against Tough Mudder reaching its goal of “replacing Ironman as the ultimate endurance event on the planet.”