By Pete Williams
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.
It 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.
Desert 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.
Newcomers 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.
That 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.
It’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.