By Pete Williams
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.
We 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.
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.
Perhaps 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.
Local 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.