After three hours of climbing walls, crawling through tunnels, scrabbling under barbed wire, swimming in ice water, hoisting cement blocks and other cruelties, you come to a 50-foot trough of icy mud. Dozens of yellow wires hang from its wood-plank roof like jellyfish tentacles. The wires sting like jellyfish too, because they’re electrified. This is Electroshock Therapy, the last of 32 obstacles on the 10-mile course. You’re wet, freezing, wheezing, bruised, cramping, spent. There’s only one thing to do.
Actually two. You could crawl under the wires, gargling muddy water and wasting time. But that’s not you, is it? No, you charge through the live wires at a run, yelling “Piss! Shit! Bite me!” and assorted ape grunts as the wires kick sparks off your face and aching limbs. Finally, six seconds later, it’s over. Yes! Now it’s a half-mile jog to the finish line. You’re rounding the last turn into the stadium, where loudspeakers pound Guns N’ Roses as you wave your mud-caked paws at the crowd. Fans cheer; your buddies hug you. You just survived the World’s Toughest Mudder, the ultimate test of the world’s most rugged new sport. Now you can strip off this wet suit, rinse off, grab a blanket and a parka and a beer. And sit down.
Unless you want to win. In that case you’ll need to start over. To win you’ll need to run the 10-mile obstacle course again. Eight more times.
“Tough Mudder is the worst day you’ll ever have. And the best,” one mudder says.
A cross between endurance race and boot camp, the world’s fastest-growing sport inspires extreme descriptions. It’s been called a masochist’s marathon and more:
“Probably the toughest event on the planet.”
“A real-life fight club.”
“Ironman meets Burning Man.”
“Trial by fire, ice, dirt, monkey bars, electric shocks—and more fire.”
There are plenty of other extreme sports—the traditional 26.2-mile marathon, plus ultramarathons of 50 kilometers and up, triathlons (swim, bike and ride), Ironman triathlons (swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon, you nut), and newer events such as Spartan Race, Muddy Buddy, Dirty Dash and Rugged Maniac, most featuring obstacles, some involving tree chopping, vegetable slicing, beer drinking, fighting American Gladiators–style bodybuilders armed with Nerf lances, even memorizing the names of U.S. presidents. The boot-campy ones have been growing quickly, challenging older events the way MMA beat down boxing a decade ago. And Tough Mudder, with almost a million adherents, leads the field. Which fits its cocky corporate goal: “We aim to replace Ironman as the preeminent brand in endurance sports.” Not bad for a concept dreamed up four years ago at Harvard, like Facebook, by a pasty entreprenerd, like Facebook, with a big boost from Facebook.
In 2009 Will Dean, a tall, sleepy-eyed veteran of the British government’s counterterrorism unit, sat in a chair-desk at Harvard Business School, defending his entry in the school’s famous Business Plan Contest. His pitch: an endurance sport based on British Special Forces training, one that could top what he termed the “grim monotony” of marathons and triathlons with the bracing variety of military conditioning—plus music, killer blogs, pictures and podcasts, friendship, even fun.
A marketing professor flipped through Dean’s proposal. “Rope ladders. Crawling through mud,” he said. “Who would do this?”
“I think I can get 500 participants to pay about a hundred dollars each.”
“And if they survive your obstacle course, what will they win?”
Dean lost the Harvard contest to a team whose idea became CloudFlare, now a web-security firm backed by investors to the tune of $20 million. But he kept plugging. He moved to Brooklyn and brought in an old boarding-school chum, London attorney Guy Livingstone, as chief operating officer. They pulled together $20,000 in seed money, $480,000 short of Facebook’s start-up stake five years before. In their first and most crucial investment, Dean and Livingstone spent $8,000 on Facebook ads. “They were still cheap in 2010,” Dean says. Soon Tough Mudder had 11,000 Facebook likes. The founders spent the rest of their stake renting a ski resort in Pennsylvania, hiring construction crews to build obstacles, checking the obstacles for splinters and stray nails, and rounding up a medical team, cleanup crew and volunteer firefighters to keep a lid on the wall of flames at the last challenge. “Then we started worrying.”
They opened registration. As the online tally shot into the upper hundreds, Dean thought there might be a bug in his website. No, there were just more weekend warriors and cross-training jocks than anyone knew, a Generation P90X hungry for a killer workout. Instead of 500 entrants, the number Dean had pulled out of his hat at Harvard, the first Tough Mudder boasted a field of 4,500. Entrants paid from $70 for early-bird entry to $100 for “Lazy Ass Late Entry,” adding up to a gross of more than $250,000. Dean and Livingstone had just made 10 times their investment in a week.
All he had to do now was stage the thing—a new sport anxiously awaited by 4,500 highly motivated customers who didn’t realize that Tough Mudder LLC consisted of Dean, Livingstone and a few interns. “We were incredibly naive. We thought everything would go according to plan,” Dean recalls. Then the sun came up on Sunday, May 2, 2010, the dawn of the Tough Mudder era. “We found climbing walls that were supposed to be 12 feet tall were only five feet.”
Instead of scaling the walls like marines, entrants hopped them. “And we’d mismeasured the course. It wasn’t the seven miles we promised but more like five and a half. Which seemed like a blessing when we ran out of drinking water.” Somehow everyone made it to sundown. Happy mudders talked up the event. The founders put on two more Tough Mudders that year, grossing $2.2 million. Three years later they’re knee-deep in mud money.
As a business Tough Mudder is almost evilly simple. It’s an experience, not a race. As Dean says, “If you climb a mountain, nobody asks how long you took to do it.” Nobody pays you either. Dean and Livingstone bet that Tough Mudder T-shirts, tattoos and the now-iconic orange headband that goes to each finisher would mean more to their public than cash prizes. And with no cash prizes, they kept entry fees low and revenue high. After expenses, including a free beer for everyone who finished—one beer—the rest was profit. They banked enough in 2010 to expand to 14 events in 2011. Total revenue: $22 million. Last year’s schedule jumped to 35 events in 16 states plus Australia, Canada, Scotland and England, for a take topping $70 million. This year’s schedule features more than 50 events in those countries plus Germany.