The wires at Electroshock Therapy might spark and bite, but it’s not the toughest Tough Mudder obstacle. Nor is Arctic Enema, a jumbo tub of ice water that mudders have to swim, ducking under a wall festooned with barbed wire. Tougher still is Everest, a greased quarter pipe 15 feet high, and here’s where Tough Mudder differs from Ironman and every other race. Some mudders may be fast and sure-footed enough to run halfway up, grab the rim and pull themselves over, but others can’t make it. Six and a half miles into the course, their legs are jelly. They’ll take a running start, charge up the ramp and fall just short. Some get their fingers to the top, then cuss and groan as they lose their grip and slide back. Another running start, another try. This can go on for 10 tries over 20 long minutes. Everest is so steep, you’d probably find half the mudders in a writhing mass at the base of the ramp if not for the pledge that sets this game apart. “I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time,” reads the Tough Mudder pledge. “I help my fellow mudders.”
When the curved wall proves too steep for some entrants, others wait. They yell encouragement: “C’mon, you’re killing it. You got it this time!” They perch at the top of the wall, reaching down to grab a hand or wrist and haul the next mudder to the top. Something similar happens at the 20-foot climbing walls elsewhere on the course: Stronger mudders form human ladders, letting weaker ones climb their backs to the top, where war whoops and bro hugs ensue.
“That’s the spirit!” Mark Givens yells. A tall, mustached Iraq war vet decked out in a poncho and sombrero, Givens is new to the sport—“I ran my first Tough Mudder this year”—and isn’t entered this day. He doesn’t know anyone who is. “Don’t need to know ’em to support ’em,” he says, ringing a cowbell for every mudder going by. “I’ll tell you something. I was in the U.S. Marine Corps for 28 years, and these bastards right here are the toughest I ever saw. I’ve run nine marathons, and you know what? Marathons are boring. With this thing, you got variety. Fun! Those electric wires? It’s like a rattlesnake bite—you do the funky chicken, check to see you’re still alive and keep going. And maybe you can’t get over Everest, but the other guys pull you up. Teamwork—that’s what makes this thing cooler than a marathon.”
Like a lungfish rising from Mesozoic muck, this thing evolved. It might have died with a name like Badass Ninja Jog, a name Dean actually considered. He was sitting in a Boston bar with friends four years ago, feeding his laptop a list of words that might fit his still-nameless sport. Challenge. Ninja. Badass. Run. Jog. Dash. “Warrior Challenge. How’s that sound? Or Ninja Battle. Check to see if Ninjabattle.com is available.”
“Try this,” Dean said. “Badass Mudder. BAM for short.”
“It’s better than your other lame names, Will.”
Then it hit him. Like a spark. “Tough Mudder. ‘I want to be a Tough Mudder,’?” he said, trying out the sound of it.
That first Tough Mudder on Pennsylvania ski slopes featured awards for best mullet and best costumes: Most Bad-Ass for the best, Most Ass for the skimpiest and Most Likely to Have Been in the Village People for cops, leathermen and Native American chiefs. One early obstacle, Blood Bath, called for entrants to eat a fiery habanero pepper and plunge into a pool of red ice water. The founders dropped Blood Bath when mudders began puking in the water. Puking and worse. Hence an unofficial pledge: Challenges should not be digestive.
Tough Mudder comes complete with a corporate wink. Over photos of “ridiculous team costumes,” Toughmudder.com announces that “Mudders do not take themselves too seriously.” Even as eight-figure revenue and corporate sponsors make the sport more respectable, you can still see the occasional SpongeBob or Batman costume at Tough Mudder events. You still run past jokey signs on the course:
IF YOU’RE HUFFING AND PUFFING NOW, WE FEEL SORRY FOR YOUR BETTER HALF
LEAVE YOUR DIGNITY HERE
REMEMBER, YOU SIGNED A DEATH WAIVER
The death waiver, at least, is real. A three-page, single-spaced release describing Tough Mudder as “a hazardous activity that presents the ultimate physical and mental challenge,” the death waiver is both a legal document and a sales tool. Signed by every entrant, it holds Tough Mudder LLC blameless for injuries due to “smoke and open flames, barbed wire, pipes and electric shocks, inadequate first aid and/or…errors in judgment by personnel working the event.” Mudders agree that it’s their job to inspect every inch of the 10- to 12-mile course and hold themselves liable for “broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions, exposure, heat-related illness, mental stress or exhaustion, infection and concussions.” Maybe concussions make the list twice because you may be concussed. The waiver goes on to absolve Tough Mudder LLC of any responsibility for mudders’ “spinal injuries and paralysis, stroke, heart attack and even death.” A subsection adds possible death sites, “including but not limited to stands, sidewalks, parking areas.…” The list includes “restrooms,” presumably in case some poor mudder makes a toilet bowl his final Arctic Enema.
Still, the grungy spirit of Tough Mudder gets a little less ironic as Under Armour, Dos Equis and other brands sign on as sponsors. Less like a party, more like a business. This year the empire will expand into 70,000-square-foot headquarters in Brooklyn, where Dean, now 32, still lives with his fiancée and rides his bike to work. His company outgrew its old HQ by growing from eight employees to more than 120 in less than two years. They tend to be young, fit and resolutely on-message about the Tough Mudder experience, one that arrives engineered from the mud up for a generation that values experience above all else and craves the social ammunition—photos, videos, tweets—events like Tough Mudder provide. Climbing a mountain is sweet, but posting a photo from the summit to the envy of your Facebook friends is even sweeter. You can buy a ticket for Coachella. You have to survive Tough Mudder.
“Experience is the new luxury good,” one lean, T-shirted executive says, showing off a Lego model of a climbing wall, a gift from a Tough Mudder fanboy, and a photo of another fan who hung yellow wires on his head and went out on Halloween as Electroshock Therapy.
“We live the brand,” says another.
“We’re not like our parents’ generation,” says a third. Meaning not settling for a suit-and-tie job and saving up for a McMansion. “We’re about what we do, not what we own.”
If it sounds a little canned, it’s not because they don’t mean it. It’s because staying on-message is part of the curriculum at Tough Mudder University, the corporate training program. Employees read Starbucks company history for tips on how to expand while maintaining quality control. They study the way JetBlue formed a “countercorporate” culture and how companies mine data on consumer habits. They discuss how the reality show The Ultimate Fighter helped UFC establish its brand. (Don’t be surprised if Tough Mudder turns up on cable as a reality show pegged to the season-ending World’s Toughest Mudder.) They discuss how their brand is more like Harley-Davidson—a social club, a state of mind—than like any lame-ass traditional sport. And they prefer to avoid questions about Mr. Mouse.
Billy Wilson, a.k.a. Mr. Mouse, is a retired British soldier who claims Will Dean stole his idea. In 1986 the colorful, quotable Wilson, who once ran the London Marathon in costume—as the back end of a horse—began hosting military-style obstacle races on his farm in England’s Midlands. “I did not invent cross-country running nor army assault courses,” he says. “What I did was put them together, then added my own quirky names of terror-testing tortures.”