Dean visited Wilson and studied his Tough Guy races prior to developing his Tough Mudder business plan. He also researched other obstacle runs and insists he couldn’t “steal” such commonplace ideas. A Harvard review found no clear wrongdoing but cited Dean for bending the university’s standards of honesty and integrity. So Mr. Mouse sued Tough Mudder in 2010. Dean’s company settled the lawsuit by paying a reported $725,000, but that didn’t stanch the bad blood between them. Mr. Mouse, who has called Dean “a scoundrel” and a “squelchy plagiarist,” sent playboy an e-mail promising he’d expose Dean once and for all in 2013.
Another rival, Spartan Race co-founder Joe DeSena, told Outside, “There’s not a person I despise more than Will Dean. Every day I wake up just out of spite for the guy.”
Meanwhile Dean seems as cool as an Arctic Enema. “We’re building a brand,” he says. End of story. For now, anyway.
On Saturday more than a thousand mudders gather at Raceway Park, a rusty old drag-race and motocross arena in Englishtown, New Jersey, for the World’s Toughest Mudder marathon. The goal: Run as many 10-mile laps as possible in 24 hours. The format makes WTM more demanding than any Ironman triathlon. In fact, the annual Ironman World Championship has gotten easier since it began in 1978. That year’s winner took 11 hours and 46 minutes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a marathon, while today’s Ironman champions do the same in a little over eight hours. At the 10-hour mark they’re getting massages and reading congratulatory texts.
Tough Mudder is harder, or at least hard longer, which happens to be a motto of one of the best teams in the competition, Nine Inch Males. At WTM, efficiency only makes the ordeal more demanding. Last year’s winner, Junyong Pak, an engineer from Beverly, Massachusetts, completed seven laps. It will take more than that this year, and who knows how many laps the champion will have to run in 2020. Fifteen? Twenty? Twenty laps would be 200 miles and 640 obstacles at a seven-minute-mile clip, which may not be humanly possible.
“We’re testing limits,” Dean says.
Only the top five percent at 34 regional events qualified for this Mudder. Those elite 1,200, la crème de l’enema arctique, stretch and crack their necks behind the start-finish line a little before 10 a.m., wishing each other a happy Mudder’s Day. Then loudspeakers blare “Go, go, go!” and the race is on. Twenty-three hours, 59 minutes and 45 seconds to go.
Defending champ Pak zips ahead at a quick jog. Pak, 34, thinks eight laps might win—80 miles by this time tomorrow. “If it takes more, I’m ready,” he says. “Because I’m really competitive.” A lean-muscled running machine with a 2:33 Boston Marathon to his credit, Pak says he’s not a great athlete. “But if it comes down to who wants it more, the other guy better have a Ph.D. in hurting.” Calling Tough Mudder “voluntary torture,” he says he’s the man to beat.
Two hotshots dog his steps in the early laps. Nikolay Nachev and Bryce Wilk, skinny upstarts with family and friends jogging along the course with them, cheering them on, stick with the champ through three and a half laps. That’s 35 miles—more than a marathon, more than most of the other mudders will complete in the next 24 hours. Pak, Nachev and Wilk are already an hour ahead of the rest of the pack. “Those two guys were sticking with me step for step, like it’s a footrace, which was pretty annoying,” Pak later recalls. “I had two thoughts. One was, It’s gonna be a long night. The other was, They’re gonna lose.” When Nachev ducks into a warming hut, one of five heated tents on the course stocked with drinking water, bananas and energy bars, Pak speeds by, picking up the pace. “I’m thinking, I’m going to drop this guy.” Soon Pak and Wilk, a skinny park ranger from Virginia, are dueling for the lead, going stride for gooey stride through Funky Monkey—where mudders monkey-bar their way over an icy water hazard—while the sun and the temperature drop. Leaders don’t rest.
Pak finishes lap five at 9:14 on Saturday night. This is when the cold starts to pull your balls up into your larynx. Early pacesetter Nachev, nursing a sore foot, drops out. Ranger Wilk takes the lead, stretching his margin over Pak to an hour, but Wilk is starting to show signs of strain, his eyes glassy as he maintains a killer pace, stride after stride, 20,000 strides per lap, colder every step.
Pak dashes into his tent on pit row. He peels off his wet suit and trades his cold, wet shoes and socks for dry pairs. “Gotta hustle,” he says. “It’s easy to burn 10 minutes on a pit stop.” It takes almost that long to pull a dry, skintight wet suit up his legs, over his chest and arms—at which point he remembers, “I’ve really gotta pee.”
Full-bladder disclosure: Mudders pee in their wet suits. That quick shot of warmth is a pleasure in the middle of an icy night. Unfortunately for Pak, a team of Tough Mudder videographers is tracking his every move with lights and a boom mike. It won’t do for the defending champ to grit his teeth and soak the crotch of his wet suit to the tune of sibilant relief, so he peels the suit down again, turns away from the camera and fills a Gatorade bottle. Zips back up, hurries back to the drag strip to start his next lap, only to realize he’s misplaced the timing chip that tracks his progress around the course. That’s a 20-minute penalty. Pak cools his sore heels in pit row, waiting out the penalty, kicking himself for his mental error, “I just made two mistakes that cost me 30 minutes,” he says. “Wilk’s an hour ahead of me. That puts doubts in your head. Maybe I just blew it.”
He could quit. No disgrace in that: Out of the 1,200 who started on Saturday morning, only 237 will be running at the end.
Pak shrugs. “Here goes.” Jogging from his tent to the blacktop drag strip that leads to the first obstacle, a mud hill called Cliffhanger, he gives the videographers a wave. Ninety minutes behind the leader, he takes off at a run.