Tough Mudder: The obstacle courses for adults that are now worth $250m

Crawling through dirt, plunging into ice cold water and scrambling over haystacks doesn’t sound like a route to riches. But a growing passion for extreme sports is turning it into just that

Richard Askwith
Friday 03 May 2013 19:20

Some call it sport. Some call it fun. Many call it madness. And a few people are getting filthy rich from it. This weekend, in the usually tranquil parkland of the Boughton estate near Kettering, Northampton-shire, 14,000 consenting adults will submit themselves to a range of cruel and unnatural punishments, from swimming through a giant vat of crushed ice to leaping through flames, wading through waist-deep liquid mud, scaling huge, greased walls and running through a jungle of dangling wires that zap them with electric shocks.

If it sounds weird, it’s weirder still if you try it. One moment you’re running normally, on moderately muddy turf; the next you’re swinging by hand from a series of greased monkey bars; then you’re running – or staggering – again; then wriggling on your stomach through a narrow tunnel that’s nose-deep in liquid mud; then staggering again, trying to ignore the shrieks of agony; then shooting down a water-slide into a pond so shockingly icy that you have to remind yourself to breathe again when your head emerges from the water; then trying to stagger again; and so on for mile after mile until every muscle and organ is catatonic with distress… Yet this isn’t some secret CIA “black op”. Instead, it may be the world’s fastest-growing sport.

The event in Kettering is called the Tough Mudder: a 12-mile assault course with 22 major obstacles that claims to be “probably the toughest event on the planet”. It takes an average of three-and-a-half hours to run, walk, crawl, climb and swim your way around; many people take twice that. Participants will have paid between £50 and £120 each to take part.

A couple of counties further north, another 1,500 masochists will devote tomorrow to a similar event, the Mad Monk, at Darley Hall, Derbyshire. The challenges there include repeated swims across the River Derwent. Next weekend, there’s the Rat Race Dirty Weekend at Burghley House, Lincolnshire, where 5,500 people – who will have paid up to £149 for the privilege – will attempt what’s billed as “the largest assault course on Earth”. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Getting on for 200,000 people in the UK will take part in vaguely mud-related obstacle races this year. (The newly launched Obstacle Racing Magazine lists 22 such events this month alone.) In the US, 1.5 million are expected to do so. Tough Mudder – which describes itself as based on British special forces training – is the giant of the industry; but the field is thick with competitors. Rival brands include Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Rat Race, Warrior Run, Demon Run, Xrunner and Total Warrior – and almost any other permutation of those words you can imagine. Worldwide, the industry is worth at least $250m. Yet five years ago, mass participation “adventure racing” barely existed. The story of its explosive growth is an object lesson in the miracles of modern marketing. It’s scarcely less dirty, in places, than the events themselves.

It started in 1986, when an ex-soldier called Billy Wilson put on a winter cross-country race at his farm in Staffordshire. Called the Tough Guy, it became an annual event: initially with just a few mud-related obstacles but quickly evolving into a full-blown military-style assault course of nearly eight miles. Regular hospitalisations, usually for broken bones or hypothermia, fuelled its notoriety, and photographs of mudcaked runners crawling beneath barbed wire sometimes made it to the “fancy that” slots of national newspapers. Wilson was seen as an eccentric rather than a commercial pioneer. The takings went largely to local charities.

Then, getting on for two decades later, more entrepreneurial types began to get in on the act. One of the first was Jim Mee, a York-based event organiser who staged his first Rat Race “urban adventure” in 2004, attracting 300 entrants. His breakthrough, he says, was to realise that the handful of adventure-based events that already existed – such as the Everest Marathon (est. 1985) or the trans-Sahara Marathon des Sables (est. 1986) – were far too extreme to be commercial. “The barriers to entry were too high. The participant base was tiny. So we lowered the bar. Our events are designed for everybody.”

Nine years later, 70,000 people will take part in his 21 Rat Race events in the UK. Roughly half of these are obstacle races. Nearly all offer what Mee calls “a snapshot of adventure” rather than genuine outdoor adventure challenges. He expects to turnover £5.5m this year. By industry standards, he’s a minnow.

Will Dean has been compared to a shark. A boyish 32-year-old from Sheffield who’s now based in New York, Dean spent four years working for the Foreign Office in counter-terrorism before enrolling for an MBA at Harvard Business School. In 2009, he entered the School’s annual business plan competition with a proposal for a mass-participation obstacle race. He lost, but he knew he had a winner, because he’d done his homework: much of it in Staffordshire, where he’d persuaded Billy Wilson to share the logistical and financial secrets of Tough Guy.

Wilson had co-operated in the belief that the project would focus, helpfully for him, on “the feasibility and logistics of expanding Tough Guy internationally”. But the final version that Dean eventually showed Wilson was subtly different from the one he submitted to Harvard, recommending a wait-and-see approach rather than urgent expansion.

Shortly afterwards, in partnership with an old schoolfriend, Guy Livingstone, also 32, Dean – who had also studied the Strongman Run (est. 2007) in Germany – set up his own event in the US. The first Tough Mudder was held in May 2010, in Pennsylvania.

Dean and Livingstone needed to sell 500 tickets to break even. Thanks to clever use of an $8,000 marketing budget, they sold 4,500. Thanks to clever pricing, this meant they had $500,000 in the bank – before they’d even begun to pay for the actual event. It was, they realised, an even better business model than they’d imagined.

The subsequent story of Tough Mudder has been one of jaw-dropping growth. Revenues for 2010 totalled $2.2m; for 2011, $22m; for 2012, $70m. They have 35 events worldwide and plan to increase this to well over 50 this year, with financial growth to match.

It goes without saying that Billy Wilson was not best pleased when word of Dean and Livingstone’s success got back to him. The details of his displeasure will have to go largely unsaid, too, as both he and Dean are legally barred from discussing their dispute. Their out-of-court settlement in 2011 followed a lawsuit from Wilson, a counter-suit from Dean, and a storm of strong words alleged to have included at least one threat involving beds and horse decapitation. The confidential settlement is reported to have involved a $750,000 payment to Wilson.

Nor is Wilson Tough Mudder’s only enemy. Rival organisers in the US have complained of over-aggressive marketing methods, from allegedly targeting Facebook users who “liked” competitors’ events to flying a plane over a Spartan Race trailing the banner: “THINK THIS IS TOUGH? TRY A TOUGH MUDDER”. Joe DeSena, founder of Spartan Race, told Outside magazine last year: “There’s not a person on this planet I despise more than Will Dean.”

Yet quarrelling seems futile: there’s enough money in this for everyone. Spartan Race (est. 2010) made $30m in 2012. Warrior Dash (est. 2009 with a $5,000 investment) made $50m. And – with new income streams such as sponsorship, branded kit sales and fees from would-be “host towns” still being developed – few people believe that the limits of growth have been reached. Some believe that the sport (depending on how you define it) will overtake triathlon this year as the fastest-growing sport in the world.

I’ve yet to try a Tough Mudder, which only launched in the UK last year. But I did do an Xrunner event a few weeks ago, on a freezing day in a waterlogged corner of Derbyshire. It was called the Wild Warrior. Around 2,000 of us, starting in waves, set out to complete either one or two 5km laps whose 30 obstacles required us to wriggle through narrow tunnels awash with freezing mud, leap through a bonfire, climb walls of giant bales, slide into an icy pond, scramble up near vertical mudslides, wriggle on our faces under giant webs of heavy netting, and much else besides.

I’m reasonably habituated to the discomforts of outdoor adventure, but I can’t deny that it was tough. The constant alternation between normal running and other forms of exertion was brutally draining, while repeated immersions in freezing water had a tendency to make the body seize up. The best bit, by far, was finishing.

Yet for every howl of horror there was a squeal of delight, and the atmosphere was largely euphoric. For all the pain, it was muddy good fun. We adults spend most of our lives in a shell of physical caution. Climbing, crawling, leaping, sliding and generally being undignified can be extraordinarily liberating.

For many, the event produced a thrill of achievement. But there was also the gratifying discovery that, actually, it’s not that bad. Once you’re wet, you’re wet; once you’re filthy, you’re filthy. It doesn’t get any worse.

For the mud millionaires, this is the joy of it. Anyone can do it. Unlike a marathon or a triathlon, for which months of training are essential, an obstacle race requires little athletic prowess. It hurts less if you’re fit, and you’ll go faster. But you don’t actually need any talent to immerse yourself in icy water or crawl through a tunnel of liquid mud. You just have to be prepared to do it.

And the delight, for many, is to discover that, despite their habitual assumptions, they are.

“It takes people out of their comfort zone,” says Sara Harvey, Tough Mudder’s 31-year-old UK vice-president. “People are often stuck in their rut: they’re on the Tube, they’re in the office all day. At the weekend they want to challenge themselves.” Or, as Guy Livingstone put it recently: “Lots of people want to be a kid again. They love crawling through mud.”

You might wonder why they don’t save themselves £50 and just go out and muck around in the countryside. But the price tag and branding may be part of the appeal. “It’s an adult adventure playground,” says Sami Black, events manager for Xrunner. “But because it’s tough, because it’s a challenge, it’s justifiable for adults. No one’s just going to find a pile of mud and roll in it, or use the slide in a children’s playground. But because you pay for it, and have to train for it, it seems OK.”

Countless people want to be liberated from the restraints of orderly urban existence. Most fear the complete liberation of a real wilderness adventure. Challenges that provide wilderness-style discomforts but retain the reassurance of slick, well-packaged event management are a lucrative compromise. It is, if you like, Adventure Lite.

Tough Mudder – which Dean has described as “a marketing company that puts on events” – puts enormous effort into branding. Customers are encouraged to describe themselves as “Mudders”, to wear distinctive orange headbands, to learn the Tough Mudder “pledge”, even to have permanent Tough Mudder tattoos – as more than 1,000 people have already done. The company makes heavy use of social media. It has more than two million Facebook fans, and Dean thinks it may be Facebook’s biggest advertiser; which is ironic, given the echoes of The Social Network in the company’s back-story.

Tough Mudder also stresses the need for excellence at every level. New employees must enrol in the Tough Mudder University, which “aims to replicate the Harvard Business School education of our founder and CEO”. They must also read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R Cover, and Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Any resemblance to the corporate ethos of, say, McDonald’s, is not coincidental.

This week, Tough Mudder celebrated the sale of its millionth entry ticket. Every employee in its Brooklyn HQ jumped into one of its signature ice-baths (known as an Arctic Enema). It seems as though the future could hardly be brighter, for the company or the industry; except that, less than two weeks ago, a darker landmark was passed.

At a Tough Mudder event near Glengary, West Virginia, a 28-year-old contestant, Avishek Sengupta, jumped into a deep pool of muddy water – and was pulled out, unconscious, several minutes later. He never regained consciousness. Details of the tragedy, the first fatality in Tough Mudder’s history, are still emerging. The company has released a statement reiterating that “safety is our top priority” and that “we thoroughly inspect and test all obstacles”. It adds that more than 75 emergency, paramedical and rescue personnel were present.

Statistically, the fatality means little. (In the 25 to 34 age group, there are three deaths per million Americans every day.) But that does not diminish the loss for Sengupta’s family and friends. And I wonder if, as the news spreads (along with news that a further 20 competitors needed hospital treatment after the event), it might just slow down, for a while, the mud moguls’ march towards world domination.

Richard Askwith is author of “Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-running and Obsession” (Aurum).

Run for their lives: Why they do it

Gary Philpott, 26, media worker from County Cork in Ireland

It was nerve-wracking beforehand but a very rewarding experience – it was a great sense of achievement when I completed it. Hands down one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life!

Mark Heppell, 25, solicitor from Stockport

I took part with a group of 20 accountants and lawyers of all different levels of fitness and training. It was pretty hard going – it’s cold and wet enough in the middle of November. It was good fun but I’m in no rush to do another.

Harry Letton, 27, Construction Project Manager from Lewes

I took part in the UK’s first ever Tough Mudder in Kettering with six friends from football. The reps really put the fear into you about how there’s a chance of dying but it’s not that bad. Everyone dreads the electrocutions you get at the last obstacle.

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