Mud, Mud all around
With an explosion in the popularity of obstacle runs in Australia, Ben Mckelvey looks at where it all began and why we’re so especially enamored with getting down and dirty.
When I did my first Tough Mudder in New Jersey in November 2011 I, like almost all Australians at the time, knew next to nothing of Tough Mudder or its ilk. What I did know is that it sounded like a little much. A little too much mud, a little too much exercise and a little too much machismo.
On the morning of the run, there was frost was on the ground and mist in the air, and I’d resolved to watch from the sidelines, getting transported to some of the bigger obstacles on a quad bike for some quotes from runners, hopefully all without getting wet or spilling my coffee.
When I got to the course, I saw a sea of happy faces, male and female, many wearing returnees’ headbands and a couple even wearing Tough Mudder tattoos. I watched wave after wave of runners (the event has a staggered start) cheering deliriously after reciting the Tough Mudder pledge and then throwing themselves at the course.
I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
I do not whine, kids whine.
I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
I overcome all fears.
After witnessing four or five starts, standing back began to feel like some sort of failure, and so I attached myself to a pair of English journalists who were running. We started as strangers, but after an exhausting three hours and 20km of pushing and pulling each other over walls, mud pits, and tunnels we finished a happy few; a band of brothers. One of our group was afraid of heights, another scared of deep water and I wasn’t in love with having to wedge myself into a pitch-black hole almost completely full with muddy water. Our shoes ended up on the giant pile of ruined footwear at the finish line, and we were covered head to toe in a monochrome mid-brown, but we were smiling. We helped each other though, and met people, we helped them, and they helped us. It wasn’t too much exercise, mud or machismo; it was just the right amount.
By now it’s likely you’ve heard of Tough Mudder, or Warrior Dash or Spartan Race. You’ve probably seen images of friends peeking out from veils of dirt and sweat in pictures proudly displayed on your social media feeds. You may have been one of more than 100,000 Australians who took part in a mud run, adventure race, obstacle course, or whatever in the last year. And a year ago, you’d probably not have heard of any of it.
2012 probably would have been known as the year of the adventure run, except that 2013 looks to be expanding the category exponentially here, with more than 70 events planned in Australia alone. If you coalesce all of the disparate types of obstacle run into one, uniform ‘sport’, it would be the fastest growing sport in Australia. And not only that, it looks like we’re just at the foot of the muddy mountain.
Obstacle running as we know it today was born in the late ‘80s, with the title of ‘father of the modern obstacle running’ belonging to a man known as Mr Mouse. After retiring from the British Army, Mr Mouse (real name Billy Wilson) worked on the London Marathon in its formative years, but over time Mr Mouse started to believe that the future of endurance events was the type of outdoor running he was used to doing with a rifle slung over his shoulder.
In 1987, Mr Mouse set up a 13km military-style assault course on his estate in Staffordshire, UK. With little more than word-of-mouth marketing, Mr Mouse invited the hardiest of souls to come and test their spirits and bodies in an event he called the ‘Tough Guy Challenge.’
Just over 100 people started that first event, with not many more than half of those finishing the brutally difficult course. That sort of attrition was exactly what Mr Mouse had envisioned.
“I push them to near death: you step over on to the other side,” Mr Mouse told the Guardian in 2008. “You go into a state of near hypothermia, and you open your mind to new revelations, like an artist's vision, or pop stars when they're on drugs. Open up the doors in your mind. You see a better world, away from the materialism that's gnawing away at us all.”
The event became relatively popular in British masochistic fitness circle and, by 2007, 5000 people were turning up for the Tough Guy Challenge and its summer cousin, the Nettle Warrior. That moderate success piqued the interest of then Harvard Business School student, and now Tough Mudder CEO, Will Dean. Dean had spent five years in the British Foreign Service after leaving school, including a stint working in counter terrorism, before moving to the US to study at Harvard. There he saw himself sliding into a dull life of expensive ties and lumbar support.
“I’d had an interesting job before and all of a sudden I was surrounded by people who thought Gordon Gecko is the highest form of life,” says Dean. “I’m no anti-capitalist or anything, believe me. And I don’t think banks are inherently evil. I just think they’re inherently boring.”
While at Harvard, Dean started looking at businesses that he deemed interesting, which he could launch off the back of the Harvard Business School Business Plan Competition, an event that pitched students’ new business plans against each other. Having heard of the Tough Guy challenge and similar small events like the Tough Bloke Challenge in Australia, and Strongman Run in Germany, Dean started researching them. None, he felt, were run or marketed particularly well and none had reached their earning potential.
“I looked into it and saw that the Iron Man series and the Rock and Roll Marathon were all owned by private equity companies. That’s when I started to think there could be something in this.”
In 2008, Dean turned up at one of Mr Mouse’s events with a camera and Dictaphone, interviewing competitors and taking photos of the obstacles. Mr Mouse also claims that Dean tried to extract potentially commercially sensitive information from him, with Dean claiming that he was to deliver a report on how the Tough Guy Challenge could expand into the US.
Dean eventually lodged an entry for the Harvard competition with school friend Guy Livingstone (now Tough Mudder COO) selling a similar experience to the other events, but stressed the importance of a ‘Goldilocks’ course - just long enough to be a legitimate endurance event, but not too long that any decently fit person couldn’t finish, obstacles that were challenging, but not built for failure and a strong focus on social media marketing and social media integration.
The pair didn’t win the competition. “They liked the minutia, but they said that it fell down fundamentally. Basically, they told me ‘nice try, but no one is going to do this,’” says Dean.
He and Livingstone didn’t agree and, after graduating, they held the first Tough Mudder at Bear Creek Ski Resort in 2010, expecting 500 runners. They got almost 10 times that number, and the very next week the pair started planning new events across the US, hiring aggressively and marketing even more aggressively including, in the first year of business, flying of a plane over a Spartan Race event trailing a banner that read, “THINK THIS IS TOUGH? TRY TOUGH MUDDER.”
“There’s not a person on this planet I despise more than Will Dean,” said Joe DeSena, director of the Spartan Race, in an interview. “Every day I wake up just out of spite for the guy.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Mr Mouse himself. After discovering that the Tough Mudder website had gone live - including photos and videos from Dean’s trip to the Tough Guy Challenge - Mr Mouse implored Dean to cancel the first Tough Mudder event. Dean insisted he’d done nothing illegal, which prompted Mr Mouse, a man in his seventies, to email Dean with the following missive:
“I love horses too much to cut their heads off to impress conmen in their bedclothes. I much prefer to chainsaw down the centre of the bed and spill human blood.”
When I ask Dean about the quotes from his contemporaries, he shrugs. To him, it’s just business - a business that projects $200 million in revenue in 2013.
“We’re trying to build a household name. When a guy goes into a bar and tells a girl he’s doing a Tough Mudder, that the girl knows what he’s talking about — that, for us, will be the sign that we’ve arrived,” he said in a speech last year. “Whether the girl is impressed or not is frankly irrelevant.”
The Tough Mudder bills itself as ‘probably the toughest event on the planet’ and, at roughly 20km, it’s the longest of the popular adventure runs, with the most dramatic obstacles. If you’ve done the right type of training however, it’s not much harder than doing Sydney’s City2Surf, and certainly easier than running a half marathon – even with the addition of all the mud, and the fact you have to jump over fire. Jumping over fire is actually just as hard as jumping over fairy floss, and most obstacles represent an opportunity to rest your legs. Dean knows this; it was part of his plan all along.
“I’m a fit guy, but I’ll probably never be able to do a proper adventure race, or even log a decent marathon time,” he says, “and that, frankly, is annoying.” While some events time contestants and award places, they’re all so different in style and distance that it’s not easy to compare yourself to anyone else. But Tough Mudder has gone a step further, having no timing at the course. What’s more, they encourage strong runners to help other contestants over obstacles, forsaking their own time.
A militaristic undertone runs through most adventure races, from the names of the events (Spartan Race) and obstacles (Tough Guy Challenge obstacles include the ‘Vietcong Tunnels of Fear,’ ‘Battle of the Somme,’ and ‘Colditz Walls’) to their strategic alliances, Tough Mudder having a partnership with the US Wounded Warrior charity and the Warrior Dash partnering with the US National Guard.
“We see a lot of advertising for the military, and people are attracted to that air of adventure. They wouldn’t like to join the army for three years, but would like to do some of things that they do for a day,” says Gary Farebrother, director of the Tough Bloke Challenge - an Australian-born event that predates almost all obstacle runs (bar Mr Mouse’s), and was one of the events Will Dean researched, early on.
In that most Australian category, per-capita, it’s possible that more of us will do an obstacle run in 2013 than any other nationality, so we asked Farebrother why.
“We hear all the time about obesity in Australia, and it’s true that we’re becoming more and more sedentary in our lifestyle,” he says. “I think a lot of us naturally just want to react to that. We don’t want to be sedentary, but modern life just makes us that.
“Deep down, Australians like exercise and like fun, but there aren’t too many places that make it easy to scratch both those itches. I’d done a lot of fun runs, and frankly, I never saw where the fun was,” adds Farebrother.
Radio DJ Jules Lund, a recent recruit to obstacle runs, agrees. “The Tough Mudder is a hell of lot more interesting that just 42km of one foot in front of the other,” he says. “It was a bonding experience, and not just with the people you start the course with. You don’t know who’s a stranger and who’s your friend on the course, because you all look like mud monsters quick smart - just a bunch of people pulling for a common goal. There’s a lot in that.”
BEFORE YOU SIGN THE DEATH WAIVER
So why not just pull on some shoes, and jump into it? Well, because these races aren’t a fun run, and specific preparation them is paramount. With that in mind, we spoke to Chief Brabon, founding partner of Original Bootcamp International, about what potential runners need to think about before signing up.
GQ: When should I start training?
Chief Brabon: How you train should depend on the intensity of the event but realistically, we could arrange a 12-week training course, even from a standing start, and that should be fine for most people undertaking most events.
GQ: How should I train?
CB: Running will give you a good level of overall fitness, but that’s not all you need, as you’ll be climbing and crawling too. You’ll need a decent amount of upper body strength to complete one of the events, but also grip strength, and that’s something a lot of people - even very fit people - don’t have.
GQ: Can you suggest specific exercises?
CB: Push-ups and pull-ups are great for these events, but also sandbag training and rope training. With sandbag training, we do Olympic lifts and clean and press and snatches of the bag, and the unstructured weight will really help your overall strength and your overall grip strength. With the rope training, we use battling ropes, which is creating waves with ropes, but also classic rope pulling.
GQ: What shoes should I wear?
CB: Some wear running shoes; others trail running shoes but any relatively light shoe with good grip that you’re potentially happy to throw away afterwards. Also you want to make sure you don’t have a waterproof shoe. You will be in and out of water all day at each event and you don’t want to be carrying around a shoe full of water.
The Mud Run
With a strong focus on fun, and obstacles designed not to pose too much of challenge, the 7km Mud Run is good fare for families – and there’s also a shorter Mud Dash for kids.
Key challenges: The Mud Slide, which is exactly what you’d expect, and Pillow Talk, which is a giant inflatable obstacle runners have to leap on and off.
At just over 5km, the Warrior Dash is practically a sprint, but it’s also known for being competitive and boasting some particularly bruising obstacles.
Key challenges: The Warrior Roast, where runners vault over a series of flaming obstacles, and the Rubber Ricochet, in which you fight through hundreds of hanging tyres.
Sydney, February 9.
Tough Bloke Challenge
An Australian original, the 7km Tough Bloke Challenge has been running here for five years with an elite category, where Australia’s fittest compete for prizes.
Key challenges: The Gold Mine, a series of concrete pipes to traverse, sometimes in pitch darkness, and the Mud Bath, which has to be completed prostrate, thanks to low-hanging barbed wire.
Melbourne, 23 & 24 March. Sydney 29 & 30 June.
The Spartan Race is around half the distance of the Tough Mudder, and has fewer obstacles, but is also one of the most competitive and intense races in the calendar, with a focus on times and places.
Key challenges: The Spear Throw, where racers are tasked to launch an actual spear into a straw figure and get a kill shot before they move on, and the last Gladiator Arena, where the object is to get past personal trainers and MMA fighters wearing gladiator outfits and brandishing padded staffs.
Melbourne, March 2. Sydney, March 16.
The longest and best-participated event, Tough Mudder has an 18-20km course with huge obstacles, many only able to be bested with well-oiled teamwork. No times or places are registered at Tough Mudder, with a focus on teamwork and camaraderie.
Key challenges: the Arctic Bath, which are giant pools filled with ice and covered with barbed wire, and the Electric Eel, which is a pit full of mud, water and low hanging electrical wires charged with enough voltage to floor even the hardiest runners.
Melbourne, January 19 & 20. Sydney, February 9 & 10, Perth October 26 & 27