January 18, 2013 6:40 pm

Tough Mudder

The toughest obstacle course on earth: 24 hours of hell in New Jersey, US
Competitors in the 2012 World’s Toughest Mudder in November, New Jersey, US©Christopher Lane

Competitors in the 2012 World’s Toughest Mudder in November, New Jersey, US

It’s a cold, crisp and clear mid-November morning at Raceway Park, Englishtown, New Jersey. Being a race day, all the traditional accompaniments to an American motorsport event are in evidence: the Stars and Stripes is flying, an emcee is bellowing, AC/DC is blasting, onions and peppers are sizzling and watery beer is already being quaffed. These are the same conditions you’d find at the drag races, motocross competitions and monster truck shows that this venue hosts week in, week out.

Today though, the roar of engines and the screech of tyres will be replaced by the sound of mud-sodden footfalls, laboured breathing and moans of human suffering as more than 1,200 people attempt to will themselves through 24 hours of hell. Think of it as the FA Cup final of an international event that drew almost half a million masochistic participants in 2012. This is the “World’s Toughest Mudder.”

During the previous day, a tent city has sprung up on either side of the drag strip at Raceway Park. In the narrow lanes between the tents, 1,100 male and 100 female “mudders” are pulling on wetsuits, limbering up, talking strategy and wishing each other luck as the start time draws near. Above the new settlement flap the flags of the US, Canada, England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand: proof that endurance racing is a global phenomenon and that Anglo-Saxons the world over will go to bizarre lengths to get their kicks. Everyone with a number pinned to his or her chest this morning has earned it: each took part in one of 34 Tough Mudder events held worldwide last year, and all had finishing times in the top five per cent. As you might expect, most are conspicuously fit. A third look like – and probably are – soldiers; half have physiques befitting personal trainers while the remainder resemble Viking marauders and real ale enthusiasts.

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A regular Tough Mudder is one lap of a boggy 10- to 13-mile obstacle course, designed by British Special Forces personnel to push participants up to and beyond their physical and mental limits. During the annual World’s Toughest Mudder, competitors attempt to complete this hellacious course as many times as possible within a 24-hour period. It’s Le Mans on foot, through a Somme-like landscape with Marquis de Sade-inspired flourishes. In the inaugural 2011 World’s Toughest Mudder, male winner Junyong Pak of Beverly, Massachusetts, completed seven gruelling laps – or about the distance between London and Southampton. Many here are eager to see if “Pak-man” can do it again.

“All mudders to the starting pen!” bellows the emcee just before 9.30am. From my perspective in the thinly peopled stands, the corralled, neoprened, pogoing competitors look like a mass of hyperkinetic tadpoles.

At the emcee’s prompting, everyone in the scrum waves their right arm from side to side in time to a beat.

“When I say tough, you say mudder. Tough?”

“Mudder!”

“Tough?”

“Mudder!”

The US national anthem is reverently observed; the large proportion of US military personnel are asked to identify themselves with a salvo of “hoo-rahs” and are enthusiastically cheered. Tough Mudder’s affiliation with the Wounded Warrior Project – a veterans’ charity for which it has raised more than $4m – is emphasised over and over, as is the sentiment that sets Tough Mudder apart from almost every other event in thousands of years of competitive sports:

“Teamwork and camaraderie are more important than your course time, more important than winning,” says the compère. “Respect your fellow mudders by giving your best while remembering to give them a hand out of that trench, through that water, over that wall.” It’s a refreshing idea that doesn’t completely mesh with the fact that $50,000 in prize money is to be divvied up between the male, female and group winners just over 24 hours from now. That loot will certainly come in handy: the gear that many Mudders wear means that most of them have spent several thousands of dollars for the privilege of competing.

“It’s finally here Mudders,” cries the emcee. “The moment you’ve been waiting for!

“Ten, nine, eight … ”

The 200 or so people in the 4,000-capacity bleachers are waving home-made signs and shouting wildly toward the pen. “All right Beth!” “You can do it, Josh!” “Go Brandon!”

“Three, two, one! Goooooo Mudders!”

One thousand, two hundred and eight people are ejaculated – I use the word deliberately – out of the starting pen and start off along the drag strip. Orange smoke flares on either side of the track are set off and within a minute or two the entire pack disappears from my view. I make my way to the now-empty starting pen, and quickly find Will Dean, dressed like a gentleman farmer.

Dean is 32, soft-spoken, British and a bit posh. A graduate of Harvard Business School, he is co-founder and chief executive of Tough Mudder. We walk to a large room overlooking the starting area where we drink coffee, warm up and talk.

“If someone tells you they’ve climbed Everest, you wouldn’t ask them how quickly they did it,” says Dean, explaining how Tough Mudder is positioned as a challenge, not a competition. “From the start we wanted [the event] to be about camaraderie and not some dog-eat-dog race for the finish line.”

In 2009 Dean completed a marathon and a triathlon but found them boring. Perhaps, he thought, creating an event that was less so could make lots and lots of money. Dean made a business partner of his old boarding school pal Guy Livingstone, and with $20,000 of their own money set up Tough Mudder in Brooklyn.

The first event – which sold 5,000 spots in five weeks – was in 2010. At around that time, Dean found himself being sued by former British Army soldier Billy Wilson, who claimed that the Harvard grad had stolen the concept from Tough Guy, an obstacle race Wilson had started in 1987. In 2008, Wilson had shared Tough Guy’s proprietary information with Dean for a class business proposal at Harvard. Ultimately, Tough Mudder settled with Wilson out of court, forking out more than $750,000. That’s peanuts when you’re bringing in more than $70m a year, as Tough Mudder did in 2012. Fifty-two Mudders are planned for this year, with the brand arriving for the first time in continental Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa.

“It’s quite surreal seeing how far we’ve come in such a short period,” Dean says, seeming genuinely amazed by the blistering growth.

Just then there’s an escalation of excitement on the track. The fact that Junyong Pak is the first person over the line isn’t that surprising; his having a lap time of just 1 hour, 29 minutes and 40 seconds is. That’s the pace of a sub-four-hour marathon, sans obstacles. Wiry Pak receives a red bandanna, denoting that he’s completed lap one and off he goes for more.

For a better understanding of Tough Mudder’s allure, I leave Dean and begin walking the 10-mile course. It’s warmed up some since the early morning but that doesn’t make the first obstacle I see any more appealing. It’s called “Electric Eel”. Mudders slide on their bellies through frigid water and if they’re tempted to keep much of their bodies above the surface, they’re zapped by one of the many dangling live wires above them. It comes down to a choice between hypothermia or electrocution. “That f***ing kills!” screams one brutish-looking specimen, who’s shocked again and again while employing the latter strategy. As they emerge, participants urge their peers onward, yelling encouragement and advice. At first blush I’m still not getting it. It’s an Iron Man plus Burning Man, with echoes of the Hanoi Hilton.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask a pretty female competitor as she scrambles to her feet.

“Why the f*** not?” she screams back and lopes off toward the next obstacle.

. . .

There are 32 obstacles on the course. Some, such as “Island Hoppin’” – in which participants hop from one ultra-buoyant platform to the next – look almost fun; the sort of thing you’d see on Total Wipeout. Others are flat-out horrid. In that latter category is the newly renamed “Arctic Enema”. The ice and water-filled shipping container had been titled “Chernobyl Jacuzzi” until Dean opened a cease-and-desist letter from the hot tub business one morning. “Did you know Jacuzzi was a brand?” he’d asked me. “I didn’t.”

The obstacle that pulls the most spectators is named “Everest”. It’s a shiny quarter pipe that Mudders have to run like hell to summit. Its curved face is lubricated with hours of mud, blood and grease and, as fatigue sets in, more and more people find themselves ignominiously sliding back down it. Even the few who made it up unassisted earlier in the day find themselves relying on those at the top to pull them up by the late afternoon. Luckily for them, a mob is up top, willing to honour the Tough Mudder code and lend a hand.

About 5pm, the setting sun and plummeting temperatures divide the remaining Mudders still in the competition into two camps. Most people head to their tents, to resume at first light. A smaller number will trudge on through the night, braving subzero temperatures and using the 14 hours of darkness to clock up some miles. One of those returning to his tent is Ray Upshaw, wearing shorts, a hat and his trademark bushy beard. Upshaw has the not-particularly-poetic Tough Mudder pledge writ large and permanent on his back. He tells me he commissioned the ink before he’d even competed in his first event.

“There was something about the sentiment of the pledge that just struck a chord with me,” he says as the sky goes from dusk to dark. “Teamwork, camaraderie.”

Since then, Upshaw has variously been Tough Mudder’s St. Paul, its Martin Luther, and latterly, its Rasputin in challenging the orthodoxy. In spite of assuming an ascetic lifestyle, hitchhiking to a majority of the events that have taken place so far, Upshaw is an outspoken critic of what he perceives as Tough Mudder being on the wrong path. He has become an irritant and a concern for the brand.

“There ought to be a non-wetsuit division,” he says, underlining one of several beefs. “I don’t think needing expensive equipment is part of what this thing is about. It’s supposed to be inclusive … I don’t wear a wetsuit, I can’t afford one and so I’m at a disadvantage. On the other hand, I still believe in what these guys wanted to do.”

I reread the pledge as Upshaw turns his back to me and disappears into the heart of the tent city.

As a Tough Mudder I pledge that:

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.

As the number of competitors still on the move dwindles, I head into the warming tent and see a few mud-caked men and women shrouded in foil blankets, trying to warm up enough that their violent shivering subsides. After looking into the despondent faces of several more competitors who have stumbled in, I gratefully jump into my car and speed towards the warmth of my hotel room.

. . .

When I return to Raceway Park at dawn, I immediately see that the tents are encrusted with frost and that water-filled trenches and ditches are covered with a thin sheet of ice. The first competitor I see this chilly morning is walking slowly, painfully through the “Electroshock Therapy” feature. When I ask him if he’s OK, he tells me that his inner thighs are chaffed and skinned.

“Definitely my last lap,” he says. “I’m so done.”

Someone who emphatically isn’t done is Junyong Pak, who has just completed his eighth lap and now has all eight colour-coded bandannas tied to his person. He’s off again, determined to do a ninth lap and add 20 miles on to last year’s feat. But there’s no ninth lap bandanna. It would seem that covering 90 miles of military-grade assault course wasn’t deemed possible. Until now.

Hot on his heels is female competitor Amelia Boone. The gap between them is so narrow that it’s possible that she could be the overall winner. The team in pole position is the four-man “Nine Inch Males”, comprising three brothers and their friend Zach Price who is clearly worse for wear. As they complete their sixth lap, the brothers – who seem as fresh as daisies – berate their lanky friend as he struggles to put one foot in front of the other.

“Is he going to be OK?” I ask the youngest and cockiest of the three brothers, John Roman.

“What, this guy?” he says. “Oh yeah. He’s just got some sand in his vagina. He’ll snap out of it.”

Price is not alone in feeling that he can’t go on. At this point 45 per cent of the field has dropped out. That’s a lot better than last year’s WTM when less than 10 per cent of the field remained after an even chillier night.

Nine Inch Males are confident they have enough of a lead to clinch the team title but that doesn’t stop Roman from continuing to harangue Price for potentially costing the team their prize of $20,000. Not very in keeping with the pledge, I note.

Pak completes nine full laps, as does Boone just nine minutes later. That’s the distance between London and Leicester with 288 soul-destroying obstacles in the way. As a first-time World’s Toughest Mudder spectator, I find myself looking at the pair of them in awe. What they’ve done is beyond impressive. It’s humbling. Their level of grit and fortitude is actually a bit frightening.

Around midday, Dean jumps up on the podium to give the Nine Inch Males a giant cheque for $20k and Pak and Boone their $15k each. Still more Mudders are crossing the finish line. (They have until 2pm to complete a final full lap.) Some are delirious with pain. Many are beside themselves with joy. Burly men are weeping. Some simply fall to the floor, unable to move.

A lot of competitors head for the beer tent. I head to my car, somewhat stunned by what I’ve just witnessed. Under my windscreen wiper I find a flyer for Rogue Runner – one of many endurance race outfits looking for a piece of a large and rapidly expanding pie. Dean shouldn’t be too bothered: his company has been known to send aircraft over competing mud races, trailing banners that witheringly imply that Tough Mudder is, well, tougher.

As I drive out of the car park, I see a dejected-looking 27-year-old drill instructor, Kelle Marchiano, sitting on her huge duffel bag. She tells me she’d spent almost $3,000 on getting to the event and was one of the few competing without a wetsuit, because she couldn’t afford one. “Going without a wet suit … that was a mistake,” she says ruefully.

Still, she did manage to complete two full laps of the course before going “hypothermic.”

“Can you take me to the airport, or somewhere in the city?” she asks. “I have to be on base in South Carolina by 7am tomorrow.”

“Get in,” I tell her.

I still have more questions than answers about why on earth mud racers do the things they do, but as with Ray Upshaw, the spirit of the Tough Mudder pledge has sunk in a bit. I may not be competing in a Mudder anytime soon but I can certainly honour a sentiment that is posted around the course at every event: “No Mudder Left Behind.”

The next Tough Mudder event in the UK is on May 4-5 in Northamptonshire, www.toughmudder.com

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