Extreme Sport

The brutal Tough Mudder challenge

Fire pits, ice vats and electric shocks are just some of the 22 challenges in the Tough Mudder, a brutal military-style obstacle course that’s becoming a global phenomenon. J Francis Reid heads into battle

April 22 2014
J Francis Reid

Panic. Cold, nothing else. You are reduced to pure, animal instinct when your body is submerged in a deep vat of ice water. You must swim to the other side and climb out before hypothermic confusion and muscle seizure set in. The race is against your own nervous system, to get out before the near-freezing temperature makes you too weak to pull yourself up. A voice deep inside says, that above all, you must keep moving, or die. And I promise you this: you will never feel more alive.  

The Tough Mudder was conceived by Will Dean, a former counter-terrorism officer at the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and his friend Guy Livingstone, who both felt that triathlons and other physical events lacked the psychological dimension that their military training presented. The Mudder, as it is known to initiates, is not a race or a game, it is an obstacle course, and the challenge is only to complete it.

The ice vat is just one of 22 obstacles that were spread over 16 miles of muddy, off-season ski hills (other typical hurdles include Walk the Plank, a 12ft plunge into a muddy pit of water; and the Cage Crawl, a 60ft trawl though wired netting with only 6in of breathing room). A team of two friends and I signed up to complete it on a brisk Canadian spring day in early May last year. The prize? A beer – and a distinctive orange headband for those who make it through the finish line.

Extreme events have always appealed to a minority of daredevils, and some people might find that this kind of “sensation-seeking” behaviour borders on pathology. Yet since the Tough Mudder’s inception four years ago, well over one million people around the world have completed the course. At the Sunshine Coast, Australia, Philadelphia and Tri-State events alone, more than 20,000 people participated in each. Far from fringe, the Tough Mudder is a global phenomenon.

So why would anyone do this? Alex Patterson, the “chief cultural officer” of Tough Mudder, originally joined the company as its legal counsel. For someone whose background includes Harvard and the University of Virginia School of Law, it’s surprising that he joined a company whose customers must sign a “death waiver”. It’s this kind of appetite for a challenge that attracts people to attempt the course. Even over the phone Patterson projects a friendly, athletic confidence and a sharp competitive edge. He turns my first question around, and asks for my own impressions of the Mudder – billed as “probably the toughest event on the planet”.

I estimate that once you have climbed over the 6ft wall and into the starting area, there are only two dignified ways to complete the Mudder: through the finish line, or on a stretcher. It was the latter for me, and so Patterson’s moment of lawyerly apprehension is understandable.

Just before the nine-mile mark, I landed badly at the bottom of a water-slicked chute. On the advice of the course-side medic – and in too much pain to walk – I withdrew from the event. Local paramedics insisted that I spend the remainder of the afternoon on a spinal board, waiting for back and pelvis X-rays and perhaps to savour the lingering, ferrous taste of impact. As per a prior agreement to push on, both my teammates – Garner Quain, 47, the executive chef at Google Canada, and Jeremy MacPherson, 39, a producer and former television host – finished and collected their beers and headbands before picking me up from the hospital. For me it was as much about the camaraderie as the challenge.

Patterson says, “[The idea is to] get back to the physicality of what being human is about – something we’re forgetting, with life becoming more comfortable, more digital, more online.” He says that participant surveys confirm two-to-one that people are motivated primarily by the challenge. I interpret it as a broader appetite to achieve something a bit distinguishing. The Mudder reflects a desire to demonstrate a more traditional well-roundedness – to cultivate a general capability instead of specialised self-improvement.

“It is not a competition or a race,” Patterson emphasises, “but a true test of mental and physical grit.” You are much less likely to finish a Mudder alone, and some 80 per cent participate as a member of a team. Also, about 30 per cent of those who sign up are women – a figure that is rising.

But if a million people can do it, just how hard is it? On average, 22 per cent of starters do not complete the course. Judging by the preponderance of V-shaped silhouettes and thigh gaps on the course, the typical participant is not someone who is averse to spandex – and yet – the people crossing the finish line really were different shapes and sizes. Whippet-thin gym rats pulled tendons and blew ankles on the hills, as fleshy men with hundred-yard stares dragged themselves onward. It’s a mixed bag.

While primarily a commercial (and immensely profitable) venture, the company has raised more than $6.5m for the US’s Wounded Warriors Project, a non-profit that serves injured soldiers. Other regional, military charities are also supported, such as the UK’s Help for Heroes and Wounded Warriors Canada. Among the participating juggernauts and amazons, I saw a few young men arrive and change out of their digital-pattern military camouflage uniforms and into civvies. They wore the wraparound sunglasses and scraggly beards of working soldiers, with tans still fresh from some eastern conflict. But even without injuries, integrating into society can be hard for former service members, and I think doing the Tough Mudder gives anyone who hires and works with them a small appreciation of what they are capable of.

About the level of fitness required to finish it, Patterson says: “You can walk some of it for sure, but you still have to get your body around [the course], up and over all these obstacles. If you haven’t done any training, you’re definitely out of luck.”

Each event is different, but our obstacles began with a a run up a ski hill and climbing two slanted overhangs called “Glory Blades”, then back down the hill to the rather uninviting “Arctic Enema” ice vat. It’s hard to describe a run back up a ski hill as merciful, but it was the only way to shake off the hypothermia. You’re tempted to walk a bit and if the sun comes out you might just get dry. But quickly you recognise that this was the mistake made by each of the trembling, silver-blanketed people who dot the sidelines every hundred yards or so. There is a moment when your hope for respite must give way to a commitment to keep moving – and if it doesn’t, you are done for.

My teammate Jeremy said, “I like the look in people’s eyes when they are under pressure.” Indeed, after about the first five obstacles you could tell that each person was in the fight of their life – a bit of steel, a bit of hunter, with something wild and determined.  

Gripping across monkey bars is hard, doing them up- and downhill over more icy water is harder (I fell). Slithering the width of a fairway under barbed wire makes sure you are scraped and bruised (I bled). Doing it again under electrified wires makes you mad enough to continue. Then there’s getting through 4ft-tall flames. If all the jump cuts and chest-beating on the website make you think that maybe it’s not that hard, I can attest you have to be exceptionally tough to complete a Tough Mudder.

Perhaps the “tough” aspect seems a bit subversive in a society with fourth-place ribbons, best practices and deferred success. But rather than focus on the abs, glutes, quads and cardio, it’s the total physicality that seems to distinguish Mudder participants. While I did not earn my headband and beer, I now understand why someone would choose to engage in such recreational suffering. Much more than a quantitative set of criteria and rankings, Patterson and his team have created a test that reflects an athlete’s general quality.  

Which is why, despite having failed so spectacularly, I have registered to go back and try it again. I want my damn headband. And my beer.