- Fire Walker, at a Tough Mudder event in New Jersey.
The town of Attica, a quiet burgh tucked along the banks of the Wabash River, will see a six-fold increase in its population — and an exponential increase in its collective testosterone — when an estimated 15,000 weekend warriors converge on the community this weekend for Tough Mudder Indiana.
Consisting of twenty-some fiercely challenging obstacles over a grueling nine-mile trail, Tough Mudder tests the strength, stamina and mental fortitude of its participants. The course, designed by the British Special Forces,includes such daunting obstacles as Chernobyl Jacuzzi (an icy mixture of faux carcinogens), Electroshock Therapy (a sprint through a field of live wires emitting shocks of up to 10,000 volts) and Fire Walker (a scamper across blazing kerosene-soaked straw). The 700-acre Badlands Off-Road Park hosts the two-day event.
An action-sports phenomenon that’s grown by leaps and bounds since its launch in 2010, Tough Mudder represents the entrepreneurial genius of Will Dean, a young Englishman who conjured up the idea for the extreme obstacle-course circuit while pursuing an MBA from Harvard. Two years ago, Dean’s Tough Mudder business plan earned a semifinalist finish in a competition sponsored by Harvard.
It’s hard to imagine that a winner of the Harvard contest has, or ever will, match Tough Mudder’s success. The Brooklyn-based operation hosted a mere three events in 2010, but this was followed in 2011 by 14 events — and an estimated 150,000 participants, or “Mudders,” willing to pay an entry fee that can run well north of $100. Next year, Tough Mudder plans to go international, with a total of 27 events across the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia.
David Godes, a faculty advisor for Dean at Harvard, admits that he initially had some doubts about Tough Mudder’s potential.
“The biggest obstacle I saw was the identification of the target customer,” he says. “Who was going to want to do these events and why? I was looking at the market in a very traditional way and thinking that runners don’t want to be electrocuted, and those people who are willing to be electrocuted or run through fire or dive into a vat of ice aren’t interested in running 10 miles in between.”
“Looking back, I didn’t fully appreciate how many people there are out there that are fit enough to complete in an event like this and, at the same time, want to see whether they’re tough enough to do it,” Godes admits. “I was looking at Tough Mudder as something that would compete with races like triathlons and marathons.”
Given the benefit of hindsight, the professor, who now consults for Tough Mudder and teaches for the University of Maryland, fully recognizes why Dean’s business model has been so successful. Godes has firsthand Tough Mudder experience, having subjected himself to the ruthlessly contrived obstacles and completed the race, and in so doing he identified perhaps the primary draw of the event: the social element.
“When you’re running a marathon, you’re out there on your own,” he says. “Even if you’re nominally running a race with a buddy, you’re pretty much dealing with your own thoughts and fatigue.”
“Tough Mudder is completely different,” Godes says. “It’s a truly organic social dynamic that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. People helping strangers get over walls, figuring out how to get across a board without falling in the water or holding barbed wire to help someone avoid a gash on their back. I tell people that it’s one part triathlon, one part UFC and one part Woodstock.”