By Pete Williams
DADE CITY – We wondered if Tough Mudder possibly could live up to expectations. It’s been nine months since the obstacle mud run announced plans to make its Florida debut in Pasco County this weekend and in the meantime more than two dozen runs have been staged in the Sunshine State, many for the first time.
But Tough Mudder, a Harvard business school project that debuted in March of 2010, showed why it’s the biggest, most imposing, and the most successful race series in the category, drawing a staggering 20,000 athletes over two days for its season-ending event at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County.
Veteran race directors say that’s a record for any endurance event in the greater Tampa Bay area, which is saying something given the volume of races we have here. This was the fifth different mud series I’ve done this year and while I’ve enjoyed them all, Tough Mudder stood out in a number of areas.
For starters, it’s the longest at 11.5 miles. It has 28 official obstacles, not counting the endless parade of additional treks through mud and swamp of all depths and distances. Several obstacles were a little overrated, most notably the much-hyped, race-ending “Electroshock Therapy,” but others more than lived up to billing, especially the “Chernobyl Jacuzzi,” where athletes must jump into a giant dumpster packed with ice water – three pallets of ice per dumpster, according to officials – and wade 20 feet to the other side. A different event was billed as the “Ballshrinker,” but Chernobyl was as cold as I’ve ever felt from waist to knees.
The toughest part of Chernobyl was waiting for the people in front of you to get through, which was a recurring theme. With waves of 600 heading out every 20 minutes from 8 a.m. until 1:20 (on Saturday) and 11:20 (today), there were backups at most every obstacle, which is not uncommon at mud runs. Tough Mudder bills itself not as a race but as a team-oriented event and few seemed in any hurry to rush through it all.
Plus, it’s easier to do certain obstacles with help, especially climbing large wooden “Berlin Walls” and “Everest,” a half-pipe requiring a running start and a leap to the top. My favorites were the claustrophobia-inducing tubes and underground tunnels. Points also go to “Walk the Plank” – climbing 15-20 feet to a platform and jumping into more cold water – and “Hold Your Wood,” where you grab a large log and walk a 150 yard-loop through a waist-to-shoulder deep lake. (Loved the fake but realistic looking alligator.)
One obstacle featured bales of hay, about four-feet high, spaced about five feet apart. My group opted to leap over each bale but others thought broad jumping from one to the next was required. Clearly some people have been watching too much Wipeout.
Like most mud runs, Tough Mudder encourages teams to dress in costume and there were plenty of superheroes. With such an all-for-one attitude and leisurely pace, it was easy to meet new friends – and stumble upon old ones.
A few ambitious athletes hammered through the course, which was not chip timed or otherwise scored. The rest of us moved at a steady pace, handling the obstacles and enjoying the intense marketing wars between the various obstacle mud runs.
Both the Spartan Race and Savage Race hired airplanes to circle Little Everglades pulling banners touting their upcoming events. Tough Mudder reveled in its status as the longest and perhaps most challenging. Instead of a 3-mile marker, there was a huge banner that read “Warrior Dash Finish Line,” a dig at the national 5K mud run series that draws numbers rivaling that of Tough Mudder.
Tough Mudder, like Spartan Race, claims that only 80 percent of those who start finish the race. My guess is it’s more like 97 percent and the other 3 percent are those carted off with sprains and strains. Obstacle mud races want their events thought of as tough – and for people to train accordingly – but they also want repeat business, to say nothing of additional customers.
I was fortunate to compete as part of a talented five-person team of Pasco County officials and friends. Eric Keaton, John Malley and Charlie Scott brought military experience to Tough Mudder, which incidentally was designed by British Special Forces. Justyna Buszewski, our lone female and smallest competitor, had the easiest time negotiating many of the obstacles.
Tough Mudder won’t be the last national mud runs series to roll through Pasco County, which rapidly is becoming a destination for endurance sports between the popular Longleaf Triathlon, our own Caliente Bare Dare 5K, and numerous other races. Most mud runs have gravitated to greater Orlando and South Florida, but Pasco County has both the facilities and the proximity to the most Florida endurance athletes.
We’re most impressed with how Tough Mudder creates the bad-ass vibe better than anyone in the industry. Remarkably, dozens of athletes took advantage of free mohawks. Others went for the on-site Tough Mudder tattoo and nearly 100 percent of athletes followed through on what I at first thought was a joke: writing your five-digit race number on your forehead. The signature orange finisher’s headband is better than any medal. And I don’t know the name of the guy Tough Mudder uses as the pre-race emcee, but I want him at my next party.
Props also for numerous water stops.
Tough Mudder also addressed my mud run pet peeve: inadequate post-race food. Sure, most of it was for sale, but you could load up in the finish chute on EAS Myoplex, Clif bars, energy drinks, and bananas. Volunteers all but encouraged you to use your race T-shirt – delivered at the finish – as a bag.
Tough Mudder, which staged 14 events this year, has announced plans for a whopping 44 races in 2012, including a return to the Tampa Bay area (Dec. 1-2) and dates to be announced for Jacksonville and Miami.
We’re wondered frequently on this site how many mud run events the industry can sustain and which events will last. At the moment, Tough Mudder looks like the leader in the mud pit.