Tag Archives: obstacle race

‘Baddest Mud Run’ Preview

By Pete Williams

With so many obstacle races on the calendar, it’s a bold statement to call yourself “The Baddest Mud Run.” But Dan LaPlaca believes his event, coming up Nov. 3-4 at the Hernando County Fairgrounds in Brooksville, is deserving of that title.

We spoke to Dan this week on The Fitness Buff Show to preview the event, which also features a kids’ race. You can listen to that show HERE.

 

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An Interview with Tough Mudder Founder Will Dean

By Pete Williams

Tough Mudder’s infamous ice plunge

We recently interviewed Tough Mudder founder Will Dean for a story on the growth of obstacle racing that will appear in next week’s edition of SportsBusiness Journal.

We spoke to more than a dozen people for that story. Dean talked at length about Tough Mudder and the future of this growing endurance sports category. Since only a few of those quotes were part of the SBJ story, we thought we’d include more of the interview here.

Dean, 31, might be the modern version of Fred Smith, the billionaire founder of FedEx who as a student at Yale in the early 1960s received little reaction from his professors after writing a paper proposing an overnight delivery service.

In 2009, Dean’s Harvard Business School professors thought his project for an event that would become Tough Mudder was unrealistic. These days Dean, who once worked as a civilian counter-terrorism officer in Great Britain, heads up the hottest race property in the endurance world. This year the Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder will attract 470,000 participants to its 35 events  and generate $70 million, including six-figure deals with a dozen sponsors. Dean says revenue will double in 2013.

Crawling under charged wires in Colorado (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Tough Mudder, which only debuted in March of 2010, is not a race but a challenge. Athletes are encouraged to participate as a team in the 12-mile, off-road course, which includes obstacles that challenge the mind as much as the body. There are plenty of walls and ropes, but the event is best known for its dumpster of ice water, its electrically-charged gauntlet of wires, and its signature orange finisher’s headband.

Tough Mudder exploded at the same time Facebook became ubiquitous and that’s no coincidence. Dean says Tough Mudder has been Facebook’s No.1 advertiser, having spent millions on the social networking site. If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen pictures of muddy friends in their orange headbands. In many ways, Tough Mudder and its competitors such as Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have become the new triathlon, the Monday morning water cooler or Facebook bragging rights.

Tough Mudder, which debuted in Florida last year at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County near Tampa, returns to the Sunshine State Dec. 1-2 at the Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota.

Here’s our interview with Dean:

Q: How big can this obstacle mud category grow?

A: In my mind you have really three distinct obstacle racing events. It’s like looking at road racing and putting 10K and marathon in the same group. They’re clearly quite different. Marathon is a category. Obstacle race is a pretty wide category. We would actively choose to exclude ourselves from the obstacle race group. There are no prizes at Tough Mudder; it’s not timed. There are no medals and the focus is on teamwork and camaraderie and lots of people helping each other. There are really few people treating it as a race.

Navigating the balance beam at Tough Mudder Georgia (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

There’s also Warrior Dash, which is a fantastic concept and absolutely no way am I belittling them. They’ve had phenomenal success, very smart guys. Great company culture, but they use the term “race” loosely. They’re as much about enjoying the post-race fun, having some beer and listening to music. I’m not saying anything controversial when I say that for most people in reasonable shape, Warrior Dash is not a very onerous event. It takes 20 or 30 minutes for most people. You spend more time in the post-race party than the event itself. Then you have Spartan Race, a very different business model than ours and doing very well but clearly an obstacle race

Q: What’s fueling interest in these events?

A: First, from a fitness perspective, the shift to functional fitness with P90X and CrossFit.  At Tough Mudder, we’ve positioned ourselves, if there is a category, at the high end of that. We expend a phenomenal amount of money on obstacle innovation and construction. I’m pretty confident that our budgets are significantly higher than the other muddy obstacle course challenges out there.

Running through fire at Tough Mudder Indiana/Illinois in June (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

People come for the obstacles, but it’s about creating a whole integrated user experience. It’s really a whole weekend concept and that speaks to the second thing, which I believe in very strongly: Experience is the new luxury good. Not just in the endurance space. People talk about what restaurant they’ve eaten at, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, bungee jumping, whatever. That’s far more important than what sort of iPhone you have and I think we’ve captured that.

One thing I realized early is that when people do their first marathon, they talk about how they hit the wall at mile 20 or mile 22 and how some person they’ve never met comes along and they run it in together. They talk about how meaningful that is for them, that shared experience and the bonding that comes with that.

At Tough Mudder, we try to create a variety of obstacles that test you in different ways. Regardless of your body type, shape and fitness, there will be something that will get you outside your comfort zone. We try to create that moment every 10 minutes, that moment of intense bonding on the course. I’m not a sociologist, but with Tough Mudder you realize that even though we live and work in a world where we’re surrounded by people, we really don’t have much meaningful interaction with people. Here in New York, we specialize in avoiding eye contact with each other on the subway or getting out of the car. There’s this irony that all this social networking gets us connected with more people but on the other hand it gets in the way of more meaningful connections.

Tough Mudder encourages teamwork, like at the Mt. Everest half pipe, shown here from the Indiana/Illinois event in June

At Tough Mudder, we created this very earnest, sincere, frankly kind of irreverent event that’s not a race, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. We position ourselves as the opposite of the Ironman culture. You can help someone if they want assistance. Tough Mudder is about conquering your own Everest and being proud of what you’ve achieved. For some people it’s about getting around the course in an hour and 45 minutes and for other people it’s just about doing it.

Looking at the industry, Warrior Dash is in the fun mud run space. Tough Mudder is the tough obstacle course challenge and Spartan Race is about an integrated racing experience. And while superficially they look similar – we all have mud and walls – they’re three very different events and value propositions. People often ask me if Spartan Race is a competitor and I say not at all. It’s good for us in exactly the same way that for Boston that New York exists and vice versa in the marathon space. Tough Mudder is and always will be an event that’s about more than just the obstacles. People will call it a race because we have a start and a finish line and water stations in between that make it look like a race but that’s not what we aspire to do.

Monkey bars at Tough Mudder Florida last December

It’s this whole weekend experience where guys – and it is 80 percent men – get together for a weekend away and it’s almost a bachelor party for a lot of people. Tough Mudder is tough and it beats you up, but if you’re in good shape you’ll finish Tough Mudder and still walk to the bar that evening. You see a lot of people wearing their headbands to bars after and that speaks to the experience component of it.

Q: Your Harvard Business School professors didn’t think too much of Tough Mudder. What made you think it would work?

A: The vast majority of my professors said, “How are you going to sell a race that’s not a race?” You’re going to have huge liability issues and it will be a real challenge trying to scale this event. Business school professors are very intelligent people but it’s hard to imagine something that doesn’t exist. And a lot of (professors) struggled to envision a world where people would spend this amount of money on an event like this.

At the time I was in my late twenties doing triathlons and marathons and all people would ask is what my time was. That was the only metric. I’ve done races where people were screaming at me to get out of the way, especially in triathlons. I remember asking for help to get my wetsuit off in a triathlon and a guy said he couldn’t. It would have taken all of three seconds. It’s not like this is your profession. There’s no prize money at stake.

Dealing with iced barbwire in Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

I believe there’s no such thing as a good business idea; there’s just good business execution and that comes down to having good people on the team. It all comes down to understanding what problem you can solve and why. I was this guy in my late twenties who enjoyed staying healthy, but I had a full-time job and I couldn’t spend lots of time in the gym. I wanted an event I could focus my training on that required more than aerobic fitness and I wasn’t looking for it to be a race. I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking that way. A lot of professors said it was a bad idea and that I should take a job with a large management consulting firm but I think you have to believe you’re an entrepreneur even if everyone else in the world is telling you that the baby you’re holding is ugly. You have to believe that it’s not.

Confined spaces and darkness are always part of Tough Mudder (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Q: How do you address the liability issue?

A: Any activity is potentially high risk. It’s about building world-class systems and we’re very proud that nearly half a million people will do our events this year – after more than 150,000 last year – and we’ve had no fatalities. Statistically, over the course of any day at home watching TV, at least one of that many people might have had a heart attack.

Tough Mudder is about getting you out of your comfort zone. The adrenaline is pumping when you’re jumping into a dumpster full of ice, but it’s a somewhat controlled environment. And in some ways it’s like a high ropes course. You can say that if you fall it doesn’t matter because the harness is going to catch you after three feet. But your brain doesn’t think that way. What it sees is that, ‘Wow I’m 50 feet up here and if I fall I’m screwed.” One of our concerns is that there are hundreds of smaller events popping up. From a commercial perspective, having them do well is good for us. If the Des Moines Marathon does well, it’s good for Boston. But there’s always the danger of putting a lot of new players into the market. You have people who might not be aware of best safety practices. Tough Mudder has spent a lot of money working with the relevant safety people here and overseas to see that we meet and exceed safety standards. We have a $50 million general liability policy with Lloyd’s of London and we have to meet standards. It’s a big cost for us, but the far greater cost is providing all of the safety stuff, including 100-plus personnel at any event. We have ambulances, local hospitals briefed, and Medevac helicopters in place at more remote events.

Q: How has Tough Mudder drawn so many sponsors?

A: The days of being able to drop a lot of money on NBC and reach men in their 20s and 30s are gone. They’re looking for ways to engage with me. It’s a challenge and that’s why you see Super Bowl commercials selling for what they are. We’ve had 1,100 people have the Tough Mudder logo tattooed on them and that speaks to the engagement people have.

Tough Mudder is a real life Fight Club. You have obstacle racing, but Tough Mudder is this beast in an off itself. We have very high levels of Facebook engagement. If you look at our major sponsors – Bic, Under Armour, EAS, Dos Equis – they know there are lots of places with 20,000 or more people in one place. A stadium, sports event, wherever. But where else can you have this many people with a clear purpose in mind? They’re not just thinking about a game for two hours, but thinking of this experience for weeks leading up to it and they have real pride. They’ll wear the headband to work. Brands realize that we have something really unique, a fantastic activation program.

Log carry during Tough Mudder Pennsylvania in April (Photos by Dmitry Gudkov)

Q: How fast is Tough Mudder growing?

A: We’re hoping for a million participants in 2013. We’ll be at $70 million this year and that should double next year. We have a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Brooklyn and six 53-foot trailers. That will double next year. We also have warehouses in the UK, Canada, and Australia. It’s like a traveling circus. For a typical event, we’ll have 10 to 15 of our headquarters-based staff and another 200 staff plus volunteers. At out Sydney (Australia) event (Sept. 22-23) we’ll have 40,000 participants and easily could have had 70,000 if we did not have to cut it off because of the venue’s capacity.

Q: It sounds like Tough Mudder is huge in Australia.

A: Earlier this year we had an event in Melbourne. I touched down at the airport, having never been to Australia. The immigration officials assumed I was from Great Britain, but I said I lived in New York and worked for Tough Mudder. When I mentioned I was the CEO, all these immigration officials came over. Many were doing the event that weekend. It’s all still amazing to me because if you look at the original business plan, which I have new employees read, we projected 7,500 people competing in year four. Now we’re heading into year four and will hit one million.

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Spartan Race Coming to Fenway Park

By Pete Williams

Guarding the Spartan Race finish line

Spartan Race, the grueling obstacle race series featuring penalties of 30 Burpees for each challenge not completed, is taking its show to Fenway Park, the historic, 100-year-old home of the Boston Red Sox.

Spartan Race typically sets up in remote areas, staging events of between 3 and 12 miles and consisting of 15 to 25 obstacles. The Fenway Park event will be a one-mile time trial taking place entirely within the ballpark on Nov. 17.

Unlike other obstacle events, Spartan Race does not provide course information beforehand. Joe DeSena, the creator of Spartan Race, would say that Fenway’s signature feature, the Green Monster left field wall, will come into play.

DeSena, who is friends with former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, says he was contacted by the Red Sox to put on the race, the team’s latest foray into non-baseball events. For about 30 years beginning in 1973, Fenway Park was used exclusively for baseball. Since 2003, the Sox have staged everything from Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones concerts to the NHL’s Winter Classic.

Though the Fenway version of the Spartan Race is just one mile long, it’s priced like a regular Spartan event – or a Red Sox game. It’s a whopping $110 to register through June 17 and escalates to $150 through Nov. 9. DeSena says the event is likely to sell out by Aug. 1, with 10,000 competitors expected to participate in what likely will end up being extended over two days.

Thirty Burpees – Standard Spartan Race penalty

Even spectator tickets cost a whopping $40.

“You go to Starbucks for breakfast you end up spending forty bucks,” DeSena says.

DeSena, a Queens native who grew up a New York Yankees fan, made a small fortune on Wall Street before moving to Pittsfield, Vermont, where he operates a small resort hotel. An avid endurance athlete who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in a year, he created the Spartan Death Race in 2005 because he believed Ironman and other ultra-distance events did not present a big enough challenge.

Athletes competing in The Death Race, held annually in Pittsfield in mid-June, do not know how long the event will take place, what it will entail, or even the exact starting time. Last year’s event kicked off with competitors deadlifting rocks for six hours. The event had a religious theme and at one point athletes carried logs on their backs for 24 hours. The Death Race continued for 45 hours before DeSena called it with just 35 of the 155 athletes remaining.

The Spartan Race, launched in 2010, is a scaled-down version of The Death Race consisting of the Spartan Sprint (3-mile), Super Spartan (8-mile), and Spartan Beast (12-mile plus) events. Athletes typically haul heavy objects such as five-gallon buckets of gravel, drag concrete blocks, climb walls, flip tires, and run a race-ending gauntlet of guys dressed as 300 Spartan warriors wielding double-sided mallets.

Athletes also must perform challenges relating to the host property. At a Virginia event last summer at a paintball facility, athletes had to dodge gunfire and successfully hit a target from 10 yards away.

Spartans…Prepare for glory!

Failure to do so earned the athlete 30 Burpees, the standard penalty for not completing challenges. Athletes typically do three or four sets of Burpees, which makes Spartan Race arguably tougher than other events in the category, including Tough Mudder, which do not issue penalties.

Tough Mudder, like Spartan Race, debuted in 2010 and now hosts dozens of events worldwide. Each series is likely to clear $50 million in revenue this year. Unlike Spartan Race, which issues timing chips and awards points in a year-long race series, Tough Mudder does not market its events as competitions but team-building exercises.

Boston’s average high temperature for November is 52 degrees with a low of 38. DeSena said the cold and threat of ice and snow will only add to the Spartan challenge. The Fenway Park race could be the first of several ballpark Spartan Races, though athletes in Central Florida should not get excited about a Tropicana Field event.

“We put on very unique events, the only truly competitive events and fans of the Red Sox are pretty competitive people,” DeSena says. “We want to do more of these – but only in the best of the best stadiums.”

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Mud Crusade: Finding a Niche?

By Pete Williams

DADE CITY – Had Mud Crusade debuted a year ago, before Florida became saturated with obstacle mud races, athletes probably would have been quite impressed with how the Dade City Motocross and Pasco County Fairgrounds was converted into a short, muddy course over the weekend.

Now it’s tough for any mud run or obstacle race to stand out in a crowded field. Considering many of the 5,600 or so athletes who participated over the two days paid $25 or less via various early-bird promotions, it would be tough to say they didn’t get their money’s worth. Nobody seemed too bent out of shape about getting an insulated tumbler instead of a T-shirt. If the course fell short of the advertised 5K mark by a few tenths of a mile, well, that was okay too.

But given the fierce competition in the obstacle race category, led by national series such as Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, along with Florida-based tours that have put on at least two successful races (Savage Race, Highlander), it might be a challenge for Mud Crusade to establish a foothold, especially if it doesn’t plan to offer $25 discounted entries the next time.

Race director Marshall Chmura says he’ll continue the aggressive early-bird marketing efforts that in January caused him and his partners to revise their projected attendance from 1,800 to more than 5,000. With so many getting in for under $25, T-shirts became cost prohibitive and Chmura erred on the side of caution with the course layout, not wanting to take out too much parking. That turned out to be unnecessary, he said, but it accounted for a course that likely fell shy of 5K.

“Our whole philosophy was to keep it affordable,” Chmura said. “When you’re new to the game, you’d be naïve to think you could challenge Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash. We wanted to build a reputation and build for the long term. There’s a niche group of people who do these events willing to give you a shot, but you’ve got to make the most of that first opportunity.”

We liked the flow of the course. Traffic moved well and there were few backups. It’s difficult at this point to come up with new obstacles, but navigating a lengthy fishnet was a different wrinkle. All of the obstacle race staples were there: balance beam, monkey bars, cargo net, mud/barbwire crawl, water slide, walls of various heights.

There wasn’t a signature obstacle nor anything involving ice or claustrophobia. If this was your first obstacle race, and it was for about half of the 50 crazies I ran with, it was perfect. For those coming off Savage Race in Clermont last month or the Spartan Race in Miami in February looking for a greater challenge, however, it might have seemed a bit of a letdown.

Given the escalation in entry fees for obstacle races and how the category – unlike triathlons and most road racing events – charges $10 for parking and does not provide free refreshments beyond the first beer, we think there’s a place for a race like Mud Crusade — if it keeps its rates at $59 or less. None of its obstacles were so big they couldn’t be easily moved around the state by the event’s Jacksonville-based owners. In that sense, it could fill the first-timer obstacle race void left when Muddy Buddy left the Sunshine State after last year.

Chmura says he plans to launch registration next week for the Sept. 15 Mud Crusade at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Registration is $49 through June 30 and Chmura says he might provide discounts comparable to those given in January for those who signed up early for the Dade City event.

We’ve seen a lot of one-and-done mud runs in Florida in the last year including Iron Crusader, Champions Mud Bash, and Ragin’ Warrior. All had visions of moving beyond the state, though we’ve yet to see a Florida-based promoter pull it off. Savage Race has a number of out-of-state locations planned, though no dates announced. Mud Crusade would be the first to open registration for an out-of-state event. The Miami event listed on the Mud Crusade website for Dec. 1-2 will change, Chmura says, since he does not want to go up against Tough Mudder, which takes place in Fort Meade the same weekend.

Will Mud Crusade ever be as challenging as Tough Mudder or Spartan Race? Probably not. But it could fill a niche staging compact, lower-cost events in central locations within striking distance of its Jacksonville headquarters.

“I simply think that we can deliver as good or better a race at an affordable price,” Chmura said. “I don’t determine what these races cost. Ultimately, the consumer does. Based on what we did here working, we’re going to build better, bigger obstacles, and refine our technique. We did this with not a lot of experience, but a lot of determination and hard work. We’re looking forward to taking it to Atlanta.”

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