By Pete Williams
SARASOTA – By now athletes know what to expect from Tough Mudder. There will be a well-organized event of 11 to 12 miles of physical and Fear Factor-style obstacles, adequate water stops, free post-race refreshments, and even a sharp Under Armour T-shirt.
Since Will Dean took a Harvard Business School project and turned it into Tough Mudder in March of 2010, it has grown into a global phenomenon that will draw more than 500,000 participants and gross $70 million this year.
No company in American business has better harnessed social media, especially Facebook. Tough Mudder now includes major sponsors such as Under Armour, EAS, Bic, and Dos Equis. Dean says Tough Mudder will draw 1 million participants in 2013 and there no doubt are at least that many people still angling to post Timeline photos of themselves smiling, exhausted, and wearing the signature orange finisher’s headband.
Tough Mudder always has been something of the Woodstock of sports with its big crowds of young people, mud, silliness, and rural locations not unlike Max Yasgur’s farm. In recent months, the analogy has become too appropriate. Traffic delays of four-plus hours, first near Frederick, Md., in September and on Saturday here getting to the Hi Hat Ranch off I-75, have raised the question of whether Tough Mudder has become too big to be staged at off-road venues connected to interstates by two-lane roads.
In March, Tough Mudder will host its first South Florida event at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, a facility accustomed to welcoming gatherings of 70,000 people. Dan Weinberg, Tough Mudder’s director of strategic partnerships, said two weeks ago that the speedway was chosen because of its vast infrastructure, parking, and experience handling large crowds.
With Tough Mudder routinely attracting 25,000 people over two days, we’re guessing we’ll see the event move into similar large venues. Weinberg said Tough Mudder already is looking at other NASCAR facilities. That could make it more of challenge to replicate the backwoods formula that has become arguably the most effective in the obstacle mud run industry.
Spartan Race, with its 30-Burpee penalties for failed obstacle attempts, three race distances, and more competitive mentality, remains the more challenging event. Unlike Tough Mudder, which does not track results or even distribute timing chips, Spartan is billed as an actual race and does a better job coming up with challenges unique to each race venue.
But Tough Mudder proved again this weekend why it provides the best overall race-day experience for the masses and for that Warrior Dash, the other major national player on the obstacle race scene, with a more modest 5K race, should be worried. In an industry known for being chintzy with refreshments, T-shirts and other race window dressing, Tough Mudder delivers big-time.
There’s the no-line registration area, free bag check, and several hundred port-a-potties. There’s the memorable pre-race briefing with an emcee who is part comedian and part motivational speaker, sort of a cross between Chris Rock and Tony Robbins. There are the frequent water stops with bananas and packets of gel “chomps.” There’s the finish chute with Dos Equis backpacks and all-you-can-grab Clif bars and EAS recovery drink packets. (EAS ready-to-drink products are available at a nearby tent).
There’s a black Under Armour tech shirt (women’s sizes, too), replacing the unisex, gray, cotton shirts Tough Mudder provided previously. Instead of a concert-shirt style race tour calendar on the back, there’s now the Tough Mudder pre-race pledge recited pre-race. (“I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time. I do not whine – kids whine,” etc.)
There’s a Dos Equis keg toss, with those who can hoist an empty keg far enough winning a second free beer to go with the one received for finishing. There’s a live band most of the day and a massive merchandise tent doing brisk sales, perhaps the biggest testament to the Tough Mudder marketing machine.
The course itself remains challenging, but in talking to fellow veterans of last year’s Tough Mudder Florida debut at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, the consensus was that it felt easier. Maybe it’s because we’ve now done so many other races, some of which have replicated Tough Mudder’s signature “Arctic Enema” ice plunge, “Mount Everest” half-pipe lunge, and “Walk the Plank” jump of 10-12 feet into water. Maybe it’s because Tough Mudder’s notorious race-ending, 10,000-volt “Electroshock Therapy” doesn’t usually deliver much of a current. (Not that we’re complaining, though.) Maybe it’s because the claustrophobia-inducing “Trench Warfare” crawl through freshly-dug tunnels doesn’t seem as uncomfortable as the pitch-black labyrinth of the firefighter-themed Hero Rush event.
Or maybe it’s because this year’s course did not feature as many different obstacles as the 2011 edition. There were no cargo nets to climb or roll over, no hay bale pyramid to navigate, or even a balance beam. There was no peg board wall that required athletes to scale from side to side. And for a race that has fire in its logo, there was no fire to run through or jump over as there was last year at Little Everglades Ranch. Instead there were four or five near-identical marches up dirt and through water for several repetitions.
Tough Mudder still is new enough that most participants are first-timers. But for returning customers, some variety would be nice. It’s like attending a concert for a familiar band. You want to hear their signature tunes, but expect some new material. Tough Mudder, of course, must cart some of its obstacles all over the country, so there are limitations. That gives an advantage to some of the Florida-based races such as The Highlander and the Dirty Foot Adventure Run, which have permanent homes and can keep adding obstacles to existing courses.
The only major addition to this year’s Florida Tough Mudder, albeit a brutal one, was a 300-yard “Wounded Warrior” carry. Athletes grabbed partners and carried them piggy-back or fireman’s style 150 yards before switching off. I had the misfortune of arriving at this obstacle with only two of my kilt-clad Running Commando teammates, both of whom weigh 165-170 and were perfectly matched. I ended up with a 190-pound partner, which probably explains why all 154 pounds of me are aching this morning.
Little Everglades was a better venue last year than Hi Hat and not just because of better traffic patterns. The scenic, well-manicured Pasco County ranch is accustomed to staging big events and, unlike Hi Hat, there’s more natural water. At Hi Hat, the “Hold Your Wood” log carry took you through the woods. At Little Everglades, athletes went through water for that and for other obstacles, such as a memorable 200-yard slog through waist-deep water where at times you’d sink further in the muck.
Tough Mudder spokesperson Jane Di Leo said earlier in the year that the event did not return to Little Everglades since it wanted to provide athletes with a variety of venues. Its first choice for the 2012 Tampa area event, Dirty Foot Adventures in Fort Meade, was nixed when Polk County, fearing traffic tie-ups, refused to issue a permit for an event of such magnitude. Dirty Foot has since held two successful smaller races of 1,000 or so athletes and will host on third on March 9.
The 5-mile Savage Race, which has emulated some of Tough Mudder’s business model, including a number of its obstacles, moved from Clermont to Little Everglades in October and will return on April 13. Savage flew a plane over Tough Mudder on Saturday pulling a banner pledging “more obstacles per mile.” We continue to be amazed at how many Tough Mudder competitors walk most of the course, so perhaps Savage’s less-running formula is a wise one. (Outside Magazine recently chronicled how Tough Mudder emulated Britain’s Tough Guy and how Savage emulated Tough Mudder.)
Then again, Tough Mudder’s longer course remains one of the more popular challenges in endurance sports, even for those who don’t wish to run all of it. We’re curious to see what location Tough Mudder chooses for its scheduled Tampa-area event on Nov. 2-3, 2013 since it’s hard to imagine Sarasota County issuing another permit for Hi Hat after this weekend’s traffic snarls.
We can’t think of a Central Florida venue like Homestead-Miami Speedway with multiple entrances and vast stretches of parking surrounded by hundreds of acres of undeveloped land, to say nothing of a vast man-made lake in the facility that can be incorporated into the course. Daytona International Speedway is surrounded by an airport, hotels, and commercial development.
No matter. We’re guessing Tough Mudder officials will figure that out in the next few months, further fueling the fastest-growing property in endurance sports.