What it means to be Tough
Once dominated by extreme athletes, obstacle-course company Tough Mudder is extending a hand to fitness enthusiasts around the world.
TOUGH MUDDER, THE OBSTACLE-COURSE COMPANY THAT PUTS REGULAR PEOPLE THROUGH ALMOST COMICALLY EXTREME CHALLENGES, IS TRYING TO CLEAR ONE OF THE BIGGEST HURDLES IN BUSINESS: SCALING FROM ONE-HIT WONDER TO GLOBAL PHENOMENON.
IT’S JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT ON A SATURDAY IN APRIL, AND HUNDREDS OF MEN AND WOMEN IN WORKOUT GEAR AND RUNNERS’ HEAD LAMPS ARE STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AN OPEN FIELD IN FAIR BURN, GEORGIA, ABOUT 20 MILES SOUTHWEST OF DOWNTOWN ATLANTA. DESPITE THE HOUR, THEY’RE TOTALLY WIRED, SHAKING OUT THEIR LIMBS
and bobbing nervously in place. One guy has a pink mohawk. Another looks like an ex-marine. A group of young women in Lycra shorts and tank tops gives off a more corporate vibe. What unites them is a shared desire to complete an eight-hour obstacle race, produced by the Brooklyn-based company Tough Mudder. The Toughest Mudder, as this event is called, kicks off at midnight and involves gleefully sadistic challenges such as the Augustus Gloop (in which competitors have to climb up a plastic shaft as water pours down) and Electroshock Therapy (where participants run through a gauntlet of dangling electric wires). Also, there’s mud. Twenty-five-hundred acres of it.
Sean Corvelle, the night’s spiritual leader and emcee, leads the group in three rounds of “HOORAH!” and then asks everyone to raise their right hand to recite the Tough Mudder pledge, a creed that a number of athletes have tattooed on their bodies: “I understand this is a race. But not an excuse to be a selfish jerk. I will uphold the Tough Mudder values of teamwork and camaraderie. I will help my fellow competitors complete the course. And I will not whine. Losers whine . . . . ”
When the last words are chanted, Corvelle booms, “All right, let’s get ’em outta here! Mudders, here we go!”
The racers whoop and howl and charge off into the darkness.
Me? I’m nearly 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, watching the event unfold via Facebook Live, pumped up on pain killers and muscle relaxants after a back injury kept me from boarding a plane to Atlanta 24 hours earlier. But being a spectator isn’t so bad. This is quite a spectacle. Tough Mudder began seven years ago as a wacky activity—a 10- to 12-mile mud run with 20 cheeky obstacles to conquer—offering average working people Monday-morning bragging rights. Tens of thousands of viewers are streaming this markedly longer and more elaborate weekend event on Facebook, while tens of thousands more watch on Periscope, Twitch, and Snapchat. Observers chime in with “Go get ’em” and “Wish I were there,” which flicker down my screen by the second. Some boast about staying up all night, as if it’s their own extreme challenge.
For a sport that requires participants to sign a death waiver, Tough Mudder has always put having fun first. Often described as a cross between Burning Man and an Iron Man, the event promises free beer for finishers and has tattoo artists at select events to ink the Tough Mudder logo on people’s skin—something the company claims 20,000 people have done.
Today, though, Tough Mudder itself is facing a hurdle. The company is no longer a scrappy, twoperson startup housed in a Brooklyn warehouse,
Tough Mudder Central Texas, which took place May 6 and 7, 2017, and is depicted throughout this story, is renowned among participants as one of the messier courses of the 130 events that the company will stage this year.