What’s behind the surging popularity of the untimed torture competition known as Tough Mudder coming to Squaw Valley Sept. 17-18?
By Alison Bender
During the third weekend of September, tens of thousands of participants will venture to Squaw Valley’s peaks and ponds to compete in a 10-mile course laden with fire, electricity fields and ice baths.
“Tough Mudder is not a traditional competition,” says event CEO and co- founder Will Dean. “It is a challenge for the mind and a test for the body.”
Dean worked for the British government before enrolling in an MBA program at Harvard Business School. While in school, he competed in a marathon and a triathlon. Finding both boring, he partnered with longtime friend Guy Livingstone to create a competition that would up the ante in the adventure race market.
“With all due respect to marathoners, Tough Mudder tests a lot more than your ability to run in a straight line for 26.2 miles,” Dean says. “It is a test of overall fitness, not simply endurance. Participants need upper body strength and leg strength, in addition to stamina and endurance, to complete a Tough Mudder.”
The initial event was held at Pennsylvania’s Bear Creek Mountain Resort in the spring of 2010. The organization had hoped to attract 500 people; instead, 4,500 registered, capping out its permit. Tough Mudder grew with each subsequent event.
Squaw Valley, home to the Nor Cal event, will mark the 11th competition and might be the biggest Tough Mudder ever. The permit allows for 15,000 people to race each day after organizers were granted a doubling of their capacity permit. The original 7,500-limit sold out months ahead of time.
“It’s different and it’s exciting,” says Ryan Lippmann, a construction project manager who lives in Sacramento. “You’re with a bunch of people who are as crazy as you.”
Who are these people? Eighty percent are male; the average age is 29. “One of the most unique aspects of the Tough Mudder community is that they come from diverse professional backgrounds,” says Dean. “Tough Mudders are public servants, active and non-active members of the Armed Forces, lawyers, bankers, business executives, teachers, gym rats, marathoners and triathletes.”
The reasons for participating are as varied as the people who compete. After all, the event is not timed, so there is no bragging about speed. Participants sign a waiver acknowledging the possibility of serious injury or death. The completion prize is an orange headband, a t-shirt and a beer.
For Santa Rosa resident Beki Berrey, who will be competing with her fiancé, Daniel Goodwin, under the name Team Wild Child, the effort will be a test of her mental and physical stamina. “I’ve been focusing on overcoming fears, doing things that are outside of my safe zone,” says Berrey. “I was tired of sitting on the sidelines, doubting myself and being too scared to try anything.”
So she made a list of 40 goals to accomplish before she turns 40 years old, one of those being to compete in an obstacle race. “I am looking forward to doing something that scares me,” she says. “To believing in myself more and more with each obstacle I conquer.”
The Squaw course will feature more than a dozen obstacles to include the Gauntlet (running through Squaw’s half-pipe while being blasted by high-pressure hoses), the Funky Monkey (greased monkey bars traversing an icy lake) and the slicked, 12-foot-high Berlin Wall.
“I’m dreading the field of electricity,” says Lippmann. He’s running with a team of 15 from his CrossFit gym in east Sacramento. “One of my team members posted a video of someone running through it and getting dropped to the ground.
Working with a group is part of what makes the race so appealing to Lippmann. Tough Mudder, despite its culture of machismo (the organization hosts a “Tough Mullet” competition and costume contests, and gives a future registration break to those who get Tough Mudder tattoos), focuses on creating camaraderie; participants even recite a pre-race pledge to help others.
“Our obstacles are designed to be too high, too far and too difficult to overcome alone,” says Dean. “Tough Mudder is virtually impossible to complete on your own, so even those who sign up as individuals end up teaming with others mid- course to conquer our obstacles.”
“We’ll focus on sticking together as a group and helping each other through,” Lippmann says. “We’re not there to win, just to have fun. When someone gets nailed on the electric wire, we’ll pick him up and keep going.”
Camaraderie is only part of the appeal to Matthew Scott, a doctor at Chiropractic Solutions in Campbell near San Jose. He Þrst heard about the competition on a Pandora radio ad. After watching the video on the organization’s website, he decided that it looked like fun (“a playground for adults,” he says). Then he discovered that participants were encouraged to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonproÞt that provides programs to injured American team, the HoneyBadgers, is working to raise $5,000.
In 2010, Tough Mudder raised $650,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. “Our 2011 goal is $3 million. Right now, we are well over the $1 million mark for the year,” says Dean. Tough Mudder offers $25 off its registration fee (which, for the Squaw event, varies from $60 to $180 depending on how far in advance participants register) to people who pledge to raise $150 or more. “We’ve found this is the best way to raise money.”
It seems a little ironic that Tough Mudder raises funds for injured soldiers while almost promising pain and injury of its own. However, organizers discourage those who are not in good physical condition from registering, and the website includes a 16-part Tough Mudder workout. As for individual training, Lippmann is continuing to do CrossFit. Berrey is taking boot camp sessions three days a week. Scott is working on road training and trying to build up muscle mass. He is most concerned about competing at Squaw’s high elevation. “I don’t think you can train for something like running through fire,” he says. “Those are the things you just want to get through without getting injured.”
Tough Mudder will be held Sept. 17–18 at Squaw Valley USA. Look out for 2012 dates, when the event visits Southern California Feb. 25–26 and July 7–8, 2012, and returns to Northern California Sept. 8–9. For more information, visit www.toughmudder.com.
Alison Bender is a freelance writer and editor based in Reno, Nevada; www.alisonobender.com.