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Breaking Point

Tough Mudder has pushed endurance-challenge events into the mainstream. But what makes the toughest tick?

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A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

– Robert Heinlein

Pain.

Breathing is no longer shuttling enough oxygen to the muscle in the legs. The glucose in the blood begins to metabolize, the resulting buildup of lactic acid burning underneath the skin. The abdomen throbs from a heightened heart rate. Back and shoulders barely hold up the body anymore.

Suffering.

Despair.

What do you feel when your body is pushed to the brink?

Some say they would rather die than willingly go through such an ordeal. For others, there is nothing that makes them feel more alive. And somewhere in the middle ground, there are a considerable number of people who think they probably can. These curious human beings are the reason that mass participation endurance events such as Tough Mudder have spread to all corners of the developed world in just a few short years with millions taking part in the new sport culture of mud, sweat and beers.

In a quest to find out more about the psychology of suffering and why so many choose to endure it, Pique caught up with local Death Race competitor Don Schwartz. While the races he takes part are more extreme than the Tough Mudder taking place this weekend in Whistler, all who participate share the same sense of exhilaration when tasked with the physical and mental challenge of a competition.

Schwartz didn't have a track record of any endurance racing or competition when he was first invited to participate in the Death Race.

"A friend of mine phoned up from the States, a guy that went through army ranger training and had worked for the FBI," explains Schwartz

"He said 'I've got this racing coming up called the Death Race. You have to check this out on youmaydie.com.' He said he made a list of all the people that he knew that he thought could finish the race with him — when I asked him why he didn't phone them instead, he replied, 'you're the only one on the list.' That was when I realized I had to give it a go, to see what I was made of."

This weekend, while Whistler Olympic Park is flooded by thousands of Tough Mudders, Schwartz will be plodding his way through the Vermont hills — most probably with an obscene amount of weight strapped to his back — on his way to the next gruelling challenge. The 2013 Death Race starts at 5:00 a.m. on Friday, Schwartz is hoping to finish some time on Sunday.

The Death Race is no place for the typical weekend warrior. Obstacles are just one part of the challenge with surprises at every step. All details of challenges are kept secret allowing organizers to toy with the minds of the racers, who never know how close or far they are from the end. The first challenge of the 2009 Death Race involved participants crawling through a 200-metre barb wired mud trench, digging out a tree stump with an axe then crawling back through the trench to the next challenge.

It only got worse from there — each year only around 10 per cent of racers are expected to finish.

"It's one of those things I always knew I should be able to do, but had just never been tested to find out," says Schwartz.

"It was a curiosity thing on the first race of what am I capable of, what can I do, how far can I go?"

As he began to prepare for his first Death Race in 2010 Schwartz read a slew of motivational books including The Long Journey, a story of seven men who escaped a Gulag camp in Siberia and walked to India through the Gobi desert and the Himalayas.

"I looked at that and thought 'My goodness! Our ancestors were so much tougher than we are.' They crossed the prairies in wagons, spent a winter in Saskatchewan and then hit the Rocky Mountains and didn't stop. It's embarrassing how soft we are now."

But soft is not a word you could use in the same sentence as Don Schwartz. He completed his first Death Race in 2011 and returned the following year, learning a lot about his physical and mental limits.

"The first year I went into the race, 24 hours in, both my quads seized solid. I had 100 pounds on my back going up hill and couldn't bend or flex my legs. I did a duck waddle for about 20 minutes."

People passing him told Schwartz that he needed to stop, that he needed to sit down and rest. He shrugged off the comments and told the other competitors that all he needed was some more water and food, and asked if they could assist him in getting it out of his pack.

"Sure enough, 20 minutes later the legs started working again and off I went. But if you stop at that point, you probably won't recover. When you've hit the wall, keep going down the side of the wall until you find the opening and go through it. It'll be there."

During the same race a fellow competitor broke down to the point of becoming completely unresponsive. His eyes were wide open but there was no response to sounds, sight or pain. He was carried off the course. He later attempted to get back into the challenge about several hours later but he soon gave up.

"These races break you physically, you're done," says Schwartz.

"It destroys all of your physical capability and then you find out how far you can go on mental power believing you can go on. To me, that's when you find out who you are, what you're made of, what bothers you, what makes you think about turning back. You learn more about yourself in a 48-hour weekend than you would in 10 years of therapy."

In many cases those who perform the best in gruelling events, like the Death Race, have suffered hardships in their lives, hitting rock bottom then bouncing back. Two-time Death Race champion Joe Decker overcame a drug and alcohol addiction before fitness became central to his life. Schwartz hit his own low point 23 years ago after barely surviving a helicopter crash. Spending six weeks in a burn unit with two shattered elbows, a broken wrist and weighing 50 lbs lighter than his usual 190, Schwartz had nowhere to go but up.

"I figured that I'd found the bottom, everything is easy after that. Being cold, wet dirty and tired doesn't seem like that big of a deal."

There is only one Death Race for good reason — there is a very small community of determined souls who are willing to subject their bodies and minds to such torture. There is little business associated with the event and there is no extravagant prize for winning. The reward is completely intrinsic to the participants, who generally only number in the dozens. But among those elite who can overcome the many barriers of the Death Race, there are few other ways they can show themselves that they can do anything.

"In these horrifyingly long races, anybody who makes it anywhere near the finish line you have total respect for," says Schwartz.

"You know what they've gone through, you know what you went through and you realize those people... nothing in their life can phase them. They're iron."

Fun Mud

The harshness of the Death Race, of course, is not conducive to attracting thousands of participants and as such it sits as the ultimate challenge among more accessible events such as the five-kilometre Spartan Sprint, the 12-kilometre Super Spartan or the 20-kilometre Spartan Beast. Such a portfolio of events means there is something to challenge a whole spectrum of potential participants. What Tough Mudder (TM) has done is consolidate those tiers into one 20-kilometre event and advertise to everyone to take the challenge with their friends. TM obstacles not only challenge participants physically but also hone in on some peoples fears, such as plunging into ice water (Arctic Enema) or crawling through an aqueous trench enclosed by metal with just enough room to breathe (Cage Crawl).

"We're a perfect mix of challenging and fun," says General Manager Nick Bodkins from the TM Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Anybody can build an Everest that's taller than ours or make you do push ups for six hours. Truly memorable experiences strike that balance between challenging and rewarding. We see that through the teamwork and camaraderie we see on the course."

It is that iconic camaraderie that has been one of Tough Mudder's most appealing qualities. The close up photo of clenched hands of a mudder helping to lift a stranger is one of the most heavily used images in its marketing campaigns, perhaps pointing to the metaphor that cooperation can overcome life's challenges.

"Tough Mudder is really more of a purpose-driven brand," says Bodkins.

"You see that in posts and in the reactions that our participants have, how they identify themselves as 'mudders.' Our participants tell us that it's a life-changing experience. It's not really an individual value system, it's aspirational. You get people who've overcome cancer or have come back from Afghanistan or Iraq and they've got something to look forward to, something to push themselves towards."

Tough Business

The 2010 Tough Mudder at Bear Creek Ski Resort in Pennsylvania, the first full-scale event of the franchise, sold over 4,500 tickets in a month with a marketing budget of just $8,000. In the last three years, the number of events per year has grown from three to 53 and Tough Mudder is now worth over $70 million. It's a success story that many business graduates could only dream of, but for founders Will Dean and Guy Livingstone it was a plan involving much more than letting people pay to crawl through mud and drink beer. The biggest success of Tough Mudder has been its branding. Everything from the trademark orange headbands, the military bootcamp vibe, sophomoric names of obstacles like Hold Your Wood and Dong Dangler, free beer instead of electrolytes at the finish line, it's all designed to appeal to the target demographic of 18 to 35-year-old males. Though many women and even seniors take part now.

And it works. Almost all marketing is invested into social media; Facebook ads, YouTube videos and Twitter posts all help get the ball rolling and word of mouth takes care of the rest. The stamp of teamwork and camaraderie doesn't just enhance the experience of the participant, it means when one person signs up they will more than likely convince several friends to join them. The one-upmanship nature of said demographic means that other groups in the workplace or friends' circle may sign up, through either a fear of missing out or a chance to prove their own toughness. Put them all together, run them through the wringer of 22 military-style obstacles over a 20 kilometre course and they will be recounting stories for years to come.

"I just heard about it on Facebook, all my friends were doing it both here and in Ontario," says Krissy MacKay, an engineering professional based in Vancouver who is coming to Whistler for the weekend with a team of 10 people.

"I do a lot of trail races so I'm not necessarily worried about the fitness aspect of it, but I am worried about doing some things that I don't want to do like getting shocked or jumping in the freezing cold water."

MacKay says the other appeal of an event like TM is that it lets friends with different interests come together for a common goal — getting to the end of the course.

"Usually we all go off and do our own activities on the weekends. Some of us go biking, some of us go climbing, some of us stay in town and go shopping. You don't have to be into one sport to do (TM) so we can all do it together. I'm interested to see how we all go."

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As Whistler continues its quest to eliminate the much maligned shoulder season, it is events like TM that are drawing the visitors when they are needed most. The 2012 Tough Mudder weekend had 90 per cent occupancy for both the Friday and Saturday nights (the average for June overall is 44 per cent) and that target is expected to repeat this year. Mudders may not be as affluent as the participants of GranFondo or Ironman, but with 19,000 people registered plus around 6,000 spectators expected to attend, there are certainly more of them. The celebratory nature of the event also means that there is more focus on having a full weekend of fun before, during and after the event. Last year the village was packed on the Saturday night with the bars and clubs bursting with cleaned up mudders proudly sporting their orange headbands. This year there is even a Motley Crue tribute band playing at the Whistler Conference Centre to provide yet another option to keep mudders entertained in the night.

"It's such a good group of people that are coming up to the resort," says Louise Walker, VP of Marketing Strategy at Tourism Whistler

"They are working hard during the day with the event and then they're having good, honest fun at night. It's a really good celebration feel in the resort."

The official name of the event was changed to Tough Mudder Whistler (previously Tough Mudder Vancouver) after the organizers saw how well Whistler managed the influx of thousands of people.

"What we see is that people identify with Whistler," says Bodkins.

"In making that name change, it was both to try to make sure to make very clear to people about where the event was, but also we felt like Whistler very much stands on its own in terms of a location and a destination. Even when we came in February and it was covered in 12 feet of snow, it's one of those venues that you look at and immediately know it's a destination event for us. This is an event that when our participants come, they're coming for the location as much as they're coming for our event."

With well over 19,000 people running, crawling and swimming through Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) this weekend, there is potential to negatively impact the landscape. But through careful planning such impacts are being avoided as much as possible.

"The route is carefully chosen by Tough Mudder and in cooperation with our operations department to minimize damage," said Lindsay Durno, Director of WOP.

"The contract (states) that any damage will be remediated (by tough Mudder) immediately afterwards and that was done (last year)."

There is also plenty of business being generated for local contractors. Everything including the obstacle construction, earth moving, tenting, fencing and catering is being sourced from companies in the Sea to Sky. With the event returning for the second time all crews are also working more efficiently.

"It's a lot easier with one year under our belts," says Durno.

"Both TM and WOP staff know exactly what they're doing."

With a plan to have TM return to WOP for the next five years, the resort can look forward to the orange army of mudders returning to descend on Whistler to again make it one of the busiest weekends of the summer, rain hail or shine.