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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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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."