SENECA, Ill. — Every participant in the Tough Mudder obstacle course is shocked to be here.
Greg Perko was crawling through the mud when he got hit with 10,000 volts from one of the dozens of live wires dangling from the “Electric Eel” obstacle.
“Pow! It zapped me right across the head, and I thought I got hit with a two-by-four,” says Perko, a Chicago-area salesman who is one of 16,000 participants here on a recent May weekend.
“I started seeing stars.”
Meanwhile, organizers are making money out of mud. Obstacle endurance events are among the fastest-growing sports businesses in the world.
“We’re all stuck in corporate offices all day long, and it’s a good way to let your hair down,” says the wiry Perko, who was celebrating his 50th birthday with his 19-year-old son. “Maybe we were all deprived with our sandboxes when we were children and this is our outlet.”
Last year, there were 1.5 million US participants in just the three largest obstacle companies: Tough Mudder (the largest), Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash.
Tough Mudder revenues jumped from $2 million in 2010 to a projected $115 million-plus this year. Not bad for a Harvard Business School student named Will Dean, whose business paper didn’t even make the finals of a competition in graduate school.
This year, Tough Mudder will host 53 events in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Germany. This weekend, Tough Mudder will invade the Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, N.H.
Tough Mudder calls itself a challenge and not a race. The 10- to 12-mile course includes two dozen obstacles designed by British Special Forces. This makes it as different from a marathon as Paris Hilton is from Parris Island.
The obstacles are humorous in name only. There’s the “Arctic Enema,” where participants have to submerge into a muddy dumpster filled with thousands of ice cubes.
At the “Electric Eel,” it’s a mixed bag of screams, swears, and swagger.
One man adopts a Gandhi-like mantra, repeating, “Pain is temporary,” over and over as he gets zapped. A teenager yells, “Don’t tase me, bro,” as he sloshes among the live wires. Another woman simply stops in the middle of the mud pit, screaming and frozen in fear, until they shut off the electricity. She escapes but she doesn’t quit.
Participants must sign a four-page “Waiver of Death” and pay up to $180 to join in. Tough Mudder claims to be “probably the toughest event on the planet.” But despite the drill sergeant at the beginning and the pumped-up chants of “hoo-rah,” they let you skip obstacles.
Skip, yes; complain, no. One of the pledges competitors make before the start is: “I do not whine — children whine.”
There is a costume contest before the race and a rock band performs afterward. At the start, participants can get free mullet haircuts and Wheaties, with a choice of milk.
“Would you like that muddy?” says the Wheaties girl pouring the chocolate milk.
Everyone who finishes — that’s 78 percent of entrants — gets a coveted orange Tough Mudder headband and a free beer.
Marketing is key. Tough Mudder started out spending $8,000 in advertising on Facebook. It now has 3.3 million likes on Facebook.
But not everybody likes it.
Tough Mudder paid a $725,000 settlement to the owners of British-based Tough Guy, who claimed the British-born Dean stole their intellectual property and misled them while doing a Harvard Business School paper.
There was more bad news in April. Avishek Sengupta, 28, of Ellicott City, Md., accidentally drowned at the “Walk The Plank” obstacle at a Tough Mudder held in West Virginia.
The obstacle courses are unregulated, although Tough Mudder representatives say safety is their top priority. On a recent Saturday morning, at least a dozen Mudders had to be assisted by rescuers with flotation devices after leaping from the “Walk The Plank’s” 15-foot wall into 15 feet of muddy water. All continued after being cheered on by others.
Eighty percent of participants enter as part of a team. That may be the secret to their success: No Mudder is Left Behind.
“It’s a group effort,” says Mike Durkin, long, lean, and sipping a Dos Equis at the finish. “You need a buddy, you need help with some of the obstacles. You’ve got to carry a friend for the ‘Wounded Warrior Carry.’
“You can’t do it alone.”