Icy, muddy, shocking 'fun' comes to Aotearoa

16:00, Nov 30 2013
Tough Mudder
AMONGST IT: Camaraderie is one of the defining benefits of Tough Mudder races . . . but you still have to do some things yourself.

Competitors hurl themselves into skips full of ice water. Crawl through muddy tunnels. Run through dangling wires carrying 10,000 volts of electricity. And pay anything up to $150 for the pleasure.

These willing victims have made Will Dean a very rich man. Now the British-born, Harvard-educated king of the nascent obstacle-run-with-mud industry - a sector estimated to be worth $250 million and growing - is bringing his "Tough Mudder" to New Zealand for the first time.

Tough Mudder, a 20-kilometre extreme race now held in 53 locations worldwide, isn't the first such event to be held in New Zealand - races like the O-Rock launched last year - but when it comes to Hampton Downs race track, between Hamilton and Auckland, next Anzac weekend, it will signal the arrival here of the industry's biggest player.

There's no finish line clock, and many people enter as teams, or form ad-hoc alliances en route to scramble over the obstacles.

"You can take two hours, and you get an orange headband, a T-shirt, and a cold can of beer," says Drew Ward, Tough Mudder's Asia-Pacific boss. "You can take five hours . . . and you get an orange headband, a T-shirt, and a cold can of beer."

So the point is?

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Ward says seeing Tough Mudder competitors helping each other over obstacles has made him more optimistic for the human condition. "You see people just helping each other out, and simply because they can . . . it makes you feel good about human nature at its best."

Radio host Dom Harvey, who completed this year's Sunshine Coast Tough Mudder, says that's the unique characteristic that would make him compete again. He didn't like the electric cables - "like being punched by David Tua" - or the "Americanised" razzamatazz at the start line, but says: "What I loved about it was the camaraderie, the feeling of community; they stress that it's impossible to do it as an individual, some obstacles you need help. It makes it more fun."

But Tough Mudder was not born from such cuddly emotions. Back in 2010, Dean came up with the concept as part of a Harvard Business School business plan competition. He ran his first event that May in Pennsylvania, drawing 4500 participants.

However, Dean wasn't the first. The trend began with an eccentric, handlebar-moustached former British soldier named Billy Wilson, who first organised Tough Guy races on his farm in Staffordshire during the depths of the English winter in 1987.

Dean's business plan involved extensive consultation with Wilson, who subsequently sued him for stealing his idea and settled for US$750,000 (NZ$918,414).

Meanwhile, Tough Mudder grew: 14 events in 2011, and 35 across four countries in 2012 (65 are planned next year). There are claims online the company is worth US$70m. Some call Dean the "shark" of the industry. Joe DeSena, founder of the rival Spartan Race, told Outside magazine: "There's not a person on this planet I despise more than Will Dean."

Ward shrinks at the shark description, saying Dean is a cool, motivated, intelligent guy and suggests I talk to him. On the phone a few days later, Dean duly proves well-spoken, affable and supremely confident.

Yes, he says, he's been "blown away" by the growth of Tough Mudder. His original business plan had forecast that by now they would have 7500 participants a year. Last year they had 470,000. He began with Apple founder Steve Jobs' maxim: a focus group of one.

"I rationalised that I would like doing it, I thought my friends would like doing it, and there was space in the market . . . what I didn't realise was how many other people in the world felt the same way."

There's not much he can say about Wilson due to their legal settlement, but he does offer: "People say you have copied someone else's business idea, and I ask them to explain how you can copy someone else's idea for an event that's out there for everyone to see . . . there's a line in that movie, The Social Network - and some people have compared me to Mark Zuckerberg - where he says ‘if you had invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook'." And yes, he confirms in a roundabout way, it's true that Wilson essayed an elaborate threat involving plans to leave a severed horse's head in Deans' bed.

Earlier this year, a contestant died at a Tough Mudder event in West Virginia. At another, 20 were taken to hospital. One medical study said the "volume and severity of injuries in the Tough Mudder race we studied was unusually high".

The death, says Dean, was of course, very sad - but he pleads context; one death in 1.4 million is far better than the statistic for marathons or triathlons and the counter-balance is the physical and mental health derived from competing. And, he says, sharply, he's more worried about the safety measures of some of the smaller rival events.

And so, neatly, to the shark description. He says a Kiwi mate at Harvard introduced him to the concept of tall poppies. "In the US, business competition tends to be pretty direct, pretty ruthless," he explains. "I think when you are No 1, as we clearly are, you have a target on your back."

D EAN ONCE competed in triathlons. One day he emerged from the water, and found his wetsuit zip had stuck. The first two competitors he asked for help refused.

He contrasts that with the leader of the annual $10,000 elite Tough Mudder race, who waited at obstacles to help the man behind him.

"All the research out there says if you help someone in any way during your day, even holding a door open, it makes you feel good about yourself and boosts your overall level of happiness," Dean argues. "In this word of Facebook and SMS and iPhones and all the rest, here's something that forces real connections with random strangers."

So, tacitly, the target market isn't elite athletes - more the 20- to 40-year-old workers who want an achievable challenge and what Ward calls the chance for a "humble brag at the water-cooler on Monday".

Seasoned Kiwi events organiser Aaron Carter, whose company Total Sport runs off-road trail run and mountain bike events, says Tough Mudder-style events draw a different demographic to his semi-serious weekend warriors and family crowd. " We're not a dress-up in a fairy costume kind of brand - and that's not jealousy, that's assessing the market," he says. "I reckon if you surveyed them [Tough Mudder entrants], a good chunk would be doing their first-ever event, or it would be the only event they do all year. It's got that ‘let's get a bunch of mates together, and give this thing a nudge then get on the piss' feel.

"Initially, I thought it would be a flash in the pan. Now I think they will become a regular feature, but do we feel threatened by them? No."

Ward was here last week on a five-hour stopover between New York and Melbourne to inspect the course.

In a former life, he was chief executive of the Australian Grand Prix and the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. That he would forgo such security for the uncertainties of a 3-year-old company is testament, he says, to "how much I believe in this". Like almost all employees, he has completed a few Tough Mudders himself.

He's sanguine about not being first to market here - "there's enough pieces of the pie for everyone" - but reckons his is the "premium" product. Tough Mudder fields are usually around 10,000 strong. Ward hopes to hit that figure by year two. At a minimum $100 entry, that makes the Kiwi race worth at least $1m in revenue. It is here for the long haul and expects to expand.

The appeal, he feels, is this: "Over the last two decades, there has become a lack of places and ways to show toughness . . . and you get to roll around in mud. When did you last get the chance to do that?"

Sunday Star Times