The town of Attica, a quiet burgh tucked along the banks of the Wabash River, will see a six-fold increase in its population — and an exponential increase in its collective testosterone — when an estimated 15,000 weekend warriors converge on the community this weekend for Tough Mudder Indiana.
Consisting of twenty-some fiercely challenging obstacles over a grueling nine-mile trail, Tough Mudder tests the strength, stamina and mental fortitude of its participants. The course, designed by the British Special Forces,includes such daunting obstacles as Chernobyl Jacuzzi (an icy mixture of faux carcinogens), Electroshock Therapy (a sprint through a field of live wires emitting shocks of up to 10,000 volts) and Fire Walker (a scamper across blazing kerosene-soaked straw). The 700-acre Badlands Off-Road Park hosts the two-day event.
An action-sports phenomenon that’s grown by leaps and bounds since its launch in 2010, Tough Mudder represents the entrepreneurial genius of Will Dean, a young Englishman who conjured up the idea for the extreme obstacle-course circuit while pursuing an MBA from Harvard. Two years ago, Dean’s Tough Mudder business plan earned a semifinalist finish in a competition sponsored by Harvard.
It’s hard to imagine that a winner of the Harvard contest has, or ever will, match Tough Mudder’s success. The Brooklyn-based operation hosted a mere three events in 2010, but this was followed in 2011 by 14 events — and an estimated 150,000 participants, or “Mudders,” willing to pay an entry fee that can run well north of $100. Next year, Tough Mudder plans to go international, with a total of 27 events across the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia.
David Godes, a faculty advisor for Dean at Harvard, admits that he initially had some doubts about Tough Mudder’s potential.
“The biggest obstacle I saw was the identification of the target customer,” he says. “Who was going to want to do these events and why? I was looking at the market in a very traditional way and thinking that runners don’t want to be electrocuted, and those people who are willing to be electrocuted or run through fire or dive into a vat of ice aren’t interested in running 10 miles in between.”
“Looking back, I didn’t fully appreciate how many people there are out there that are fit enough to complete in an event like this and, at the same time, want to see whether they’re tough enough to do it,” Godes admits. “I was looking at Tough Mudder as something that would compete with races like triathlons and marathons.”
Given the benefit of hindsight, the professor, who now consults for Tough Mudder and teaches for the University of Maryland, fully recognizes why Dean’s business model has been so successful. Godes has firsthand Tough Mudder experience, having subjected himself to the ruthlessly contrived obstacles and completed the race, and in so doing he identified perhaps the primary draw of the event: the social element.
“When you’re running a marathon, you’re out there on your own,” he says. “Even if you’re nominally running a race with a buddy, you’re pretty much dealing with your own thoughts and fatigue.”
“Tough Mudder is completely different,” Godes says. “It’s a truly organic social dynamic that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. People helping strangers get over walls, figuring out how to get across a board without falling in the water or holding barbed wire to help someone avoid a gash on their back. I tell people that it’s one part triathlon, one part UFC and one part Woodstock.”
Wounded Warrior Project
The Wounded Warrior Project, an organization serving the needs of injured military service members, has benefited tremendously from the generosity of Tough Mudder participants. To date, more than $2.3 million has been donated to the WWP by Mudders, many of whom cite supporting the nonprofit as a main motivator for participating in the event.
One such Mudder is Megan Hamilton, a Fort Wayne resident who served in the U.S. military with Naval Special Warfare Group Two. Hamilton completed Tough Mudder Virginia last month and is returning for more extreme obstacles this weekend in Attica.
Of her previous Tough Mudder experience, Hamilton says, “I was really excited to see so many women and men fired up and ready to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Tough Mudder allows me to help care for those who have paid a great sacrifice so I can live the American dream.”
Hamilton, a single mother with two young daughters, credits her military experience with conditioning her to forge ahead in the face adversity.
“I had the privilege of working with Navy SEALs who taught me to stay healthy, both physically and mentally,” she says. “They also taught me that you need to have the mental strength to proceed forward when you feel like you have nothing left. Tough Mudder is definitely a course that requires perseverance and teamwork coupled with physical strength.”
Hamilton views Tough Mudder as an opportunity to demonstrate positive values to her children.
“I feel like it’s my job as a mother to teach them that being a woman includes valuing one’s self and others,” she says.
Asked to identify the most daunting obstacle, Hamilton picks Chernobyl Jacuzzi without hesitation.
“It’s killer,” she says. “The last one I did in Virginia — well, let’s just say I felt my body freeze once submerging myself into the ice water. Thank goodness a stranger helped pulled me out of the water. It took a couple minutes, but I was able to thaw out with the help of hypothermia blankets that we ran with.”
Hamilton looks forward to celebrating with her daughters and teammates following the completion of her second Tough Mudder.
“This celebration definitely will include warm hot chocolate,” she says, “and a salute to single moms looking for inspiration and courage.”
Three questions for five first-time Mudders
We tracked down five first-time Mudders — Jason Torres (Oak Lawn, IL), Jennifer Loshark (Columbus, Ohio), Jessica Robinson (Dowagiac, Mich.), Josh Baker (Brownsburg) and Thomas Starnes (Muncie) — and asked them why they’re willingly subjecting themselves to relentless physical punishment, which obstacle they most fear and how they plan on celebrating if, er, once they finish the 12-mile grind.
NUVO: What’s motivating you to participate in Tough Mudder Indiana?
Jason: I love obstacle courses, and this one is supposed to be the toughest. I will compare it to the one I did in the Marine Corps’ boot camp.
Jennifer: It’s a personal challenge. After doing two Warrior Dashes this year, I wanted to up the ante, so to speak, and see what I’m capable of doing.
Jessica: My biggest motivation is proving to myself I have enough mental strength to complete this. I may not be as strong as the guys, but I want to prove that I’m tough too.
Josh: I’ve long been attracted to the mud-and-obstacle racing scenario, but I’ve not had the courage to sign myself up and race alone. Luckily this race is big and badass enough that a group of my closest out-of-state friends really wanted to do it too. We are using it as an excuse to get together and do something awesome.
Thomas: I want to challenge myself physically and mentally. Also, I greatly appreciate where the donations are going to, the Wounded Warrior Project.
NUVO: Which obstacle are you most dreading?
Jason: If there is one it is the Boa Constrictor. I get a little claustrophobic sometimes.
Jennifer: I’m most dreading the Berlin Walls (I’m only 5’2”) and the Chernobyl Jacuzzi.
Jessica: Chernobyl Jacuzzi! I’m a little nervous for how cold it’s going to be.
Josh: As hard as I already know some of the obstacles are going to be, I think the biggest challenge will likely be the weather. It’s most likely going to be cold, and Tough Mudder promises you will be soaking wet within the first mile. Wet and cold will zap the energy right out of you. That’s where the camaraderie in suffering together will get us through.
Thomas: That would probably be the Walk the Plank. On this obstacle, competitors jump off a stand that is about 15 or 20 feet above the water. I’m not afraid of heights, but I cannot stand the cold. I can’t imagine how cold the water will be that day.
NUVO: How will you celebrate after crossing the finish line?
Jason: I saw on the Tough Mudder website that people were shaving their heads after the race. I’m thinking about doing that!
Jennifer: I plan to take a hot bath with salts.
Jessica: When I finish the race, I’d love to get a Tough Mudder tattoo. It’d be my first tattoo, because I’ve always been nervous to get one. But if I can complete Tough Mudder, I can get a damn tattoo!
Josh: After nine energy-zapping miles of mud, wet, fire and ice, I plan to get warm, consume a crap load of calories and enjoy the reunion with my friends.
Thomas: I plan on using what little energy I have left to sprint to my car, dry off, turn up the heat, and wait for my teammates to finish. That, and the free beer at the end, will be awesome!