Finding Community with Tough Mudder
Crawling through freezing water before climbing a 40ft rope wall only to get electric shocks? That's what 10,000 people do at every Tough Mudder event. WHY?
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What happens when you get bored of running?
For amateur runners, pulling on your shoes and getting out of the door is often the first challenge. The next mental hurdle can be getting bored of the streets in one’s neighborhood. Completed it!
To keep things fresh, many move on to track nights or trail running, some drill down on their nutrition to maximize strength and recovery, or figure out complementary cross training like swimming or yoga. They’re all great options that both help you become a better runner and give you a new way to experience running.
One of the most celebrated alternative methods of running is the Tough Mudder series. I talk to Chris Maltbie, the man in charge of innovating and building the obstacle course racing company’s community-driven brand.
Having worked his way up through the company since joining Spartan 11 years ago, Chris is now Senior Director of Global Brand and Product. Quite the title.
What makes Tough Mudder races unique?
“Tough Mudder races aren't timed - they really require teamwork to get through them. If you hit an obstacle you can't do, you can go around it. So there's that level of choose your own adventure.”
“We just make it so hard that no matter what you do, however you take it on, however fast you take it on, you’re going to have to test yourself at some point. Maybe it's mental, maybe it's physical, maybe it's both.”
“But by the time you hit a finish line at tough mother like you've been through something and you feel accomplished. I think for many of us that are really into running that's the hook that really sucks you into it.”
You talk about teamwork. What kind of person does a Tough Mudder race?
“That's the mindset that we're looking for. People who are willing to work together and not take themselves too seriously. People who just want to do cool shit. You know? They want to be fit, they want to be active, they want to be outside, and they want to really push themselves.”
Running a race that isn’t timed might feel somewhat antithetical to runners, who are often the most solo of athletes. Regular readers may have noticed an emphasis on community, however, and completing a Tough Mudder with help from friends has many parallels to relay races and run clubs.
Chris tells me about the Mudder Legion - their loyalty program - and of the couple dozen people who have completed over 100 Tough Mudder races, and the dedicated two who have crossed the 200-events threshold.
He compares Tough Mudders to the Spartan races - the other side of the company, where legendary, singular athletic figures dominate a series, winning multiple championships and breaking record upon record.
“On the Tough Mudder side, it's much more broad. How do you rank a person who's run more than anyone else? It's so community driven that it's almost besides the point.
“The real mainstays in the community are there to help newcomers, the first-timers get through it. They spend their time hanging out on the top of some of the teamwork obstacles just helping people for hours at a time.”
“I think the most iconic folk we have are the ones that show up and share their knowledge more than being one individual or one personality.”
How does Tough Mudder live up to its name?
“Sometimes stuff might be a nasty shock! It doesn’t matter how fit you are, getting electrocuted doesn't feel good. Ice water doesn't feel good for anybody. You can't train for it. You’ve just got to get through it on the day.”
“We say that anyone can do a Tough Mudder, but it's definitely not for everyone.”
A note that you are getting electric shocks during a Tough Mudder rather than electrocuted, which is the term for dying by electric shock. An important distinction.
Yes, it’s publicized as an obstacle with 10,000 volts of electricity. That sounds scary in comparison to the 120V outlets in your home, but it’s all about the power behind the shock (the amperage (low)), time spent being shocked (minimal), and how the electricity goes through your body.
And there’s the fact that there’s no problem if you want to skip that obstacle. Despite all the talk of mental grit and physical prowess, it’s an event that invites rather than demands extremes of behavior.
You can expect a 5k Tough Mudder event to take double the time you’d run a flat 5km/3mi race, but it won’t be a straight hour of running. You’ll be climbing, crawling, dunking and dragging yourself along the course.
You can, of course, train in advance to be more physically capable on the day, but within the 20 or so obstacles, you will come across several where you will have to overcome mental hurdles, no matter what.
You might, remember, have a stranger - one of those Tough Mudder veterans - helping you get through it, though. Being alone doesn’t appear to be an option.
It’s possible, however, that you are that breed of athlete who is so confident in your physicality that those cerebral challenges pose no real difficulty, and for you, maybe this is a new horizon of running. It’s certainly different to pounding your local pavement.
Chris started out as a short-format swimmer and - despite not enjoying it at all - picked up running after college because it was cheap and easy compared to organizing a visit to the local pool. He got deep into running with ever-increasing weekly mileage and ultramarathons under his belt.
When he started working at Tough Mudder, however, he started to switch it up. He began swimming again. He noticed that his legs felt better and his running times were improving because he wasn’t racking up the mileage. He used the underwater breathing discipline to his advantage while running as well.
He brings all this personal experience to the table when designing Tough Mudder events.
Talk me through thinking up new obstacles?
“I think variability in any sort of fitness endeavor is really important. It’s so easy to get into a groove with what you're comfortable with. Sometimes you need to be shoved out of that groove. Maybe it's an injury or a new type of event and you need to pick up a different discipline. Whatever it is, I think you need to get pushed out.”
“I think that the obstacle innovation piece is a way we do that. It forces people to confront some of those unknowns and get outside their comfort zone.”
“We have something really cool in the works right now to involve teamwork with electricity and the way you can play with people's minds and make them work together. It's really exciting, and it's what sounds really unhinged about the event.”
The mental challenges clearly have a lot of thought put into them. The physical challenges are almost more difficult to innovate. Is making the monkey bars a little further apart and making the climbing rope a little longer really enough?
“We're always trying to come up with new ways to test people. Can we make people use their balance more instead of just brute strength? Can we make them use their legs in a different way? What can we throw in there to just make it a little different?”
“Maybe it took them three or four different events before they were able to make it across. Now we need to move the target a little further.”
“That also gives that progression that you look for, you know? We try to keep it interesting because, ultimately, for all of us that are dedicated to these sorts of endeavors, you always want to be moving up.”
It’s the polar opposite mindset to last week’s article, where running 3 miles a day was as normal and ordinary to Joel Pearson as brushing his teeth. Sure, that is part of a near-30-year run streak, but those daily 3 miles are enough for him.
Indeed, people often ask me what race I’m training for, and my response has been the same for a while: I’m not. I run for myself. I run for my health, whether that’s physical or mental. Personally, I do not separate the two.
A big part of that is running with friends and finding like-minded people, though. So Maybe Tough Mudder and the Mudder Legion community is my next destination. See you at the top of a cargo net? Bring me a towel, please.
Enter the discount code RUNNINGSUCKS to receive 30% off your next Tough Mudder USA 5k, 10k, 15k or Infinity event registration fee.
Discount does not apply to associated taxes or other fees, to events outside of the United States, or on other course formats beyond those listed. Void were prohibited by law. Valid only on purchases made on toughmudder.com. Offer expires 12/31/2023. Date subject to change at the discretion of Tough Mudder.
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