You will never make it alone. You’ll need help from others. If you’re like the rest, you’ll help some poor mud-soaked runner whose muscles are mush over a wall as high as a redwood. This is Tough Mudder. This is in our blood, sweat and tears, pushing the limits of our body and doing it together as a team. None of that stab another player in the back, cutthroat, win a million dollars reality TV crap. This is us coming together as one with the sole purpose of crossing the finish line. We all know that surviving does not necessarily mean alone. Competing in a Tough Mudder event means you survived some of the baddest, grimiest runs with obstacle stages thrown in along the way and you did it with a little help from your friends. Never have aching muscles and dirt been so rewarding. Tough Mudder depletes you as it fills your soul.

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“Generally, sporting events that require this type of individual performance foment selfish ambition,” said Chris, 43, a Tough Mudder participant and educator. “But the great majority of the participants were helpful and encouraging, especially on the larger obstacles like Everest and Pyramid Scheme.”

Tough Mudder is not so much a who or a where, but a mindset. In the basest terms, it is a short marathon run through a diabolically difficult obstacle course that seems to have been dreamt up by the Marquis de Sade and R. Lee Ermey. Mud plays a major role in these 10 to 12 mile runs, with anywhere from 20 to 25 military-style obstacles in between to separate, as they say, the men from the boys and women from the girls. Events are held close to urban areas in places like Las Vegas, the Poconos, Northern California, South Florida, Dallas, Seattle and places where at least 500 acres of rural land is available to set up the course. Waves of people run out of the start gate about 15 to 20 minutes apart, so there is always action on the course. Designers use the natural terrain of the area for the most effect. The courses are designed to test stamina, camaraderie and mental grit with an overall focus on completing the course. More like surviving the course.

Are You Tough Enough?

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Tough Mudder enlisted the services of former British Special Forces members to design the courses. This is a real-deal of a challenge. Events require physical ability, so the question you have to ask yourself is: Am I tough enough?

The training for Adam, 29, a line cook at a well-known restaurant franchise, was intense: “I would run 8 to 12 miles and would throw in pushups, pull-ups, lunges, dips and ab workouts about every half mile to get my body used to doing other things while running. Then, some days, after finishing my run, I would continue to lift at the gym I go to.”

“Consider it in some ways as a day or two in boot camp, but without a drill instructor screaming in your face that you are some sort of parasitic larvae surviving on a host’s blood…”

Part of the phenomenon of Tough Mudder is how participants, who come to the event alone, soon find friends and form impromptu teams or get absorbed into an existing team. Tough Mudder encourages participants to invite family, friends and coworkers. Speaking to participants, there are those who did it once and crossed it off their bucket list, and then there are those who come back for more. All agree it is a test of one’s survivability.

“I discovered a mental reservoir of toughness previously unexploited,” Chris added. “I got past my apprehensions and habitually low expectations, and pushed myself beyond my perceived limits. The fact that I was able to complete all of the obstacles, and run the entire course, gives me a great sense of satisfaction.”

Many had never heard of Tough Mudder. Awareness is spread through word of mouth and social media. Remember to leave your smartphone back in the car, though. You won’t have the time or the strength to tweet.

“I’d never considered participating in one until it was suggested by friends,” said Chad, 36, a one-time participant whose day job is working at a computer all day. “The challenge really brought participants together. Most people had a team or a small group, and the focus was really to help others get through it. I saw a lot of people getting help with climbing over walls or holding rope ladders for teammates and others they’d never met before. It was very communal. Those participating knew what everyone else was experiencing, and no one wanted to make it more difficult for anyone else.” Consider it in some ways as a day or two in boot camp, but without a drill instructor screaming in your face that you are some sort of parasitic larvae surviving on a host’s blood.

tough mudder, endurance contest, mudder, mud

The Mudder Legion is what they call the runners who re-up and take part in more than one event. These Legionnaires earn colored headbands symbolizing the number of Tough Mudders completed, a type of red badge of courage or colored belt like the ones you receive as you progress in martial arts. Whatever the color, they all signify a rite of passage: green for participating twice, blue for three times, four to six times is yellow, seven to nine times is pink, and 10-plus times is orange, the equivalent of a black belt in karate—sort of. Mudders “bleed orange” is a saying frequently used. The Legionnaires also gain access to the Legionnaires’ Loop, several extra “repeater only” obstacles, among other benefits.

The events are not for the meek or couch-potato types; you will test your mental toughness and physical endurance, and you won’t get that ribbon, medal or even a tee-ball trophy like you did when you were six years old—but you will still be a winner.

When you cross the line with the members of your wave, you are all winners. You survived.

“I watched many videos posted online, and depending on what I saw,” explained Chris, “I was alternately inspired, intimidated, relieved or downright dissuaded. Once I signed up, however, I was almost permanently adrenalized.” The only pressure to finish is the pressure you place on yourself. Like a recruit that enlists or a fireman who joins the department, there is a line crossed that means you are committed, and as you settle into the thought of running a Tough Mudder course you begin to train (perhaps a bit more) knowing that this is a real thing.

Chad told me: “I had run a half marathon two months before Tough Mudder, so I kept jogging to stay in shape and keep stamina and endurance. Other than that, I frequented the gym more often. I spent a large part of the time weight training and using elliptical machines. I also did several exercises to attempt to improve my core strength.”

Course Of Action

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A dedicated innovation team keeps Tough Mudder courses new and fresh by always working on new obstacles, making sure their courses are the best designs with the most unique features. It is never the same-old, same-old when you attend a Tough Mudder event. Event locations are scouted well in advance and require nearly three months to design the course. The total infrastructure of the event includes parking and staging areas as well as medical treatment and concessions. Knock on wood, there have not been many participant injuries. A few sprained ankles have been the severest damage.

Tough Mudder obstacles use some clever, tongue-in-cheek names like Arctic Enema and Kiss Of Mud. There’s also Dong Dangler, Hold Your Wood, Cage Crawl, Electric Eel, Funky Monkey and Berlin Walls to name a few.

The Arctic Enema requires participants to swim through an abyss of ice water. True grit is required for this one. You will need to use your triceps to crawl as fast as you can through Electric Eel, a combination of live wires and mud; the wires feel like angry jellyfish. For the Berlin Walls, a set of 3-meter walls, most Mudders (about 80 percent) need a boost to get over. Both strength and camaraderie are stressed in this obstacle. Fire In Your Hole is so bad-ass it is usually saved for last. With a near vertical drop, Fire In Your Hole sends participants through a wall of fire into a waiting pool of water.

“I felt like I’d just gone through the most difficult physical challenge I was ever going to experience” explained one recent participant. “Everyone experiences some sort of satisfaction when achieving a personal goal and this was no different. I learned that I probably should’ve done more training.”

As much as Tough Mudder is a metaphor for life, it is about survival: endurance testing your body, a head game for your brain, and the making of brothers and sisters on the (muddy) field of battle.

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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE TM Fall 2014 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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