Running a marathon used to be the high water mark of physical endurance, a notable life goal and an MBA resume builder. Now, it's just ordinary and pointless according to Will Dean, founder and CEO of Tough Mudder, a contest which bills itself as "the toughest one day event on the planet".
At seven miles, consisting of sixteen military-style obstacles, the goal is not the finishing time, but simply finishing. With a run up a steep ski slope in ninety-degree heat, crawl though snow and mud and a plunge, fully clothed, into deep forty degree water, it is certainly no ordinary road race.
"Marathons are boring," says Dean. "The training is monotonous and all anyone talks about afterward is their time. We don't even track your time, that's why we call this an 'event' and not a race. It's about camaraderie and teamwork - giving the guy next to you a helping hand. The obstacles," he continued, "are designed to give a short, sharp interior shock. It's seeing the guy in front of you tumble into a freezing cold pond and knowing you're next that's the worst part."
Dean, after spending five years chasing terrorists with the British Diplomatic Service and attending Harvard Business School, came up with the idea of creating a participatory sporting event more challenging than a "fun run", but less tedious and competitive than a marathon. His concept was a finalist in the HBS Annual Business Plan contest. Together with his childhood friend, Guy Livingston, a corporate attorney, they set up a website and a Facebook fan page in early 2010. Expecting 500 people for the first event held on May 2nd at the Bear Creek Mountain Ski Resort near Allentown, Pa, they instead got 4,500 and it sold out in a month.
While the Mudder may be toughest one day event on the planet, it's far from the only one. Other similar challenges include Spartan Race, Warrior Dash and The Peak Death Race, whose ominous website, youmaydie.com, pretty much sums up the mentality of its participants.
What these and other competitions have in common is that they give people like me a taste of military training with a significantly reduced likelihood of death or dismemberment traditionally associated with combat.
Working on the principal that you can't taste the food by reading the recipe I signed up for the first Tough Mudder this past May. Since I wouldn't be timed and "everybody's a winner", I reckoned the Special Olympics of extreme sports would be perfectly suited to my forty-four year old body. I've rock climbed for years and run a few times a week, but with a job, wife and seven year old daughter, I do neither as much as I'd like. I shared Dean's distaste for long distance races and was keenly aware that the original Marathoner, an Athenian courier, dropped dead from exhaustion after delivering his message.
My thoughts were with that ancient Greek messenger as I scratched and clawed my way through a steep, slippery sixty-five degree black diamond ski run in the middle of the course ominously named "the cliffhanger". The mid-day sun was unrelenting and as a Manhattan resident I hadn't trained for hills. I kept reminding myself that the black spots I was seeing were only the beginning stages of heat stroke and not an immediate prelude to unconsciousness.
After cresting the hill and shimmying my way through the "Boa Constrictor" - long, narrow plastic pipes - I took in the refreshing waters of the "swamp stomp", a fifty-foot long, four-foot deep trench filled with mud and extremely chilly water. I plodded though, but with each step I became increasingly bemired. I'd shaved my lower legs and duct-taped my shoes to my shins to prevent their loss during the water hazards, but knew if I wasn't careful I'd be finishing the course barefoot.
While I and other cubicle warriors ran to get in touch with our inner Green Beret, the Mudder attracted a broad range of individuals with other motivations. With sections named "Ball Shrinker" - a rope traverse through frigid water - and "Hold Your Wood" - carting a ten pound log halfway up a ski slope -- the demographics skewed heavily toward young men (four out of five). In many respects the Mudder is a "blue collar Triathlon" with law enforcement and firemen well represented, many doing the race in memory of a fallen comrade. Various running clubs had also signed up as evidenced by the team t-shirts and, of course, the Marines were there simply because they're Marines.
Everyone, whether they realized it or not, was there to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. The charity's mission is to "to honor and empower wounded warriors" by raising awareness of the unique needs of severely injured service men and women. Tough Mudder raised over $150,000 for the charity through ticket sales and fund raising efforts.
Others had more practical reasons for entering.
"It's a great way to get in shape for the swimsuit competition," said beauty queen Keelie Sheridan, 2010 Miss Greater New York and contestant for the Miss New York pageant.
One team of middle-aged women called themselves The MILFs (Man I Love Fitness) and one woman sported a shirt with "Tough Mother" and the names of her two kids.
While no prizes were awarded for the fastest time, there were awards given for "best dressed" and "least dressed". Four fraternity brothers, aka "The Avatar Boys", painted blue from head to toe, resembling the fictional Na'vi, vied for the former prize.
Women were warned that tops were required, much to the disappointment of practically everyone, so the prize for least dressed went to a burly fellow wearing a lime green, Borat-style "mankini".
Will I do it again? If there is one salient feature of modern life it is the lack of true adventure. And by "adventure" I mean when one undertakes a task where the outcome is not predetermined and there is the potential for injury or even death. Amusement parks are a poor substitute. Spectator sports and movies allow only a vicarious experience. Challenges such as Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and their ilk fill a primal need in many of us to face true discomfort, display physical courage and emerge triumphant, even if it's only for an afternoon.
The next East Coast Tough Mudder runs over the weekend of November 20th and 21st in Englishtown, New Jersey. It's twelve miles, has eighteen obstacles and calls itself "truly badass".
Despite nearly drowning during the "walk the plank" section of the last Mudder, I'm already signed up for the next.