When I ask Alex Patterson, the chief creative officer of the obstacle course event company Tough Mudder, how the organization’s commitment to fitness is expressed in the company’s corporate culture, he deadpans, “Yearly salary is solely dependent on how many push-ups you can do.” He’s joking, of course, but Patterson’s dry humor reflects the combination of fun and athleticism at the core of the Tough Mudder philosophy.
About 25 percent of the company’s 125 employees–the event planners and the folks in the course department–have explicitly physical jobs, Patterson says. The Tough Mudder obstacle courses—10–12-mile-long monsters based on British Special Forces training that include challenges like wading through dumpsters full of ice, enduring mild electrical shocks, and scaling 12-foot walls—require a great deal of energy to set up.
The planners go to the disparate event sites (62 obstacle courses in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia are planned for 2013) the week of the race and are up in the predawn hours making sure every aspect of the course is in tip-top shape. The employees in the course department are at those same event sites, months before the Tough Mudder participants line up at the starting gate, riding around in ATVs and figuring out what routes to follow.
But for the employees at Tough Mudder’s Brooklyn headquarters, the company’s focus on physicality is more about encouraging staff to garner experience, rather than rewarding them for having the lowest body fat percentage. Many departments ask employees to have a personal objective for the year–whether it’s taking time out for surfing or to attend a cooking class–and they’re held to those personal objectives just as they would be held to a workplace objective like getting more sponsors.
Tough Mudder believes so wholeheartedly in the idea of encouraging experience among staffers that at the end of this year’s Tough Mudder season in November, they’re planning to take employees on Tough Mudder expeditions, where they fund a group on an International adventure. “Maybe it’s two weeks hiking in Patagonia, or bicycling across Europe,” staffers would get to choose the adventure they wanted to do, like a “mini-Sabbatical,” Patterson says.
Lots of staffers run more than one Tough Mudder obstacle course a year (though no one is forced to participate in events), and they often do it as a team. The company is growing at such a fast clip that it’s even developing a group of people whose job it is to run every event and give Tough Mudder quality-control feedback. The goal is to make sure each obstacle can be as safe and challenging as possible.
The company also wants to make sure each Tough Mudder event has fresh and creative obstacles so nothing gets stale. Patterson, along with a team that includes Nigel Thomas, who was in the British Special Forces for more than a decade, helps design new obstacles year-round. Part of the inspiration for new challenges comes from basic human fears, Patterson says. “We have a big matrix of emotional states—happy, angry, tired, afraid—and we try to plot our obstacles along that.” For instance, Patterson points out, they might not have any obstacles based on a primal fear of the dark, and so they’ll figure out an obstacle that puts Tough Mudder participants in a pitch-black space.
Learning to face your childhood fear of the dark might not seem to relate much to preparing corporate tax documents, which is ostensibly what Tough Mudder’s accountants do. But Patterson says that every Tough Mudder employee is encouraged to push boundaries, whether it’s at their desk or on the obstacle course. “Working at Tough Mudder is a lifestyle,” Patterson explains. “You don’t want to hate your job and love your life. You want to challenge and push yourself and get better at both.”