When Will Dean entered Tough Mudder in a business-plan competition at Harvard Business School, judges were skeptical about the viability of a team-based military obstacle course combined with an untimed distance run. "Without exception, [the judges] said, 'This isn’t just not a good idea, this is absolutely a bad idea. People will not pay to run through the mud and get zapped by electricity.'"
But Dean believed there would be demand for an athletic event focused around overcoming a challenge with a team. "Most people who enter a race, a marathon, a triathlon—they aren’t really racing, they are trying to do something for themselves," he said earlier this month at the Fast Company Innovation Festival during a panel with Tough Mudder president Adam Slutsky.
Against the advice of the competition's judges, he launched the first Tough Mudder event in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in May 2010, expecting about 500 people. Approximately 5,000 showed up. Today, Tough Mudder has drawn 2.5 million people to its events, which range from a one-mile "Fruit Shoot Mini Mudder" event to a 24-hour obstacle course challenge in which the objective is to complete the most five-mile course laps. By the event company’s account, more than 10,000 people have a tattoo of the Tough Mudder logo.
The appeal is certainly not comfort. Obstacles include a field of live electrical wires that participants touch as they run through it. One is called the Arctic Enema. A tiny number of participants have experienced massive diarrhea, electrical injuries, and even, in one case, death as a consequence of participation.
So why do so many people want to do this?
The first appeal, according to Dean, is the opportunity to overcome a challenge. "Getting zapped with electricity may not be the fun part," he said. "But having faced your fears and overcome something, that’s a good boost in confidence."
He also believes that Tough Mudder, which has held more than 200 events in six countries since 2010, gives people a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. "In life, we look for things that we have in common, like where we went to school," he said.
And there's another pretty simple reason. "I think there’s a myth that these events are miserable suffer-fests," Dean said. "Yes, you do have to train or be somewhat in shape, but you don’t have to be an elite athlete to do this event. You’ll see people in costume. It is quite a bit of fun."