More than any of its mud-run competitors, Tough Mudder is known for the clever (and cleverly named) obstacles that define its events. There’s Augustus Gloop, a plastic shaft you have to climb up as water sprays down on you; Electroshock Therapy, a crop of dangling electric wires you have to run through; and Block Ness Monster, a rotating plank that’s submerged in water—the only way to get over it is to have other Mudders, as participants are called, heave your body up and over it.
These cheeky obstacles are a key ingredient to Tough Mudder’s success and brand identity, as I wrote about in a recent feature on the company, and are one of the reasons that it is still going strong—and expanding—as other obstacle-race companies fold. Mudders love not just challenging themselves to survive something like Electroshock Therapy, but seeing what new obstacles the company rolls out each year. Tough Mudder is dedicated to keeping its obstacle “menu” fresh, and typically about four new obstacles are unveiled each November at the 24-hour, World’s Toughest Mudder event in Las Vegas. Those obstacles then get introduced to other Tough Mudder races starting in January. This schedule means that Tough Mudder is constantly at work dreaming up new thrills for its customers. And the process by which it does this is both incredibly methodical and playful, highlighting just how seriously the company takes innovation.
Nolan Kombol, senior director of product at Tough Mudder, recently spoke to Fast Company about the five phases that transform a wacky idea for an obstacle into one competitors see on a Tough Mudder course.
1. Ideation, Or How Can We Torture Them Next?
To start with, Tough Mudder assesses the obstacles currently on the course, with a particular focus on what’s generating conversation. “We take in what people talk about,” says Kombol, “on social media, what they post about it, the pictures we see. We’ll develop a ranking of the health of the obstacles, and say which ones are serving a purpose, which one’s aren’t.”
Tough Mudder then asks a simple question: What are the needs of the product? “Block Ness Monster, which we rolled out last year and is now one of our most popular obstacles,” says Kombol, came from the company thinking about how to integrate more teamwork into the course. “The direction I gave was, how can we create an obstacle that takes not just two people but four to six people to complete? A lot of the obstacles we had were either partner-based or maybe just required two people to do it.”
2. Conception, Or Can We Actually Pull This Off?
“We’ve done these retreats where we’ve gone to a house in upstate New York and we spend two to three days pitching ideas,” Kombol says, though he admits, “we’re mostly playing around in the woods, trying to come up with fun ideas and how we might achieve the targets we set in the first days of ideation.” Once back in Tough Mudder’s Brooklyn headquarters, Kombol’s team tries to come up with as many concepts as possible to solve the need they think its courses can use.
If they think an idea is feasible, they’ll create a “fairly detailed, 3D rendering of what that obstacle should be” to bring to Tough Mudder’s operations and safety teams to work out the structural details and think through all of the potential hazards, a process that can take anywhere from an hour to several weeks. “For a wall, it’s a pretty black-and-white process,” Kombol says. “But for something like Electro Shock, it’s much longer.”
3. Alpha Testing, Or Does This Thing Work?
“We build a scale model in a field, and in a private session with our team, we go out and test,” Kombol says. “We test at a farm in Pennsylvania, it’s a pretty open space where our team can dig, build obstacles, tear them down, and try out a lot of different things. We want to have a viable place where people don’t get freaked out by what they’re hearing if there’s a lot of noise or screaming. It’s obviously hard to do that in the middle of Brooklyn. We want it to feel close to what a Tough Mudder site feels like. It’s just about figuring out yes, this can scale and it will work.”
4. Beta Testing, Or What Do the People Think?
The company then invites between 50 and 150 Mudder veterans (and a few first-timers) to Pennsylvania to test the new obstacles. “They have to sign nondisclosure agreements and surrender phones and all of that fun stuff,” says Kombol. “They’re pretty good sports about it.” They participate in a run so they’re encountering the new obstacles as they would during an event. “They get to go back and brag the following year and say, ‘Oh yeah, I tested this and I made them change that’,” says Kombol.
Things can change quite a bit in this phase. “Block Ness Monster did about a 180 in the way it functioned,” he says. “When we first designed it, you had to walk along the top of the block—it’s a rotating block suspended in the water. The initial idea was that a team of four would all have to get on the block and balance each other in order to get to the other side. During alpha testing, we got that down. We were able to get across it, and it was a lot of fun. But in first half of beta testing, the participants who ran through it struggled with the balance aspect and coordinating with the group. There was a lot of discussion about who should be on the right side, who should be on the left side. It worked to a degree, but it wasn’t flawless. Part of the feedback that we got was, ‘We really all want to do this together. I don’t know why, but it feels like I’m pushing against this person (instead of working together).'” Kombol says that the purpose of the obstacle had been to stay dry. But based on the feedback, they decided, “Let’s put people in the water first. Have them start in the water, and go over the rotating block from the perpendicular direction. They lined up about 10 people wide and started rotating this block by themselves. While they were rotating it, they would grab on, and it would take some people over. Then more people would join in behind them. What happened was something we didn’t expect. It was a whole new experience, and yet the obstacle achieved what we wanted it to achieve. That’s exactly why we go through the testing process.”
“During roll out mode, or the first three to four events of the year, we’re watching the obstacles. At the Tough Mudder Half two years ago, we’d finished a new obstacle, Flying Squirrel”—a zip line to a crash mat. But in the field, Mudders weren’t getting that adrenaline high from completing the obstacle the way that Kombol had hoped, so Tough Mudder replaced it. As for what new challenges Mudders can expect this November, Kombol is mum. All he’ll say is that the World’s Toughest Mudder event “will get a lot of focus this year. We’re going to attack that course, partly due to our partnership with CBS (which produces a series based on World’s Toughest Mudder), and knowing they’re going to be onsite. It’s a fun chance for us to show the world what we’ve got in our arsenal.”
“During roll out mode, or the first three to four events of the year, we’re watching the obstacles. At the Tough Mudder Half two years ago, we’d finished a new obstacle, Flying Squirrel”—a zip line to a crash mat. But in the field, Mudders weren’t getting that adrenaline high from completing the obstacle the way that Kombol had hoped, so Tough Mudder replaced it.
As for what new challenges Mudders can expect this November, Kombol is mum. All he’ll say is that the World’s Toughest Mudder event “will get a lot of focus this year. We’re going to attack that course, partly due to our partnership with CBS (which produces a series based on World’s Toughest Mudder), and knowing they’re going to be onsite. It’s a fun chance for us to show the world what we’ve got in our arsenal.”