They're crowding up to the starting line now – 500 or 600 of them, raring to go. They have just scaled an eight-foot wall, dropping into the type of cramped holding pen you might see at a factory-farm slaughterhouse – a not altogether inapt comparison. A loudspeaker is blaring the Foo Fighters' "My Hero"; shirtless Marines are punching one another to get pumped up. It smells like energy bars, sweat, and fear. For a moment, there is calm, as the "Star-Spangled Banner" plays and everyone bows their head. Then an amped-up MC gets on the mic. "We're gonna hurt you today, folks," he promises. "If you're ready, give me a hoo-rah!"
Now everyone's raising their right hand and reciting a pledge. I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge. I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time. I do not whine – kids whine. Then, before anyone can change his or her mind, the gates open, an air horn blares, and they're off, charging up a hill with the kind of screams rarely heard since, say, Antietam. Out on the course, the obstacles begin. On a slicked-up quarter-pipe, nicknamed Everest, runner after runner sprints to the 15-foot wall at full speed, leaps grasping for the top, and smashes face-first into the side, sliding back down to try again. Elsewhere, at the obstacle called Electroshock Therapy, a team is crawling through a field of dangling live electrical wires, one guy screaming "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" at every 10,000-volt jolt. As thousands of spectators cheer them on, one angelic-looking little girl in the crowd overhears a couple of dudes discussing the release forms everyone has signed. "Mommy," she says, tugging at her mom's hand. "Did Daddy sign a death waiver?"
It's 8 am on a Saturday, and on this normally sleepy golf course in the Poconos, 10,000 people are going for one hell of a morning jog. It's called a Tough Mudder, and its founders boast that it is "Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet." In basic terms, it's a 10- to 12-mile cross-country trail run, dotted with 20 or so military-style obstacles. But describing it that way is like getting into a ring with a bull and calling it a petting zoo: The reality is far more insane.
Today, participants will have to dive into the Kiss of Mud, a belly crawl under barbed wire. They will also confront something called Arctic Enema – a bone-chilling jump into a Dumpster full of ice water – and the Cliff Hanger, a climb up a slope so steep and muddy that a human chain is often necessary to reach the top. Don't forget the Death March and the Fire Walker, which are both pretty much just what they sound like. By the end of the day, they'll have risked broken bones, hypothermia, fire, and electric shocks – all for nothing more than a cold beer, an orange headband and T-shirt, and the opportunity to call themselves tough.
In the past couple of years, obstacle-style endurance runs like Tough Mudder have proliferated as the newest fitness trend. Last year, an estimated million-plus people did at least one – most of them in big-name events like Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, and Muddy Buddy. The whole thing goes hand in hand with the "functional fitness" movement currently in vogue – things like CrossFit, Insanity, P90X.
The largest, most popular of them all is the three-year-old Tough Mudder. If you haven't run one yourself, you probably know someone who has – or you've seen ads for it on Facebook or posters in your gym. A projected half-million people will enter one of nearly three-dozen events spread across four different countries this year alone. How many of those will finish is another story.
Here in Pennsylvania, Jonathan Geller is running his ninth Tough Mudder. A 31-year-old personal trainer from New Jersey, he heard about TM on Facebook three years ago and was at the starting line for the very first one. Since then, he's done Mudders at ski resorts in Pennsylvania and Vermont and a motocross park in New Jersey. Last December, he also ran in the World's Toughest Mudder, a sort of unofficial Mudder championship where entrants fight to see how many loops they can do in 24 hours. "It's probably the hardest thing I've done in my life," says Geller. "I dislocated my shoulder three times on the first lap."
Like most Mudder participants, Geller runs as part of a team, usually him and his brothers-in-law. (Their name: "Same Mud, Different Day.") He appreciates that unlike other races, Tough Mudder doesn't track its runners with timing chips or even record results. "I don't like comparing myself to other people on a scoreboard," he says. "It's more about helping each other through." He's probably a Mudder for life, having been ruined for anything calmer, less obstacle-driven. Recently he signed up for a traditional 10-K, but when race day rolled around, he couldn't even be bothered to show up. "If I wasn't going to get to climb anything or run through crap, what was the point?"
"We like to say Tough Mudder is a switch in your head that flips yes or flips no," says Alex Patterson, Tough Mudder's chief creative officer. "You hear about it, and you either say, 'That's what I've been waiting for,' or 'Why would anyone pay $125 to put themselves through that?'" According to Patterson, the event fills a very modern need. "We don't really know if we're tough anymore," he says. "We don't have fistfights. We don't chop wood. Life has become convenient and easy. At Tough Mudder, we get a lot of what we call the 'Fight Club' male – the 25- to 40-year-old guy in a white-collar job who hasn't been scared, hasn't been wet and muddy, and wants to test himself to see what he's made of – to prove that even though he's 38 and has a rollerbag and a door on his minivan that closes by itself, he still has this inner badass. It's this visceral sense of accomplishment that handing in the Q2 report doesn't give you."
It's hard to argue with success. What started three years ago as a business-school project marketed with $20 Facebook ads has swiftly become a $70 million corporation and is still growing. It's been praised in 'The New York Times' and credited by 'Forbes' with "creat[ing] a new business model for sports."
At the Pennsylvania event, it's easy to see what people find so fun about it. There's a pull-up contest, a keg toss, and other feats of strength. A party near the finish line features a local band doing serviceable Rolling Stones covers, and the smell of roasted corn and funnel cakes fills the air. Mother's Day is tomorrow, and families are out in full force, with more than a few people wearing shirts that say happy mudder's day. And one should never underestimate the draw of a free beer.
Even Tough Mudder's rivals admit to a sort of grudging respect. "You have to hand it to them – they've got an incredible business," says Joseph Desena, a former Wall Street trader and the founder of Spartan Race. "They've really gotten their name out there and promoted themselves. I just wonder how long it will last."