A few weeks earlier, I'd emailed some college friends to say, "Hey, no pressure, but I'm thinking of doing this, and does anyone want to join?" (Actually, what I said was, "Come on, don't be a pussy.") We graduated eight years ago, but we're still close, and we're all in the same fantasy-football league. But everyone has moved away, some have started families, and we don't see each other that much anymore. The excuses ran the gamut:
"Part of me is really intrigued, but I don't think my body can handle it."
"My friend just told me he did one of these last year, and they were pulling people out for fear of hypothermia...yikes."
"I need to start doing some push-ups ASAP."
"We have baptism classes that weekend."
Five said yes, though, and over the next month, we planned our strategy in an email chain that eventually hit more than 300 messages and included discussions about chest hair, compression shorts, tree-climbing skills, proper push-up techniques, 8 Minute Abs, 7 Minute Power Abs, the 1992 Dream Team, Game of Thrones, the Wikipedia definition of hypothermia, and what it feels like to be electrically shocked. (Of the last one, my friend Joe, who worked as an electrician in college, said: "It's not so bad. Feels like hitting a baseball on the wrong part of a bat.")
On the afternoon before the event, we all drove from Los Angeles to the Snow Valley Mountain Resort near Big Bear, where we scoped out the course. It was the same one where Will Dean had gotten frostbite the year before – but today was so hot and dry that there wasn't even mud, just rocks and dust. My friends are all in reasonably good, but not exceptional, shape: Three of us have run marathons; one rowed crew in college; and another plays soccer and works out several times a week. Still, standing there at 7,000 feet, having not really trained, the 1,000-foot ski slope looked like it would be hard to climb once, much less five times.
From a marketing standpoint, it's a pretty smart move to tell people over and over again how hard your event is, because by the time they finish, they've been conditioned to believe they've really done something special. Meanwhile, the company claims that only 75 to 80 percent of entrants actually finish, but since there are no timing chips or official records, this is based on the number of headbands handed out at the end, which seems like an imprecise measure.
So how tough is it, really? Well, Arctic Enema was definitely take-your-breath-away cold; I can't imagine doing it on a less-hot day. No one on our team could climb the 45-degree-incline Cliff Hanger without stopping to walk, and Nick, the ex-rower, was the only one to make it across the rings without falling. But Everest, the quarter-pipe, was pretty easy, and even the electric shocks weren't that bad. (Joe, the electrician, figured they must have been on a pulse timer – otherwise, given how wet everyone was, it would basically mean mass death.) Sure, you might get a little banged-up or wet. But strictly from a fitness standpoint, if you can do a triathlon, or a marathon, or even a 10-K, you can definitely finish a Tough Mudder.
A few days after the event, I asked my friends what they thought: None were overly impressed. Nick said he was sore for three days, but he was expecting worse. "I definitely built up in my mind that it was going to be crazy hard," he said. "But the obstacles were a little underwhelming. I was expecting to barely be able to cross the finish line, but I felt like I could have kept going."
Joe agreed. "It wasn't as hard as I thought it'd be. Going into it, I was intimidated, but I shouldn't have been. I did have some (minor) injuries, which I guess says something about its toughness. Ultimately, I think it's just a fun afternoon for reasonably fit people."
Reid was disappointed in the field. "I'm sure there were some ex-Marines and ultramarathoners who smoked us, but I was surprised by the number of people who struggled to make it up the hills. I wanted to be in awe of the other participants, but I wasn't."
And Ted, finally, put it most succinctly: "I wish I had gotten more bruises."
All of which prompts the question: Can you really bill yourself as "Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet" when half a million people do it in any one year, and a lot of them are smiling at the finish? Dean thinks so: "It's kind of like calling the Ford Mustang the Best Sports Car on the Planet," he says. "People have definitely heard of Porsches and Ferraris, but I think what we're trying to say is we're tough in our own way." Also, to be fair, you get out what you put in: Our team, while not exactly pushing itself, still passed more people than passed us – but if we'd gone all out, we probably would have collapsed.
On the other hand, as an excuse to spend some fun, quality time together, Tough Mudder accomplished exactly what we'd hoped. "I definitely felt a strong sense of camaraderie among the five of us," my friend Nick said. Reid said his favorite parts were obstacles like Berlin Walls and Everest, where we had to work together to push and pull each other up: "I felt like that's where we bonded the most." Driving back to our rental cabin that afternoon, we stopped at a bar for some burgers and beers, and talked about girls, football, the guys who weren't there. Except for some talk about who was having babies, it almost felt like we were back in school.
Back at the cabin, we all showered and packed up our things, including our brand-new Tough Mudder headbands and T-shirts. The shirts were nice to have, Reid said – a silhouette of a soldier running through orange flames on a field of black, with the Tough Mudder pledge on the back. "But I doubt I'll wear it very often," he added. "The toughest people I know don't need to tell anyone they're tough."