“Tough Mudder is a challenge that’s put on you obstacle by obstacle to complete, in most other mud runs you choose at the beginning to conquer the entire course – or face the penalties – you can’t pick & choose as you go along.” – Brett Stewart, 2012

When I wrote that a couple years ago after my first encounter with a TM course, I was absolutely a little more naive than I am now when it comes to races – at least I know I was (a little) younger. At the time I was writing Ultimate Obstacle Race Training and was quite active as an ultramarathoner and triathlete. The differentiation between “race” and “challenge” made a huge difference to me; pacing and planning is thrown out the window when you can simply pick and choose what parts of a race you wanted to complete (in a triathlon, I would gladly skip the swim and use all my energy on crushing the bike course!) The 2014 “more mature” version of Brett wanted to take another swing at Tough Mudder to see if anything had changed in the last couple years – and it surely has.

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One thing that hasn’t changed is the differentiation between TM and other events like Spartan Race that feature competitive timing and penalties; you can still walk around obstacles during a Tough Mudder with complete impunity. Well, there is one exception; you must scale the 6′ wall before getting into the starting corral, that’s absolutely mandatory. The remaining member of the “big 3” mud runs, Warrior Dash dropped their timing starting in ’14 with relatively little fallout. (An informal poll of race directors shows a pretty even split between those who continue timing their smaller events and those who have dropped it altogether. Of the former group, a large percentage either already owns their own chip system or would forgo timing if they were confident they would not deter racers. That’s another post for another time.) So, let’s recap: 4 years in, Tough Mudder is holding strong on a non-timed event (conspicuously not called a race on any of their literature) where obstacles can be bypassed without any penalty. Judging by the very consistent participation from year to year, it would appear they have no reason to shake things up… or do they?

Edgar’s a Little Off

Have you ever seen the movie Men In Black when the alien climbs out of the crater wearing an “Edgar Suit?” He still kinda resembled Edgar, but clearly something’s different. His wife seemed none the wiser of Edgar’s transformation, but immediately noticed something was off (and promptly faints). We’ve all experienced that feeling where you couldn’t put your finger on one thing, yet recognize there’s a multitude of subtle differences that gnaw at your gut telling you something clearly is different than the original version although on the surface it still appears the same? Well, when I showed up at Tough Mudder 2014 in Mesa, AZ I could tell it was a slightly different event that was wearing a “Tough Mudder suit.”

In the past, I have personally been slightly critical of Tough Mudder, mostly on Facebook and in person when someone tried to tell me that Tough Mudder was the best event. I was a little put off by what I felt was a quasi-fake-military vibe and I chalked up a lot of the TM buzz as hype while the actual course seemed less punishing than other similar mud runs. In reality, I was already prejudiced against TM before I’d ever made the trek to Mesa, AZ. Something seemed disingenuous to me about the larger than life, rock concert vibe laced with the early adopters of Crossfit.  I believe I described it to my wife later that night:

“Tough Mudder was playing basketball with a bunch of jocks who were more into proving they were tough than actually participating in the game.” I’m not a jock. I was never on the football team. I couldn’t bench my bodyweight until I was in my mid 30’s. Quite simply, I didn’t “fit in” with the army barracks-meets lockerroom mentality I witnessed, and I chalked Tough Mudder up to an event that just wasn’t my vibe. I felt more comfortable at other mud runs that felt like a triathlon or road race, and TM just didn’t fit in that box. Call me a wimp, but back then I’d rather suffer through an Ironman with a crowd where I fit in than spend a few hours at a Tough Mudder with those who I didn’t seem to gel with.

OCR Has Changed, and So Have I

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Well, I’ve learned a lot about mud runs of all shapes and sizes over the past couple of years as co-founder of Mud Run Guide and race directing, at the same time the community has grown up as well; the fear of the unknown that existed just a few years ago has eroded as participants have completed multiple different mud runs over the past couple years. Social media and reviews have removed 90% of the shock value of a new obstacle when it’s posted to facebook and twitter within minutes of crossing the finish line. With first-person GoPro video instantly available, you have a good idea how to handle the obstacle before you ever reach it on the course. From the moment Chris & I stepped out of my Jeep, we could tell the vibe was different. Folks waiting to get in were relaxed, the staff was pretty chill, security guards were smiling and helpful – heck, everyone was smiling and helpful. This was not the intense TM experience I expected – and I couldn’t have been more pleased. After I signed in and grabbed my media badge I headed over to the Mudder Legion booth to grab a 2x wristband to ensure my access on the exclusive Legion Loop. (more on that later) I’m still confused whether you need to do multiple TM’s on one year or if it is a lifetime count, hopefully their website is updated because as I was getting my wristband, even the guy on the other side of the desk was unsure.

We moseyed over to the start line and hopped the 6′ wall to get into the corral for the first wave of the day. Many races would call this the “elite heat”, but there seemed no rhyme or reason to the grouping; there were plenty of shirtless jacked guys and ripped gals in sport bras sharing their personal space with your local plumber, middle school teacher, and some dorky author wearing just a kilt. I’m not one to care about directions, and no one stopped us, so I guess we were in the right start time. All around, there was subdued excitement; while it looked just like any other start corral, it was – I’ll use the term again – pretty chill.

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The most famous personality of Tough Mudder, Sean Corvelle kicked things off with what I expected to be his normal monologue… and that was the first clearly noticeable departure from the Tough Mudder I remember from years past. While he was passionate, and motivating (has anyone ever listened to Sean speak and not wanted to jump through fire?) today’s topic was clearly influenced by Tough Mudder’s marketing department in order to push their newest edition; the Mudder Legion.

I respect the hell outta Mr. Corvelle, but I started to feel uncomfortable after a few minutes of him continually repeating that “Tough Mudder is all about this right here” while referring to the new, technicolor headbands for multiple TM’s completed that adorned several of my corral mates. In EVERY speech I’ve heard in the past, Sean would have thumped the center of his chest and claimed that the event he’s the visible face of is all about heart, not repeat business.

Mercifully, the sales pitch ended with an a capella rendition of the National Anthem by yours truly – accompanied by the other couple hundred hacks around me. (Honestly, this dude to my right had some serious goosebump-worthy pipes. I think a little dust got in my eyes around that point as I seemed to get a little misty.) One high-five to Sean and we were off on a 12-mile trek that I thouroghally enjoyed on a Tough Mudder course that clearly earned the title of this article.

A Kinder, Friendlier, and Easier Mudder

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The Tough Mudder course has surely softened over previous years, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every single obstacle listed on toughmudder.com has either been modified from an earlier version or removed altogether. Much has been made of safety shortcomings in the wake of Avi Sengupta’s death at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder and they have clearly overhauled every facet of the obstacles and the course to make it safer; it seemd to me like they took pains to polish all the rough edges – would doing that dilute the very essence of what Tough Mudder used to be all about?

In a word, Yes. Then, another word… No. The new Tough Mudder very closely resembles the old Tough Mudder, similar to the way a 2014 Camaro looks like the sleekest version of a 1969 Camaro. Even if you were in a coma for 45 years, you’d wake up and recognize the late-model bowtied pony car instantly.

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There were surely some welcome obstacle additions; Just the Tip, Glory Blades, and Balls to the Wall challenged your upper body strength and clearly added more dimension to the course. Some of the very familiar obstacles were nowhere to be found: Electric Eel, Phoenix, Caged Crawl, King of the Mountain, and Hanging Tough were AWOL. Some others were “polished” (aka made to be less challenging than they were in the past) these included Everest, Funky Monkey, Kiss of Mud, and even Artcic Enema. With these changes and the addition of the Mudder Legion Loop with the option to bypass Electric Shock Therapy, Tough Mudder comes off as a much less of an intently intimidating event, and one that nearly everyone can complete – if they choose to.

NOTE: I’m not going to spoil what the changes to existing obstacles actually are, nor will I give away any of the secrets of the Legion Loop – I’m apparently bound by some unspoken Legionnaire code. (but Doug does give a couple peeks under the kilt below)

I reached out to a fellow OCR Freak Doug “Mud Run Guy” Hopple for his some feedback:

The course this year was definitely an easier version than the past two years.  Without obstacles like electric eel, cage crawl, and only one set of berlin walls it did seem like Tough Mudder presented a milder event.  My two first time Mudder friends thought the course was great as did I, but having seen what was done in the past at the AZ location it felt as though it was a less abrasive event.  Everest was a smaller version of its previous self but when we were at the obstacle they had a water truck spraying it down and making a large muddy puddle to negotiate before the sprint up.  I prefer the larger version but it was still good.  As usual Sean Corvelle delivered a very inspiring speech in the start chute.  It was laced with a heavy dose of legion promotion, recognizing returning Mudders by having them stand up depending on how many TM’s they had done.  I like the legion concept and I think it will deliver the desired result of having more people return to earn their colored headbands.  I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of a water slide that was implied on the website for the legion loop. I had spent the majority of the day talking smack to the first timers about how I was going to get to do the slide and was left to deal with my smack being thrown back at me when they realized there was no water slide.   That’s what I get for being a smartass.

Overall I am a loyal Tough Mudder participant and will be returning to do more, having already given them my money for 2015.  I think TM addressed the concerns some have of the shock obstacles by eliminating electric eel and giving mutiple time mudders an option to skip out of EST.  Personally, I enjoy the mental obstacles that some of these provide.  It isn’t all about brawn, it also requires overcoming fears.  As always my favorite part of TM is the camaraderie.  People you’ve never met lending a hand to overcome a common obstacle.  To be able to help a fellow racer is a rewarding experience and one of the reasons I love being a part of the OCR community.

Is This the New Normal for Tough Mudder?

I reached out to a few sources in the biz who agree with me on this train of thought – there’s more to come, and we haven’t seen anything yet. Is Tough Mudder working to rebrand their event to fit a shifting demographic? Are they shooting for some higher level of legitimacy like Spartan Race is looking for in terms of an internationa federated sport of Obstacle Racing and future inclusion in the Olympics? One rumor is that they are looking to standardize courses somewhat in order to start timing – yes, you read that right – timing their elite heats in order to qualify for World’s Toughest Mudder.

No matter what the future holds, the simple fact that Tough Mudder is making fundamental changes to their flagship product (will we see more from the Mudderella brand in ’14?) means they are at least listening to the racer feedback and adapting to the landscape.

What do YOU think? Share your thoughts in the Comments

Brett Stewart is the author of Ultimate Obstacle Race Training and the co-founder of Mud Run Guide.