Tuesday, 9am Conference Call
You'll understand if you've seen Office Space. I've spent over a dozen years in tech companies and let me tell you that very few things in this world are as soul-killing as slogging through a lifeless morning meeting with a preoccupied VP of a multimillion-dollar company.
Alex Patterson, VP of Brand at Tough Mudder is the complete polar opposite. Even after 5 years with the company, the former lawyer has a 12 year-old's level of exuberance in his voice when he explains all the new cool stuff Tough Mudder HQ has been up to over the past year or so. After a few well-placed f-bombs on my part (I cuss like a sailor, sorry not sorry) we both kicked back and talked like a couple old friends, because we are – sort of.
Way back in the dark ages of OCR, or late 2011, Alex, then CMO at Tough Mudder, was the first interview I conducted for Ultimate Obstacle Race Training. Actually, aside from a few scrub pieces I'd written over the years since college, he was one of my first “real” interviews ever. True to Chief Marketing Officer form, he was armed with a handful of talking points, but really not at all guarded with his audacity; making statements about how badass Tough Mudder was, and how they were going to dominate the world of endurance sports… and I quote:
“By the end of 2012, we aim to replace Ironman as the preeminent brand in endurance sports.”
Interestingly enough, as Tough Mudder blew up into the most recognizable name in mud runs, and Mud Run Guide went from an idea to over 10 million page views, Mr. Patterson and I never had the chance to talk again. That changed today.
1000 Days Later
So, it's been 3 years, time to follow-up on that quote from '11; Did Tough Mudder replace Ironman as the preeminent brand in endurance sports?
“You know, I don't think that question is really all that relevant anymore. Did we, actually, all the events that make up this sport, create a cultural touchstone and develop an active endurance sport that is bigger than Ironman? Yes, I'd say we did. But it's so much different than that, because the soul of this sport is participating with friends, it's about togetherness and teamwork versus individual achievement. Toughness is something that goes beyond VO Max.”
Aside from the great buzz-worthiness of that VO Max quip, which for the record really seemed off the cuff, Patterson also did something very un-Tough Mudderish by giving a nod to the other events in the sport and their place along Tough Mudder in creating a whole new classification of event. Is this yet another sign of change within the world of TM? Have the guys who famously buzzed Spartan Race with a banner-dragging plane and point out Warrior Dash's 5k “shortcoming” with banners at the 3.1 mile mark softened their position on the other races? Nah.
“Innovation has become necessary for the sport, and it's up to Tough Mudder to be the catalyst for that change. We've seen how other event companies will either keep doing the same old thing over and over or just copy the new ones that we design, test, & develop. Being number one means we're always a target by copycats, so we have to continually re-create the elements that make us great.”
Thankfully the bravado lives on, as Tough Mudder has always seemed to relish being the “straw that stirs the drink.”
Giving the Statue of Liberty a Blowtorch Upgrade
Remaking an icon isn't easy, and that's evidenced by the relative stagnation of the obstacles in 2014, that I covered in my article “A Kinder, Friendlier, Easier Tough Mudder”, that seemed a little less about the hard-core challenge, and more about easier to replicate obstacles. To make the changes they wanted, they needed to remake the way they made those changes – innovate the operations infrastructure they built over the past 5 years to become more flexible and get back to their roots.
“In the early days, if we wanted to change an obstacle, we'd tell the contractor to make the change, they'd reconstruct it to our approval, and they'd bill us for time and materials. As our operations became more efficient, the entire bid for construction of a course was locked in months before an actual event. If we wanted to make modifications or add new obstacles it would take months and months before you'd see it on a Tough Mudder course. In this world of RFP's and Obstacle Budgets, we needed to develop a small team of dedicated, and sometimes crazy, employees who wanted to push the envelope. Many asked, 6 were chosen, and the Obstacle Innovation Team was born.”
Fueled by a passion for the sport, and plenty of caffeine, the team came up with over 150 different obstacles. The list of viable course hardware was pared down extensively, until a couple dozen were developed, constructed, and alpha-tested with employees in August. In November, 200 Death Waiver-signing volunteers made up of Tough Mudder Legionnaires and newbies alike tested even more updated versions.
During testing, even Will Dean got in on the action; while (sadistically?) watching dozens of volunteers repeatedly dunking themselves in Arctic Enema 2.0, Dean suggested a different approach. Instead of forcing Mudders under a barrier in the middle of the ice and water-filled dumpster, he made the switch to climbing over that barrier, giving a brief respite for frozen heads, before having to dive back in on the other side. Repeated iterations and changes boiled down to the 15 obstacles that are either new twists on TM originals, or completely new ones that will be on the course and in Mudder Village when Tough Mudder kicks off their first event in Milton, FL on March 7.
WTM, The New Proving Grounds
If you were lucky enough to participate in this year's World's Toughest Mudder in Las Vegas, you got your hands on some new, exciting obstacles that will make their debut at Tough Mudder courses all over the world in '15. And yes, we're using “lucky” as a relative term here, because the course and conditions this year were nasty! WTM provided the perfect opportunity to test out new additions with a much smaller and dispersed field than your average TM. With less than 1000 participants, that's one tenth the throughput of an average TM, and gave the Obstacle Innovation Team an real-world Mudder hands-on research, and the ability to tweak as needed. WTM newcomer Grab a Shaft has morphed into Funky Monkey 2.0, Swingers finds a home in TM's obstacle repertoire under the name King of the Swingers (you're money and you don't even know it), and The Sewage Outlet renamed to Shawshanked – Andy Dufresne would be proud. Asked about WTM's role as the new normal for obstacle development and testing (or, treating WTM like guinea pigs), Alex added:
“It's one of my goals to make World's Toughest Mudder the unveiling of an entire year of innovation – like Will Dean's version of a Steve Jobs product release.”
Based on the wow factor coming out of WTM, Mud Run Guide selected Swingers as a finalist for the Most Innovative Obstacle of 2014. With WTM being such a limited event, even the wildest innovations flew a bit under the radar – the perfect way to test radical new updates – in plain sight.
New Car Smell
Before we get into those new obstacles, let's talk about the other new things at Tough Mudder: venues, difficulty, teamwork, and tease part deux.
The big change in venues actually already reared its head in November at World's Toughest Mudder, moving from the only home it had ever known over 3 years at Raceway Park in New Jersey, to Lake Las Vegas, Nevada. That break from Raceway Park also changes the venue of the longest tenured location in Tough Mudder history, New Jersey. The new venue for NY/NJ is Liberty State Park, replete with views of Lady Liberty and an expansive park with new terrain to experience. This change will place some digging restrictions, so we'll see what becomes of the Mud Mile and all the obstacles that require pools or mud pits.
Difficulty & Teamwork:
The Difficulty level gets ratcheted up in a different way than other obstacle races, and this brings in the teamwork aspect.
“We want to constantly make the course exciting to Legionnaires as well as first-time Mudders, but it's unsustainable to continually make the course tougher – sure, we could make it go up and down a mountain or string a barbed-wire crawl for hundreds of yards up a hill, but that's not developing something new, it's making something hard even harder. We sought to make changes that added to the physicality while also creating new mental challenges. We didn't set out to make it tougher, we decided to deliver new obstacles and challenged for Mudders to overcome – together.”
The early buzz may be about the new obstacles (I promise, the details are coming soon), but the real changes on the course alter the dynamic of what it takes to become a Tough Mudder: Teamwork. Many of the new or upgraded obstacles require teamwork to get over, and approximately half of the 2015 Tough Mudder course cannot be completed alone. Remember the days when you ran up Everest solo? No more. Climbing out of Mud Mile pits by yourself? Nope. Hold Your Wood? Bring a team for these telephone poles. Manute Bol wouldn't have been able to get on top of Beached Whale without a buddy or two. Check the “Camaraderie” ranking for most obstacles, and you'll realize quickly you better bring some friends or be very willing make some new ones on the course, or you're not making it all the way through.
Once you kick the tires a little bit on 2015 Tough Mudder 2.0, there's a whole other Mudder on the horizon… actually as many as 3. Yup, you read that right, MORE. NEW. MUDDER(s). I'll get back to this at the end of this post.
Everything Old is New Again (Almost)
I touched on a few above, but here are some of the “old guard” obstacles that have seen an update:
Berlin Walls got shorter. Just kidding, they are still a miserable series of 9′ walls to get over.
Hold Your Wood 2.0 is now a huge log / telephone pole that will require teamwork to navigate over, under, and through an obstacle course. No longer will you be tossing your wood over the ‘ol shoulder and going for a walk.
Kiss of Mud 2.0 is longer, deeper, and more miserable. More barbed wire, deeper pits, inclines, declines and hay bales. Should be called Face Full of Mud.
Mud Mile 2.0 gets the Kiss of Mud treatment too; longer, deeper, and steeper. Bring a friend, or forward your mail to pit #2.
Electroshock Therapy 2.0 is a masochist's dream come true; the voltage is up, and you can even choose a “hot zone” to run through, if you dare.
Everest 2.0 gets a pretty unwelcome makeover; just as most of us figured out how to navigate it (at least on a warm day, with no mud, and suction cup shoes) they add a pretty little trickle of water, and an insurmountable mound at the top that will require not one, but two friends to chain up and hoist your wall-flopping ass over.
Funky Monkey 2.0 gets the shaft – literally. The incline stays the same, the peak is the swing mechanism and declining pole-grip landing from WTM.
Ryan Atkins, Canadian über-stud and WTM winner after chewing up 95 miles of Vegas real estate said “Aside from the sandstorms, Grab a Shaft was the most difficult part of the race”
*That's New Kids on The Block for all the young'uns
While some of these obstacles are listed as “Mudder Village” or “Legion Lab” obstacles, Alex shared in confidence (oops) that they could end up anywhere, anytime, and even possibly sneak into other obstacles. After looking at what they've done so far, I fear what these nutjobs may end up pulling off before the year is up. NOTE: Sign up for next year's WTM, if they keep escalating like this, flaming knife-walking can't be far behind!
Ring of Fire: live out your fireman fantasies without the dalmatian, and try to keep your eyebrows intact.
Fire in Your Hole: Thousands of Legionnaires tested this sucker out in 2014, so it would be surprising if it only saw the light of day in Mudder Village, but who knows. Height. Slide. Fire.
Human Hamster Wheel: The never-ending circular monkey bars. Like a hamster wheel, but you're hanging underneath it till your arms scream or hands bleed… or you quit.
Dead Ringer: Pegged on TM's website to be a Legion Lapper only, this ring on a peg nightmare is eerily similar to an American Ninja Warrior obstacle that gave lots of those guys and gals fits… now try it after you've been muddied, bloodied, and beaten for 11 miles first.
Shawshanked: Muddy, wet, awkward sewer pipe climb, ending in an ugly version of a nestea plunge. Claustrophobics love this one.
Birth Canal: Make your mom proud, just don't you dare tell her “I know how you feel” cuz this one's only miserable for a minute, and she had to deal with you for 20-something years before you got a job and moved out. (or was that just me?) Crawl through a cow's reproductive organs, or something like that. Another huge win for claustrophobics.
Beached Whale: NOTE: Alex told me his original idea that got shot down, and it was epic… you would have never looked at Pizza Hut the same way again, and Mr. Patterson makes my list of all-time out-of-the-box brainstormers. When you see him, make sure to ask. Beached Whale is a big-ass inflatable that's impossible to get over by yourself, yet somehow it's still cute, because it's all blown up.
Balls Out: Remember how the old-school TV Batman used to scale walls on a rope? Well, this ain't as easy. Step 1: Traverse angled, slippery walls with only a series of ropes. Step 2: ? Step 3: profit.
The Liberator: Angled pegboard up, rope rappel down angled wall on the other side. Easy to describe, much harder to do.
The Hangover: Ten foot reverse blade walls, because everyone thought 8 foot ones were easy. Geez. Teamwork required, unless you’re 10 feet tall.
King of the Swingers: (OK, say it… you're money like Trent) This one is all about courage, trapeze skill, and style. Oh, and falling. From a big ‘ol platform, you have to jump to a swinging t-handle, hold on for half an arc, then release at the apex, and ring a bell. So, really easy. Or not.
Finally, a ton of buzz has been generated by the following new challenge…
Cry Baby: Crawl on your hands and knees under a clear plastic tarp, avoid some obstacles, nothing too surprising here. Except for the smoke, and the eye-stinging “tear gas.” So, this one's a big ‘ol mental challenge for everyone afraid of tear gas, and a double-whammy for claustrophobics!
I asked Alex some specifics about Cry Baby, and he would confirm the following:
- It is not real military or law enforcement grade tear gas.
- The specialized blend they use is water soluble.
- It is not merely a smoke machine, there are real honest-to-goodness ingredients that will make your eyes tear (burn?) and quite possibly make you cough or gag.
- The ingredients will not harm contact lenses
- Cry Baby has been cleared by Tough Mudder's Medical Director, and all participants are being monitored.
- You are allowed to skip this obstacle (like all TM challenges, none are mandatory) and merely face the ridicule of all your friends, staffers, and every other human within 43 square miles. (or not.)
We code-named this challenge “Ryan Gosling”, because of the sheer amount of waterworks participants shared coming out of it. Yeah, the name would never have stuck – and we're not calling him [Mr. Gosling] a cry baby by any means – the term came out of our first round of testing. You're not going to write this, right? If you do, Ryan is always welcome at Tough Mudder, he'd draw the biggest crowd of women participants EVER.
Tough Mudders Lend a Hand
Alex says the passion he and all Tough Mudders share for overcoming challenges manifests itself in real life; simply overcoming the nerves to deliver that first kiss, or fear to reach out and offer your hand to a stranger.
“I was heading back to the office in Manhattan the other day, just your average afternoon in the city. A group of fireman had responded to some type of emergency, and two companies were rolling up hundreds of feet of hoses they laid out on the sidewalk to empty. The guy in front of me stopped suddenly, startled by all the noise and commotion. As he turned a bit I saw his white cane. My first reaction as a New Yorker was to go about my business, live and let live – who am I to suppose this guy needs any help? The Mudder in me overrided my ingrown fear of this guy rejecting me, possibly even snarling that he didn't need a stranger to get him through any situation.
I tapped him on the shoulder; “Excuse me sir, there are fire hoses all over the sidewalk, can I give you a hand?” He smiled, reached out his arm, and we talked a bit as I guided him to a safe spot where he thanked me and continued on.”
If you're not afraid to offer your hand, those in need will take it; both on the course and in real life. That, kiddos is a nice little Steinkirk to loop back to the heart of the matter: TM2.0 is all about developing camaraderie.
This is Where I Leave You (for now)
Nearly 2 hours later, our coffees had grown ice cold, and we both needed a bathroom break – at least my pea-sized bladder surely did – and Alex, as any talented, telegenic Vice President of Brand (or Ron Popeil) would, threw out the follwing tease:
“You know all about the other events we're putting on in 2015 too, right?”
Oh yes, yes I do… but that's another conversation and Part II of this article. Stay tuned for “TM2.0, The New Breed“