Why do people put themselves through hell in the name of good old fashioned fun?
Once upon a time all it took to make you happy was a few mates, a ball of some kind in a park, most likely on a muddy day because, lets be honest, it’s England and its always raining. But somewhere between primary school and your soon to be post-university self, that easily reached joy has vacated your system. Now you get your kicks being able to nail that piece of coursework, or getting or scrape away a little bit of that student debt.
But what if there were a way to claw back your youthful mirth? What if you could get back that heart pounding adrenaline that you used to have without jumping out of a plane or anything so outlandish? Well the answer is probably waiting for you in a huge nearby field, full of sweaty men and women playing at being in the special forces, dancing through fire and flirting with hyperthermia in the name of challenging your body and mind to exceed its daily office confines and weekly zumba class. Are you ready to prove that you’re more than just a sales rep, more than an intern? Good, lets look under the belly of the beast shall we.
Welcome to the realm of Tough Mudder, a team based onslaught of the senses loosely based on a 10 mile obstacle course, which will let you prove with a nice medal (read: vibrantly orange headband, goes with any outfit) whether you’re really the best-of-the-best (in your office), as long as you’re willing to submit yourself to mild torture and sign a death-warrant for the privilege. This will involve swinging from giant monkey bars (childs play right?), crawling through a face deep mud tunnel (it’s not as bad as a busy tube is it?) oh, and then dropping into a pool of heart-stompingly cold mud, then being repeatedly electrocuted and lightly set on fire…hello? Oh good you’re still here, thought you’d wimped out already. Welcome to adventure running, now get back in the gym, you’re going to need it.
So why would you put yourself through such a horrific experience?
According to Tough Mudder’s COO (Sarah Harvey):
‘[Tough Mudder] takes people out of their comfort zone. People are often stuck in their rut: wake up, sweat on the Tube, in the office all day, Tube home, eat, sleep, repeat. At the weekend they want to get out and challenge themselves, do something different.’
Also if you’re going to set yourself a fitness goal, why wouldn’t you set something that is really going to test you but be bloody good fun at the same time? I myself can hand-on-heart say I’ve never been as fit as when I was playing rugby 4 times a week, because ‘fitness-training’ involved running as fast as you could away from a guy who really wanted that ball back, rather than pushing myself to do another set of pull ups / crunches.
And clearly these ‘races’ become so addictive one medal isn’t enough, according to sources at Tough Mudder more than 3000 people have already got their logo tattooed on their bodies. Maybe this is because although it may look like an army of athletic military types flying over A frames like they’re the stairs at work, these adventure races are really open to anyone and are more about instilling the related virtues than just who’s the fittest. According to Will Dean (who we’ll hear more about later): “We want Tough Mudder to stand for something. Life is a series of obstacles that have to be overcome, and to do so you will need fun, teamwork, camaraderie and a challenge to test yourself along the way.” – all of these are said to be best learnt while dragging your colleagues out of a pool of ice so cold its nicknamed the ‘Arctic Enema’ (they put teamwork before a winning time) or calmly running through flaming straw (do not whine, only kids may whine).
How do you know if you’re ready? Don’t worry, they’ve got a handy little test.
So how did one guy from Nottingham who liked mucking around in a field make a company this massive?
The whole ‘Adventure Racing’ scene really started in 1986 with the early iterations of Tough Guy, where Billy Wilson created a military style obstacle course for a few friends in a field, a simpler time, it went on to be very popular in the UK. However it was not until Will Dean met its creator that the stirrings of Tough Mudder began as we know it today, and the decision was made to approach the whole enterprise a little differently. In his own words Tough Mudder would be “a marketing company that puts on events” and this has been a mantra they have stuck to ever since. This has lead to some claiming their marketing is overly aggressive, but can you expect any less from a company that aims to win in every field, be that the boardroom or a frozen river? Whether this was flying a plane over a Spartan Race with the banner “THINK THIS IS TOUGH? TRY A TOUGH MUDDER” or targeting Facebook users who ‘liked’ their competitors events, Tough Mudder take every step just as seriously.
And it pays off, Tough Mudder’s initial event aimed to get 500 entrants in order to break even, their initial campaign however was so successful that they got 4500 entrants and half a million dollars. Not a bad start by any means. From this initial springboard they sailed through outrageous growth: $2.2m in 2010, increasing TEN FOLD to $22m for 2011, in 2012: $70m and now? That number has topped $100 million and presumably will only grow. They now sit atop a worldwide industry that is worth in the region of $250 million, with a yearly UK entrant pool of 200,000 and 1.5 million in the US.
How does a company that has this many entrants maintain their position at the top of the tower?
By emphasising excellence at every level. New employees are enrolled into the Tough Mudder University, which aims to give an accelerated version of the Business Acumen learnt by their founder at Harvard. They are also give a reading list: Getting Things Done by David Allen & The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Cover. If this sounds a little bit like the education you’d gain from a certain other corporate giant, like say McDonalds? this is NOT unintentional.
Working for the real MadMen
So what if you wanted to be one of the head Mudders, and actually help design and carry out these competitions of carnage? Unlike the SAS who’s training they loosely endeavour to emulate, the application process doesn’t (normally) involve a marathon carrying a tree trunk or psychological torture.
In fact because Tough Mudder’s mission is “to create unconventional, life-changing experiences,” from day one, they’ve built a culture to reflect that philosophy. Tough Mudder is full of quirky overachievers who are smart, passionate, and great at their jobs. And we all started somewhere. From CEO Will Dean to their newest employees, there was a time when every member of the company had a blank sheet of paper for a resume. And they understand that everyone needs a first step.
Due to the success of the Tough Mudder brand we discussed earlier, which has created an overwhelming amount of opportunity, they’re eager to find interns to create those life-changing experiences for their Mudders (like wizards are to muggles, Mudders are to the general public). Interns contribute to the overall success of Tough Mudder in countless ways…but none of those ways is making coffee runs or doing our laundry. (Although they might make you join the Tough Mudder Push-Up Club, sorry not sorry). Their interns work on substantial, meaningful projects, and learn from the team that built one of the fastest growing companies in the US.
‘The only coffee a Tough Mudder intern gets is their own’
Their ideal interns?
Not necessarily, what they are looking for is someone who wants more than a few lines on their resume – they want to help build a company that changes the lives of millions of people for the better. As an intern, you’ll be given an opportunity to push your boundaries and find out what you’re capable of, to work with and learn from incredibly smart people, and, most of all, to enjoy the journey of building a world-class events organisation.
Oh and did we mention? If you are gloriously successful in your internship and were lucky enough to be granted the title of full-time Tough Mudder employee (to join the current 150 across offices in Brooklyn, London and Berlin) you will be granted the spoils of war – a new unlimited holiday policy. (CEO claims ‘We’ve found high achievers take more vacation and those who aren’t performing as well take less.’ ‘ “What’s the catch?” It’s about getting the team to take responsibility.’)