The Tough Mudder lives up to its name. Via Flickr @Mike Byford

The Tough Mudder lives up to its name. Via Flickr @Mike Byford

by Robbie Carver

An interesting New York Times article was published recently about an event called the Tough Mudder being held at the Bear Creek Mountain Resort. What caught my eye initially was the opening header: “Playing with fire, barbed wire, and beer.” Hmm, I thought, sounds like the spectators at my local ‘cross race. I read on:

“Sunday’s race will feature long slogs up ski slopes, wades through mud bogs, crawls through corrugated pipes and under barbed wire, climbs over vertical walls, traverses on rope bridges and a drop from a plank into a cold pond. The finish line is through a ring of fire — next to the free beer, near the live band.”

Wait – Slog. Mud. Walls. Bridges. Cold. Beer. Is this a ‘cross race? Well, no. Flipping through a few pictures and videos on their Web site (toughmudder.com) showed the very familiar scene of muddy, bloody, exhausted men and women dragging themselves out of deep puddles and over high barriers; it also showed a man competing in a neon green g-string and another training for the event by running in a tutu, through a rainstorm, carrying a log on his shoulders. So far, so good. But while the elements and the mentality of ‘cross are there (complete with a Best Mullet Competition), all of this happens without that most integral piece of ‘cross equipment, the bike.

Perhaps the barbed wire gave it away, but in this event — done in an average time of two and a half hours — participants run, crawl, swim, climb and collapse through a seven-mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces, all with nothing but a pair of sneakers and the irrational desire to be in large amounts of pain for an extended period of time.

The folks at Tough Mudder are specific on one point: this is not a race. It is, they say, an event to be completed. No prize money, no finishing times, start groups organized by your last name as opposed to your best lap. The emphasis is on camaraderie, teamwork, and having a story to tell. Well, except for the guys that want to win:

“We know a small percentage of you are out to win this event, so if you think you have what it takes to be in the top 100 finishers, we’d like to offer you the opportunity to be part of the first wave of starters. There will be 500 in this group, but only the top 100 of these will have their times recorded by Tough Mudder staff.”

Which somehow strikes me as what happens in your typical ‘cross race. You’ve got the ten percent or so at the front who are there for the gold, and the rest  — the majority, the bulk, the proletariat  — are just out to have a good time, get dirty and make an art out of sucking. [See Issue 8 for Jim Ventosa’s ‘Suck at Cross’ article] The only difference I can seem to find between this event and cyclocross is the absence of that ubiquitous Redline, and probably an odd quiet not filled by misfiring gears, grinding mud-caked rims and metal-slamming-into-wood-barrier crashes. Though I’ve yet to see a ‘cross race with a fire-pit crossing.

Maybe you noticed something interesting in that last quote. Maybe you noticed the words “500” and “first wave.” Maybe it’s here that I should mention that at the very first Tough Mudder event, 4,500 participants showed up and got dirty. That in an upcoming event, the promoters expect 20,000 people to fork up the hundred-dollar entry fee to play in the mud. For comparison, Cross Vegas, dubbed by some as the largest cyclocross race in the US, boasted only 10,000 spectators, let alone participants. All this, and Tough Mudder was founded by two men, currently has a staff of only six, and did all their original advertising exclusively on Facebook.

There’s a burning question here. How did two guys (albeit really smart guys — founder Will Dean received his MBA from Harvard) get together and hatch a plan that is, for all intent and purpose, ‘cross racing without the bike, and on their first try get 4,500 people to drop 100 bucks a head to crawl through the mud? How, when Portland’s Cross Crusade — impressive by all measurements and a testimonial to Brad Ross and his crew for doing a lot of things right — has spent years to reach the level of 1,400 racers per event in a series that’s very close to a major city?

First, let’s ignore the obvious question of whether you would want to sprint through the start-line bottleneck with 4,500 other ‘cross racers and instead assume such a turnout is desirable for the racers as well as the promoters. Higher turnout, after all, means more money, which in turn (should) mean better courses, prizes, music and all-around atmosphere.

According to the New York Times article, the founders relied “on the extrapolative power of social networking to generate an enthusiastic following. . . . The Web site went online in early February, and $8,300 was spent on Facebook ads aimed at specific demographics — young professionals, runners and extreme athletes, police officers and firefighters, and those in the military who lived in the vicinity of Allentown and within 50 miles of New York and Philadelphia.” Aside from that, a Web site and word of mouth did the rest.

While such an approach might not work for competition level ‘cross events, promoters certainly could tap a broader range of hard-core individuals who might not have heard of ‘cross and would think that carrying a bike up muddy slopes sounds like their kind of Saturday. Rather than a series, promote an event. Make it big. Make it epic. Make it out of town to create a course that handles the large numbers. Focus on the goofiness of ‘cross more than the tricky technical. In terms of generating interest, such targeted social networking might bring in an entirely new stream of dirt lovers who, once they’ve had a taste, never turn back and eventually up their game to UCI-level races.

In the end, though, it does come down to logistics — for participant and promoter alike. Cramming 500 people onto a course is far easier, and safer, if those people aren’t also swinging chainring-laden bikes around like medieval weapons. Promoters who hold events in romantic locations — perhaps only once a year in a given region — have a far easier time drumming up massive numbers and steep entrance fees than do those staging weekly ‘cross races held behind the high school. And by creating an event that anyone of moderate fitness can do — on a whim, a dare, a bet, a little bit of peer pressure — for no greater cost than the entrance fee, the Tough Mudder promoters landed on a pile of gold: all the epic nature of ‘cross, at a fraction of the cost and none of the commitment.

Rather than dropping at least a grand on a ‘cross rig and gear, dealing with repairs and malfunctions and wife-leaving upgrades, Tough Mudders can throw on a dirty shirt and on the designated day go out, get slaughtered by mud and ropes and barbed-wire and fire-pits, and have enough epic storytelling to last them every pint of beer between the finish line and the next crack of the start gun firing a year away.

And maybe that’s the point. Perhaps we are not as unique as we think we are, we who love the mud and the pain and the anaerobic hell that is cyclocross. Perhaps all of us have the desire to get dirty, bloody, destroyed, and the only thing keeping ‘cross from the mainstream is the steep price of entry. And that’s a good thing, for as ‘cross continues to grow, prices will continue to drop, and people won’t feel they have to wait for that one time a year when they can let out their inner mud-child. ‘Cross promoters take note: the market is there, 20,000 potential barrier jumping, river crossing, bunny-hopping pain lovers just waiting for an excuse to get dirty.

At its best, ‘cross is about getting down in the mud with our friends. Yes, we all love to win; yes, we’re all obsessed with Worlds, the World Cups, and getting our sport into the Olympics. Yes, we’re all drooling over those new carbon wheels. But those things aren’t why any of us started racing. If we do it for the joy of the sport, what downside is there in getting such masses to participate in some form of ‘cross?  Sure, 20,000 people don’t need to show up at the weekly race — no urban course could handle it, and no racer would want it. And it might not have to be $100 at a ski mountain resort in the middle of nowhere, but it certainly could have mud, ridiculous stuff, and for those of age and who crave it, beer. Remember, this is ‘cross: almost any bike gathering dust in the garage is a potential race steed. It’s how most of us started, after all, and half the fun then was making a bike survive terrain it was never meant to see. If these people are willing to run across a pit of fire, you only have to create a reason for them to grab that Huffy and start hopping barriers. That’s what the creators of Tough Mudders did better than anyone: they gave people a reason to come play dirty with them.

And let’s not forget, playing dirty is what we do best, and even better, we do it in our own back yard. While it may be great every now and then to road trip to a monster event—you can bet I’ll be trying a Tough Mudder out when it comes my way in 2011—the beauty of ‘cross is that you get off of work, hop on your rig, and ride to the race where your friends, coworkers, and neighbors are ready to hand you a swift kick in the ass.

The Tough Mudder’s Web site states that “there is not a race in America that tests toughness, fitness, strength, stamina, and mental grit all in one place and all in one day.” Well, they’re wrong. Cyclocross does that every race, in every location, every week of the season. Let’s show them how it’s done.

Think your ‘cross skills will give you an edge in the Tough Mudder? Give it a shot: The
next available event will be held at the Bear Valley Mountain Resort, CA, on Saturday, October 9th. Participated in the event already? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.