Petty Officer 3rd Class Sebastian McCormack, assigned to Fleet Combat Camera Group, Pacific, crawls through mud and under barbed wire-- the third obstacle of the May 2011 Tough Mudder event in Snow Valley, California.
Flickr/DVIDSHUB/Matthew D. Leistikow
After training together at Clay Fitness, the group that calls themselves "The Wolf Pack"-- from left, Matt King, Jim Kingdon, Patrick Burton, John Keefe, Kendall Hommel (their trainer), Christopher Hays, and Grace Hays-- celebrated completion of the Tough Mudder at Wintergreen. Burton-- the last person to finish the course-- was named "MVP" of the Wintergreen event.
Courtesy John Keefe
It was less than two months before race day when Joshua Bare got the bad news: the owner of the Ruckersville-area property where Bare had planned to hold his upcoming Mud Warrior mud race was backing out.
"He kicked me off his property," exclaims Bare. "There was no reason given."
Left scrambling to find a new location for the already nearly 2,000 people who'd paid as much as $55 to run, leap, wade, and climb their way through the latest addition to the nations's obstacle-filled exercise craze, the 32-year-old Bare worried that his upcoming April spectacle, conceived several years ago while an MBA student at Regent University, would be derailed.
"I thought I was going to lose my head," says the 1998 Charlottesville High School graduate.
Disaster was averted when Bare quickly located a willing land owner outside of Gordonsville, but the hard work wasn't over.
Planning an event like Mud Warrior takes time and money. Bare, who played soccer in college and now works for the non-profit Hope Community Center in Charlottesville, says he spent the last two years planning and estimates the cost of putting on the first Mud Warrior race will approach $80,000 once all expenses are tallied.
A mud race, after all, is no road race. There are obstacles to build and a trail to forge– along with advertising, insurance premiums, food and bands for the after-party, and of course, clean-up. But the demand for such races is huge, and the potential for a big pay-day is real.
This year, it's estimated that half a million people will participate in a Warrior Dash, a three-mile obstacle course held at locations around the country. Last summer, nearly 20,000 people descended on nearby Wintergreen Resort for perhaps the best known of all such races, Tough Mudder, a 10-mile slog that asked people not only to run uphill through obstacles including a forest of dangling electric wires carrying as much as 20,000 volts– about half strength of a Taser– but also to pay as much as $150 for such voluntary punishment.
Conceived by Harvard MBA grad Will Dean, Tough Mudder was a runner-up in a 2008 Harvard Business school contest which, according to published accounts, saw the professors judging the entries cautioning Dean that he wouldn't be able to attract enough people to turn a major profit. They were dead wrong, as Dean's idea blossomed into a Facebook-like fitness success.
In 2010, the year it launched, 20,000 people participated in three Tough Mudders held around the country, and in this, its third year, the Brooklyn-based company will hold 35 events in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia with an expected 400,000 participants. To date, Tough Mudder has donated $2.5 million to its chosen charity, the Wounded Warrior Project.
"It sounded looney tunes," says 36-year-old John Keefe, who was one of the thousands to sign on for the Wintergreen Tough Mudder. Convinced by his trainer at Clay Fitness that it would entertain him and strengthen the bonds among "The Wolf Pack," the small group with whom he trained, Keefe says he gave it a shot– and he'd do it again.
"I'm not sure I could ever refer to swimming through a humongous steel container of ice or inhaling thick smoke while running as fun," says Keefe, but "there was a ton of positive vibes out there, and it was nice to see people helping one another and rooting one another on."
The Wolf Pack won't be running the Tough Mudder again at Wintergreen, however. No one will.
"We were delighted to have it," says Jay Roberts, Wintergreen's VP of resort operations. "It was a demographic that was awesome– our customers in a big way." The problem, Roberts says, was parking– "a huge challenge for them and for us."
This year, to avoid the hassle and expense of busing participants up a mountain, the mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder will take place on a farm outside D.C.
Wintergreen, however, was so inspired by hosting the event that it's launching one of its own this summer. The "Wintergreen Adventure Challenge" will take place June 30 and July 1 this year. Roberts says obstacles are still being designed, but the course will cover more than seven miles with 3,800 feet of vertical climb and 3,000 feet of descent.
It turns out that mud-fueled races have been happening in Europe for years, and it was those messy but popular events– Britain's Grim Challenge and Germany's "Strongman" competitions are among the best known– that helped seed the newer American tradition.
As for Bare, he says watching Tough Mudder's success over the past couple of years was frustrating because he'd been working on a concept for an extreme mud competition when Tough Mudder launched.
"That could have been me," he sighs.
While his original concept would have pushed into the 10-plus-mile range, he wasn't ready to give up on his own dream and forged ahead, tweaking some of the details. Mud Warrior, he explains, is now lower-key than Tough Mudder, with a distance just under five miles and no electrical shocks along the way. Bare says it will be challenging, but he's focused on making it fun and accessible for a wider range of people, not just those with elite fitness.
"I'm calling it 'the muddiest day of your life'," says Bare, adding that a few brave families with athletic children as young as nine have signed up together.
Like Tough Mudder, it's a charity event– 20 percent of profits will go to Hope Community Center, which his father founded– and Bare hopes race participants and observers will donate extra to the local nonprofit, which struggled and failed to win zoning approval as an overnight shelter back in 2008.
More than 2,300 people have already registered, and Bare hopes to add 1,000 more to that number, plus the thousands of spectators who'll come to watch friends and family get dirty, then stay for live music by acts from up and down the East Coast including local tunesters Invisible Hand.
"I want you to have the experience of your life," he says.
The Mud Warrior happens April 14 at 17110 James Madison Highway (Rt. 15) three miles north of Gordonsville. The racing begins at 8am, and runners will start in waves of 200 or fewer to prevent obstacle pile up. Event registration is now $65, $75 at the gate. Spectators pay $25 music festival entry; children under 10 free.
–story originally put online at 1:13pm on March 29