Tear Gas, Giant Vaginas, and Tough Mudder

As the most popular obstacle course race, Tough Mudder is always looking to push the limits of endurance and taste. Have they finally gone too far?

by Katie Matlack
Mar 25 2015, 2:05pm

Photo courtesy Tough Mudder

What first struck me about the white cloud was the mintiness. It was like I'd applied Vicks VapoRub to the inside of my lungs. Soon, I will not be able to breathe, I thought as I continued deeper inside the tent. Somehow, my legs kept moving my body forward, and I kept breathing the minty air. Panic swelled in my chest. My eyes bulged. Suffocation was near.

Then I saw sunlight, then the tent door, and then it was over. I wasn't crying, but tears poured from my eyes anyway

To understand why I and 4,000 others were running, mud-caked, through 11 miles of Florida panhandle cow pasture dotted with makeshift walls, inflatable dead whales, and yes, that tent full of flavored, opaque air, you have to know what a Tough Mudder is.

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Founded in 2010, Tough Mudder wasn't the first mud race, but it was the first to bring mud races to the masses, billing itself, not without hyperbole, as "the toughest event on the planet." Its success inspired a generation of copycat mud race options offering variations on the format: times, un-timed, with free t-shirt, without free t-shirt, etc. Spokespeople say this year over a million people will compete in 50 Tough Mudder events in the U.S. and around the world. The company has kept racers loyal with in-group orange headbands, edgy branding (more on that in a sec), and increasingly nuttier obstacles.

Which brings me to last weekend. I woke up at 6:15 a.m., scraped ice off my windshield (that night's low of 32 degrees set a new record), and drove the 15 minutes from Blackwater River State Park to 5700 Jeff Ates Road, a giant empty field adjacent to a private prison.

Photo courtesy Tough Mudder

I'd gambled by choosing to start with the 8 a.m. group, the first wave of runners—at Tough Mudder events, runners leave the staging area every 15 minutes; no finishing times are kept because, as the drill-sergeant-like motivational speaker at the start told us, "Is your finishing time going to help your friend battling cancer? Your friend battling PTSD? No! They're doing their best, and you doing your best is all that matters."

It would be the day's coldest heat. But I wanted to be in the first group of people experiencing the new obstacles, which included a "tear gas-like substance" in addition to the standard Mudder signature obstacles, such as live electrical wires and a dunk into an ice bath. I'd read about people developing staph infections and infectious diarrhea after mud races; I decided I'd risk hypothermia if it meant I could run before the course got all slippery and germy.

It started like any other race, except we had to hop a six-foot wall to get to the start corral. The Rocky theme blared from DJ Double-D's booth. Then the drill-sergeant talked to us about the tight knit Tough Mudder community, about looking out for each other and giving it our all on 10.7 miles of "total hell." We sang the National Anthem, shouted a few ooh-rahs to the imminent testing of our strength (ooh-rah!), stamina (ooh-rah!), and fitness (ooh-rah!). And then we were released.

Flags and arrows marked a course that included dirt roads, bushhogged pastureland, and sandy ravines. A white horse, ribs jutting, and a brown horse ran wildly in a nearby field. For the first few miles an eager lost puppy galloped with us, ears flopping.

When people ask me what it was like, I tell them it was really cold. Friends who had done Mudders had advised me to wear fingerless gloves to help me climb obstacles, but my hands were too numb to grip. I also tell anyone who inquires that it was the first time that my body had ever been hauled or slung. To get over obstacles you either need big muscles or a friend who has them, which helped me bond quickly with Sean, whose real passion was driving through mud in a monster truck, and Frank, a sweet Tough Mudder employee whom I partially resented for being my minder but who graciously made sure I got over every wall.

Photo courtesy Tough Mudder

Going into the race, I had concerns that Tough Mudder was basing its selection of obstacles—the "tear gas-like" obstacle in particular—not just on tried-and-true ways of testing mental grit based on basic training activities, but also on how the obstacles could be optimally marketed based on current events. Especially events like the Ferguson protests that had people being tear-gassed in the streets, putting their lives on the line.

I met with Nolan Kombol, the course designer, to discuss all this. He told me Tough Mudder had sought to develop new obstacles to test "mental grit" and that tear gas happened to be one of them. I asked if the selection had been based on current events.

"It definitely plays into [current events]," he said. "And I'd be lying if it didn't make me think, you know, 'should we be doing this on course?' But ultimately it was the experience we went for."

I asked what that meant. He talked about the importance, in developing new obstacles, to create something that would be "buzzworthy" and "deliver traction."

Kombol had a way of discussing the obstacles that was both straightforward and obfuscated by marketing jargon. Current events played into it, he elaborated, but weren't the central motivating factor.

"I mean obviously I know that's there but that's not what I want to achieve with the obstacle, I want to create something that is genuinely shocking, genuinely challenging for people to overcome."

Sure, images of real-world protesters in the news today did to some degree influence Tough Mudder's development of a tear-gas like obstacle. But that wasn't why it was developed. Or at least that's what Kombol maintained.

I pointed out that the problematic optics of commodifying the tear gas experience at an event that caters mostly to white, middle class dudes—Tough Mudder says 70 percent of its participants are male—many of whom are military.

"I acknowledge the fact that a lot of what we do is... I don't want to use the word edgy because it's easy... [but] we're not afraid to do things that might be controversial," Kombol said.

Photo courtesy Tough Mudder

I noted that as a brand leader this stance could be problematic; not only does Tough Mudder face stiff competition from the other obstacle course races, or OCRs, but it also has sponsors who now have a stake in their success: Chipotle and Shock Top beer signed on as partners just this year.

"The best part of my job is creating new stuff and saying, what else can we challenge you with," Kombol offered as his response.

As we wrapped up, the conversation shifted to the names of some of the obstacles: there was "Balls Out" (swing along a wall using ropes) and "Birth Canal" (crawl under one of four tubes filled with red water, symbolically a giant four-chambered vagina) with signs posted in the entrance area (womb?) saying "Move quickly this is not a lamaze class" and "Don't be a baby."

"We really haven't had much negative feedback at all about the names. We do have a limit of what we'll put out in terms of how gross it will be, or how offensive it might be," Kombol said. "It's a judgment call between myself and our marketing team to say, ok, what names do we want to put out, what do we want the conversation to be."

To me that was the crux of the challenge facing Kombol and his team: how to remain edgy, but also consider the way their brand is positioned to shape the conversation around obstacle course races. I had talked to an Argentine friend about the race, for instance, and when I told her it featured electrocution and tear gas she asserted that such a thing would never fly in her home country. "There would be protests, for sure," she said; she'd been tear gassed in 2001 during protests over the Argentine Great Depression.

In the parking lot I talked to some participants. I asked if the tear gas-like obstacle attracted them to the event. Several members of the military I spoke with said no, that they had done tear gas already, in basic training.

"[The tear gas obstacle] was not anything like real tear gas," one said. "Trust me."

I asked what real tear gas is like. "It's everywhere. In your snot. Your nose. Your eyes. They start oozing. You start coughing." Civilians uniformly also said no, it hadn't attracted them; they seemed to have come simply for the experience: "[Tough Mudders] push you to your limit, test your mental toughness."

I asked some folks if they had followed the events in Ferguson (the report on the federal investigation had come out that week).

"No," said Angela from Pensacola. "It depresses me."

"I definitely don't agree with what law enforcement has done [there]," said Dean, a military member from Pensacola. "But [the tear gas here and there] are two different issues."

While it was obvious that, to competitors, tear gas in the real world and tear gas as a mental challenge to overcome seemed separate —"two different issues"—Tough Mudder organizers clearly view the two as intertwined. My conversations revealed that while this highly successful brand's co-opting of counterinsurgency tactics in its obstacles leaves its participants nonplussed or even upset, doing so may come at the cost of seeming insensitive to observers around the world familiar with the realities of tear gas.

The most telling conversation I had about the Cry Baby obstacle was with two college-aged women. One had done a Tough Mudder before; the other, a first timer, had gotten scared going through it like me, and had actually cried.

"I was overwhelmed. I didn't know what it was."

I asked if they had followed the protests in Ferguson.

"Is that the thing of black versus white?" said the one who had cried. The other said, "We're not informed enough to have an opinion."

They asked why I was asking, so I said, "There are some people who object to the fact that people are packaging and selling the experience of being tear gassed."

Then the one who said they weren't informed enough to have an opinion said: "That's silly."