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Running the Tough Mudder: A 12-Mile Long Torture Chamber

Last weekend, fellow columnist Dan O'Brien and I woke up early on a cold February Sunday, drove to the middle of nowhere and paid $130 apiece to be bloodied, bruised, soaked, poked, and shocked for three hours in the rain. We ran the 12-mile obstacle course and self-appointed "Toughest Event On the Planet," the Tough Mudder. At the end of it all, a man with a Marine Corps tattoo, and who I privately suspect was just a pile of biceps crammed in a windbreaker, gave us each a headband and a beer while explaining that we were part of something bigger than ourselves now.

But we knew better.

We had already decided four miles earlier, and independently of one another, while crawling in the mud through our second set of live electrical wires that we were, in fact, probably not heroes for doing this after all, but maybe idiots. Let me try to explain why.

toughmudder.com Aside from being willfully shocked in the dark.

Before George Mallory became the first man to ever attempt climbing Everest he said, "The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is no use.' There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever [...] So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life."

One hundred years later, Tough Mudder is built on the same philosophy except for two very crucial modifications: replace every mention of "Everest" or "mountain" with "synthesized torture" and every mention of "joy" with "a Facebook profile picture that makes me look cool." Aside from the obvious difference between splashing around in mud and climbing a deadly peak before Gore-Tex exists, the more subtle difference of intent is more important here. Taking on a physical challenge for the sake of conspicuous, documented achievement as opposed to simple joy actually goes a long way to explaining why obstacle races have mushroomed into a cultural phenomenon now instead of any other point in history, and also why I blindly signed up with thousands of other people for three hours of misery.

toughmudder.com I couldn't find any photos, so I just used this picture from WWI.

Tough Mudder as a company is worth $70 million after only two years of existence -- not just because a few people enjoy overcoming grueling challenges, but because a lot of people enjoy overcoming those challenges, out loud and for everyone else to see. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and every other social media network has given everyone the opportunity to write their own biographies one post at a time, and as a result we favor the accomplishments we can share. Showing off doesn't have the same shame attached to it that it might have 10 or 20 years ago, because the whole point of posting on social media is to essentially say, "Look what I'm doing!" In fact, the running mantra on the Internet is, "Pics or it didn't happen" and that's become a thesis for our lives.

Tough Mudder knows all of that, and has created an entire obstacle course around making you look like more of a badass than you actually are. Even at the starting line, runners snap pictures of themselves flexing with grease paint under their eyes, a booth offers to shave Mohawks on anyone who wants one, and most of the people with GoPro cameras don't have them trained on the direction they're headed, but on their own faces. Even after the challenge, the coordinators post pictures of each person taken at particularly dramatic obstacles and send you a coveted electronic badge to attach to your Facebook page. Hell, just watch the sizzle reel to get a sense of how important presentation is:

Ultimately, Tough Mudder is not just a weekend challenge, it's glorified wish fulfillment and Marine Corps cosplay. That video makes it look like epic and almost superhuman, and as a result, people wrap up their identity entirely in the mythos, even getting Tough Mudder tattoos. In an interview with Outside Magazine, one competitor said, "It feels like you've accomplished something -- like you've been through a war with your buddies. I have a bond with my teammates that I don't have with my wife -- until she does her first Tough Mudder next year."

What?

I don't mean to sound entirely cynical, but your poor goddamn wife. No one should count an obstacle run for which some people didn't even bother to train as the most pivotal defining moment in their life.

It may not be surprising to know that it doesn't actually play out in the real world like it does in the video. Yes, all the obstacles are there and the general atmosphere is exciting, but we passed people from the heat that left an hour earlier than us who were walking the whole course, we saw several people skipping obstacles that they didn't particularly like, and we watched people who were timing themselves (Tough Mudder doesn't call it a race because it's built around camaraderie) abandon other participants on high walls and in mud trenches so that they could finish faster. But it's not really about the reality. Tough Mudder is a huge success because people fall in love with the idea of it, and more importantly, the idea that they could be associated with it when everyone sees photos of them plastered with mud and powering up a rope climb in the rain.

toughmudder.com Or drowning in a vat of ice.

That's not to say that it isn't extremely hard either. Tough Mudder is 12 miles, a good chunk of which is uphill and the obstacles are sometimes excruciating. From swimming underneath barrels in a lake of snowmelt to crawling through water in complete darkness while being shocked by hanging wires, it's vicious. But what separates it from, say, climbing a mountain or trekking across a desert is that it is not a test of ability or of the mental fortitude necessary to push your body through the agony of effort. It's just three hours of horrible things happening to you for a few seconds at a time. In other words, it's carefully orchestrated harassment. Each obstacle is about the pageantry first and in a distant second is your own ability to power through it because it's about the story you tell later rather than the experience itself. It's hard to downplay the 10,000 volt shocks you took to the people huddled around your cubicle.

toughmudder.com Every picture can't help but look epic.

And that's exactly why I felt like an idiot by the end. I went in with the confused notion that any experience that is awful was also good for me. Suffering is always supposed to have rewards in the end, and even if those rewards are sometimes vague, I can at least chalk it up to a rounding of character. But Tough Mudder offers a window dressing version of personal betterment without much behind it. I don't mean to insult anyone who loves the challenge of Tough Mudder because I will certainly admit that it kicked my ass. But it was painful like torture is painful. The simplest way I can describe it is that when I ran through the swamp portion of our course in the gloom and cold, I secretly wanted the experience to be like Luke training on Dagobah. But the most important challenge, the part where I fight myself in a cave and overcome my own weaknesses, wasn't there. In its place were some greased monkey bars instead. I guess if I had one suggestion for the people who run Tough Mudder, it would be to include a Cave of Evil. That would be really nice.

That's on the house.

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