On July 25, Tough Mudder rolled out its latest product: Urban Mudder, a shorter, cleaner obstacle course event that copies many of Tough Mudder’s signature obstacles for a broader audience. The results were promising, despite a number of noticeable mistakes that may have turned away some of the customers they were hoping to bring into the Tough Mudder fold.
Who is the target market? People who were a little intimidated by Tough Mudder’s original product. The Urban Mudder course was shorter (5 miles), easier to get to (no long drive; in fact, I walked to the venue), had fewer, less intimidating obstacles (no electric shocks, no tear gas), and no mud. Urban Mudder was hoping to create an event that might serve as an entry-level course, and in that they succeeded. They were also hoping to create a festival atmosphere for afterwards, and my impression was that there were thousands of happy customers enjoying their post-race beers. And while they were hoping to bring in new customers, I noticed that a large percentage of the 6,500 participants showed up wearing Tough Mudder shirts, so the connection to the original brand clearly helped sell tickets.
An obstacle course event (not a “race”: Tough Mudder doesn’t time their events and considers them to be challenges, not races), needs good obstacles. Urban Mudder promised some innovations, and while they had tried some of the obstacles at a beta-testing event in California last year, some still needed serious work. On the other hand, the evil geniuses at TMHQ also produced some memorable obstacles that provided exactly the experience they were hoping to offer.
Two of my favorite obstacles showed the perfect balance of challenge and achievement and novelty. Six Feet Over was, essentially, a twelve foot tall pillow filled with air, resembling the Beached Whale seen at other Tough Mudder events. At Six Feet Over, the pillow was approached by a ramp. The object was to run up to the pillow, grab on to a rope and climb to the top. There was another rope on the far side to climb down to a padded landing. It was unlike anything you might see at other obstacle course races, and it was unlike anything I had done before, but it was doable, simple to figure out, and fun. My only criticism would be that the pillow and most of the ropes were black. After a morning in full sun, the surfaces of the pillow and the ropes were burning hot. This was the first time I got rope burn from heat, not friction.
The designers tried to emphasize the “urban” nature of the obstacles, and Rock and a Hard Place called on participants to climb between two walls, decorated with faux bricks and windows, as if you were a cat burglar or a superhero. The consequence of failing was merely wet shoes, as the footholds were a few feet above a small trough of water. Again, it was unusual, doable, and entertaining to try. There were also more conventional obstacles, including On the Fence, an 8 foot wall, shorter than the 10 foot Berlin Walls at Tough Mudder events. The obstacle encouraged teamwork, but it was still something that could be conquered with a little bit of effort.
Some of the obstacles showed that Tough Mudder was trying to come up with something new, but didn’t quite work. Head Rush was a series of parallel bars that started with one set at your feet and the other set at shoulder height. The task was to climb over a shallow pit of water as the bar at your feet went higher and the bar at your hands went lower. Soon your hands were below your head and your feet were over your head. Again, something you don’t do at the gym or see at other events. The problem was that the bars were too far apart for anyone over, say, 5’ 6”. My team included two CrossFit trainers and three Ironman triathletes, but the shorter ones were unable to get across the whole obstacle simply because they couldn’t reach that far.
Laser Minefield was another obstacle that had many people excited. You entered a dark room and needed to cross it without tripping a series of laser beams – just like in every jewelry heist movie you’ve ever seen. In reality, this was disappointing. The beams were tough to see (I heard that there was supposed to be a fog machine that malfunctioned), and the alarms that were set off by tripping the beams were, well, not much for those used to urban car alarms.
With only twelve obstacles, there was not much room for obstacles that left one feeling “meh”. The first obstacle was called Mafia Blocks, and merely consisted of Jersey barriers (wouldn’t “Jersey Barriers” be a funny enough name?). More worrisome was what promises to be the signature obstacle, right before the finish line with plenty of spectators, called “Rooftop Series”. This obstacle mimics the experience of jumping from rooftop to rooftop; you could imagine yourself running from the cops, or alternatively chasing a bad guy, depending on your outlook. The first gap was about four feet, not far, but on to a “rooftop” several feet lower. The next rooftop was reached by crossing a narrow beam. From there, you jumped off the “building” on to a crash pad below. This last drop stymied many. I saw plenty of people pace back and forth nervously summoning up their courage. For those who have done Tough Mudder, the distance was equivalent to Walk the Plank, just under fifteen feet (five of which were crash pad). This is classic Tough Mudder: an obstacle that requires mental grit rather than strength. After all, gravity takes care of most of the work. The problem wasn’t with the big drop. Rather, the first drop caused a number of injuries. A member of my team landed hard on the surface of the second roof and shattered her tibia. After a trip to the hospital, she now has two metal plates and several screws as momentoes of the race (as well as the tank top and socks). I watched other participants take the same leap, and far too many were having trouble making a safe landing. The surface was too hard and the drop was too difficult to calculate. I gather that this part of the obstacle was eventually shut off, but it was a lousy way for our team to finish up.
Another problem that was universally observed was a long wait, both at the start and at one of the first obstacles. We were assigned waves that were supposed to start at fifteen minute intervals, but no one was checking, which seems to have led to huge bunching. We were supposed to start at 10:45, so we approached the starting area at 10:30. We did not cross the start line for another 90 minutes. This was annoying enough, but we were kept in a holding area for that time, in hot July weather with no shade and no access to water. Not fun. This crowd control did not lead to a smoother course, either; we waited a full fifteen minutes to take on Head Rush, which was only the second obstacle. Tough Mudder is usually better at preventing bottlenecks. Perhaps the shorter course gave them less space to stretch things out?
A pet peeve: like many obstacle course events, Tough Mudder charges for checking in bags. As someone who has done plenty of road races and triathlons, this baffles me, and it reminds me of the new revenue sources the airlines have found to tack on extra fees. Also, charging $20 for spectators seemed excessive and would discourage bringing friends and family to what was supposed to be a fun day out.
The organizers put a lot of emphasis on post-event festivities, and they provided plenty of reasons to stick around after the running and climbing and jumping. There was the inevitable beer tent, and there was also a small food truck rally. There were plenty of sponsor tents with games and swag. However, my favorite attraction was put on by Tough Mudder themselves. They set up a dunk tank, but with a twist: the tank was filled with ice water, as a “sample” of the Tough Mudder obstacle Arctic Enema. The incentive was that they had colored washers at the bottom of the tank. If you retrieved an orange washer, you earned a free entry to a Tough Mudder event. I didn’t really need that incentive, as on a day that hot the opportunity to get dunked in ice water was reward enough.
Overall, the folks at Tough Mudder seem to have provided a good day out for city dwellers and brought new people into the fold of OCR, even if there were some operational glitches. A friend that I do Spartan Races convinced his girlfriend to do Urban Mudder, her first such event. His reaction? Griping about the long waits in the hot sun. Her reaction? She can’t wait to do another obstacle course race. It sounds like Tough Mudder has accomplished what it set out to do. They are looking at a number of other cities for 2016. Stay tuned.