Triathlons Are for Wimps

Obstacle-course racing is taking off. And Tough Mudder leads the way

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Listening to all this zeal for crawling through mud and helping your fellow man, watching people snap up Tough Mudder--branded T-shirts, backpacks and Nerf basketball hoops in the packed merchandise tent, hearing that the orange headbands you get after completing the event have so much cachet that people try to fetch $100 for them on eBay, you couldn't help but wonder: What the hell has gotten into America?

Mudder Madness

start with the economy. for some, Tough Mudder is an escape. "I think a lot of people right now feel this sense that the world is against them," says Tough Mudder co-founder and CEO Will Dean, 32, a former counterterrorism analyst in the U.K. "They are battling these debts and trying to get a job. We get a lot of people saying, 'The one thing I can control in my life right now is my training for Tough Mudder.'" For others, Tough Mudder is a sign of shifting priorities. "We believe very strongly that experiences are the new luxury good," says Dean. In post--financial crisis America, ice swimming and electric torture are more memorable--and valuable--than, say, a sparkly new watch.

Plus, finishing Tough Mudder is something to gloat about, and people now have access to the greatest bragging machinery in history: Facebook and Twitter. "It feels like the Fight Club," says Corvelle, the announcer and proselytizer. "But this is the Tough Club. And our first rule in the Tough Club is we do talk about it."

Tough Mudder started with an $8,000 marketing budget, which Dean poured mostly into Facebook ads. The company has nearly 3 million Facebook Likes, and social media are peppered with pictures of triumphant Tough Mudders. One Web ritual that has caught fire: people posting shots of themselves sitting in their office cubicles on Monday wearing their headbands. We may have Dilbert jobs, but we're Mudders, man! "It's a social currency that you have," says Dean.

Though Tough Mudder plays down competition on the course, the company itself is cutthroat. Tough Mudder mocks one of its competitors, Warrior Dash, at the three-mile mark of its event with a sign that reads, "Warrior Dash finish: but this is Tough Mudder and you've only just begun." Dean has a taste for a scrap. Outside magazine revealed that when he was a student at Harvard Business School in 2008, Dean connected with Billy Wilson, the founder of Tough Guy, an obstacle-course race in Great Britain, and offered to do a research report about potential international expansion. After Tough Mudder launched in 2010, Wilson sued Dean for stealing his idea. Dean countersued for defamation. According to Outside, Tough Mudder paid Tough Guy $725,000 to end the legal slog. Harvard also investigated and cleared Dean of wrongdoing--but said he violated the school's honesty and integrity standards. Harvard put him on alumni probation for five years.

During an interview in his Brooklyn office, Dean--whose face screams "boyish Brit"--is serious and soft-spoken, though clearly nervous about the negativity. "Some people will say that you stole an idea," Dean says. "It's difficult for me to think of a successful business where you can say that you didn't somehow stand upon ideas that were already existing."

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