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July 1, 2014

Inside The Tough Mudder - Extreme Challenge or Complete Lunacy?

By Joan Brunwasser

Tough Mudder brands itself as "probably the toughest event on the planet." While I obviously can't verify this (nor can they, actually), I can attest to the fact that it's difficult and requires a certain physical and mental grit to prepare for and complete. If a bunch of unathletic guys like us can tackle it, so can you. Get yourself in shape, get some friends together and register. It's totally worth it.


After the “Walk The Plank” obstacle, TM 2014
After the “Walk The Plank” obstacle, TM 2014
(Image by courtesy of Brad Sugar)
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My guest today is Brad Sugar, survivor of at least one Tough Mudder. Welcome to OpEdNews, Brad. To kick off the interview, please tell us a bit about this event [which I had never heard of prior to talking with you].

Brad: Thanks! This will be fun.

Tough Mudder brands itself as "probably the toughest event on the planet." While I obviously can't verify this (nor can they, actually), I can attest to the fact that it's difficult and requires a certain physical and mental grit to prepare for and complete. The event - which travels to almost every state and to other countries as well is comprised of roughly 25 obstacles over a 10-12 mile stretch. The obstacles run the gamut from the mundane (simply running through thick mud) to the insane (being electrocuted with 10,000 volts via live wires). They've done a great job at creating a fun and crazy event; it seems that most people find out about it via word of mouth.

Tough Mudder has been so well received (and has subsequently made so much money) that dozens of knock-off extreme obstacle courses have been created for men and women over the past few years. It's clear that there's a market for this type of thing.

Also, I'd object to the word "survive." Surviving - to me - implies that something is being done to you that you're either not expecting or is being done against your will. If you've specifically opted for a certain experience in life and you get what you bargained for, no matter how tough it is - to me, that's success, not survival.

JB: I concede that point. You definitely succeeded at the Tough Mudder. If I understand correctly, you weren't previously a super jock. Give our readers a sense of who you are when you're not participating in a Tough Mudder.

BS: No, I'm most certainly not a jock, and really have never been remotely close. I'm not out of shape by any means, but prior to training for the event, I really had never worked out, trained or done anything physical other than the occasional pick-up basketball game here or there.

First and foremost I'm a husband and a father to three young boys - so "relaxation" really isn't in my lexicon. The kids keep me on my toes. Professionally, I work in the non-profit sector - specifically in the Jewish community. I'm the Executive Director of the Jewish Student Connection (, which brings after-school educational programming and mentorship to high school students across the country. Other than that, I'm involved in my community in various other capacities when I can be. On the whole - just a regular guy that you wouldn't suspect would do something crazy like this.

JB: So what dragged you off the couch and into what certainly sounds to me like an extreme sport? What did you find enticing? I hope I don't offend you by observing that you don't really sound like the ideal candidate for this event.

BS: Not only is it not offensive, I think Tough Mudder has bet the farm that most of their participants will be "average" Americans. I heard about it randomly on Facebook when I saw that a friend had done it. The pictures were insane, and I had to at least learn more about it. I think there's something to be said about looking beyond the mundane routine of offices, cubicles, meetings - the daily grind - and striving for something really out there that resonates with people. To some extent that rang true for me, but the impetus for my initial involvement was really about setting the bar high. I like to set high goals with the understanding that they might not get met, but with the understanding there's a lot of merit in the process of trying to achieve them. So that's pretty much the approach that I took; I wanted to train for this thing, and be prepared for it. If I wound up doing it, that would be great. But if not, at least I would have pushed myself pretty far physically. I convinced a few of my friends to at least train with me for the duration of nine months leading to the event in Chicago in 2013. Almost all of them fit the "average" profile described above. We hired a former Navy SEAL to create a weekly regimen for us, and we trained together as a group. Half of the group wound up actually running Mudder together. It was remarkable bonding time, both during the training and the race.

JB: I like your attitude! I want to know more about the training process. Did this Navy SEAL simply devise the training program and send your group off to do it or did he actually appear at your weekly workouts? And what were those workouts like? Did he think you could pull off the Tough Mudder or was it always a long shot?

BS: To be clear, you don't really need a trainer or to go to the extreme like we did to hire a SEAL. Mudder has an extensive suggested training program on their website, with most of it not really requiring much equipment or previous know-how. I just knew personally that unless someone was going to be physically guiding me through workouts, it was unlikely that I would actually go through with it. I know this from approximately four or five previous failed attempts at gym memberships.

The trainer was there with us every week. He had done a Mudder before so he knew exactly what we should be working on. The workouts were all extremely intense. They were scheduled for an hour but nearly everyone was physically dead by minute 15, every time. The first three sessions I vomited, as did a few others. I learned not to eat lunch on Wednesdays in preparation...Outside of the "average" guys that did this there were one or two very, very ripped guys that decided to join in this training - and they yakked and cried like the rest of us. It's not weight-training based, it's endurance training, which is something totally different. In hindsight, the training was really overboard and in totality was much harder than the race itself. Which, I think, is a good thing - it prepared us mentally for anything that could be thrown our way. We looked like a pretty pathetic bunch coming in...and probably still do now...but at least he got us ready.

JB: Why was it so important for you to do this as a group as opposed to solo? And how did that group experience affect both the training and participating in the Tough Mudder itself?

BS: I don't think TM is something you really want to do by yourself. Everyone there is very helpful, and there's a general atmosphere of camaraderie (they make sure to repeat that the event is NOT a race) - but doing this alone would likely be lonely and/or boring. I don't think I saw anyone doing it solo. I would assume (not having done it myself) that simply running in a marathon is a solo thing, and is much easier that way. You can tune out everything else except your running. This is a bit different, because most of the obstacles can only be tackled in teams. It was important that I could do this with other people that would push me when I needed it, and vice-versa (plus, the amount of toilet humor when you're a foot deep in foul smelling mud runs pretty rampant. Who would I share jokes with?). Lastly - there were plenty of ladies on the course, so it's not just about guy-bonding. It's team building.

JB: That makes sense. Did this show come to Chicago or did you have to travel a long way in order to participate? Also, I understand you personally faced a tricky time element/conflict regarding the big day. Can you share that story with us?

BS: 2013 was in Seneca, IL. 2014 was in Richmond, IL - obviously not "Chicago" - but I suppose it's tough to find a location that can accommodate land being pretty much destroyed and 36,000 people trampling through it. Seneca was a bit of a ways away, but Richmond wasn't too bad in terms of distance.

As to your question - yeah, for 2013's Mudder, "scheduling conflict" would be a pretty big understatement. I also had a major physical setback in addition to the scheduling conflict. So, first the setback - I cracked two of my ribs playing basketball about a month before the scheduled race date. Having cracked ribs before, I was devastated because I knew that the recovery timeline was at least six-eight weeks before the pain would go away. So at that point, I had already begun to tell myself that it was pretty unlikely that I would be able to do the mudder. If I recall, I got relatively depressed, because as you can imagine I had put so much effort into getting ready, that to not do the race was going to be such a huge disappointment. More on the cracked ribs later.

I don't remember the specific timeline, but I think I had made up my mind that I wanted to train for this in September of 2012, and had started doing so early October of the same year by getting a group of guys together, hiring the trainer, etc. My wife and I had known at that time that we were expecting our third child, but about a week into the training, we discovered that the baby's due date was 5/19/2013 - the exact day of Tough Mudder. Knowing that these things aren't always entirely accurate, it didn't bother either of us. The baby would come a week early, or a week late, and it'd be fine. No big deal. I wasn't going to fret over it. We had both said that in the event of the date actually being at the same time - of course the baby would take preference.

So. Fast-forward to Saturday, May 18th, 2013. Mudder is the next day. My ribs are on the mend, but still nowhere near healed. The baby hadn't been born yet and there were no signs of imminent labor. That afternoon, I attempted to run for the first time since injuring myself, just to test the waters and see what I could handle. I ran about a mile and my chest was on fire - but if I paced myself, it wasn't too terrible. I had decided that if the circumstances allowed for it, I would go to the race and just run alongside my team, and not do any of the obstacles. That way it wouldn't be a total letdown. So I prepared for bed that evening under the assumption that all systems were go.

And then, before I hit the mattress...the contractions came.

My wife and I packed a bag, called a sitter for our other kids, and headed to the hospital. In a way, I was relieved because for sure there was no way I'd be doing the race now that the baby was coming. And I wouldn't have to deal with the possible letdown of not having done it - because hey, if there's any legitimate excuse to miss something, it's for the birth of your own kid.

Having been through this twice before, my wife and I knew we'd be in for a long night - her labors are not short and they cut off all food once they admit women in these circumstances - so we quickly stopped at Dunkin Donuts and ate about 8 donuts and a few bagels/cream cheese between us to prepare for the night ahead. I chugged a coke or two for good measure, and she was admitted. We got settled into the hospital room at about 9 PM, and had a revolving door of doctors and medical staff until 11 or so. She wasn't dilated much, but that was sure to come. So we both kind of got comfy; I grabbed the nearest couch and started to sleep until things progressed more. At 11:30, a nurse came in for one more check. Things hadn't moved at all, and they were fairly certain that no baby was to be expected for the next two days unless she was given drugs to be induced.

False labor.

So we packed up, unhooked from the machines, and headed home. We walked in the door at a little after midnight - exhausted - and went straight to bed. Neither of us could sleep. We both tossed and turned until 2:30 in the morning, when my superwoman spouse said to me: "You need to do the race tomorrow. The doctors say the baby isn't coming for a day. Set your alarm, wake up, and do it. You'll always regret it if you don't."

Set aside for a moment the fact that I have the best wife ever, but how in the hell was I going to pull this off even if I wanted to? I had never done any race or anything like this before. I had broken ribs. I hadn't eaten anything remotely proper or healthy that would prepare my body for a race. The baby still might come the next day...and I had to wake up in three hours in order to get ready to leave for it, leaving me with almost no sleep.

Certainly, a less than ideal set of circumstances for an event like this. But the idea was crazy in the first place. So I did it. I'm not even sure I slept at all that night.

I got in the car, drank probably four liters of gatorade on the way there, stopped at a Walgreens and purchased some topical numbing cream, and basically dumped the entire container out on my chest so that I wasn't in pain. That, along with 800mg of ibuprofen, and I was good to go. As I mentioned before - the intention was just to run the whole thing, and not do any obstacles. However, when I got there my adrenaline took over, and I actually did the whole thing minus one obstacle. It was, in a word, insane.

JB: What a woman! What a story! So, what was your day like? And what kind of obstacles are we talking about, anyway?

BS: The day was kind of surreal. Since I had told everyone that I wasn't going to make it, they all had planned on leaving without me, in one car. But I absolutely had to drive myself/have access to my own transportation in case they all wanted to stay later than I did, or in case I got word about the baby, or whatever. So I texted one of the guys, showed up at his house, and we drove together. He couldn't believe I was going through with it. As I mentioned before, I stopped along the way to get some medication, and then we arrived in Seneca.

Tough Mudder does a remarkable job at hyping/pumping people up for this. Arriving at the site was just surreal - great music, great setup, great registration process - we were pumped and ready to go. They send participants out to the course in various waves, and in order to be sent in a wave, you have to climb up and over these five-foot walls to enter the course. Kind of like an obstacle before the obstacles. Once I did that without any pain, I figured I'd give the rest of them a try...which I did. The only thing I did not do was "Walk The Plank," a 15-foot jump into mudwater. I felt that I might collapse a lung or something if I did that, so I stayed away. But I did everything else. They had water and banana stations every few miles, so we obviously stopped for a bit. They had some ibuprofen there too, which I happily took.

The obstacles vary in scope. I encourage anyone interested to look online or watch youtube videos or something; probably more effective than me outlining them here. The five that stood out most were:

1) Artic Enema - basically a dumpster completely full of ice and water. The body just becomes numb instantly when you jump in - and in order to get out, you have to swim underneath it all because they have a section in the middle blocked off with barbed wire. So you have no choice but to go quickly.

2) Everest - an enormous half-pipe that's been slicked up with oil. You have to run up it - unassisted - and try and reach the top. Usually someone at the top will have to hold your hand and pull you up, but it's difficult.

3) Funky Monkey - A set of inclined monkey bars over a deep pool of water.

4) Mud Mile - Literally a mile of ankle-deep mud. Doesn't sound so imposing but it's nearly impossible to walk in, let alone run in something like that. If you're lucky enough to keep your shoes on, the mud adds about five pounds of weight to them. Otherwise, you lose your shoes.

5) Electroshock Therapy - This is the big event that people freak out about. It's the final obstacle at every mudder event, and it's a field of dangling live wires (10,000 volts!) with small mud/hay hills interspersed. What you're looking at in the picture above is my team from 2013 running through the wires together. The thing about this is that it's not really something you can train for. It's all mental. You just go for it. And yes, it really, really hurts.

JB: I bet! I'm presuming that electroshock one is not fatal; it would cut down on potential return customers. How long does this whole thing take? How long do your badly treated bodies take to recover? And how about that baby, cooling its heels, waiting patiently to be born?

BS: Yeah, certainly not fatal. For all of the literal shock and awe, I think only one person has died from a Tough Mudder race, ever. And that was from something that I believe the company wasn't at fault for. When you compare that to the fact that people die in marathons quite constantly, it's not as menacing. About the electroshock therapy in particular, I'd almost compare it to the pain of a paintball being shot at you at close range, but because of how many wires there are - you have no idea when or where to expect the pain. So it's definitely bad, but not too bad.

In 2013, we finished in roughly three hours and fifteen minutes. 2014 was closer to under three hours. From what I'm told the range is two to five hours. There's a mixture of pure elation and exhaustion at the end, with a lot of cramping interspersed. In 2013, when I was rushing to get home I literally dragged my right foot the whole way to the car in the parking lot. My left one kept spasming while driving and I had to constantly pull over to ensure I got home safely.

Prior injuries notwithstanding, I'd say it took me a good week to be able to walk up and down stairs without any pain and probably two weeks to eliminate mud from all the random places in your body that you find.

The baby, along with mommy, was a trooper and was born two days later in 2013! He's over a year old now, and his name is Asher.

JB: Now that you have two TMs under your belt, is it time to let it go? Or are you hooked and already planning 2015? And what about your teammates? Are they on board for another go?

BS: After last year, I said I wouldn't do it again. Then, something inside me was itching to do it - especially to see what it would be like completing it without cracked ribs and an impending newborn on the way. After I finished this year, I said I wouldn't do it again...but never say never. If I got a good group of friends together - some that would do it for the first time with me on board - I would consider it. But I definitely won't go overboard on the training next time around, if there is one.

The crew (below, from 2014, after the "Walk The Plank" obstacle) is undecided. But I'm sure when we get those e-mails from Mudder a few months before race-day with discounted entry fees, that itch might come around again.

JB: Thanks so much for walking us through this. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

BS: The only thing I would say to anyone reading this (or hearing about races like Mudder) is to not assume it is impossible. Your gender, age or overall physical composition shouldn't matter. People all across the spectrum do this thing. If it even intrigues you a bit - I say go for it. If a bunch of unathletic guys like us can tackle it, so can you. Get yourself in shape, get some friends together and register. It's totally worth it.

JB: Well, I freely admit that I'm not going to be one of those signing up but I'm very glad we had this conversation. I learned a lot. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Brad. I can't wait to see if you're able to resist the lure of Tough Mudder 2015!


Tough Mudder on YouTube

Brad's FB Tough Mudder Memory Book

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and