The rise of adventure races: Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean

Tough Mudder's CEO Will Dean puts participants through gruelling conditions – and they pay him for it. We asked him why

What is Tough Mudder (and what's the point of it)?

The best way to begin is to talk about what it's not. Tough Mudder is not a race. It is very much a challenge; it's about teamwork and camaraderie. The reason I started the company was I believed that there was a space in the market for an event that was very much about personal accomplishment but wasn't a race. Because the truth is, most people who take part in a race are not there to win it.

If you do a marathon - unless you are a professional Kenyan athlete - the odds are you're not going to come first. And when you do finish, someone will inevitably ask you what time you did it in (then tell you their friend did it ten minutes quicker). Yes, in Tough Mudder you still need to get yourself around the course - no one will carry you. However, our obstacles seem to bring out the best in others. I would say 95 percent of participants come in teams, but even then it's not one team versus another. It really is everyone helping everyone.

It's done quite well over the past few years.

Last year we had 120 events worldwide, including the first event in the Middle East. And people often ask me what they think is behind its success. I mean, we didn't invent the muddy obstacle course. Firstly, it's because we focus on putting on an event based around working together. Second, that's all underpinned by research and development.

Anyone can put some mud and barbed wire in a field, but Tough Mudder has always had the biggest and the best obstacles. We have a five-person team who work in a dedicated innovation lab. In theme parks, the way to get return customers is to have a brand new ride. We do the same thing, but with obstacles. And we have around a 50 percent return rate on participants. To put that into context, a marathon is about nine percent.

One of your obstacles involves having to crawl through mud under electrically-charged wires. Isn't this rather dangerous?

It's a bit of a cliche, but we have invested a great deal in health and safety. The truth is, the most dangerous thing about a Tough Mudder is driving to the event. You are seven times more likely to have an accident while driving to Tough Mudder, then participating in it.

You put people through some very gruelling conditions, and they pay you for it. How does that business model even work?

There is a lot of research that shows if you spend your money on experiences, you're going to be happier. Your memories appreciate in value, particularly shared memories with friends and family. These are the things we cherish. By contrast, material goods depreciate. You buy a car, and it loses a third of its value the moment you drive it off the lot. I think we have tapped into that way of thinking, and I believe it's generational. Many young people are now putting their money towards experiences over everything else.

Where does an idea like Tough Mudder come from? Did you see a horror film and decide to make a few thousand people experience it each year?

I did a triathlon years ago, and the zipper on my wetsuit jammed. I turned to the guy next to me in the transition area - when you go from the swim to the bike - and he refused to help me. Now, we were in an amateur event and near the middle of the pack, so there was no way either of us was going to win it. But I couldn't believe he wouldn't give up two seconds of his time to help me. I had to ask two more people before I found someone to help me out, and all they had to do was pull down a zipper.

That's when I had the idea to start something that had elements of individual accomplishment, but was also about team work and helping each other. We didn't invent the mud run. What we did do was focus on the notion of camaraderie, and invest in the most challenging obstacles we can think up.

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