Mercedes Ruehl Reporter

Mercedes writes for The Australian Financial Review and BRW from the Sydney newsroom. She has an interest in technology, politics and travel writing.

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Tough Mudder’s easy money: How pain created a $75m business

Published 08 April 2013 11:50, Updated 11 April 2013 00:45

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Tough Mudder’s easy money: How pain created a $75m business

Pain game: A competitor takes a dip at the Tough Mudder event at Phillip Island. Photo: Getty Images

Torture is back in vogue, given the number of entrants at this year’s Tough Mudder in Australia.

The 20-kilometre gruelling, military-style obstacle course first took off in Australia in 2012. Will Dean, the company’s British founder and chief executive, has taken the company from revenue of about $US2 million in 2010 to an estimated $US75 million in 2012.

Tough Mudder is not the only event in its field though. The so called “mud-run market” is a booming business and anyone who is willing to inject some cash to start up their own obstacle course is being rewarded.

There’s the Tough Bloke Challenge in Sydney and Melbourne, where entrants rope-swing and mud-crawl through a seven-kilometre obstacle course. There’s also the Mud Run, also dubbed the “Grubbiest Fun Run” at the International Equestrian Centre in Sydney and the Stampede, formerly the Valley Stampede – “more than just a race, it’s an epic challenge” say the promoters – held in several capitals.

Warrior Dash, the Grim Challenge, Run For Your Lives and Death Race are just some examples of macabre names for similar mud races around the world.

But one of the best known of these events is Tough Mudder.

Dean told The New York Times last year that obstacle course races fulfil a primal urge for white-collar workers:

“They make 100 times more than their fathers, but their hands are soft.”

According to the Australian website, Mudders can expect “a hefty dose of mud, ice, fire and electric shocks to test whether or not you’re tough enough” this weekend on both the 13th and 14th of April. They will be just two of nearly 60 Tough Mudder events around the world in 2013.

In Australia alone, this coming weekend’s two Tough Mudder events have attracted 13,000 entrants.

Reflecting on why the event has proven so popular in Australia, Tough Mudder’s Australian ambassador Lee Campbell agrees that it allowed people to get their hands dirty: “For many Aussies, I think it may be the challenge,” he says.

“A lot of people work in offices and sit at desks all day, so this is an opportunity to get back to our roots, get a little dirty and prove how tough we can be – both physically and mentally.”

Like so many entrepreneurs and start-up companies, however, Dean had trouble convincing people his idea would work. Tough Mudder was his student business plan at Harvard Business School in 2009. Most of his professors doubted he could find the 500 people he needed to participate in the mud race. He found a business partner and they invested about $US20,000 for the first race in 2010. About 4500 people signed up, each paying $100 for the privilege.

By 2012, 460,000 people had signed up for Tough Mudder events across the world. Phillip Island in Victoria hosted the first event in Australia last year and this year’s participants have paid up to $180 to take part.

To mitigate the company’s responsibility in the case of injury or death, competitors must sign a waiver when registering.

John DeNavi, 23, was one of thousands to run the course, designed by British Special Forces, last year.

“Most people would be able to do it,” he says. “The worst part was probably when I was momentarily blinded from an electric shock to my head while crawling through the mud. Other than that and swimming though ice water, it was fine.”

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