Yesterday I had the great pleasure of speaking to John Fidoe, one of Tough Mudder’s head honchos, who is at the forefront of UK’s (if not the world’s) most popular obstacle race series. I was really keen to find out his thoughts on how Tough Mudder has attracted such immense popularity, and what the company’s plans were for the future...
Thanks so much for joining us John. What were the highlights for Tough Mudder in 2013?
I think just the amazing response from people. We’ve had nearly 85,000 people take part in our six UK Tough Mudder events this year, which is huge. You just need to get along there to see all the people engage with it, see how much fun they’re having and how tough they’re finding it. It’s great to see also the ways they’re finding to get through it and the teams that are forming out there on the course.
There are also some great individual stories. Nicky, one of our Tough Mudder HQ team was the first person in Europe to complete the course in a wheelchair and we also had Anne Strike [Paralympic wheelchair racer] complete a course down in the south west.
There’s nothing like the scale of Tough Mudder events. When you step into the event village, it’s like walking into a music festival, with the size and vibe of the attendance.
I think that’s what makes it really special. It’s interesting, there was a quote from somebody who had sent in an email to our customer services team, just with some general feedback. They had had an amazing experience but they said that when they arrived they had queued a bit for the car park. It was a classic situation of people in a traffic jam trying to get in ahead of each other but he said as soon as soon as he got out on the course, that vibe completely changed and the last thing anyone was thinking of was trying to get past the next person. People were helping each other over the obstacles and encouraging each other to get through stuff that they’re afraid of. He pointed out that if we could all be a bit more like that in general life then the world be a much nicer place.
Do you think there’s more of that kind of feeling at Tough Mudder because it’s not a competitive event?
Yes, I think that’s absolutely it. We encourage people to say the pledge on the start line. I know there’s a bit of tongue in cheek there but we take that quite seriously. It isn’t a race, it is a challenge. When Will and Guy came up with the concept originally, I think it was Will that had taken on a triathlon once and he said he came out of the water and his wetsuit was a bit stuck and he tried to get somebody to help him, but the guy just ran past. He was just concentrating on his course time. It was a conscious thing when Tough Mudder was set up to turn it into the kind of environment where you help each other out. And even when it is timed at World’s Toughest Mudder, at one point Pak, who was in second place at the time and was trying to regain his title, was stood there at the top of Everest trying to help people up.
It’s such an awesome thing about obstacle racing, and I’m not sure whether it’s because it’s still in its infancy and people are really feeling a part of it right now but there is that amazing sense of camaraderie across the board. Do you think as competitiveness is pushed by other events there’s a danger of that vibe changing?
I think there may be but that’s up to individuals and the kind of event they want to go to. There’s definitely a place for competition in obstacle racing but that’s not what Tough Mudder is about. We’ll stay true to the core of Mudders looking out for each other and that will never change.
There’s a hard core group of obstacle racers in the UK and a lot of them I know would love to take part in something like World’s Toughest Mudder. Do you think you’ll ever be bringing it over to Europe?
I think we’ll continue to look at the options. We’re still in our infancy really, only three or four years in, and we’ll always look at options. Whether that be regional qualifiers or Europe’s Toughest Mudder, they are all options on the table and we may even look at moving World’s Toughest from the US to Europe at some point. I think mid way through 2014 we’ll have a much better idea of what that might look like.
We’ve got such a large number of people in the UK but also a lot of people from all around Europe who travel to our UK events and we kicked off our first couple of events in Germany this year. The European market is growing and people are really interested in this. So I’m going to continue pushing the guys in the States to make it easier for Europeans to take part in Toughest Mudder.
On that note, we’re really good friends with Obstakels in the Netherlands. The Dutch Mud Men are so passionate about obstacle racing and would love to have a Tough Mudder event in their home country. There are a lot of Xs around your map of Europe on your events page. How do those Xs become a reality?
It’s a number of things really. Firstly those Xs enable people to pre register, so we can get a feeling for demand, which is a strong indicator for us. Also we want to make sure we’re doing it properly. So for next year in Germany we’re likely to be upping the number of events from two to six and then we’ll start to look at some of those other markets. But it’s not an easy thing to do to expand into new markets, especially where there are different languages and population sizes. Tough Mudders are big events to put on, so we need a reasonable sized population to support that.
So I’m afraid I can’t definitely say we’re going to be doing any Dutch events next year but there will be plenty of German events and some of them are pretty close to the Dutch border.
Looking at Tough Mudder on a worldwide scale, how many people are taking part?
We had close to 700,000 this year and we also broke through the million mark in total (since 2010) earlier this year. One of the best stats is that we had more people do a Tough Mudder in the US this year than run a marathon.
You clearly have a far higher attendance than any other event, particularly in the UK. Do you think it’s a matter of you being there from the beginning of the boom or that you slapped down the most marketing spend or do you think there’s something that you have that other events don’t?
I think that sense of community is a big part of it. We rely a lot on word of mouth and the communities that we’ve built up on things like Facebook. To some degree the events will sell themselves. People come to Tough Mudder, have a great time and then they’re on Facebook, Instagram or Youtube sharing their experiences. I think that team environment where it isn’t a race, it's a challenge, attracts a broad range of people.
I was really excited to see a few new obstacle cropping up at this year's events (Cage Crawl, Glory Blades, Island Hopping and Human Gekko). Are we likely to see some more new obstacles in 2014?
There will definitely be some new stuff. We take the obstacle innovation side of things very seriously, it’s at the core of what we do. If we’re not coming up with new obstacles for you guys to try out, you’re not going to keep coming back time after time. I can’t talk right now about exactly what there will be, we’re still testing things out. There are a few obstacles we’ve tried at the US events and also at World’s Toughest. We’re working on which combination of those we’re going to start using at next year’s events. There will still be some of the old favorites. You’re not going to see the back of Everest or Electroshock yet.
Leap of faith looked crazy at World’s Toughest, I’ve never seen anything like that before.
Yes, that was great. I was really pleased to try that out. That and Hanging Tough, which I’ve never tried before either.
I’d love to see Hanging Tough at a UK event. As much as I’m sure I’d struggle with it! Just from loving Gladiators as a kid I want to give it a go.
Exactly. When you look at monkey bars where things don’t even move, it’s hard enough. But getting the coordination to swing from one to the next one I found very difficult.
On the subject of Electroshock Therapy. That’s something that divides our community. Some love it and the unpleasant test that it presents you with. Others hate the fact that it doesn’t test you physically, it’s gimmicky and it’s dangerous. The discussion is also cropping up in the press at the moment following a recent report in the States. A lot of event organisers are now making a point of saying that they will never include electric shocks. Where do you guys stand on it?
I think we’re pretty clear on where we stand. I think it’s an interesting obstacle. I think the point about it not challenging you physically is true. It’s not a physical test, it’s a mental test. We’re all about stretching you in different directions. Obstacle racing for us isn’t just about the physical, it’s about overcoming all of those fears as well. We make it absolutely as safe as we can do and we’d always advise if anyone has any metal in their body or any medical conditions that they shouldn’t take on those kinds of obstacles.
I think this is what a great obstacle will do, it will divide the audience. Some people come away from it saying that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be, others say that they don’t want to do it again in their life. If we made it all too easy it wouldn’t be as fun.
So is there anything else exciting coming up in 2014?
We’re really looking forward to it, I think it’s just going to get even better. We’ve got our new “London West” event, which is our first of the year. It’s a great venue and is probably going to be one of our biggest events. We’ll be trying out some new obstacles there so it’ll be exciting to see how that goes. We’re also going to have camping at as many of our events as we can this year and we are looking at having an extended after-party on the Saturday evening. So people can hang out until 10 or 11pm, having a few more beers with their fellow Mudders. We tested that out in Berlin earlier in the year and it was a great success. It had a real apre-ski style feel to it.
We’ve also got our first Irish event over in Dublin. That’s another really great and iconic venue in Punchestown. I’m hoping some of the people who have enjoyed the UK events this year will make it over.
We’ve still got a few more events to open up sales for in the UK. They should all be up and ready by Christmas though.
Are they all at the same venues?
South West we’re yet to confirm. We’re looking at a couple of other options but it’s likely that Scotland and Yorkshire will be in the same venue.
And your season passes cover the whole of Europe, right?
Yes, they’re on sale now and I think they’re great value. To have access to the 14 events we’re looking to have around Europe next year, I think £200’s not a bad price. There are going to be some exciting events in Germany. Some of the venues we’re looking at there are fantastic.
Thanks very much for your time John, is there anything else you’d like to add?
We just want to say a huge thankyou to everyone that came along to a Tough Mudder this year. We really appreciate it. The community is growing and it’s an exciting sport that we’re really proud to be involved in.
To find out more about Tough Mudder and their upcoming events visit: toughmudder.co.uk