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One Sunday morning, Will Dean informed his girlfriend Katie: “I am going to electrocute thousands of people.” Unfazed, she continued reading her newspaper. But the Sheffield-born founder of Tough Mudder – the now-globally successful obstacle course series which comes to Gloucestershire’s Badminton Estate this weekend – was devilishly serious. “I started calling engineering companies, saying: ‘Hello, we’re Tough Mudder, we want to shock people with electricity,’” explains Dean, 36, who launched his first “weekend obstacle course for adults” in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in May 2010, after studying a MBA at Harvard Business School. “You’d get a pause and then the line would go dead. People thought they were being pranked.” In the Tough Mudder innovations lab, human guinea pigs spend their mornings running through hay bales and dipping their extremities in buckets of ice The obstacle called Electroshock Therapy, which involves running through wires fizzing with 10,000 volts (triple the sting of your average electric fence), is now the event’s signature challenge. “As CEO, I have a unique role in all this because I am also the majority shareholder. People said: “Will, we can’t do this.” I was saying: “Yes, we can. We can have a board meeting and get it approved in two seconds. Look, it just happened…’” Dean spent five years working as a UK counter-terrorism officer in the Middle East and Afghanistan until, stifled by bureaucracy, he sought entrepreneurial fulfilment. His Harvard tutors called his business plan “optimistic”. At the inaugural edition, he prayed for 500 customers and got 4,500. There are now 130 annual Tough Mudder events in 11 countries with 3 million entrants worldwide so far. This weekend’s clientele have paid up to £139 to take on a 10- to 12-mile course littered with tunnels, nets, walls, fire, ice and mud. The company’s annual revenues now exceed $100m. Mud Run Electroshock Wire Caught on Neck 00:27 Obstacles are conjured up at an “Innovation Lab” in Pennsylvania where human guinea pigs spend their mornings running through hay bales and dipping their extremities in buckets of ice. Cry Baby, an obstacle which requires people to crawl through eye-watering smoke, was tested by spraying staff with homemade tear gas. Spider Box (a pit full of tarantulas) and Acid Rain (a container of floating acid bubbles) didn’t make the cut. “The Innovation Lab is as crazy as it sounds,” says Dean. “I joke that you will never get a Nobel Prize unless you test it on yourself. We start by saying: let’s think of the unthinkable. We finish by saying: now we have to make this work in Dubai, Germany and Mexico and get several thousand people of all shapes and sizes through in one hour. It is a strange remit.” Splashdown: a Tough Mudder comptetitor comes to grief Credit: Ben Birchall /PA Obstacle races have become wildly popular, with 5 million people in 40 countries taking part in events each year. Tough Mudder attracts a mix of couples, families, friends, work colleagues, students and executives. “The mud is a leveller,” says Dean. But why pay money to endure manufactured suffering? Dean believes the trend may be in part a reaction to our risk-averse society, with desk-bound workers seeking raw experiences to share on social media and in pub chats. But he insists the benefits are real. “I believe in challenging oneself to take on new things and I believe that is the secret to developing confidence. In a funny way, running through electric wires gives people the confidence to take on other challenges and changes in their life.” Tough Mudder's latest obstacles 01:05 He says Tough Mudder’s fun values have helped them outsmart rivals like Spartan Race, launched by Joe De Sena, a former Wall Street trader, in 2007. Miss an obstacle at Spartan Race and you have to do 30 burpees. At ToughMudder, nobody cares. Spartan Race times and ranks all contestants (accountability is the real secret to better health, insists De Sena), but Dean refuses, haunted by a 2008 triathlon when time-conscious athletes wouldn’t stop to help him unjam the zip of his wetsuit. “My belief came from me saying: I would do this. My friends would do this. I genuinely believe there is a market for a race that is not a race.” There are now 130 annual Tough Mudder events in 11 countries, with 3 million entrants worldwide so far Credit: Andrew Crowley Dean now lives in New York with his lawyer wife Katie and their one-year-old daughter, Isobel. He still tackles the courses himself and joins in “Breakfast Club” workouts at the company’s Brooklyn HQ. His events deliberately inspire this same sense of community – what he calls his “tribe”. He hates seeing runners plodding side-by-side on gym treadmills and never speaking. His event forces you to seek help from strangers to scale walls and nets. “Tough Mudder gives you a sense of personal accomplishment, a sense of a team and being a part of something bigger than yourself, and hopefully a sense of fun.” He is not surprised it has proven popular in the UK. “More than any other culture, we believe in not taking ourselves too seriously. In our school sports, we have second and third teams. No American would play in that. It would be an embarrassment. You do get differences around the world. Germans ask six times more customer service questions. Australians sign up last-minute. But it’s a bit like kids and ice cream – it’s universal in its appeal.” Tough Mudder - are you tough enough? Next month, Dean is publishing a new business book, It Takes a Tribe, which analyses the social psychology, corporate theory and personal stories behind his success. It also documents the fierce battles that shaped the company. Dean and De Sena used to fly provocative advertising banners over each other’s events. De Sena once declared in an interview: “There’s not a person on this planet I despise more than Will Dean.” They have since bonded over lunch, but the rivalry bubbles away. “I have a lot of respect for Joe De Sena, as much as I tease him. I have said before when asked if we have anything in common: yes, we both wake up every morning and the first thing we think about is Tough Mudder. But I do think the rival philosophy has meant we ended up creating two companies which superficially may seem similar, but are very different.” “Tough Mudder gives you a sense of personal accomplishment, a sense of a team and being a part of something bigger than yourself," says founder Will Dean Credit: Andrew Crowley More troubling was the multimillion dollar lawsuit Dean faced in 2010. Billy Wilson, a former soldier who launched Tough Guy, an obstacle course in Wolverhampton in 1987, had granted Dean access to his company information for his Harvard studies and then accused him of stealing his idea. Dean countersued for defamation. After a vitriolic battle, the pair agreed a confidential settlement in 2011, with Dean reportedly paying $725,000. “There is only so much I can say, but one thing I can say is that we had to literally quadruple our pace. We weren’t just fighting for the survival of the company. Suddenly everything was on the line: personal bankruptcy, reputation. It was incredibly stressful. But it is part of the narrative now. I don’t think we would be as ambitious were it not for that experience.” The Four Phases | Chris Hall's Tough Mudder Workout Prep Aware of the perennial need to innovate, Dean has in recent years added events like Mini-Mudder (for kids) and World’s Toughest Mudder (a 24-hour elite event). He has signed television deals with CBS and Sky Sports, and he is now launching Tough Mudder boot camps around the UK, offering high-intensity, 45-minute group workouts. “There are a few things in society right now which are worrying,” he explains. “Obesity and diabetes rates are up, loneliness is up, people spend more time on social media and less time with friends. It all comes back to our mission to grow a global tribe. The boot camps are the local community hub and the event is the pilgrimage when the tribe comes together. I don’t pretend we are curing cancer. But I do think in our own small way we are making the world a better place.” For event details, go to toughmudder.co.uk. Jeep has launched a limited edition Tough Mudder Renegade: jeep.co.uk/tough-mudder
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