Tough Mudder: a modern-day cheese rolling competition

One tough mudder. The 621st Contingency Response Wing

Tough Mudder is an endurance foot race over 12 miles that belongs to a class of obstacle courses known as MOB, or mud, obstacles and beer, that have seen an explosion in popularity since 2010. They include Warrior Dash, a three-mile race over 12 obstacles to Tough Guy, an eight-mile cross country run followed by an obstacle course, of which the boast is that only a third of people finish.

What makes these professionally organised events really “tough”, is the series of race obstacles that competitors face. The aptly named “Mudder” course includes barriers and challenges akin to a Royal Marines assault course (the courses claim to be designed by special forces), with no shortage of barbed wire, flames, water tunnels and scramble nets. Tough Mudder promises a unique experience in the form of the “Electroshock Therapy”, an electrified obstacle that delivers “10,000 volts” from dangling live wires as participants sprint through.

Rather you than me.

But rather than a regiment of HRH’s finest navigating their way skilfully across the hazard-filled course, the competitors are drawn from the broadest demography you are likely to see at a sporting event. From highly-trained enduro junkies to sedentary charity fundraisers, your average Tough Mudder competitor would be hard to pick out on the local high street. And there’s no shortage of them – Tough Mudder alone boasts more than 700,000 participants in 35 locations worldwide, from 50,000 people and three locations in its first year.

Pain and injury

It’s unsurprising then that there may be a few injuries. A recent US study, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, detailed the severity of some of the injuries sustained during the Tough Mudder that resulted in admissions to hospital. These ranged from electric shocks to concussion and enlarged heart muscle. One obstacle called “Walk the Plank”, a 5m-high jump into cold, muddy water, led to the first death linked to the event. By comparison, studies suggest marathons have a death rate (still low) of around one per 100,000.

So what makes people take part in such an event that could inflict such pain? The simple answer is fun.

Geronimooooo! The 621st Contingency Response Wing

Most who enter do it for the intrinsic enjoyment gained from the thrills and spills of a unique experience. Most aren’t racing to win, many do it with friends or for charity, and for the majority the pace is pedestrian as “mudders” wait for their turn on the next daring obstacle.

Extreme events such as Tough Mudder typically command entry fees around £100. The events organisers provide some basic advice on “training” – though this doesn’t involve giving yourself a daily 10,000 volts – for the event and highlight the sort of hazards that competitors will encounter. However, as Marna Greenberg and other authors of the event injuries study said, can you really prepare for such an activity?

A bit like cheese rolling

These events rely on the appetite we have to do something crazy, to escape once in a while. In that sense, they aren’t too different to the Cheese Rolling, Bull Running, Tar Barrel Burning, a race through Ottery St Mary in Devon, carrying flaming barrels of tar, and Beer & Straw Bale racing – just a modern-day equivalent notched up a few volts.

Chasing a cheese - any excuse to roll down a hill. Brizzle Born and Bred.

I once took part in the Oxenhope Straw Bale Race in Yorkshire. I practiced running, beer drinking – most fastidiously – and lugging a heavy load or two, but what I hadn’t prepared for was the Fuzzy-Felt elf costume I had to wear which left me dehydrated and with a terrible rash by the finish. I’m sure more serious injuries do occur, being skewered by an irritated bull in Pamplona must be pretty unpleasant.

But I’m not sure if being fitter necessarily helps either. The more protected we feel by rules, equipment or fitness, the more likely it is that we take more risks, run faster, jump from higher points and land on more precarious sites. We often increase the likelihood of injury by misplaced feelings of security, a phenomenon know as risk homeostasis. The cases in the Greenberg study were generally cited as previously healthy individuals, and it’s quite often that injury befalls the fit and the fast, not the group at the back in fancy dress waiting their turn to laugh their way over a scramble net.

Maybe Greenberg is right, that you can’t prepare for this sort of thing. But does that mean we shouldn’t do it? Or not allow it?

In recent years, the Cheese Rolling races at Coopers’ Hill in Gloucester – where competitors chased an 8lb Double Gloucester cheese down a 1:2 steep hill this year – have been blighted by health and safety concerns for participants and spectators. Also this year, Diana Smart, the traditional supplier of the cheese, withdrew supply after local police suggested she could be liable for injury claims from people who chased the cheese but ended up with a fracture or two.

A fuzzy line

There’s a fuzzy line between personal responsibility and duty of care in any hazardous sport, but although there are similarities between more contemporary events and traditional madcap races I suppose the difference may lie in the motives or origins of the event.

Pagan traditions and the heritage of celebrating May Day or Midsomer are often the backdrop to many an “extreme” sport and have been part of the local village culture for hundreds of years.

Mapole dancing in Bournville. Pete Ashton

By contrast, the motivations behind their contemporary counterparts of mudder or warrior events are for commercial gain – Tough Mudder was the brainchild of Will Dean, who came up with the idea at Harvard Business School – and they may have more funds to provide necessary safeguards or legal insurance.

I’m not a health and safety expert, and the line between duty of care ends and personal responsibility is for another time. But what I do know is that it would be a shame if more traditional activities were to disappear altogether.

And as we face more rules and regulations, we still need to experience some risk in our lives – to push ourselves, learn from the experience and have fun. Children too could have more, according to some researchers. Though for most adults, this probably doesn’t involve going in for Tough Mudder.