There's a moment at every Tough Mudder event when, after slogging through 10-plus miles of ice, fire, mud and barbed wire, participants have to face "Electroshock Therapy." It's the brand's signature obstacle: a 25-yard dash through a curtain of live electric wires packing a 10,000-volt punch. It's the only thing standing between you and the free beer at the finish line, and from experience, I can attest it's every bit as awful as it sounds. It's like being whipped with a wet, wasp-tipped towel and has brought countless runners screaming to their knees. The sheer audacity of this obstacle – and the stories and profile pics that follow – are key ingredients of the Brooklyn-based start-up's runaway success. And the origin of Electroshock Therapy is one of the many tales in a new book by founder and CEO Will Dean.
Part business story, part memoir, It Takes a Tribe: Building the Tough Mudder Movement, promises to share the inside scoop behind "Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet." As an obstacle course racing (OCR) fanatic who has run a dozen Tough Mudders – and twice earned patches for running 50 miles at the World's Toughest Mudder, the brand's 24-hour sufferfest – I was excited to read Dean's inside account. But as an investigative journalist who had written a cover story about the company's scandalous origins, and later, wrote and directed a feature documentary about OCR, titled Rise of the Sufferfests, I found myself becoming increasingly dismayed by the book's seeming revisionist history, and Dean's efforts to undermine the legacy of the mad genius behind this phenomenon.
The real OCR origin story goes something like this: For the past 30 years, a deeply peculiar, grizzled British Army vet named Billy Wilson (a.k.a. "Mr. Mouse") has staged a brutal winter obstacle race on his horse farm in the Midlands of England. His event, called Tough Guy, started small – just 20 or so locals – but as he added increasingly sadistic challenges to the eight-mile course – and introduced a "Death Warrant" that stated that, if you die, it's your "own bloody fault for coming" – word spread. By the late Nineties, roughly 5,000 runners from 40 countries were making the annual pilgrimage to his proving grounds, facing hypothermia and a royal flush of phobias, all for the chance to call themselves Tough Guys.
This was before social media, and Mr. Mouse made do with a bizarre quarterly newsletter with a fittingly odd name, the Jelly Leg News. It offered a deeper glimpse into the man's otherworldly psyche, featuring personal vignettes, tributes to famous battles, profiles of ponies and puppies in need, and announcements about new obstacles. In the late Nineties, when Mr. Mouse had the groundbreaking idea to add electricity, he suggested runners train for this new obstacle by finding a field surrounded by cattle fencing and, "without pondering, seize the electric wire with both hands."
With international press and exposure on networks like MTV and ESPN came the entrepreneurs, of course. Many men knocked on his door. Most notably, Will Dean. As I reported in a cover story for Outside, while at Harvard Business School in the summer of 2008, Dean reached out in hopes of conducting a field study on "the feasibility and logistics of expanding Tough Guy in the U.S.," After signing an NDA, and meticulously studying the business, Dean quietly started Tough Mudder instead, using photos and video from Tough Guy to promote the first Mudder.
Upon learning this, Mr. Mouse issued a public death threat that would've made Vito Corleone crack a smile: "I love horses too much to cut their heads off to impress conmen in their bedclothes. I'd much rather chainsaw down the center of the bed and draw human blood." He contacted Harvard and a lawyer. The HBS Conduct Review Board found Dean guilty of repeatedly lying and misrepresenting his intentions, and placed him on alumni probation for five years. The lawsuit cost Dean $725,000.
But of course, that didn't stop him.
One thing Dean noted in an email to a fellow HBS student was that Mr. Mouse didn't seem to have "any commercial awareness," and didn't share the same profit motives. He was right, Mr. Mouse has never been motivated by material gain. His "purpose," he believes, is in scaring you, teaching you, giving you a taste of the horrors of war so that you appreciate this brief and precious life. Tough Guy is carpe diem, gone hardcore. And while his mission is charitable, his marketing is as rough as the course.
Tough Guy is not slickly packaged, almost defiantly so. The website is a feat of befuddlement, a labyrinth of riddles best described as "Mouseisms." The branding is all over the map. One year it’s billed as "The Safest Most Dangerous Event in the World,” the next "The Original Survival Ordeal in Arctic Conditions." Tough Guy flies in the face of capitalism, and this is part of its charm. You never get the sense they're trying to sell you anything. In a corporate culture driven by boardrooms and bottom lines, it's refreshingly (if not unwittingly) non-commercial.
So perhaps it's no big surprise that when the social media revolution happened, Tough Guy was left in the dust. Given the stratospheric success of Tough Mudder, it's easy to lose sight of Mr. Mouse's seat at the table. But make no mistake, he's the Godfather of OCR, the tragic hero of an almost half-billion dollar industry. Though few know his name, the man's fingerprints are all over our newsfeed, and the great shame of It Takes a Tribe, is Will Dean's calculated attempt to erase his legacy.
To be fair, Mr. Mouse isn't completely absent in Tribe. Dean devotes a single chapter to the Tough Guy controversy, during which he severely downplays the extent of his studies, dismissing them as "the briefest of histories with Mr. Mouse." He also claims that in the wake of the Enron scandal, Harvard was "worried for its reputation" and "scapegoated [him] for some trivial transgression." The cherry on top is that he writes that he doubts Tough Mudder would ever have been half as successful if he wasn't sued, because, as he states: "Nothing focuses your mind on what you have than the imminent prospect of losing it all, particularly if that threat is the result of an injustice."
The most appalling part for me, however, came in a later chapter about innovation, when Dean reveals the story behind Mudder's signature torment, "Electroshock Therapy." As he explains, inspiration struck on a Sunday morning in the Brooklyn apartment he shared with his future wife: "Katie recalls how, suddenly, my face lit up as if in a eureka moment, and I turned to her. What is it? she wondered as I sat there grinning. I adopted my best Bond villain voice. 'I'm going to electrocute thousands of people.'"
Of course, there's a difference between dreaming up an idea, and turning it into a reality.
"As we had learned with other obstacles, there was no playbook for how to create these kinds of challenges."
The team decided to set up a prototype to test among the staff.
"But how in the first place to construct such a thing? Should we call an electrician from the Yellow Pages?"
Instead, he turned to their course designer, who grew up on a farm in Washington State.
"When we started to talk about electricity, Nolan chipped in with his experience of the electric fences that were used to corral horses and cattle. He had been shocked many times by these fences as a kid, and though he remembered those shocks quite clearly, he had obviously survived them. That seemed like as good a starting point as any."
Reading this section shocked me as much as any electric wire. Of course, Dean is omitting the very obvious "starting point," the actual "playbook for how to create these kinds of challenges." He wants the reader to believe that the idea for Electroshock Therapy came during a "eureka moment" in Brooklyn, in 2010, when in fact, Mr. Mouse started shocking runners a decade earlier in an obstacle called "The Tiger." Did Dean know about it? You bet he did.
I tried to give Dean the benefit of the doubt here, carefully rereading the source material that formed the backbone of my exposé in the off-chance that he just missed the obstacle on the course, to no avail. As he noted in one of his Harvard papers, "The Tiger can be described just as 'you have to run through electric wiring dangling down like tentacles' – bizarrely impressive to most and quick to explain."
No playbook? To be clear, I understand that Tough Mudder is no Enron, and Will Dean is no Jeffrey Skilling. He's just a slick, proto-capitalist who saw a genius idea, polished it up, sold it and seized glory. Hey, it's the American way, right? This is just what capitalism does. And to be honest, a part of me is thrilled he did it.
I love Tough Mudder: the community, camaraderie, feeling of accomplishment, all of it. And I'm a huge fan of their fun, fabulous and extraordinary obstacles. They may have started as a copycat event, but after years of R&D, they've elevated the concept and unleashed the most exciting, intimidating and innovative obstacles in the industry.
Also, and more importantly, I'm totally sold on the ability of OCR – be it Mudder, Spartan Race, Tough Guy and the rest – to enrich and empower participants. And this, for me, is one of the strengths of Tribe. At the end of each chapter, Dean shines a bright light on some of the people who embody and exemplify the Tough Mudder spirit. There's the stories of grit, solidarity, courage, of people overcoming incredible odds to earn their orange headband, or in the case of Jim "Goat Tough" Campbell, his 100th headband. These inspiring interludes underscore what I love about this movement, and why I'm so drawn to this tribe. So yeah, a big part of me is happy Will Dean was able to market mud to the masses. I don't want this transformative experience to live solely on a farm in the Midlands. I want the message to spread far and wide. And the simple fact is Mr. Mouse just didn't have the capacity to pull it off. He's not a businessman. He's a showman, a philosopher, a provocateur, driven by an authentic desire to leave the world better off than when he found it.
This is not to say Mr. Mouse is a perfect man. Mr. Mouse is mercurial, moody, prone to lavish rants against greed and materialism. He's deeply suspicious of people, including me. He has frequently accused me of being a spy or agent of "Mudder Dirty Tricks Dean." And last summer, in the run up to the release of my film, he threatened to block it. He was angry that the movie didn't dive deep into the scandal. He was incensed that I showed his nemesis in a positive light. He claimed breach of contract and demanded I pull all footage of him and Tough Guy out of the movie. I was constantly on the lookout for the Cease and Desist letters he promised were coming. And all along, I had no idea if it was a test or not. Mr. Mouse had a habit of pushing people away to see who had the guts to stick around. Even in the best of times, our interactions always had a startling and disorienting quality – a sort of funhouse friction that often left me wondering, IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING? – and this was definitely not the best of times. It was such a nightmare that on many occasions I found myself empathizing with Dean. Mr. Mouse is not someone an ambitious MBA would ever consider partnering with.
And yet, with all that said, I just can't give Dean, or his perfidious book, a pass – ever.
For starters, I've heard from many reliable sources that Mr. Mouse has been a different person in the years since Will Dean visited his doorstep. He's gone from a man confident in his mission and purpose, to one who is repulsed by the commodification of his purist vision, unable to trust anyone. And yet, with his memoir, Will Dean isn't just being Milli Vanilli, he wants us to believe he's Paul McCartney.
And this is the real shame here, the cautionary tale behind artistic genius in general: if some unscrupulous business school brat can nick your life’s work, squeeze the soul out of it, and simply write you out of the story, what's the point?
Dean may be a clever capitalist and a marketing genius – and he might even believe his own revisionist tale – but to my eyes, It Takes a Tribe is the work of a false prophet trying to cash in on the legacy of the tribal elder. Rather than celebrate, or even acknowledge Mr. Mouse's obvious, decades-long contributions to the movement, Dean takes the opportunity to twist the knife in the back of the very man whose shoulders he's standing on.
And the unfortunate effect is that everyone is impoverished because of this apocryphal tale. Not only is history robbed of a once-in-a-wormhole renegade, but so is the next generation of kids looking for that most rare and endangered of individuals in the modern era: the real deal. Will Dean is a charming, slick, likable, well-spoken, entitled Harvard MBA, made for sound bites and social media. Mr. Mouse is none of those things. This is what makes him so damn miraculous.
I'm sad to report that, after 30 years, Mr. Mouse, now 80, has cancelled his legendary event. But, in true Mr. Mouse fashion, he's now promoting a new event called War Without Weapons to End Wars 1918-2018. According to the website, "Future Events will be used to Fundraise for the opening of Tough Guy Disabled Smiling Parlour." Whatever the hell that is, it is aimed to "get Kids Safely Off Streets and Employ Kids, Disabled, Unfortunates and Ex-Military Staff."
The worst part? Tough Mudder's win didn't have to come at Tough Guy's loss. Will Dean could have done the gentlemanly thing here, but he didn't. It's not that he cut several corners on the way to the top, it's that he cut the throat of the maverick who lit the way. And if this book becomes truth, this global tribe of muddy masochists will ultimately lose touch with the magic, madness and most importantly, authenticity from which it was born.