Dean runs Tough Mudder LLC, the biggest player in what may be the fastest-growing participatory sport in American history: obstacle-course racing—where participants climb walls, crawl through mud, jump through fire, endure electrical shocks and more. Since Dean co-founded Tough Mudder almost four years ago, his tactics have provoked litigation from at least one rival, while prompting Harvard University to place him on alumni probation.
Dean, however, attributes his rivals’ animosity to Tough Mudder’s growing dominance of a sport that others invented. From 20,000 participants its debut year, in 2010, Tough Mudder logged nearly 700,000 this year. “If you are the No. 2, it makes sense to go after No. 1,” said Dean, who drafted the outline for Tough Mudder as an academic project at Harvard Business School.
Even by the standards of endurance athletics—a category encompassing fast-growing triathlon, distance running and cyclocross—the obstacle-course explosion is extraordinary. Four years ago, the sport barely existed. Now, about 250 companies operate one or more obstacle-course events. “The U.S. market is saturated and there is an arms race to spread around the world, in Australia, Germany and England,” said Scott Keneally, a California filmmaker who is making a documentary about obstacle-course events.
The intensity of the competition is also extraordinary, thanks in large part to the aggressiveness of Dean. After launching Tough Mudder, he was sued by a British obstacle-course operator whose business Dean had studied. The case was settled out of court. Dean said Tough Mudder did nothing wrong. An investigation of the charges by Harvard concluded that Dean, while breaking no laws, had violated Harvard’s standards of integrity, resulting in a five-year alumni probation that ends in June.
Dean, a U.K. native, called the probation “a little wrap over Will’s knuckles” that was “all about the preservation of Harvard’s reputation.”
Tough Mudder also taunted competitors such as Warrior Dash, a fast-growing 5-kilometer obstacle race. At the 5-kilometer point on Tough Mudder courses—which tend to run about 12 miles—signs sprung up saying “Warrior Dash Finish,” while bragging that the Mudder course had barely begun.
Especially heated has been the battle between Dean and De Sena, who started the Spartan Race a year before Tough Mudder began. De Sena looked up at one Spartan race to see a plane banner advertising Tough Mudder. Visitors to Spartan’s Facebook page also began receiving invitations to try Tough Mudder. Dean makes no apology for such tactics. “That’s just using a tool out there,” he said. “All that is proof of is me being sensible.”
But Tough Mudder has hardly slowed Spartan, which De Sena said clocked more than a half million finishers this year and expects to nearly double that number next year. Dean said Tough Mudder has been profitable from its inception; De Sena said all Spartan proceeds are channeled into growth.
For all of Dean’s competitiveness, Tough Mudder isn’t competitive: Its participants aren’t timed and are free to bypass obstacles they don’t want to negotiate. Dean is emphatic that Tough Mudder isn’t a race and isn’t about competition. It is about camaraderie, and in fact some obstacles require teamwork.
In fact, despite Tough Mudder’s motto—”Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet”—Dean conceded that Tough Mudder isn’t necessarily as tough as the Spartan Race. But he says getting fit should be fun instead of endlessly painful.
De Sena, a veteran Ironman triathlete, countered that athletes want to be timed, that Tough Mudder dispenses with timing only to save money and that the Tough Mudder marketing focus on the beer party afterward is wrongheaded. “It’s not a sustainable model,” he said.
In fact, De Sena said that in recent weeks, Spartan—in which Raptor Group Holdings has bought a minority interest—has received “indirect” inquiries about the possibility of acquiring Tough Mudder. That idea, De Sena said, “doesn’t really make sense for us.”
Dean responded that the company, founded with his friend, Guy Livingstone, “has not spoken to (Spartan) about anything approaching an acquisition.”