Forging a bond in mud, guts

Rugged obstacle course races find their niche among those bored by marathons

Joshua David Stein / New York Times News Service /

Published Dec 19, 2012 at 04:00AM

By Monday morning, Michael Cugini would be back at his desk at a major Wall Street firm, another high-powered cog in the engine of finance. There would be men on his left, men on his right, all yelling into their phones and scanning the stock ticker.

But Cugini bore unseen scars beneath his crisp custom suit. Twenty-four hours earlier, Cugini (nickname Cujo) was shirtless, face down, crawling through a 40-foot-long pit of cold mud, while being electrocuted by low-hanging wires. He also scaled a 15-foot-high wall, ran 12 miles and underwent something called an Arctic Enema, in which he jumped into a Dumpster filled with ice water, dyed neon green, and swam under concertina wire.

Two-and-a-half hours after he began, Cugini crossed the finish line, bloody but unbowed. He had a Dos Equis to celebrate.

“There's always a lot of moaning on Monday morning,” said Cugini, 31, a small man with a bald head and a strong grip. “And I just think, 'Come on, what did you do this weekend?'”

Cugini had company. About 25,700 others participated that October weekend in an ordeal in Englishtown, N.J., known as Tough Mudder, an extreme obstacle course that is becoming the macho sport of choice for Type A men (and some women) who find marathons too easy and triathlons meh.

Started in 2010 by a Harvard Business School graduate, Tough Mudder has exploded onto the fitness scene, with 35 races this year in four countries and 660,000 participants to date. Next year, 55 events are scheduled for five countries. Along with other quasi-military obstacle courses like the Spartan Race and Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder is the new gantlet for body-conscious Gen Xers.

Though the muddy details vary, each challenge consists of a 3- to 12-mile course spiked with cheekily named obstacles like Ball Shrinker.

Rewards vary. There is neither a trophy nor a purse for Tough Mudder, only an orange headband. Spartan Race, on the other hand, gave away $500,000 in purse money this year. Beer is normally included with entrance fees, which range from $80 to $200.

The common motivator could be called the Walter Mitty weekend-warrior complex. While the races draw a fair share of endurance athletes and ex-military, many of the muddiest, most avid, most agro participants hail from Wall Street.

“Goldman brings a massive team,” said Will Dean, the 31-year-old founder of Tough Mudder. “So does Morgan Stanley.”

That they do makes sense since Dean tailored his sport for cubicle-bound masses yearning to breathe free. “When we started Tough Mudder, we identified a few key demographics,” he said. “One of them was the white-collar urban professional.”

Time to 'get awesome'

From a distance, the Tough Mudder course at the Old Bridge Township Raceway Park looked more like a medieval battlefield than a 400-acre racetrack. Beefy figures, silhouetted against a frigid slate gray sky, faltered up steep hills. In the gravel parking lot, teams of men prepared for battle.

The bonding intensified at the start line. From 8 a.m. onward, teams gathered in a gated corral on the racetrack, which was still sticky from burned tires, stamping their feet in the cold and jumping up and down in anticipation. Many wore matching T-shirts with team names like Mudlife Crisis and the STDS (short for “Super Tough Dudes”). One shirt read, “I don't get drunk, I get awesome.” The fittest tended to go shirtless.

With American flags fluttering overhead, a wiry announcer in a plaid cap and tight blue T-shirt lifted the mic. “Everybody take a knee,” he yelled, and everyone knelt. “We're going to test your fitness. Oo-rah!”

“Oo-rah!” the crowd replied, using the traditional greeting of the Marine Corps.

As the last note of “The Star-Spangled Banner” sounded, a monster truck roared to life and the Tough Mudders chased after it, like a herd of lemmings clad in Under Armour.

Among them was Carlo Ferolino, 27, an accountant with the Bank of New York Mellon in the financial district who had been training with his team, the Mudsketeers, since February. “Eight months!” he shouted, his shirt caked in dirt as he prepared to tackle a mile of muddy troughs. “It's come to this: four hours of hell.”

His teammates shouted, “Let's do this!” as they plunged back into the muck, like an armada of aggressive ducklings.

A few miles ahead, Brian Polakowski, 36, a vice president of BlackRock, the giant money manager in Midtown Manhattan, had collapsed into a muddy pit after being electrocuted in the Electric Eel challenge. As he crawled from exhaustion, a stranger grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to his feet, saying, “You did it, man, you did it.” Polakowski stumbled on.

Bryan Garlick, 30, a rugged analyst at Merrill Lynch in New York, fared better. He emerged from a sewerlike pipe exuberant. “Having competed in both, triathlons are boring and road races are even more boring,” he said. “Tough Mudder is the only chance for a guy like me to feel like King Leonidas.”

Find your inner Spartan

That is no accident, said Robert Heasley, a sociology professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the president of the American Men's Studies Association. “Obstacle courses like these are the physical representation of masculinity, which is lacking for people like lawyers, doctors, bankers and others in softer careers,” he said. “By associating themselves with the military and military training, these men are becoming masculine by association.”

To paraphrase the manly poet Hamlin Garland, they let urban professionals be savage again.

The founders of these tough-guy races are intimately familiar with that primal urge. Dean, a former intern at Bain Capital, developed the business plan for Tough Mudder as part of a competition at Harvard.

“Finance people are in a weird juxtaposition,” Dean said. “They may make 100 times more than their fathers, but their hands are soft. We designed Tough Mudder to fill that void.”

(As noted in a recent article in Outside magazine, Dean borrowed heavily from an English challenge called Tough Guy. A Harvard investigation cleared Dean of wrongdoing, though it noted that he “violated the Harvard Business School Community Values of honesty on several occasions.”)

“I was surrounded by supercompetitive alpha males at Harvard,” Dean said. “I thought if I could bring that to fitness, I'd be successful.”

His instincts proved correct. From just $20,000 in seed money and two employees (himself and a lawyer, Guy Livingstone, currently the company's president), Tough Mudder is projected to take in $70 million this year, according to figures provided by the company.

Joe Desena, the founder of the Spartan Race (perhaps Tough Mudder's fiercest rival), also comes from the hypercompetitive world of finance. An avid competitor who once ran two 100-mile ultramarathons and an Ironman Triathlon in one week, he is the managing director for ICAP, a brokerage in New York.

His 24-hour Dantean course — which involves chopping wood for two hours, carrying rocks for five hours, cutting a bushel of onions and memorizing the first 10 presidents of the United States — was partly inspired by the film “300,” which chronicled the Spartan stand at Thermopylae.

Originally called the Spartan Death Race, it was, in Desena's words, “meant to break people.” The tagline was “You May Die” — the website, you maydie.com.

To reach a broader audience, Desena also started the less brutal Spartan Races, in which Mount Killington takes the place of Mount Purgatory. The series has three levels of brutality: the Spartan Sprint, the Super Spartan and the Spartan Beast. “When I was in finance, everyone smoked cigars and had extravagant dinners,” he said. “But now, health and fitness are the new social status symbols.”

Male bonding, needless to say, figures prominently. Like Iron John before it, these obstacle challenges are designed to forge camaraderie.

The bonhomie is reinforced by challenges like the Everest and Berlin Walls, which require the men to work together and, in some cases, stand on one another's shoulders. There are many one-arm bro-hugs, and even some full embraces.

That the three big races appropriate the argot and signifiers of the military is no coincidence. The logo of the Spartan Race consists of a Corinthian helmet. The logo of the Warrior Dash is a Viking horned helmet.

“A part of me always wanted to join the Army, but I never did,” said Evan Lotzof, 31, a senior accountant at Deloitte from Astoria, Queens, who ran Tough Mudder in October. “Tough Mudder gives me a sense of band of brothers.” The warlike glory was evident.

As Cugini crossed the finish line, he was greeted by pretty volunteers who slipped an orange headband over his head and a banana in his hand. A cover band played the White Stripes, and in the dying light, men did pullups and drank beer.

The next day, the competitors would be sitting at rival firms, but Cugini said the sense of camaraderie and confidence of Tough Mudder made these banking brethren his brothers for life.

Every day they are handed a mess, he said. “It's not that different than slogging through mud.”