The War I Wished For

Before the canon fires. Photo by Jonathan Canlas

January 29th marked the close of a chapter in the 30-year story of Tough Guy. Declaring the 2017 race to be the last, Tough Guy begins its trek into an unknown future. Despite being the founding father of a burgeoning billion-dollar market that is the Obstacle Course Race (OCR), the story of this strange race in the West Midlands of England is still largely unknown outside of industry insiders. As other OCR offerings raised more money, capitalized on the growing market and simply seized the opportunity around them, Tough Guy dug in its heels and got lost in the mind, grudges and legal battles of its creator. And while its experience was unrivaled in its purity, difficulty and rememberability, Tough Guy’s fate is the unfortunate harakiri of a legend bowing out with little more than its perceived integrity in tact.

Tough Guy has been such a predominant part of my life over the last eight years. Something about it resonated with me so profoundly that I have not been able to let it go. And leading up to that weekend—and in many of the nights since—I’ve been battling with what that is. Why does the tragic fate of Tough Guy mean so much to me? Why do I feel such a poignant and painfully desperate burden to express myself on the subject of its passing?

It’s not an altogether unusual story: the visionary inventor gets outmaneuvered by the more charismatic or capable imitator. Many of today’s most innovative companies were not the originators of their product offering (Facebook, Google, Apple, Airbnb, Amazon, Spotify — just to name a very few of the world’s most successful copycats). What set them apart was how they saw and acted on potential more effectively than their predecessor: they built better brands, offered better design, grew a stronger community, cracked a smarter business model, or simply fueled the flame of growth more aggressively. These are some of the greatest success stories in modern capitalism and are all companies that I support and champion on the regular. And yet, nothing gets my blood boiling or puts an invisible soap box directly under my two feet, begging me to rain down righteous condemnation, than the mention of another imitator: Tough Mudder.

Tough Mudder famously went from zero-to-$70M in less than two years. It brought a new form of extreme sports to the mainstream US market — and then quickly rode that momentum around the globe. Hailed as a visionary, I knew Tough Mudder’s founder to be a more shrewd and opportunistic businessman than anything else. Perhaps my perception of him was tainted. I was, after all, getting the story from the man he allegedly copied everything from: Billy Wilson, the Father of Mud; better known as Mr. Mouse.

Mr. Mouse adopted the moniker decades ago when he vowed to live simply, as a church mouse, and give his life to the service of others. In addition to creating Tough Guy, Mr. Mouse manages the Farm for Unfortunates — a horse and dog sanctuary nestled into the beautiful countryside on Jenny Walker Lane. In addition to his brood of unwanted animals, he takes in struggling teens and puts them to work taking care of the animals. He believes the hard work instills a sense of pride and accomplishment that may have been missing before. When the farm transforms to the Tough Guy battlefield, the teens man the race as Marshals. Photo by Jonathan Canlas

It is undeniable at this point: Tough Mudder has won the OCR market. It has the name recognition. It has the masses. But, to me, its content is all veneer. Its initial success admittedly stemmed from the paper-thin proliferation of humble-brag posts on Facebook rather than the profoundly substantive experience from which its facade was lifted.

I look at how Tough Mudder represents itself now: their participants are young, attractive and fit; the obstacles look challenging, but more in a Gladiator-meets-Double-Dare sort of way. I have no question it’s a good time. But, at the grave risk of ignorance, I do question it’s worth.

Tough Mudder capitalized on the now-tiring pretense of social media. As our society grows increasingly wary of overly-manicured brands, too-perfect influencers, and simple solutions to the complexity of life’s problems, how will a company like Tough Mudder hold up? To me, the answer is they won’t (I’m not alone). I despise the inauthenticity of all that they do. And I outright deny it’s vaunted position atop the industry.

For years, the pinnacle of my creative ambition was to turn the table: establish the original, the authentic Tough Guy as the Mecca of the OCR industry and to reaffirm Mr. Mouse as its prophet. I wanted to compel the masses to make their own pilgrimage to farm outside of Wolverhampton the way that we had… to sleep in the Founding Father’s freezing farm; to soak in legends of past runs in dirty pubs and makeshift congregations around mid-winter fires; to willingly submit themselves to cold and misery, fear and injury; to learn the boundaries of their possibilities.

Joseph LeBaron, Micah Anderson and myself, walking the course the day before the race in 2014. Photo by Jonathan Canlas

The “we” mentioned above is myself and two of my closest friends: Micah Anderson and Joseph LeBaron. We each run our own creative studios (design, music, film, respectively) but we’re always searching for those meaty, meaningful projects to collaborate on together. Countless nights we’ve been on Google Hangout talking, brainstorming, dreaming… Most of our conversations, at one point or another, end at the familiar destination: we’ve got to do Tough Guy together.

Our younger selves in the days and nights leading up to the race. Joseph’s business partner, our good friend, and key to so much of what we’ve been able to accomplish, Travis Pitcher, is in the middle photo behind Joe. He filmed the majority of the 2014 race with his camera covered in a plastic garbage bag to protect it (somewhat) from the cold, the rain and the mud. While other shooters ended up sitting the race out due to elements-related equipment failures, Travis got incredible footage — all without access to his camera’s viewfinder. Feats like that manifest the spirit of Tough Guy. Photos by Jonathan Canlas

I think Tough Guy became the fictional solve, the idealized proving ground not just for our friendship but for our individual trials of health, faith, love and work. We built up an idea about how crossing that finish line together would bestow upon us the clarity and confidence to transition from one chapter of our lives to the next. We all knew we needed to graduate. Tough Guy would be our ceremony.

Joseph warned us against such a tidy summation of the aftermath of Tough Guy. But, as a multi-race veteran, whenever he’d share his experience, his stories from the trenches and the insights that shaped his life during those cold, dark moments, he couldn’t help but delve into the poetry and philosophy of Tough Guy. And Micah and I, with a weakness for a good story and a romantic wrapper on life, couldn’t help but be swept away by its beauty.

While many try to wrap the Mudders and Spartan races into the extreme sports bucket — more mud, more fire, more grit — we always spoke of Tough Guy with the reverence of the sacred. We believed that there was magic in the way Mr. Mouse had orchestrated the experience. A magic that could unlock something in each individual, showing them an almost primitively clear way forward in the chaos and confusion of every-day life. This was the story we told, and the gospel of Tough Guy we wanted everyone to know. We felt like a mix of missionary and soldier in battle for the life and livelihood of Tough Guy.

We made this video in 2012, when Tough Mudder had just made its ascent to the forefront of mainstream conversation. We wanted to do our part to establish Mr. Mouse’s legacy as the creator of not just Tough Guy, but of the industry on the whole. “The Inspirational. The Unmatchable. The Original. Tough Guy. Established 1987” as the title card reads at the end. Video credit: The Good Line; Music by: Micah Anderson.
From superheroes to bowler hats and briefcases, costumed crusaders are standard fare at Tough Guy. Photo by Jonathan Canlas

Before my first trip to Mr. Mouse’s manor on Jenny Walker Lane, and not too far removed from the idealism of Design school, I had envisioned overhauling the Tough Guy brand with something much more narrative, more premium, and more dynamic.

From looking at their website, I knew the design needed help, but I could not have been less prepared for the menagerie of the spectacle in real life. While my aesthetic sensibility was appalled, there was something enchanting and authentic about the rag-tag collection of shirts, mis-matched logos, cartoonish illustrations, hand-made signs, and the unkempt and unruly crowds of both the racers and those in attendance.

The chaos and the circus are an integral part of Tough Guy. Before the race, everything is raucous: people dressed in costumes; groups locked up in barracks, rattling fences, chanting, shouting at the top of their lungs. My first year, I saw the excitement. The second year I returned, after seeing the course in action, I recognized the rowdy anticipation was equal parts excitement and thinly-veiled fear for the known and the unknown of what was about to come.

One the left, the veterans lead out the race. Behind them comes the second-wave charge down Trample Hill. On the right, rookies and newcomers, Wetnecks and Wobbleknockers, wade their way through the roads of Mr. Mouse’s farm to the start line. Photos by Jonathan Canlas

Tough Guy’s inarguably authentic experience was not one to mess with. It had — perhaps accidentally—straddled the delicate line of fear and safety, excitement and dread, circus and order, meaningful impact and trivial frivolities perfectly. If there was any job for us, it was simply to figure out how to codify the experience and bring more attention to this strange and magical moment.

There’s an appropriate symbolism in the way many of the proudly-clad warriors become increasingly disheveled and despondent as the day goes on. Photo by Jonathan Canlas

When the canon fires and the smoke clouds plume, there’s a frenzied sprint out of the gates. Once the obstacles hit, however, the race slows to a plodding pace for most. While the physicality of the course is an undeniable challenge, the battle that Mr. Mouse is more interested in is the mental one.

The constantly revolving cycle of water, heights, tunnels, ropes — and then banner nuisances such as live electric wires and burning fire pits — are designed to demoralize. You witness the shift from excitement to drudgery. And then, even more interesting, from human to animal.

Details of the race showcasing the critical, inner determination and perseverance of the participants. Photos by Jonathan Canlas

While Tough Mudder is all ego — with its unrelentingly executed branding and ready-made, shareable photo-ops — Tough Guy is all id. Every man and woman who sets off from that start line will come to their knees. The fastest, the strongest, the most experienced… male and female, young and old. I’ve seen them all crumble. I’ve seen their eyes recede in their skulls, their skin gray, muscles quivering. They continue only through a deeply rooted determination to keep moving forward.

One of my most memorable moments was interviewing a multi-year Tough Guy champion after the race, asking him why he runs. He was lost in a thousand mile stare, his shivers unrelenting.

“I don’t know,” he said.

And then again. “I don’t know… I don’t know.”

Participants after the race, showering, warming up in the barn. All are exhausted. All are beyond cold, many actually hypothermic. There is little celebration in the immediate aftermath of the race — simply a utilitarian effort to stay upright and get home as soon as possible. Photos by Jonathan Canlas

And yet, when the next year rolls around, he and many other veterans like him will return. A sacrament of sorts to reset, to cleanse — to make sure that inner fire hasn’t been extinguished by the mundanities, stresses and pride of the world. Me versus the Mouse; Me versus the bitter cold, the freezing water, the ripping winds, the unrelenting hills… Me versus myself. Id versus Ego. Do I keep going?

The resemblance to WW1 photography is not a coincidence in art direction or the physical setting. The course has been modeled year by year after famous battles in British Military history. When I asked my friend, Jonathan Canlas, a wedding and portraiture photographer from Hawaii, if I could fly him out to take the photos for me, he was initially skeptical of the brief: “I’ve never shot anything sports related.” Didn’t matter to me. His eye for capturing stories has been proven flawless for years. That, and he shoots everything on film — the authenticity of that aesthetic not being something I wanted to mess with. On this freezing West Midlands morning in January, Jon, a physically imposing islander, was out on the course in his shorts, mud-soaked New Balances, and his head down in his Mamiya RZ Pro II camera capturing amazing images like this one. Photo by Jonathan Canlas

Tough Guy thrives on the inescapable symbolism of war. The cold, wet and muddy setting brings to mind the fox hole trenches of WWI. The course itself, designed by a former Grenadier Guardsman and dubiously referred to as the Killing Fields, has eponymously named, warlike obstacles such as the Colditz Walls, Battle of the Somme, and Vietcong Torture Chamber Tunnels throughout.

While the majority of the middle-class who are attracted to experiences like this simply — and thankfully — do not have to test ourselves in the tumult of actual war, it begs the question of whether or not there is value in participating in the symbolism.

Even today we see it all around us in the language we use to describe our work, our relationships, our games. American football, for example, is the ultimate wartime replica: two sides, generals on the side, fighting for inches with the strategic dual-combination of ground and aerial attacks. I believe that the powerful symbolism is, on a subconscious level, why we are so drawn to the sport in spite of its real-life danger, negative societal impact and political scandal.

There’s a line from Hamilton that speaks to the opportunity that war offers on an individual level. It’s a sentiment that, in all honestly, I’ve felt in a parallel life with parallel circumstances resonate deeply within me:

God, I wish there was a war!
Then we could prove that we’re worth more
Than anyone bargained for…

While I craved the challenge of the Tough Guy course to test myself on a sort of primal, survivalist level, the war that interested me much more was that of Tough Guy versus Tough Mudder.

In my line of work—branding, design, business strategy, etc.—rarely does the opportunity arise to immerse yourself in a sort of archetypal battle that represents, at its core, the kind of person you want to be compared to the embodiment of all you despise (and the troubling reality of who you might actually be).

Tough Guy speaks to authenticity, boldness, bravery and camaraderie while Tough Mudder reeks of image-obsessiveness, speciousness, and an opportunistic and selfish betrayal of promise. To be a part of the plight to topple the underserving and bratty Prince, and to restore to the throne the rightful King, was an opportunity to fight for something I believed in. And, like the real-life Hamilton and the Revolutionary War before, to make a name for myself in doing so—to carve an identity around the attributes that the battle emboldened in me.

I love the opportunity this image offers to take in the majestic regalia of Mr. Mouse’s shoddy attire. Photo by Jonathan Canals

Thoughout the years, sometimes I’d wonder how much of the spell of Tough Guy we created ourselves. How much of what we had built into the experience and brand in our own minds was intended to be there. How much Mr. Mouse was the visionary prophet we had made him out to be…

Perhaps, like any good story, the truthfulness of the narrative is arguably secondary to its impact. But that impact… What we felt—we wanted to share that with the world. And as life changed around us, the desire stayed the same. It was, in many ways, a bounding mechanism for our friendship — a passion we shared and, we believed, a unique position and ability to express that impact that no one else in the world had.

The fact of the matter is that, while I showered for months on end without warm water to strengthen my resilience to the cold, I’ve never actually run Tough Guy. I’ve been on the sidelines twice — both times with cameras, an eye for branding and a thirsty ambition to reclaim the throne. I’d listen for hours as Mr. Mouse would wax poetic about the ethos of Tough Guy, why it matters… why the softening and increasingly divisive world needs Tough Guy. Hearing him talk, I knew I needed Tough Guy, too.

I’d run it next year, I’d tell myself. Once we have some momentum on developing the brand and sharing the story. Then next year. Then next. We kept trying, kept dreaming. And yet, on the last day of Tough Guy, I was not on the course. I was on my computer. In Brooklyn. Writing. Wondering. What did we do wrong? How did I let my chance to show what I’m about get away from me? And how did I let the opportunity to test myself against the beautiful will and vision of this Madman pass me by?

In many ways, the answer was the same for so many other missed opportunities in my life: I prioritized someone else’s mission over my own. I placed myself in a position to be subject to someone else’s whims, timeline, budget or agenda. My willingness to be the dutiful soldier ultimately left me failing or, worse, not even engaging in the battle I had readied to wage.

I think the sting of this missed opportunity—and the echoing pain of past misses as well—is why the end of Tough Guy hurt so much. What was supposed to be my championing moment became just another white whale that got away. Another “wouldn’t it have been great if we had…” story.

Tough Guy is, most of the times, a surprisingly slow race. Moments where pain, cold or fear halt runners in their tracks are frequent. Photos by Jonathan Canlas.

There is no perfect bow to wrap up what Tough Guy has offered the world over the past thirty years. Beyond the fixation with mud. Beyond the ideation and decades-long evolution of the obstacle course race itself. Even beyond the medals and the memories…

Maybe what Tough Guy really offers in a very tangible, Fight Club-ian sense, is the opportunity to see what you’re made of. For one a morning a year, you can leave the real world behind and go against the twisted mind of the Madman from the Midlands. Pit yourself against his cruel and merciless obstacles. Push yourself into hypothermic conditions and see: can you keep going?

Tough Guy is the proof that you can.

I wanted that to be the last line. A poetic finish to a bittersweet story. But, the truth is: my story can’t end there.

While this was the war I wished for, Tough Guy versus Tough Mudder, it’s ultimately not the war I’m meant to fight. That is Mr. Mouse’s battle.

Mine has to be something else. Mine has to be mine.

Truth be told, I don’t even know what it is yet. One thing I do have a hunch about, however: the ethos that brought Tough Guy to life for me — authenticity in presence, boldness in belief, bravery in the face of opposition, and collaborative camaraderie in the pursuit of accomplishment — will be a part of whatever I do. Because those principles have become a part of me; nascent in many ways, but integral in who I am becoming as a creative professional, as a man, as a husband and as a father.

This religious-like devotion that I’ve developed to Tough Guy over the years, perhaps like any religion, really just exists within me. I’ve created myself in the image of Tough Guy and whether it lives on or not in real life, there’s no doubt that Tough Guy lives on in me.

Thousands make the trek to the Farm for Unfortunates the last weekend of every January. Once time and rain wash these footprints away, however, it’s uncertain when anyone will return — and under what circumstances. 2017’s Tough Guy Challenge vowed to be the last. Photos by Jonathan Canlas