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Tough Mudder's Tragic Hero: Meet Mr. Mouse, Who Inspired a Movement

Tough Mudder's Tragic Hero: Meet Mr. Mouse, Who Inspired a Movement
From Rolling Stone - September 13, 2017

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 obstacleand the stories and profile pics that followare 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 Muddersand twice earned patches for running 50 miles at the World's Toughest Mudder, the brand's 24-hour sufferfestI 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, titledRise 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 smalljust 20 or so localsbut as he added increasingly sadistic challenges to the eight-mile courseand 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 have 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 did not stop him.

One thing Dean noted in an email to a fellow HBS student was that Mr. Mouse did not seem to have "any commercial awareness," and did not 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 its 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 are 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 is notcompletely 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 was not 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 am 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?"

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