Author: Seth Buchwalter
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“When was the last time you did something for the first time?”
This question has been one of my favorite motivational tools since I first stepped on a Tough Mudder course on that beautiful spring day in Vermont in 2012. Of course, I didn’t realize I was taking on what would be one of the most challenging Tough Mudder venues to date, but nonetheless, the saying still sticks every time I hear Sean Corvelle utter those wonderful words.
Since my first in 2012, Tough Mudder has grown into a phenomenal force of nature, sending participants of all abilities into the mud for an ice-cold arctic enema, mental-grit-testing platform jumps and a beautiful orange finisher headband. Over the years, I’ve completed my fair share of Tough Mudders and was able to learn what the brand has in store for upcoming events after speaking with newly promoted CEO Kyle McLaughlin.
First, a hearty congratulations to McLaughlin on his new title. With such a quickly expanding company, Tough Mudder requires a strong leader to keep the mud flowing. His experience within the company stretches from his initial onboarding as Senior Vice President for TM Live Events in early 2018, to President in 2019, and now his current CEO role.
McLaughlin was no stranger to the Tough Mudder team over the years, and when they were looking for a brand refresh, he was the prime candidate to take the reins.
“Right now, we’re focusing on reconnecting with the community to get back to our roots. It was clear to me when I arrived at Tough Mudder last year, the company had lost traction with its customers; its core connection,” says McLaughlin. “There were some new products introduced in the recent past, which were all great additions, but some of those distracted from our core competency. Many customers were feeding back to us that the quality wasn’t up to par for what they’d come to expect from our events around the globe.”
From introducing the two-lap course, TM Half, TMX, a championship series in Tougher, endurance-focused Toughest and limiting festival activities, the ‘classic’ Tough Mudder experience had certainly played second fiddle as the company progressed.
“We’ve moved away from some of the aspects of Tough Mudder which were not part of our core,” McLaughlin continues. “The entire experience has been reinvigorated, with an emphasis on customer service, on-course excitement and the festival area. We’re also taking big strides to be more responsive with inquiries to customer service, and we have big plans to reshape that into 2020. It’s most important to concentrate on growing the tribe, focusing efforts to strengthen the community around the Tough Mudder experience.”
For those who were fans of the short-lived TMX series, McLaughlin says that was mainly built for a television audience. It’s not coming back this year, but the potential exists for a new reincarnation of TMX with the right media partner. Again, the focus of Tough Mudder is mass-participation events.
“We also realized that the Tough Mudder Half was a confusing offering. Half of what? A half marathon? When we introduced 5k, that ended up pulling customers away from the half. More customers understand the 5k distance, where half could have been interpreted in many ways. Now we’re reducing the confusion during registration. Our entry-level product is the 5k or participants can register for the Tough Mudder Classic, which is about 8-10 miles.”
If you’ve followed the OCR scene over the years, you know there are a lot of races all over the world. The competitive season seems to run from January to December! Tough Mudder is looking to join that short offseason crowd, after years keeping US-based participants waiting in anticipation for the next electroshock therapy session from November to March.
“With such a long offseason, we were losing touch with our community. There is no more authentic touchpoint with our base, than at an event. Be on the lookout for a growing and more distributed calendar to roll out soon, including the much-requested return to Wisconsin.”
The overnight Toughest event series got a refresh this year as well, with bonfires, movies, music, food trucks and more to make it a more spectator- and team-friendly event. Participants can even put together a relay team to spread out the lap load.
“I’m really happy in what we’ve seen so far in regional 12-hour Toughest Mudders this year,” says McLaughlin. “The experience seemed a bit stale in the 8-hour event, with a lack of spectator engagement. It simply wasn’t exciting to only watch contestants run in circles. We took a new approach with the Toughest brand to make it into more comparable to our World’s Toughest Mudder event.”
As Tough Mudder adds new markets and race weekends, they’re heading back to some favorites from years past. “We’re seeing a ton of Tough Mudder growth around the world,” continues McLaughlin. “Nineteen countries and on track to get to 30 in 2020. The growth of TM in Asia is very exciting and growing steadily in the Middle East right now. Within the next year or so, we’ll be launching in more countries. It’s most exciting to see how different cultures adopt the Tough Mudder ethos.”
Of course, I don’t want to show a bias, but Tough Mudder should DEFINITELY come back to Oregon! Just saying…
For those curious about the impact of taking away the large checks to competitive heat winners, McLaughlin doesn’t see this being an issue among the target audience and everyday participants, especially since there were few variations to whom the checks were given. When athletes the likes of Ryan Atkins, Lindsay Webster and Jon Albon are always taking home the majority of prizes, it wasn’t impacting the ‘open’ wave participants. Most athletes new to Tough Mudder weren’t gunning for the check, they just wanted that headband and beer at the finish line, along with the satisfaction of completing such a challenge.
However, from a World’s Toughest Mudder perspective, it seems as if a lot of generous people within the community are chipping in to ensure winners receive a nice set of prizes. OCR philanthropists continue to offer finisher quilts, vacation home donations and are even backing a GoFundMe campaign to donate cash to the charity of these elite athletes’ choice, in their name.
McLaughlin has even promised to personally match the first $1,000 of what the community raises in this effort.
For those of you who may have had a less-than-stellar experience with Tough Mudder as it grows into itself, McLaughlin is sure you’ll be more than excited to take on your next muddy challenge.
“The world needs more opportunities where people can come together and take on challenges with the support of an incredible community. On Tough Mudder courses, people are not distracted – their phones are locked in their car, with no access to news or Instagram,” Mclaughlin says.
“Today, there are fewer opportunities as an adult to play, with too much time to worry. People need to escape and be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. Everyone leaves the Tough Mudder course with new teammates and stronger relationships. I’m inspired by those overcoming challenges and leveraging TM as a part of their journey—be it mental health, weight loss, or conquering any of the obstacles that come at them in their everyday life. ”
Finishing up, this interview took place just after the announcement of Warrior Dash canceling events indefinitely. Tough Mudder was actually the first major OCR company to offer a free race or upgrade. From that, McLaughlin has seen a tremendously positive response.
“It was a no-brainer from our end. It’s important to lead the charge on a make-good offering, as we care so much about the community. Warrior Dash was a great entry-level event and so many of the Mudder Legion started their OCR fandom with them.”
In the end, after this interview with McLaughlin, I feel confident in reporting that Tough Mudder seems to be in a very robust place, with even stronger leadership. Their events are very well attended, and with the new outlook on participant experience, I trust that the company will find even stronger success.
“Tough Mudder is all about community,” McLaughlin says. “We’re pretty happy with the core experience and will continue to work on improving as we finish up 2019 and go into 2020. The community is the strongest it’s ever been. We’ve even had to politely ask people to leave the festivals at recent events because it was hours past closing time!”
Thank you to Kyle McLaughlin for his time, and congratulations on the promotion! I look forward to experiencing another Tough Mudder soon!
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