We Spoke to the Man Responsible for Inflicting Physical and Mental Pain for Tough Mudder

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

Being a bit arrogant when it comes to physical exercise (for little reason, I must add) my negative perception of Tough Mudder was formed the minute I first heard of it -- through a friend who’d never once shown any interest in sport during the previous three years of our relationship. When more and more of the previously idle people in my life started waxing on about it, I decided that my initial opinion was spot-on.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tough Mudder, it's a 10-12-mile obstacle that takes place in various countries around the world, including the UK. Its strapline is "Probably the toughest event on the planet", and a quick #ToughMudder Instagram search will bring up picture after picture of orange-headband-wearing, inspirational-quote-sharing, protein-shake-guzzling meatheads with disproportionate arms.

I’ve always considered it a poser-fest for #squadgoals social media wannabe athletes happy to drone on about dedication while going out boozing every Friday night, and willing to burn calories only if it's in exchange for precious pictures and likes. For some, it absolutely is, but maybe, maaaaybe my snap judgement was a little harsh.

When Tough Mudder recently announced Augustus Gloop (top image), one of its newest obstacles, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to speak to the company’s senior director of product, Nolan Kombol -- a man who chuckles when he references the amount of pain his creations have inflicted over the years -- to gain an understanding of how he goes about making the course as physically and psychologically challenging as possible.

I’ve since realised that Nolan has one of the best jobs in the world.

Augustus Gloop

Let’s kick off with Augustus Gloop. The new creation is clearly inspired by Roald Dahl’s gluttonous character, and invites Tough Mudders to enter a chest-deep pit of water before ascending up a vertical tube while a heavy cascade of water hammers them from above.

“We spend a lot of time focusing on our obstacles, because that’s the one element we can control,” he tells me. “If you have a timed event, it’s easy enough to say ‘My lap time was an hour, so next time I’ll try to run it in 56 minutes’. That’s not a lever we can pull. We have to constantly update the menu and come up with new challenges for people, outside of timing.”

Using information gathered from surveys and social media posts, as well as feedback from participants on the ground, Nolan’s team is able to establish so-called 'target areas' for obstacles that need improvement.

“We define key areas, which usually results in a 20% menu swap-out, and we’ll focus on new obstacles that will fulfil a certain need on course. This year, that was courage and mental grit.

“We had a target for a specific obstacle -- we didn’t know what it was yet -- that challenged people mentally, that made you get over a mental barrier. That caused you to be afraid. Something that was difficult to get through, where you’d have to face your own battle in your head before you did it.

“We went to the whiteboard and we sketched out a bunch of ideas that might hit that category. This is actually one of the more difficult categories for us to design in, because it’s really easy to make something that's physically challenging tougher. You can make it longer, make it taller, make it heavier.

“For this one, you need to find something that’s pretty much equalising across all participants. So it can’t be scary for one person, but really fun and not scary for another, which some things are. Heights, for example, are a tricky one because some people are terrified of heights, and some people have absolutely no problem at all. So you can completely nix the experience for a huge group of people that run in your event.”

Eventually, they decided that Augustus Gloop would fit the bill perfectly. Unfortunately, it involves water rather than Wonka’s finest blend, though Nolan assures me that the mud could make it look a little more chocolatey.

“It doesn’t have the most terrifying name, but fulfils that ‘courage’ category. The experience that you get is twofold. One -- you can’t see anything because you can’t look up. You can’t really look down because the amount of water that’s splashing down on you pretty much forces you to close your eyes the entire time, so you don’t really see where you’re going. You just know that you need to go up.

“The second thing is feeling like you can’t breathe, which is terrifying. You can breathe but it feels like you can’t. Every time you try to take a breath of air, more water’s rushing down. The closer you get to the top, the stronger the water pressure hits, until you break through the top of the tube and you’re free. You feel better at that point, but the entire experience is pretty terrifying.”

As someone who whimpers through cold showers and doesn’t particularly like the idea of being forced to clamber through a tube while a line of strangers waits behind, I have to agree with that last statement. But there’s more.

“On a part of the obstacle we have a glass pane so you can see participants going up. It’s not for the participant in the tube at all, it’s really for the people who are about to do the obstacle, to see the person going through. It enhances their fear because they see a person struggling and writhing.”

Exploiting Phobias

You sound like you take great pleasure in terrifying people, I say, interrupting Nolan’s laughter.

“Yeah, I do. It’s funny because when we test all of these features with participants who’ve volunteered themselves, our approach is much more scientific. ‘When exactly were you scared? When did you feel like you were about to break?’ Someone will say ‘I’m about to cry here!’ and you’ll be like ‘Perfect, I’ve done it.’ A moment of success for me equals a moment of distress for somebody else.”

Unsurprisingly, Nolan's design team focuses heavily on common fears and phobias.

“We have to try to target a phobia. We spent a lot of time marking key phobias on boards to see how we could impact people and where we think we'd get the strongest reaction. People are afraid of snakes and spiders, and we go through a lot of weird and wacky ideas thinking about the ways we could integrate those into a feature.

“Unfortunately, nobody really wants to spend a load of time in their grandmother’s attic collecting spiders to bring in for testing, so we had to scratch off a lot of those early ones.”

Probably slightly impractical too. So which phobias have they been able to capitalise on and how?

“We play with heights a little bit. We like claustrophobia. I think claustrophobia is the biggest one that seems to touch the most people. We also like electricity, obviously.” Obviously.

“We like the fear of physical pain, so I think just the idea of jumping into an ice bath that’s roughly 34 degrees Fahrenheit [1.11 degrees Celsius] is terrifying for most people. The physical pain when you first jump in is pretty strong, but I think what gets you most is the lack of physical coordination that happens. The loss of control of your body.

“I guess the fun part of that obstacle is that it’s terrifying going in, but once you’re inside there’s a split that happens between your body and your mind, where your mind is telling you to get the hell out of the ice bath as fast as possible, but your body’s decided to go into shutdown mode, can’t really move that quickly and isn’t going to respond the way your brain wants it to. Even though you want to get out, your body has to take its sweet time.

“It’s this struggle that I don’t think many people have had to deal with, with their own body. It kind of robs you of the control of your own actions. Coming out, there’s a lot of tears and a bit of suffering, which is great for us. Those are probably the core fears that we focus on.”

Electric Dreams

As much pleasure as Nolan clearly takes from making others suffer, it was his own memories and fears that gave birth to Electroshock Therapy, which you can get a feel of through the clip above.

“I grew up outside of Seattle on a pretty decently sized farm with a lot of animals and we had lots of electric fences. I spent much of my youth getting shocked by those fences, and the experience impacted my youth in a pretty strong way. I still have bad dreams about some of the electric fences and remember how bad it was, so that was probably the impetus behind Electroshock Therapy.

“When we first came up with the idea of electrocuting people on-course, we had to spend a lot of time convincing the marketing team that this was a valuable experience that people should get. It was hard push. And then we had to pass that through our safety programme, which is very robust and much scarier to introduce an idea to than the marketing team.

“We told our medical director that we wanted to know how much electricity the human body can take. What we landed on is 10,000 Volts.” Nolan goes on to explain the numerous safety precautions and technical difficulties Tough Mudder had to get through in order to ensure -- in his words -- that “The medical director is comfortable saying that they may receive a lot of pain, but no, it won’t have long-term damaging effects.

“The medical director is the final gatekeeper on what we can and can’t do -- anything we can’t do safely won’t be done.”

Nolan is using his serious voice here. The conversations he has with the Tough Mudder medical director may sound silly, but safety is clearly a top priority.

“In my professional experience, that was one of the longer and more difficult questions I’ve ever asked. I’d like to say that the majority of my time is spent trying to answer questions like that and making sure that not only can we operate these things across multiple countries, but we can also operate them safely. A big part of my role is getting the medical director and an electrical engineer sitting in the same room and speaking the same language.”

Russians and Stallone

Away from personal experiences, I ask where Nolan’s team’s early-stage ideas come from. YouTube bingers won't be surprised to hear that amateur clips are a rich source of inspiration.

“We watch a lot of movie clips and YouTube videos. For Arctic Enema, watching a lot of those -- I don’t know if you’ve seen them -- 'Crazy Russian Swimming' videos, where they cut holes in the ice and people jump through the holes and then come back out. Not only is that painful but it looks pretty cool and also looks pretty cool to try. So we thought that if millions of Russians can do this every winter, we think we can get our participants to do it too."

It looks horrible.

“I’ve watched war movies or horror movies where you see something and just think that it would be interesting to send our participants through. We had an obstacle called Trench Warfare and it’s basically crawling through a series of trenches and tunnels that were pretty much blacked-out, which was meant to replicate a WWI battlefront, I guess.

“There’s a lot of times where I’ll be describing an obstacle and people will think I’m describing a scene from a movie. They’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly like the opening scene of Cliffhanger or ‘Ooh, it’s a lot like Rambo.’”

Yet to Gain Approval...

Coming back to our earlier chat about struggling to gain approval for certain obstacles from the medical director, I ask Nolan about the ideas that have failed to make it through the safety programme.

“One of the nuts we’ve been trying to crack for a while is finding a way to get projectiles involved. It’s something I think everybody on my team loves the idea of. I don’t know how familiar you are with the TV show American Gladiators [the one we adapted as Gladiators] -- it’s not on anymore, but it was a great show in the early 90s -- which featured a bunch of guys and girls who, as far as I can tell, were pretty jacked-up on steroids.

“One of the challenges on the show [video above] would be that one of these gladiators would be on top of this podium, probably 20ft in the air, and participants would have to run through this little field of obstacles and the gladiator had a massive tennis ball cannon. Participants would have to run, dip and dodge to get through and the gladiator would fire these balls at you.”

I'm licking my lips now. We all know where this is going.

“We put around some ideas of making people walk across a balance beam over a water pit with tennis balls shooting at them. Or sending them through a small trench and making them duck and jump over a bunch of paint balls. Unfortunately, from a safety perspective, things like tennis balls, paintballs and small projectiles are really difficult to use.” Not least because the tennis balls would get sticky from all of the mud.

“We haven’t closed the book on the idea yet. One day I’d like to get something like that on the course and relive the glory days of the 90s with gladiators terrifying members of the public on live TV.”

Anything else? The 90s nostalgia has fired something up inside me.

“We also toyed around with tear gas at one point. That was a fun conversation. The chemical engineers didn’t exactly get along with the medical director as well as the electrical engineer did, so that was a fun one. It came to something that we tested but it didn’t deliver the experience that we wanted. I still like the idea of tear gas to some degree, and how it could be used and the reaction it could cause, so maybe one day in the future we’ll revisit that idea and you may see that back out on the course, but we’ll see.”

Actually, screw the projectiles. I'm sold on tear gas.

“The biggest satisfaction I get from my work is not actually the pain that I cause people,” Nolan concludes, presumably because he -- quite correctly -- gets the impression that I'm now dreaming of what I'd install in my own little house of horrors. “It’s the fact that they spent a Saturday or a Sunday outdoors, doing something that’s physically active and healthy, as opposed to watching football all day.”

Your secret's safe with me.