How Was Your Day ... Tough Mudder Obstacle Director? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Was Your Day ... Tough Mudder Obstacle Director?

How Was Your Day ... Tough Mudder Obstacle Director?

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because “conquering” a video game just doesn’t feel the same.

By Eugene S. Robinson

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Bonnie Lee
Brooklyn, New York

Today I met with five construction crews to discuss building an obstacle course in the middle of the Las Vegas desert. We need to build 23 obstacles — from chest-deep mud pits and a 35-foot cliff jump to a super-slicked quarter-pipe and electrified challenges. Each should hold up against extreme rain, freezing temperatures, sandstorms — yes, they happen — not to mention the wear and tear of 1,500 people. Some crews acted surprised. Some laughed nervously. But, you know, this is the World’s Toughest Mudder.

Which is the culminating event of the season, so not just the single-loop 10- to 12-mile courses you get with Tough Mudder, but a pretty hard-core and intense obstacle event. It runs 24 hours, and competitors take on a five-mile looped course with nearly two dozen of the most extreme obstacles we can think up. The winner completes the most laps in 24 hours.

bonnie lee

Bonnie Lee says anything can happen when you’re building something like, say, Block Ness Monster.

Source Photo courtesy of Bonnie Lee

Normally, we’re designing and building courses that are challenging but manageable, but World’s Toughest Mudder is a competitive event, so all bets are off. The people who sign up have been training all year long, so expectations are high, and participants are looking for an extreme challenge. That’s where I come in as director of construction. I’ve worked on projects for Google and Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, and, I have to say, there’s really nothing like building an obstacle course.

When you’re working with diverse terrain, anything can happen.

But the road to World’s Toughest starts right after the previous year’s event. We get great feedback from participants and construction teams throughout the year that helps us do it better, stronger and faster the following year. At Tough Mudder, teamwork is the name of the game. Not just in the office, but on the course, too. We’re putting camaraderie above all else, and the same way the course requires participants to work together, multiple construction crews come together and spend about four weeks building this muddy playground in the desert.

If I’ve learned anything from this job it’s that when you’re working with diverse terrain, anything can happen. Last year, we ran into issues with our newest obstacle, Block Ness Monster. The incredibly dry soil made it hard to excavate the massive pits needed to build the obstacle, which requires participants to hoist themselves and each other over three large, rotating blocks while waist-deep in water. What we noticed less than 48 hours before the event was that the blocks were not spaced far enough from the support brackets, so they wouldn’t spin correctly.

From a budget and operational perspective, this was a problem, but failing to fix it would have sucked, experience wise, which is another objective my team has to hit. I mean, it’s necessary to have our contractors understand how Block Ness Monster was modified so that they could scale the obstacle successfully for every event in our 2016 season. That’s why the construction teams’ beta-testing is such a big deal. This is the final stage of the obstacle innovation process, and these are the obstacles that we will potentially roll out to all Tough Mudder events the following season. They need to be perfect, or very close to it, by this stage, and sometimes they’re not.

The teams I’m considering will help us to produce this world-class event, and it’s nothing like what typical construction crews are up to. That’s why I expect our crews to rise to the challenge. At Tough Mudder, we don’t whine — kids whine. Once the event starts, we station ourselves along the course, monitor every obstacle throughout the weekend, see how each is functioning and perform last-minute adjustments. For our crews, World’s Toughest Mudder is almost like an obstacle course itself.

At the end of the weekend, we celebrate. We know that we’ve evaluated and reevaluated everything we’ve done all year, examined what went right and learned how to improve so that the following year it’s even cooler. And the following year is always just around the corner.

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