Tough Times at Tough Mudder

The real obstacles of the OCR industry

A Q&A with one of the UK’s most popular OCR event providers

In the world of OCR, 2020 kicked off with the cancellation of one of the worlds most popular events by Tough Mudder in Canada. With Tough Mudders uncertain future and very possible imminent demise across the globe, we want to find out what it takes to stay the distance in the competitive industry of OCR.

Xrunner have been hosting obstacle races successfully for 11 years now making them one of the original event organisers since the sport became more popular than triathlons.

So here’s what’s going on in the world according to Xrunner. Director Steve Walker answers some of the questions that we are all asking right now:

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Q: What is your view as a fellow organiser on the Tough Mudder situation?

A: It’s hard to have a view when there is so much conflicting information published so you just have to look at the facts, of which we don’t have very many at this moment.

We do know that TM Canada has filed for bankruptcy protection and that three US companies have filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding against Tough Mudder HQ in Delaware USA.

We do know TM Canada have cancelled all their scheduled events. And we do know that tickets sales are currently offline since 21st December 2019 in the US, UK, Canada and Germany. We do not know however if it was the decision of TM or Active to suspend sales.

We do know that TM UK have not filed overdue accounts and statements with Companies House since 2017, all of these things are pointing to a worrying next stage. I would be extremely nervous if my sales went offline for even a few hours, so a few weeks is incredibly damaging. I think the Tough Mudder community deserves an honest statement from head office, but so far in several pod casts, reports and statements there has still not been given any real information about the current situation or future intention. Customers are nervous and rightly so. Even if they release ticket sales again now, without any honest explanation, people will have lost faith in the brand and their security. In TM’s defence however, if they are in a precarious legal battle, they may not be allowed to say anything publicly at this time.

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Q: Any thoughts on Spartan taking over Tough Mudder?

A: TM has created a huge community and been an industry leader and it would be a real shame for all the fans to see an end to their era. These two events are quite different and attract different demographics so if they did manage to make an agreeable deal, I would hope the events remain as they were originally created.

Joe Desena Spartan CEO has said “We made an offer that was signed by (then Tough Mudder President and CEO) Kyle McLaughlin that gave Will and Guy (Tough Mudder CEO’s) a large payment, got the creditors paid, and kept everyone at Tough Mudder at work. This was before the two equity holders (Will and Guy) decided this was not good enough, and would only approve of the deal if there were able to enrich themselves even more” When asked for disclosure of the amounts offered to Will and Guy, Joe told us ”Let’s say at least 20X the average American salary”

He went on to tell us that “We have been working hard to keep Tough Mudder OUT of bankruptcy, and were almost there until those two idiots told everyone to essentially F*ck off , unless we get paid more!

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Q: How do Xrunner events differ from Tough Mudder & Spartan?

A: We are 100% Muddy Good Fun! Tough Mudder is as it states in the name, Tough! Spartan has a more military feel with punishing challenges and is more for the competitive audience. We used to host timed events in the first few years but when we rebranded we rethought our whole process and business model. We realised that the majority of our runners completed our events in teams and as such were not competitive. We surveyed our customers and timing was not important to them, so we removed this element and presented the events as a challenge and not a race.

Our courses are designed so that anyone can have a go. Some of the obstacles are really challenging, not just physically but you may be scared of heights, or water or confined spaces! We don’t electrocute you, we don’t freeze you in ice, health and safety is of paramount importance to us and we aim to send you home with a smile on your face. We have always been unique in this industry in that we have always had a 50/50 gender split deliberately driven by the way we present our marketing campaigns.

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Q: How did Xrunner get started in the OCR industry?

A: I have an extensive background in outdoor pursuits and 11 years ago I had a crazy idea to get people outdoors into our local park and swim across the river Derwent.

Surprisingly the council loved the idea and so we had our first event called the Mad Monk in 2009 and 360 people rocked up to run, tackle a few obstacles and swim across the Derwent. Everyone loved it and wanted more, so we organised the next one the following year and that’s how we got started.

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Q: Tell us a bit about how Xrunner grew from 360 participants to over 4,000 per event?

A: In a nutshell, cautiously. It doesn’t happen overnight and you need a head for business as well as a passion for the pursuit. With local enthusiasm after the first event we immediately began to organise the following year’s event. The next event saw the numbers double and suddenly word of mouth is out and with careful promotion of the website, numbers started growing. At this time, there was not much competition, obstacle racing was brand new and we got in at the right time.

The only other event of this kind was the original Tough Guy which started in 1987 and is in no way similar to Xrunner except for the word obstacle. In year 3, we added a second event as there was enough demand out there. We reinvested every penny to add bigger and better obstacles and new venues.

With more participants, the cost invariably increases too. You need more medical cover, staff, parking marshals, marquees, insurance, vendors and suppliers costs, the list goes on… Our budgets were tight but cautiously managed and the money was constantly reinvested exactly where it was needed to grow the business. At the time, there were two of us in the business and we both had other jobs to support ourselves to enable all the funds to go back into the events, if you’re not greedy, you can do it!

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Q: So how many people run the Xrunner show now that you've grown up?

A: There are only three of us in the business full time, so we wear a lot of hats. We each have various skill sets to bring to the table. We all have experience in customer service, health and safety, outdoor pursuits, business admin etc… And between us three we have all areas covered.

On event day, there are between 130 and 150 staff and contractors on site. To ensure that things run as smoothly as possible, we use the same staff and contractors at each event so everybody knows exactly what they are doing to ensure efficiency on the day for our participants.

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Q: How has Xrunner sustained where so many others have failed?

A: It’s impossible to comment on each company individually as there have been various different reasons for each enterprise. When OCR was born, it became very popular very quickly overtaking triathlons as the most rapidly expanding sport in popularity.

Over the last few years dozens and dozens of new events sprang up and then more recently we have seen dozens shut down. We’ve lost a lot of smaller ones and some really great ones too, Warrior Dash, Survival of the Fittest, Furlong Fury, Rock Solid Races, Vision Wild Run (a lesson for those who piggy back event names perhaps?), Suffering Races, Judgement Day to name a few and now Tough Mudder Canada and possibly Tough Mudder globally!

People think it is easy to run an event like this but it’s not easy at all. They say it takes 10 years to master a skill and I would agree as we learn something new every event we host. It is a mistake to assume that because you enjoy something as a customer, you will be master it as an organiser.

We started with a budget of zero and a lot of help from friends and family, the business has been self funding, we have never borrowed money, so we have no creditors and no debt, we reinvested every penny and didn’t take an income from the business for the first four years. We reinvented the brand in 2015 to keep it fresh and we are constantly analysing our data, customer feed back, financials, the competition, everything we can to ensure we offer what our customers want and that we stay in business.

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Q: What does the future hold for the OCR world?

A: I think it still has legs! It’s incredibly popular and I don’t see any reason or evidence that it won’t still be going strong in the future. Don’t let the antics of one company put you off the sport.

Let’s not forget Tough Mudder started their OCR journey on a bad note with a legal dispute between Will Dean and Billy Wilson (AKA Mr Mouse), founder of the original OCR Tough Guy. As published in the Daily Mail, Will Dean approached Mr Wilson as a business student offering a detailed report on how to expand Tough Guy events in return for some hands on experience within the business. Wilson claimed Dean did not fulfil his obligations and instead opened his own OCR event, Tough Mudder and a law suit then ensued which was settled out of court for a reported $750,000 awarded to Mr Wilson.

It now seems to have come full circle as ten years later there is also a law suit pending with Guy Livingstone (the other founder member) suing for $4.3 million and yesterday Law360 reported that a trio of contractors have approached a bankruptcy judge stating they are owed $850,000 in unpaid work. This is not a reflection on the popularity or future of the sport, it is simply down to extremely bad financial management of the people running the company.

There are ourselves and many other event organisers with an honest ethos and ethical business model and as long as there is still enthusiasm, we will still provide you with fun safe events.

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Q: Any advice for Tough Mudder ticket holders?

A: Sit tight and wait for future announcements, that is all you can do at this moment. Keep an eye on your emails. Keep checking their website and their social media feeds. They are going to have to make an official statement soon and then you will be able to work out your options. Best of luck to TM and all the community.

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