Meet Professor Pain: A Tough Mudder Obstacles Designer Speaks

Nathan Bassett thinks up demented obstacles for a living. How does he know when he's gone too far?

Interview with the Tough Mudder obstacles designer

Co-founded in 2010 by three Brits living in New York (none of them were Sting), Tough Mudder is the world’s best-known obstacle-course series. Tough Mudder events have been held in the US, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Germany, with more than 1.3 million people taking part.

Tough Mudder obstacles are no laughing matter. Each course is around 10-12 miles long, and contains up to 25 obstacles – each of which is a more grimly imaginative test of the mind and body than having genital warts burned off with liquid nitrogen by your mother-in-law.

However, Tough Mudders are also famed for their sense of gutsy fun, and their love of camaraderie – there’s a lot of positivity amidst the punishment.

Every year, dastardly new Tough Mudder obstacles are added to classics such as The Arctic Enema – a dumpster filled with iced water that participants must duck down into in order to cross – and Electroshock Therapy – a field of muck bedecked with dangling, live electric wires.

Nathan Bassett is part of the team that designs these new Tough Mudder obstacles. He’s a brutal, brilliant bastard. Unbound grilled him on his demonic design process, and what Tough Mudders can expect to face in 2015.

Hi there Nathan. Your capacity for thinking up ways of torturing people could give that wee dude from the Saw films a run for his money. Where do you get your ideas?

“All sorts of places! TV, movies, video games… During brainstorming sessions we’ll sometimes pick a particular phobia – say, fear of enclosed spaces, or fear of heights – and riff on ways we can bring it to life.

“We want people to test themselves in mind and body, but also to have a legendarily rewarding, memorable time, so obstacles have to be entertaining and a little bit witty, as well as hard to conquer.”

Are there any Tough Mudder obstacles that never made it off the drawing board, either because they were too hard to build, or simply too harsh?

“For every obstacle you see on a course, there are anywhere between three and five that didn’t get constructed. We once wanted to set up a gauntlet of cannons that would fire tennis balls at people, but it proved impractical to realise on a large scale.

There was an unworkable volume of vomit

“During the early days, we experimented with making runners eat super-hot habanero chillies before jumping into The Arctic Enema. There was an unworkable volume of vomit.”

Mmmm… So how do you test Tough Mudder obstacles before unleashing them on the public?

“We’ve refined the procedure over the years. Tough Mudder now has a dedicated team that works purely on obstacle innovation, and we’re better at spotting potential issues at an early stage in development.

“Once we’ve decided that a fresh challenge idea might be workable, we set up an ‘alpha testing’ stage: our construction manager has a yard in the US where he builds prototypes, and folks from Tough Mudder HQ – myself included – then act as guinea pigs.

The Cry Baby is really going to push people’s boundaries

“Afterwards, we discuss what went well and what didn’t, and watch back videos of ourselves to spot any problems. There’s some pretty funny footage in the archives!

“Next is the ‘beta testing’ phase, where we invite a selection of TM competitors both old and new to try the fresh obstacles for themselves, and run focus groups to find out their thoughts. Each obstacle can go through multiple refinements and redesigns before it’s ready for 20,000 people to throw themselves at it during an official Tough Mudder event.”

We heard that one of the new Tough Mudder 2015 challenges involves tear gas…

“You mean The Cry Baby! It’s a crawl-through box containing a number of tear-inducing irritants. It’s really going to push people’s boundaries.

In certain events we’re also welcoming The Ring of Fire, which sees participants sliding down a fireman’s pole surrounded by flames, while The Birth Canal requires competitors to slide on their bellies beneath a heavy liner filled with red water, as though they’re being reborn.”

One way to make us cry would be to line a tunnel with photos of Nigel Farage and make us crawl through it. We’re not sure we’d survive.

“I’d love to see some UK politicians pitted against each other on a Tough Mudder track! And Bear Grylls – I think it’d be very interesting to see how he approached things. Also, Ned Stark from Game Of Thrones – he’s caring, brave, and thinks of others around him, so he’d be a top team player, although he’d have to be careful not to lose his head.”

On a more serious note, have you witnessed any incredible acts of teamwork or good sportsmanship out on the Tough Mudder courses?

“Absolutely. You see some of the best of humanity out there. One stand-out memory for me was watching a girl from our offices called Nikki complete a course: she was the first wheelchair-bound athlete to do so.

“It was an intensely tough course, too, in Yorkshire, with epic amounts of mud and steep hills. Nikki had a rope on the front of her chair so her team could pull her as well as push; she slid on her bum through some parts, and was strapped to her team mates for others.

The beauty of Tough Mudder
is that anyone can do it

“The problem-solving techniques she and her team used were exceptional, as was her own mental grit. The beauty of TM is that anyone can do it – you just need the determination to not stop!”

will have you sailing over those obstacles like a ninja champ

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