‘Probably the toughest event on the planet’

The man in the orange T-shirt stood on top of a barrel and looked out over a sea of sweatbands. ‘This ain’t no Warrior Dash!’ he announced. ‘This ain’t no mindnumbing fun run! This is 21 kilometres designed by British Special Forces!’

I looked around at the other participants. Those of us in regular lightweight running gear were a clear minority. The other half were clad in homemade screen-printed team shirts or deliberately incongruous costumes. One man wore a full business suit and carried a briefcase. (Later, I would wonder idly how bad his chafing was.)

The man in the orange t-shirt was only just warming up. His pep talk, as we had learned, having hung around the start line to watch the previous two start waves, was perfectly rehearsed. Not a syllable out of line, every cadence pitch perfect.

‘Some of you will not make it! Some of you will fail! But for those of you who make it through, you will have earned yourself the right to wear that orange headband and call yourself a Tough Mudder!’

We’d signed up for various reasons. We wanted a new challenge. We wanted something to train for. Running was more fun when you did it with a group, and Tough Mudder added an edge to the half-marathon distance we’d already done. 25 edges in fact: a whole series of obstacles from mud pits and muck pools, to deep water, barbed wire, rope nets, and electric shocks.

The tagline was ‘Probably the toughest event on the planet’. When I first told people about it, I found myself embarrassed by the implicit sexism of the title and would rush quickly into an explanation of the mud-based obstacles, the distance involved, and why I was interested. Still, it was hard to offset a sense of the inherent blokeyness of the event, beginning with the title and extending all the way to the overt militarisation.

It wasn’t just that the marketing hook pivoted on the allusions to elite soldiers, or that Mudders (as participants are called) were required, at the beginning of the run, to kneel, raise a fist in the air and take a Tough Mudder Oath. Returned servicemen and women were given upfront entry discounts, and the event raised money for Legacy, a charity for families of killed or injured soldiers. Indeed, Tough Mudder had been so well promoted and hyped as a weekend warrior-maker, that one might be surprised to learn its inventors were Harvard business and law graduates-cum-entrepreneurs in their late 20s.

What it reminded me of most, though, perhaps unexpectedly, was Scouts.

Scouting Australia, when I joined it at age nine, was a movement in decline. The militarisation was still there – the uniforms and parades and oaths to do ‘my duty to my God and to the Queen of Australia’. But while the adults in the movement may have taken that seriously, I can’t say I felt that too many of us kids did. The movement as I knew it in the 90s was made up of a collection of misfits and dorks – kids who were too good at maths or not good enough at sport to have that much at stake by admitting at school that they knew how to tie a bow line. But what I liked about it was precisely that you didn’t need to be good at anything. You didn’t even need to be fit. All that was required of you was a desire to participate. And because we were such a motley crew of weirdos and nerds, the organisation became a breeding ground for alternative culture.

Tough Mudder was exactly the kind of thing we would have done in Scouts, and in fact, did: at the Jamboree I attended at age 13, by far the most fun I had was on the mud-filled obstacle course called the Cauldron. (Not everyone got a turn – I later heard they had to close it because of some nasty bacteria in the swamp we swam through. At Tough Mudder, however, participation was contingent upon us basically waiving our right to any kind of EHS standards.) So as we were lining up for the monkey bars at Phillip Island on Saturday, I was not at all surprised to see a familiar face from the Rover crew I joined at eighteen.

The Scouting movement was at best conservative and at worst outright fascist, but I can’t say that much of it mattered to me at the time. Perhaps it didn’t really register because I was so young when I joined. Perhaps it’s because the movement was waning. Or perhaps it’s because by being a Scout I experienced a kind of freedom most teenagers would kill for. Because how many organisations will send you and your 15-year-old friends away without supervision for weekends into the middle of nowhere? Or allow you to run your own events? Or help you build a raft out of drums and rope that you can sail down the Murray River on for a full week? When your day-to-day routine is mapped out by six period class schedules, sitting at desk after desk and the only thing that differs is the flavour of your chewing gum, canoeing down the rapids of a river in the mountains on the weekend is the thing that feels real. That doesn’t change the inherent conservative nature of the structures which enabled us to do those things, but I still gained from the experience. It hooked into something vital – the feeling that I got doing Tough Mudder was similar to the feeling I got after climbing a mountain. In spite of the fact that what we’d just participated in was a mass produced, one-size-fits-15000-at-a-time, profit-driven venture that sought (with massive irony) to riff off that yearning for authenticity that underpins the malaise of our age, I nevertheless took a lot of pride in having accomplished it. It’s a tired cliché, but it was also true: it reminded me of what I was capable of – and of what we could all be capable of if we worked together.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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      1. the gentle rivalry between the communist scouts and the church youth group was one of the better parts of the Don Camillo books.

  1. I was a Girl Guide, which explains why I stayed at home rather than do the Tough Mudder. I have my Floral Art badge AND my Laundress badge!

    Seriously though, I felt envious hearing about how great things were in Scouts. I used to do Whitehorse Showtime (a local gang show) and was very intimidated by the bold chicks who were Scouts. Lots of my fellow Guides were regarded as movement traitors for jumping ship from Ranger Guides to Venturers.

    Oh also Giovanni: there’s a huge Ethnic Scouting movement in Victoria (ESGAV) where kids do Scouting stuff in the context of their ethnic background. I know former Hungarian Scouts & Ukrainian Scouts and they all meet up at jamborees.

    1. I always wondered what being a Guide was really like. I think I kind of saw them as this strange separatist species – perhaps because part of what I really enjoyed about Scouting was getting to hang out with boys. (Since I went to a girls’ school, those opportunities were somewhat restricted.)

  2. How many organisations will allow teenagers challenges and care only that the kids want to participate? Well I know that there’s the Australian Defence Force Cadets for a start. 🙂

  3. I do remember reading a really interesting study about the Scouts in the context of fears of racial degeneration around the Boer war.
    This is from a quick google:

    As military participation in Britain depended on volunteers, social attitudes to war became ever more important. The alumni of public schools were expected to fill the top positions in the armed forces, and as a result the Officer Training Corps (OTC) was set up in schools to inculcate military attitudes and train pupils in drill and shooting. However, all levels of society needed to be prepared for war. On returning from war, Robert Baden-Powell set up the Boy Scouts, providing healthy outdoor activities for boys, in a militaristic context. Although Baden-Powell always maintained that the Boy Scouts were ‘peace Scouts’, and did not include military drill in their activities, this was to ensure that the movement had as broad an appeal as possible. He openly admitted that the Boy Scouts were a ‘potential recruiting ground’, and claimed that 70 per cent of scouts went into the army. Baden-Powell aimed to combat the perceived degeneration in society by teaching boys from all classes to respect the social hierarchy and preparing them to defend the Empire – or, as he put it in Scouting for Boys, to ‘be a brick’ in the ‘wall of Empire’. The tenacity with which both Roberts and Baden-Powell dedicated themselves to increasing Britain’s military strength is evidence of the degree of anxiety within the military elite.

    Given that history, it does seem that the time is right for a return of similar ventures, albeit rebadged for the twenty-first century.

  4. Mind you, the form that might take wouldn’t necessarily have to involve physical activity. See this, for instance:


    Today’s U.S. military recruits enjoy an arsenal of simulators and video games that sharpen their fighting skills and may even protect them from the mental stresses of combat. But experts caution that virtual reality could also help mask the reality of war.

    That has not stopped the military from embracing video games to recruit and train a young generation of gamers who typically play commercial games such as “Modern Warfare 2,” which passed $1 billion in sales in January.

    “The Army has really taken a hold of gaming technology,” said Marsha Berry, executive producer for the game “America’s Army 3.”

  5. I studied the origins of the scouts at one point, and there’s little doubt, as Jeff, points out, that they arose as a direct response to the English failures during the Boer War. At the time, there was great lamentation at the knock-kneed hollow-chested state of the English people. They needed to be trained – hence the Scouts. I was always jealous of my friends in the scouts, but I remember my dutifully left-wing parents mildly disapproving of the whole thing. Hence my knock-knees and unsuitability ….

  6. I was in cadets. A friend who was mad into the military and wanted to join when we grew up, recruited me into it but I only lasted a year.

    I loved the camping, the ‘fraternising’ that we weren’t supposed to but is to be expected of teenagers, and getting dirty. I remember getting off the bus and walking with my friend down the street back home and the look of horror on my mum’s face as we hadn’t showed in a week and I was covered in some combination of war paint and mud all over my face.

    I left around the time of a big parade to celebrate some anniversary, where all we did were drills leading up to it, much to the disappointment of my extended family that wanted me to join the army.

    1. Actually, in many ways, sport is less militarised now than during the late nineteenth century, when it was explicitly connected to the need to defend the empire.

  7. Good on you for participating in such a contradictory event. By contradictory, I mean the event’s illusions to militarism and so on.
    I was in the school cadets for two years (1972-1973) and (with hindsight) am glad I participated in it (again taking all kinds of political considerations into account).
    Similarly, I have played and play football (soccer) for the past fifteen years (1998- ) as an openly gay man. It has been and is a very enjoyable process, replete with homophobic, pro-gay and combinations there of experiences. Some of the more negative comments about my participation has been by other gay men; some of the most supportive people are my straight, footie mates.
    Participating in any social event (outside of particular subcultures – left, g/l/b/t/i or whatever – is always and will be a paradoxical experience for each of us.
    On another tangent, as I read your post, I waited for the usual ‘tut-tutting’ by some individuals. I began thinking it wasn’t here. Alas, it emerged. Oh well!

  8. good on ya and congrats for finishing. this event is on my list of things to try next year.

    i used to do an event at uni called inward bound, it was heaps of fun. we were transported to the start of the course blindfolded and were only given a map reference when we got our blindfolds off, there was serious adrenaline coursing through my system a few times at the start. it didn’t have military overtones even tho ADFA entered teams a few times, but it did skate very close to hazing esp the blindfolds, and the car trip which was with friends of opposing teams who would try to put you off with terrible music, once there was nothing but seventies tv themes, agony.

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