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.