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Inside Man: The Obstacle Architect

Tough Mudder's course designer builds things you'll want to brag about.

Over 10 to 12 miles in a Tough Mudder, you’ll get soaked, sludged, jarred, shocked, and filthy – especially filthy. About 20 to 25 obstacles do the job, each one playing off our innate need to brag over beers for the next few weeks. Most of those obstacles are dreamed up on a white board inside a Brooklyn conference room, where course designer Eli Hutchison leads brainstorms, which he turns into sketches, which turn into full builds, which turn into the selfies and stories spread by more than a million finishers since the race started in 2010.

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Men’s Fitness: How do you actually come up with ideas for new obstacles?

Eli Hutchison: Probably every single possible obstacle idea that can be floated out there has gone through us. But it’s not necessarily about the amount of ideas that are out there. We are taking them in and actually figuring out what's going to be possible.

We go through constant brainstorming at HQ where we will get people together at the company and go through different ideas. As an obstacle company, that’s often us sitting around at lunch talking. It is the kind of office where obstacle conversations happen a lot.

What are you looking for in an obstacle idea then? How does it go from paper to muddy course?

A big part of my job is looking at our courses holistically, figuring out what a full obstacle menu looks like. It’s difficult because in different places you have different terrain types, so our course designers are the ones on the ground designing the course and they come back to me in my department and say, “this is what I think we need for this course to make it work.” Often, for example, if you have a place where you have a lot of running – where you are really beating up on their legs – you'll want to put in something to give them more of an upper body challenge. So we have ranking systems internally where we look at a course and say, “you're offering about this much upper body toughness, you're offering this much agility, you're offering this much mental grit.”

One of your newest obstacles is called “Fire in Your Hole.” It involves a steep slide through fire into a mud pit. How was this created? Who’s the person who thinks this is a good idea?

Fire for us has always been a must-have. It's on our logo and it’s just something that we have always found really compelling. You want to have those things that people love to talk about. They love to say. “I got electrocuted, or I ran through fire, or I jumped through fire, or I slid 30 feet and got shot like a rocket through fire.”

Once we had that idea that we want a fire and a slide together, the first step is taking stabs at sketching it out. We knew we wanted it to be on a raised structure, but we had to agree on how high the slide should be and where on the obstacle the fire should be. Should the fire be at the start of the slide, should it be in the middle, should it be fireballs that poof up at a certain point?

The next step after that, once we have all decided on a sketch, is we go through the actual first test. We have two of those per year. We call it alpha testing, so that is when we take our bucket of ideas that we want to test and build them at one of our alpha sites.

After the obstacle is built, for Fire in Your Hole for example, who gets to go down first and make sure people won’t be engulfed in flames? Do you draw straws?

I remember throwing a bag of sand down Fire in Your Hole to test it out. But really once it was ready to go – we were comfortable with our drawings and we were comfortable with the construction – really it was us looking at each other and saying, “who wants to be the first to go down?”

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Some of the obstacles, like one called Electroshock Therapy, involve electrical wires that shock participants. Do you have to test that those work before each race?

It’s a horrible part of this process by the way, but it’s also a really fun part of the job oddly enough. I always had to test Electroshock every weekend. There's always this horrible feeling where you have to make sure it will work. You know you are about to go through a little bit of pain. I used to have to stick my hand in the puddle we make and then grab one of the wires; it always takes a second but then it pulses. I get that sensation we are looking for where it sends the shock through your entire body and makes you jump back. Now, I’m terrified of electric wires because I’ve done it so many times.

With no restrictions or logistical barriers, what is the craziest obstacle you would like to build?

I really enjoy being in the air and jumping off things so I think just about the coolest thing we could possibly do would be some sort of human trebuchet, if we could figure out how to do that in a safe way. You would have that actual mechanism where someone has to actually step into place and understand that they are about to watch this machine launch them off into the air.

So when can we expect the trebuchet to hit Tough Mudder courses?

Maybe 2015. Maybe… (laughs)


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