Tough Mudder in Dubai: Meet the Harvard diplomat who made $100 million from playing in the mud

One of the world’s toughest tests of strength, stamina and grit is set to arrive in Dubai as the US$100 million global phenomenon that is Tough Mudder makes its regional debut.

If crawling through mud, wading through ice or sprinting through live electricity cables is your kind of thing, then head to the Hamdan Sports Complex on December 9-10, when as many as 5,000 punishment seekers will be getting down and dirty among a selection of larger-than-life obstacles.

Will Dean, the unassuming founder of the event, came up with the idea as a 28-year-old student at Harvard Business School and entered it into a business plan contest. In 2010 the first event was held at a ski resort in Pennsylvania and since then it has become a $100m-revenue business and will this year host 120 events in 10 countries.

Sipping a coffee in the foyer of a Dubai hotel, the now 35-year-old says caffeine is his main vice and a necessary accompaniment to spending much of his time flying around the world on red-eye flights looking for the next potential Mudder venue.

Dubai was always an obvious location for this kind of event where endurance sports, cross-training and other physical pursuits have ballooned in recent years. But the focus is less competitive than some of those other activities. There are no timing chips or focus on passing the finishing line first as much as testing yourself and helping fellow competitors through.

The narrative that has been skilfully created around Tough Mudder is one of non-competitive character-building camaraderie and confidence.

Such personal tests are perhaps filling a broader void in our increasingly urbanised and globalised society and smartphone-connected society, where tribal rites of passage once fulfilled the same essential purpose.

“When you can get through something that scares you and take on things that intimidate you then they don’t intimidate you any more,” Mr Dean says.

The event is being organised with IMG and with the help of du and Dubai Sports Council.

“Anywhere where you have a world-class city there are lots of people that tend to gravitate towards challenges; you know people who tend to push themselves and are adventurous and open-minded,” says Mr Dean. “Tough Mudder caters to all those character traits.”

The event will include 8 kilometre and 16km courses aimed at fitness enthusiasts with a smaller du Mini Mudder 1.5km obstacle course for seven to 13-year-olds.

It also sounds fiendishly perilous, but he insists that the most dangerous thing about taking part in the event is the drive to the venue, where he says you are seven times more likely to be injured. And that statistic was calculated before the arrival of the event in Dubai – where the odds may need to be recalculated.

“Like any event there’s an element of danger but that’s true of almost anything you do, so we are very proud of our safety record.”

As for the level of fitness required to tackle the event, that is slightly more difficult to define.

“It is a tough challenge – there’s no getting away from that. But you can get through it with your mates – that’s always been at the centre of it. It’s all about team.”

Growing up in the UK’s Sherwood Forest, home to the fables of Robin Hood, was perhaps the perfect place to develop an early sense of adventure – building swing ropes and climbing trees.

Being part of a close-knit community and having a sense of humility all fed into what he would later become, he acknowledges.

“All those things are woven into who I am for sure,” he says.

He arrived at Harvard from an early career as a British diplomat (he worked as a counter-terrorism officer), where he says he clashed with some of the bureaucracy of the system “more than was healthy for everyone”. Still he values the experience – especially so when he started at the elite business school where his background was not typical among the other young financiers and management consultants.

“I probably could not have been the entrepreneur I am today had I not had the experience and the training of the British civil service,” he says. “I feel being rude about the British civil service is a bit like being rude about your own kids. It’s fine if I do it, but I get a bit defensive if anyone else has a go. In its own way it was quite entrepreneurial. It also meant when I came to business school I had a completely different perspective.”

How did studying at the world’s most famous business school play in his entrepreneurial journey?

“I went to business school thinking there was this kind of secret source to business and I figured there were all these things you had to know – so, yes, you need to know how to read a balance sheet and do a business plan but you don’t need two years for that and you definitely don’t need two years at Harvard Business School to do that stuff.

“It gives you access to a lot of people who have done interesting things and some of those people are brilliant, some are articulate, some of them are hugely creative – but a lot of them are just quite gritty resilient people and it wasn’t that I left Harvard saying: ‘I’m definitely going to be successful’. But I did leave Harvard thinking there’s no reason to think I’m not in with a chance to be as successful as these people.

“The irony is at least of third of the people aren’t all that smart – or maybe half. And I’m probably in that half,” he says with what sounds like unaffected self-deprecation.

“I think sometimes people overplay the [Harvard] network. I think the brand is worth something and people give you the benefit of the doubt, but more than anything it’s while you are there, [you have] access to lots of people who have been successful in their own way.”

He talks about “experience” being the new luxury good and of being part of a global “tribe” of mudders.

Some 5,000 people have had the Tough Mudder logo tattooed on them.

It feels like “tribe” is the key word in all of this.

In a modern, globalised and increasingly tribeless society, perhaps events such as this and others like it fill a void left by what we once were and have now become.

After Dubai, Mr Dean will be boarding his next red-eye to Shanghai.

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the Chinese proverb.

But living in dull times may be why events like this are so popular.

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