Tougher Than Mud

Tough Mudder, an endurance challenge that features daunting military-style obstacles, comes to Raceway Park in Englishtown.

Stephen Clifford of Hoboken hits the dirt during last November’s Tough Mudder at Raceway Park.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Tough Mudder is not your average marathon. “We call ourselves Iron Man meets Burning Man,” says Will Dean, CEO and cofounder of the over-the-top endurance challenge, which returns this month to Raceway Park in Englishtown.

Whether sending its slightly crazed participants dashing through 4-foot flames from kerosene-soaked straw bales, plunging 15 feet into 42-degree water, thrashing through four miles of solid mud or navigating greased monkey bars, Tough Mudder tests the mettle of the fittest of the fit. Even spectators have to sign a death or serious-injury waiver.

“When I told my parents I was doing the Tough Mudder, my mom said I was crazy and I was going to break my leg and lose my job,” says lawyer Erica Clifford, 34, of Morristown, who took part in last year’s Raceway Park event. “My dad—a former Marine—took me out to do pull-ups on the bar in the garage.”

Clifford’s brother, Stephen Clifford, 32, a digital-ad sales representative and Hoboken resident, also took part as one of her seven teammates. “For 26 days, I took a cold shower every morning. I also took an ice bath once, using five bags of ice. That still didn’t prepare me for the cold water. It paralyzed me. It felt like my head shrunk to a pea size and that my rib cage had a boa constrictor around it.”

Each Tough Mudder event (there have been 13 so far in the United States since May 2010) has approximately two dozen military-style obstacles—designed by British Special Forces. And at some point in the 10- to 12-mile course, there’s always a mystery obstacle—such as live electrical wires, some packing 10,000 volts, which became so popular it was added as a regular obstacle.

“I put my arms in front of my face and just ran through, charging and screaming,” Stephen says. “And it zapped, zapped, zapped. My muscles were freaking out and spasming.”

Or try eating a habanero chili pepper before jumping into a garbage dumpster filled with water and ice.

“When you jump in cold water, you kind of gasp for breath because you didn’t expect it to be so cold,” says Bryan Crawford, a 25-year-old e-mail-marketing specialist from Warren, who experienced this at the Allentown, Pennsylvania race. “Well…you just ate the pepper, so it’s hard to really gasp for air when your whole throat is burning.”

Yet talk to mudders and each will tell you that there is something exhilarating about the race. “It’s about camaraderie,” says Dean. “It’s about not taking yourself too seriously.”

Tough Mudder ( has its soft side, too. To date, the events have raised roughly $2 million for the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists severely injured American servicemen and women.

An estimated 20,000 people are expected to participate in the event November 12 to 13 in Englishtown, including Stephen Clifford (his third) and Bryan Crawford and his sister, Rebecca (their second).

Erica Clifford is taking a hiatus, but she has fond memories of last year. “We shared something that not many people go through,” says Erica, who has run Tough Mudder twice. “I don’t know if that sounds overly dramatic, but it’s the complete truth. Two and a half hours of basically going through hell will do that to you.”

In December, Tough Mudder returns to Raceway Park for a World’s Toughest Mudder competition among the top 5 percent of all 2010-2011 finishers. They’ll compete in a 24-hour version of the race, over a special 30-plus-obstacle course.  

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