Whether you're racing to meet a deadline or running through an 18-kilometre mud-laden obstacle course, nothing brings people together quite like a common goal.
So when Zev Smith proposed a challenge to his co-workers in the locker room one morning after ING Direct's weekly hockey game – to take part in Tough Mudder – he knew it would align well with the company's focus on teamwork and collaboration. "It's a team event," said Mr. Smith, director of strategic planning with the online bank. "So the goal isn't to finish by yourself as fast as you can, the goal is to cross the line as a team."
Tough Mudder, a strenuous obstacle course that puts the mental and physical strength of its participants to the test, is different from other physically demanding events in which corporations take part, Mr. Smith explained.
Unlike, for example, Toronto-based Sporting Life's 10-kilometre run, the GoodLife Fitness Marathon, or the Enbridge CN Tower Climb for United Way, Tough Mudder participants are not competing with each other, or even themselves. Times are not tracked, personal bests are not recorded, and many obstacles – such as scaling the 12-foot wall – are physically impossible to achieve alone.
"It's something where you have a group of people who will invariably be at different physical levels and have different skills, so that whole idea of finishing it together is really the goal," Mr. Smith said.
He and his 13 teammates – including ING Direct CEO Peter Aceto, eight other co-workers from a range of departments and four of their partners or spouses – have spent their Friday afternoons training together since the start of the summer. Their skills will be put to the test this Sunday at Mount St. Louis Moonstone, a ski resort just north of Barrie, Ont., where participants will crawl through mud under barbed wire, run through a field of live electrical wires, and jump into a pool of ice water. All with the goal of saying they tackled the challenge together.
"When you have other people that are with you that you can talk to and encourage you, you can actually achieve a lot more than you could by yourself," Mr. Smith said. "I think [with the Tough Mudder challenge] there's a huge alignment with what we do as a business here. There's nothing that a lot of us can achieve on our own, but cross-functional teamwork is really what drives our business forward."
Over the course of two days, an estimated 14,000 participants, as well as about 4,000 spectators, will join Mr. Smith and his teammates at the obstacle course, about 90 minutes north of Toronto.
Though the course feels as if it was designed by the military or used to train emergency personnel, Tough Mudder was originally conceived as a business plan submitted for a competition in 2009 by Will Dean, an MBA student at Harvard Business School.
"He actually didn't win the business competition because the idea of an event where there was no winner and no loser, the professors at Harvard Business School didn't think it was a viable business option," explained Nick Bodkins, who is the New York-based general manager of all Canadian and a number of U.S. Tough Mudder events.
In spite of his professors' skepticism, Mr. Dean, along with co-founder Guy Livingstone, held the first Tough Mudder event in Bear Creek, Pa., in 2010, and it has been growing steadily ever since. In 2010, they hosted three events; in 2011, there were 14; in 2012, 35; and this year there will be 53 events in Canada, the United States, Britain, Germany and Australia.
When he first came up with the idea, Mr. Dean set a goal of reaching 7,500 participants by 2013. "We're on track to see about 750,000 participants this year," Mr. Bodkins said.
He adds that corporate teams are not uncommon at Tough Mudder events, as companies begin to appreciate the sense of camaraderie that results from enduring such a difficult challenge, and reaching the finish line together.
"We definitely provide an environment that will kick your ass, but in the end you get to celebrate with everybody," he said. "You can definitely say that people have those kinds of days at work, where you're all working on a project. When it's done, it may have hurt a lot to get through it, but it's worth it to celebrate the wins together."
Doug Nekoda, assistant manager of field marketing with Samsung Electronics Canada, will be participating in his fourth Tough Mudder event this weekend. He participated for the first time in April at Mount St. Louis Moonstone, and then went to events in Montreal and Whistler. This time, however, Mr. Nekoda will be participating with 25 co-workers from Samsung. Though the team includes staff from various departments, his experience on the course has allowed him to rise to a leadership role.
"I think it's helped me from a [work] relationship perspective, having [been] somewhat grandfathered into the role of being the guy that's done it before," he said.
Mr. Nekoda said he believes the skills he has gained through training and competing with members of his company in Tough Mudder have already been transferred into the workplace.
"Tough Mudder is about overcoming obstacles and fears," he said. "From a corporate perspective, that's what we do on a daily basis. We have our own competitors out there in the market. … We're always trying to get a leg up, and the only way that's achieved is by facing those challenges together."