WESTBROOK, Maine — “The finish line is the thing I’m looking forward to the most.”
Those words, uttered by first-time participant Tim Maloney of Chicago, could have been said by several thousand people gathered at Sunset Ridge Golf Links in Westbrook on Saturday morning to run in the first Tough Mudder event held in Maine.
Billed as “probably the toughest event on the planet,” according to its website, Tough Mudder is an obstacle course between 10 and 12 miles long and is a variation on courses used to train members of the British special forces. Among other tests of stamina, participants crawl through mud under barbed wire, climb over wooden walls and use their hands to traverse horizontal ladders while dangling over mud pits.
Since it was founded in 2010, Tough Mudder has expanded dramatically, with 60 events scheduled in seven countries throughout 2014 and nearly 2 million participants. The Westbrook event was expected to draw more than 13,000 participants over the weekend.
Unlike most athletic events, Tough Mudder does not have a competitive format. It is a challenge, not a race, and participants are urged to help each other overcome the course rather than compete against each other to cross the finish line first. This format makes the event welcoming to casual athletes, such as Maloney, who is vice president for sales for Chicago-based software company Microsystems.
The collaborative element is what drew Maloney and his team of runners to the event. In 2012, Maloney’s brother, Chief Michael Maloney of the Greenland Police Department in New Hampshire, was gunned down during a drug raid in the town near Portsmouth. He was eight days away from retirement.
“The Tough Mudder runs parallel to how you deal with grief,” Maloney said. “There’s no time here. You get through this as a team or you don’t. Surviving something like what happened with Mike, you just can’t get through that on your own. It takes a team of people to grab your hand, to push [you] over the line, to stand behind you and pick you up when you fall. It truly takes a village.”
After Michael Maloney’s death, his younger brother helped found the Chief Michael Maloney Memorial Fund along with other first responders and members of the North Hampton community in which they grew up. The memorial fund is a volunteer organization that focuses on providing financial aid for the families of fallen first responders and donating money for scholarships to help children through school.
“Mike was the center of the universe for a lot of people,” Maloney said. “Thirty thousand people showed up for the funeral. Another 40,000 watched it online.
“When you come from a small town where there’s not a lot of people, you get a connection to everyone,” he continued. “[The fund came from] a refusal to allow such a dark cloud to be what people remember him by.”
When the call went out for team members on the Maloney Mudders’ Facebook page, the response was overwhelming. First responders, military personnel, law enforcement and community members responded to the call, forming the 62-person team that arrived Saturday. This participation resulted in $7,000 being raised for the Chief Michael Maloney Memorial Fund.
“Everybody [on the team] knows someone; no one knows everyone,” Maloney said. “I personally only know eight people on this team. It’s humbling. But at the same time if that doesn’t make you want to get up and go fight this thing, nothing will.”
Stories like Maloney’s are a common theme at Tough Mudder events, which in part motivated Westbrook Assistant City Administrator William Baker to pursue hosting the event in the first place.
“One of the things that attracted us to this is that there’s a lot of team stuff going on,” Baker said. “There are a lot of human interest stories going on.”
According to Tough Mudder’s Director of Communications Ben Johnson, the Westbrook event was projected to attract between 13,000-15,000 people from 36 states and five different countries, with anticipated revenue for the town and surrounding area ranging between $2 million and $10 million over the course of the weekend. According to Baker, a majority of the revenue comes in the form of participants spending money at local businesses, such as at hotels and gas stations.
“As municipalities, we tend to think small, and it’s time to think big. My goal is to expose the city and state to people from other places who may want to come back.” Baker said.
“We’ve got up to a five-year deal, but a lot of [Tough Mudder’s] decision is based on feedback. From what I hear it’s been positive, so hopefully that’ll be enough.” Baker said.
The course goes through the back nine holes of the Sunset Ridge Golf Links golf course, with a significant portion winding through the forest surrounding the course. Several obstacles on the course were new for 2014. Among them “Fire in Your Hole,” a 30-foot near-vertical slide with a row of flames at the bottom that participants pass through before landing in a pool of cold, muddy water.
Every 20 minutes, 500 participants began their run of the course. There could be up to 2,000 people running the 11-mile Westbrook course at any given time.
According to Johnson, the average finishing rate for the course is around 78 percent, with an average completion time between two and four hours. The finishing rate at the Westbrook event was slightly higher, Johnson said, which could be because of cooler temperatures and a somewhat flatter landscape.
In spite of the seeming danger in several of the obstacles, Johnson didn’t expect safety to be a concern.
“Our event team has 75 years of event experience, putting on events from New York Marathon to Formula 1 races,” Johnson said. “[There will be] a couple traditional rolled ankles and hurt shoulders, but nothing that we’d expect outside a usual weekend.”
The event also featured a large military presence, with Army recruiters walking the course and spectator areas. This is the second year the Army has sponsored Tough Mudder, with the Westbrook event being the second of nine events they will be sponsoring in the U.S.
Over the course of the partnership, Tough Mudder events have raised more than $6 million for the Wounded Warrior Fund, according to Maj. Marcus Mitchell, Public Affairs Officer for the Army Marketing Affairs and Research Group.
Participants’ entry fees depended on when they registered — as low as $75 for early registration and $200 on the day of the event. If participants donated $150 to the Wounded Warrior Fund, separate from the entry fee, $25 was slashed from the ticket price. The majority of participants received support donations from family and friends, according to Johnson.
The grit and determination required to complete the course is something that has drawn a great many to the event, leading to it’s explosion in popularity. It means something different for everyone. For Maloney and his team, it is a memorial to a man they love, respect and miss.
“Only 5 percent of the team has ever done something like this before,” Maloney said. “Fifty-seven people have never done this before and are just doing it to raise money for the Chief Michael Maloney Memorial Fund. Fifty-seven people have showed up today to put their bodies through hell for a guy they don’t know. They look after their own. It’s really impressive to see.
“How far would you go to keep someone you love’s memory alive?” Maloney said.