Coolest Travel Jobs: The Designer Putting the Extreme in Extreme Obstacle Courses

In this series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with a doctor without borders, a social media influencer, and a professional ghost hunter. Up next: a designer of extreme obstacle courses.

Coolest Travel Jobs: The Designer Putting the Extreme in Extreme Obstacle Courses

In less than a decade, Tough Mudder has grown into a $100-million-dollar business, now hosting 130 events per year in 11 countries.

Courtesy of Tough Mudder

Dong Dangler. Gut Buster. Shocks on the Rocks. These are just a few of the names given to obstacles in the extreme endurance event known as Tough Mudder. The 10- to 12-mile, military-style obstacle course—cofounded by former U.K. counter-terrorism officer Will Dean and ex-corporate lawyer Guy Livingstone—is meant to push the limits of its participants, testing strength, agility, endurance, and mental grit. But it’s also supposed to be fun, fostering teamwork and camaraderie among Mudders.

These are the things that Nolan Kombol, lead obstacle course designer since the event’s inception in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in May 2010, thinks about constantly. He and his team have dreamt up dozens of obstacles over the years, built them out in a lab, and traveled all over North America setting them up as courses. In less than a decade, Tough Mudder has grown into a $100-million-dollar business, now hosting 130 events per year in 11 countries. (Tough Mudder is headed to Philadelphia on May 19 and 20, then Michigan, Kentucky, and Lake Tahoe after that. For a complete list of upcoming events, click here.)

One thing that hasn’t changed through its many iterations is the sheer tenacity it takes to power through a course laden with mettle-testing obstacles. Fire in Your Hole is a 30-foot waterslide that shoots through a wall of five-foot flames. Arctic Enema is a swim through multiple Dumpsters filled with 80,000 pounds of ice. Electroshock Therapy is a dash through 1,000 live wires suspended over a pit of mud. This stuff is not for the faint of heart, and yet more than 3 million people have run Kombol’s courses over the years. What makes Kombol, a nice farm kid from Enumclaw, Washington, uniquely cut out for his sadistic job? We caught up with him last December at Tough Mudder’s headquarters in Brooklyn to find out.

You helped set up the first-ever Tough Mudder event, but you didn’t race in it. Why not?

“Will [Dean] had always described Tough Mudder as a ‘military-style obstacle course.’ When I heard ‘military-style,’ I automatically assumed it must be for veterans or active service members. I thought everyone would be comparing their skills—like, ‘Oh, I’m a fireman and I’m better than a policeman’ or ‘I’m a Marine and I’m better than somebody in the Army.’ A lot of service members did show up, but because of targeted Facebook advertising, we also got people who were just into triathlons and marathons. They were looking for a new weekend activity, and the idea that you got a beer at the end of the course was exciting. It made it seem more like a party. The start wave had an emcee getting everyone hyped up; people were cheering for one another. And I just thought, ‘Wow, this is something different.’”

You were a history major in college. How does someone train for a job designing obstacle courses?

“I used to say there is no way to train for this job, because it didn’t exist before Tough Mudder. But if you look at my background, these are things I’ve been doing my whole life: I’ve always loved climbing, hiking, jumping off cliffs. I spent a lot of time playing outdoors as a kid and working on trail crews in high school—clearing trails, marking paths, finding new places to hike. I had a good understanding of geography and spatial awareness and what makes for a good course. Second, I have a pretty mixed background in construction. That’s important because I have to be able to translate what’s in Will’s mind to practical builds.”

OK, so say Will comes up with a wild idea for an obstacle course and your builder says, “What, are you crazy? You can’t do that!” As the middleman, how do you make the two visions come together?

“I’ll use a real example: Electroshock Therapy. Will wanted an obstacle that was terrifying and difficult but not strength-based. If enduring pain is what makes an obstacle hard, then it doesn’t matter if you’re strong, tall, short, or weak—it’s gonna impact you the same way. We landed on electricity, because it’s a common fear. But the first time we talked to the builders about it, they rightly said: ‘Soooo, you want us to electrocute participants?’ [Laughs] And then, ‘We can do it, but it’s probably not a good idea.’ So then I explained how I grew up on a farm with five or six horses, and we had a lot of live fences. I used to get shocked by our horse fence controllers all the time. It was brutal, but the voltage came in varying degrees. I used that background to say to the builder, ‘He’s not telling you to electrocute our participants by running 210 voltage, but here’s how we could try it. . . .’”

You test all of your obstacles at the Tough Mudder Obstacle Innovation Lab. Explain what that is.

“The brainstorming and ideation happen in our office here. It’s primarily whiteboard sessions and planning, but then we build it out, throw our bodies into it, and see what happens. It’s a lot of fun, and sometimes painful, but it’s a good way to see what’s working and what’s not.”

Meet @jesi820, a paraplegic athlete who beat all odds when she crossed the #WTM17 finish line. 100% Badass. #ToughMudder #ProsandJoes — Tough Mudder (@ToughMudder) May 15, 2018

What’s an obstacle you tested at the lab and were like, “Oh my god, that’s horrible, we need to dial it back”?

“A couple of years ago, we released an obstacle called Birth Canal, which is a crawl under a suspended plastic liner filled with water. The liner is probably 10 inches off the ground but it holds about 50 or 60 gallons of water, so as you crawl through it, you have this constant weight of water pinning you against the ground. It’s really difficult and not a lot of fun for people who have claustrophobia. When we first started testing it, we didn’t know how long it should be or how much water should be in there, so we started with 150 gallons over a long stretch. And I was the first one to go through it. [Laughs] Midway in, I got stuck, with my arms and legs completely pinned to the ground; I couldn’t move at all and it was completely blacked out. I shouted to my team, ‘OK, guys—probably have to lighten this up . . . but first, I need to get out of here!’ [Laughs] They started a little bucket brigade that emptied the water until I could crawl out. And that’s how we decided the difficulty level—it needed to be just light enough that I could start crawling again.”

At some point, Tough Mudder talked about incorporating bugs into an obstacle but ultimately decided against it. Yet you’ll experiment with claustrophobia. Where do you draw the line on phobias?

“There is no line. Not all of the obstacles are meant to trigger a phobia. Crossing a water pit over monkey bars, for example, is not a fear-based obstacle; it requires strength and agility. With the phobia obstacles we consider, we always ask: Is this a common fear? We never tested the bug thing, but we talked about an obstacle where participants crawl through a clear plastic box swarming with spiders and scorpions. The problem is, bugs do not freak everybody out. Claustrophobia and heights are more universal fears. If it’s not going to trigger something in everybody, it’s probably not the best obstacle. Also: How do you go about getting a thousand big spiders? [Laughs] It’s surprisingly difficult!”

Do you have any phobias yourself that made it difficult to build an obstacle?

“Ironically, the only things that really bother me are spiders. [Laughs]”

Ohhh, how convenient!

“Snakes are totally fine, whatever. But spiders disgust and terrify me. We had a lot of wolf spiders in our house as a kid and they used to bite me. I’d get big, purple welts and it was really painful. Spiders are the enemy!”

You’ve done obstacle courses in more than 30 locations around the United States and internationally. Which was the most challenging course to set up, in terms of geography or local permitting?

“Once we decide where we want to go—say, Austin—we start looking at venues that might work. These are often large motocross tracks or sometimes farms. You usually need 500 acres to host, but you also need parking for 10,000 participants, and the right kind of terrain with decent trail running and good climbs. Ski mountains are probably the most fun but also the most difficult. They have beautiful views and often great trails, but the elevation gain is challenging. Also, from a planning and permitting perspective, they’re the most difficult because they’re usually in protected areas. Certain obstacles could impact plant or animal life, or even the stability of the mountain. It’s funny though—the Seattle venue is on my family’s property; it’s been there the last six years. It’s kinda fun to host the event at home.”

The 10- to 12-mile military-style obstacle course is meant to push the limits of its participants, testing strength, agility, endurance, and mental grit.

The 10- to 12-mile military-style obstacle course is meant to push the limits of its participants, testing strength, agility, endurance, and mental grit.

Courtesy of Tough Mudder

Your family must be so proud that all of your childhood horse-fence electrocutions finally paid off.

“Even though we have a venue there, I’m not sure they fully get Tough Mudder. There’s still a level of disbelief, like ‘Why do people do this thing?’ A few of my siblings have run Tough Mudder now and they get it, but my folks still struggle with why people would want to pay to hurt themselves. My mom’s always like, ‘Can’t you just do that on your own, in the forest?’ [Laughs] ‘Well, no, Mom. Not everybody has that option. What I do is make that available for the public.’”

Have your parents run it?

“Oh, no, no, no. They’ve watched it but never tried it. Although my mom actually went through Electroshock Therapy three years ago. I was giving her a site tour and she was like, ‘I want to try it,’ and she went through it! She’s been shocked by the horse fence a lot, so she said it was nothing.”

Obstacle racing has become a crowded field. As you’re developing new challenges, how do you differentiate Tough Mudder from Spartan Race, Tough Guy, Mud Hero, Warrior Dash, and all the others?

“The thing that fundamentally separates Tough Mudder from our competitors is that our event is not timed. That changes the approach. Our competitors spend less time on the obstacle-innovation front and more time on competitive racing. Ours is also more of a social challenge because our obstacles require teamwork; theirs is more about the individual challenge. So with something like Pyramid Scheme, the goal is to work with a team of five or six people to stack up and get over the obstacle. If you’re the big, strong, macho guy, your role is to help other people over. If you’re not the big, strong, macho guy and you need help over, you get the experience of, ‘Hey, there are nice people out there that help me!’ That feels great, too. So we don’t focus on who can get over the obstacle the quickest; we can focus on how well you get through it.”

What’s something the outside world doesn’t understand about your job?

“A lot of people look at my job and say, ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ because they think I just goof around on obstacles all day. But a big portion of my time is spent on logistics and safety planning. You wouldn’t believe the amount of work that goes into figuring out if an obstacle is structurally safe: Does it have the right engineering behind it to stand up for use by over 10,000 participants? Having something like a swing arm on an obstacle that has to swing back and forth hundreds of thousands of times in a year are all of the back-end things we have to think about to make a great course. The whole process usually takes nine months from start to finish. The other thing people don’t understand is the amount of psychology that goes into the course experience. More often than not, people think it’s just about building a wall or a mud pit, but so much of what we do has to do with human interaction. And for me, that’s the most rewarding part—knowing that we really thought through how you should feel after you finish a course.”

We are ONE WEEK away from Ruff Mudder #Philly, presented by @WaterpikPets and we still have a few spots left. Your pup will love you for it, we promise. #ToughMudder — Tough Mudder (@ToughMudder) May 12, 2018

Do you have in-house medical staff that reviews proposed obstacles?

“We have an in-house safety team, plus a medical director who sits on that team. He worked previously for the New York Marathon and New York Triathlon, so he comes with a ton of experience in the sport.”

What’s an example of an obstacle you ultimately decided to scrap for safety reasons?

“If we’re rolling it out, we’re very confident that it’s safe. Performance is the only reason we scrap obstacles—if they’re getting old or participants don’t like them or we come up with a better idea.”

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

“Try to understand before being understood.”

What advice do you have for people who want to land a job like yours?

“If you want to be in an industry like this, it’s important to have a well-rounded background; you don’t need to have a single focus on fitness or engineering. Like I said, it’s not just the ability to build a wall bigger, it’s the ability to think through what experience we are going for and how it feels for large groups of people to go through it. Don’t turn down new opportunities to do something unique.”

>>Next: What It’s Like to Be an Avalanche Forecaster

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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