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Lean Lessons from Tough Mudder

By Steve Kane Updated on October 20th, 2016


img_1887By Steve Kane

May 2016 I had the bright idea that I’d register for the Michigan Tough Mudder Mud Run, then find a way to get in shape (ready, fire, aim).  I had seen ads and social media posts from finishers and thought to myself “That looks like fun,” but didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.  I registered anyway.

Finding Motivation

Taking on the Tough Mudder challenge was a way for me to stay motivated to get back in shape.  I’d let my physical fitness deteriorate over the past 20 years or so and it was time to do something about it.   After just a few minutes of web surfing I found a crossfit box (crossfitters frown on the word “gym”) near home.  A couple of days later, training began.

Crossfit training was tough.  There wasn’t an exercise I didn’t struggle with.  After a couple of months, I started to question the wisdom of my choice to register for the mud run.  This is when I started to research the event.  This is how the Tough Mudder folks describe it on their website.

Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet

Tough Mudder is a 10-12 mile mud and obstacle course designed to drag you out of your comfort zone by testing your physical strength, stamina, and mental grit. With no podiums, winners, or clocks to race against, it’s not about how fast you can cross the finish line. Rather, it’s a challenge that emphasizes teamwork, camaraderie, and accomplishing something almost as tough as you are.

Finding Intimidation

I started watching videos about the 20 obstacles on the course.  Sitting on the couch I thought “I’m not sure I’m prepared for this.”  With only a week or so before the event, it was too late to make any significant changes to my training routine or physical condition.

I had been training for four months by this point and was in much better condition than before.  My confidence in my abilities still hadn’t developed.

Not Backing Out Now

The day of the event, my wife, Ania, and I packed some energy bars performance drinks and started the two hour drive to the Michigan International Speedway, where the event was being held.

It had been raining all night and continued to rain the entire drive.  I remember thinking about halfway there that spending the day on the couch instead seemed like a good idea.  It took a minute to shake this feeling and fully commit doing this.  I wasn’t going to let myself down.  I wasn’t going to let Ania down either.

We arrived at the course and checked in.  I went to the start line and Ania went to the beginning of the spectators course.  The Tough Mudder team does a great job of getting the participants pumped up.  We were doing warm up exercises, listening to inspirational speeches, and hootin’ and hollering.

They really drove home the message that this is not a race.  It is a challenge.  It is an opportunity for you to do and be your best.  You won’t finish alone.  You’ll need the help of your fellow mudders.  And, they’ll need your help.

There’s no requirement to run or to complete any of the obstacles.  You can bypass any obstacle you’re not comfortable with.

Fully Committed

I didn’t come all this way to walk the course or bypass the challenges.  That was the moment I decided with certainty that I would run the entire 10.9 miles and get over every obstacle.

The whistle blew and we were off.  A half mile into the course we approached the first obstacle.  It was a pit filled with muddy water and covered with barbed wire.  This is where you completely abandon any idea of not getting covered in mud.

I really didn’t need to hear that

img_1950The course continued through the Speedway grounds, over bridges, through the fence and into the forest.  About two hours and several obstacles later I starting feeling worn out.  Each step was becoming a challenge.  As I was running through the rain, with mud in my shoes, pockets, and every other place you can imagine, someone behind me announced “We’re half way there!”


Keep Going!

img_1977The last two miles or so were brutal.  After running about 9 miles, climbing, crawling, swinging, swimming, and sliding through more than 15 obstacles I was reaching muscle fatigue.  It was downright painful.  The only thing I was thinking was “Keep going.”

Ania followed along the spectator course for the last few miles and gave me some encouragement and inspiration. Most people were walking by now, but I was committed to running the entire distance.

Crossing the Finish Line








The last obstacle, just a few steps from the finish line, was a tunnel of electrical wires suspended over a mud pit.  They called this “Electroshock Therapy.”  The wire were pulsing 10,000 volts–no exaggeration.  Okay, the amperage was extremely low, but it was still enough of a jolt to knock you to the ground.  I got through it without falling and crossed the finish line.

During the run and on the way home it occurred to me that the Tough Mudder Mud Run had some parallels to Lean transformation.

10 Lean Lessons from Tough Mudder

  1. Just Do It. The moment you figure out the obstacle—Go! Overthinking it is the beginning of you talking yourself out of it.
  2. Focus on the task or challenge at hand.  Worrying about the others down the road won’t help you.
  3. Yes, the course is tough. Pace yourself and keep going. Thinking about how much farther you have to go is a negative mindset. You’re preparing yourself to quit.
  4. Hydrate and nourish along the way. You need fuel. In Lean this would be continual learning: reading, watching videos, touring, attending conferences, whatever it takes to find new inspiration.
  5. Core strength is crucial.  This is your stability and agility.  A strong core prevents injury and is essential for getting over the obstacles.  In Lean this would be Lean principles and core values.
  6. Be humble. You won’t get through this alone. You’ll have to rely on other people.  Let them help you.
  7. Servant leadership. The only way to be successfu l in Tough Mudder is to help others. Help them want to help you.  This applies to Lean and all other aspects of life.
  8. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Don’t look down unless you really need to. Motion is emotion. Keeping your chin up is a mindset.  In Lean it’s easy to get discouraged.  Remind yourself often of the vision you’re working to realize.
  9. Commit to overcoming the challenge (for me: run the entire distance and clear every obstacle). Making the commitment is the hard part. Once that’s done, it’s just a matter of figuring out how.
  10. Yes, it hurts. Enjoy the experience anyway. These are the good ole days. While you can remember difficult times or being in pain, you can’t relive it    .  There’s a sense of joy in overcoming a challenge.  When you remember joy, you do get to relive it to some degree.  Today’s struggle is tomorrow’s memory of an accomplishment.

Now that I’ve done it, PDCA and do better next time.


  1. Ron Pereira

    October 21, 2016 - 10:56 am

    Great job, Steve! So proud of you for doing this. Can’t wait to do one with you in the future.

  2. Steve Kane

    October 21, 2016 - 1:34 pm

    Thanks, Ron! I’m looking forward to us doing this together next year.

  3. Ramkumar Yaragarla

    October 24, 2016 - 4:11 am

    When you help others, they will help you back. Commitment and energy to overcome the challenge, even it hurts. Accept the pain. Keep going. Be humble. Accept others help and just do it. V nice. Thank you for these lines. Liked it. Finding the motivation is a tough part. We need to find what interests us and motivates is. V nice article. Cheers, Ramkumar

    • Steve Kane

      October 24, 2016 - 9:01 am

      Thanks, Ramkumar!

  4. Kamal Sid

    October 26, 2016 - 3:28 pm

    This is very inspiring…

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