Meet the Maddest Mind in Mud: TMHQ Q&A with TM's Head Course Designer

By Matt Alesevich | February 19, 2014


To no surprise, TMHQ is home to many a dream job, and arguably the most coveted among these is Head Course Designer—a title held by one bold soul since Tough Mudder's inception in 2009. An ever-elusive, globetrotting go-getter, we caught up with the maddest mind in mud this off season to ask the questions on every Mudder's mind.

Name: Nolan Kombol
Age: 28
Hometown: Enumclaw, WA
Occupation: Head of Course Design at Tough Mudder
Headbands Earned: Too many to count

First and foremost: How on earth does one get a job as a Tough Mudder course designer?

It’s a tricky role because it doesn’t really exist in the real world. We try to focus on people who have a strong background in construction and engineering with a passion for the outdoors and fitness. We focus on these areas because so much of the role requires maneuvering obstacles into difficult places and being able to appropriately map and design them into a plan. It sounds easy enough, but it's very difficult to find the right person with the right background to support the role.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Honestly, the most rewarding part of the job is speaking with participants who completely changed their lives to complete a Tough Mudder. I’ve met people who’ve lost 30 to 40 pounds to get in shape to run a course and who have, hopefully permanently, changed their lives to be more healthy and active. I’m a big believer in embracing outdoor activities of any kind to support a healthy and purposeful life.

When designing a course, how do you decide which order to put the obstacles in?

Each course and venue is unique—it really depends on a course's terrain and the purpose of each obstacle. Each obstacle is placed to complement its respective terrain. For example, Arctic Enema will usually be before a long uphill run, so participants can immediately run off the cold. On the other hand, some obstacles are more static, like Electroshock Therapy, which will always be last.

At the end of the day, you just have to toughen up and power through.

You once described Arctic Enema as “Eating an ice cream cone and getting punched in the balls at the same time.” Care to elaborate?

In context, it's to mean that it’s like having an ice cream headache whilst taking a gut punch. When you jump in, you immediately tense up and every muscle in your body goes into lockdown causing you to lose 60 to 70 percent of your motor function. However, your brain is in panic mode, and it's telling you to get the hell out. So there’s an internal struggle between your brain telling you to get out and your body saying, “I’m trying…I’m trying!” At the end of the day, you just have to toughen up and power through. I find it to be a good metaphor for anything in life.

Running through an obstacle, do you ever think: “What the hell was I thinking?”

I often think that as I approach Electric Eel, but when I'm in it, I'm mostly focused on moving through as quickly as possible—that's not to say I don't get scared or panic while I'm crawling through it. As soon as it's over and I'm relieved, however, I'm filled with a satisfaction that reminds me exactly why we put it on the course.

What has to happen in between brainstorming and actually building an obstacle on course for the first time?

Tons of iterative designs and operating plans. Typically, the entire process takes about seven months and starts with brainstorming and focusing on an adrenaline-inducing activity we want to simulate—like, for example, leaping over a cliff. Next we review the viability of each concept and pitch it to the broader TMHQ team. Once an obstacle is green-lit, we start drafting drawings and models with safety and structural integrity in mind. Finally the obstacle is built and tested at our Obstacle Innovation Lab and, after some minor tweaks, it's released on a few courses and monitored carefully before earning its way onto the main menu.

Without giving too much away, what can Mudders expect out of 2014 courses?

To keep myself out of trouble, I'll keep this short and sweet: several new obstacles, a change in the way the course route is run and some high-quality new courses and locations around the world.

Are there any obstacles that didn’t make the cut that you think Mudder Nation will get a kick out of?

We had several interesting ideas float around that never made it through the concept stage. One was called Bugs and it required participants to sneak through a netted house full of glassed-in snakes, scorpions and spiders. Another was Hot Peppers, which required Mudders to take a shot of hot sauce or eat a habanero pepper mid-course. Due to allergies and phobias, however, we decided to pass on these two.

If you were one of your obstacles, which one would you be and why?

Simple. Mud Mile: classic, gritty, tough, mean, fun and challenging. This obstacles has never failed to get the job done on course, and it has consistently been one of the highest performing obstacles of all time. I don’t think people realize how much this obstacle takes out of you—it’s a full-body workout and adds about five pounds of mud to you for the next mile.