DADE CITY — For a weekend the bucolic pastures of the Little Everglades Ranch were transformed into an extreme challenge complete with military-style obstacles. The 12-mile Tough Mudder course put teammates to the test — and forged new bonds among strangers.
"My whole team flaked out around the third obstacle in, and I met up with another guy who I've never met before whose team also flaked out and ended up running it with him," said Corey Delzell, 22, of St. Petersburg. "That was one of the toughest things I've ever done but we finished. The entire course is a challenge, and by the time you get to the end you're incredibly worn out but it was awesome."
About 17,000 people from all over the country and Europe flocked to Dade City last weekend for Florida's first Tough Mudder, an extreme endurance event that has ballooned in popularity within the past year. Whether it's crawling through the mud under a ceiling of barbwire, swimming through a vat of ice water, running up a greasy half pipe or plowing through a field of live electrical wires, Tough Mudder tests the willpower and endurance of every person who signs the death waiver required to participate.
Eric Keaton, Pasco's tourism manager, helped bring Tough Mudder to Dade City and even participated in it himself on Sunday as part of Team Pasco.
"It lived up to the hype," Keaton said. "This event has a huge following … I don't know of any other event that brings together people from all walks of life to challenge them physically and mentally like this. The ranch with its natural swamp aspect provided that fear of a gator or water moccasin at times and gave it the Florida feeling that Tough Mudder was looking for. There is no triathlon out there that compares to this event."
Competing in his seventh Tough Mudder this year, Daniel Staples, 33, flew down from New Jersey to be with old friends from his days in the military.
"There aren't any mountains, so I thought it would be easy, but they find ways to mess with you and make sure that it's tough on you," Staples said. "I flew down to see these guys and do this. It's been great. I was in Beef O'Brady's last night and I had all my Tough Mudder headbands and I felt like a celebrity. People were asking me to take pictures with them just cause I've done all these Tough Mudders. I'm just a schoolteacher otherwise."
Organizers said the event was a tremendous success and created a new following in a new market.
"Our post event surveys indicate that 98 percent of people really enjoyed the event," said Ali Nicastro of Tough Mudder's community relations team. "We've rarely had such an incredible event for the first time in a new area. We had great weather, and what this course offered was really fun for us, because with the course being so flat, we had to adapt from our usual course to that."
Little Everglades Ranch proved to be a perfect venue for the event, helping to raise the profile of Dade City and Pasco County among a crowd that may not have otherwise come to town, Keaton said. Tough Mudder's schedule indicates the event will return on the first weekend of December in 2012.
"I think this does a lot for our credibility as far as what type of events we can host in Pasco and at Little Everglades Ranch in particular," Keaton said. "Everyone that we met or saw was saying how beautiful the ranch is. We met people from Europe and all different parts of the country that came here to be part of Tough Mudder Florida. All of the hotels in the eastern part of the county were booked and the weather turned out perfect so it really couldn't have gone any better than it did for the county."