It's a bitterly cold New Jersey October morning and I am huddled with a group of friends, sheltering like penguins with our backs into the biting wind.
There are no men in our midst. They are 3kms away, stamping and slipping their way up a mud-slicked hill towards a smouldering heap of haystacks, the odd flame licking into the clear morning as firemen stand by, hoses at the ready.
Behind them is a two-foot-deep soup of limbs and sticky mud stretching for over a hundred yards, bodies bogged down in the trenchlike, shoe-sucking gloop.
It's not a music festival gone horribly wrong, nor is it a WWI re-enactment group. No. This is Tough Mudder and I am, frankly, appalled by what I am witnessing: grown adults willingly open to self-immolation and self-flagellation, like a ring of Dante's Inferno.
Guy Livingstone, Tough Mudder co-founder and the burgeoning company's COO, seems to have some kind of pain deflector shield on. Later, not only has he just run a TM for the umpteenth time, but he is smiling. "We want to create unconventional, life-changing experiences for people" he says. "There isn't another non-competitive event out there that's an all-round test and doesn't take itself seriously - while doing something you're genuinely proud of."
Enter a 20km cross-country run punctuated with obstacles - anything from a 15-foot drop into a cold lake to the infamous 'electric shock therapy', a curtain of dangling charges that deliver 10,000-volt hits to the men and women streaming through their painful tendrils. Spectators pay a small amount to enter the curcuit and watch - and it is well worth it: the other penguins and I stand for a full 30 minutes at 'Everest' and stare, laughing and entranced as grown man after grown man flops against the 12-foot high quarter pipe, like flies slamming into a windscreen. It is pure slapstick brilliance.
Ten months on and Livingstone and his team of 90 staff - the company was only two-strong when it formed in early 2010 - are now preparing to gild their place in the Aussie adventure circuit, readying themselves for the 30,000 'Mudders' that will flow through the Glenworth Valley course over 22/23 September. It follows a sell-out inaugural southern hempishere event at Phillip Island, Victoria - TM's largest ever turnout.
"Australia is our biggest market anywhere in the world - even more so than the US and Canada", says Yorkshire-born Livingstone over the phone from New York. "Tough Mudder epitomises what Australia is all about - it's tough, fun and people are athletic, fit and up for a challenge."
We have the highest proportion of female competitors - 30 per cent - and obstacles along the gruelling 20km track have been specially ramped up to cater for the "extremely fit" Aussies.
Planning has been underway for a year and work has started on the obstacles already, which will take ten people a full month to build. "We've been prototyping new obstacles. Number 17, 'Shocks on the Rocks', is a highlight. You crawl on your belly through water with a field of dangling electric shocks above, you're guaranteed to get a 10,000-volt shock, and big men with big shoulders are hit the hardest." Sounds fun.
No really, it does, compared to the 'Arctic Enema': a jump into a container of neon-dyed ice-cold water, dodging floating ice and swimming (read surviving) its length.
By the end of the three-and-a-half-hour track, grown men are shaking like leaves, their teeth rattling with the onset of hypothermia. Many of them would not have finished if it wasn't for their co-Mudders, strategically placed sound-systems (Eye of the Tiger is something of a Mudder anthem, obviously), energy drinks and bars, and the constant cheering from crowds and 300 volunteers. The post-course bar - Livingstone says they expect to shift 100,000 beers at Glenworth - helps, too.
"It's all about teamwork and camarderie, it's not a competition. It's about conquering your fear in an accessible way" he says. "You can't do this by yourself, you're going to have to rely on your teammates and strangers. We find that fear factor obstacles are often dealt with better by women. They tend to be better at coping with their fears - it's not all about strength."
Maxine Windram agrees. The 41-year-old mother from Melbourne ran the Phillip Island event with 29 others, mostly mothers in their forties.
"We were all worried. It's hard but we all helped each other." The next day was a different story, says the lingerie-chain owner. "I was more tired after TM than I was after my marathon. It's all different muscles and I was covered in bruises and cuts - but you just need a base level of fitness and you just wing the rest.
"People help, it's amazing - three young guys were helping women old enough to be their mothers, it was really endearing, very sweet."
There are four weeks until the Glenworth Valley start line - complete with a rabble-rousing motivational (and faintly militant) MC. The thought crosses my mind that I ought to give it a go - it won't be as cold as New Jersey, in any event, but will I have long enough to train? "You have to do it! Do it! You won't regret it!" Windram says.
Mudder-dom seems a tall order - until Livingstone recalls one of his favourite event moments: "We watched a female double amputee finishing a course in California. She is a war veteran - it was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen."
Sign me up. Oh, and remember: "Mudders don't whine."
TOUGH MUDDER TIPS: FOUR WEEKS TO GO
Training: Blake Worrall-Thompson, a Bondi-based women's fitness trainer, has put together a training plan, designed to build muscle strength over four weeks until the event. "Your legs will get wet and heavy - it'll feel like you're carrying extra kilos. You need to make sure your legs are strong enough for the distance and weight, and to boost upper-body strength for the obstacles."
He advises to complete the following circuit 4 times a week:
4 flights of steps
10 bodyweight rows
1 minute plank
4 flights of steps
1 minute Romanian chair
4 flights of steps
2 minute break - then repeat all 3 more times.
After two weeks, he advises to increase the number of reps, so that the body learns to cope with fatigue. Three days before the event, stop the curcuits. Two days before, comlpete an easy 5km run. The day before, rest up.
Do it in a group: "You will need to help each other" says Windram. "It's not a race, it's not about speed."
Wear: "Anything you don't want to keep" says Windram, while Livingstone advises some well-chosen, tight-fitting threads: "Barbed wire on the 'Kiss of Mud' - obstacle 5 - has caused some wardrobe malfunctions in the past." Duly noted. Trainers will be a write-off so prepare to give them to charity clothing collectors at the finish line.