I am a Tough Mudder.
I don’t usually consider myself “brand loyal”, I’m just not the type. Most events don’t impress me much, and I think, more often than not, they usually fall short of their excessively hyped promises. This one was different.
2 hours, 17 minutes. Limping. Proud of myself, proud of my team, and thoroughly satisfied by a feat of athleticism that trumped anything I had attempted before, I was crowned with the ugliest thing in my wardrobe, the official Tough Mudder headband (and yes Under Armor, we see that you managed to sneak your logo on there too).
I first heard about Tough Mudder from the barefooted primal strongman Scott Grzybek of Zukay Live Foods while hanging out at the Take Back Your Health event in Washington DC last April. He gave me one of those “you haven’t heard of Tough Mudder?” questions that left me feeling like I had just rolled out from under a rock and had been missing the party entirely. He promptly showed me the website, complete with the Mudder sanctioned official video. I was Sold. Immediately Sold.
But... would I have what it takes?
It was the kind of thing I had always wished existed. In fact, it did exist, and once I knew, I had to have my turn. “Burning Man meets the Ironman” is how they described it, and for me that sounded like twin flames united. We had six months before our Mudder would begin, leaving me with one dominant thought. Training.
I began building an obstacle course immediately. Converting the beautiful woodland trails at my home into what looks like a cross between a leatherneck bootcamp and an Ewok village was phase one. Phase two was signing up for whatever obstacle course events we could find. We managed to fit in 3 obstacle course races before the Mudder, as well as, regular sessions on our private course, sans mud.
We ran several races, trained hard, were fast, strong and agile. By the time Tough Mudder rolled around, I was feeling ready, like some kind of hot-shit badass. The obstacle courses we had run in training were... fun. They were... interesting. Some were even worth doing. None really impressed me. All of them were races, competitions, timed runs, where each participant was placed and graded numerically. I’m not so into race culture, being more inclined to compete with myself then with everyone else around me.
Enter Tough Mudder.
This is where the Mudder is different. “Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge” - just what I was looking for. The idea is that you commit to completion of the course, not beating someone else. It puts team before the individual, something we could all use a bit more of here in the age of media-induced, government sanctioned, and schoolhouse-educated narcissism.
It begins with a pledge...
-I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
-I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
-I do not whine - kids whine.
-I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
-I overcome all fears.
Our collective recitation was followed by an explosion and the thick haze of orange smoke grenades. In a memory that seems more dream than waking-state event, a massive monster truck accelerated down the straight away that was the first leg of the course, setting the pace.
We started running... and running... and running...
Then came the obstacles... and out of 22 of them, only one was unimpressive, being a sort of lame jog next to a campfire. Otherwise, everything else was refreshingly difficult, challenging, and more than sufficiently intimidating. Everything was large, the scale of some of the obstacles could even be described as colossal. Actually some of this was downright dangerous, something that was hard to forget when you heard sirens and saw the emergency response ATV’s speeding down the course to rescue an injured fellow Mudder. There were plenty of opportunities for accidents, particularly slips and falls. I would suspect that most injuries incurred in these events are to the ankle’s and knees.
What was the hardest obstacle?
Everyone seems to ask - just as I asked those veterans of the course I had met before my day had come — what was the most difficult part of the event? It’s an obvious question, and my version of the answer is related to a personal quirk. I love to train, and if I know that I have a challenge coming — and often even when I don’t — I like to prepare for it. I had looked over the course map for weeks, studied each obstacle, and trained for or recreated most of them. I knew that I had developed the skill to surmount each part of the course with finesse. Well, almost...
Two is One, One is None...
There was not one but two electrocution obstacles on the course. The first, a crawl beneath barbed wire, through 8 deep inches of sloppy mud, be-dangled with a tangle of electrified wires hanging just an inch above the mud. There was no easy way through this. As my friends at HammerFour say, “The only easy way is the hard way”. In case you are wondering, when you're up to your lips in liquid clay, you become a pretty efficient conductor to the ground.
I had heard that some of these wires carried 10,000 volts, but thought this must be an exaggeration. Who in their right mind would electrocute their paying customers? Once the first jolt slammed me to the ground I knew that this event was hosted by sadists. Cruel and sophisticated, they had created an obstacle I couldn’t train for.
At first this kind of obstacle seemed more like a college hazing than a feat of athleticism, and maybe it is, but here is what impressed me so much... It is a field-leveler. There is no muscling your way through this one, no training for it, no using genetically bestowed talent. Whether you are an olympic athlete or a back-ally wino, this one humbles you, both through fear and through the overloading of your delicate neuro-circuitry. This, I thought to myself, was clever indeed.
Did I mention that there was a second one, a stand up run through another octopus of electrified tentacles. This put the Tough in Tough Mudder.
The high point of the day for me took place towards the end, eleven miles in, on an obstacle called “Everest”, which was essentially a large half-pipe, slick with mud, whose face you run up until the inclination is truly vertical, jumping at the last possible second before grasping for the top. Once up, you can crawl the ladder down the other side. I made my initial run up, grazing the top lip with my finger tips but gaining no purchase. Missing my mark I slid defeated to the bottom. Just then, my teammate Franky G made his legendary (for us at least) break for it. Leaping to victory, and clawing his way to the top, he hung an arm down encouraging me to try again. I bolted again, leapt and grabbed for his hand like some kind of overacted B-grade action film. Our hands found purchase on one another’s forearms as my feet peddled me up the final few feet to the top.
Next was my partner Alexandra, who made her run, jumped, and grabbed my forearm with her right hand, and Franky’s with her left. Together we hoisted her over the lip of the half-pipe, just before the three of us collapsed at the top. I was overcome with the emotions that come only from team camaraderie, as time felt like it paused for a moment, and we all just laughed like children at the ridiculousness of the predicament, and the love that we felt for each other. I remember thinking about how I really knew what each of my teammates was made of, knowing that I could count on them, knowing that they both, like me, drew from a deep well of strength that was not easily exhausted.
These were not fickle characters...
By the time we finished, I was branded. Like hula dancers at the Honolulu airport, the finish line Mud-Goddesses placed the orange crown of victory atop my head, and the heads of my fellow teammates. I found myself hobbling to the well placed gift shop, buying up Mudder branded sweatshirts, stickers, and assorted paraphernalia.
Ahhh... Brand Swag
Tough Mudder delivered everything it promised, and that my friends is rare these days, be it a product, a brand, a service, or an event. And this of course, is all four of those things. Would I do it again? I’m not signed up for anything yet, but I suspect I will. Something tells me that there are more beautiful places in the world to run a challenge like this than New Jersey (no offense meant Jersey, but you're no Colorado)! Regardless, I will continue to display my (hideous) blaze orange Tough Mudder headband with pride. I’ve earned it, and as far as I can tell, these aren’t for sale.
P.S. Yes I did this in my Vibram Five Fingers. No, I didn't get a Tough Mudder tattoo! Would you?