UPDATE: We've finally added the video portion of this race...
This past weekend I tackled the Tough Mudder: Mid-Atlantic in Frederick, Maryland. Days later, I am sore in places I never knew I could be sore. (My rib cage? The palms of my hands?)
Last summer, I took on the Spartan Sprint, a 5k run with 18 obstacles. It kicked my butt. But since then I changed my training – it takes a lot more than just running to master one of these courses, I've learned – and I had a better idea of what to expect. With that in mind, I signed up for the Tough Mudder, the 10+ mile gold-standard of mud runs.
On the bright side, I learned that supposedly 24,000 people would be embarking on the challenge with me, so I wouldn’t be suffering alone. Looking around the staging area, I was certainly not the caliber of athlete of some of the participants; on the other hand, I was definitely in better shape than quite a few as well.
I can do this, right?
I have to admit I was nervous. I knew I could handle the running, but a three-hour race designed to punish you both physically and mentally is still daunting.
The race took place on a farm outside Frederick and covered 11 miles. Waves of competitors were sent off in 20-minute intervals from 8 a.m. to just after 2 p.m. Before starting my heat with roughly 100 compatriots, a hype-man delivers an impassioned speech– “We're out here for the charity” (Wounded Warrior Project); “We're doing this for the camaraderie;” “This isn’t an individual race but a team challenge;” “Leave no man behind.”
And with that, it was game-on.
Start with a half-mile run. First obstacle: the Arctic Enema. This was one of the few obstacles that really concerned me. Take an industrial dumpster – about 15 feet in length, fill it with cold water, then dump in untold amounts of ice. Ever stick your hand into a cooler to fish out a beverage? Now think about jumping into it, swimming under a barrier to force you to be fully submerged (yes, including your head), then fighting to the other side. The water supposedly is 34 degrees, and you feel every ounce of that pain. Despite being in the water probably no more than 20 seconds, it seems like an eternity. Your entire body locks up on you, your brain can't function and the only thought running through your head is GET ME OUT OF HERE. Climb out the other side, shake it out and get moving to the next obstacle.
The "Dirty Ballerina" was more of a physical challenge – the race designers cut 4-foot deep trenches between "platforms" of mud, each platform about five feet apart. Hop over the trench and try to keep your footing on the slick-as-ice landing. Repeat for five trenches. Past experience was beneficial in handling this obstacle. In my first mud run I had learned it was wise to wear both the oldest shoes you own and to duct tape them to your feet. Sounds ridiculous, but you WILL lose your shoes in ankle-deep mud. One mile down, 10 to go.
Run a half-mile to the first of two Kiss of Mud challenges, where a racer has to army-crawl under barbed wire… face-down in mud. This is one of the classic obstacles of the mud run and thankfully was only about 25 feet long (as opposed to the 400 foot long course in the Spartan Race). Now you're filthy and your clothes are weighing you down, but at least you're only a half-mile from marker #2.
Next up, Berlin Walls (part I) -- scale two 10-foot high walls. There is a small step to use for leverage, but it still takes a physical toll. Especially the landing on the other side.
Another half-mile, and we scale a series of hay-bales. Not too bad.
Run a full mile before the next obstacle, which involves carrying a heavy log for a quarter-mile jaunt. It doesn't seem too bad until your muscles start to burn and you realize you're only halfway down the track.
Another full mile before another round of Kiss of Mud. The knees, elbows and hands are starting to get a little cut up. Not to mention that you are still covered head-to-toe in heavy, sticky mud and the weight of your shoes is equivalent to running with dumbbells around your ankles.
Just before mile marker #6, we encounter Trench Warfare. The designers dug 20-foot-long trenches in the ground, and then covered them to create tunnels. Crawl through the tunnel in complete darkness and hope you don't encounter anything en route. Not physically difficult, but not recommended for the claustrophobic among us.
By now, a large number of runners are walking between obstacles. Motivated by a thunderstorm in the distance and five miles to go, my teammate and I soldiered on, even at a slow jog.
Finally, a refresher: scramble up to the top of a 15-foot high platform (using foot and hand holds similar to those on a rock wall) and leap into a lake below. I may be soaked, but at least some of the mud is washed away.
Hop over three log A-frames, then continue on your way. Here we saw a competitor dressed as Wolverine struggling mightily with a leg cramp, while his friends attempt to hoist him over the A-frames. But a medic stops them so that the injured guy can get some relief.
This is where the running starts to dominate the race. There was a two-mile stretch across the next three obstacles. Obstacle 11 involved scaling a 30-foot high hay-bale pyramid. Then, it was the Electric Eel at 7.5 miles into the race.
Remember the structure for the Kiss of Mud? With barbed wire above and about two feet of space to operate under? Instead of mud, put down a tarp with an inch of water on it. And from the barbed wire above, hang LIVE ELECTRICAL WIRES. Seriously. Though the shocks weren't particularly strong, it was impossible to avoid when trudging forward on your belly. The shocks felt like a static shock, while some of the stronger ones felt like getting punched in whatever muscle was affected. I took about 10 shocks in the 30 seconds it took to navigate the obstacle, including a forceful zap to my left shoulder right as I was about to escape. Then it's back on your feet and off to the next challenge.
Obstacle 13 was a swim through a river (or lake, I'm not sure which) and ducking under a series of floating obstacles. Number 14 was another set of walls, but these were even taller than the first – probably 12 to 14 feet high. I required a boost from my compatriot and the return-to-earth was less than pleasant from that height. But I survived. Obstacle 15 was the Mud Mile, where challengers went from waist-deep muddy water to climbing over a four foot high mound of mud – and repeated through six more mounds. Unbelievably slippery and impossible to gain a foot-hold, this was actually one of the more challenging obstacles of the course. It was very difficult without the assistance of someone at the top to help pull you up.
Remember the thunderstorm I mentioned earlier? Now the skies open. And with that, race organizers close down any water obstacles due to the fear of lightning – a surprisingly reasonable safety decision given the nature of the race. We were just past mile eight, covered in mud, and now it was time to shift into a new gear to cover ground more quickly. We missed the Boa Constrictor (crawling down a tunnel into mud, then back up the other side in another tunnel), Funky Monkey (monkey bars over a pool) and Twinkle Toes (balance beams over water) due to the water components.
The second to last obstacle of the day was Everest. The goal was simple: run as high up the quarter-pipe as possible, leap and try to grab the top of the wall to haul yourself up and over. The pipe was about 10 feet high, but with a near-vertical incline doing this without having someone grab you at the "leap" portion was nearly impossible. After observing about 50 people try – some with better results than others – I had resigned myself to the fact that I was never getting up this pipe with mud-encased shoes, through a driving rain and up a now-wet obstacle. Somehow I managed to take it down in one attempt, with two guys "catching" me to help finish the last little bit without sliding back down.
The last obstacle – Electroshock Therapy, a stand-up version of the Electric Eel with stronger jolts of electricity – was closed due to the lightning. Too bad.
I crossed the finish line at two hours and 34 minutes – a little slower than intended, but still admirable. Despite the rain, finishers were warmly greeted with a Dos Equis beer and an official orange Tough Mudder sweatband, the badge of honor worn by all those who finished the course.
All in all, the race was not as physically impossible as it seemed on paper. Few of the obstacles were more than challenging, as opposed to the impossible that I had feared. By the end of the race, everyone is socializing, smiling, laughing, enjoying an adult beverage, still covered in mud and comparing scars of the battle. And that's what the Tough Mudder is all about.
Last time I ran a race like this, I questioned why I would ever sign up for something so masochistic. Today, I stand here bruised and quite sore, but confident that I will be back next year.
Published On: September 11, 2012