(The group photo at the end of the event!)
This past weekend I had the privilege of taking part in a serious, physically and mentally challenging obstacle course called Tough Mudder with some fellow TopDown colleagues. This was the 2015 Dallas Tough Mudder event, and it included 10+ miles of uneven terrain, 21 obstacles, and thousands of entrants. It was my very first time ever doing something like this. It was crazy. It was utterly insane. And it was one of the best times of my life.
(Finishing up Quagmire – so much mud!)
This event is run by an organization who is known for supporting the Wounded Warrior Project. From what I understand, it’s similar to a Spartan Race except that it’s not a true race. Instead, it focuses on team work and completion. The course is composed of 10-12 miles of mixed topography with obstacles every half mile or so. Each obstacle is meant to test your physical and mental strength, as well as your endurance. It’s important to note here that you are not required to do any obstacle that you’re uncomfortable with.
(Climbing down from Liberator)
There are many reasons why people take part in this event. Some do it to honor a fallen warrior, family member, or friend. Others do it for the camaraderie (there were a number of companies wearing branded shirts, including ourselves). Some do it for the personal satisfaction of completing the super challenging course. For me, it was a combination of camaraderie and personal satisfaction. A few champions at my firm had been rallying a group of folks to do this for almost a year. In the end five of us decided to sign up (which included 3 females and 2 males), of which 3 were locals and 2 were out-of-towners. Luckily, Steve (pictured in the middle below) had completed a Tough Mudder before and had some great advice for us newbies.
(The pre-event picture! 7am at Mickey D’s!)
Some people who do this event find it humbling. Since I had zero expectations and figured I’d be lucky if I completed any of the obstacles, I found it empowering. I was tested in ways that I didn’t expect and I ended up surprising myself more than once on both my ability and level of courage. In addition, one of the beautiful outcomes of the event is the great bond that I now share with the group that entered together. Although we ended up splitting up due to natural differences in speed, we hung out afterwards at the site and group texted late into the night, recounting all of the pitfalls, bumps, bruises, strange tan lines and sunburns, and overall craziness. Reliving the memories of the challenges afterwards was almost just as fun as the event itself.
(After the first obstacle. Our first exposure to the mud!)
For the Noobs
If you’re considering taking part in a Tough Mudder obstacle course for the very first time, here are some things that you might want to keep in mind.
(At the starting line! We’re excited!)
You’re a good candidate for Tough Mudder if:
- You like taking risks
- You enjoy working with a team of people, including strangers
- You’re willing to make the commitment to prepare (physically, mentally, and logistically)
- You see the event as a badge of honor and courage
- You support the Wounded Warrior Project
- You handle stress well
- You don’t mind “a little” mud
(The first obstacle! Heavy mud and barbed wire.)
You’re NOT a good candidate for Tough Mudder if:
- You don’t meet all of the minimum requirements, as put forth by the Tough Mudder waiver
- You don’t like to ask for help, especially from strangers
- You don’t like to give help, especially to strangers
- You won’t be in good health at the time of the event and you can’t walk 10+ miles without injury or excessive pain
- You don’t like being outdoors for an extended period of time
- You are a germaphobe – you can’t stand being covered in mud, muddy water, and/or random (and unknown) flora for long periods of time
- You don’t know what your limits are
- You can’t handle being vulnerable in front of people
(Nearing the end of the Mud Mile – mud, mud, and more mud!)
Some of the very real fears that you may choose to face during the event:
- Claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces)
- Acrophobia (fear of heights)
- Aquaphobia (fear of water/drowning)
- Mysophobia (Fear of being contaminated with germs)
- Atychiphobia (Fear of failure)
(Jumping off the ledge from the King of Swingers obstacle)
Let me pause for a moment here. Before I completely scare anyone off…of course this is a crazy event with many challenges that demands the most that you can give. But don’t take all of this real talk the wrong way and talk yourself out of a Tough Mudder if you’re seriously considering it. See those smiles on my face in these pictures? Those are genuine. I had a blast. It’s important that you understand what you’re signing up for and the tips that will help you get the most out of the experience. And just in case anyone is worried – medical staff, bathrooms, and hydration stations are available throughout the course.
(After getting out of Cry Baby – a confined gas chamber where you can’t see anything and you’re forced to inhale an intense gas. Some people threw up afterwards.)
How I Prepared
The truth is that there is no one right way to prepare for this type of event. There are similar characteristics amongst the different methodologies: eating healthy, exercising regularly, and buying special shoes/clothing/gloves/etc. to use on the big day. As I was not in the best of health and strength when I was
coerced persuaded to join the team, I started early. I was serious about the commitment, but not as serious about the execution of the plan. (Whoops.) In fact, in the month leading up to the event, I only worked out once. This is not recommended, but it’s what happened. Sometimes life gets in the way…that didn’t stop me from following through.
Here are some of the steps that I took to prepare for this amazing event:
- Started 9 months in advance
- Joined a gym and signed-up with a personal trainer
- Did a combination of weight training and cardio exercises 2-4 times per week
- Changed my diet to incorporate more protein, less carbs, and less fat
- Bought special trail running shoes that laced up the leg so I wouldn’t lose them in the mud obstacles
- In the week leading up to the event, I woke up a little bit earlier each morning so that I would be ready for the 5am wake-up call on the day of the event (necessary for the 8am start time and the 2 hour drive to the event location)
(The Under Armour trail runners I bought – especially made for Tough Mudder races!)
As I reflect on my still fatigued body and the super long event day (which now seems like it happened weeks ago), I think about what I’ve learned. There were some great revelations about the event itself:
- The beauty of this particular event is that it’s not a race. It’s a competition…but only against yourself. The goals are simple: work with each other (including strangers), finish, and have fun.
- These events are a bit overrated in that you don’t have to be a workout machine in order to finish one successfully. If you workout on a regular basis and are in general good health, I’m confident that you can do this and be satisfied with your results. You may not finish everything, but in a race like this do you really need to complete every obstacle to be considered a winner? Finishing the event and making yourself proud is the true prize.
- The biggest obstacle is the one that’s not formally listed – the endurance needed to walk/jog/run the entire course. (Yes, people actually ran the entire course in addition to completing all of the obstacles.) The ground is completely uneven and there are steep inclines and declines that you have to overcome, which don’t count as formal obstacles. In fact, on this particular course you will navigate more than half of the course before you hit the halfway point of the obstacle count. Endurance is key to a good finish.
- Obstacles are divided amongst those that you: can finish by yourself, should finish with help from others, and have to finish with help from others. I really like this principle. You can’t finish every obstacle unless you can work with others. The most fun obstacles were those where you had to depend on the kindness of the other Mudders and give of yourself as well.
(Onto the next obstacle! See that mud handprint on my butt? LOL)
In addition, believe it or not, I learned some important life lessons.
- I really can do it – I’m still amazed at how many obstacles I completed. I chose not to let fear conquer my actions during this event. I’m a stronger and wiser person as a result.
- Sometimes in life you just need to take more risks and trust yourself to handle the unknown. Since I didn’t research the obstacles in advance, I didn’t know what to expect. The descriptions at the entry point of each obstacle were a bit vague. So my plan was to march right up to the obstacle, (sometimes) close my eyes, and just jump in. This was quite liberating!
- One of the most endearing qualities of this event is being able to be vulnerable in front of others. You are in one of the worst physical and mental states that you’ll ever be in during your life and you’re sharing it with a small group of friends and a larger group of strangers. You’re also sharing other people’s worst and best moments. It’s magical.
- Instead of trying to do it all yourself, just ask for help. It will save you time and you’ll learn something by allowing it. The Mudders at these events go above and beyond for complete strangers. There was a moment during the event when I was watching my buddy attempt Everest, which is like a tall, steep half pipe that you have to run up and climb over. Since it’s impossible to run up the edifice yourself, you have to rely on people to “catch you” at the top. After she grabbed onto some strangers’ hands, she got stuck for a few moments trying to swing herself over the peak. A group of 3 men created a makeshift ladder underneath her in an attempt to help push her up from below. Unasked. They saw a need and tried to help. Amazing.
(Just before entering the unknown Cry Baby!)
There are many obstacles. Some are super easy and some will scare the bejeezus out of you. The stand out obstacles for me personally included the following (note that the obstacle list can potentially change every year and are different by location):
- Arctic Enema – easily the worst one that I encountered (since I chose to skip the electrocution). This is a ~16 foot long wooden pool of ice water that’s about 3 feet deep. You’re forced to slide down a platform on your back straight into the pool (no backing out), as there is a cage preventing you from sitting or standing. Once you hit the water, you have to swim under the bottom of the cage, swim half the length to the wooden wall, climb over it, and then swim the other half to a wooden ladder which you’ll use to climb out. All the while, workers are dumping whole bags of ice into the pool and some professional photographer is capturing every snot running out of your nose, every hyperventilation, and every glare directed at him. If I didn’t actually do it, I’m pretty sure I thought about cussing that photographer out. LOL – obviously, he was just doing his job catching my absolute worst moment in infinite detail. Note that this was the only obstacle that I completed where I had to stop and seriously consider if I could do another Tough Mudder ever again.
- Electroshock Therapy (E.S.T.) – the very last obstacle. I had to skip this one. However, it was the only obstacle that my friends vehemently told me to skip based on the amount of pain they endured. This is a ~15 foot long pergola that has a series of yellow and blue wires draping down from the ceiling. They are spaced about a foot apart. The floor is covered in wet mud and in the middle there are hay benches that have only blue wires above them. The yellow wires are “regular” shock strength and the blue wires are “super” shock strength. In every wave of people that ran through the wires (usually about 4 people wide) someone fell – usually when they were shocked by a blue wire. In addition, the hay benches force you to slow down and be shocked by blue wires. Luckily, my knee had given out and I had a good excuse for skipping this one. If I ever do a Tough Mudder again, I would consider doing this one just to have the experience.
- Cry Baby – the “gas chamber”. They were smart in how they arranged this one. You jump into a small pool of muddy water and then you’re forced to swim down and swim under a fence. As soon as you come up, you have to crawl on your hands and knees through a fog-filled, confined dirt chamber. (The brilliance of this set-up is that because you surface for air after the small dive, you’re forced to take at least one breath.) During this crawl, there is one unexpected shallow pitfall. This actually caused me to fall down hard on my elbow and cut myself. You can’t see anything except white fog and the air that surrounds you is an intense mist that feels and smells like Vicks Vapor Rub to the 10th power. A few folks became severely disoriented during this obstacle and ended up crawling the wrong direction and had to endure a longer period of the gas. I also noticed a group of people that threw up after this event. A couple of people teared up. Some folks were feeling the effects of this even several obstacles later. I got lucky – I was hardly affected by it and managed to cough out most of it once I got out.
- Mud Mile – by far my favorite. This is a series of slippery mud “humps”. Each narrow valley between the humps is filled with ~3 feet of muddy water. This is one of the obstacles where you must work with a team in order to complete it. We found that having 2 helpers worked well. One person hoists you up the side of the hump from the water valley and the person at the top grabs you and helps pull you up. Once you make it up the hump, you turn around and pull up the person behind you. You have to scale 6 humps and then crawl up the mud incline at the end.
(Mud Mile. One of the brilliant aspects of the event – you can’t finish some obstacles without help!)
The culture of Tough Mudder is super unique. I haven’t been part of an event where so much focus is on teamwork. I participated in a ropes course many years ago, but that didn’t quite measure up to this. Talking with other legionnaires (repeat Mudders) and first-timers opened up my eyes to the awesomeness that is “tough muddering”.
Things that Tough Mudders don’t really talk about:
- All the different places where mud gets on and in your body. Ewwww…
- How gross the porta-potties are. (We get drenched in mud…and then go to the bathroom with no ability to clean up beforehand. Um…yeah…)
- The fact that at any point in time, your foot could sink into a hole on the uneven terrain and completely twist or sprain your ankle and knock you out of the event.
- How really freakishly scary some of the obstacles are…and if you had known what you were going to experience before you actually did it, you would have never done it in the first place.
- How much we’re looking forward to “getting it over with”. It’s fun…but it’s also grueling. My buddy Jody and I kept repeating to ourselves “hot salty bath, hot salty bath!” to give us something to look forward to after the race. Especially after the Arctic Enema obstacle.
- The frightening fact that any open sore could catch any one of a series of serious bacteria infections or disease. I bled from multiple abrasions caused by the course. I still have my fingers crossed that I’m not going to get a staph infection…
- Knowing that people have died from doing this type of event in the past
(Swinging from the bars in Funky Monkey. I had to jump into the water – my gloves slid off the bars.)
Things that I/we actually got right this first time (thanks to the advice of past Mudders):
- Taping up our shoes with duct tape (mine were actually fine without it, but mine were the only ones that laced up the leg)
- Wearing long sleeves
- Wearing pre-emptive blister bandages
- Wearing fingerless gloves
- Wearing quality, long-lasting, waterproof sunscreen on my face
- Tying my hair back
- Starting in the first wave of the day and on Saturday (so I could recuperate all weekend)
- Purchasing a spectator ticket for my husband so he could follow us around and take pictures with a quality camera (spectators can get close to ~1/3 of the obstacles)
- Making sure that I tagged along with at least one buddy throughout the entire course (thanks, Jody!)
- Hydrating at all hydration stations and going to every available bathroom (there were 4-5 spread throughout the entire course)
- Not researching the obstacles in advance (I didn’t want to psych myself out)
- Asking the staff (posted at every obstacle) for clarification and details on those that I wasn’t sure about
- Knowing when to say no to protect myself against injury
- Walking (not running) the majority of the course. I did this to conserve energy and to avoid spraining my ankle.
(Me and my Tough Mudder buddy, Jody)
Things that I would do differently if I ever did this again:
- Ensure that as much of my skin as is possible is covered (legs and arms)
- Wear long-lasting, high SPF, waterproof, quality sunscreen on all exposed skin areas
- Test and buy fingerless gloves that can handle the monkey bars
- Spend more time breaking in my Mudder shoes beforehand
- Start hydrating well several days in advance
- Wear a knee brace during the event
- Not buy premium parking if I’m in the first wave of the day
So how did I do? In the end, there were 20 potential obstacle courses for a newbie like myself (1 was legionnaire only). I finished 16.5 of them. There were 2.5 that I didn’t even attempt (especially after my knee gave out), and there was 1 that I tried and gave up on. I have no idea how these stats compare to other newbie Tough Mudders, and the truth is that I don’t care. I’m proud of myself and everyone else in the group and I feel amazing.
In the end, I was exhausted, hurting, scratched, bruised, sunburnt, ravenous, and thirsty. As soon as I got home, I took a long hot shower then soaked in an Epsom salt bubble bath. Then I ate like a pig, downed some ibuprofen, drank a half gallon of water, and took a nap. I had trouble moving the rest of the weekend. Luckily, one of my friends had given me a heads up on how this would go and I had planned for it.
(There were a couple of times when I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it all the way through.)
This was an eye-opening experience for me. I remembered a few things about myself that I had forgotten and/or given up on. This was a once in a lifetime event that will stay with me forever.
At this point, I’m still not sure if I would do it again in the future. Let me make sure that I haven’t caught a serious infection first…
So…now knowing what I know…if I had the choice to go back and do it all over again would I? Absolutely.