I'm scared ... I just signed and handed over my death waiver to Sophie, the VIP coordinator at the 2011 Tough Mudder Austin, and some volunteer is now writing my participant number in permanent ink across my forehead so that in the event something bad happens to me, the paramedics stationed along the course can identify my body.
It's a bit unnerving, but there's no backing out now. While much of the Bayou City's running attention has been focused on the Houston Marathon, I opted to take part in a very different type of endurance challenge dubbed affectionately, The Tough Mudder. Now I've got nothing against the marathon, it's a great event ... I just have no desire to do it ...
The idea of running 26.2 monotonous miles over essentially flat concrete terrain does nothing for me. Now, on the other hand throw in a bunch of hills, a few tons of mud, some icy cold water to swim in, some fire, smoke, a bunch of walls to scale and even some electric shock treatment for extra measure and I'm all in. This is my type of event.
The Tough Mudder is described as "The Toughest Event on The Planet" and I set out to find out if indeed it is. It is not your average lame-ass mud run or spirit-crushing ‘endurance’ road race. This 10-mile obstacle course was designed by the British Special Forces to test all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. Forget finish times. Simply completing a Tough Mudder is a badge of honor. In the previous challenge in New Jersey, only 78 percent of participants finished.
As a a 38-year-old married Jewish father of two who sells insurance for a living and enjoys "putting himself thru intense physical torture" (thank you super CrossFit trainer Aja Barto for the use of that catchphrase) , how could I not be perfect for this event. To ratchet it up just a bit, I recruited my best friend Michael to join me on this manly mission because every wannabe tough guy needs a good wingman and when you think "tough" you immediately think of an Asian gynecologist. ... Game on!
Our start time is 11:20 a.m. and we've arrived at the event site at 10 a.m. so we have some time to survey the course and psych ourselves up — or out — for the next hour before we head to the starting line. We've set just two goals for the day: First, do not get hurt and second, just finish. The course is spread out across a motocross track and a cattle ranch with each of the Tough Mudder obstacles strategically placed throughout the 10 miles of rocky, hilly, muddy terrain.
All I've heard thus far is that I'm going to be wet, cold and muddy within the first mile. I'm pretty sure the chance of death is slim, but the likelihood of injury seems pretty high and I'm relieved that my partner is a doctor although he keeps repeating to me that he's only an OB/GYN and probably wont be much help.
The crowd is electric. Everyone is friendly, excited and positive. It's an incredibly diverse group of men and women and a large percentage of the participants are dressed in costume, which is something the Tough Mudder actually encourages. There's a military garbed team with matching mohawks, a track team wearing nothing but their jock straps, a couple of completely blue painted Smurfs, a guy dressed as Hulk Hogan complete with championship belt and my personal favorite, the Magnum PIs.
I take my place along the starting line and recite the Tough Mudder Pledge. At this point my heart is racing pretty good and all I remember from the pledge is that "Tough Mudders don't whine, children whine", which now gets me thinking of my children at home and that perhaps this wasn't the smartest thing for me to be doing after all. And with that we're off ...
Ice Ice Baby
About a quarter of a mile into the run I spot a Reddy Ice truck up ahead and I assume this is for the concession stand. It's not.
The the truck is there is because Mr. Reddy Ice keeps filling a 20-feet-long/ five-feet-deep muddy trench with more and more ice and apparently we're expected to jump into it and climb ourselves out. For those of you who have never jumped into an icy cold trench of mud, let me tell you now, it's cold. Real frickin' cold and your body stiffens up immediately.
I get out as quickly as I can and start running, figuring that moving will help warm me up. It does, ever so slightly until I realize that I've got another lap to go before I have to jump right back in again. Apparently, one dunk isn't enough, two is just right.
My shoes now weigh about 10 pounds each and I'm covered in chocolately brown mud. This is awesome.
You call this tough?
We head out along the course and start second guessing everything from our choice of footwear, gloves, running tights versus shorts, to pancakes instead of eggs for breakfast this morning. Everything seems uncertain at this point.
Yet, we're smiling. In fact, everyone is smiling. I haven't seen a single participant with anything less than a shit eating grin splattered across his or her face. The miles fly by, a few more obstacles are overcome; Cargo nets, crawling under barbed wire, scaling some seriously high bails of hay. Whatever the obstacle is, when you need a hand, there's one there for you and when you've been pulled through, you immediately reach back to help someone else just like the guy before you.
And then it comes ... The plank.
Now, I'm not a big fan of heights in the first place and the idea of rope climbing 15 feet to a slippery muddy plank just so I can jump off into the freezing pond below is certainly not appealing to me, but it's there and we agreed that we weren't going to skip any obstacles so we've got to do it. I'm not bothered by the 50-yard swim that follows our jump as I used to lifeguard and have always been comfortable in the water, but the initial drop itself isn't sitting well with me.
We climb and reach the top. Before we have even a moment to think about what's ahead a Marine stationed on the platform say's "Jump" and we jump, Michael to the left and me to the right. It's a miracle that I didn't land on the ground instead of the water because I just shut my eyes and leapt without even looking which direction I was facing.
I hit the water and immediately get myself to the surface. I swim hard and get across. That sucked, completely.
No time to waste, must keep moving. So, we venture on. At this point, we're feeling on top of the world. Bring it on Tough Mudder, we got you! Then we past a marker that said "Mile 4". Really? you gotta be kidding me, we're only at Mile Four?
We cover more ground, wade through more mud, run through water, hurdle over branches and crawl under barbed wire and through metal tubes of darkness. We're actually doing this! The energy feeds off itself as we get through each obstacle and our confidence grows. Twelve-foot walls no problem, we can scale them. Oh, three of them in a row, even better. Mountain of mud, yup, we'll climb it and then slide down the other side face first.
The most physically demanding of all the obstacles is the monkey bars. They're set up in an elevated formation like the roof of a house so you go up one side, reach the top and then go down. Of course, they're positioned over water so if you let go, you're swimming, again. The bars are muddy, slippery, and apparently to make things even better, a few are actually greased by the guys who built the obstacle.
I make it halfway across, which on one hand, I'm pretty pleased about and on the other, means I'm at the very highest point and now I've got the farthest fall into the water below.
No matter what's been thrown at us so far, we've handled it. Stopping has never entered our minds. We're in the homestretch and instead of being apprehensive or fearful of what's ahead, we're saying "bring it on". We've been challenged mentally and physically throughout the day and for some strange reason, enjoyed every minute of it.
The Final Exam
We round the corner and head towards the finish line. Could that really have been 10 miles?
Just for good measure the sadistic bastards who designed the course decide to throw a little electric shock treatment at you. If you have kids you'll know exactly what I'm referring to when I say its like the scene in Finding Nemo when Marlin has to swim through all the jellyfish and he gets stung over and over again.
Wow, I'm awake now!
Crossing the line you're handed an orange Tough Mudder headband and a Dos Equis beer. Not bad for a couple of hours of pain and suffering. In reality, they could have given me nothing and it still would have all been worth it. There's a feeling of accomplishment and pride in just getting through it. We hung out at the post party, swapped some stories with other participants and then hopped in the car and proceeded to talk for the entire two-plus hour drive back to Houston about the experience.
I don't know if it's the Toughest Event on The Planet, but I do know that it rocked and that I got a bunch of very big hugs when I got home, in one piece.