Toughest Mudder is a new competitive series by Tough Mudder. It is a series of 8 hour races taking place on a 5 mile obstacle course, beginning at midnight on Saturday night and ending at 8am on Sunday. Money is paid out to the top 5 male and female athletes along with mileage bonuses ($5,000 for 50 miles, and $10,000 at the end of the season for whoever had the most mileage in their best 3 races). I knew when I first saw the Toughest Mudder series that I would have to run one.
I was excited to see this type of race pop-up on the competitive scene, for one because I think its good for the sport of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) in general and because, being an ultra-runner in the not too distant past, it suited my strengths. The big hurdle I faced however was that since starting a new job 2 years ago I had probably only run more than 25 miles a week on 2 or 3 occasions. I work 12 hour shifts which makes consistent training tough, and trying to be the best husband and father I can be on top of that can make it almost impossible.
So with Toughest Mudder in the back of my mind I developed a training schedule that, although low in mileage, covered the important workouts and after a 4 hr long run with some obstacles (my only long run in preparation for this race) went well I was pretty much committed. I still felt that I was underprepared and I’ll admit I was a little scared of how my body would respond to 8 hours of obstacles, but I knew that under my current circumstances I would probably never feel prepared, so it wasn’t until the Monday before the event that I actually signed up.
As the minutes ticked towards midnight on Saturday I stood on the start line and looked back at a sea of lights behind me. I was shocked at the number of people prepared to tackle 8 hrs of running and obstacles. I guess there are more crazy people like me than I would have thought. I saw a few familiar faces and talked to my friend Dennis for a bit, which was fitting, since he has been there at every notable point in my venture into OCR, from racing next to me at my first obstacle race to running around with a cast on his arm at the 2014 VA super, my first Spartan race and true introduction to the sport.
I also leaned on some of his workouts in preparing for a long race like this one low mileage. I relaxed a bit and waited for the last few seconds to tick away. No last second stretching or jumping. Plenty of time to warm the muscles up out on the course. Then it was midnight and the horn went off. I settled in behind Austin Azar and Mark Jones, a couple of guys I had never raced but who I knew would be contenders and we quickly made our way to the front.
The obstacles were closed for the first hour so the first loop gave me a good idea what I was up against. Since I have never done anything with the Tough Mudder stamp on it pretty much all of the obstacles were new. I figured out pretty quick on that first lap that this was just a one loop course. All the previous races on the series had looked to be 2 separate 5 mile courses that opened at different times and spread some of the obstacles out. This was definitely just one course for the full 8 hours. I settled in for the long haul.
I felt strong on the first lap. I work rotating 7-7 shifts, 4 weeks days, 4 weeks nights, so I was no stranger to being up and functioning in the middle of the night. Although I was currently working day shift I had slept most of the day waking up for little more than the 3 hour drive up from VA and a stop for dinner. I have become very good at sleeping any time anywhere! I was in second and had a small gap on Austin and Mark at the finish of the first lap and I made a quick pit stop, my brother had set up just outside the finish area so it was quick and I was back on the course.
The mud mile was the first obstacle we hit and although it was before 1 am it was open. This was probably the most time-consuming obstacle on the course. The walls of the mud pits were vertical and the first one was deep! All of the top four were together here and we helped each other through. We hit the Blockness Monster after that and it was open as well, we cruised through together and then hit a decent running section.
At this point I took the lead and started to get a bit of a gap. I thought of sticking with the others but I felt like I was holding back to do so and at this point I still had 50 miles in the back of my mind so I didn’t want to relax too much. A good deal of the obstacle were open on that second lap and I was glad to be catching people headed out for their second lap when I started my third. I didn’t want to hit that first wall on the mud mile alone.
There was a good group at the mud mile on that third lap and we worked through it together, then I worked through blockness with another group. I felt great on that third lap hitting the majority of the obstacles although two of the big ones, king of the swingers, and funky monkey were closed until 2. By the end of the third lap I started hitting my first real challenge that I wasn’t prepared for.
I was cold. I had looked at the weather a few days out and had seen on over night low of 53. I generally don’t have trouble with the cold and often struggle in the heat so this was welcome news. I had chosen to go with a half compression tight, along with a Quicksilver rashgaurd T and arm warmers. As I finished that third lap I heard the announcer say that it had dropped to 45 degrees. Generally 45 is not bad but when you are constantly in and out of the water it starts to get cold.
I had a pair of ¾ tights in my bag and a long sleeve shirt, but it wasn’t really designed for the water. Still as I headed out for my 4th lap I asked my brother to have them ready for me. The beginning of that 4th lap went quick. I was a little nervous as I headed into blockness because I was alone. The Blockness Monster is an obstacle composed of two giant rectangular blocks set in roughly chest deep water. The blocks rotate and the general approach is to have a couple of people grab the edge of the block, while a couple more rotate the block to carry them over the top, then the process is repeated from the other side to get your partners over. I wasn’t sure how easily the blocks rotated and if it was possible to tackle by yourself.
As it turned out it took a little bit of weight to rotate the blocks. They were already set at an angle so I jumped up grabbed the top edge and flipped my body over before the block gained momentum and rolled back on me. I was through the obstacle in a few seconds and spent much less energy by myself. When I got out of the water however the cold hit me. I settled back into a quick pace to try to warm up but it never happened.
I was cold but alright when I hit the next big obstacle, king of the swingers! Probably the coolest obstacle I have faced. You stand on a platform 15-20 feet above the water, jump off to grab a trapeze swing that swings you out over the water to a cargo net. From there a cable runs down another 20 feet or so to dry land. The cable was covered in a rubber tubing that made it slippery, this was slightly challenging to the grip but also allowed you to (hopefully) slide right down. My first time through I wasn’t sliding so I had to traverse hand over hand to the bottom but I was still through in good time and back on the course.
My real challenge came later at Funky Monkey, a monkey bar obstacle shaped like a triangle with standard monkey bars set at an incline to reach the top followed by a horizontal wheel and 2 vertical wheels to traverse back to the bottom. By itself it looks like a rather easy obstacle. The trick was that it was located immediately after Arctic Enema an obstacle that drops you into ice water where you have to fully submerge yourself to slip underneath a wall. I was already cold after a few dips and honestly the water did not feel too bad. The air when you came out the other side definitely got to you however. By the time I reached Funky Monkey on that 4th lap I was shaking. I easily climbed through the first half of the obstacle but when I went to transfer to the vertical wheel on my way down I simply missed the wheel with my left hand. My right couldn’t hold the full brunt of my weight as the wheel spun through its rotation and I dropped into the water, which actually felt quite warm. I came out and headed for my first penalty lap, which was actually quite short, and was relieved to be back on course without having lost much time. At this point I noticed my headlight was dimming. I had signed up at the last second and picked up a waterproof lamp for 11 dollars just in time for the race. I found out pretty quick that 11 dollar headlamps don’t have a long battery life. I decided to make one long stop, change clothes, change batteries, and be ready to finish out the night hours. I hit the pits and my brother had everything ready for me. I put on my tights and long sleeve over top of what I already had on, grabbed some food and hit the course for my 5th lap. It wasn’t until after the mud mile that I realized I had forgotten to change my batteries. It wasn’t that big of a deal, all the obstacles were well-lit and most the course was through open fields so it really only slowed me down at a couple of points later in the lap when it became so dim that it barely even illuminated my hand in front of my face.
I warmed up on the fifth lap and it went smooth. My legs were starting to get sore but the race was over half over and while some of the hills were slowing me a little bit I was still running strong and not failing any obstacles. I realized 50 miles was not in the cards at this point but I was reasonably sure I would hang on for the win. I spent longer than I needed I the pit after that lap to change out my batteries and headed out for lap six. The time was actually going really quick and laps were starting to blur. The sun was up as I finished my 6th lap and actually made Kong a little challenging because you were looking straight into the sun as you traversed the rings making it hard to see but I slipped through and started my 7th lap. Then things really started to slow down. My legs really started to hurt on the 7th lap. I didn’t really feel tired but the pounding was definitely getting to my legs and I knew I was slowing down considerably.
Then I got hung up on King of the Swingers when my foot got stuck in the cargo net. When I finally extracted myself I couldn’t slide down the cable and had to move hand over hand. I was going slow and after hanging on to the net for a while my grip taxed out with just a few feet left on the cable and I dropped into the water. I hit the penalty loop and was back on the course but I knew I was moving slow now and for the first time my arms were starting to feel heavy. I failed funky monkey again and for the first time started to think about how close behind the competition was. I knew Trevor had moved into second and figured he would be closing hard. It was also on this lap that I realized I had been wasting my time on Operation, an obstacle that requires you to stand with your feet in the water and insert a long metal pole through a hole in a wall to remove a ring from a peg on a second wall about 6 feet in front of you. Mess up and let your pole touch the outer wall of the hole that you are pushing in through and you receive an electric shock that your grand kids will feel. I had about a 50% success rate with this one and as I began on the 7th lap a competitor was just leaving on his penalty lap. I snagged the ring quickly and was off only to realize that the dude who had hit his penalty lap was rejoining the course right next to me.
The penalty lap was so short that it would have been faster jut to bypass the obstacle in the first place. I struggled through the remainder of the lap and knew that the 8th lap would likely be my final one. My legs were a disaster at this point and spent a couple of minutes in the pit making sure I was getting enough nourishment to carry me through the lap. As I was leaving I saw Trevor finishing up his 7th lap. I tried to push the pace as much as I could on that final lap but me legs were crippled and when I hit Everest, a slippery 15 foot half-pipe, I really began to struggle.
I opted to go with the rope as no one was on top of the wall but realized then that my arms were toast. I hooked the rope and was struggling towards the top when Trevor flew up the wall, and instead of blazing past me stopped to lend me a hand and pull me over. From there I stuck close to him until I failed King of the Swingers. Then I fell off of Cliff Hanger even though I had enough left and just missed one of the rungs. I thought of opting out of Funky Monkey but I attempted it anyway and failed it yet again. At this point I started getting scared that I would fall all the way from first to fourth on the last lap. I pushed as hard as I could on the final few climbs although I still felt like I was going nowhere. Finally the finishing stretch came into sight.
It was getting close to 7:45 and I knew even though I would have the option of starting another lap that finishing it would be impossible for me. I hit Kong for the last time and somewhat to my surprise, with the way things were going on that last lap actually made it through. Then I was on the orange mat and finishing as the announcer called for everyone in the finishing area to cheer for me. Somehow I couldn’t really believe it was over. I was disappointed at losing the lead on the last lap, relieved to have held on to second place, proud of the overall accomplishment of the 40 miles I had completed, and relieved to be done. I exchanged high fives and congratulations with several other mudders as I watched Austin and Mark come in not far behind me. The community at this event was different from any other event I had done before. Out there on the course at some point, everyone had received help and everyone had given help to someone else. It was a different feel and it was fun. The fun for me however ended a few hours later.
Immediately following the race there was the awards ceremony then my brother and I headed off to a hotel where I had my post race interview for CBS sports. That was a new experience for me and should be cool to watch in a few months. Then we hit the road back to VA. At this point I was feeling alright. I had the minor soreness I had after a normal ultra although I was feeling them through out my upper body as well this time, but I was moving fine and could function normal. I fell asleep for a little while my brother drove and when I woke up everything had changed. I had trouble opening my hands and straightening my arms.
It felt like every muscle in my body wanted to tear when I tried to move it. The rest of that ride home was hell and when I got home I had trouble picking up the kids. I sat in my arm-chair and when it was time to get up it took me several minutes. I had to stretch every limb before I made an attempt to get up. Finally I loosened my arms enough to push me out of the chair and decided it was time to go to bed. At this point I thought this was just soreness and I was in for a long couple of days. I didn’t realize that the muscle pain I was feeling was something else.
Those first few hours of half sleep were torture. I couldn’t find a comfortable position to sleep in and every move I made as extremely painful. I kept my hands open and flat on the bed because if I let me fingers curl up it felt like I was tearing the muscles in my forearms to open them back up. I got up sometime in the middle of the night and used the bathroom. I didn’t flush because I was scared it would wake the baby up and I would have to pick him up. Then sometime around 4am or so the muscle pain just went away.
One minute it felt like every muscle in my body was on the verge of tearing then it just eased away to normal muscle soreness. I could roll over, sit up, and stand all without extreme pain. It was a huge relief and I finally got a few hours of restful sleep. When I got up at around 8 I went back into the bathroom and the first thing I noticed was the toilet was filled with blood. I urinated again and although it wasn’t bright red like it must have been during the night it was definitely still tinted with blood.
Not a good situation. I had heard of this happening to plenty of people after ultra-marathons but nothing like that had happened to me before. It seemed odd to me as well because I had felt so comfortable for most the race (aside from being freezing) and although I felt a little more beat up muscular wise I didn’t feel like I had pushed myself as hard as I have in ultras previously. I thought maybe it had something to do with electric shock and again regretted doing operation so many times. It definitely concerned me, although within an hour there was no longer any blood in my urine and since the muscle pain was gone
I figured there was not much more I could do than rest and hydrate. Over the next couple days I recovered well, no more muscle pain or any other complications. I am still taking it easy and being careful not to push myself too hard until I know I am fully recovered. Toughest Mudder was an awesome experience and while part of me wants to think that the aftermath was an isolated incident that won’t happen again and I should hop into another one later this year, another part of me knows that I could have been far more prepared for this race and that it is far smarter to wait until I have the time to put in the training that I feel I truly need to excel in this type of event. That may be next year it may be after my kids go to school, either way I definitely want to get back out onto this circuit sometime in the future, stronger, faster and wiser!
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