I’m very rarely at a loss for words. You’d think after writing more than 75,000 words about football and probably another 25,000 about my dog’s antics in the past six months, it wouldn’t be possible for me to come up empty when trying to describe an event. But maybe that’s the most challenging aspect of competing in Tough Mudder—accurately trying to describe the event to people who didn’t experience it themselves.
Maybe rather than try to sum up one of the craziest things I’ve ever been a part of in one neat little sentence, walking you through the entire day (as best as I can remember it at least) will better describe the insanity that took place in Temecula, California:
Team Ross Is Born
The story actually begins not in Temecula, but in Los Angeles, where a world-renowned blogger decided he needed a real challenge in his life (side note: This is where I transition from talking in the third person to talking in the first person the rest of the blog). After cruising through countless half marathons and crushing the Boston Marathon, it seemed like there was no physical challenge on this planet that could get the better of me. I felt like what Forrest Gump must have felt like after he ran to the edge of all the world’s oceans. What else was there for me to do? I know what you’re thinking. “Climb Mt. Everest,” right? Well world-renowned blogger or not, it’ll be years before I can afford to plant the Flag of Ross in the world’s highest peak. And I know your next thought: “You should try an Ironman race. If you think you’re such hot shit, try to do the triathlon that features 2.5 miles of swimming, 112 miles of bicycling and 26.2 miles of running that some of the world’s best athletes compete in every year.”
Again, I had that same thought after I conquered everything else. The only problem, once again, is that this blog-writing job doesn’t pay enough for me to buy a bike. Can’t do an Ironman without a bike. Hand to god if I could afford a bike, I’d sign up for an Ironman race.
So back in July, just when all hope seemed lost, the organizers of Tough Mudder contacted me out of the blue and said they’d like to have me compete in one of their races so I could bring some popularity to the fledgling competition (Fine, here’s the truth: I was sitting in front of the TV with some friends enjoying my 11th beer of the afternoon and watching the Red Sox lose their 57th consecutive game when someone said we should try to do a Tough Mudder. A moment later, I grunted at something that was happening on the TV, and this friend interpreted that noise as me agreeing to do the race. He started spreading the word that I was in for the Mudder, and suddenly it was too late to back out.)
I posted THIS BLOG on July 25th to recruit teammates, and suddenly Team Ross exploded from two to four people.
Over the next few months, the four of us would train daily for the February 9th race. To some of us, training meant either running or hitting the gym every day. To others, training meant sitting at their work desk nine hours a day, going home and drinking a bottle of wine, and then passing out facedown on the living room floor after attempting to do one pushup. Everyone has their own training regimens that work for their own body.
When the entire team was back on the East Coast for Christmas, we recruited one final member. She wasn’t the perfect teammate because she was in particularly good shape or had any relevant experience for this race. She was the perfect teammate because she was a woman and we felt we needed her to be “race buddies” with the other woman in our group. That way when one of them had to slow down and walk during the race (which was inevitable) the other one would feel bad and walk with her. That type of sympathy didn’t exist with me and the other two men on the team.
So the second woman, broke as she was, signed up and booked a flight out to LA with only five weeks to go before the race. Some might say this wasn’t nearly enough time to train. Others would say she was the leading candidate to suffer serious injury.
Oh, and we also had some people who were gung-ho about joining the team back in July who eventually dropped out when they realized watching college basketball 16 hours a day was not an appropriate training strategy. In hindsight, I’m extremely jealous of those people.
The final team consisted of:
- Me: A self-proclaimed elite athlete who has won “finisher” medals at more than six half marathons. Best example of my toughness: I can wrestle a 90lb dog to the ground and pin her, despite the onslaught of lick-fighting that I have to deal with while tangled up with her.
- Julie: A woman who’s idea of a hardcore athletic challenge is joining an adult recreational bowling league. Best example of toughness: She once ran a full marathon without any training and completed it. She learned how to effectively roll herself around in a wheelchair during the three days following the marathon, but still, she finished.
- Neil: A former triathlete who spends as much time choosing his outfit for a race as he does training for it. Best example of toughness: I know this sounds like an exaggeration, but I once saw him jump from a stand-still position onto a chair that was two feet high when he spotted a mouse scampering towards him.
- Aaron: A jet-setting mountain trekker whose body defies science by being able to turn alcohol into useful energy. Best example of toughness: He once purposely scalped his head on a rusty shipwreck in the Caribbean just because he enjoys the pain of a fresh tetanus shot.
- Caroline: A typical New York “tough girl” who’s been taking a physical and mental beating all her life from her five older “siblings.” Best example of toughness: Just for the hell of it, she once had a piece of her vertebrae removed. Rumor has it that she wouldn’t even let the doctors give her anesthesia during the procedure.
The Pre-Race Routine
Rather than booking hotel rooms to ensure a good, comfortable night’s sleep before the race, the five of us decided to cram into my 800 square-foot apartment in LA. This meant one person was sleeping on a couch, and two people were sleeping on the air mattresses I had. Of course when one of those air mattresses ended up having a hole and completely deflating within an hour of going to sleep, those two people were forced to share one mattress between them. But we planned for the possibility of uncomfortable sleeping conditions by hitting up a local happy hour and drinking as many 32-ounce beers as possible prior to a giant pasta dinner. Passing out the night before the race wasn’t a problem.
The next morning all five of us piled into my modestly-sized car to make the two-hour drive to Temecula. Again, why would we go for comfort when we could assure ourselves a muscle-cramping and joint-stiffening car ride?
To kill time in the car, we pulled up the list of Tough Mudder obstacles and reviewed them as a team. Here’s the easiest way to explain it: a 12-mile run with roughly 20 obstacles throughout the course. Some of the obstacles were as simple as crawling through mud while avoiding barbed wire above you, climbing a series of 10-to-12-foot walls (with the help of teammates, of course), and carrying objects of different weights. Other obstacles were less about the physical challenges of crawling, climbing and carrying, and more about breaking you mentally. Some of these obstacles included jumping into 34-degree water and running through a field of live wires carrying upwards of 10,000 volts of electricity.
After we reviewed all the challenges, two people made comments that they’d live to regret. After a couple people expressed concern over the difficulty of the race, Julie felt pretty confident that “we’re gonna be going through these obstacles and laughing at how harmless they are.”
I then told the group that after watching a 15-minute video earlier in the week of someone doing the Tough Mudder “I’m concerned it’s gonna be boring because there seemed to be a lot of standing around and waiting in line to do the obstacles. I’ll be pissed if this turns into us walking from obstacle-to-obstacle and waiting in 20-minute lines.”
Since I was so sure this would be more of a “hike with cute little obstacles,” when we stopped for a bathroom break 10 miles from the race, I decided to eat a Burger King Sausage Croissan’wich and hash browns while washing it down with a fountain Diet Coke. This surprised some of my teammates, but not nearly as much as when Caroline emerged from Burger King with a Whopper Jr. in hand. I honestly didn’t know they were allowed to serve Whopper Jr’s at 9:15 in the morning.
When we got to the parking lot about a mile from the start line, two aspects of Tough Mudder we hadn’t counted on loomed over us: the weather and the terrain.
As we made the drive southeast from LA, my car’s temperature gauge for the outside weather went as low as 41 degrees and as high as…48 degrees. When we got out of the car and realized the temperature probably wasn’t going to hit the 75-degree mark that we were hoping for, we all got more than a little nervous about running 10 miles after the first “jump into a 34-degree ice bath” obstacle. It was out of our control; we couldn’t train for it; but it sucked.
The terrain, on the other hand, wasn’t out of our control, we could have trained for it, but it still sucked. For some reason, none of us ever considered the possibility that this race would be primarily run on a mountain. Which is interesting considering someone left a comment on my July 25th blog that said, “We did one in May…the obstacles and miles turn out to be the least of your concerns. It’s the constant climbing up and down the black diamond hills that sucked.”
From a pure running standpoint, I was probably the best-prepared in our group because I had just run a half marathon the previous Sunday. But never in my months of training for the half did I consider running any hills. While walking a mile to the start line, we looked up and saw thousands of people who were in an earlier heat running up and down some serious mountain ridges. If someone had asked me after the race to sum up the difficulties I had with five words and one body movement it would have been “the temperature and the hills” with an accompanying head shake.
One final note about the pre-race stuff. When it was time for our heat to begin, they had all the participants jog to the start line and then climb a 7-foot wall to get to the starting area. This served as a way to pump everyone up and get that adrenaline going. And it worked too. You came off that wall ready to crawl through mud, dive into ice cold water, rip out trees with your bare hands and fight someone to the death. Unfortunately before they’d actually let us loose on the course, we had to sit through a 20-minute sermon by a guy named “Startline Sean.” Now this guy’s role is to be the official hype man for Tough Mudder. He gets you pumped up by talking about how tough Tough Mudders are. He goes on and on about how big of an accomplishment this race is for anyone who completes it. He makes you yell “HOO RAA” a lot. He has you stare at the American Flag while the National Anthem plays over the PA system. Then he has you take a knee for a never-ending 10 minutes while he continues his speech. And then when people can’t take the pain from being on one knee on the hard ground for that long and start to stand up, he makes the whole crowd kneel back down because “he didn’t say to stand up yet.” And finally, FINALLY after all of that nonsense, he lets us get on our way. For some people, he’s probably an inspiration and his Jesus-like spiel gets them where they need to be mentally. For me and my teammates, we were already there after climbing that first wall. All he did was sap us of that adrenaline and get our knees and backs hurting from kneeling for so long. I honestly believe Startline Sean caused me as much pain as sliding down a 50-foot rocky hill did that day.
Oh, You Wanted Details of The Actual Race?
After 2,000 words on forming the team and getting to the race, you certainly don’t want me to take you through each mile and each obstacle. But let’s fly through the highlights:
- Possibly-major injuries were suffered by everyone except for me. Aaron pulled his calf muscle in the first mile and it seemed like he was in agony on every hill and obstacle the rest of the day. Neil may have broken several toes on the “Cliffhanger,” which was a 40-foot hill at a 45-degree angle covered in mud that we had to climb up. By mile 6, Julie either had a seriously-injured internal organ in her midsection or a bruised hip flexor. And Caroline was on the brink of hypothermia only 45 minutes into the race.
- Actually I’d love to tell you that Caroline just needed to “suck it up” (like I told her at one point during the race, at which point she tried to push me off a cliff). Because after all, she is my little sister. But her skin was turning gray and she had goosebumps that didn’t go away for the entire 4 hours we were on the course. I think it was serious.
- So Caroline ran 55% of the race while wearing one of those foil “space blankets” that they give marathon runners at the finish line. And she needed it. But it’s probably a good thing that Neil reminded her not to wear it through the electro-shock obstacles. Is there a scientist reading this post that can tell us what would have happened to her? Would she have caught on fire?
- Regardless of “Startline Sean” sucking all the life out of us, we definitely were all on a high during the first few miles. It’s impossible not to be in that euphoric state when you’re running next to a thousand people and jumping over walls and shit. I was probably a little too high at mile 3 when I told the group, “If they had a signup desk right here where I could commit to 10 more Tough Mudders for $20, I would definitely sign up right now!”
- Two hours later my tune changed to, “They couldn’t pay me enough money to run another one of these.”
- By pointing out that bad things happened to everyone except for me I’m not trying to insinuate that I was in superior shape or anything. I’m just stating the facts. And the fact is that by the end of the race, everyone on the team except for me seemed to have come down with a case of rapid-onset bronchitis.
- The best way to get non-Tough Mudders to understand our state of mind during the race is to listen in on a conversation Julie and Caroline had around mile 8:
- Caroline: “I feel so weird right now. My body’s like…”
- Julie: “Yeah, it’s like my body’s not even there. Or like I’m not inside my own body.”
- Caroline: “Yeah, exactly. I can’t feel my body.”
- They literally had an out-of-body experience and I’m pretty sure I did too.
- Here’s a good example of how sadistic the Tough Mudder organizers must be. One of the obstacles is called “Walk The Plank.” Basically you jump off a platform 15 feet high into freezing cold water and then swim 20 yards before getting to dry land. This was the 18th obstacle we faced, meaning it came after 11 miles of running. But my description of that obstacle apparently wasn’t difficult enough in the eyes of the organizers. Just to get up on the platform, you had to scale a 10-foot wall that was only slightly angled. So as tired as we all were, we had to push each other up the wall before we could actually take on the obstacle. Sick, twisted bastards planning this race, I tell ya.
- I might have mentioned once or twice on this post that I ran the Boston Marathon a couple years ago. I spent the entire second half of Tough Mudder trying to determine which was tougher, the Mudder or the Marathon. I’m still not sure I have the answer. The marathon was harder on my legs, obviously, and it was more mentally challenging because it was extremely boring to run for nearly 5 hours by myself. But Tough Mudder almost killed me, literally, on a number of occasions. People don’t typically get hypothermia while running marathons. They also don’t pull all the muscles in their neck, shoulders, arms and back. The marathon was a difficult physical challenge. But the Tough Mudder was a grueling fight just to stay alive.
- Three days later and each of my nipples is still one giant scab.
- I’ve spoken with several of my teammates today (Tuesday, the race was on Saturday), and new bruises are still showing up on all of our bodies. Knees, elbows, forearms, ass, you name it, there’s a bruise on it.
- We finished the race in about 4 hours and 20 minutes. They gave us a t-shirt and an ice cold beer at the finish line. They should seriously rethink those handouts and put the money towards having 100 hot tubs onsite for people to climb into.
- After the long drive home—complete with a stop at McDonald’s for our victory burgers—the only energy we could muster up the rest of the night was to soak in the hot tub in my apartment complex for 30 minutes. After that we were in bed by 9:30.
- Glad we didn’t commit to Julie’s post-race plan, which was, of course, to go bowling.
The Final Consensus
It’s probably a little too early to make an unemotional, non-rash decision about doing another Tough Mudder. We all need time to heal. But our discussions on Saturday night all revolved around the weather. IF we were to do another one, we’d only consider a Tough Mudder that takes place in guaranteed warm weather. The temperature took this race from “really fucking tough” to “almost impossible to complete without risking severe injury or death.”
I guess that’s why they make you sign a death waiver.