I woke up in a hotel called "Hyatt HOUSE" in Carlsbad, California at 4:15am. It's a nice little no-frills hotel, wedged conveniently between the 5 Freeway and a noisy commuter train track. It's Hyatt's stripped down version of a Hyatt, with only the bare essentials for amenities. Imagine a Holiday Inn, Hyattized. For me, it was a perfectly adequate place to stay the night before doing something I had been anticipating for several months. Though I had scheduled two wake up calls and backed that up with two alarms on my iPhone, excitement and nerves woke me first. 4:15am. In the dark room, my heart began to flutter.
My gear was carefully laid out on the other bed in the room:
-Under-Armour compression shorts and warm weather compression shirt.
-A random tech shirt from a 10k I ran at the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
-A worn out pair of Adidas running shorts.
-Neo-Pro fingerless gloves.
-A weathered old pair of Nikes, ready for retirement.
-2 packets of GU, with caffeine.
-A small bag of dry clothes.
After months of training, it was finally the morning of the day I would cross another goal off of my list: The Tough Mudder. The mother of all Mud Runs. An eleven mile adventure trail run with 25 military style obstacles scattered throughout the course. 12 foot high walls. Ice baths. River crossings. Monkey Bars over freezing cold water. Electroshock live wires.
ELECTROFUCKINGSHOCK LIVE WIRES.
If you're not a runner, the idea of running at all might seem silly. The notion of running long distances might seem even more absurd. And running through a military style obstacle course with mud, freezing water and electric shock? Stupid. Like, dipshit stupid. You know what? That makes sense as I write this. It does sound stupid.
But I wanted to do it. The moment I saw this video, I wanted to see if I could do it. Over the past couple of years, I've been pushing myself towards a much more athletic and active lifestyle. It began with a workout program called p90x, and it has evolved into a complete overhaul of the way I eat, the way I live, and the way I challenge my mind and body to be better. I register for a race every weekend. Whether it's a bike ride, a trail run, a half marathon, or a mini-triathlon, I'll give it a shot. Sign up and figure out how to finish it on race day, is my philosophy. I may be 40, but I've never felt more fit. I refuse to become a fat dad. I refuse to miss my kids youth to my own laziness or fatigue. I refuse to ignore the longing for physical activity that I've ignored since college. I'm not built to be be stagnant, and that's something I've just begun to rediscover and honor over the past few years. I'm much happier this way. So, Tough Mudder? An event that bills itself as "Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet?" Fuck yeah. On December 6th, I signed up and started training.
4:45am, February 25
I got dressed in my gear, and snapped a quick shot for Instagram. "A before photo," I thought to myself. I grabbed my bag of dry clothes, ate half a Clif bar, and headed out to my car. The road to Temecula at this hour would be clear. Dark and desolate, in fact. Butterflies. Big ones.
I arrived at Vail Lake Resort at about 5:45am. I was meeting my friend Dustin there, who was running with a team of guys who had all run the NorCal Mudder a few months earlier. They were running late, so I decided to take the shuttle up to the starting area to get checked in. Starting time for our wave was 8am, but I like to have plenty of time to register, get situated, check my bag, mentally prepare, shit my pants, etc. I was nervous. The line for the yellow school bus shuttles crossed a scary looking obstacle in the middle of the race course. I snapped another Instagram photo. "Are You Tough Enough?" it asked. I began to wonder.
As the bus rumbled uphill, it was a slow climb to the staging area of the event. Perhaps intentionally, the bus circled past some of the more ominous obstacles near the end of the course, including Everest, the greased up vertical quarter-pipe that you must attack at full speed, attempt to run up, and lunge for the lip before hoisting yourself up and over the top. It's the last major obstacle before the dangling live wires at the finish line, and seeing it now as the bus prepared to drop us off filled me with an odd mixture of excitement and fear. The bus stopped and the few of us that had, for some reason that now seemed hard to remember, chosen to be up here this early headed towards registration.
At 6:00am sharp, the lines for registration opened. It looked like the gated entrance at Disneyland. There was a team of Mudder staff spread out along an entrance to the event, separated into sections of the alphabet. I found the "N" line, and walked in. Bib #107. In Sharpie, the volunteer wrote that number on my forehead and calf. "Bibs have a way of falling off in this event," he told me with a chuckle. "I'm sure they do," I replied, trying to find a chuckle of my own. It was forced, and more of a nervous whelp. I walked out to the grass that was wet with morning dew and surveyed my surroundings. Nerves were beginning to mix with blind excitement now, and I looked around for Dustin.
As I pinned my bib onto my shirt, Dustin and the six guys he came with found me. He told me their team name was Boner Jams, which was fine with me (although in hindsight, I do have some questions). I was happy to be running with a group. Something about this event calls out for support from a team. You want to suffer together with people so you can all drink beer to the same stories later. I glanced over at the Dos Equis tent positioned right at the finish line. Mmm...Beer (Homer voice). Team Boner Jams was ready.
We checked our bags and gathered near the starting line. To enter the gated starting area, participants were forced to scale a couple of 8 foot high walls, just to give everyone a taste of what lay ahead. The energy was amazing. We moved into the starting area at around 7:40, twenty minutes before the scheduled start of our wave. I surveyed the crowd forming around us. Some wore costumes, I noticed. A group of hulks (painted green, ripped jorts) stood nearby. A hot Wonder Woman with a hot wonder body jumped and stretched behind us. Normal looking people looked as nervous and anxious as I felt. I stretched my quads, more out of a need for something to do than an actual tightness. Eminem ripped through the speakers, and I felt ready. We got a pep talk, and were led through the Tough Mudder motto:
** As a Tough Mudder I pledge that…
* I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
* I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
* I do not whine – kids whine.
* I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
* I overcome all fears.**
Pretty easy to get behind that pledge. They played a nice recording of the National Anthem, everyone cheered, and then he counted us off. 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...THREE...TWO...ONE!
A pack of crazy people, we burst out of the starting gate through the orange smoke towards the "Death March" up the first ascent. It's always hard to control the urge to sprint at the beginning of a race, but the excitement and months of anticipation made it doubly hard as I ran my way through costumed athletes, former military personnel, and weekend warriors. I was giddy. Together with my newfound team, we charged up the trail towards whatever lay in our path.
I felt strong. Months of running, including substantial uphill trail training, gave me the confidence to maintain a steady pace on this first incline. Much of the giddy pack of crazy people quickly faced the cardio reality of this first climb. As my team turned into the sun, we saw our first obstacle: The Berlin Walls.
I think the most nerve-wracking part of taking on the Tough Mudder was wondering whether or not I'd be able to successfully complete all of the obstacles. I've not had the occasion to scale a series of three twelve foot walls lately. I'm not often challenged with perilous monkey bars in my daily life. Maintaining my balance on a two by four to avoid plunging into cold water is not something that happens at work. These things, and my ability to actually do them, were all unknowns before the race. I felt pretty confident, but based on what? What if I struggled right away?
Swallowing my nerves, I dug my foot into the base of the first wall and reached up to grab the lip. I hoisted myself over the top as if I'd been doing it every day of my life, and easily jumped down to the ground on the other side. I went straight for the second one. Just as easily, I jumped up and pulled myself atop the wall. This time, I turned around to help a couple of struggling mudders get a hand over the edge. It's an event that demands teamwork, even when it's not your team that needs work. After helping a few people, I jumped down and scaled the third wall with relative ease. My nervous energy disappeared as I waited for the rest of my team to make it over. I was ready for this race.
There's a lot of running. The obstacles become a welcome break from the runs, and are almost a reprieve from lots of tough trail work. Sometimes there is a bit of a wait at the obstacles which, trust me, is not at all a bad thing. There were mud crawls underneath low to the ground barbed wire and electric live wires. There were cargo net climbs and hiking with logs and traversing shaky balance beams. The obstacle I feared the most: the Funky Monkey Bars was about four miles into the race. I was thrilled to make it across without slipping off into the water below, but my excitement about staying dry was short lived, as the very next obstacle was the ice water bath plunge. Jumping in sucks the air out of your lungs in an instant. It is FREEZING. You must then go underneath (thus, underwater) a barrier to exit on the other side. I gasped in shock, but I loved it. I loved it all. I jumped out with a scream of excitement and a jolt of energy. I thought running with wet shoes would be an issue, but they tend to stay wet and muddy throughout. I jumped 20 feet into water; I swam across rivers; I plunged down a 60 foot, massive slip and slide, through creeks and of course, mud; and I ran up the face of the dreaded quarter pipe Everest, easily pulling myself over the top.
Near the very end, we waited almost fifteen minutes for the entire team to catch up so we could all cross the finish line together. Tough Mudder isn't an officially timed race, so none of us worried about beating any records. Finishing as a team is as important as finishing at all. Once together, we locked arms and plowed through the dangling live wires that stood between us and the coveted orange head band (and the Dos Equis). The electricity of the live wires lit us up as we staggered through the final obstacle of the race.
Together, we crossed the finish line and accepted our reward. Cold beer and a bright orange head band worth about 2 bucks.
One of the best beers I've ever tasted.
Did I have fun? I'm signed up for three more this year. My brother and I will take on Vermont in July, and then I'm doing both NorCal events in September. One will be with the very same guys from this race: Team Boner Jams (although I might push for a name change), and one will be with a team I coerced into joining me in the fall: Team Jaguar Suicide (Brad, BadBlood, Jeff, G-Rob, and all the rest of you...see you in September.)
As a whole, it was one of the most rewarding events I've ever been a part of.
I can't wait for the next one.