Last year, I convinced a group of my friends that it would be fun to spend a Sunday crawling through mud, jumping into a giant shipping container filled with ice water and running through a live wires where they would almost definitely get shocked with a dose of up to 10,000 volts of electricity. The event was called Tough Mudder and it was a 13 mile obstacle course challenge that would be fun.
The Point Of Suffering?
It was not fun. For me, at least. 3 miles in, just after getting out of the aforementioned ice water obstacle, appropriately named the Arctic Enema, I gripped onto the rungs of the monkey bar obstacle with frozen fingers and started climbing across. While practically everyone was falling into the water, I confidently traversed the obstacle, one bar at a time, happily thinking to myself that I wouldn’t have to fall back into the cold water. With one bar left, with my friends cheering me on, I just fall. No pumped up forearms. No slipping fingers. No warning. I simply just slipped. Normally, it wouldn’t be a problem, but instead of dropping into the water, I crash rib-first onto the hard wooden edge of the platform. In that jarring instant, it felt like being hit with a baseball bat and feeling the thudding impact, but without any pain. I pulled myself up, caught my breath and continued on with my team. Over the next 9 miles, the pain surfaced and began to increase as the temperature decreased. This was February and even the warmth of the sun wasn’t enough to keep us from shivering under our wet, 100% cotton, running of the bulls costume. I completed every obstacle without fail, but did not really enjoy it. I couldn’t see the appoint of suffering needlessly in an event that many people don’t even train for. At the finish line, I got a beer that I was too cold to drink and an orange finisher’s headband, that made me feel like anything but a Tough Mudder. I braved the cold, took the shocks and I finished. And the best part was that I didn’t have to do it again.
Flash forward 16 months, I’ve done countless obstacle course races, mostly competitive events like the Spartan Race that demands more training and technique and involves less electricity, but not another Tough Mudder. I told myself that it was because it was an untimed event and that I don’t like being shocked, but secretly, I had a bit of a grudge against Tough Mudders because I got hurt on an obstacle I had never and have not since failed and it was just cold. It left a bad taste in my mouth, but ashamedly, it ate at me that I was dodging this challenge. I also wanted to understand what made mudders want to return for a second or third round. So, on a whim, I signed myself and my friend Joey, a virgin mudder up for the Tough Mudder in Tahoe a few days before the event to review it with a fresh perspective.
The temperature was in the mid-70’s when my friend and I arrived at the Northstar Resort. I had only ever been to Tahoe during the wintertime so it was odd to see the village not covered in snow.
After registering, the gondola brought us up to the festival grounds. The event drew around 8500 runners the day before, and expected another 2000 runners today. I was kind of glad it wasn’t going to be too crowded. We lined up with our heat for a group warm-up before jumping over a wall to get to the starting line.
At the starting line, the MC kicked it off with the Mudder Pledge:
- 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.
While many of obstacles can be completed alone, there are a few obstacles where most would fail without the help of others around them. I’ve seen so many instances of racers stopping to help others out at every race, but this idea of teamwork and camaraderie works better when the event is untimed and the obstacles demand it.
After introducing ourselves to the mudders to the right and left of us, we all took a knee and acknowledged mudders who have or were currently serving in the military, while Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” played on the loud speakers. Go America. The MC then had all returning mudders stand up so we could be acknowledged as “legionnaires”. This was my 2nd Tough Mudder, so I would have access to 3 additional obstacles near the end of the course.
With all of that done, it was time to run.
Straight out of the gate, we head down, down, and down for 3/4 of a mile before making a sharp turn and heading right back up. Almost everyone stops running to conserve energy. There was still 10 more miles to go so there was no need to push any kind of pace. Ever. It’s untimed. At the first obstacle, I help my friend over the set of inverted Glory Blades walls and jump over myself. This obstacle requires combining upper body strength with a swinging momentum to get your legs over. With no one behind us, we continue up the slopes and round a series of switchbacks to get to the Warrior Carry, where Joey and I take turns carry each other across a combined distance of about 100 meters.
Just before mile 2, we get to the the Devil’s Beard, an odd name for a webbed net that we have to crawl under. The course cotinued upwards where we get to our first two muddy obstacles, the Pitfall, where we wade through a set of waste deep trench of mud and then through the Mud Mile. One of the volunteers joked that this brown water was the dump off from yesterday’s Port-a-potties. Great visual. Heading to mile 4, we crawl through a tight tunnel obstacle called the Prairie Dog and into yet another pool of sloshy brown water. By the 5th mile, we’ve climbed about 1500 ft and we get to the first strength obstacle, Hold Your Wood, where we are literally holding onto a piece of wood and doing a small lap with it on our shoulders. Near the top, I recognize the spot. Even without the snow, the flat terrain is familiar from my time snowboarding here a few years ago.
Unlike my first Tough Mudder, morale is a lot higher because the warmer weather and I’m all smiles inching across the Pole Dancer, rolling under the barbed wires at the Kiss Of Mud, and over the tricky Lumberjacked logs. We had also been “racing” against a team of runners exchanging leads every few minutes. All in good fun. We have completed half the course, but there is still another 13 obstacles including the Arctic Enema and the Electroshock Therapy at the end. Just as I said that to Joey, we descend down a hill and one of the spectator tells us that the Arctic Enema is just around the corner. The best advice I have for this obstacle is to take a deep breath, stop thinking about it and just take the plunge. You have to completely submerge yourself to get under the barrier. The key is to do it swiftly with a full lung of air and then emerge. It’s not pretty and Tough Mudder knows this. That’s why the photographers are right there to capture you emerging.
To be honest, it was quite refreshing this time right after the initial shock. We immediately get to the next obstacle, the Pyramid Scheme. The obstacle looked simple enough. I try to run up and there’s absolutely no traction and no room for running start. There was no real way around it except to help each other out. A couple of the guys ahead lean back onto the wall and allow others to climb onto their shoulders to gain some enough height to reach a set of extended hands at the top.
After I get up, I turn around and return the favor. At the end of the day, this wasn’t some life or death challenge, but it was still nice people come together and put in real effort to help others get up and complete the obstacle.
Then we get to one of my favorite obstacles, the Walk The Plank. I love jumping off of things into the water. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the cold water the first time around, it was welcomed as the temperature started to rise. This is not the easiest obstacle for everyone, so once again, the best advice is to focus on the countdown and just think without thinking too much about it. Like a few of the tougher obstacles, this one was a optional bypass obstacle, allowing those uncomfortable with swimming to skip it. That said, the whole point of a Tough Mudder is to challenge yourself and do things that take you out of your comfort zone.
Then came the steepest incline of the day, the Cliffhanger. Over a quarter of a mile, we climb about 500 feet. A quad killer. Then it was an in and out loop to the Berlin Wall, which felt like just a way to add a bit of distance to the course. After the climb, almost everyone was walking this section.
At the 9th mile, we get to the last set of obstalces starting to the Balls to the Wall and Ladder to Hell climb. Both requiring mudder to over a tall wall. Nothing too difficult, but be careful not to loose your grip and footing.
Starting with the Arctic Enema, almost all the obstacles, save the Berlins Walls, were accessible to the spectators. This allowed friends and family to cheer on the runners. After the two climbs, we get to the Funky Monkey. As much as I’m confident about my ability to get through this, the trauma of last time comes rushing back and I’m extra careful not to lose my grip. To add a bit of drama to it, I had ripped my left hand the day before doing some American Ninja Warrior training. Luckily, no problems.
The next obstacle was Everest. This is usually another obstacle that requires teamwork. Fortunately, it was dry and I get up in one go without any assistance. Joey gets up pretty easily with a hand from myself and another mudder.
After Everest, the course split, with the 3 additional obstacles for returning mudders, as part of the Legionnaires Loops. The first one did not look very fun. 100,000 Volts?
You can’t blame for me a bit apprehensive crawling into the tunnel. I get into position and just throw my body through. No shock. Phew! Now just once more to exist. No shock! Turns out it was just a hoax obstacle. Damn you Tough Mudder! The last two ended up being my two favorite obstacles. First up was the Leap of Faith, where mudders jump off a plank and reach towards a cargo net. To make it more interesting, two mudders jump at the same time for bragging rights. Make sure you reach first or else the net may not be where you expect it to be.
Back to the Funky Monkey, there were two hanging pipes to get across. A nice twist and one that required a fair amount of grip and upper body strength.
Was it over? Almost. As a Legionnaire, we were able to bypass the Electroshock Therapy. I didn’t have to go through, but Joey would. So I bid her farewell and told her I’d meet her by the beer. Right. Like that was going to happen.
5 times. I’ve heard that it takes some time for the wire to recharge and all shocks are not created equally. I believe that now. These 5 shocks were nothing like what I felt the first time. And yes that reaction on my face is genuine. Running a mudder for the first time and looking for some comfort? You won’t find it here. It hurts. You may get lucky and get through without one single jolt, but don’t count on it. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying to cross that finish line would it?
Of course the shock is only temporary. As much as it stings in that moment, it goes almost as as quickly. While I prefer to have a medal, these headbands aren’t so bad. Multiple time finishers get their different color headbands similar to the martial arts belt system. Now the question is whether I’m going to return for a 3rd time.
Pain And Gain
Despite the higher altitude that took us up to around 7900 ft, this Mudder felt a lot easier than my first. While a bit of that can be attributed to me being in better shape, I felt like some of the overall set of obstacles were easier than my first Tough Mudder, except for the Electroshock Therapy. My friend and I both enjoyed it, but in making some of the obstacles easier, I didn’t see nearly as much of the teamwork that I saw the first time around.
Obstacles. There were definitely a few tough ones and a few that required the help of others to get across. While training would help with some of the strength based obstacles, a few of them were psychological. This is great for getting people out of their comfort zone and not discouraging for those who may not be able to life a heavy stone or flip a giant tire. I think most of the obstacles can be completed by any reasonable fit person. There is creativity in it, but I felt like the course was a little less “Tough” compared to my previous Mudder. The Arctic Enema wasn’t so bad with the warmer weather. There was only one electricity obstacle compared to 3 last time. Without the mud and dirt, Everest was not nearly the tough obstacle it’s meant to be. While, the course was designed to be more spectator friendly, it also left a large parts of the course without any exciting obstacles. B
Volunteers. The event was very well-run. It seemed like everyone knew their role and what to do. I give extra points here to the volunteers who really got their hands dirty to help mudders through the obstacles. At the Pyramid Scheme, I saw a female volunteer literally volunteer her shoulders for a pretty large guy to climb up and get to the top since he was the last one down there. That was awesome. A
Aid Stations. There were 6 on-course water stations over the 11 mile course which is a good number. What’s nice considering it takes an average of 4-5 hours to complete the course is that they provide nutrition in addition to just water. At two of the aid stations there was something to provide a boost of energy. One provided a protein bar, while the other provided some energy chews. A+
Festival Ground. This has been by far one of the most spectator friendly events I’ve been to, with 14 of the 23 obstacles accessible for spectators. That’s amazing. The shorter gondolas were running to get spectators up to higher spots for some of the obstacles. There were plenty of vendors offering lots of full sized free samples. I came away with some tasty beef jerky, a couple of different types of protein bars and even a bowl of Wheaties cereal. There was also a Bic tent that offered free shaves and mohawks. A+
Photography. Photos were taken by GameFace Media. There were quite a few photographers covering this event. With the volume of mudders, there were usually at least 2-3 photographers at obstacles where photos were being taken. The photos were posted online and easy to retrieve for free. Considering there 23 obstacles, getting photographs at 6 obstacles and the finish line is pretty good. A+
Fun Factor. Unlike timed races, where runners are often more focused on course times, Tough Mudder’s “this is not a race, it is a challenge” mantra makes it so that you would want to sign up as a time and complete the course together. Since I did it with my friend, it was nice to encourage each other through the obstacles. We even developed a fun “rivalry” with another group of mudders. A
Schwag. I love the free stuff. The finisher tee is made from a nice material that I would wear again. I know the orange headband is iconic to Tough Mudder, but I prefer a finishers metal. Just my personal preference. A-
Return Factor. As long as the terrain changes, and the obstacles continue to be shuffled and expanded on, I can see the appeal of gathering your friends or a new group of friends once a year to run a tough mudder. I don’t see myself running traveling around the country to run in different Tough Mudders, but I have heard of people who do. Depending on your desire to be shocked by electricity a second or third time, the wow factor might be diminished a bit after finishing the run once. B+
If you are interesting in checking out a Tough Mudder, check out their Events Page. Sign up and start training.