Are You Tough Enough?
Obstacle races are building a fervent following, and it’s not just gym rats and endurance athletes signing up for the challenge.
Photos by Dmitry Gudkov
Bloodied and bruised, I step on my boyfriend’s head with one foot and hoist the other over a 10-foot wall. My arm muscles scream in protest as I cling to the wall with filthy fingers, which just minutes ago were trying to unsnarl my hair from a piece of barbed wire. Finally on top of the wall, I see a wave of my muddy-faced comrades trudging up a steep hill, an exhausted march to the next obstacle. Every half mile, I get a painful reminder that this may have been one of the stupidest ideas of my life. And I cannot wait to do it again.
I wasn’t the only one who thought signing up for a sports event that required a death waiver was a good idea. Close to 5,000 people joined me at Tahoe’s Northstar in September to attempt Tough Mudder, an 11-mile obstacle course designed to test the physical and mental grit of British special forces recruits. Except most of us look more like Joe Schmo than G.I. Joe. There’s your kid’s schoolteacher, clawing her way through a mud pit. A mile ahead, an electrical wire shocks your favorite barista as he inches his way through a pool of ice water. And then there’s me, an editor who still can’t do a pull-up, scaling the final set of walls before the finish line.
More than 460,000 people participated in Tough Mudder events across the United States in 2012, and that doesn’t include the thousands who signed up for similar obstacle events, ranging from the all-female Dirty Girl run to the 48-hour Spartan Death Race. It wouldn’t exactly be accurate to say we do it for fun. In addition to having us run up and down snow-free ski slopes, the Tough Mudder course includes up to 30 obstacles no sane person should attempt. After I jumped fully clothed off a 12-foot-high platform into freezing water, my shoes weighed me down to the point where I thought I would run out of air before I surfaced. The guy in front of me at the final obstacle—a sprint through a field of live wires carrying up to 10,000 volts of electricity—got zapped so hard that his legs gave out, and he hit the muddy ground with a thud. I watched first aid carts zip up and down the mountain, collecting participants too injured, exhausted, or scared to continue.
So why did I do it? With my hours and a work brain that never shuts off, I found Tough Mudder preparation a welcome distraction from the computer. I rose to the challenge of reaching the finish line and created a plan for conquering my first Mudder. After work, I’d practice running up and down Lafayette Reservoir’s hilly trails, sharing knowing glances with other Mudders-in-training along the way. Last year’s course elevation, which topped out at 8,600 feet—more than twice the height of Mount Diablo—forced many fit competitors to the sidelines with severe calf cramps.
I also started hitting the weights. I traded in my normal bar classes for CrossFit, which strengthened many of the muscles needed on the course, and worked my way through Tough Mudder’s online boot camps at home. Even so, my arms still weren’t strong enough. Whether crossing greased monkey bars, hanging rings, or the aforementioned walls, the participants who fared the best—and stayed the driest—were those who could support their own body weight. I ended up far muddier and more drenched than I’d like to admit.
Despite months of training, I still wasn’t 100 percent ready for the obstacles on event day. But I also wasn’t prepared for the feeling of solidarity I would experience crouched in the waiting area, cheering with the crowd before taking off on the course. I didn’t expect to feel elated as I emerged from a dumpster filled with ice and colored water shocked that I’d arrived on the other side in one piece. No one was more surprised than I was that I quelled my competitive nature and stayed with my boyfriend after he twisted his ankle, adopting a slower pace as he limped toward the bottom of the mountain. And when I crossed the finish line and collected my orange headband and completion beer, I had never felt happier. Earning the coveted headband didn’t come easy, but the event’s emphasis on teamwork fostered a feeling of camaraderie, and I shared hugs and high fives with complete strangers. I’d made it through my first Tough Mudder.
Back at work on Monday, I swapped my trail sneakers and compression gear for heels and a dress. But underneath my professional exterior, I still had the bruises and cuts of my conquest. Bring it on, deadlines. I survived 11 grueling miles of torturous obstacles. There’s nothing I can’t tackle.
The next Northern California Tough Mudder events take place July 13 and 14, and September 28 and 29, in Tahoe. You should have started training yesterday.