Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Tough Mudder

Twenty-five seconds into the course my thighs were on fire. My first thought was, “Oh, no. That can’t be good. I’m going to be running out here for three hours, and I’m already tired! ”

I was wrong. I would be out there for five hours, and I would not be running. Not very much, anyway. About thirty-five seconds into the course I had to stop running and start trudging. Everyone did. We were going straight uphill, and not just any hill. We were at 6200 feet in elevation going straight up a ski slope at Squaw Valley, CA.

Half a minute earlier, on that clear, sunny day, I had been full of energy, jumping around, yelling, chanting, high-fiving, and raring to go. Now I had my head down, watching my feet, power-walking and breathing fast and hard. How quickly things change at 6300 feet.

There were 600 people in my starting group. There were 2400 people already on the course, and another 4800 people that would come behind us, one group every 20 minutes. We all had the same information going in. It would be a 12-mile course with 20 different military-style obstacles. What we didn’t realize was what a truly sadistic course designer has to work with when putting together a 12-mile trail at Squaw Valley. We were in for a few surprises.

At mile marker one, we were face down in the water, belly-crawling across granite under barbed wire that was hanging so low, you had to put your face under water to get underneath it. It was at mile marker one that I realized that hearing or reading “military-style obstacle” is very different than actually tackling a military-style obstacle. They kinda hurt.

Out from under the barbed wire, up on your feet, and headed straight uphill again. Only soaking wet now. Two miles and 1000 vertical feet later and we were at another water obstacle. Jump into the chest-deep cold water, duck under the plywood divider, and climb out the other side. Keep running. A mile later and another 500 vertical feet, we arrived at the High Camp Bath and Tennis Club. It sits at 8200 feet above sea level and is apparently very nice. We didn’t get to look around much. On the tennis courts sat water obstacle number three. Same as number two, but with ice water. You literally had to fight your way through the floating ice cubes to get out.

We went into the water five more times over the course, spaced out so as to keep you wet and cold for the whole run. In between the swims, we got to climb steep walls, hang from monkey bars, shimmy up ropes, crawl through pipes, traverse over and under log walls, and even crawl under a cargo net on some of Squaw’s year-round snow at 8700 feet. The obstacles ended up being a fun diversion from the really nasty part. They were not content to march us straight up to the top and back down again. We went up, then came down, then went up higher, then came down lower, then went up even higher than before, then back down… You get the idea. We made five different “death marches” during the course.

At the half-way point, after carrying a log around a ¼-mile steep rocky loop and depositing it back on the pile for the next victim, we made it to the very top of the mountain on death march number four. Mile marker six was on Squaw Peak at 9000 feet. We had made it to the top of the world. That made the fifth death march a little surprising. Somehow they found a way to go up again after we came down off the top. Go figure.

Two hours later, when I got hit with the 10,000 volt electrical wire, 20 feet from the finish line, I was done being surprised. This was the Tough Mudder, and they don’t mess around.  

With the high-voltage current still bouncing around my synapses, I made it across the finish line to collect my trophy orange head band, my t-shirt, and my celebratory beer. Dos Equis amber and bananas are not known for their complimentary flavors, but at 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, nothing ever tasted so good!

There were three kinds of people on the course that day: The GI Joes, the average Joes, and the gym rats. As for the military personnel, there were a lot of them, and they were right at home. More than a few of their groups felt the need to make the course a little tougher by carrying something. I saw one guy carrying a 2-foot diameter wooden wire spool over his head, a Marine sergeant wearing a 20-pound weight vest, and even a team of Special Forces guys that carried an inflatable raft through the whole course. The US military simply puts out the best of the best. Super tough.

The gym rats on the other hand, are not tough. They are just young and pretty. They have shaved torsos, low body fat percentages, shiny muscles, and they can run really fast when they are warm. They are not cut out for the Tough Mudder. They don’t react well to being wet and cold. They were cramping up all over the place. Us average Joes have been training for this. We’re the ones who constantly have to be in the pool/lake/ocean watching the kids while the gym rats sun themselves on the deck/shore/beach. At home, us folks with young ones are constantly giving a squirmy kid a bath, getting peed on or being thrown up on. We’re wet and cold all the time. That kind of on-the-job training, plus our superior body fat percentages acquired through old age and Little Caesar’s five dollar pizza, gives us an edge.

Water events aside, being a suburban parent has a lot more inadvertent Tough Mudder training components than I had realized. Going over fences after lost Wiffle balls, walking barefoot across Lego minefields, slithering under the dining room table to play in the “fort,” putting fitted sheets on a bunk bed, crawling around on the floor of the SUV looking for the lost sippy cup; it all helps. My dad-ly training even came into play during the log carrying obstacle. The gym rats were foolishly trying to carry their logs on their shoulders. I just cradled that sucker in one arm and rested it on my hip. I’ve been carrying 35-pound kids like that for years.

All in all, it was a great experience. While I might not ever need to experience it again, I am very glad I did it. I was expecting to be completely immobile on Monday, but my legs were in surprisingly good shape. I am pretty well bruised and banged up everywhere else, though. I sneezed midday Monday and almost cried. I have taken more Advil in the last four days than in my whole life prior to now.

I seem to be healing up at an average Joe pace, so I can’t complain. I’m not allowed to anyway. It’s part of the Tough Mudder credo. No whiners.

The really good news is the involuntary flinching from the 10,000 volt shocks has fjgfyfncxvhbcu pretty much stopped.

The crazy Tough Mudder events ( and the crazy people who enter them have raised over $2 million for The Wounded Warrior Project (, which is a fabulous organization that helps injured service members through their challenges back at home. The NorCal event at Squaw Valley raised more money than any other Tough Mudder event to date. Thanks a million to all who donated to the WWP on my behalf. The Marines from the course send you a big “OORAH!”

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. Great blog! You're a little tough on the gym rats, but I totally get what you're trying to say. I'm a Navy Seabee, and a bit of a gym rat myself. The difference between gym rats and military is that military spends as much time training outside of the gym as they do inside of it. From what I've seen of bodybuilders--which has been a lot--they do very little cardio, I seldom see them running or on the cardio machines. I've actually been told by a bodybuilder that they don't like to run because it takes too much of the energy they'd rather apply to building. There is a world competitive bodybuilder at my local gym, when I asked if he would run Tough Mudder with us, he laughed at me. So the bodybuilders who you're referring to as gym rats are going straight to the rear, because running is way outside of their comfort zone.

    On the flip side of that coin you have your marathon runners. You didn't talk about them in your blog. I can't imagine that a marathon runner would do well in an event like this either. I'm interested on what you're observations were of them, because April will be my first TM.

    The "average joes" that you call yourself are going to do better than the bodybuilders because they're training specifically for this event. Bodybuilders won't break out of their routine for anything, because spending the several months it takes to train for something like Tough Mudder could set them back over a year on their physique. I notice you poke a bit of fun at them, I do too, I call them runway models every chance I get, but the truth is they work and diet very hard to get where they are...that is, the ones who aren't doping. I love hard work, but that D word is the worst four letter word of all! (as I suck down a Bud Light)

    It is a perfect event for military because we have to train for both strength and endurance. Trust me, the military does not restrict our diets, they pump us full of calories. We can always tell the ones who're skating off because they get fat quick on deployment. I'm in the gym five days a week, but I'll never be a competitive bodybuilder because (besides the D word) I alternate running and riding my bike the 6 mile round trip to the gym, so I can't focus all of my energy on building.

  2. You got it right. The bodybuilders would be toast. I was just poking fun at the shiny guys and gals on the course because they looked like they never set foot outdoors before. Marathoners would probably have a harder time, too, because there is a lot of starting and stopping, and a LOT of non-running work. You'll have a blast!! Good luck in April.

  3. The starting and stopping, the running uphill, the running in mud, the obstacles that require upper body strength.... Yah, the marathon runners don't intimidate me anymore than the bodybuilders who can't run.