A runner's tale from the World's Toughest Mudder 2014
|My bib alongside the best shoes ever.|
I was wobbling up the stairs to my hotel room alongside my girlfriend after having just finished all 205 miles and 80,000ft of gain from Italy’s Tor des Geants. My eyes drooped and I lowly uttered to her “I’m totally not doing World’s Toughest Mudder, I’m spent my season is over!” I collapsed into bed that night and for the following weeks reduced my training to bedroom to fridge walks. It felt great for a moment not to have anything on my race schedule.
Two weeks later a text from a friend read,
“Hey you signed up for WTM yet??” I’d told my girlfriend and family that it was a 90% “no” and that I wasn’t going to do the race. I didn’t respond to the text for several days, and found myself training “just in case.”
I’d spent the month of October half-recovery from Tor des Geants and half-training for WTM and somehow in the mix of it all convinced myself and my sponsors that I could competitively race WTM. And maybe even go for the win and the $10,000 prize. I’d already been dreaming about paying off loans and bills with the spare cash.
“It’ll be an easy win Nick, these folks at OCR racing, you got ‘em in a 24hr race.” One friend said.
“First place no problem Nick” said another friend. With encouragement like that it was easy for me to let their aspirations get to my head and two weeks out from the race I officially signed up.
November 15th my crew and I drove past the Las Vegas strip, through suburbs, strip malls and gas station casino’s, through a luxury townhome site about twenty minutes outside of the strip, to the northwest edge of Lake Las Vegas. The man made waterfall and bright green golf course was a stark contrast to the bleak and empty desert landscape bordering the townhomes. We crested over a hill and I caught my first glimpse of the course. Dust devils whipped and whirled across the dry dirt mounds. I was stoked to see all the little hills and knew I could use those to my advantage. But as we passed through the gate my heart sank as I stared off left at a thirty foot square wooden structure,
“Are those swings?” I asked my friend, he looked back at and me and raised his shoulders cluelessly.
1,200 of us corralled around the start line of the race. I was head to toe in foreign feeling compression gear and glanced around at intimidatingly buff and strong looking men and women. These OCR racers comprised a much more daunting look than the semi-homeless looking mountain folk I am used to gathering around at the start line of ultras. A man ran into the middle of crowd and told everyone to get down on one knee,
“Do ya’ll have guts?” “OOO RAH” The crowd boomed.
“Do ya’ll have MENTAL GRIT?” OOO RAH the ground beneath quaked and dust rose above us all.
“Let me get three HUGE OO RAH’s from all ya’ll then we’ll start this thing!!” “OOO RAH OOO RAH OOO RAH”
I choked down sulphurous orange smoke as it rose up from high way flares lining the course. I squirmed in and out of dozens of people as we all tip toed around the mud piles. The first lap was a sprint lap with no obstacles designed to spread out the 1,200 person crowd. Incentivized by a “fastest first lap” award, which I had no intention of gunning for. I was minding my form and checking my pace when I read the bib number of the next guy ahead of me “0001 ATKINS” “Already?” I questioned myself.
|Orange smoke of death|
“Hey man, I’m Nick, nice to finally meet you!” I said.
“Ryan, nice to finally meet you too” He said back to me in a clean tone, it was easy to tell that the both of us were holding back.
I ran into the PIT crew area and downed 100 calories of Carbo Pro’s Hydra C5 and grabbed a small bite of a luna bar to go as I headed out for my first real lap, obstacles and all.
It was only just nearing the first hour of the race and I was already trading between 1st and 2nd with the guy ahead of me, far too soon for my personal comfort. The first obstacle was a cargo net thrown over truck tires. I sloppily made my way through as I caught face, hand or foot in the net with every other step. The other guy blazed through and disappeared around the corner, so much for moving effectively and efficiently like I had hoped for.
I caught up to the guy again and we were neck and neck going into the Mud Mile, a series of mud mounds and water troughs we had to navigate through. I sank my fingers as deep as I could into the dirt and gripped hard enough to pull myself over and roll down into the water. I could hear the guy next to me “WRAGHH” He’d found a large rock and was stabbing into the mud pile gripping in and out. He pulled out of the last mud slough way before and started running off. I could hear other competitors now right behind me closing in. I was far from an expert at obstacles.
Atkins and Pak it turns out were right on my heels and passed me on the way to the next obstacle. I let out a sigh of relief and finally started to settle into my own pace as the two of them flew up and over the Hit the Wall obstacle and then disappeared out of sight. For only the second hour of the race, I felt like the pace was wickedly fast.
I could see Atkins, Pak and a few of the other competitors top out of Everest (a tall wall run) ahead of me and I could feel my nerves getting worse as I approached the obstacle. It was one of the few that I actually really practiced in training, but nonetheless I was uneasy about it.
I slowed for a second and then sprinted towards the plastic ramp. The sticky rubber soles of my inov8 x-talon 212’s nearly propelled me to the top without my hands. These were definitely the choice shoe for this race.
I quickly discovered that the second half of the course was far more obstacle dense than the first. There was hardly room to breathe between one obstacle and the next. I swam roughly 50 meters towards Hump Chuck a slanted plastic sheet with a 2x4 at the top to jump and grab out. It was easy and fun the first time through.
I was nearing mile 3 of the course and knew some of the most notorious obstacles were ahead of me. I ran down a short hill and right to The Gamble where if I rolled a 1-3 I would be given safe passage. But if I rolled a 4-6 it was the electroshock or penalty. Pak rolled a 2 in front of me and took the safe passage. My hands trembled as I rolled the dice, “1! Thank god!” I exclaimed to the volunteer.
I trailed behind the other competitors towards Swingers. And climbed up the ten foot platform.
“Okay just jump out, grab the bar and ring the bell” the volunteer said simply.
“Sure thing” I nodded hesitantly. I jumped out wrapped my hands around the bar swung and barely managed to touch the bell just as I let go. Unfortunately, I’d been so focused on hitting the bell I forgot entirely about the fifteen foot drop into water afterwards and enjoyed the nice painful sting as I back flopped into the water. I swam out and crawled up the cargo net and slowly returned to jog. It was going to be a rough 24-hrs.
I was finally making my way through the last two obstacles of the loop, Sewage Outlet and then the Cliff…Which I really didn’t want to think about. I rolled under the barbed wire towards the upward facing corrugated plastic pipes of the Sewage Outlet and pulled myself through the tight pipe on a fixed rope. I couldn’t figure out a way to turn my body around and exit feet first into the water and another competitor was already crawling up my tube. And so nervously I let go dropping six-feet backwards and head first into the water. I latched onto the cargo net like an angry wet cat, “never again.”
I ran hard uphill towards The Cliff and tried hard to forgot the fact that I was about to have to do all those obstacles over and over and over again. As I neared the top of the cliff, I yelled out to the volunteers standing at the edge,
“Lane one clear?”
“Yup!” I immediately went straight from my run, without a second’s hesitation and jumped off the cliff.
“Holy crap!!” I said in my mind. It really was 35 feet, they weren’t joking. Smack! I hit the water and felt my backpack burst and whack me in the face. I struggled for air and started swimming upwards. “Damn the surface is further than I thought!” I said to myself.
I burst through the water gasping for air and swam to the other side grabbing the vertical ropes of a cargo net strung over a small cliff. My arms stinging and heart racing, I reached the top of the net and stumbled back into a jog, it was going to be a rough 24hrs.
I downed 200 calories of Carbo Pro mixed with Interphase and took a small bite of pumpkin pie, all of maybe two minutes were spent in transition.
Pak was gone way before and Atkins was some far distance ahead of me, I didn’t wear a watch on purpose I didn’t want to know who or what was when or anything. I wanted to race my own race and just stay out there.
As the loops and hours progressed I kept what I felt was a steady pace and found short subtle ways to get better at each obstacle as I went. And every time I went through the Pit, someone would tell me the exact minutes Ryan and Pak were in relation to me. The pressure, the pace and the obstacles were unyielding.
I’d made it to the 9th loop just seconds ahead of Pak, I was getting pretty smoked and was hoping Pak, Atkins or the other competitors would slow down soon. I knew the other runners would be coming through at any second and didn’t want to lose my position, so I scooped my hand right into the middle of my pumpkin pie and started running off towards the next loop. And after the first mud pile, it became really difficult to tell the pie from the mud.
Somehow I managed to take my mind off of the competition and started zoning out when I heard a voice say,
“Hey Nick.” I read the back of his bib “Matt 0004.”
“You on your 9th?" I muttered over to him.
“Yup, you too?” he looked over to me as I nodded. I couldn’t recognize him in the dark but his voice sounded familiar. I talked to him briefly as we hiked up to the top of the first climb together towards Tight Fit.
“We should stick together for this loop, you know so long as I don’t slow you down.” He nodded, laughed and told me about how he’d followed me throughout Barkley. We chit-chatted and rolled through obstacle after obstacle, both happy that it was finally night time and The Cliff was shut down.
At the Hump Chuck, he pulled out of the water and over the obstacle much faster than me. I fought over the obstacle with the assistance of a few other mudders pulled my cramping body up and over the plastic wall. Matt pulled further away as I stayed back to help the guy up who’d helped me. We were only on the 9th loop after all and mudder karma was far more important than my position at this point.
I caught him again in the last quarter of the lap and nailed Swinger perfectly, Matt missed the bell and had to take the penalty. At which point, we separated and I got pretty far ahead. At the next obstacle, the song “I’m gonna be” by the proclaimers was blasting out of the speakers. I grabbed my cement brick and started running off through the quarter mile loop. I started singing outloud “bah dat dah bah dat dah and I would walk 500 miles….” The other contenders got a laugh out of me and smiled, while others even started to sing along with me. The energy, the excitement, the camaraderie was amazing. I pulled myself through the Sewage Outlet and leapt into the water, “born again!!!”
“Nick dude, your like only 12 min’s behind Atkins!” My friend Von told me first thing as I arrived in the Pit. I felt great, I was finally on a high and really enjoying the course.
I scarfed down half of a burrito and started heading out
“Nick you want to put on anything warmer?” Von yelled out to me.
“Nah I’m cool man, catch you next lap!” Never trust yourself when you are on a high.
Within minutes my high started fading and fast. I failed the Weigh Too Tough obstacle twice in a row. I slipped off the top of the Water Mocassin and hit my hip hard as I fell sideways into the cold water. I started to shiver but knew that as long as I kept eating and moving I could fight off the cold, at least for this loop. I nearly missed Everest, failed the Swinger…This was a miserable failure of a loop and rolling a SIX at the Gambler for the first time and cramping all the way through the uphill penalty low crawl was not helping things. I was falling apart mentally and constantly comparing my progress in this loop to my last loop.
At the top of the low-crawl I went to stand and immediately both my hamstrings cramped and I fell to my hands which then also cramped and I fell face flat in the dirt and just laid there. This race was destroying me. These obstacles were killing me. And I was sure some sort of permanent injury was lurking around one of these corners.
I barely nailed the bell on swinger and was stoked to avoid the penalty. Some things, were still okay. I mustered up a light run, but wasn’t happy about it. I was moving much slower than the previous loop and I was sure Atkins was infinitely far ahead of me and was surprised Pak, Matt and several others hadn’t looped me yet.
I made it through the Sewage Outlet and was soaking wet and shivering. Atkins, was proably hours ahead of me now and I expected Matt, Pak and several others to pass me at any moment. I feebly ran towards the pit.
“Von let’s throw on the wet suit!” I’d never ran before with it in my life, but I couldn’t take the cold and the wind again.
It sucked. I felt like I was being choked to death. I could barely breathe and the first mile of the course was almost entirely running. I could feel myself sweating under the suit and starting to overheat. I needed to get the thing off, but I knew it would pay off to have it on in the second half of the course. I stuck through it. Somehow, things were going even slower than the 10th loop. Getting even lonelier. The course, the participants were thinning out and very few of us, including me, were able to smile at one another any longer, much less make any sort of “keep going!” It was more just mutual looks of pain, mutual looks of “dear god what have we gotten ourselves into…”
I failed obstacle after obstacle on this loop and cramped severely on the stretches in between. There was no staying warm, even with the wetsuit, fighting the cold, fighting hypothermia was just going to be another obstacle in this race. And at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that every second I wasn’t running someone was reeling me in and Atkins was getting further and further away. My confidence cracked with each new step forward.
I was dragging ass through the obstacles now. My run was a slow restricted jog at most. My upper back cramped as I pulled myself up to the top of the platform of Swingers and I stood just staring at the bare metal bars which seemed like an infinity away.
“Ready to jump?” the volunteer patted me on the back.
“Huh? Uh Sssuure” I jumped and grabbed the slippery, mud covered trapeze bar, let go and smack! My face whacked right into the bell and I fell fifteen feet face first into the water, my headlamp whipping up into my nose as the rest of my body carelessly sunk into the frigid water. That was the final straw.
I walked towards the penalty loop, the wind whipped and whorled up a giant dust storm and I felt like I was running through the apocalypse. I tried peering out to my right to look for anybody else “running” trying to find Pak or Matt’s bib number in the darkness. Nothing though, one mudder was almost impossible to tell from the next at this point, we were all covered in wetsuits, all soaking wet and all covered in another layer of dust.
After cramping in the Sewage Oulet, I mustered up a labored jog and ran towards the pit where the wind was by far at its worst. The finish line arch, the boundary fencing, the signs and about every single tent had been blown to smithereens by the intense gusts. I checked in at the medical tent,
“You good to go ahead?”
“uhm sure” I said weakly as I turned over towards my friend.
“Von…Von…F…man” I knew that last loop was slow. Miserably slow. I didn’t want to know my time. I knew that Atkins was now probably a good hour or so ahead of me and catching him at this point would mean giving it my all. But I was only 12hrs and 30min’s into the race. Things were just getting started in that sense.
I was cold, I was cramping, I was hungry. I was…I’m sure just as equally miserable as every single other person out there on that course. I certainly was not unique.
“Von man, I need to take a seat, I need to sit and try to warm up” I fell over into the dreaded chair and demolished a bag of Doritos and nearly swallowed an entire bean and rice burrito. Up until then, my nutrition had been spot on.
“Atkins is about an hour ahead of you man, if you turn around quick you still got it” he said to me. My mind raced back to Tor des Geants though and I thought of the hours I’d spent chasing 3rd and 4th place through the Alps and how much pressure I’d been under, how much pressure I dealt with throughout TDG.
I stared blankly at the crinkled red package of Doritos and looked upwards from the dust covered table, across blown over tents and the apocalyptic hell that this course had become…And I just stared blankly and watched. Watched as through it all, competitor after competitor dressed from head to toe in hoods and wetsuits marched boldly back out for another round.
I went to stand up, and my leg locked and I fell to the ground. I’d been worse before I told myself as I crawled towards my chair. I couldn’t remember where or when but somewhere, sometime in my life, I’d been worse off than I was now.
“WRAGHHHHH” I yelled to myself pulling myself back into the chair. “Pak and twenty others have probably passed me and Atkins is…” I was doing quitters math at a thousand numbers per second and losing my drive quickly.
And just like that I lost it.
I sat shivering in that chair for five hours watching the Dorito bag flutter in the wind.
Too afraid to go and tell the officials that I was dropping.
Too weak in my mind to continue with another loop.
I knew what was out there, uncertainty, with every obstacle, with every challenge, uncertainty. I justified my indecision with the fact that I could potentially injure myself, that I’d lock up and go hypothermic, that I’d actually potentially ruin my 2015 season with this race. The excuses satisfied me for a few seconds, but the truth of the matter, was that I was burned out. Too many races, too much competition, too much self-pressure this year. I needed an off-season and badly. It just sucked that I had to take it this far to discover that.
Among the continual cramping, aching and pains on the car ride home, I concluded that I failed at WTM for these three reasons:
- Tor des Geants requires a MINIMUM of two months (for my body at least) to recover from. I gave it two weeks plus some of early October.
- World’s Toughest Mudder DEMANDS some respect. In terms of training, it is very much its own beast and not an easy race by any means whatsoever. I severely underestimated it and figured that one-month of half-assed training would be enough. It wasn't.
- Stay out of the chair. Don’t do quitters math. And if you’re 12hrs into a 24hr race, know that everything can change still. The people ahead and behind you are only as strong as you let them be and I let them be much stronger than myself.
|Ryan Atkins and Myself, the only time I was actually able to catch up to this guy...|
All in all, this was a great event and despite the outcome, I’m still very happy to have come out and experienced this great race with everyone. The Tough Mudder/ OCR community is an amazingly tough and inspiring network of people that I am proud to now know, thank you for welcoming me into the your community and letting me play around while I could. And Ryan, congratulations on your win and I hope to see you again soon at the start line of some other crazy event! And a huge congratulations to everyone that stuck out the full twenty-four hours at the event, “ya’ll are some tough-ass mudders!!!”