Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tough Mudder Central Texas

“FACT- Marathon running is simply boring. And the only thing more boring than doing a marathon is watching a marathon. Road-running may give you a healthy set of lungs, but will leave you with as much upper body strength as Keira Knightley. At Tough Mudder, we want to test your all-around mettle, not just your ability to run in a straight line, on your own, for hours on end, getting bored out of your mind.”

Let me just start out by saying I hate running. Seriously, I hate it. Left Right Left Right Left Right…Ugh! But yet, I just spent the last 16 weeks training for and finally participating in a 12 mile obstacle course / mud run called Tough Mudder. Why? Perhaps because I am a sucker for marketing…I don’t know…but I can’t remember that last time I had so much fun!

Until this Spring, I had never heard of Tough Mudder and was quite happy sitting my fat butt on the couch when I got home from work. I saw a Tough Mudder link on a friend's Facebook wall one day and thought it looked pretty cool. 25-30 military style obstacles (along with a bunch of silly ones) spread out over 10-12 miles. Looks like fun. But the distance! 10-12 miles! Even in the Marine Corps I don’t think I ever actually ran more than 5 or 6 miles. Hiking, sure, but running, no.

So I found one person to join me for the event down in Austin, TX. Yep. Just one. Imagine that. We signed up and a month or so later (remember I HATE running) I actually started training. While some of the Tough Mudder courses are held in the mountains and/or at ski resorts with serious hills, a review of the course map from the same event held earlier in the year told me the hills would be minimal…the course was at a motocross park and the surrounding cow pastures. The terrain where I live is pretty much constant rolling hills and it turns out was pretty well matched with the actual race. My thought was that the obstacles wouldn’t be a big deal as long as I could keep my legs under me.

I uploaded a free GPS app called Runkeeper to my phone, bought a Bluetooth heart rate monitor that would ‘talk’ to my phone and paid $20 to runkeeper to take part in a Beginner Half Marathon training program. This was probably the smartest thing I did. I am somewhat of a data junkie and I needed to see improvements to my speed / distance / heart rate over time to keep myself motivated. It also helped to see the times of other fatties to compare myself against.

So the training (just for reference, I am a 42 year old male, 6 ft tall, and weighed 189 lbs going in, 173 lbs for the race. I hadn’t done any kind of consistent weight lifting for probably 10 years and no consistent running for probably close to 20). Oh boy. I will just go ahead and make fun of myself…my first three mile run took me almost 34 minutes and my average heart rate was 176 beats per minute! Ha! Loser!!! And I even had to walk for a few seconds going up a couple of the hills! HaHAHAAHAAA! I remember getting home and reading the results on the runkeeper site after my first run and then looking up what a typical heart rate is. The website said I was in the “extreme athlete range” or something to that effect. Obviously, they needed a special heart range titled “About to skinkin' die”! Anyway, like I said, I hate running but I did stick it out. I ended up modifying the program to delete the Saturday runs as I spend my Saturdays building a cabin by the lake. So basically I was running anywhere from 3 or 4 miles in the beginning to 5 or 6 miles later on, on Tuesday and Thursday. Sundays were the long runs and basically they just add another mile almost every week until you hit 13 miles a couple of weeks before the race. Other than some bad foot pain the first 5 or 6 weeks (my foot arches were obviously weak) everything went pretty good. The program was about perfect for me and I enjoyed watching my average heart rate go down almost every time I ran while I slowly increased my pace to 10 minute miles. This ended up being a comfortable pace for me. Seeing the data points was almost enough motivation to keep me going. I had also told my daughters I was going to do the race and from time to time I watched some of the TM youtube videos with them. There is something about watching people get zapped with electricity and landing face first in the mud that just never ceases to be funny.

This video is from our event last weekend. This one shows the crowd and the final 'obstacle'.

This one was at the same location but in January. You can tell that Tough Mudder has continued to improve the course and obstacles and that the crowds are growing!

Getting my daughters to think I am Superman was kind of cool too. So anyway, by the end of the training, I could do 12 miles at a 9:47 pace without feeling exhausted and with an average heart rate of 156 bpm. Not fast AT ALL, but a huge improvement for me. The program worked.

So finally it was race day. Unfortunately due to the distance from my house, Cammie and the girls weren’t able to attend. A lot of people wear costumes to the race. I had my girls take a white t-shirt and let them each write on one side. I told them no hearts or flowers but fire and blood and explosions were fine. Vika asked if bunnies were okay I said not unless they are bleeding or dead. They came up with this….

I have to say I had several moms give me compliments on how sweet the shirt was. There were even two spectators (following their husbands I assume) that would shout ‘go daddy go’ when I ran by in the very beginning. By the way, it seems they do a really good job of laying out the course for spectators to follow the participants. I saw several of the same spectators throughout the day.

So back to the race. Again, what a blast! Tough Mudder markets the thing as “Probably The Toughest Event on the Planet”. Certainly it isn’ least not in the perfect weather we had. But some of these things are run in 10-30 degree weather and you are jumping into water the whole time.  That would change the whole dynamic of the event.  In other words, our event wasn't that tough but some of them are bound to be extremely tough.  Regardless, you can make it as tough as you want by pushing yourself as hard as you want.

Tough Mudder does a good job of creating an atmosphere of teamwork and camaraderie (I should mention that the ‘race’ isn’t even timed). They have a live band playing, plenty of activities in the staging area, free Mohawks for anyone that wants one, etc. The ‘race’ is run in waves with roughly 500 people starting every 20 minutes. Before the start, they play the National Anthem and have you recite some silly Tough Mudder pledge...

"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."

 ...Then a little loud music and yelling and screaming to get yourself all pumped up and off you go!

What a blast! The obstacles vary, but almost all of them involve water and mud. One thing that never occurred to me until we actually started running was that this was basically a cow pasture that we had taken over. Most of the mud holes used in the course were, up to a couple of weeks ago apparently, used by cows and the trails were solid cow patties. Anyone that knows anything about cows knows that they like to stand in the water to keep themselves cool. I have never seen a cow leave the water to relieve themselves. By the time we ran the course, there had been over a thousand people that had stirred up the cow manure, cow pee, and water into a nice black broth of filth! I also know for a fact that it is much more convenient to pee in the ponds yourself than the use the handful of porta-potties they provided throughout the course. Trust me.  Too bad for the 7,000 people that followed Jay and I.  If you have ever done any plumbing work on drain lines and know what that black water smells like, that is what some of the water was like. It doesn't taste good either.  I remember going through the ‘swim under the barrels’ obstacle…or whatever they call it…and thinking to myself ‘Now I can say I have swam under water in a sewer’. I can’t believe I didn’t get sick. I could still taste the water the next day and was pulling out sewer boogars for two days. Just in case you were wondering.

Some of the ponds had fish in them and they were mostly dead or dying probably because of all of the silt being kicked up.  Anyway, the course was well marked and there were only a couple of bottlenecks at a couple of obstacles. People were always ready and willing to lend a hand and frankly it got a little annoying if you wanted to get through it on your own.

There really isn’t much else to say about the course itself. The "jump off a high platform into nasty water" obstacle (or whatever it is called) was a little higher than I thought it would be and I thought it was funny that the little TM girl at the top told me to jump or she would throw me off.  All of the obstacles can be completed by someone in good shape as long as you are tall enough. The walls were probably the most difficult as you had to get your timing just right to catch the 2x4 nailed near the bottom while trying to step up and grab the top of the wall (either 8 or 10 feet high depending on the wall). Most people, if they try to go it alone, run and bounce off the wall several times before either making it, or asking for a lift from others. This also seems to be where the most injuries happen...people dropping down on the other side of the wall and breaking ankles and legs from what I hear. Hanging down from a 10 foot wall isn’t a big deal to a 6’ man but if you are short you have a longer drop. I should say that I only saw 2 injuries myself. The first was an overweight guy laying on the ground around mile 2. His wife (an overweight spectator) was standing next to him with a ‘what the heck were you thinking’ look on her face. I also saw a petite little thing with a nice set of gashes on her neck from some barb wire early in the race. It didn’t seem to faze her and she kept going. Her head is probably is getting eaten by flesh eating bacteria by now though.  In general, the obstacles were safe enough and except for the drop from the wall and/or just bad luck or being stupid, most people don't get hurt….just a bunch of scratches and bruises. Other than getting help on one wall (before discovering the correct technique) I was able to do every obstacle by myself. I also fell off of ‘twinkle toes’ (30 foot long balance beam maybe 6’ above the water) on the first attempt but made it the second. The biggest thing with the obstacles, I think, is not being dead tired from running when you attempt them. Most people don’t make a lot of the obstacles at the end. The toughest obstacles were mostly bunched up at the end of the course after you have gone 8 miles or so.

So anyway, right at the end you get to where you can see a large crowd assembled and hear a bunch of yelling and cheering…the finish line. One more obstacle to go. 10,000 volts of electricity running through wires hanging just inches above two shallow mud holes. Twenty feet in front of the ‘obstacle’ is a crowd of competitors trying to get up the courage and / or strategizing how to get through the thing with the least amount of pain. Almost done!

Let me add to my hate list... I hate electricity too. I believe the obstacle was powered by a cattle fencer. I grew up on a farm and had certainly been shocked by them before. But I have to say, I have never been shocked like this! So my strategy, which by the way didn’t work…AT ALL…was to run full speed and just get through it. Here is the problem. You don’t actually see the obstacle itself until you round the corner and then realize there are two mud holes underneath. My thought process at the last moment was ‘if I stay in the air I can’t get shocked because I won’t be grounded’ so I tried to jump as far as I could. Umm nope. As I was in the air I felt a nice solid SNAP in my neck (I had a red mark the next day) and proceeded to face plant into the ground. FYI...getting zapped in the head hurts worse than getting zapped elsewhere and it kind of makes you dizzy for a second.  Half dazed I hear a ‘OOOOH!’ from the crowd and try to get up and crawl. SNAP! I took another shock in the ribs and heard another nice response from the crowd. Down again. Ugh!

By then I was just crawling and flailing trying to get out of there. Imagine a 40 something balding fat man flailing about in the mud…that would be me. The announcer yells ‘keep crawling! you are almost out!’...I kept going and as I crawled out of the last mud hole visualized a dying Wildebeast making his final attempt to get out of the lake away from the crocodile....finally I didn't feel any more jolts and figured I was out. I crawled to my feet and stumbled over to the four hotties at the finish line handing out head bands (Cammie says maybe they weren’t cute…maybe I was still dazed). Anyway, a couple of seconds later and a slap on the butt from Blondie and I was done!

I will say that next time I do a Tough Mudder I will approach every obstacle with more confidence than I did last time…all of them except this ‘Electroshock Therapy’ obstacle. I didn’t like it one bit and I am already cringing at what it will feel like next time. Next time I cover my head!  I wish I had myself on video going through it though. It would have been priceless. Luckily they caught a couple of photos.

So what did I learn?  As dumb as it sounds, I learned that it is worth 16 weeks of training just so I can enjoy a few hours of bodily abuse. I will say it again, I had a blast!

As for the training itself? I was generally well prepared although my teammate messed his knees up so we couldn't run the whole course. I can't claim victory unless I make every obstacle (which I did) and run the whole course (which I did not).  The day after felt like a typical Saturday morning after a high school football game…slight soreness and plenty of scratches and bruises. No big deal. Except my abs! One huge oversight on my part was that I didn’t do any core training. I didn’t realize how much I was going to use my abs to climb and move through the mud. My abs were killing me the next day. Other than the running I did, I did a few push-ups and pull-ups every once in a while but mostly ignored everything but the running. Participants shouldn’t be fooled into thinking they need a bunch of weight training. This is a running event. You are travelling 12 miles. There seemed to be a belief out there (judging from FB posts) that you can train for 5-7 miles and somehow magically run twice that distance on race day. A LOT of people were cramping up around mile 8 or so and it wasn't even that hot out. I would recommend to anyone to make a half marathon training program in terrain similar to your event course priority one and add the rest only if you have time for it.  Anyone with average upper body strength and healthy joints can make the obstacles and they can make them by themselves if they are tall enough.

As for future events? I am pretty much hooked. I have a way to go to get to where I want to be as far as my fitness level goes but I am looking forward to more multi-hour, extremely boring training runs just so I can do it again. It is SO worth it! I am already signed up for the event in MN in May and plan on doing the Dallas event next year as well. Frankly, I wish I had the money to travel to one of these every couple of months. In fact. Mom, Dad, Cammie, whoever…a perfect Christmas present would be a plane ticket, a tent, a sleeping bag, and an entry fee to the January Phoenix event! Hint hint!

Here are a few photos from the event.
And here is a link to some additional photos.