Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tough Mudder Texas Coast

I almost drowned. Twice. I was tortured. Once. I have never had so much fun in my life. Ever.

Tough Mudder Texas Coast is complete and I survived. Barely. Since last June, I spent hundreds of miles running. I spent numerous hours at Crossfit 540 after joining in November. And I spent several hours looking over the course map trying to come up with a plan to conquer the course in a respectable amount of time.  In the end, I was proud and I was disgusted with myself.  I was prepared and I was unprepared. I had trained smart and I had trained like an idiot. Here are my two-cents on the event...

Note: This is kind of long-winded but I am including a lot of info that I wished I had known before running my first one. Maybe it will be useful to someone.

This was my second Tough Mudder after doing my first one last October in Austin.  Remember me talking about how much I hate running?  Yep. I still hate it.  As the CEO of Tough Mudder said "Running is the only sport that is so boring, you have to wear headphones to do it".  He is right.  But yet the appeal of Tough Mudder after doing just one continues to draw me in and push me to run. It pushed me to add crossfit to my workout regimen. Heck, I even ran my first half marathon in December just so I had something to "look forward to" between Mudders. Within a couple of months, I had already signed up for four more (Tough Mudders, not half marathons...let's be serious).  The really silly thing is that these things aren't even timed and aren't even officially races! It really is pretty stupid if you think about it. Train hard so you can do something fast when no one in the world cares if you do it fast!?! Why? As I told a reporter right after the event on Saturday..."because I am an idiot".  Now the reality is yes I am an idiot, but there is just something strangely appealing about swimming for 490 feet and almost drowning; then overcoming the reality that you still have to run through 11.5 more miles of rough terrain, overcome 26 more obstacles, and crawl through an electrical torture chamber (or two) as fast as you possibly can. All of this effort even though your only "reward" is a $2.00 orange head band, a t-shirt, and a beer (knowing good and well that the last person across the finish line gets the same orange head band, the same t-shirt, and the same kind of beer).

So I decided to run this one alone. Just me against myself but alongside a bunch of others facing the same challenges. The decision was easy. At 42, it is hard to find friends that want to put in the time and money to do such nonsense. Frankly, most men my age have a dad gut like I did when I started running last June. Let's get real. Those fat bellies don't get there by accident.  That, and my team mate from last time had knee surgery and was out no matter what. My last experience showed me that there was always someone willing to give a hand plus I had made all the obstacles myself last time. Since I was in much better shape this time surely there was no need right? Oops! More on that later.

So my training was all over the place. Immediately after getting home from the last Tough Mudder in October, I switched over to a more advanced half marathon running program. It basically had me running Tues, Wed, and Thursday for 6-8 miles each day and then again on Saturday and Sunday with most days including a bunch of intervals at specified speeds.  The program was targeted to people that wanted to run a half marathon in under 2 hours which really isn't fast but it was the "fastest" program I found on Runkeeper. I quickly learned the targets were too slow so I started trimming 20 or 30 seconds from the target paces.  By the end of November I had decided that my running was no longer my weakest point but that my muscular endurance was.  (Note: I ended up doing my first half marathon Dec. 7th in 1:56:46...again not fast but better than my target and the course had 750 feet of elevation change) I started doing crossfit in the mornings 3 days on, one day off while maintaining my running.  That ended up being too much for me (at one point I hit 46 miles in 8 days) and I ended up settling on crossfit 4 days a week and running on Tuesday and Thursday using either longer distance intervals from the program I started or the much shorter but more intense intervals from the crossfit endurance site. On Sundays I continued with my longer runs usually 10-12 miles.  By the end of December I thought it would be a good idea to combine crossfit and running into a tougher workout so I started running the 5.5 miles to crossfit, doing a crossfit workout, then running home.  My Sundays basically became my "Tough Mudder simulation" days as I put my body through a very similar level of total work.  Mixed into everything was my decision to start transitioning to Vibrams 5 finger shoes as they feel a lot better on my joints and I know they will allow me to move a lot quicker through a mudder. Let's just say the transition is ongoing and if nothing else some day I will have some sexy calves!

Between crossfit and the running my body is definitely getting a good shock as I am constantly sore in some area from something. Anna and Vika started calling me grandpa due to all the aches and pains, limping and hobbling.  They would even grab my hand and help me walk around the house sometimes.  Pretty funny. I actually did put a lot of thinking into what I was doing, although when I read what I just wrote it sounds pretty scatter-brained.

This one I did right. The course had a lake to swim across and since much of the course was following along water I wanted to make sure I stayed warm. I checked out the course the day before the event and the water felt about 65-70 degrees. Cooler than a typical pool but not cold.  The air temperature was around 50 in the morning and was supposed to hit 71 for a high.  I showed up with a pair of Under Armour shorts over the top of a Nike underlayer bottom. For my upper body I started with a short sleeve Under Armour tight fitting shirt with an off-brand long sleeve tight fitting top similar to the Under Armour heat-ware line. When I got to the event and got out of the car, it was pretty windy and chilly. I decided last minute to swap out the short sleeve shirt for a Cold Wear Under Armour long sleeve shirt under my "race jersey" that, once again, my girls designed.

I also had myself loaded with electronics this time. I got a GoPro head mount camera for Christmas from Cammie and had bought myself a Garmin 310xt GPS watch last November off of Ebay. I even decided last minute to wear my heart rate monitor just out of curiosity...both to get the data and to see if all this stuff was going to survive.  As far as the camera goes, I decided on the head mount as I knew I would be crawling on my chest too much for a chest mount to work properly for me. I did end up fabricating a nylon strap that connected to the camera mount, ran between my two shirts, and then connected to a small fanny pack I had around my waist. I know a lot of people lose their cameras and sometimes never find them. Smart move as the camera did fall off my head once. The camera worked perfectly and the battery lasted plenty long to capture the pre-race brief, the entire run, and lots of footage afterwards. Since there were so many water obstacles, the lens stayed clean as well.  The GPS watch also performed flawlessly although looking back, if I had thought about it, I would have learned how to use the multi-sport (triathlon) functionality...this thing was going to include a pretty long swim...did I mention I am not a very good swimmer?

As I mentioned earlier, I had spent a good amount of time looking at Google Earth and the course map to try to come up with some kind of strategy. At the last mudder in Austin the only thing that almost beat me was the taller set of walls as I could barely jump high enough to grab the top and pull myself over. The other concern I had was Everest which is a quarter-pipe looking ramp you need to have a pretty good velocity to get up by yourself. In Austin, it was a breeze as it was towards to beginning of the course and the ground in front of it was generally smooth although muddy. This time Everest was the second to last obstacle and I had major concerns about my ability to conquer it alone as I fully intended to run myself pretty hard before I got there. But yes. The swim. You would think that in all that time I spent looking at the map, I would have taken a serious look at the 490 foot distance that the map showed me I was going to have to swim across. Oops.

So the strategy was to start right at the front of the first heat of the day, sprint to the first obstacle which was kiss of mud (low crawl under barb wire through mud), sprint over the first set of 8 foot walls, sprint to the lake and by then hopefully be clear of most of the 500 person mob. I would run the rest of the course as hard as I could and hopefully stay ahead of as many people as I could, then slow down a little for the last couple of miles so that I could take on Everest by myself.

So as is typical, we all lined up and got a briefing before the start. This time everyone had to scale a wall to get into the start area which was kind of different. One addition to the briefing since my last TM was that they mentioned "if you come up to someone face down in the mud, he or she is no longer having fun. Help them." They then went on to show us the signal to call for help (crossed arms). After that, the National Anthem was played, we recited the Tough Mudder pledge, and off we went!

And off to the races it was. Like I said, I wanted to stay out of traffic so I kept myself up front for the first three obstacles. It wasn't a fast pace (averaged a 7:00 pace up to the swim) Kiss of Mud, no problem. Three 8 foot walls, no problem. Walk the plank, no problem...or at least that is what I was thinking as I jumped off the 12' or so platform.  I came back to the surface and the first thought that came into my head was 'I have never even swam one lap in a pool in my life. How am I going to swim across a lake that I can barely see the other side of'. Umm. Oops!?!

From the Tough Mudder Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the required swimming skill level?
Tough Mudder recommends that all participants possess basic swimming fundamentals and be skilled to not only tread water but also prepared to swim a minimum distance of 25-30 feet. Also, we suggest that persons with limited swimming ability to bypass the deep water parts of the course, as basic swimming skills are essential for the safe completion of these obstacles.

The 'Swim':

You would think in all of my preparation, I would have taken the three seconds required to measure the distance of the lake on Google Earth. Or maybe even take the initiative to call the park to ask them how deep the lake was. Nope. I just assumed that since the last mudder I ran in didn't really have any water over my head, that somehow, magically, this one wouldn't either. I swam maybe 20 yards, my feet weighted down by heavy shoes, my body weighted down with a camera, fannie pack, heart rate monitor, etc. and I was already tired. The cool water and lack of having fully warmed up my muscles didn't help either.  I know! Our exchange student from Germany spent 10 minutes five years ago showing me how to do the backstroke! Certainly that will work and I will be able to breathe too! Too bad at this point I am getting grabbed and smacked by every other poor fool that was in the same situation as me. Every time I got settled down and moving, someone either grabbed me or a wave dumped water down my throat.  Eventually I was pretty much in panic mode. Okay, I WAS in panic mode. What is the signal to ask for help? Oh yeah, crossed arms. That will work wonders in the water. It might be better to just wave good bye to my head cam so at least my final goodbye would be on film. My next thought was reading my friend's blog about his first open water swim in his first Triathlon. Hmm. Now I kind of understand how he must have felt. A lot of good that did me. As it became apparent that there were WAY too many people in my situation for the few rescue people to handle I just sucked it up and kept going. Eventually. Almost 6 1/2 minutes later. My foot finally reached dry ground.  I have to say, I saw no more smiling happy people at the edge of the lake. They were all either physically wasted like I was, or staring into the water looking for their team mates. This was serious.

Only 11.5 miles and 26 more obstacles to go!

All I could do at that point was try to start running. The next obstacle was Artic Enema. I just needed to get through it and I knew there was a lot of flat running with simple obstacles that really were nothing but speed bumps for the next hour or so. Artic Enema is nothing but a dumpster filled with water and hundreds of pounds of ice. You jump in, you duck under a board submerged below the surface, and you climb out the other side. To be honest, it was cold but with what I had on, it really wasn't a big deal. I may have still been jacked up on adrenaline from almost dying though. From there on it was six miles of running against a 20 mph headwind. The guys running shirtless were a little cold but I was fine (I was never cold or hot the entire time).  By this time I thought there were 20 or 30 people in front of me as it seemed like I was in the water forever but I didn't really know. There was a group of 4 or 5 running a decent pace (roughly 8-8:30 miles) so I decided to hang with them a while. Teams are good to hang with in case you need help and teams are only as fast as their slowest runner so I was hoping one of them would need to drop back before the finish. By mile 4 or so, we all got passed by a man and woman team.  Yep. I just got chicked. One goal was to not get chicked in this event. Nothing against women, and frankly I get chicked at crossfit every day, but I had it as a goal and I failed.  Around the same time, I could see that it was inevitable that at least one guy in the team was starting to struggle as you can tell by a persons' breathing how they are doing. By mile 6, they dropped back.

At this point I was alone. Every once in a while, I could see the couple ahead of me or one guy behind me. I was alone for almost an hour. I rarely even saw volunteers or race officials except for the water stations. Nothing. Pretty boring really. By mile 8 we got to another water station (our third I think). I asked the volunteers how many people were ahead of me and they told me "maybe 10".  GREAT! I figured at least 20 which would have been fine I suppose but only ten actually sounds pretty good!  By mile 10 the guy that was behind me for an hour came out of nowhere. Okay, so now I am eleventh. I could tell he was a stronger runner but I also knew we had Everest up ahead which could be pretty tough. We kept pace with each other for a little while and I eventually dropped back. I figured it was best to stick to the plan and there was no one to be seen behind me anyway. Finally we were up to the monkey bars. The guy that had passed me struggled a little bit and I almost caught him by the time I got through (And to all the people that say you can't do the monkey bars with gloves on, you are wrong. You have weak hands.).  Up next was "Shocks on the Rocks"....Hold on. What? Another swim first!?!

Another oversight on my part, not that it made a difference, was that we had the "Underwater Tunnels" obstacle to tackle first. This one was easy in Austin. It was the underwater sewer swim I mentioned in my last post.  Walk out almost all the way to the three sets of barrels, and one by one, swim under them. This time we had to swim just over 220 feet total  according to my GPS.  Here we go again. I asked the rescue guy if he ever saw a man actually drown. He said no. I said watch this. The good thing about being alone was that I had my own private rescue person riding next to me on a surfboard the whole time. I got through it without grabbing the board. Again, I am pretty wasted. On to the final three obstacles.

First up "Shocks on the Rocks".

I have to say, Tough Mudder really outdid themselves on this one. The obstacle appeared last Fall a couple of races after the one I did and from what I can tell it seemed to slowly morph into the torture chamber it is today. What started out as a low crawl through ice cubes under electrified wires, next turned into the same thing with additional wire whiskers hanging down in several places turning itself into a little maze. But this one just threw the whole maze concept out the window and had wires everywhere so there was no way you were getting through the thing without getting zapped repeatedly. Oh and by the way, this time they had the thing sitting on a slight incline. Ever try to crawl up a hill on wet plastic while pushing ice cubes out of the way and getting hit with 12,248 volts repeatedly?  Oh Joy!

By the time I had reached this point, all of the waves for the day had already started. This means that all of the spectators are now out of the building and out on the course. Most spectators were grouped around the final three obstacles. As I approached the obstacle I was a little surprised at the size of the crowd, how much ice was in the obstacle, and how low the wires seemed. The lady told me "just go real fast". Really? What a profound statement! Thank you! No point in staring. Just do it.

I got in and started crawling. Next thing I know, I was riding my red bmx bicycle on my dad's farm as a young boy. SNAP! Crap! No. I am in Texas laying in a pile of ice getting my butt kicked! I have to get out of here! The remaining shocks all hurt the same but I was fully conscious and able to think as I frantically clawed my way through the ice crying like a little girl the whole time. After going through electric obstacles twice now, it seems like the first shock knocks me out for a split second and then my brain reboots and the rest don't impact my ability to think. Perhaps the first shock each time was on my head and that is what did it. I don't know. The flashback was very strange though. I have seen several comments from others that had similar experiences.  I finally I got to where I could see a fold in the plastic at the edge of the obstacle and I was able to grab it and pull myself out. My GoPro worked wonderfully and captured the pure joy I experienced.

I also captured some video later on of a woman that got knocked out for 12 or 13 seconds. She is in the far lane.  They had to shut the obstacle down until she woke up. This obstacle is no joke. Next up, Everest.

Epic Failure:
As I looked over to Everest before crawling through the electricity I saw my lone competition stuck at Everest. I sensed that he might not have the strength left to pull himself up given how long the monkey bars took him but that he probably had the speed to get up to grab the top. I secretly hoped he would still be there when I got there. He was.  Everest was different this time in two ways compared to the Austin event. It was the second to last obstacle here but showed up early in the course in Austin. It was sitting on nice level terrain in Austin but they decided to run a plow or something through the dirt in front of it here. I don't know if their initial intent was to make a mud hole or what. Maybe they just wanted to make us trip. It worked.  I knew my legs were tired and I didn't have the speed of fresh legs but since it was so easy for me in Austin (I easily ran fast enough for the top to be at chest level when I did it there) I hoped that I would at least be able to grab the top and pull myself up. Try 1, trip and crash. Try 2, Cramp!  At this point my left calve muscle cramped up on me. I knew instantly where I went wrong. The Wednesday before, I did three miles in my Vibrams and was feeling so good I kept bumping up the speed. During the run, I felt a little strain in my left calf but decided it was Wednesday and surely by Saturday I would be fine so I kept running.  My calves were a little sore Saturday morning but since I was wearing regular shoes, I didn't give it any thought (not that I could do anything at that point anyway).  Now I was getting frustrated! The other guy and I both continued to try. He would run and was able to to grab the top, but couldn't pull himself up. I couldn't even reach the top. My legs were failing.  Stretch, run, fail. Stretch, run, fail. We both knew we were stuck until someone else showed up. We continued to try and in between tries, we paced back and forth like caged animals, both of us frustrated with how much time was ticking by. After 3 1/2 minutes, one guy finally showed up. He took a shot. Fail. Over the next 8 minutes and 45 seconds, 6 people trickled in.  A couple of them made it themselves and lucky for me and the others, they were willing to give us a hand. Finally, 11 minutes and 1 second later, we all were able to get up and over Everest. My final attempt was probably the last one that I had a chance on. My calf cramped up so bad I couldn't move my entire leg. I sat on top of Everest for a few seconds trying to get it loosened up so I could climb down the back and hobble in.  The guy that was stuck with me for a while waited for me and we headed towards Electroshock therapy. My calf was now free and I could run again.

Compared to Shocks on the Rocks, Electroshock was a joke. Yes, I took a good hit again and yes it knocked me down but the only pain I really felt was that my calf locked up on me again as I tried to sprint through it.  That is why you see me whining like a little girl in the video. I thought the video was pretty cool though as the camera got itself turned around and faced me when I fell. I crawled to my feet and ran the last 100 yards to the finish. I AM DONE!

I thought the video of me going through Electroshock Therapy was pretty funny...

The atmosphere at the finish was a lot different than Austin because it was away from the last obstacle inside the building. The building was almost eerily quiet. There were only a handful of competitors standing there. I thanked the guys that helped me up Everest and headed to the showers. Mission somewhat accomplished.

Looking back, my biggest failure was my decision to run in my Vibrams the Wednesday before the event. When you sprint, you run on the front of your feet. I lost my ability to sprint because my calves were exhausted and eventually cramped up. The 12 miles in mostly soft terrain had already pre-exhausted them as well.  I had never had a leg cramp in my life until then. Ever. And I have done 10+ miles in 90 degree heat without bringing any water several times without problems.  I lost a lot of sleep over the next couple of days thinking about it and I am still mad at myself for losing so much time at Everest.

I reviewed the entire video and noted each obstacle and the time it took me to complete it. When I do the math and subtract out the obstacle times and swims (along with the swim distances) I did the run part at an average pace of 8:50 per mile. Given the fact that this still included a fair amount of running through mud and water and given the fact that I had only run my half marathon at a 8:53 pace, I am pretty happy. It is amazing how much faster you can run when you are having fun and actually care. Maybe I should have worn headphones for my half marathon. By the way, I happened to meet the CEO and the COO of Tough Mudder at the Mystery Obstacle.

After reviewing the video I think I finished 17th from our wave. Again it doesn't really matter (and there is no way to know for sure) but for me, this time, it did matter.  I am somewhat satisfied but again I really hated to have 6 people pass me at Everest.

If I had showed up to this event in the same shape as the Austin event, I wouldn't have made some of the obstacles. This event required more strength. The two swims were rough and the mystery obstacle took a good bit of strength as well. I would have failed at probably all of them if I hadn't joined crossfit when I did. Crossfit was the missing piece that I really needed. The 10 foot walls were a breeze to jump and grab a hold of.  After the race I wasn't even sore except in my shoulders from the swim. I was certainly banged up and bruised and I can't remember how I got a footprint bruise on my abs but all in all I felt pretty good.

I learned the next day that they shut down the long swim immediately after our wave. We were the only ones that had to do it. The rest jumped off the platform and turned around towards shore. After reviewing my video, I think this cost me at least 6 minutes versus the remaining waves. Not only did we have the much longer swim, but we had a longer run as well. Tough Mudder has had to make last minute changes like this in the past. I totally understand but I am glad I was able to do the "real" course even if I did almost die and lose a lot of time.

My Garmin watch, the heart rate monitor, and the GoPro camera all performed flawlessly. I added the heart rate monitor last minute but it actually came in handy as I used it to gauge how hard I was pushing myself. With the varying terrain it wasn't really reasonable to use my running pace as a measure but I know myself well enough to know as long as I keep my heart below the mid 170s, I can go for hours. The monitor worked nicely but I wish it would have worked during the swim. It would have been funny to see my heart rate of 456465887 beats per minute when I was about to drown.

As for future events, I have a lot going on between now and this Fall...

- March 10th, Goruck Challenge Tulsa (I am really excited about this one. 15-20 miles over 12+ hours should really kick my butt).
- March 31st, Tough Mudder Dallas (Running with some good friends. we won't break any records but we are going to have a blast!)
- April 15th, Hogeye Marathon (I figure I might as well do one just to say I did).
- May 19th, Tough Mudder Twin Cities (So far my brother in law and brother are joining me. Still working on a few others)
- June 2nd, Warrior Dash Tulsa (way too short at 3 or 4 miles to really get excited about but it is close to home and I am going with some friends so why not? This one is an actual timed race which will be interesting)
- Sept. 15th, Tough Mudder Missouri

I have one more event I am hoping to do but it is still up in the air at this point. As I mentioned earlier, I got the entire race on video. I am still working on putting a final version together with the whole race in a compressed file where the obstacles are in real time and the run is fast forwarded. I will post it on this blog once it is done...maybe in a day or so?