I started running in April 2010. I had to move home to Doylestown, a quaint suburban community located about an hour outside of Philadelphia, after I was laid off during the death throes of the Great Recession. Living with your parents at 28 is a great way to knock your self-esteem down a peg and so I figured running would be a great way for me to feel better about my current situation by feeling better about myself. My predictions were right: I noticed rapid changes in my confidence level and physical appearance by virtue of good old-fashioned exercise. I started getting competitive with running after my first 5k (3.1 miles) and I began setting loftier goals in races that were a bit more physically demanding: 5 milers, 10k’s (6.2 miles), and The Broad Street Run – my longest run to date at 10 miles.
My girlfriend, Colby, is also an avid runner and fitness buff, probably more so than I. In April of 2013 her personal trainer sold her on the idea of participating in Tough Mudder, which, if you’re unfamiliar, is a ten mile cross-country run filled to the brim with obstacles devised by the British Special Forces. Foregoing impulse control and attention to detail, we registered. It was only after the entrance fees were paid that we decided to assess the challenges that Tough Mudder had in store for us aside from the ten-mile run through what I assumed would be very unforgiving terrain. Holy fuck. I heard tales of how brutal mud run/obstacle course hybrids could be, but I had to see it to believe it. Tough Mudder throws its contestants into a gauntlet of wall climbs, tunnel crawls, leaps over fire, freezing water, and electrocution, amongst other things. While I was a little intimidated at the prospect of negotiating and suffering through these obstacles, the entrance fees were paid and there was no turning back.
Over the next few months I ran, and ran, and ran some more. I really didn’t alter my training that much aside for some more pushups (on a good day) and sad attempts at non-ironic planking in my kitchen (when I felt ambitious). I figured since I had run ten miles before and had a relatively sound constitution I could do this thing no matter how insurmountable it seemed on paper. Colby had the benefit of a personal trainer and a varied exercise repertoire that would ostensibly put her in a better place to tackle Tough Mudder. I just had determination and the possibility of embarrassment or failure as my motivation, and hopefully those would suffice.
Once race day finally arrived, Colby and I piled into her roommate’s Subaru and headed north into Pennsylvania’s rural Lehigh Valley. While Tough Mudder was billed as a Philadelphia event, it actually took place in a town called Upper Macungie on Jaindl farms. If you’re familiar with the Lehigh Valley in PA you know that it’s a complex network of farms, various and sundry, nestled amongst rolling hills. After parking the Subaru, we discovered that we were to be brought by school bus to the event grounds. Following checking in and storing our bags, we found a few friends from Philadelphia and anxiously awaited the beginning of the event. “Might as well get this over with” became my mantra for what would become of the next four hours.
It seemed like an eternity before our queue was called to the starting line. I found myself in a good place as we trudged down the dusty hill towards the starting line, hydrated, stretched, and with a warm June sun beating down on my back. This was going to be hard, but at least it was neither hot nor humid. Then my ounce of hope dissipated instantly. As we neared the starting line, I noticed that the hoards of ramped-up adrenaline junkies sprinting to the it had slowed to a crawl. Our first test lay before us, an eight-foot wooden wall that had to be scaled to even reach the beginning of the race. After about three embarrassing tries, I finally made it over the wall and found Colby, who had some help getting over by someone stronger than me. Go figure.
After a rousing speech about camaraderie peppered with warnings of heat exhaustion delivered by a very fit master of ceremonies, the race began. I won’t detail every single aspect of Tough Mudder but I can say this – it was the hardest thing, physically, I have ever endured to date aside from flying off of my bicycle face-first into a Chevy Blazer; but that’s a story for another time.
“Might as well get this over with” replayed time and time again while completing Tough Mudder’s grueling cross-country course. I slowed my usual running pace to match Colby since she has asthma and her inhaler got clogged with mud early into the race. The slow pace offered little to no respite, however. These obstacles were ludicrously taxing and fully deserving of the waiver and hold-harmless forms Tough Mudder has one sign before registering.
For ten miles Colby and I crawled elbow over elbow under barbed wire while some sadistic asshole shot us with a water cannon. My attempts at trying to ascend a quarter pipe typically reserved for skateboarders resulted in me face planting while simultaneously receiving friction burns over ninety percent of my body from sliding down the hard plastic surface (Colby opted out of this one). We scaled monkey bars over freezing cold water, me fueled by pure adrenaline and the bitter memory of everyone in elementary school who made fun of me for being chubby. I overcame my own claustrophobia and shimmied through sewage pipes into ice-cold mud after jumping through a four-foot flame into a pool of muck and mire. I climbed haystack pyramids and scaled thirty-foot-high walls using only a knotted rope and whatever energy the gratis fun-sized Clif Bars provided at the refreshment stand provided. I jumped into an industrial-sized dumpster filled to the brim with water cooled to a balmy 34 degrees from 80,000 pounds of ice cubes alongside a couple in their early fifties (Colby opted out of this one too, smart girl). While the obstacles were brutal in their own right, the run was downright unforgiving; but we persevered. After a fifty-yard dash through a maze of electrified wires we were crowned with Tough Mudder’s signature orange headband and handed a lukewarm Dos Equis to commemorate our triumph.
I always cursed myself for not finishing the things I started, which went hand-in-hand with years of self-loathing for being a lazy, chubby kid with zero innate talent for athletics. While at its core Tough Mudder could be considered the hallmark of adrenaline junkie douchebaggery, I didn’t see it that way. Colby and I endured a very challenging test of human endurance and willpower. Essentially, Tough Mudder started as something we wanted to finish for bragging rights, but for me became a testament to my own gumption, willingness to see things through to the end, and come-with-it-ness that I try to embody when I set out to effect any change in my life. While I don’t know if I’ll ever sign up to compete in another Tough Mudder event, I’m glad I came away from this one knowing that I’m somebody who sees things through to the bitter end, someone my chubbier former persona certainly wasn’t.