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Monday, September 26, 2011

Tough Mudder 2011 - Remembered

The Band Of Mudders

5:35 am Caleb perforates his tennis shoes.

I need to communicate exactly how I feel while it still hurts. My wife thinks the pain will make me reconsider a recurrence in the future. Well, keep reading.

For many months my team The MudSharks have prepared for this adventure; and now it's history; The 2011 NorCal Tough Mudder. All that remains are my bruised ribs, a handful of regrets, and the memory of a romping good time.

For over 5 hours my team of 9 men and 2 women braved the 13 miles and nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain in the tissue thin air above Squaw Valley USA ski resort near grand Lake Tahoe. We had no delusions of ease when signing up for this event. Just view 1 page (any page) of the Tough Mudder website and you cannot miss the intentional raw brutality they are marketing. It obviously sells. 11 of us added to the 15,000+ participants on Saturday alone.

For months we have independently run countless miles, pushed up, pulled up, crunched and lifted. We came together a few times in small bands to begin building comradery and gain what additional strength could be garnered through synergy.

And then Saturday, September 17 the lot of us wrangled parking spots and started the long process of standing in thick lines to check in.

At 10:20 we assembled at the start gate. After watching several fleets of runners released over the past hour, the process was becoming routine, however a surge of energy came over our Band of Mudders as we shouted the Tough Mudder's creed, then quieted as a crystalline soprano voice honored our nation's anthem.

3,2,1, and we set off up the side of the mountain through an orange cloud of canned smoke.

Within the first mile we were forced to our stomachs slithering for over 30 feet in 10 inches of water with barbed wire strung only 12 inches above the surface. And so began the sloshing saturated ascent up the mountain.

After slogging long enough to begin drying, we next encountered a row of 20' long dumpsters filled with water. A steep ramp launched us up and into the water where we submerged below the barbed wire reinforced barricade, and tumbled back out the other side shivering - more running - get warm. Within a mile, a second similar array emerged on the horizon and like experienced seals we dove in the second time. But this was different. Tons of ice were being loaded by tractor into these tubs. Stumbling away on numb feet unable to shiver our seized muscles, we postulated the possibility of the water being salted, allowing sub freezing water to embrace our bones. The ice had been loaded more heavily on the far side, and upon entering I had quietly scoffed at their attempt to toughen the course. The scoffing fell away as I frog kicked under the barrier and re-emerged through a solid layer of ice cubes several inches thick.

Still running uphill on trails no longer dusty, bespeckled by dripping ice water, we gained a greater appreciation for the warming dry air. The breeze picked up however as we encountered Mt. Everest - a 14' tall 1/4 pipe lined with plastic and greased. Emergency space blankets were handed out to the shivering throng waiting to be pushed, pulled and wrenched over the wall. This wait was the beginning of an unanticipated delay. We stood cheering, shouting, and encouraging for most of half an hour as hundreds of souls were hoisted over the wall. As my subset of the MudSharks approached the wall we formed a human ladder as we had witnessed others do. I lay at the bottom of the slope, above me Jay half stood - half lay on the curving surface. Past us both clambered Caleb who was hoisted over the wall. Jay and I held our poses for a few minutes as men and women of all sorts stepped on our chests, hands and shoulders teetering nearly 10' in the air where they could reach up and just touch the outstretched arms of Caleb and the others atop the wall. I faded fast as Jay's tennis shoes dug into my neck and shoulders. I begged off the bottom and was soon being wrestled over the top. I enjoyed the top. For the next half hour I took turns either laying face down with arms outstretched or kneeling at the back of the plateau created by the plywood top grasping the ankles of others with bodies hung half over the ledge. Chris emerged through the throng, and soon joined Caleb and myself atop the perch.

Here enters my bruised ribs. As I lay prone, head dangling between outstretched arms, I realized a growing discomfort about my chest and torso. Eventually no amount of shifting would abate the throb so I invited another to take my place. By now the balance of the team was up and over so we snacked briefly and began to trot further up our mountain. The going was always steep, so the group fractured yet again as the swift outpaced the steady. However, every step reinforced an understanding - I had spent too long atop the wall

Around mile 3 or 4 sat a structure not unlike a wide barn. Open at each end, the barn was breezy with cathedral trusses, though no roof, and an elongated ladder of 2x4 to allow competitors to climb half way up the side walls. Within the unfinished structure lay not stalls or a dirt track packed tight by hooves, but ah, rather another coffee colored lake of frigid water. Along the arching bottom chord of the trusses were steel rods creating a shallow "A" shaped series of monkey bars. To climb one side and descend the other, spanning the distance hand over hand, was the objective. The pull ups paid off. I went across easily turning at the end to chant encouragement to my team. The MudSharks found varied levels of success here - some dangling a moment too long in one place before missing a rung and plunging in, while others easily, Tarzan style, swung dry onto the far platform.

Only a hundred yards separated this from a gallows style scaffold dangling not nooses but ropes knotted at 3 foot intervals. Our crew of athletic voyagers found little difficulty here, thus Jay and I ran around again, and so I was to attempt climbing the rope like the giant on The Princess Bride - hand over hand with legs dangling. I matched the giant, though if I recall his cliff was somewhat taller and he was carrying 3 other people.

Several miles of jogging followed punctuated by a snow traverse beneath a bright orange net designed to force you onto the snow, as well as some semitechnical scrambles.

I'm certain I have forgotten a number of the lesser obstacles for by this time the alpine air was getting thin and the trails just ramped steeper. I do recall that atop the pinnacle of Squaw lay a pile of stripped logs. Most of the logs, ranging from 8 inches in diameter to 12 inches, were no more than 16 inches long. Another less visited pile held 4 foot long log cabin rejects. Jay and I picked through this pile and headed up the steep climb together with a monster on our shoulders. The altitude was taking its toll as we stumbled along taking turns stabilizing the other and choreographing the "1,2, 3, Switch" from one shoulder to the other. I found this among the physically hardest challenges. One more step. One more step. In the loose rocky soil several steps may only cover a couple feet.

"1,2, 3, Drop, " and we stumbled toward our comrades. This was the top of the top. From here on, all downhill, the game was footwork. So many had abandoned running long since. Even walking, many were incapable of discourse. Some with less than adequate footwear were already in obvious discomfort, and by the end of the day they were in pain. Our MudShark subset, which now included Dennis, Jay, Caleb and myself, was set to run, so our obstacles became those walking and the varied terrain along the shoulders of the crowded trail. Leaping boulders and crashing underbrush was the new way, and Dennis proved a pro, and we gladly followed his lead.

Next came the Berlin walls, 12 feet tall in 2 consecutive rows. Run, hit the wall with 1 foot, launch off the small cleat and extend for the top. Pull up, straddle, jump. Repeat. Run, hit the wall with one foot, slip, body slam the wooden plank wall. Attempt to breath... Staggering back for another shot at this second wall the encouraging mob sent me right back. I had better luck that time and words of congratulations followed me over the wall as I dropped to the ground. I got clear of the landing zone and squatted searching the rocky soil for some sign of my breath. More running downhill.

Far down the hill loomed a small lake steadily growing with our jolting descent. Here enters my regrets. This lake was one of the obstacles. A 15 foot leap from another manmade cliff began a swim of 50 yards or so over to a series of barrels under which the swimmers dived to gain access to dry land on the far side.

My calves had begun to cramp as I emerged from the ice bath several miles back and remained on the verge for the rest of the day. I contemplated swimming that sea with 2 cramped calves and began a death spiral of negativity.

I just wanted to jump off the cliff. That's the fun part. I didn't want to drown, and the 50 yards may as well have been a mile. "Why didn't I spend time training in the pool like I planned to?" began my self degradation. "Maybe I can just jump and swim out the back... " This thought was interrupted by "Get him! - Get him! " being shouted by one of the kayakers. Sure enough a man was completely submerged with only his nose still visible as I looked his way. He was dragged from the water by another in a double hulled blue kayak and draped over the scaffold exactly where I had hoped to swim back to. A barking voice began a commanding chant "don't jump if you can't swim across. " I gritted my teeth despising my indecision. The scenario happened a second time and another drowning was evaded. My resolve crumbled and I turned my back on the lake to look an ocean of regret full in the face.

I jogged around the lake and met up with my friends who congratulated me on my discretion and wisdom. The encouragement fell limp. I resolved to finish strong.

I was not, however, to avoid gettting wet again because the Boa Constrictor was next. 20 foot lengths of 24 inch corrugated drain pipe were laid side by side, all sloping downward with the lower ends of the pipes half submerged in another pond. Each tube was entered one Mudder at a time and as many as 3 Mudders we're simultaneously inside the clostrophobic core of each tube inching deeper and deeper into the water. The mid point was guarded by barbed wire strung hovering above the pond surface with the only exit - a mirror image trip up another black tube. I lay in the pond shivering as the tennis shoes of the gal ahead of me didn't budge. The man ahead of her was self destructing and she was stuck in the mouth of the exit. I moved laterally to an unoccupied tube which had swallowed Caleb's shoes seconds back. My elbows, knees and shins scraped against the sandy gravelly bottom struggling to haul my soaked carcass up the slope. Daylight. I watched the shaken man emerge and then the girl. More running.

After this came another set of Berlin walls, only 8 feet tall this time, and then further down the trail were mounded hay bales - more a nuisance than an obstacle. My ribs were now screaming at every step and the pain in my calves was ever present.

Views of the valley and the finish line festivities were more prevalent now, and the pulse of the live band over a mile away unconsciously gave rythm to our pounding feet. The trail narrowed in the final mile to a single track switchbacking across the hillside. Here our pace slowed as thousands of weary pilgrims bottlenecked within sight and sound of the end. The pace of the whole was reduced to that of the weary.

A large cargo net spread between 2 towers lay in our path upon attaining the valley. Many stepped gingerly upon the intersecting ropes while others plunged headlong rolling into the valley then struggling to hands and knees and scrambling free. My approach proved a combination of the 2. I attempted to follow Caleb who had skillfully navigated the edge of the net. Losing my footing part way I allowed gravity to hurtle me towards the center where monopolizing on the bounce of the net I rolled like a child on a summer hillside. I then scrambled out like the others.

Here the spectators were densely lining the last few hundred yards. Shouts, high fives, and congratulations propelled us toward the home stretch and 2 final challenges. First was a dozen parallel balance beams above (what else) a 5 foot deep pool of dark water, and second was the fabled Electroshock Therapy with hundreds of high voltage-low amperage wires dangling above (what else) a pool of conductivity enhancing dark water. I had been practicing the balance beam at the park with my daughter, though nothing I tried was quite like getting 2/3 of the way across the 24 foot span and feeling the lateral sway of the beam beneath beleaguered feet. In one of our synergistic training runs we had tested our balance skills on a stairstep series of bars. The consensus at the time was that forward motion was the key and pause was the enemy. This was tested and proved over the murky waters as Caleb, then I, and then Jay scampered unhesitatingly from platform to platform, followed by Dennis who fatally paused at mid span to be unceremoniously tossed into the drink.

Reunited again we had only to run the electric gauntlet and collect our t-shirts and orange head bands. Some of us contemplated this longer than necessary and proceeded with more caution than might be admirable. If true bravehearts we had been, then linked arm in arm we would have blasted through the wires sharing the jolts and laughing at the pain. We didn't. I for one walked and trotted through - flatly avoiding the wires. I saw Caleb jogging though cautiously, and as for the others I don't recall. The photos prove that Chris's run was one to be admired.

We were done. I jogged from the wires to claim my prizes and looked only for my girls and the hugs I felt I deserved.

The crowds, the cold shower, the blaring bands, and dinner with the team are all a blur. My family stayed another night at team-member Mitch's cabin and then made church the next morning. With 3 hours of sleep Friday night and 5 Saturday night I was in poor condition for reflection. My opinion Sunday, tainted by regret and the throb about my rib cage, was that I had run my first and only Tough Mudder.

Monday came. The sun rose. My ribs hurt worse, but I downloaded my pictures and combined them with those sent by Chris on Sunday.

I realized I wasn't through with Tough Mudder.

I had thought I was better than this event and trained hard to prove it. I practiced the ridiculous things like climbing walls and balancing on fence rails. I even met with fellow Mudder Tom to give me a crash refresher on distance swimming - and then I failed. I recognized a weakness, identified a course of action to cure it, and never followed through. I never got in the water again until TM put me in over my head. To those who have proffered that discretion is the better part of valor, I appreciate your gentleness. I, a self proclaimed Tough Mudder, cannot be so gentle. I have work to do.

I have been swimming 3 times in this the first week since the 2011 NorCal Tough Mudder. I bought goggles and am going to get stronger.

Next time no hesitation.
Next time no regrets.

A huge thanks to all of my teammates and my patient loving family.

Thank you also Kelsey for again providing incredible pictures.
Thank you Dianne, Chris, Vince and Bec for all of the other decent pictures.


  1. Uh---there are places they put people who willlingly inflict pain uppon themselves. I must say your are getting worse with age---I thought it would mellow you.
    As far as the swim you passed up---they say (whoever "they" is) discretion is the better part of valour. You get mega points on that one, especially after recounting the near drownings!! Oh my, my,my........... I was hoping for my hair to still have much brown in it for a few more years before beginning to succumbing to total graynes. But you are still working hard to prevent that. Some things never change.....
    I am proud of your accomplishment, for you worked hard for your results.
    And I am proud of your determination and dedication to a task. I pray God will use you in mighty ways as you channel those attributes toward God's purposes for you.
    I love you.

  2. Love those pics, it was a great and exciting race. Congratulations to all the participants for a great job well done. Looking forward always for more successful races to join. Great job !