Planning and Training for World’s Toughest Mudder Success

World’s Toughest Mudder is a BIG THING. You can’t just show up and wing it. Success at WTM demands both careful planning and intelligent training, which is what this series will be about. Before submitting these articles, I thought I’d ask a guy I know what he considers to be the optimal way of approaching WTM. The good news is that his approach and mine were essentially the same. The bad news is that he was super concise, so I’m here to expand on it and flesh it out into usable tools and guidelines. Oh yeah, here’s what he said:

Think through every possible detail/angle carefully, practice it, then systematically kick ass. – Ryan Atkins


PLANNING


I am not one for clichés, but I can’t put it any better than these, so here is a short list of planning clichés :

  • If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” – a bunch of memes
  • No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmut von Moltke
  • “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson
  • Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

When your plans meet the real WTM, the real WTM wins. Few things go exactly as planned. Mistaken assumptions chow down on your asses. The most brilliant plan loses touch with reality, and if you’re not careful you’ll follow it down the crapper.

World's-Toughest-Mudder-Planning-Invaders

OK, what’s the deal, Dobos? To paraphrase Hamlet: “to plan or not to plan, that is the question.” Well, the answer is a qualified “yes.” DO absolutely definitely plan thoroughly, but DO NOT place absolute reliance on your plan. Accept that your beautiful plan will start falling apart at some point during the event, likely much sooner and in more and shittier ways than you had anticipated. Make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for “plan B”, “plan C”, or just going into survival mode. Reality will not yield to your plans, so you must adapt to the actual circumstances at hand.

World's-Toughest-Mudder-Plan

The first step to planning is to understand as much as possible of what will go down in Atlanta next year at WTM. Do all the obvious things: watch videos of past WTMs, read race reports, go to WTM groups and pages online, look over maps of past WTM courses, etc. That will give you a good idea of what challenges will be presented to you. The other big thing you need to understand is exactly what you will be bringing to the show. Where is your fitness now? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How much improvement can you realistically expect in those by the time Atlanta rolls around? (That last refers to TRAINING, which I’ll come to later in this series)

World's-Toughest-Mudder-2016-course-map

As you can see, it’s very, VERY easy to get hopelessly buried in details, so you need to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Try to group things together into categories of challenges that you need to overcome for success.

The challenges presented by WTM can be boiled down to 3 big ones:
1. dealing with the cold and wet conditions

2. being on your feet and moving for 24 hours

3. completing as many obstacles as efficiently as possible

I have cleverly triaged those challenges in order of importance: 1 is to survive, 2 is to complete, and 3 is to perform. Number 1 can end your race prematurely. It has done so time and again, to rookies and veterans and elite racers. It is the first thing you need to figure out how to deal with because without it the rest of your grand plans are just so much fantasy.

World's-Toughest-Mudder-Cold-Wet-Tired

WTM Challenge #1: The Horrible Laws of Thermodynamics

Regardless of where and when WTM is held, it’s always cold. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check and monitor the weather forecast as race-day approaches, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. Every single person at WTM this year – racers AND crew – knew that the single biggest challenge, the #1 reason for DNFs, was going to be cold. Just like it was last year and the year before, and so onto into the mists of prehistory. However, knowing the problem is only half the problem. You need a solution or, preferably, several solutions.

Problem: you’re cold
Solution: dress warmly, with layers and stuff. No problem, right?

Well…not exactly. The other thing every single person knew was that you would be wet for pretty much the last 22 hours or so. Therefore that bitchin’ fleece hoodie you got yourself, far from keeping you warm, will be worse than useless once it’s soaked. That’s why you see almost everyone wearing wet-suits from late afternoon through to well after sunrise.

Problems: you’re cold and wet
Solution: get a wet-suit. Problem solved, right?

Nope. We need to understand the basics of heat transfer, and exactly what clothing can and cannot do for you. Time for a thought experiment…

World's-Toughest-Mudder-Campfire

 

Take 4 identical water bottles. Fill 2 of them with cold water, and 2 of them with hot water. Now go dig up the toastiest sleeping bag you have. Bring out that 800 fill -40C rated monster, the one that has you sweating inside of 12 seconds if you dare crawl into it in anything warmer than -20 conditions. If you don’t have one, borrow from a friend.

Place one cold water bottle inside the sleeping bag way down at the foot end of the bag. Place a hot bottle up near the head end of the bag. Place the other 2 bottles a fair distance apart on the floor outside the sleeping bag. BTW, this is happening in your living room, so the ambient temp is around 22C. Go re-watch 2 hours of your fave WTM coverage, then come back and check the temperatures of the water in the bottles. What do you think you’ll find?

<Spoiler Alert>Let’s start with the easy ones: outside the sleeping bag. Both of those should be pretty close to room temperature. Heat always travels from warmer to colder, so the hot bottle will have lost heat to the room, while the cold one will have absorbed heat from the room. Both bottles will be around 22C. Easy peasy. Now, what about the sleeping bag?

At first blush, it’s tempting to assume that the ones that were in the insanely warm sleeping bag would be warmed up. Sadly, first blush is dead wrong in this case. What you’d actually find is that the cold one stayed quite cold – much colder than room temperature – and the hot one stayed quite hot – much warmer than room temperature. This is because a sleeping bag is simply a thermal insulator. It neither heats nor cools, it simply insulates whatever is inside it from whatever is outside.

World's-Toughest-Mudder-Thermodynamics-Batman

Clothing, including wet-suits, are the same: they generate exactly 0 heat. None. Zilch. Bupkus. SFA. If you’re freezing and throw on a 20mm wet-suit with a dryrobe over top, it will NOT warm you up. At least, not quickly enough.

At this point, you may be asking “why wear anything at all?” Well, the reason wearing insulating clothing works is because your body is constantly generating heat. Even if you’re curled up in the fetal position in your crew tent, your body is still generating heat because it needs to keep things at around body temperature in order to function properly. In the above scenario, you will slowly warm up as the heat generated by your basal metabolic rate gets trapped inside the dryrobe/wet-suit combo until you eventually get toasty warm. You need to know how to speed this process up, so keep reading.

There are several ways to warm yourself up much faster. The most enjoyable one is called “shared body warmth”, and all I’ll say about it is that you had better know your crew very, very well. The most effective strategy when you are in your pit is to ingest something hot, like a bowl of hot oatmeal or steaming cups of coffee or soup. The next pit tactic is to pour hot (not scalding – be careful) liquid into your wetsuit. The most important way may be less obvious, but it is the most critical because you can do it throughout the event: MOVE.

World's-Toughest-Mudder-Sufferfests-Cold-Guy-at-Tough-Guy

The only way you can move is through your muscles doing work. Human physiology is laughably inefficient, and most of the feeble trickle of chemical energy that we manage to generate in order to move gets wasted as heat. This heat builds up until your core temperature starts to get too high, and your body starts dumping it by pumping blood (essentially like radiator fluid in this scenario) out to your skin and limbs. Your clothing traps some of this heat, creating a progressively warmer micro-environment right next to your body surface and voila: you warm up!

Your body knows this even if you don’t, and has come up with a fantastically inefficient pattern of muscle contractions to cope with cold stress. Inefficient at moving, but super-awesome at generating heat. It’s called shivering. Shivering is ok, but it’s exhausting and makes things like Operation hilariously impossible. Your goal is to spend muscular energy moving forward, not jittering madly in place, so work on moving forward as hard as you can. Conversely, if you know that you’ll be forced to go slowly, whether from exhaustion or injury, then dress more warmly.

Even with all of the above dialed in, there is still a big make-or-break challenge related to overcoming the wet coldness: the wetsuit. The next (much shorter) article will delve into the hows and whys and dos and don’ts of WTM wetsuits.

World's-Toughest-Mudder-Wetsuit-Crack-Memecenter.com

Spartan Race Balls

They think they have balls, and it may look like they have balls, but they don’t because they haven’t yet figured out how to use them.

I am not speaking metaphorically here, but rather about the new(ish) softball attachments on their Rigs. In theory, it’s a good idea to make the obstacle tougher and introduce some more variety, but in practice…different story.

What I saw at the first SRUSCS was a very mixed bag. I saw Ryan (and maybe Hobie – tough to see with the camera angle) using the balls as they are meant to be used i.e. grabbing the ball, not the chain above it. Done that way, it is a tough piece of apparatus. In fact, Ryan’s advice to Lindsay, as she ran towards the Rig, was that the balls were slippery and tough to grip and that very likely both she and Alyssa would fail, so she should just tag the Rig and start burpees.

As we all saw, Alyssa cleared the Rig and went on to her first Series win. However, it appeared that she was grabbing the chain and using the ball as a backstop. Done this way, it’s even easier than a nunchuk or short rope attachment, because you can’t slip off. Before y’all jump down my throat, I am NOT tossing any accusations at Alyssa nor any other racer. I have no idea what, if any, rules were communicated to the racers and marshals regarding acceptable methods for negotiating the softballs. I am assuming that Alyssa did it properly since there was nothing said by the marshals on the course nor by race officials after the event.

However, that flies in the face of what Ryan did, and especially what he said to Lindsay. He clearly thought that racers needed to grab the balls and could not grip the chains. So which is it?

Spartan needs to address and clarify this ASAP in order to make future races fair. There is a huge difference in difficulty between the two techniques. If the intent is to make the Rig tougher, then using the chain needs to be strictly forbidden and – even more importantly – consistently enforced. Yes, I know this means even more marshals making judgement calls that can decide races. In this case, however, I think a simple design change of the ball attachment could solve the problem.

Or, this being Sparta…

Spartan Race World Champs: Get Out of Tahoe

Apparently the Spartan Race World Championships will be in Squaw Valley next year. Again. That would make 3 years in a row in Tahoe. For a race that has “World” in its name it certainly seems to be attached to the state of California to the exclusion of the rest of the world. However, this isn’t about that.

You can't argue about the views: awesome! (Credit: Spartan Race)

As awesome outdoor places go, you could do a lot worse than Squaw Valley Resort. I mean, it epitomizes the perfect made-for-tv combination of scenic and brutal. But this isn’t about that either.

This is about Spartan’s attitude towards altitude. Squaw Valley starts at 1890 meters and climbs to 2790 meters (that’s 6200 feet up to 9153 feet for the one or two countries that still use them). Yeah…so what?

The official elevation profile for SRWC 2015 (Credit: Spartan Race)

The official elevation profile for SRWC 2015 (Credit: Spartan Race)

This what: human performance gets worse and worse in every way the higher up you go unless you are lucky enough to live and train at altitude. This is a very real performance hit and a significant handicap to all those racers coming in from the “lowlands”. But don’t take my word for it…

The National Football League

Mile High Stadium in Denver, home of the at-times-mighty Broncos of the NFL, sits at a piddling 5280 feet above sea level. This is anywhere from 1000 to almost 4000 feet LOWER than Squaw Valley, and yet it is plenty high enough to mess with NFL caliber athletes.

spartanwc-tahoe-mile-high-stadium

The Visitors’ Perspective

From the Baltimore Ravens’ website:

“The Denver Broncos may have the most tangible homefield advantage in the NFL.

It’s not that their fans are louder or that their stadium traps crowd noise, it’s the fact that the city of Denver sits about 5,200 feet above sea level (Baltimore is about 480 feet above sea level). That’s why the Broncos’ former stadium was famously called Mile High Stadium for 41 years.

The higher altitude creates a challenge for opponents, who quickly have to adapt to exerting themselves in that atmosphere.

“The altitude is going to be a problem,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “Unless we’re going to drive there and practice there for the next week, we can’t really prepare for it.”

“We know and understand that it’s going to be an issue,” Pollard said. “That’s for us as pros to step into that thing. If that means going out at pregame, running as much as we can, trying to get gassed as much as we can, that’s what we need to do.”

The Home Team’s Perspective

Lest the Ravens, or any other team complaining about the home field advantage the Broncos enjoy, be accused of unwarranted whining, I now present some material from the Denver Broncos’ website:

“I’m telling you — it’s not a myth. It really isn’t,” rookie running back Montee Ball said. “Speaking of when I first got here and was running around, it was very difficult the first two weeks to catch my breath. For now, us as Broncos players, we love the altitude because it’s an advantage for us.”

The main issue, Colorado native Mitch Unrein explained, is that less oxygen reaches the body at higher elevations. So not only is it harder to breathe, muscles get fatigued faster and players tire out quicker.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I don’t think you ever really get used to trying to play in this altitude,” the defensive tackle said. “Obviously, we’re more accustomed to it just because we practice in it every day. But for teams that come up here, I know it’s a struggle for them just to try to catch their breath after a long drive and just trying to keep fresh after every play.”

Derek Wolfe sucking O2 at Mile High (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

I will be the first to admit that anecdotal evidence from the NFL is pretty low on the totem pole of credible scientific stuff. However, what it lacks in terms of double-blind control group-ey rigor it makes up for by being outside the artificially controlled world of the laboratory i.e. it’s real-world stuff from the real world athletes. That having been said, a bit of hard science is never a bad thing, so buckle up.

(a tiny bit of) The Science

A common misconception with what happens to the air we breathe at altitude is that there is less oxygen. In fact, the composition of the air does not change, it just becomes thinner: air is less dense the higher up you go in Earth’s atmosphere. The oxygen concentration remains the same at about 21%, but there’s just less air in a given lungful the higher up you go. As anyone who has tried on an “altitude” Training Mask can attest, not being able to get enough oxygen into your body definitely impairs your performance.

There are heaps of scientific studies on the effects of altitude on the human body. Every single study indicates that there is a very real degradation of many aspects of human performance with increasing altitude: cognitive performance, endurance performance, appetite, ability to sleep, ability to not die, etc.  In terms most endurance athletes will be able to relate to: going up reduces your VO2 Max and decreases your Time to Exhaustion at a given work rate. These are real things that have been measured tens of thousands of times with tens of thousands of people.

Both VO2 Max and Time to Exhaustion take a hit at Tahoe elevations (1900 - 2800 m)

Notice from the graph on the left that fitter athletes (those with a higher initial VO2 Max) take a bigger hit than their less fit competitors, going from 75 down to 60 compared to going from 65 to 55. The practical upshot of this is that it is the top-notch elite athletes that you WANT to have at your race who have the biggest incentive to not show up if it’s at altitude.

Waitaminute! What was that about dying? You said “dying”, right?

Yup. Thought that might grab your attention. This is as real as altitude effects get, and they’re not pretty. Go too high too fast and you are on a timer: if you don’t get back down in time, then you die. Simple as that. Nobody knows this better than mountaineers going after the ultimate summit.

Everest and the Death Zone

I have adventure raced with a family who all summited Mount Everest. I was mildly freaked out during their expedition, as I feared for their lives. Base Camp is at a ridiculous 17,500 feet. The summit is over 29,000 feet, which is well into what climbers refer to as “the Death Zone”. This refers to any climbing done above about 8000m (26,000ft). If you were picked up from home and dropped off at this elevation you would be dead inside of 15 minutes. The majority of deaths on Everest are due at least in part to altitude, not falls or the cold or avalanches.

Source: Richard Salisbury and Elizabeth Hawley, Himalaya Database. Note: In some cases, multiple deaths in one location eg in 2015 an earthquake killed 18 (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)

 

An Aussie bloke I know ran the first ever high altitude rescue service last year on Mount Everest with a team of 5 Sherpas. They were finally able to pluck climbers off the mountain from above Base Camp, as there was now a dedicated team of altitude-adapted Sherpas combined with a special high altitude helicopter. There is no better illustration of the fact that air density is way lower at altitude than watching a regular chopper try and fail to even get off the ground in the Himalayas. Even with the B3 chopper, they would need to sometimes leave the medic on the mountain in order to be able to take off with the victim, as both together would be too heavy.

Is Spartan Trying to Kill Me?

Don’t freak out that Spartan is trying to kill you! People can live for prolonged periods of time at elevations up to about 6000 metres (19,685 feet), so there is nothing life-threatening about Squaw Valley.

Individuals have lived for as long as 2 yr at an altitude of 5950 m, and there was a miner’s camp at 5300 m for several years. The highest permanently inhabited town in the world at the present time appears to be La Rinconada, a mining village of over 7000 people in southern Peru at an altitude of up to 5100 m, which has been in existence for over 40 yr.” – High Alt Med Biol. 2002 Winter;3(4):401-7.

The examples from Everest are at the extreme end of the altitude spectrum, at the edge of survival. I used them because it makes things like the altitude performance hit glaringly obvious.

Okay, we get it: altitude bad. But since we are all breathing the same air, isn’t it the same for everyone?

No, and therein lies the problem with having SRWC at significant altitude.

Altitude Acclimatization

If you ever want to see the reality of altitude acclimatization, again we need look no further than Everest. By altitude acclimatization I mean a gradual and progressive exposure to higher and higher elevations over several weeks to allow the body to adapt to the decreased availability of oxygen.

Climbers spend 95% of their Everest summit attempt slowly going up and down the mountain to progressively higher intermediate camps in order to acclimate to the elevation. Most climbers will end up climbing the mountain 3 times from Base Camp. They can’t overdo it, because even Base Camp is too high for long-term habitation. Any more than 40 days and most climbers would be too weak to attempt the summit.

The following is the Everest summit attempt Acclimatization schedule from MountEverest.net.

  • Trek to BC 10 days
  • Arrival BC April 1
  • Climbing C1 April 7
  • Back to BC April 8
  • Climbing C2 April 11
  • Back to BC April 13
  • Climbing C2 April 17
  • Climbing C3 April 19
  • Back to BC April 20
  • Trekking down April 21
  • Back to BC April 26
  • 1st summit attempt May 1-7
  • Trekking down May 7-12
  • Back in BC May 13
  • Last summit attempts May 16-30

As you can see, altitude adaptations take time. If a top racer wanted to try to ensure that they could perform near their best in Tahoe, they’d need to spend at least 3 weeks living and training at a comparable elevation. That’s pretty much of a non-starter for most people.

In NASCAR-speak, it would be like going to a non-restrictor plate race and being forced to use a restrictor plate. It creates a very skewed playing field.

NASCAR Restrictor Plate Racing

Spartan Nation is not far removed from NASCAR Nation, so here is another way of looking at this whole altitude snafu. I’m referring to the restrictor plate, which is the “altitude training” mask equivalent for race cars.
A restrictor plate or air restrictor is a device installed at the intake of an engine to limit its power. This kind of system is occasionally used in road vehicles (e.g., motorcycles) for insurance purposes, but mainly in automobile racing, to limit top speed to provide equal level of competition” – Wikipedia

Bobby Allison's incident at Talladega at 200mph led to restrictor plates. Photo Credit: RacingOne/2012 RacingOne

“The restrictions are in the interest of driver and fan safety because higher speeds are closer to out-of-control than the 190 MPH range used for Daytona and Talladega…” – Wikipedia

With advances in engines and aerodynamics, cars were simply starting to go too fast for the course on the superspeedways. Slowing down the cars seemed like a good idea, except that it slows down the faster cars much more than the slower cars. The result of restrictor plates in NASCAR on superspeedway races is to have almost all cars going at nearly the same speed, in one giant pack. This makes for a super-competitive race and virtually guarantees that every superspeedway race will have “The Big One” – an epic pile-up involving a dozen or more cars. Exciting for the fans and great for TV ratings, but maybe not the best thing from a racer’s perspective.

Now imagine there were a handful of cars – let’s call them the Altitude Adapted Racers – who were given an exemption from NASCAR: they wouldn’t need to use restrictor plates at superspeedway events like Talladega.

Rusty Wallace tested a car at Talladega Superspeedway without a restrictor plate in 2004, reaching a top speed of 228 mph (367 km/h) in the backstretch and a one-lap average of 221 mph (356 km/h).” – Wikipedia

It’d be a colossal blow-out, with the unrestricted cars finishing multiple laps ahead of the pack (barring crashes and the like). Ridiculous, yes, but why am I talking about NASCAR racing?

A restrictor plate: the "altitude training" mask for cars. (www.racecar-engineering.com)

It’s a brilliant analogy. Just like the race cars, the human engine also needs oxygen in order to run. Going to altitude, where the air is less dense, is effectively putting a restrictor plate on the racers. Well…most of the racers. Some people live and train at altitude. Those few athletes are like my hypothetical Altitude Adapted Racers, the ones who don’t have to use a restrictor plates. Makes for a very uneven playing field, doesn’t it?

OK, that would never fly in NASCAR, but come on dude; we’re talking about humans and endurance sports here, not race cars.

Yes, and I’m glad you pointed that out. We have 1 perfect example of what happens when you bring the best athletes in the world to altitude and ask them to compete in a championship.

The 1968 Mexico City Olympics

Mexico City sits at around 7350 feet, so is very comparable to the altitude racers encounter at SRWC in Tahoe. Sprinters, jumpers, and throwers had a field day, as the thinner air allowed a truckload of world records to be set during these Games. The endurance athletes, on the other hand, had their proverbial asses handed to them.

The 1968 Olympic 5000 meters: Gammoudi, Keino, Temu

Below are the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal results from the major endurance events at the Mexico City games: the men’s 5000 meters, 10,000 meters, and marathon races. Beside them for comparison are the medal-winning performances from the previous Olympics, which had been held in Tokyo at an elevation of 131 feet.

In addition to the times, I have included what placing the winners from 1968 would have finished at back in 1964.

Finally, look not only at the times, but also the nationalities of the athletes. This, ladies and gentleman, was the start of the East African domination of distance running which endures to this day. These are runners who lived and trained at altitude.

NOTE: There are no women’s performances, as they were deemed physically incapable of safely racing distances longer than 800 meters. That only changed in 1972 when they were allowed to run the 1500. Then the marathon finally in 1984. But that’s a story for another day.

Event Tokyo 1964 (131 ft) Mexico 1968 (7350 ft)
5000 metres – GOLD Bob Schul
USA
13:48.8
Mohammed Gammoudi
Tunisia
14:05.01  (good for 10th)*
5000 metres – SILVER Harold Norpoth
United Team of Germany
13:49.6
Kipchoge Keino
Kenya
14:05:16  (good for 11th)*
5000 metres – BRONZE Bill Dellinger
USA
13:49.8
Naftali Temu
Kenya
14:06.41  (good for 12th)*
10,000 metres – GOLD Billy Mills
USA
28:24.4
Naftali Temu
Kenya
29:27.40  (good for 11th)
10,000 metres – SILVER Mohammed Gammoudi
Tunisia
28:24.8
Mamo Wolde
Ethiopia
29:27.75  (good for 12th)
10,000 metres – BRONZE Ron Clarke
Australia
28:25.8
Mohammed Gammoudi
Tunisia
29:34.2 (good for 16th)
Marathon – GOLD Abebe Bikila
Ethiopia
2:12:11 (WR)
Mamo Wolde
Ethiopia
2:20:27  (good for 10th)
Marathon – SILVER Basil Heatley
Great Britain
2:16:19
Kenji Kimihara
Japan
2:23:31  (good for 16th)
Marathon – BRONZE Kokichi Tsuburaya
Japan
2:16:22
Mike Ryan
New Zealand
2:23:45  (good for 17th)


* For the 5000, none of the podium times from 1968 would have made it out of 3 of the 4 preliminary heats in Tokyo 1964.

I’d love you to show you more examples of this type of thing but I can’t, since they’ve never held an Olympics at altitude since then. Whaddaya know: a committee that got something right.

STFU?

The performance hit imposed by altitude is due to simple physical and biological facts: lower air density resulting in lower oxygen availability to working muscles. Performance at altitude is trainable to some extent, but significant adaptations take weeks or months. You can “aaarrrooo!” and STFU until the cows come home: it won’t make any difference.

Wrap Up

Given all of the above, why the hell would a top-notch Spartan racer spend thousands of dollars to travel to the self-proclaimed biggest Spartan race in the World, knowing for a certainty that they will not be able to perform at anywhere near their best? The answer is that, for the most part, they won’t. This will continue to be the case until and unless Spartan moves their championship race down to a sensible elevation. Yes, that means Breckenrige is out.

No endurance sport should have a championship race at altitude, and Spartan needs to recognize that, put their athletes first and get the heck out of Tahoe.