It’s after three in the morning, and I am scooting face up underneath a canopy of barbed wire in some very questionable mud which may or may not be saturated with human urine. My knees are swollen from the previous six crawls under this particular obstacle and so I have resorted to pushing myself headfirst with my heels and waddling with my elbows which are in the same condition as my knees. My headlamp keeps getting edged off my forehead onto my neck which is sort of choking me. The desert rocks feel like my son’s Legos on my back as I push inch by inch below certain stitches above me. My wetsuit is filled with about 5 pounds of mud and gravel and I am pretty sure I have shit myself an obstacle back which now seems preferential to going back into the port-o-potties where there is now no division between the mud and the feces. I am having one of the best days of my life. The thing is, I get this feeling I have been here before.
I am at World’s Toughest Mudder. Again. I failed twice at this event in 2013 in New Jersey and 2015 here in Nevada but came back with a throbbing vengeance this year. 1370 miles of roads, trails and rucking with somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 reps of body weight exercises since January and I am on target to make 50 miles this year by one in the afternoon, all for a black headband and a brown bib. It is early November and the one thing no one is talking about is the election. That in itself is worth the $500 I dropped to be here.
TSA will be a bitch on Monday morning and I likely will not be able to raise my arms for the body scanner. It will be Wednesday before I get the last dab of dirt out of my ears, nose and eyes. My hands will peel in about a week, I will have night sweats and my ass crack will be raw from the dirt built up in it, but I don’t care, I am at peace. I am one with the universe now. And that universe only exists within a tiny 5 mile loop north of Lake Las Vegas, a man made resort for people richer and tamer than me.
About 4 ½ years ago, a co-worker showed me the Tough Mudder promo. Within 24 hours, I had digested the entire site and signed up for a Seattle event. I thought I was fit and rugged. I found out otherwise. Since then I have been hooked like all the other middle aged weekend warriors, slugging it out to do something that our grandparents worked really hard so that we could avoid. Existence in 2016 is so comfortable that I have to pay to get beat up.
The physical aspect of this event is certainly challenging if not impossible after a whole day of competing. But if it’s 100% physical, it’s 200% mental. Now I know what you’re thinking: He said that this thing is 300% of something; that doesn’t add up! And you’re partially right. None of it adds up. To endure, it requires you to not only be the best version of yourself, but also the worst version as well. And then you need to bring another you to criticize the other two. See? That makes 300%.
Hitting the finish line every 5 miles is not only difficult to comprehend but magnificent to become addicted to. You have an opportunity to comfortably and silently quit after every lap. This makes the temptation that much harder to beat. Add to this the repetition of a lap and after a half dozen runs through the gauntlet, you get a little confused where and when you are. But the appeal has nothing to do with obstacles or distance anymore. It’s all about the comradery.
Last year I remember asking a lady if she was OK just after dawn. She was nursing an arm and it was clear that something had been torn. As soon as I started down this line about questioning her ability to continue, she immediately ignored me and began boosting me up a shit show obstacle called the Liberator. This involved climbing up an A-frame with two pegs you stick in holes to elevate yourself. After 18 hours of muddy competitors, the entire obstacle is a slip and slide and by extension, an injury factory.
You might see someone who just had their arm ripped off and they’d probably ask you if you needed a boost. The air is electrified with ignorant positivity, except when you come to the Cliff, a 35 foot drop off a platform into the water below. You feel like you’re moving 88 mph by the time you make the splash. The trick is to close your eyes and pinch your nose.
Watching a guy spend five minutes psyching himself up for this tiny step, other participants and spectators are egging him on, some screaming profanities and insults, others cheering and building him up. I don’t know if he ever jumped, I had to keep pressing on. Stagnation is death at World’s. For that matter, stagnation is death in Life.
I have seen guys who were ideal specimens get 3 laps and DQ out on hypothermia and I have seen chunky middle-aged Moms get their 50-mile bibs. It can be anyone’s race. It’s the Tortoise and the Hare on mescaline. I quit caring who was leading and how fast their laps were years ago. I learned to concentrate on what was directly in front of me so I could avoid another mishap resulting in the dreaded orange participant headband and not the black finisher one. I got hurt on my first World’s and spent half the race in my tent last year due to the cold. But this year, like so many others, the only real goal is not measured in laps or miles but in the ability to just keep moving for 24 hours and wash out the taste of past defeats.
Rewind 48 hours. My plane is late flying into McCarran and I have spent too much time waiting in the bar drinking brown things just trying to dull the anticipation with intoxication. I want to keep this up on the plane but the guy next to me has crowded me into the window. Mixing a drink makes me look like a T-Rex with the tiny flailing arms.
Flying over Nevada south towards Las Vegas reveals a harsh reality of how we have adorned our surroundings. Perpetually reddish-brown, the landscape greens up as you head to the anus of the state where it purges itself into SoCal. Little pops of green become big swaths of green, all fake, all forced, submitting the earth into plastic surgery so that Vegas can only smile back. It’s like Melania Trump trying to have a fit. The Botox just won’t let her frown. That’s what we did to Vegas. We didn’t just make the wig, we made the man to wear it. There is no Las Vegas without embellishments.
While landing I notice the Trump brand on what I presume to be a hotel and casino. I forgot that our new commander is also a real estate tycoon. Like a lot of people, I focused on my training in the past months only more dogmatically if only to avoid some of the garbage being slung through the air waves. Most everyone couldn’t wait for the election to be over. I was just waiting for World’s.
The hotel logo matched with the baroque glitz of Vegas makes me think of the movie Back to the Future II. The dystopian alternate future Marty visits where Biff has created a “Pleasure Paradise” stands in stark irony to what I am willingly about to subject myself to.
Grabbing something sinister at Starbucks, I pick up my gear from the carousel, ride the shuttle to pick up the rental and make way off into the neon. I have to pick up food for this adventure and that means at this hour I am hitting Wal-Mart. My cart makes me look like a meth addict. It is filled with peanut butter, crackers, chips, candy bars, pickle juice and a tub of Vaseline. I don’t eat this way normally but when you are burning 500 calories an hour for 25 hours straight, you make strange bedfellows.
Most of the rest of my nutrition will be provided by the Orphan Tent, a place you can sign up for when you don’t have friends or family to pit for you. Solitary by nature, I have made some unexpected friends to achieve my goals. Drawing on my past failures, I knew I needed someone to get excited to see, if only for a few minutes. It takes the edge off the last miles of a lap.
Driving into the resort, I nearly hit a coyote. Checking in, I confront the institutional dullness that only a hotel room can offer and yet, there is a vibration inside that I know is being duplicated thousands of times across this landscape, the buzz of anticipation, joy and fear. Stepping outside I listen to the wind and feel the air hours before dawn. I want to have an idea of how cold it will be. The wind is moving faster than they say on my phone and I can tell this by the palms blowing on this resort. It’s so manicured that the grass is imprisoned. It’s just a carpet on top of a wasteland that can never grow anything. You step off the grounds and you are back in the desert. The magic is that you never really left. You just believed in that lie, the one that southern Nevada tells so well. But this weekend, the trolling stops. There is no faking World’s.
The soil here is young. It is basically rocks that haven’t quite eroded into dirt. Driving a stake in the ground by hand is nearly impossible. Cacti and brush are the only foliage around save for the imported palms at the resorts. The landscape is barren, beautiful and brutal. I manage to think about this while I get a couple of hours of drug induced sleep. I will need all the rest I can get. However, I know from experience, sleeping before World’s is about as practical as sleeping during it. I keep seeing this place as it was before the developers and as it may have been a half a billion years ago when it was a part of the sea.
Registration is at 10 but I am up hours before it standing in line with old and new friends half buzzed and unable to control ourselves. Some people are actually bouncing with excitement. We’re supposed to take all of our gear and stake a spot in the pit. Been there, done that. This year there is no tent for me and no sleeping bag. Just me stashing myself next to a rock pile hoping that the Orphans will keep an eye on my gear. But really, who wants to steal pee-soaked wetsuits?
I have made a promise to get out of line, grab some food and hide in my hotel room until it’s time to leave the next day for the race. I don’t want any of the stress to transfer on to myself. I sit in bed watching television with my feet up and drinking so much water that I urinate every 45 minutes.
Finding a marathon of the Back to the Future trilogy on cable, I put down the remote that I had been scanning the channels with. I swear I didn’t plan this. We don’t have cable at home or even internet so I use any opportunity to catch up on my programming. Funny, it never seems to change. I am struck at the similarities between the antagonist of the series Biff Tannen and the Donald, particularly in the second installment. Apparently, this was an intentional comparison. Dreaming about time travel, I begin to see myself in the past, present and future. The only difference is the number on my bib.
I drink and pee and eat and drink and pee and eat and have the most unproductive day of the year. I would feel guilty but I know what is about to happen. Smothering the trepidation with distraction, trying not to let the hysteria totally snowball out of proportion until you, like the other 1,000 that were sleepless the night before check and recheck your gear, blind with titillation.
The morning of is a blitz of throbbing, confused and electric frenzy generating somewhere in the vicinity of 1.21 gigawatts of pure energy. It’s so easy to get swept away and wander around like an ant before a storm. There is the smell of ass from the nerve trots that keep the portable toilets totally occupied. By the following day, the excrement mountain will be taller than the seat. Wet wipes have a value second only to coffee by Sunday.
The two MC’s, Sean Corvelle and Clinton Jackson jack up the furor and Sean spends a half hour pumping up the participants with his expected and exquisite brand of flag-waving, bandwagon and Oo-rah. This is a first where he actually body surfs the crowd. CBS is here filming and I have spotted a half dozen drones and the event has not even officially started. But we all know this started for all of us last winter when registration opened. For the record, Sean and Clinton never let up once for the entire show. You can’t pay people enough for this type of dedication; that’s straight out love.
I work with marginal people in shitty situations on a daily basis and my job has made me something of a misanthrope. For a moment, the cynic in me ruins this perfect place and I wonder if we created this fantasy as a retreat, an exodus from the grind of parenting, paying the mortgage, listening to the bullshit politicians telling us how they’re not like the other bullshit politicians, escape from Disease, Divorce, Death, or worse, Life.
This is as much Church as it is Sport and in many ways, the comparison to the Spiritual is more appropriate. There is sacrifice and suffering, baptism by water, mud, sometimes fire and even electricity. There is Faith (one obstacle in 2013 was actually called Leap of Faith – it involved jumping off a platform almost 20 feet in the air across a divide into a padded mat above water.) In fact, one would be hard-pressed not to make constant references to the stories of suffering in the Bible (Job, David, Joseph (the one with the coat) Jeremiah or Peter) and it is not lost on me that we are all wandering in the desert.
The spiritual awakening and transcendence in all of this has been a constant companion and I wonder if going to church offered the same release, would I go every Sunday and if I did would the pews be filled or would I be alone?
It’s hard not to cry here. You think of the sacrifices you have made, for yourself and your family. You think about this moment constantly while you train. And now it’s here. And it is incredibly surreal. And it will continue to be until well after this time tomorrow.
With a bone-dry and high sun, this monster begins and we are off at a crawl as the start line is actually at the base of a long climb that travels under a giant 40 foot A-Frame cargo net called the Atomic Wedgie. It gets this name as when you summit it, you are suspended over the apex with your crack. Tough Mudder gets creative with their obstacle names and by creative I mean irreverent.
The first five-mile lap is sans obstacles. This is by necessity as the thousand plus field would bottleneck the obstacles and shut down the course. To say that it is without any obstacles is erroneous. It is not a road (Where we’re going, we don’t need roads) and not even a trail. There is over 700 feet of elevation gain per lap, mostly in the last 2 miles and because of the desert dust being kicked up by thousands of feet, there is definitely an air quality factor. I wear a green bandana around my face to keep from getting a dry throat.
Spoiler: Most of the time if you attempt something, you will probably finish it. But you can’t do it unless you are invested and in order to buy in, you simply have to jump. You’re way more motivated when you see the ground coming towards you at terminal velocity.
This field is filled with little islands in the ocean of improvements. I hear their stories all day and all night long. Addicts, victims, survivors are more common than the stereotypical athlete here. This is not your NFL contingent. These are the people who are dissatisfied.
With each quarter mile, we get a glimpse of the 20 (or so) obstacles we will be with for the next 24 hours. After our first lap, we can stop with the foreplay and start the intercourse. You probably have this idea that after the event we will all brag that we tamed the course. The only thing that gets tamed here is your ego. The first lap takes me an hour and I will not move this fast again for a couple of weeks. Crossing the finish line, I grab some chow and hit the start again.
Obstacle #1 (day course) is called Augustus Gloop, so named after the ill-fated character in the Willie Wonka movie. This involves jumping into dyed water and then going under a chain link fence so low so that you can see but not breathe. You then find yourself at the wrong end of a drainage tube just large enough to climb in. Small rectangular holes are cut into the tube so that you can just get a foot inside and also a hand. You climb up the tube while being subject to a light waterboarding as there is a fire hose spraying down on you from above. There is a transparent cutout that shows the spectators what you are doing a la Augustus Gloop. It’s not a difficult obstacle but the water is cold and it messes with your head. Like many of the Tough Mudder trademark obstacles, it has a psychological component, in this case, claustrophobia and suffocation.
We make our way through the more brute and climbing oriented obstacles such as the Stage 5 Clinger and on to a swim where you have to boost yourself over a slippery plastic ramp called Humpchuck while soaking wet. You would be surprised how much help you get, especially if you’re a female. But I have to tell you, in 12 hours, it will be difficult to tell which gender is which. Neoprene is the great gender equalizer. You get your damn hands off her.
We loop around back to the Giant (or Atomic) Wedgie we passed through in the beginning of the loop. It is not a difficult obstacle but it is time consuming and eats up about 5 minutes each lap. If you get 13 laps, you will spend almost an hour just on this cargo netting. It gives people a chance to catch their breath and enjoy the view. It’s also a safe bet that when you’re passing underneath this behemoth to pass quickly. After a certain hour, anybody could be peeing and at any time.
There is a volunteer underneath us who keeps whooping like Terry Tate and it’s awesome. I hear him whoop at least 30 times while I am climbing and descending. Each time he does it, I do it to because laughter, like cholera, is contagious.
On we go through the course with the obstacles which are standbys in the Tough Mudder galaxy. Everest is a half-pipe made of plastic that you have to get a solid sprint going up it and jump at the last moment before you run out of real estate, catch the edge and climb up. This is a favorite place to help others and you really see some struggle and triumph here. You also can easily break a nose or rib. Then it’s on to Operation which is an obstacle I also refer to as “Fuck that Noise.” I have been shocked legitimately and accidentally far too many times by TM to get involved with this. Plus, the penalty takes about the same time as the obstacle.
There is a climb with a rope throw called the Grappler, a climb down on the other side called Abseil, a deceptively difficult slope called Pyramid Scheme which sucks the core strength out of you. As the day wears on, the ropes on this have become frayed and some are missing altogether making the obstacle impossible to overcome without help. It’s sometime after midnight that two runners wearing demonic clown masks start helping others up. I get that one of the clowns goes by the moniker “Bubbles.” The wearing of the mask is sadistic at this hour as some of us are slowing slipping away.
On to the third installment of TM staple Funky Monkey known now as the Revolution. This is a climb up an inverted, sloped monkey bar with a transition into spinning wheels that are both horizontal and vertical. This is not too bad the first three times but by the fourth it looks like a good place to end my dreams. I take the penalty which is a dip in the water and a walk with a sandbag. I got to be pretty good friends with the sandbag by the time this thing was over.
The grind continues. Obstacles named Double Rainbow, The Blockness Monster, Kiss of Mud, Ladder to Hell, Twinkle Toes and Turducken break up the monotony of the climbs. Double Rainbow is a super fun obstacle much like a trapeze act. You jump off a platform onto a metal handlebar, swing over the water and then grab another handlebar to swing to the safety of an airpad. Fail it and you have a crawl through a drainage tube and another short climb. Less than 12 hours in and all the grip tape has come loose from the handles and the metal is wet. I take the penalty which still involves a 15-foot jump into water before the penalty even begins.
Blockness Monster is the epitome of Tough Mudder. Two giant rectangular cubes are suspended in water. They cannot move without at least four participants pushing, lifting, climbing, pulling and rolling them over and over without losing the momentum. They are bigger and heavier than last year. A handful of jackasses grab onto the top of the block and ride it over but don’t do their part to keep them rolling once they’ve passed. It’s a dick move and I would see it repeated a handful more times before I start calling people out. Even in this place, there will always be people in it for themselves.
Over the entire meandering track, you can hear the pit ebb and flow, hear a variety of songs coming out of the speakers, hear Sean and Clinton egging racers on as they cross the finish line again and again and again. Most of that is just white noise. What sticks out more than any other sound is this: Jon Copper on the Bagpipes
This started years ago when Jon’s daughter, Hanna, did World’s. Since it is a crucial detail in the overall gestalt of the event, Jon climbs the hills and plays around the course and it’s as welcome as an aid station. It motivates you to climb and spurns you to go on. He is in full kilt wear and both the image and sound he shares is one that all of us can agree is an image we will take to the grave.
Not half way into this thing and racers are dropping left and right from injuries off the obstacles. I am almost up to my second tackle of a new obstacle called Backstabber. This is another wooden A-frame with a single line of holes up the center. The participant inserts pegs inside the holes to gain elevation over the obstacle. By the next morning, every one of us can agree that the Backstabber is the worst obstacle there. Matt B. Davis of Obstacle Racing Media posted the simplest of rebukes on November 13th, “Fuck you Backstabber.”
Countless bruises on the bottoms of triceps are directly attributed to this obstacle. Over the night, tiny cut-outs used by feet for leverage become fatigued and filled with mud and the obstacle is probably sucking life out of you at the rate of 100 times faster the longer you stay suspended trying to climb over. This is a must complete obstacle and for many, can only be overcome with assistance. That assistance is not free and it often requires the assister to risk injury in the offering of it.
During the climb, a gift is given to us that could not be anticipated: sunset. We had a mild ceiling of clouds and that revealed some of the most picturesque scenery I have ever seen. It’s a Picasso stress-smashed into a Modigliani poured into a Monet with a drizzle of Van Gogh scribbled by O’Keefe. A couple of pit crew took pictures of this so I know I wasn’t imagining it. Nursing my arms after the Backstabber I struggled to keep my eyes on the ground during a downhill through a dry wash. I would later run this section and somersault onto my left butt cheek. I quit running altogether after that.
A death march through a canyon and up a ridge brings your burning quads to Ladder to Hell which is pretty much what it sounds like, a ladder for giants where a one eyed pirate wearing a duster greets us. Down a slope you meet Twinkle Toes, a narrow board over water with a set of steps in the middle to navigate. The volunteer on this one tells us the secret is to keep moving and look forward, not down. This is probably good advice anywhere in Life.
Two cruel obstacles then pave your way to the eventual opening of the Cliff, Turducken and the Gamble. Turducken is another drainage pipe at an angle that drops off into water in a most uncomfortable way that tweaks the dogshit out of your back and often scrapes your spine on the way down. It is followed by a swim, a climb up a cargo net and then a dive underneath a large log that if you don’t time right you will whack your head on. There also is a large rock that people discover underneath the ramp into the second pool. By morning the drainage pipe becomes a sewage pipe and it is to one’s benefit to smell the right tube down. In case you are not catching the subtlety, someone shit themselves inside it, intentionally or otherwise.
The Gamble involves rolling a die and then taking one of six obstacle choices. There are really only three and the even numbers are the easier versions. All involve climbing which gets harder with each passing lap. If you opt to take the penalty you find yourself in the Artic Enema which is a face first slide into water congested with ice. You then have to take another full submersion under a board. If you were cold before it, you’re in real trouble after.
And finally, a new obstacle called Kong. These are four rings suspended high above another air pad. When doing this obstacle, you look like the gorilla, Donkey Kong. After three successes on this one, I start taking the penalty as my rotators are on fire. You still have to climb it and jump into the pad before you grab another sandbag. I heard that a guy fell between the two sandbags and another guy got tangled in the rings. This is about as funny as a battleship with screen doors. Until midnight, this is the last obstacle.
Back at the pit, my orphan volunteer is now dressed up like a rainbow unicorn. The thing is, she’s not the only one. There are two more unicorns, a Chewbacca and another guy in a ghillie suit. They just got a delivery of pizza and I have never been so happy to see it. I scarf two slices of sausage down barely chewing it and it fills me with life, at least for another half lap. My unicorn helps me put on another layer of neoprene since I am so water logged everything keeps sucking itself onto me like a vacuum. Without these volunteers, many of us would just quit. They ask for nothing other than for you to continue. I suppose part of it involves living through you vicariously. There is so much pure joy here, it’s hard to feel like you’re missing out on something.
My pit crew volunteer wears a blue bib that has my number on it. Seeing it duplicated makes me think that there are more than one of me out here and I feel obliged to sacrifice one of us for the sake of the future.
Slightly revived, I head out again for another lap. I really have no choice. Pit Mama Traci Watson would scream at me until I did. At midnight, they sound a fog horn to signify that the course has now changed. Humpchuck, the swim with a slick climb on plastic has now closed and in it’s place, a beautiful obstacle called Statue of Liberty. This is pretty simple. Take a lit tiki torch and swim about 25 yards across to the other side. If the torch goes out, you do it again until you get it right. It’s silent and swift and, for some reason, this little cove of the Lake has a good juju about it. It’s not difficult, it’s just another piece of the puzzle, just another movement to wrap your brains around.
The horn also means one other thing. We all know this is coming. The Cliff has opened. The simplest obstacle ever invented, the Cliff is also probably the most terrifying. It requires you to do nothing other than take the ride. The penalty is another half mile plus through the desert so unless you have fresh legs, you’re taking the 35 foot jump. It’s just high enough to be relatively safe but still mess with your mind.
It’s easy to dismiss this until you are on the platform looking down. Then your mantras flee and you are all alone without your usual bullshit. This is not a test. The alarm is real. I have done the Cliff before and love/fear it. This time there was no line and I waited until I was cleared and I walked up to and over and into the abyss with 0.0 hesitation like I was going into the kitchen for a snack. I’m not looking for congratulations on this. This is between me and the Cliff. I do this two more times before they close it for everyone except the front running contenders. Nobody calls me chicken.
I swim across the bay to another cargo net which seems to be the bread and butter of this World’s. They are everywhere. I pee again while watching others fall into the water. The sound of wetsuits splashing down is indelibly etched in my psyche as much as Copper’s pipes. It sounds like nothing else and it feels both safe and dangerous simultaneously. It’s more of a crack crash splash. Out of the water I cross the finish line for the fifth time. I collect my 25 mile patch. Strangely, it has no meaning now. I grab some food from the pit and slam whatever calories my body will take in the form of Waffle Stingers, Snickers, Ramen, Hot Cocoa mixed with Coffee and some whoppers. I top it off with a half of a peanut butter sandwich and I am off again.
On my sixth lap, I cry a little when I cross the start line. I have not made it this far before. Everything now is new. I keep focusing on every little step and breath, trying to stay safe and keep going and I run the gauntlet again. The familiarity now is an enemy because it encourages carelessness.
I am taking another penalty on Everest, a half pipe made of super slick plastic. My hamstrings are done and the speed I need to succeed won’t be back for a week. The penalty is another loop eating up my time and a short swim. I have grown to love the swim because I am incredibly buoyant in the layers of neoprene. I can float on my back and analyze the air traffic patterns of McCarran and warm myself up a bit. I have been drinking super-salinated liquids including pickle juice, mustard packets, and Cup O’ Noodles all night. The salt keeps me from cramping but also makes me pee and this is where I like to do this. There are a lot of schools of thought on wetsuit urination but I still have not sacrificed my pride to pee in the open.
Noticing a little party boat that you can rent from the Westin, I wave to the spectators and sing to them. Either they couldn’t hear me or didn’t want to. They may as well be on the other side of the ocean. They are tourists to this event, like we are mostly tourists in our lives. They’re on the water, but they’re not in it. And in my case, they’re not making the water that I just made, heating up the lake a drop at a time, enchantment under the sea.
Overnight, cold and alone, even if for just a couple of minutes, the dark thoughts and memories will pour in if you let them. There’s no telling what thoughts will walk in if you leave the window open. As I stumble around vigilantly in the dark, I recognize that the darkness is not unlike the concept of the wetsuit. The neoprene lets in a small amount of water that it holds close to your body. Your body warms this water and you remain in the game. The dark thoughts are like that. You let a couple in to get you going and warm your passion. If you let too many in, you freeze to death. The demons of doubt will never fade into non-existence. The question is: Can you put them to work for you instead of against you?
I have let too many in. Seconds feel like minutes. A quarter mile to the next obstacle feels like a 5k. I start singing to myself. I start talking to shadows. I think twigs and roots are snakes. I later hear that Jim Campbell (aka DaGoat) kills a Rattler with his hands by the Grappler. I have no way of knowing if this is true but I certainly want it to be.
The stars are a bit skewed from where I expect to see them at this hour in my home in Montana. There’s also a lot less of them given the bleed of photopollution from Vegas and the nearly full moon that gives us a bit more light in the canyons and washes. I have trained under these same stars for months and given my lack of training partners other than my Shepard, Daisy, they are welcome allies. You look for any little morsel of home to keep you safe mentally. I think of my wife and my son and my daughter and Daisy and our cat. They are all asleep. What the fuck am I doing out here?
After midnight, nearly everyone you see will ask how you are doing unless you ask them first. Initially, I thought maybe they saw something broken in me that I didn’t recognize. Later I realized that they weren’t really asking how I was doing; they were asking how they were doing by extension.
I could waste pages trying to explain why I am here. I could lie and digest it into some simple hymn. The truth is that while I am a complicated person, my desire to be here is not. I have found that most encounters in the world are as phony as the landscape at the resort hotel that I can see from the edge of the course.
You have to really dig deep to have a genuine interaction with a person. You don’t usually succeed except in times of struggle. World’s is all about struggle. This is one of the few times that I become Sally Social and actually talk to people. It’s one of the few times I actually listen. No one here is trying to sell you anything. No one expects you to give them something for free. If anything, the environment is ripe with people looking for a reason to help you.
In many ways, this is a fantasy world constructed out of people dissatisfied with regular life. For some this is an escape, for others this is training for whatever else life has decided to shit on them. You don’t have to search long for someone who has it worse than you. You also don’t have long to wallow in self-pity before you decide that scaling backward down a rock face in low light is pretty easy when you can use your eyes.
Scaling down the abseil obstacle next to a guy who was totally blind, you just don’t have any room to bitch and moan here. The Tough Mudder pledge generally stated en masse by participants at regular season events even has the statement “I do not whine. Kids whine.” It’s safe to say everyone is here because they want to be. That’s not so in the Real World.
If World’s is a retreat, and you have to be honest about it, it exists only in the time and place that we agree that it does. On Monday morning, I see a guy at the airport with the same finisher shirt I have and try to strike up a conversation. He’s having none of it. He has the same blinders on that I have in the Real World, probably trying to hold on to our little dream in the desert and not have me steal something from him. It pissed me off at first but I can’t blame him. I don’t want to be woken up yet either.
The pain and sacrifice in World’s drowns out all that noise. Aside from the obstacles and the thousands of runners, spectators, pit crew, volunteers and staff, you are alone with your thoughts, the cacti, the ground, the stars and the moon. It’s a full day not just on your feet but outside. Can you recall a single time in your entire life you were on your feet all day and all night? Unless you’re military, probably not.
You see all the headlamps and strobe lamps litter the course. They are required gear. Each one of them has a story. Each one of them is going through the exact same journey as you. And this goes on and on and on. Donuts sound so good right now. I see a shooting star and wonder if I actually saw it. The only reason I know what lap I am on is because I make a point to say it to myself over and over again. Everyone looks the same and it becomes a blur where and when and why I am. In all this, I find the present and become a Zen Master. I lose myself and am watching myself from the outside. Because we look alike in our bibs, I think I see myself. I am moving forward and backward in time.
It’s just before dawn and all of us keep looking eastward for the first glimpse of it. That marks the last quarter of the event and if you can make until dawn, you can make it until the finish. Our bodies quit warming us hours ago. And then it comes and as suddenly as it left us, it has blistered the other side of the earth and returned to us. And that’s when everything turns weird. Or weirder depending on your perspective. I am not even sure I am on the same course as the previous 16 hours.
I realize on my 8th lap that a) I am slowing down considerably and b) I will likely get stranded on my 10th lap. This is a cue for the motivational speakers to stand up and tell a boy to overcome. There’s just one problem. My motivation is already through the roof. It’s my body that needs the message and the further I push it, the more it pushes back. I could get the 10 laps if I had another half hour past the generous hour and a half already given by Tough Mudder but I am forced to concede a small defeat. I wanted the 50 but to be honest, with all the penalty laps I am taking, I am probably at 50 before the 9th lap is even up.
The victory is that I get to know people a little better and I can enjoy the course like a tourist on this final lap. I learn the names of the pit crew in the orphan tent, hug them all and thank them an uncomfortable amount of times for giving me someone to look forward to seeing. And then there’s this:
It also gives me the opportunity to take a dump.
You might not want to hear about this but if you have kids you need to grow up, I mean, everybody poops, right? The act of defecation on Sunday morning during World’s Toughest is an obstacle to itself. Strike that; I would suffer three Backstabbers to avoid this inevitability.
By now, the port-o-potties have been utterly destroyed. Sitting down is not an option for three reasons: a) the mountain of matter in the reservoir is higher than the seat b) I will seize up if I sit down and take weight off my legs c) it’s probably a health hazard.
I take off my 1.5 millimeter neoprene shirt and pull down my Farmer John 3 mm below my waste, er, my waist. I now pull the torso through my legs from back to front and I pull it hella-tight so my bruised and chafed ass is totally exposed. I shit standing up like the desperate morning I had in Paris 10 years ago after drinking night train espresso. If you haven’t had the experience, don’t, it won’t make you any happier. I’ll also spare the details of how this exactly went down. I knew this moment would come so I had prepared a kit of baby wipes, sanitized hand wipes and extra TP in case it was necessary. And it was all very necessary, every bit. I really needed to get back into one of those penalty swims if you know what I mean. The upside to this is the fact I could finally pull my underwear back up where they belonged since they sagged like a hammock over my ass for over half the race.
The 24 hours of World’s feels like a season when you take out the hourly distractions that life offers and concentrate all that energy on one ridiculous goal; just keep moving. By contrast, the 24 hours after World’s feels like an hour, it slips by into blurred reality that the focus of is just to renew and heal, all those toxins coming out of your body. It is not unusual to see a finisher break into a full throttle cry in the middle of a parking lot. The emotions that come with exhaustion are inexplicable. I save my tears for the tub. Time has it’s own gravity here and as expected, there are tiny anomalies everywhere if you just take the time to look for them. The bagpipes, the clowns, the blind man, amputees, people who should have been dead from disease years ago; they are all gifts. They are proof that while all our lights will undoubtedly go out, they burn bright while we are still here.
I have done so much damage to myself, either intentionally or just through bad choices that it has become the norm. I expect to suffer. It is as much a part of my identity as my face. Without this element of my existence, I worry I would have nothing of value to offer. And thus the cycle repeats. I am afraid of being valueless so I work to suffer more. It may not be true, but this is how it feels.
Stumble limping my last lap slower than any of the others, I meet some guys I have only known through facebook and it’s nice to see that they are in the same shape as me regardless of our mileage. I make it through that dirty bastard Backstabber again and am happy to be back in the wastelands. I shuffle through every spoke in this grind until finally I am at the Cliff where I am cut off from going further. They open a bypass that involves a steep climb down a rock face on a (wait for it) cargo net, into some stinky ass swamp sludge and then out into the bay below the Cliff. You then have another climb up a –cargo net- but this one is new and hasn’t been used yet.
As each racer climbs, the eroded ledge of the bank begins to crumble dirt and rocks on top of the remaining water treaders. I have to dive under to keep from getting smacked. We have to wait one by one for each of us to exit the water or it’s concussion city.
There is no time for another lap but the finish is closed for another five minutes. I hug a couple of people I got to know, try not to break down in tears and slowly we march to the end. With a stony poker face, I hobble across the line, get a black headband and shield myself from any further human contact. We deal with it in our own ways but now I just want to be away from here. I need to shut down. I need to evaporate and disappear. I need to make like a tree and get out of here.
I have made my way back to the hotel just off site and beat the rush hoping they will let me check in early. No such luck. Falling asleep in the lobby I suddenly wake up shivering. It’s too cold in here and I have to go back outside in the sun. This is the only way I can regulate. I start to wonder why everything smells like onions. I fall asleep again until security wakes me up. An hour disappeared. I am a reptile now and can’t make heat. At some point my room is ready and I die there for a few hours until hunger motivates me to move.
The first roll over in my bed was about as easy as when I learned it as a baby. Everything aches in a general, numbing way. I have no chief complaint other than I am sweating lactic acid and that onion smell is in my room now. My feet don’t seem to be blistered but are still raw from being water logged. The swelling in my hands is just starting to back down.
After this is all over, a handful of Facebook friends will complain about their “failure” on the course. They will overanalyze the race from the safety of their living room never recognizing that the race only exists in the few short hours that we are there. The experience is totally subjective and has it’s own gravity and own laws. It’s easy to scrutinize it all when it’s in the past. You can never fully understand the sacrifice and minute by minute compromises that go into putting one foot in front of the other for 24 solid hours (and change.) And you can’t replicate it after the fact. It is what it is.
Then there will be the toxic back biting of comparing how hard this year’s event was compared to last years. In 2015 it was cold. In 2016 there was a windstorm. In 2011 it was bullshit witch’s nipple cold and no one had a clue how to run the race. Many did not even bring a wetsuit.
On the way back through McCarran early on a Monday morning, which is like a Manhattan rush hour on a holiday weekend, I am quickly confused with the Rock ‘N’ Roll marathoners as one of them. They all wear their new swag and as they see me limping say things like, “I feel ya,’” and “it only gets better,” meaningless acknowledgements that I reciprocate since explaining what I just did might get me locked up.
It’s no offense to their accomplishment. I remember how I felt at my first marathon almost a quarter of a century ago. But I don’t correct them despite the three World’s patches conspicuously placed on my ruck. They are fighting chafing and soreness. I am pretty sure I am still purging an ounce or two (dry weight) of Nevada rocks out of my eyes and ears. My feet are swollen like I’ve been dead in the water for a week. Every so often I notice a splinter in my palms. I have another in my heel so deep that I can’t put any weight on it. Nor can I bend to reach it. Thank God for my wife.
Assaulted by the gross tons of negativity over trivial matters, I find my way into my seat and pass out for my first flight. I don’t even remember taking off. Somehow I find my way to the next flight and by noon I am in Bozeman. Only 24 hours have gone by since World’s and it may as well have been on Mars. I have applied chapstick (to my lips, you nasty boy) about 100 times since Sunday. I can’t seem to get any moisture to stick.
There are two leaks in the bathroom to fix, my son has to get his tooth pulled and the dog has fleas. No one cares what happened while I was gone. I am speaking a different language now. On Wednesday I am back at work and despite the fact that I am sleeping more than I have in years, nothing has changed. I just have two black headbands instead of one.
By Friday, TMHQ starts selling tickets to next year’s Worlds but we don’t even know what date or what state it’s going to be in. About 100 of us register anyway. This is all a part of the ritualistic S & M game of World’s. We’re so gullible.
My wife wonders why I am still exhausted. She can’t understand that I left it all out there, purging myself physically, intellectually and spiritually. And through it all, I feel like I have lost something that oddly, I want to lose again. Is there anything wrong with getting baptized repeatedly? Did they invent confession to take it’s place? Am I going through withdrawals and post-race depression? Do we all have some version of PTSD now? And is it OK to want to get it again?
The second guessing is in full swing now. Participants analyze each pit stop and torture themselves thinking that a minute here and there would have gotten them another lap. They have not seen the time machine that I built. Each wrinkle changes the future. You may have spent less time in the pit but you also may have been a casualty of someone’s fall. You may have twisted your ankle on a rock you would have avoided. You may have met the man of your dreams only to have the same one murder you in five years.
Ten days after the race and I still feel like I am in it and pursuing another obstacle, trying to get another lap. And I’m actually right on this. That’s all any of this is, a stupid obstacle course. There is a certain percentage of victims who have a need to recreate their victimization. You can ask the psychologists about this; I’m just telling you what I have seen. I am thinking that at World’s, that’s what we are doing.
We all want to be renewed and forgiven and fixed. We all think that we can just jump and rip the cord and land and we will be different people and everything will be dandy. But shit ain’t like that. It’s a con that after-school specials sold us.
The truth is that World’s has always been here and is still going on. The obstacles never, never, never stop until the day you quit breathing. World’s won’t fix you, baptism won’t fix you, your job won’t fix you and neither will your kids, your wife or your dog. You’re stuck with whatever brand of broken that bears your name. And this is beautiful. Because everyone else is broken, too. Remember: they’re not asking how you’re doing, they’re asking how they’re doing. And as long as you’re still asking, the race is still on. Heavy.
We all end up at the same finish line and it’s not in Nevada. It’s the same place that our assholes and opinions end up; the cemetery, the richest place on Earth. Almost everyone in this hemisphere is the product of our rebellious and unapologetic ancestors. We have a genetic need to push the envelope. On a daily basis, we see our friends rage on about whatever injustice is happening in the World. Whether this is Standing Rock, the recent election, Aleppo or which Back to the Future installment is superior, it is all noise. It is all pit noise distracting you from the only actual war that we wage; the War on Death. The War to take another step, the War to get to the Start Line, the War to Finish are all extensions on our very real and very urgent need to give our lives some type of meaning.