In 2015, I ran 40 miles at World’s Toughest Mudder. Everything went according to plan. I stayed on the course for the entire 24 hours and had no problems with cold, cramping, or any sort of unexpected maladies. I ran into the night in shorts and no shirt. I felt a little chilly but kept on moving past others who looked to be in trouble, shivering from the cold. By the time I pulled on my wetsuit after sundown, racers were already being pulled off the course for hypothermia. Although I didn’t know it before, I “run hot” — something I should have kept in mind this year.
My nutrition plan in 2015 was spot on as well. It was fairly simple and I suffered no gastrointestinal issues, minimal muscle cramping, and had plenty of energy to stay upbeat and keep warm, moving, smiling, dancing, and singing all day, all night, and into the day again.
I wasn’t fast, but while others were out of the race — by choice or by decree from medical personnel — changed into warm sweats, cuddling in their tents waiting for the sun to rise, I was still gradually chewing up the course, a little bit sleepy towards the end, but with minimal pain, and with a smile on my face.
Entering World’s Toughest Mudder 2016, I set a goal of at least 50 miles. My performance in 2015 should have left me confident — I needed to do everything the same, just move faster. But I had doubts. I faced no adversity in 2015. NOTHING went wrong. How would I respond if something did? I had no idea why I wasn’t cold when everyone else was. What if that was a fluke? What if I got cold this year? What if I got sick or suffered an injury? Would I stay upbeat? Would I continue? Or would I end up in my tent, changed into warm sweats, inside a sleeping bag, waiting for the sun to come up so I could venture back out?
To help deal with this doubt, I paired up with my friend Matt B. Davis, an experienced obstacle racer and a true student of the sport, who had recently completed a 100 mile race. We would form a team and run together to get our 50 miles. He would keep me on pace and keep my head straight (and, come on. He picked me to be his teammate after watching my relentless, 24-hour performance in 2015. I was as much a part of HIS plan as he was mine. I was there to help keep HIM going and keep HIS spirits up).
My training leading up to World’s Toughest Mudder 2016 was okay. I did a couple of long runs of 17 and 20 miles from my home in Acworth, Georgia, to the top of Kennesaw Mountain and back. Several months earlier I had also run 30 miles with a group of friends on the trails surrounding Kennesaw Mountain.
Strength-wise, I focused on grip and core, greatly increasing both. Also, a few months out from the event, I began to abstain from caffeine. I’m not a coffee drinker, but I cut out Coke, Ice Tea, and all running supplements that contain caffeine. I even switched to decaf green tea. Except for the caffeine in chocolate from time to time, I was caffeine free. I did this to maximize the benefits of caffeine during World’s Toughest. My plan was to begin using race nutrition containing caffeine around 3 am – when I might need to enhance my focus, mood, and energy levels. I also packed a couple of cans of Coca Cola “just in case”.
Matt and I entered World’s Toughest Mudder 2016 excited.
Video capture of the author (in the hat?) and his teammate Matt B. Davis moments before the start of World’s Toughest Mudder 2016.
We ran the first two 5 mile laps as expected – we talked, joked, and laughed with anyone on the course who would pay attention to us.
The night before, Matt and I discussed when we would put on our wetsuits. From past experience, we knew that once the sun begins to set, the temperature quickly drops. Although the forecast was for warmer temperatures, I wanted to err on the side of caution. The sun would set at 4:30 and each lap would take us at least 90 minutes, so we agreed that we’d put on wetsuits if we were starting a lap at 3 pm or later.
As we finished lap 2, we realized that we’d start lap three at about 2:50 pm. Close enough. I made the call to put on our wetsuits.
I pulled on my full wetsuit with air temperatures still in the mid- to high-60s. Right away on lap 3 I felt terrible. I thought it could be just adjusting to running in the wetsuit, but I was roasting. My energy, strength, and attitude quickly plummeted. Matt was now doing all the talking, joking, and high-fiving – all the things I do that make racing fun. I was running in silence, but I didn’t really recognize it as a sign that something was wrong. Matt has a big personality, he’s well known and a former stand-up comedian. Maybe it made sense that he was out talking me and out joking me.
What happened at the Everest 2.0 obstacle, though, should have tipped me off that something was wrong. As I started my approach to run up the wall, another competitor stepped in front of me, cutting me off. He went up the wall with help and then just kept going. After cutting me off, he didn’t even stop to help the next person (me) up the wall. “Hey ASSHOLE! “ I yelled at him “You FUCKING CUT IN FRONT OF ME AND THEN DON’T EVEN WAIT TO HELP?!” On any other day, I laugh that sort of thing off. I forget about it and carry on. But I swore at the guy. Loudly. I insulted him directly and even started to walk around the wall to confront him. I was agitated. There was something wrong with me.
Soon my whole body ached. My arms, shoulders, and legs felt exhausted. It was only lap three. I didn’t remember EVER feeling this bad at any point in 2015. We were only two-and-a-half hours into this thing and I felt like I was on hour 27. I started failing obstacles I had no business failing.
I even had to rest climbing up the short ladders that led to obstacle platforms. I felt sick to my stomach and a little bit dizzy. My appendages burned and felt heavy. I thought that I may be coming down with the flu or food poisoning or something.
Matt was going strong. He noticed my trouble and tried to understand — “do you need water?” no, I had drunk steadily from my Camelbak. “Do you need to eat” no, I ate plenty at both of our pit stops.
I didn’t want to hold him back. I told him, very emotionally, that he was going to get 50 miles, but I couldn’t run. He should go ahead. At first, he wouldn’t leave me, but as the sun was setting, we both ended up in the water after failing Double Rainbow. He said he had to run to stay warm and, with my blessing, he took off.
I trudged on. I knew I would finish lap 3, but I didn’t think I could go on all night feeling like this. I knew I couldn’t jump off The Cliff like this. I couldn’t believe that my race was going to be over so soon.
I thought about what it would feel like when I told my wife and my dad that I dropped out after three laps. My wife would, of course, tell me that she and the kids love me. My dad would say “it just wasn’t your day.” But I didn’t want condolences. I thought about all those friends on Facebook, including those outside of the OCR community, who knew I was targeting 50 miles and were tracking me live online. They’d all see that I stopped after 15 miles. I thought about all the money I spent on gear and travel, and the time I was spending away from my family. What a waste. I was embarrassed. I was sad. I was hurting. I was dizzy. I was sick. I felt as if I may puke at any moment, and I was tired.
I rested often. I was sitting halfway up a steep embankment of loose gravel, sand, rocks, and cacti when Sae Sivanesan, a New Zealander I met a couple of years ago, came upon me. He took a look at me and asked if I was okay.
I told him that I felt way worse than I should at this point of the race. “Just keep moving,” Sae said. “It’s a long race, you never know what’s going to happen.” And with that, I crawled to the top of that hill, stood up and walked down the other side.
A short time later, I stripped my wetsuit down to my waist.
Right away I started to feel better. Not great, but my arms and shoulders felt less fatigued almost instantly. Oh my god!… was this all about my wetsuit?! I was over-heating, maybe even approaching heat exhaustion. I still felt like I was going to vomit. I rooted around in the pocket of my Camelbak hoping to find a Pepto-Bismol tablet or … something… I found a 5-hour Energy that I had stashed there months before. I downed it – I’m not sure if that helped, but I started to think that maybe I’d be okay. I just needed to finish the lap and get out of that wetsuit.
“Get this fucking wetsuit the fuck off of me,” I hollered as I entered my pit. I sat down and called over a couple of pit crew members from nearby sites to help me pull the suit off.
Wow, it felt good to get out of that thing.
My pit crew, Andy Katersky, poured me some Coke over ice. I was breaking into the caffeine about 10 hours earlier than planned. I needed a boost. I hoped it would help with my stomach too, and damn it tasted good.
I was out of that fucking wetsuit, but what was I going to wear now? I still had to go in and out of the water, some of it pretty cold. I needed some protection. Then I remembered that last year I had borrowed a lightweight shorty wetsuit from another Georgia racer, Paul Mitas, for World’s Toughest. I hadn’t used it, but when I tried to return it, he told me to just hold on to it. I had packed it with my miscellaneous gear. I asked Andy to dig it out. I had never even tried on the suit, but I pulled it on and it was perfect. I headed out for lap four.
How am I feeling after lap three? Read between the lines.
I still felt sick to my stomach and I still felt drained. But I knew I was going to be able to continue. I didn’t know how many miles I would get, but I wasn’t done at 15.
Lap four was still difficult. I actually threw up a little bit while bent over at the waist stretching my hamstrings. My mid-lower back began to tighten up, I assume from using terrible running form while trudging through lap three. I felt so much better overall, but my back felt increasingly worse. Eventually, the pain made it difficult to take a full breath.
When I entered the pit after lap 4, my back and nausea were my major concerns. I sought out Channing Chernoff, pit crewing for the site next door to ask her about back stretches. We tried a few stretches and a couple yoga poses. When those proved to be too intense, she offered to rub my back. Andy laid a towel out in the dirt and Channing pressed and prodded on me for a few minutes. When we were done, I told Andy to forget most of my nutrition plan. I didn’t want to put it all in my queasy stomach. Besides, I just didn’t need all that food. It wasn’t cold and my body wasn’t burning calories to stay warm. I was only going to drink Tailwind (with caffeine) in my Camelbak and eat chicken soup during my pit stops. I drank some more Coca Cola, downed some Pepto-Bismol, and headed out for lap 5.
My back started to loosen up, my nausea subsided (but never went away), and I felt refreshed. I flew through the next couple of laps. I was running fast (for me) and succeeding at most every obstacle, so I wasn’t running extra penalty distances. My lap times into the evening were considerably faster than earlier in the day. I often surprised Andy when I pulled into the pits way earlier than he expected. We realized that I had a chance to make 50 miles after all.
Feeling much better after laps five and six.
On lap 6, as I climbed up the ladder at Double Rainbow (a ladder I had to rest half way up on lap 3), who should I hear on the platform above me but Matt B. Davis. Matt was happy and surprised to see me. I caught up to him at the same obstacle that we separated on. Matt noticed right away that I had recovered. I was laughing and joking. I was more than back. I was better than I was on lap 1. Matt fell into the water. I followed by swinging across the obstacle successfully.
I waited for Matt to complete his penalty distance so that we could reunite and start running together again…. But I knew I was running faster and I wasn’t sure if our paces would match up.
When we met up after Matt completed the penalty, he said that he couldn’t run and I should go ahead. I was feeling good. Like REALLY good, so I took off. Matt and I separated again where we separated the first time, going downhill right after Double Rainbow.
I kept moving, running as fast as the terrain allowed. I jumped from The Cliff for the first time on what I thought was lap 7, but when I came into the pits, and exchanged my Camelbak with Andy, he mentioned that I had completed 8 laps. I was sure I completed only 7 and he was equally as sure that it was 8. I went to the official timer and asked what lap I was on. The timer replied “8” and printed me a ticket with my timing information on it. I was happily surprised. I took the ticket to Andy and said “you were right, I have 8,” and handed him the ticket. He took the ticket, folded it, and put it in his pocket.
Feeling good after… I’m not sure how many laps.
I had completed 40 miles and it was early. Not only was I going to get 50 miles, I would get 55 and possibly 60. Even though I felt great, I took my foot off the throttle a little bit, but continued to chew up the course.
Two laps later, I’m telling people on the course that this was lap 10 for me. I jumped from The Cliff for the third time and finished the lap celebrating my 50 miles. I went to collect my brown 50-mile bib at the timer’s tent and was told, “You have 9.”
“I have 10 laps.” I told them. “I checked after lap 8 and you printed me a ticket that said 8. I have run two laps since then.” The timer stood up and went “in back” … maybe to check on something? I don’t know, it wasn’t explained to me. After waiting for a few minutes, Andy walked up and I asked him for the ticket. By then, the timer had come back. I opened up the ticket to show him that it said “8 laps” and looked at it for the first time.
I now only had 9 laps – one more to get 50 miles. There was more than enough time, but I had run the last 2 laps with the mindset that I achieved my goal and was going to surpass it. Now I had to head back out.
I started running lap 10 fast. I was cramping slightly and a little tired, but I felt strong overall. Most everyone on the course was walking and taking it easy, trying to time their finish close to, but after, the noon end time. I wanted to see if I could get not just one, but two laps in. If I finished lap 10 before noon, I could get out for a final lap. I’d have 90 additional minutes to finish that lap. I had about 3-and-a-half hours to do 2 laps. I thought it was possible.
But at some point I realized that, although I felt that I had the strength and desire, I was slowing down and running out of time. I was doing the math in my head when I got to Everest 2.0. Several racers I know from the WTM community were trying to get Phoebe Brimer, an editor for Obstacle Racing Media, up the wall. I admitted to myself that I was slowing down. I accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to get 2 more laps and stopped to help with their efforts.
I relaxed, but didn’t take it completely easy. I completed all obstacles, other than Funky Monkey – The Revolution. (other than on lap three, I didn’t fail any obstacles except for this Funky Monkey – The revolution, which I failed a few times.)
I wanted to get to The Cliff before noon, when they were going to stop anyone but legitimate contenders from jumping. Everyone else would have to take a bypass. My goal was to reach The Cliff close to noon so I could decide for myself whether to hurry and jump or wait a few minutes and take the bypass (I really think I would have jumped). After I successfully completed Kong for the 9th time, I heard a rumor that The Cliff was closed down early. They were no longer allowing everyone to jump. There was no choice but to take the bypass.
I ran up to The Cliff to see if this was true and it was.
The bypass was through water. I took my time re-securing my shorty wetsuit and completed the bypass. By the time I climbed the cargo net out of the water, it was after 12. Once I completed the quarter mile to the finish line, my race would be over.
I thought about waiting for Matt so that we could finish together, but it had been hours since I had seen or heard anything about him. I didn’t even know if he was still on the course. I could imagine me sitting there waiting for him for an hour while he waited on the other side of the finish line.
I decided to go ahead and finish.
I made myself presentable — putting away my hat, fluffing my hair, and straightening out my bib — and finished the race strong, high-fiving spectators lining the finishing chute and playing to the “fans” in the bleachers. I smiled uncontrollably as I crossed the finish line, accepted my 24-hour headband and collected my 50-mile bib, telling the timer “NOW I have 50 miles”.
Finishing strong is important because that’s where all the cameras are.
I hung out at the finish line, still smiling like a demon and congratulating fellow finishers while looking around for Matt. After several minutes I went back to the pit area to find Joshua Justin Grant who was pit crewing for Matt. I asked him what was going on and he said Matt was still on the course and was going to get 50 miles. That was great news. I hurried back to the finish line.
Soon I saw Matt and his fabulous, short cropped, newly flaxen hair rounding the corner. I grabbed a headband away from an official finish line greeter and tried to get to the front of the crowd so I could meet Matt as he crossed the finish line and put the headband on his head. I was a moment too slow and someone else put the headband on his head before I could. No big deal. When Matt saw me, he grabbed me and… and… were those tears in his eyes? He threw his arms around me in a very emotional hug and I wished I had waited to finish together as we had planned.
PHOTO CREDITS: Andrew Katersky, Ryan Meade, Tough Mudder