Rea Kolbl – My World’s Toughest Mudder 2017

WTM_Starting_chute_BradKerr

A word of warning – this race review is LONG! But so was the race and no matter how hard I’ve tried to cut things, everything seemed important. So I tried to divide it in sections, in case you want to read 400 words rather than 4500. And I added some pictures in case you don’t want to read at all. And that’s okay too, because I think I partially wrote this for myself too, to remember.

Getting Ready for Something I’ve Never Done Before

I signed up for the World’s Toughest Mudder just over a month before the race, which didn’t leave me with much time to plan, train, and acquire all the necessary gear. I quickly started asking everyone for guidance and advice. One of these people, Mike King, offered a great piece of advice – just buy anything you might possibly need, keep the tags on the equipment, and then return things you never touched. It ended up being the best I’m-in-a-rush strategy I could’ve learned. This came most handy with wetsuits. When I took my measurements it essentially came down to being S in hips, XS in waist, and M in chest… also add being short to the list and the result was I had no idea what size to order. Ok, so let’s order them all! This worked out great because my initial size inclination was totally wrong, and I would not have enough time to re-order a replacement. I did the same thing with shoes – in the past month, I think I ordered about 10 new pairs of trail shoes, which ended up being necessary to find the pair to run in for 24 hours. Now, of course it would’ve been smarter to start planning ahead of time, and have enough time to test the gear a bit more than a week before the race… but you got to work with what you’ve got, I suppose.

In terms of gear, I listened to the advice of many and out came a scramble of what many people suggested. I basically flew to Vegas with a suitcase full of neoprene gear, I think 10 pairs of shoes, all of the MudGear socks I owned, too many pairs of shorts, lots of lube and anti-chafing products and all of the energy gels I could find laying around the house. But more on that later.

When in Vegas

My excessive gear left no room for food, so the first thing we did after landing on Thursday in Vegas was to visit a supermarket. The last time I ran a race longer than 4 hours was in 2013, which at 8 hours was still runnable on energy gels and bananas. But for 24 hours I had no idea what to eat. My strategy was buying things I really crave in real life; maybe those would still be edible at 2 am after 16 hours of running. We left the store with enough food to feed an extended family for a birthday get together: a loaf of bread, PB&J, a bag of avocados, a bunch of bananas, two bags of oranges, beef jerky, noodle soup, nuts, chips, crackers, oatmeal, cereal, almond milk, rice, soy sauce, potatoes, yams, salt chews, and baby food. I figured I’d rather have too much than not enough.

Next day was the check in. Doing this for the first time, I had no idea exactly how early I should show up. I knew that the registration opened at 9am for contenders, and I also knew there would be hundreds of us trying to register at the same time. I asked around and got a good poll of opinions, then naturally picked the advice that told me to be there the latest. Sleep seemed more important than a few spots in line, especially since I can never rely on getting a good night of rest before a race. Oh boy was I wrong! After arriving to the Westin, my pit crew joined the line, and I went to check just how long it was to the check in. I turned a corner, and another corner, and another corner… it never stopped! Obviously, showing up at 8am was too late. Like, 2 hours too late. For anyone doing the race for the first time next year: be early. Ask around, and do exactly the opposite of what I did – be there at the earliest time suggested. We pretty much sprinted from the registration area to the car, from the car to the pit, and ended up with a not-so-bad-pit spot. Not that I really ended up spending much time there during the race, but I guess my crew was spared a long walk coming to meet me each lap in the quick pit area.

We spent the rest of the day preparing the food; baked yams and potatoes, cooked oatmeal and rice, boiled eggs, and got everything organized in ziplock bags. To make things easier for my crew, we labeled all of the ziplock bags with their contents, and tried to put things together that I would need in a particular lap. So the “Last lap before sunset” bag had my shorty wetsuit, strobe lights and headlamps, bandana, and gloves. That way we would avoid having to sprint back to our far away tent since forgetting things was less likely.

I spent the last night before the race sleeping in the closet. I have a very hard time falling asleep before a race, and all of the noises and lights bothered my already distracted mind. The giant walk-in closet in our AirBnb turned out to be a perfect isolation capsule for an acceptable night’s rest before the big day.

Race Day

Learning my lesson from Friday, we made sure to come to the venue early. This paid off – arriving at 9am, there was already a long line of cars waiting to park. Being a contender, I decided to enter the starting chute as soon as it opened to make sure I was as close to the start line as possible. I found a spot and sat down. It was 10:30 am. That hour and a half was probably the longest hour and a half in my life. Kind of like a microwave minute, where 60 seconds feels like an hour. It felt like a microwave too because it was getting hot! Thankfully other contenders around me provided some shade (yay for being small!), but the midday desert sun was strong. The heat wasn’t my only problem. Trying to stay hydrated, my bladder filled in no time; I had to go pee. Badly. I tried to stay as hydrated as possible before the race, which inevitably lead to a full bladder in less than an hour. I couldn’t really leave my spot, and the only solution was peeing my pants. This was before the race even started. Things were definitely going well.

Finally, at 11:30, stuff started happening. I have a thing for start line speeches, and one part in particular stood out that I will probably remember forever: “No one is better than your best. But your best can make others better.” Thank you, Sean Corvelle. The anthem was beautiful too – I’m not sure if there were issues with the recording or if they intentionally let the crowd sing, but the Star Spangled Banner started with a recording and was taken over by the everyone in the starting corral. It was so inspiring; the race hadn’t even begun yet, and I already felt a part of something bigger than myself.

Then, 11:59 arrived. The music picked up. The countdown began. And at noon, the crowd started moving. There was quite a bit of elbowing going on to make it through the narrow starting line, and everyone seemed to be quite in a hurry to start. I thought the race would begin slower, given we had 24 hours to run, but I guess everyone got restless waiting. It wasn’t until I saw the aerial footage that I really appreciated just how many people there were in the starting corral because sitting down, I could only see my immediate neighbors. It looked so magnificent from the air; and it also made me realize that planting my butt by the start line at 10:30am was a really good idea.

 

Daytime running

The longest I had run continuously in 2017 was 17 miles. I had no idea how far I could actually go. Combined with the fact that none of the obstacles were open before 1pm led to my decision to start fairly fast. I certainly wasn’t pushing the pace, but I also wasn’t trying to slow down on purpose. I figured I might as well get as many miles in as possible before I break, and before my laps get significantly longer due to penalties. With starting behind all of the elite contenders and national teams, and then losing some places in the elbow wrestle, I had no idea where I was in relation to everyone else. Still, I started to come across familiar faces fairly quickly, and it was so amazing to be able to chat with people on the first lap. At all of the other races I’ve done this year I could barely breathe coming out of the gate, so actually enjoying the first few miles was a refreshing change. I also had no idea I was the female leader because there were people in front of me for the whole duration of the first lap. It wasn’t until I got handed the green bib at the end of the first lap that I realized I won the sprint lap. I was excited, but also extremely worried; there must have been a reason why all of the experienced athletes were more than 5 minutes behind me. The green bib worried me throughout the entire race. Whenever people congratulated me on the sprint lap, I always responded with “we’ll see in 10 hours”.

I didn’t know that the obstacles were going to open in a staggered way; I was sure that come 1pm, everything would open. So I made it my goal on lap two to make it past rope-a-dope just before 2.5 miles – the one obstacle I failed during the Tougher Mudder two weeks prior at the same venue. It was 12:59 when I made it on top of the hill, with about 200 yards to the rope-a-dope. I sprinted so hard!!! I made it to the obstacle, volunteers looking at me funny, and as I passed the entrance I almost yelled in happiness: “I’m so happy I get to pass this for another lap!!” To which they responded, with straight faces, “Oh, but we don’t open until 4pm”. Oh. Okay. From that point forward, I made it a point to ask the volunteers at each and every obstacle when exactly they will open. It turned out only a few obstacles opened at 1pm, Kiss of Mud being one of them. Yep. Rolling on those sharp rocks in just enough water to fully soak you got mildly annoying pretty fast. Someone called this obstacle Kiss of Rocks, which I think was much more accurate. Luckily, once in the wetsuit, the whole experience became a lot more pleasant.

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A competitor at the Kiss of Mud, a.k.a. Kiss of Rocks obstacle

Tracking woes

While I won the sprint lap I somehow fell off the official leader board. I was lucky to have a friend watching the live stream at home. When she heard Matt B. Davis announcing that I fell out of the leader board altogether after winning the sprint lap, she checked the on-line leader board and found that my tracking data was missing and relayed this information to my husband. When he saw me at the mid-point he asked if I had my tracker – it was still there. At the next pit spot we quickly exchanged the broken tracker for a new one. This fixed the issue but the leader board took much more time to update and was not completely accurate until the evening.

Nutrition

For the first few laps I managed to run on granola bars, energy gels, and honey pouches. All that sweetness was quickly too much and I started craving salty things. As a response to this new craving my crew gave me some baby chicken noodle soup. Just no. I quickly learned to stick to the fruity flavors of baby food, and decided to switch to PB&J sandwiches (with added salt) instead of energy bars. For most of the race, eating was a conscious effort; I never really felt hungry, and for the most part I didn’t feel like eating. I was lucky that my crew knew better. Whenever I came to the pit stop they would ask me what I want, and I’d say “nothing, not really hungry and don’t feel like eating.” This response was not accepted because almost immediately I had spoonfuls of different foods come flying into my mouth. It didn’t take long to realize that the food actually did feel good, and for each pit stop I was quickly able to figure out which of the food options felt right. For the most part, I stuck to rice with soy sauce, oatmeal with honey and almond milk (and salt), and PB&J sandwiches (with salt). I tried beef jerky and that gave me a stomachache pretty quickly, and other salty options such as crackers and chips were too dry to swallow. I also made sure to eat during the lap; the water station at 2.5 miles was a good marker for that, and I’d usually have an energy gel around that point.

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Rice with soy sauce, fed by the spoon

Nighttime running: losing everything, sweating buckets, pooping my pants, and freezing my ass off

Nighttime running was easier than expected: mainly because I had so many issues I forgot I was doing the same lap, over and over again. My crew and I made a gear plan and a gear back-up plan before the race. This was helpful in the beginning but ultimately fell apart during the night. I listened to the advice of pretty much everyone and changed into my short wetsuit before starting the sunset lap. I was actually looking forward to putting on a wetsuit – already at 3pm, the air was getting chilly and constant in-and-out of the water was making me cold. So I ran into the sunset, in my shorty, ready to tackle the darkness fully equipped with two strobe lights and my brand new (and expensive) Diamond Storm headlamp. Unfortunately, I lost all of my lights before the sun even fully set. I attached my strobe lights to the back of the running belt, and I swear they were gone less than a minute later. Then my headlamp fell off at the Snot Rocket, the first water dunk obstacle. So for whoever is doing this for the first time next year – do not attach strobe lights to your running belt, and make sure to put the headlamp around your neck at every single water obstacle. I was lucky that my crew was resourceful, and they managed to borrow Ryan Woods’ spare strobe armband, which attached around my arm and stayed there securely for the rest of the race. I would highly recommend those over the clip-on lights, unless you’re really good at not losing stuff, which I am not. As for the headlamp, I was glad we brought spares; I lost another one later during the night at Devil’s Beard obstacle.

The plan was to run the rest of the night in my shorty, with a neoprene jacket and a windbreaker over that to keep warm. Then two laps into the night I found myself unable to warm up after the swims – especially after the Snot Rocket which, in my opinion, was Arctic Enema AND Snot Rocket combined. Shorty was great for running since I barely noticed wearing the neoprene, but the constant influx of water was too much for my body to warm up. It wasn’t so much that my limbs weren’t fully covered or the thickness of the neoprene; the issue was that every half a mile, more cold water entered the suit. I was dreading each and every water obstacle and realized that I wouldn’t make it through the night this way.

I realized I had to put on my back-up full-suit, which I brought just in case I got really hypothermic. Since my full suit was a hypothetical back up, I never tried wearing it beforehand. Or putting it on. With the help of my crew we managed to get the suit past the ankles in a respectably short amount of time. Just as I was ready to pull it up, I realized I never took the shorty off! Alright, take it all off and try again. On the second try, we made it all the way up and then equipped the neoprene hood, running belt, gaiters, windbreaker, and the bib. I was ready to roll. After taking a few steps; however, something seemed off. We somehow managed to put the wetsuit on BACKWARDS! I already spent so much time in the pit I was ready to just deal with it – at least now my back zip was front zip, which seemed like an upgrade anyway. But my crew was wiser and made me come back, take it all off, and do it again. We finally got it right and it took only three tries!

I think I spent about 30 minutes in the pit. When I asked for an update I was beyond surprised I still had the lead coming out of that mess. My guess is that it was the lap when everyone was putting on wetsuits, and although they probably did it just once, it still took longer than a regular refueling pit stop.

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One of my favorite nighttime sights: the people lights. Photo credit: OCRTube

There was one observation I quickly learned. My long suit was HOT! Not only was the neoprene thicker, it also had a fleece inner lining for insulation. So by mile 1, I was sweating buckets. Whereas I was dreading the Snot Rocket before, now I couldn’t wait to submerge myself fully in some freezing cold water. This excitement was short-lived because I found out my full-suit let absolutely no water inside. That was the first lap where I started to walk on the uphill – not because my legs couldn’t run, but because I was overheating so badly that I was worried I was going to get dehydrated and exhausted from all the lost fluids. This was also the lap when I started to fail obstacles; obstacles got progressively slipperier, my upper body was getting tired, and from about 6pm until the end of the race on Sunday I had to run the penalties on Funky Monkey, Kong Infinity, and Hanging Tough. Obstacle failures were almost opposite from what I expected – I was afraid of failing Rope-a-Dope, and that ended up being the one obstacle I was able to do for the entire 24 hours. Around the time I started taking penalties on pretty much everything, I also learned the lesson of accepting help. While there were some obstacles I needed help with from the get-go (thank you to the millions of hands on Everest!), there were others that I could manage on my own. People offered me help on every lap, but I always said I’m okay. This was until I found my upper body strength failing at an alarming pace, and the race was not even half done yet. So from then on, I accepted help – perhaps the biggest lesson I learned this year: it’s okay to not be able to do obstacles by yourself.

It was encouraging that even with all the penalties and walking, I was still maintaining the lead. And I felt good – nothing really hurt. By around mile 60 my feet started to ache, so I decided to switch shoes to one of those ultra cushioned Hoka pairs. That move did the trick – my knees and ankles felt fresh again. I expected to hurt, but it was actually surprisingly pleasant. The one persistent annoyance, though, was that I was still sweating like crazy and nighttime temperatures weren’t dropping. At the next pit stop we decided to cut my wetsuit at the calves, and I remember asking frantically around the pit if someone had a knife. Yancy Culp came to the rescue, and I think we’re both glad that his pocketknife cut wetsuit only and left my calves intact. This helped a little; at least now some of that Snot Rocket water made it to my skin.

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Maybe Team USA had the best strategy to avoid wetsuit problems: don’t wear a wetsuit at all. Photo credit: Brad Kerr

Eventually, midnight arrived – OH, THE CLIFF! Unlike for many others, that was the moment I had been looking forward to the most. When I got worried about the 24 hour aspect, I’d always tell myself that it’s just a very long hike to a cliff, and then I get to dive over and over again. Yes, it was amazing and it lived up to all expectations! Those few seconds of free falling alone were worth running for 24 hours. At midnight the course changed as well, and there were, I think, at least two added swims within the first mile. Almost at the same time the breeze picked up and temperatures dropped, and suddenly I went from comfortable to feeling really cold; and my cut-at-the-calves wetsuit got duct taped back together. In retrospect, I really wish I had a thinner full suit. Next year I’m bringing at least two of those; one really warm as a back-up, and a 3/2mm one for the running that will, nonetheless, keep the cold water out.

As the morning neared, my stomach got more and more upset with my eating habits. I’m normally very active on very little food, so a PB&J sandwich every 5 miles mixed with rice and oatmeal and then some energy gels in between became more than what I could handle. I was about half way through the loop when my stomach gave me about a 30 second warning that I needed to poop. I was wearing a full suit, running belt, windbreaker, and two bibs. The wetsuit was a back zip one – I couldn’t even find where my zipper string was located, let alone take all those layers off in time. With little I could do… it happened. I pooped my pants. I spent the rest of the lap trying to contain it in one place and figure out a way to tell my crew I’m full of shit. I was doing pretty well until I had to jump off that cliff… I will love my husband forever and always just for the fact that he helped me clean the mess, and his sisters to not judge me for it (at least vocally). I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to share this bit of information, but ultimately decided to tell the whole story, even the gross and embarrassing parts. I think it’s important to know that it’s okay to break, and then glue back together the pieces, and go back out there and keep on going. And it’s important to know that it’s never as pretty as seen from the outside. I was surprised that even after another 30 minutes lost in the pit, again, I still had a more than a lap lead.

My full suit was now cut, ducktaped back together, and covered in poop. I didn’t have much choice but to go back in the shorty. I figured it can’t be as bad since it was around 5 am at that point, and the sun was about to rise on the following loop. Up until that point I was walking the uphills, conserving my energy since I had enough lead that I knew if I just kept moving for the rest of the race, I could probably win it. But with the shorty, I got so cold again, and now running was the only way to stay warm, at least for part of the lap. I was concerned that I would run out of energy, but at the time it seemed that running again was the only way to make it through the next 6 hours.

The sunrise and the struggle hours

As the sun rose I realized it was not going to get much warmer; thick cloud cover was working against me and my shorty. My hands were completely destroyed from the water; wearing gloves to keep them warm also meant they had now been wet for close to 20 hours, and the skin turned into a mush – my BleggMitts now served as both hand warmers and cushioning on ropes and walls. I heard from people that nighttime running is the hardest. To me, it was the morning hours that were the struggle.

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The volunteers never stopped cheering for us, and it was their high fives in early morning that kept me going. Photo credit: Brad Kerr

This is how I remembered my morning race: jump off the cliff, eat something, shiver for a few miles, climb a rope, then run back to the cliff. Obstacles were pretty impossible and the name of the game was one foot in front of the other. I think the hardest lap was the second to last. I somehow managed to lose all of my energy gels on the course, and by the time I hobbled to the cliff I seriously doubted my ability to swim out after the jump. Even more troubling was being unsure if I could walk another half a mile of penalty. I was so hungry my stomach was growling! It’s crazy how hungry a person can get in just around 5 miles. I was so lucky that Eric Botsford aka E-Rock at the cliff with a spare blueberry energy gel. I really think that his highly processed blueberries saved my race there.

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The last dive

After reaching the pit, I ate EVERYTHING! I was so starving, and I didn’t care that I only had to go out for one more loop. Rice, oatmeal, energy bars, and PB&J sandwiches blended together surprisingly well. My last lap was more of a victory lap. I was pretty sure I had the win locked down so I took the time to appreciate each and every obstacle, knowing that I’m doing it for the last time. I made sure to walk with people and share as many chats and high fives as possible. When I returned to the Cliff to jump one last time I made sure to take it all in before my plunge. It wasn’t until I crawled out of the lake that it really hit me: I won! It was incredible and so beyond what I thought was capable from my body. I’m bad with hiding my emotions, and being exhausted I just let them all out. I had known I would probably win for a few hours by then, but that was the first time I also felt it. It felt incredible.

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Crossing the finish line for the last time after 23 hours, 47 minutes, 90 official and 101.5 unofficial miles.

Beautiful Moments

There was pain and struggle during the 24 hours on the course; but honestly, the beautiful moments outnumbered the struggles by millions. There was the sunset, when the colors over the hills turned purple red, and the sky was on fire. There was the moonrise when the crescent was so large and beautifully golden. I’ve seen all of that before, but somehow it was more beautiful that night; I think it was sharing those moments with everyone else on the course. Then there were things I’ve never experienced before; the bag pipes, people with their strobe lights hiking up the hills, people with missing limbs braving the course, wheelchair teams getting down a cliff or over a wall. For those 24 hours, it was all about helping each other succeed. And being a part of that, I don’t think that can be described in words. I cried a lot during the race, not from pain but from happiness. Someone told me that WTM will change me, and I thought they were talking about pushing my own physical limits to new extents. But I think they were talking about everything else instead.

After the Race

Nothing has ever been as painful as the hours after the race. My crew walked ahead with all of our stuff to the car. I would slowly wobble and catch up. I was taking so long that I think my husband texted me twice, “where are you?” When we got back to our AirBnB I sat in the chair for about an hour, dead tired, and unable to make it to bed on the second floor. Eventually I decided to catch a piggyback ride from my husband. I wanted to skip the shower because that meant that I had to take my clothes off, which inevitable also meant I had to move my limbs around. Then everyone kindly reminded me I’m probably still covered in poop, winning that argument. Throughout the night I woke myself every time when I tried to move. Thankfully, the next day was better; I made it to the Champion’s brunch under my own steam, and as the event progressed, and the awards were handed out, and the stories were shared… I knew then and there that I would be going back, year after year, until my body says the ultimate no.

WTM_bibsMuch more than just a collection of bib numbers. 

 

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Comments

  1. Tex Ritter says:

    Congratulations Rea! Having chatted with you on and off the course I can say you are genuine, friendly, personable and most humble. You told an astonishing story. It was very captivating. Thanks for sharing. Dobre dan

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