Shale Hill Polar Bear 8 Hour Challenge

OCR season is beginning all over the nation again, and although other races may have been run prior, the Northeast OCR season doesn’t truly begin to me until the 8 hour Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill. Shale Hill is consistently ranked as the best permanent obstacle facility in the United States, and it has attracted international OCR attention in years past and with sponsors. Title sponsor IceBug and new sponsor Bleggmitt helped to bring one of the most memorable events of the year back to the frigid town of Benson, Vermont.

On the nearly 6 hour drive to the rolling hills of Shale Hill Adventure, I had a lot of time to consider the rough time leading up to this week. Besides the hours of driving, a 70 hour work week and stress about several personal issues certainly aren’t a perfect lead-up to any event, but I felt confident regardless. I was determined to improve upon my 6th place performance from the year before.IMG_3200

Arriving the night before and grabbing my packet, I was happy to see that Jill and Rob Butler were still just as efficient as ever with their operations. The staff was kind enough to let me grab bib #19 (my number from The Selection) when I saw that the next bib on top was 14, and that made my weekend right there. The bibs were a new type and material, almost plastic with the back made of a tape like adhesive. Also new this year was a system of identifying what type of racer everyone ones by red, blue, and green fabric bands tied around onto the person. Red were for elite, and I am uncertain the rest of the colors. With good vibes and spirits, I drove over an hour back to where I was crashing for the night and headed right to bed.

4:30 a.m. came too soon, but the excitement made it easy to get up and hit the road at 5. Conditions: about 0 degrees Fahrenheit upon departure, and I was wearing flip flops. Delays on the road took away the time that I had planned to change into proper race and footwear before the racer’s meeting at 6:30 a.m., so I ran the quarter mile from parking to the barn in flip flops and a light jacket, drawing a myriad of confused looks. Even more looks came on the way back, and I brought my race box to the designation space indoors and changed into my Newbsanity top, cold gear, and lined up at the start on the hill.

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For those who are unfamiliar with Shale Hill, it is a roughly 6.5 mile loop that packs a whopping 75+ obstacles per lap. The course record in the summertime for this course is still approaching 70 minutes, so for their endurance events like this, it is wise to plan carefully which penalties you can afford to take, and which obstacles you should make sure you complete. Some of the more unique and challenging obstacles on the course, just to give you an idea of what the level of difficulty here is, include rope traverse over a frozen lake, two sternum checkers, Larry Cooper’s full version “Destroyer”, and that’s all within a half mile of each other! Further on in the course is a five stage traverse wall, 45 degree uphill, spinning monkey bars, a rig, a weaver, a warped wall ninja style, and Tarzan ropes. New this year was a take on devil’s stairs/stairway to heaven, with the stairs much steeper and more narrow than I have been used to before (think skipping a stair between layers at the OCRWC), and a heavy carry that was a 45 pound plate and cement block attached to a homemade wheelbarrow like contraption with fat pole handles.

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The first lap started much fast than I remembered, although maybe it was subconscious to try to keep warm in the 8 degree morning. Everything was going to plan, except for breaking my vest and water bottles on the first sternum checker, leaving me a little cold, wet, and dehydrated. I felt confident and pretty good early, taking penalties only at the balance gauntlet (which I will every time), the last few walls of the traverse, the stairs, and the uphill monkey bars. I also failed the Tarzan ropes one too many times for me to feel that retrying was worth it. I could have completed the obstacle, but I didn’t want to waste any more time as I was cutting it awful close to my 1:50 minute goal per lap. I finished the lap in 5th place, with a steady pace and only minutes out of higher places. The second lap however, I finally felt the results of all of the adversity of the past few weeks.

The combination of excessive work hours, lack of sleep, and mental/emotional stress was first noticed on lap two when I got to the first wall obstacle, “pick your poison”. As I went to roll over the wall, I realized that unlike most races where my grip or legs would tire out first, my biceps and back were completely devoid of all strength. It was very abnormal, and as I wound through the woods I realized something else bizarre for myself; I was shivering. The second lap slowed significantly, and my penalties went up dramatically. The lap left me walking to the finish, well off of my goal pace, looking forward to my penalties to get warm again. I finished my penalties and the lap after over 2.5 hours, and in bad shape. I headed into the barn to try to save my day. IMG_2777

Shivering and exhausted, I knew calories and trapping some body heat was a must. I had the old windbreaker I used at WTM 2017, and after I threw it on, I switched my hat to a dry one, and force a blueberry bagel (my race favorite) into my system before packing some caffeinated Clif Bloks for the final lap. Time-wise, my last lap was slower than my second, but I actually took the same number of penalties, and felt much better. My heart rate and body temperature began to return to appropriate levels halfway into the lap, and my body felt nice from the calories of the bagel. At this point however, I had given up on catching anyone in front of me, and without knowing where the 6th place male was, my goal became to not get passed. I managed to do this successfully until the very end of the lap, where male winner Vincent Larochelle finished his fourth lap at essentially the same time I finished my third (and he was the only 4 lap finisher of the event for the second year in a row). 5th place overall for myself this year.

Rounding out the podium for the males were twins Travis and Jared Rawson, and for the females it was Marcia Coelho, followed by Danielle Ryzer and Kristen Mann. The race had some great competition, but one of the best things about this event is that it isn’t just about the race at the front, but the challenge all the way through. Shale Hill draws numerous individuals to all of their events, because the entire thing top to bottom is spectacular. From Rob and Jill, to the location, the obstacles, and the atmosphere, and especially that all day warm food buffet and that amazing local chocolate milk, the day is about as pleasant of an experience as you can have with hundreds of strangers in sub-freezing temperatures. With the conclusion of the 5th annual Polar bear, OCR has now arrived for 2017 in the Northeast, and if the events continue in this fashion it will be a great year! Next year I will give this event more focus, and better prep leading into it for sure. Third time’s the charm! 5/5

All photo credit belongs to VT Grit and Grace as found at https://vtgraceandgrit.smugmug.com/Shale-Hill-Adventure-Farm/PolarBear2017/

Abominable Snow Race 2017

Abominable Snow Race - And They're Off!So, you think you’re tough right? You can fly up a rope or smoke a 5k on the treadmill? Indoors, in your climate controlled gym, with your water bottle next to you, and your music pumping in your headphones? Well the winter OCR season is here and gaining popularity. You can crush a course when it’s 80 degrees but how about when the wind chill is barely in the teens? The Abominable Snow Race held at the Grand Geneva Ski Resort in Wisconsin on January 28th  offered just this challenge. Nearly 2,500 athletes ventured to the snow-covered resort to test themselves against the hills, well-placed obstacles, and the climate.

Abominable Snow Race - Traversing

With the temperature’s in the low 20’s and the wind chill around 12 degrees ASR started off their second annual race at 8 am with Coach Pain behind the microphone doing his best to keep a lively, but cold crowd pumped up. The lone elite wave was packed with athletes from all over wanting to test their mental and physical toughness!

Starting off with a snow packed run up and around one of the ski slopes, ASR led athletes through a series of low crawls and over-under-throughs to thin out racers before setting off along the 4.4 miles of wooded trails of the Grand Geneva Resort. The constant elevation change along the very technical trails certainly was a test of an athlete’s trail running ability. The first of ASR’s signature obstacles was up next: The Alaskan Oil Rigs.  This consists of a vertical climb up a man-made rig to a bell ring at the top, providing a unique climbing challenge. Back on the frozen trails racers came up to a tractor tire flip, 3 times down and back. This proved to be a slight bottleneck with racers waiting 3 deep for an opportunity to complete this challenge. An extra tire or two will easily solve this problem in the future, but it did provide racers with a small breather. Now back on the trail, we circled around back in the direction of the resort where the ASR version of the Bucket Brigade waited. ASR chose to use packed snow as the filler in their buckets. If you carried the bucket on your shoulder and spilled some you got a chilly wake up call.

Now back on the trail, we circled around back in the direction of the resort where the ASR version of the Bucket Brigade waited. ASR chose to use packed snow as the filler in their buckets. If you carried the bucket on your shoulder and spilled some you got a chilly wake-up call.  A series of climbing barricades was the next obstacle up for racers as ASR brought us up to another one of their signature obstacles; The Cliffhanger. The Cliffhanger is a traverse wall separated by a 12-foot suspended section of wood that an athlete had to cross to get to the rest of the traverse wall. It was a great way to change up the normal wall traverse!

Abominable Snow Race - Slant WallNow back to the ski slope, ASR challenged racers with a slippery log carry around the hill, and then it was on to a bit of fun. Racers had to grab an innertube and climb up to the top of the ski hill for a thrilling high-speed slide down. After dropping off our tubes we were back into the woods and trails which again led us away from the resort. Three sets of 5-foot-high hurdles were placed in our path leading up to a balance beam walk with log in hand. A 20-burpee penalty was in effect for any elite racer who failed any obstacle, and there were plenty of burpees being done here. A 9-foot inverted wall traverse tested your grip and climbing skills before heading for a run through the winding forest trails. Another one of ASR’s unique challenges now put before us was a sling shot type event. Targets were placed a short distance away and racers had to grab a sponge ball, load in into a large sling shot and fire away. It was a “luck” obstacle, almost like the Spartan spear throw.

Abominable Snow Race - Cargo Climb

Now curling back on our final trip back to the ski lodge, ASR placed the Rocky Sled Pull. Sleds needed to be loaded with sandbags and dragged along a course around the forest and back to the start where the next racer could use them. After another series of trails, we came back to the largest ski slope where ASR really tested racers. Enjoy a climb up snow-packed, steep hills? Great! Two sets of steep climbs, the second leading up to an additional A-frame cargo climb on top, exhausted your legs and back. Once complete, a racer had to navigate back down the steep slope and up to the final ASR obstacle. A slip wall was all that was left between a racer and the finish. But the steep incline of the wall, along with the constant blowing snow on the wall made this wall a brutal climb!Abominable Snow Race - Low in the snow

A location change to this year’s event to the Grand Geneva Resort was an awesome idea from race CEO Bill Wolfe. The elevation changes really made the event tougher and more exciting. Parking and pics were free at the event and their race swag was on point.  At the merchandise tent, ASR sold flex fit hats, custom ASR compression gear, and many more awesome items. The festival area was loaded with vendors and was packed with racers and their families. A kids Yeti course was offered and warm locker rooms provided. I found the ASR to be a must-do race in the Midwest. It is super challenging with some fun things thrown in. I would even recommend traveling in from far away for this OCR. For those who really want to test themselves in the winter elements, this is the one to do.

Photo Credit: Scott Brackemeyer

Spartan Race SoCal Super 2017 – New Venue, New Obstacles, New Medals!

The first Spartan Race of the year is in the book, in a “SUPER” big way.

The race was held at Lake Elsinore, about 20 miles north of last year’s venue in Temecula.  It rained extensively the week before and everything was green and fresh. The rain also made for some wet, muddy conditions, which is the way I like it, but the weather on race day was perfect, bringing sun and comfortable temperatures.

The festival area was electric. It was the first race of the year and you could feel the energy and excitement in the air. For many, it was the first race after the off season. It had been three months since my last race, and I know I had been waiting for this day like it was Christmas, and it was finally here!

I watched the Elites line up and take off. They are so fast and it just amazes me every time I see them.

Spartan Race - SoCal Women's Start

As 8:15 approached, I knew it was time to head to the starting corral. This was my first race running in the competitive heat. I was nervous, excited, and ready to take it on. Aroo, Aroo, Aroo…and we were off!

The course was flat and fast! We got the walls out of the way right off the start.

Spartan SoCal - Walls

We ran through the trails and dry shrubs. I did a terrific superman impression when my foot caught a root and propelled me into a flying crash. I’m sure there should have been points for style! All was good. I dusted myself off and rounded the corner and came to the first of many water crossings.

Spartan SoCal - Mud

The water was so cold! My feet would become numb during each crossing. There was usually a break between waterways with an obstacle or two. It was just long enough for my feet to thaw out and feel the dirt and rocks in my shoes. Then, back in the water and numb feet again.

Spartan SoCal - Water Crossing

We came up to the Z-Wall. One of my favorites. My buddy did great and I was able to get across too.

Spartan SoCal - Z Wall

Next, came one of the new obstacles. TWISTER!!! The bars have rungs that are offset. As you grab one, the entire bar twists, and so it goes, all the way to the end, until you hit the bell. I watched a couple of people to study their technique. Some went across sideways, but the ones who went hand over hand seemed to have the most success. I made it five or six rungs before falling. I can’t wait to try this again.

Spartan SoCal - NEW OBSTACLE - Twister

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one trying to get the hang of it. There were a lot of burpees going on! 30 burpees complete and I was off to the next obstacle. Oh yes….more water along the way.

Tyrolean Traverse is one of my other favorites. I’m glad they kept this one. I keep trying different ways of traversing but still find that the hand over hand and leg over leg works best for me.

Another new obstacle came along called Bender. It’s arched back, a little like an inverted wall, and the first bar is maybe 6 feet from the ground. This one looked so intimidating when I was standing under it, but once I got going it wasn’t bad at all. It was a little awkward on the transition at the top, but it was a fun new challenge and one I’m looking forward to again.

Spartan SoCal - NEW OBSTACLE - BenderThe gal on the right cruised right up and over. She rocked this obstacle!!

Spartan SoCal - Breezing over Bender

The standard Multi-Rig didn’t make an appearance, but this one did. Rings, rings, rings!! I really liked it. They are grippier than the standard metal rings. It definitely tested your grip strength, but I liked having a more secure hold while going across.

Spartan SoCal - Rig of Rings

The bucket brigade made a very flat loop, which is unusual for this obstacle. I made it around the loop without stopping and moved on to the monkey bars. Next was the spear throw. I’ve only made it one other time in a race. I threw it and was so happy that it stuck! No burpees! Then, came the rope climb. That’s usually one of my best obstacles, but the rope was very different. Instead of feeling fibrous, it was slick like blond hair and much thinner. I got half ways up and wasn’t confident about my grip. I didn’t want wounded palms, so I jumped down. Time for my second set of burpees.

One more semi-new obstacle was the tire flip. Spartan has had several races with tire flips, but these were special. The women’s tires weighed 200 lbs. and the men’s were 400 lbs. Much heavier and flat on the bottom so very hard to get a hold of. You flipped it one way and then back a second time.

Spartan SoCal - Tire Flip

We wound our way around the course and came to the Herc Hoist. I like this obstacle. The bags felt good and went up fairly easy. Next were the rolling mud hills and the dunk wall. I’m a cold wimp and must have had a certain look on my face. One fella came over and said he was going to go under with me at the same time. He counted to three and we submerged. The water wasn’t actually as cold as the earlier water crossings, which I was very grateful for.

Spartan SoCal - Dunkwall

The slip wall and fire jump were next! My buddy and I stopped and high-fived and then remembered we still needed to cross the finish line. We high tailed it the last few feet and completed our first race of the year, the SoCal Spartan Super!

I had to go to the chalk wall and scribble my name and that was it. First race of the year in the books!

I like the new shirts. The neck seemed a little tight last year but this one is comfortable and fits true to size. I thought I had it on backwards at first as the circle is in the back instead of the front. Once I saw others with it the same way I was reassured.

Spartan Race - 2017 Super Finisher T Front

Spartan Race - 2017 Super Finisher T Back
The medals are great. They remind me of an old Incan coin. They are heavy and rugged. Definitely a winner in my opinion.

Spartan Race - 2017 Super Medal FrontSpartan Race - 2017 Super Medal Back

Photo credit: Kim Collings

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OCR Transformations- Azhar Razak

ORM presents the series of stories on OCR Transformations. Runners and athletes whose mind body, and spirit have been altered through obstacle racing.

Being overweight, suffering from asthma and then surgery on a herniated disk is a lot for your body to handle. But then being told you may have a problem walking and lose feeling in one of your legs, was the breaking point to make Azhar Razak finally take serious action about his health and fitness and lose 57kg.

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Seeing the first ever Singapore Spartan Race advertised (Sprint distance) Azhar decided maybe this would be the thing to get him moving.  He started training by simply running, but due to his weight, he could only run 400m around a track in his first session.  Not one to give up, he perserved and managed to finish the course, and his first race, in 1hour 15mins, making the fire jump one of many to come.

Finding like-minded people was key to helping him achieve his goals, which wasn’t easy given the infancy of OCR in Asia.  Luckily for him, Azhar met the “Lion City Spartans” group founder, Shrek, and joined what is now Singapore’s, if not Asia’s largest OCR community group with over 1,900 members.  The group meets weekly for outdoor training sessions where people of all abilities are welcomed.

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Soon realising that he may have found his niche’ in life, Azhar pushed himself even further by registering for overseas races.  This dedication and passion got the attention of Spartan Race Asia organisers and Reebok, who decided his story was one that many people could relate to, and they decided to support him with his goals.  Having now raced across Asia, Australia, the Emirates and the USA, his most memorable event is the 2016 Spartan 12 hour Hurricaine Heat in Chicago, at the Richmond Hunt Club.  Interestingly it was one he didn’t finish but it has had the most impact from a mental point of view and has changed the way he perceives things in life, as well as people. It made him stronger and more motivated.

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Azhar’s current training schedule consists of:

  • A morning session which is a 5km run followed by some statics exercises – burpees/pushups/leg raises/squats/lunges or a 10km run every day
  • And then evening are dedicated to weight training 8pm

At 175cm dropping from 135kg to 78kg is not an easy task, and he still admits that he is constantly working on improving his nutrition.  With the aim of encouraging anyone on the couch to get moving and try obstacle racing, Azhar hopes to inspire people via his instagram account @ Azhar.snippets.

 

 

Punched in the Mouth – What Happened to my Plan at World’s Toughest Mudder 2016

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.

WTM 2016 - J.D. and Matt Pre race

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.  

WTM 2016 - J.D. at Lap 3

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.

WTM 2016 - J.D. Laps 5 and 6

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.

WTM 2016 - J.D. not sure how many laps

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.

It said 7.WTM 2016 - J.D. lap Printout

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”. 

I told the timer he was right. I later realized that when I asked what lap I was on, he was telling me that I would be starting lap 8. I thought he was telling me that I had completed lap 8.

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.

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PHOTO CREDITS: Andrew Katersky, Ryan Meade, Tough Mudder

WTM 2016: My Density Has Brought Me To You

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.

WTM 2016 - The Cliff Jump

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.

WTM 2016 - Start

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.

WTM 2016 - Giant Wedgie

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.

WTM 2016 - Abseil (Repelling)

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.

WTM 2016 - Clowns

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

WTM 2016 - Jon CopperThis 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.

WTM 2016 - Sunset

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.

WTM 2016 - Cliff Jump

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.

WTM 2016 - Back in Time

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.

WTM 2016 - Author