World’s Toughest Mistakes By TMHQ?

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Over my seven previous World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM) races I’ve seen a lot of changes. Some of these changes are made during the race and others happen year after year. However, a number of these alterations could actually be considered poor decisions or ones made as a knee-jerk reaction to things happening as the race progresses.

The one thing that has remained pretty constant over the years is those people actually running the race for Tough Mudder headquarters (TMHQ) have had a good amount of experience with this event. The racers put a lot of trust in these individuals to make quality decisions that will keep the race both “enjoyable” as well as competitive. This year TMHQ has decided that WTM will no longer be a competitive event. This in and of itself is a pretty big change but, in addition, they have a new race director as well as a new medical team. This event is Different in what way?different than any other on the planet so it leads me to wonder how things are going to go. It’s one thing to watch from the outside as an observer or to read and watch videos about WTM, but the veteran racers who have been there and experienced this event as it transitioned from New Jersey to Las Vegas and then last year to Atlanta will tell you that to extremely”really understand WTM you need experience. How the 2019 WTM will go with the new “replacements” is a real question so I figured I’d put together a few nuggets for these young pups to chew on leading up to their first real go at this.

One of the great genius ideas that TMHQ has come up with over the years as we progressed through a race is that should the weather get extremely cold they will remove water submersion in an attempt to keep us warmer. Back in 2013, racers were told that as long as we didn’t fail obstacles then we would remain “relatively dry.” This of course was ridiculous for almost every racer except for some rookie from Canada named Ryan Atkins who came out of nowhere and destroyed the field.

In theory, keeping us dry would keep us warmer. However, once you’re a little wet the danger of hypothermia increases significantly, so even if we were only getting wet a couple times a lap the danger was there and very real. The difference with WTM versus nearly every other obstacle course race on the planet is that participants are prepared to run overnight in the cold by wearing wet suits. that are showing their ignorance. It should be assumed that WTMers have arrived at the race with the proper gear. A racer who as the proper equipment will be able the handle water no problem. By removing the water submersions TMHQ wasn’t allowing our neoprene gear to do its job.

The reality is that in order for our wet suits to be effective we need to be in the water regularly. The warmest time in the 2012 New Jersey event as well as in Atlanta last year was when we were in the water. When the air temperature is 30° and the water temperature is 50° one could make the argument it’s obvious where are the racers would be safer. I’m sure it was the medical staff that said “cold water is dangerous.” The difference is we were wearing wet suits so after approximately 20 seconds in the water the wet suit has done its job and the water inside the suit is much warmer than 50°. This would allow us to regain feeling in our hands and feet again. Once the swim was removed last year in Atlanta I always looked forward to the Cage Crawl but if I remember right that was eventually removed as well. This meant that we were left relatively wet running/walking around Wakanda in the dark with basically no way to warm up.

World's Toughest Mudder Atlanta

The secondary effect of the water submersion removal last year in Atlanta was that we were running dirty most of the race. Heck we didn’t even have a way to clean off before the pit which means we came into there filthy. Some of us even developed a post-race bacterial rash the was a bitch to eliminate. I contend that an obstacle that allowed us to rinse off you have helped immensely. I spoke to Eli Hutchinson at the brunch after the race last year mentioning that we needed a way to clean off before entering the pit so hopefully that will be addressed this year but who knows. The bottom line is if the water submersions are left in the race and the participants are wearing their wet suits it will not result in them “colder” on course.

Another point of contention I have always had with World’s Toughest Mudder is the use of the medical tent as a rewarming area. While I’m not going to get into a long explanation of how human thermoregulation works in this event for that you can check out the WTM Cliff Notes podcast where I discuss thermoregulation, gear and just about everything else you need to know; I do want to address the use of warming stations. The body has a natural defense to the cold. Most people when exposed to the elements have the immediate thought, “I need to get warm!”

When you know you’re going to be out in the cold for an extended period of time you need to get “comfortably cold” and stay that way. When your body rewarms it decreases this defense system against the cold. As you grow increasingly fatigued this defense system is compromised. By rewarming you essentially shut off the defense system. To quote Admiral Ackbar…

It’s at this time that you may experience “after drop” which is more dangerous and one of the reasons why when you enter the med tent they want to monitor you as you’re in there. If it is your intention to go back out and race again, you’re then asking a now compromised cold defense system to kick back fully.

In the past, Tough Mudder and their medical staff has forced you out of the warming tent after 30 minutes. The reality is if it takes you longer than 30 minutes to get warm you probably shouldn’t be racing anymore anyway. However, if you’re not going to head back out you’re going to face an uphill battle to stave off hypothermia.

When your body sees you as constantly attacked it holds up his defense. If you let your mind get the best of you and you head into the rewarming tent for longer than a cup of Joe then you are becoming our own worst enemy. You are now of weak mind and weak body trying to head back out into a hostile environment. The last thing I would want in a firefight is to go out there half-cocked. This year TMHQ and their Med staff has decided not to remove you from the medical tent and they’ve even doubled down by possibly putting a rewarming tent out with Coach Kyle on course?

It’s my guess this will be placed by The Stacks to get a crowd out there. I recommend that athletes stay out of this area other than to grab food because as stated above you are only going to compound your problems if we have cold temperatures like last year. I remember these on course warming stations back in New Jersey. Walking into one of those was like walking into a tent in Europe during World War I. The racers looked like zombies! I would drink my hot chicken broth, pour a couple cups on my shoes and in my gloves, grab a couple bags of Sharkies and get the hell out of there. You see, as you sit your body temperature drops and in a warmer environment as stated you’re cooling defense decreases resulting in a whole world of shit, but I digress.

World's Toughest Mudder Atlanta

The final area of concern that I’m going to discuss here is regarding reporting injuries to Medical. It has always been a concern of athletes at World’s Toughest Mudder to report injuries fearing getting a “Med Pull” (where the medical will no longer allow you to continue). In more recent years participants have been encouraged by Molly Kenneth to report injuries to Medical citing they will not pull you unless you are in danger. I know of one athlete who actually broke his/her foot during the race last year and didn’t realize the severity of the injury because the foot was numb from the cold. When the racer was done, he/she entered the Med tent to warm up and saw bruising on the foot and approached the Doctor who told the participant that he/she MUST go to the hospital to have it looked at. This racer was not allow to be driven to the hospital. He/she had to go by ambulance. Once at the hospital they confirmed a fractured metatarsal. The racer would have to have it treated when he/she got home. What followed was what I had always thought and feared would happen… An eight month fight with the hospital and the Tough Mudder’s insurance company to get the REQUIRED ambulance ride and hospital visit covered for an injury that wasn’t treated. The persistence of the athlete prevailed ultimately as everything eventually was taken care of, but only after this person just plain refused to pay for it. This athlete told me, “I will never go into the med tent again unless I require immediate medical assistance!”

I am writing this article out of concern about how our “weak in the knees” society may be invading our beloved WTM and changing it and not for the better. Hopefully my fears detailed above are all unwarranted and turn out to be non-issues. Matt B. Davis eloquently stated in a recent ORM podcast (I’m paraphrasing), “Races always say “The safety of the participants is our #1 concern” but we know this not to be true. It may rank highly on the list, but it’s not their #1 concern. They are there to make money and provide a great experience.

I would add they are also looking to cover their own asses. Some of these changes are there to keep the underwriters happy. All the above notwithstanding, Kyle McLaughlin and his staff at TMHQ gave Tough Mudder a fantastic rebirth in 2019 and I hope that continues into WTM but only time will tell. The event is nearly upon us and the racers will be ready.

I only pray Tough Mudder has something amazing and memorable for us! I want this event to be a new beginning for World’s Toughest Mudder. Not the race where we had the WTM funeral at the same place where Tony Stark had his. We shall see!

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Jason Rulo

Jason Rulo CSCS, CISSN, HFS, is the owner of Assault Fitness, Neptune Performance Products and Pinnacle Personal and Performance Training, in St. Louis, MO. He has been in the personal fitness and sports performance training field since 1999 and has worked with all levels from youth to professional athletes. He is also a founding member of Alpha Racing. Jason has been a competitive obstacle racer since 2010 and completed the World's Toughest Mudder from 2012-2018. He is also the inventor of the Neptune Thermoregulation System. Mr. Rulo can be reached at jasonrulo@neptuneperformance.com.
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