Tough Mudder Challenge: Everything you need to Know
It was a long wait, but the day finally came…
Tough Mudder Toronto 2012.
“Probably the toughest event on the planet.”
That was the claim anyways. That’s what we’ve been hearing for months before the start date.
There’s been a lot of hype around this challenge and it was finally time to step out onto the field and see what we were made of.
There was lots of good, some bad, and a little bit of ugly. But we all made it through alive and past the finish line.
Here’s a summary of what happened on this awesome day and what you can learn from our experience.
We got up early on Saturday.
Like super early. Our start time was 9am and we had to be there two hours before the event started. That meant a 5 o’clock rising time for us. Most of us thought it was the dumbest idea ever to register for such an early start (but it turned out being a good call by the South African teammate).
We piled into the car, zipped up north towards the mountains and realized we were there when we hit a gridlock of cars all waiting to park in a random, abandoned field-turned-into-parking lot.
As we waited, we blasted Eminem songs and sipped on gatorades in hopes of psyching ourselves up for what was to come. I think it worked.
We parked, met up with the rest of our team, and jumped into a school bus that was instructed to take us to the starting line. We spent the time talking strategy, psyching ourselves up, getting ready for what was to come. But we all knew that this was going to be way too much for most of us – both physically and mentally.
One of our teammates brought a roll of KT tape – the bright coloured tape that many athletes wore during the London games – so I thought I’d give some a try. My left quad had been giving me trouble the previous week after an intense sprint session so I needed all the help I could get to get rid of the pain. I think it worked. For a bit anyway (it fell off as soon as it got wet). If anything, it was a massive placebo effect because my quad felt good throughout the race. I’ll have to test it again when I get the chance.
We were running late, but it was all good. They’re not really strict about that kind of stuff (they barely even checked our IDs).
We arrived to the starting line, got our bibs, had a team huddle, and jumped in with the 9:45am group. We were off!
What is the Tough Mudder
Before I go any further, let me just explain what exactly this is all about.
The Tough Mudder is dubbed as one of the toughest events on the planet. It’s a hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie [ref].
In short, it’s one bad ass challenge!
Tough Mudder events are held all over the world, from Canada to Australia to Germany to various states in the US. Each event is different. Different course. Different obstacles. Different overall feel.
But here’s what makes Tough Mudder different.
It’s not classified as a race. It’s a personal challenge.
Nobody is timed or compared to others. The goal of the challenge is to simply complete the course to the best of your ability. To push yourself to your max. To see what you’re made of.
I liked this philosophy, but it also quarreled with my inner competitive nature. I was curious to see if I would be able to resist it.
The Toronto event was unlike anything I could’ve imagined. It was very different from what any youtube video from previous events had shown.
The course was held at a ski resort (Mount St. Louis). It was a 16km run lined with hill climbs up black diamonds and random obstacles dispersed at random locations.
We were in for quite a challenge.
I made a team with a bunch of my co-workers and we were fortunate enough to be sponsored by our company (thanks Sobotec!).
Our team was a collection of varying fitness levels. All of us were young, but few of us were truly prepared for this challenge. Few of us were willing to acknowledge the fact that this wasn’t going to be a cake walk. That it would require some training. Some prep work to actually prepare your body for this day.
Note: I had a cool idea within the middle of the run. If I was an owner of the company, I’d sponsor the team but I would tell them that they all needed to complete the course in a certain time, together. If they didn’t, they would have to repay the money (or perhaps if they did make that time, they would all get rewarded with a few days off work paid). This way, all team team members would have an incentive to train together ahead of time. To actually prepare for this and make that time. This would be a better way of building teamwork and improving the health and fitness (and thus productivity) of the employees. Just a thought.
The differences in fitness levels quickly became apparent within the first kilometer of the challenge (which of course had to be an uphill).
Four of us came to the top fresh. Four were already cramping and walking.
The four of us waited at the top so we could all move along together.
This happened for the first few obstacles, only the waits started to get longer and longer.
Eventually that inner competitive beast started growling and the four of us decided it only made sense to split up into two groups.
We took off.
The course was provided to us ahead of time. We knew what we were up against. We knew what obstacles we were going to have to overcome.
Yet all of us underestimated the biggest obstacle of all…the hills.
The hill climbs were absolutely brutal. Remember that this is a ski resort. These hills are steep for a reason and they’re usually steepest at the very top (end of the hill climb).
The first few hills were OK. Somewhat joggable. But the more they came and the steeper they got, the more the hamstrings had to work. The hip flexors were in 6th gear at all times and, at certain points, even walking up them became grueling.
There were six massive hill climbs, but a number of smaller – more mentally challenging – ones were dispersed strategically throughout. Some you needed to carry logs up. Others you had to zig zag. You could see people utilizing different techniques. Some were crawling. Some were walking backwards. Others were taking one step at a time.
It quickly became apparent that this entire challenge was all mental.
It was about fighting your inner demons. Fighting that urge – that little voice inside your head telling you to stop. It was a grueling mental battle with yourself.
And then came the set obstacles.
Some were hard. Some were easy. Some were about facing your fears. Some were about challenging you physically. Others were about challenging you mentally.
The first obstacle was a mud crawl underneath low-lying barbed wire with finely sharpened rocks scattered through the mud. There was no way you were getting out of this thing without cuts and bruises.
Then came the obstacle that everyone was not looking forward to – the Arctic Enema. In short, it’s a big dunk tank full of ice and water. It was nice to see that as soon as we got to that obstacle, they were pouring in a fresh batch of ice. Just for us. Beautiful.
Jumping into that tank was unusually refreshing, but the moment your body was submerged neck deep you were out of breath. Strategically placed plywood and barbed wire forced you to put your head under water, which brought this thing to a whole new level.
You got out of that tank a whole new person.
There weren’t many obstacles that required upper body strength (which I would have liked more of). There were some monkey bars and ring sets that required you to traverse a small distance over ice cold water. But they should’ve made these things longer. Imagine if you had to swing like 50 feet with rings or monkey bars. THAT would require upper body strength. THAT would be a challenging obstacle. Just an idea for you guys working at Tough Mudder out there.
One of the more frightening obstacles (for me) was the Trench Warfare.
Basically they just dug up a long trench, placed plywood and dirt over it and told you to crawl through from one end to the other.
As I’m slightly claustrophobic, this was a mental challenge more than anything. You climb into this little hole and you can feel the sides brushing against your shoulders. There’s not a lot of air down there either. And you don’t know what the meaning of pitch black is until you get in this thing. I crawled as fast as I could praying that I wouldn’t somehow get stuck in the middle. I can only imagine what truly claustrophobic people felt like doing this.
I thought my fear of heights would be tested at the platform dive – a 15+ foot dive into muddy, cold water. But it wasn’t. I felt surprisingly safe at the top of that platform. Maybe it’s because I was with my teammates. Who knows. Either way we killed it.
We moved quickly from event to event. We came upon the long slip-and-slide down a mountain. I got a few scrapes and lost my underwear and mooned the public. Chris – the South African – decided to slide on his ass which ended up being the worst possible decision. He said the feeling reminded him of a word that starts with r and rhymes with tape.
But we kept going. You always want to keep moving.
Near the end of the course, we found ourselves at the half pipe. The obstacle required you to run up this pipe and find your way to the top. Didn’t seem so difficult until a dude came out of nowhere with a hose that he stole from a fire station and started spraying people who were trying to get up. With the pipe slippery and your face getting hit with water, it took a few tries before we all made it up. That was probably one of the more challenging obstacles.
As we made our way to the finish line, there was one more obstacle that awaited us – the Electroshock Therapy. In short, you had to run through a field of hanging live wires – some carrying as much as 10,000 volts of electric shock. There was no way you’d make it through this thing without getting shocked. There was a lot of hype around this obstacle, mainly because it was right before the finish line. But I didn’t find it too difficult. I felt a few shocks which forced my muscles to contract – definitely an unusual feeling. The best thing to do is just run right through it and pray you don’t get hit with that one wire that’s carrying the 10,000 volts.
The three of us (we lost one somewhere at the 11km mark) crossed the finish line together, knowing we just accomplished something big. We fought our inner demons, conquered that little voice inside our heads and battled through physical challenges to get to this point.
16km and 2.5 hours later we were new men.
After the finish line, we got our traditional orange Tough Mudder headbands, tough mudder shirts, protein bars (I had like four of them) and a celebratory beer (which was surprisingly not as refreshing as I thought it would be).
As we waited for the rest of our team to cross the finish line, we stretched, finished our protein bars, and could do nothing but lay in the grass and relax.
Suggestions for future Tough Mudders
Here are some tips, insights, and strategies for those of you looking to take part in a future Tough Mudder event.
What to wear…
I did some research ahead of time to see what was the best choice of apparel for a Tough Mudder event was. Eventually, I didn’t end up following any of it. But it was a good decision on my part.
Shoes – I was this | | close to wearing my Vibrams to this event. They seemed like the perfect choice to conquer uneven terrain, climb up walls and nets, traverse through mud and water, and feel your way around varying obstacles. But I chose not to go with them for two reasons. First, I simply didn’t want to ruin them. Second, I’ve never run such a long distance in Vibrams before and I didn’t want to make the Tough Mudder my first attempt. So I decided to go with simple cross-trainers. The decision ended up being pretty good. The shoes became a little heavier after every mud or water encounter, but nothing that really held me back. And they actually didn’t up getting ruined in the event so they’ll be good after a wash or two.
I asked a number of people who I saw run the event with Vibrams what it was like. They all said it was fine, but they were all avid Vibram runners (which I was not). They did say they had issues on gravel parts where sharp rocks dug into the bottom of their feet. At the end of the day, it really depends on the terrain.
Gloves – don’t bother. You won’t really need them and they’ll just get heavy after they get soaked. One member on our team wore them and struggled with the monkey bars and rings. I didn’t wear them and there wasn’t a single moment during the race where I thought to myself “man I wish I had gloves right now“.
Clothing – I just wore simple shorts and a cotton, sleeveless shirt. I saw so many people with crazy expensive apparel. Completely unnecessary. Keep things simple. A few of the obstacles required you to get on your knees and elbows (I was already bleeding on both by the first obstacle). Perhaps a light, long-sleeve shirt might be helpful. All of this, of course, depends on where and when your event is taking place. If it’s cold and windy, dress accordingly.
Sunglasses – this really depends on the location of your event. Our day was really bright and sunny and there were times when I wish I had a pair of sunglasses. Just make sure they’re cheap because there’s a high likelihood that you’ll lose them at one of the obstacles.
Fuel – I saw a number of people with camel packs on their back. Although staying hydrated is important, these things will make getting through certain obstacles more difficult. Plus they become heavier once they get soaked. Hydration was never a problem for us during the run because there were so many water stations throughout the course. There’s also no need to carry around food (like granola bars) because they give you bananas (lots of natural sugars) throughout the race which were quite helpful.
Be careful at the obstacles…
When I think back to the course and the obstacles, there were very few safety nets throughout (maybe that’s why they make you sign such a long death waiver).
It’s important to be careful at the obstacles. I remember during one obstacle where we had to climb a military style net (that wasn’t fully supported) and I recall thinking at the top how there’s absolutely nothing to save you if you fall off this net. It would be a disastrous face plant to say the least.
A friend who ran the event with another team told me how an injury to one team member really knocked the wind out of the team.
Please make sure you’re careful at all times.
Know your course…
Had I known that there were going to be so many uphills in this course, I would’ve perhaps done some hill training to prepare my legs for what they were about to endure (regularly sprinting definitely helped).
Understand that the typical Tough Mudder event is probably 90% running. So you’ll need to prepare yourself for that. I saw a number of gym-junkies walking when they should be running or throwing up on the side midway up a hill. You can’t bench press your way through this thing.
Figure out what the event is made up of as early as you can and train specifically for it. If it’s flat grounds all the way through, train on flat grounds. If it’s a lot of hills, incorporate hill training into your routine.
Which brings me to my next point.
Prepare ahead of time…
I was honestly surprised to see how many people expected to get through this thing with NO training at all.
Don’t underestimate this challenge. It requires you to be prepared both physically and mentally. Train and prepare ahead of time. If anything, use this event to keep you accountable for staying/getting fit.
Know who you are running with…
Tough Mudder is all about teamwork and camaraderie. TM’s philosophy states that these things should be put before your course time (which isn’t even officially measured).
But there’s a natural flaw presented in this philosophy. It’s important to first recognize the type of people these events are attracting.
For the most part, we’re looking at adrenaline junkies. Extremists. People who enjoy being pushed to the limit.
The one thing these people have in common is that they all possess a natural, innate drive to be competitive – both with themselves and with others. There is a competitive beast inside each one of them that’s constantly roaring – pushing them to be and do their best, thus making it very difficult for them to slow down and wait for others.
So it’s important to understand this when you’re making your team. Make sure you’re teaming up with people of your same fitness level. Similar athletic ability.
Find people with an inner beast as wild as yours.
If you don’t, you’ll constantly be battling that beast as you’re forced to wait. You’ll lose your momentum. Your focus. And you’ll end up either splitting up or not enjoying the event as much.
Of course, if you’re just going to have fun, don’t worry so much about this. However, I strongly feel that you would enjoy the event a lot more if you were to do it with people who were at a similar fitness level as yourself.
Stretch when you finish…
As good as it feels to finish this race and lay down on the grass and not move for three hours, it’s important that you do a number of static stretches as soon as you’re done the race. It will improve your recovery time so you’re not in a coma for a week after the challenge.
Register for an early start…
Even though getting up at 5am seemed like the dumbest thing in the world on a day of a big event like this, starting early had its advantages.
First, the obstacles were fresh so you got to enjoy them more. Second, you avoided the blistering sun that would wear you down in the afternoon. Lastly, it feels good to finish as early as possible and watch others crossing the finish line.
Good call by the South African animal.
August 18th marked the day of the completion of our first Tough Mudder.
We’ve already made a verbal agreement that we would do it again next year, maybe in a different city if the circumstances allow it.
Overall, it was a grueling day full of both mental and physical challenges. But all of us were happy that we did it. We overcame a lot both personally and as a team and did something that most of us thought we wouldn’t be able to do months earlier.
We’re proudly wearing our Tough Mudder shirts and headbands at work to show those who didn’t partake that they missed out on something great.
If you’re thinking about doing one of these events, I highly recommend it. You will be a new person with a completely different understanding of the word challenge.
You’ll become tougher.
And, if you do it in Toronto, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for black diamonds.