Some of you may know that I recently participated in an extreme endurance race called Tough Mudder. In short, it is a 10-12mile run littered with 20+ military style obstacles designed to test both your physical and mental stamina. TM is the largest and most commercial name in the quickly expanding market of adventure racing (Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Savage Race etc) and is certainly a spectacle of athleticism, teamwork, and fun. Often referred to as “Ironman meets Burning Man,” the race definitely targets my demographic, but the participants weren’t all frat boys and gym rats. There were men and women of various athletic abilities, from former Olympic medalists to guys that seem to curl a lot more 500mL glasses than weights. And the attire ranged from normal running clothes, to full body costumes, to just Speedos and sombreros.
My race was the first Tough Mudder to occur here in the UK, and was located at the magnificent Boughton Estate in Northamptonshire. You can see the course and the “official” obstacles on the map above (click to expand), but the designers definitely used the terrain to their advantage putting us through several natural obstacles as well. Along the 12 mile route we jumped in and out of fresh water, crawled under barbed wire, climbed over walls of wood and hay, slid through drain pipes, battled electric shocks, and got really really muddy. I felt like a kid again, it was so much fun.
I’ll walk you through all of the obstacles and my experience after the jump, but in the meantime this video is worth a watch to get a first-hand account of my course. This is a nice 12 min summary of the course as seen from a head cam, these guys were a couple heats after me.
Follow the link below to find out much more detail of my race, from training to recovery (warning: long read).
I first came across Tough Mudder as an advertisement through the music streaming service Spotify, and I actually followed the ad by clicking on it to find out more. What awaited me was a website full of Xtreme hyperbole, but also a description of a race that looked challenging. The past few months had been very difficult and I thought that an event like this would be good for me to put on my calendar. It would give me something to train toward, and it would also likely give me a sense of accomplishment. As I bounced the idea off my friends I got some interest in joining me, but mostly I got encouragement.
It took me nearly three months to bite the bullet and sign up for it, and by this time all my friends with an initial interest in participating were either no longer interested or couldn’t participate due to things like injury and pregnancy. So that was it, I was going to do this on my own. Fitting, I suppose, because I would use this race and the training as an avenue for self discovery and transition to being on my own. My next step was to train.
During the previous few months I had managed to get myself back into fighting shape, and was the strongest I had been in years. With two months to go until race day, I decided that it might be better to switch from weight training to running and cardio work to better prepare myself for the near half marathon distance and physical challenges. Most of my time was spent pounding the pavement running around town and exploring little villages outside of town on my bike. March was an especially dry month, so I some nice long rides in, and managed to bump my running mileage up to 5-8 miles per run. I was feeling pretty good, and then something unfortunate happened: a knee injury.
Luckily for me it wasn’t a very serious injury but a common one often called “runner’s knee”. I was suffering from inflammation of my iliotibial band, a tendon that extends from my hip down past my knee to my tibia. The problem for me was that with every stride my IT band would rub along the side of my knee, causing inflammation and then eventually, crippling pain. It was like having a screwdriver driven into the side of my knee at each step, so I was not thrilled. The good news is that it is usually treatable with ice, rest, and the right stretches according to my friend who does sports medicine. So I took some time off running and bought a fancy foam roller to stretch that tendon.
In the meantime I didn’t really want to stop training, so I switched to a Tough Mudder suggested circuit training regimen. I had never done circuit training before, but I figure that I was in the best shape of my life, so there wasn’t much to worry about. That was a mistake. These circuits were 45 seconds of repeated vigorous exercise and 15 seconds of rest, followed by another 45/15 split for the next 20 exercises. It absolutely wiped me out every time.
After two weeks of rest from running and I thought that I would try running again. After all, Tough Mudder IS a run. About two miles in to my run, my IT band syndrome started creeping back and forced me to stop. At this point I was a little worried about my race. How was I going to be able to complete 12 miles if I can’t make it past two? This was now one month away and I decided to really rest this time. I took another three weeks off from running with plenty of stretching in between.
Fast forward to the week of my race. At this point I wasn’t going to improve my physical fitness to make a difference, so I didn’t plan any workouts and instead focused more on eating, drinking and sleeping well. I did squeeze a light run in to test my knee, but it wasn’t any better so I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be in pain during the race. After a nice meal and a relaxing evening thanks to my friends Josh and Jenna I was fueled up and confident that I would do well the next day. 12 hours to go.
The race was about 65 miles away from Oxford and I had rented a car to get there. My start time was at 10:40am, so even with plenty of cushion for transport, parking, registration etc., I didn’t have to leave my flat until around 7am. Anxiousness caused me to stir around 6am, but I felt pretty rested and took my time waking up. After a nice breakfast I packed both my cold and warm weather running gear, along with warm clothes to change in to after the race, and was on my way.
Not many cars on the road and pre-race excitement meant that I got to Kettering ahead of schedule – but better to be early than late. I parked the car and was walking toward registration when my nerves really kicked in. I don’t really know why, but looking around at all the other athletes and thinking about the difficulty of the race made me nervous and anxious. In my only other organized race, the Cayuga Lake Triathlon, my nerves got the best of me and the bushes got the best of my breakfast. I was determined not to let that happen this time as a 12 mile run would become much more difficult with no energy.
At registration I picked up my welcome packet and got my race number scribbled across my forehead in permanent marker. There were already plenty of people there and I wandered around for a while soaking up the morning sun and trying not to let my anxiety get too carried away. One of the early heats was about to depart so I made my way over to the holding pen where hundreds of people were standing.
This wall was used as a clever barrier to enter the official starting area. It worked well to get people fired up, but I also saw many people struggle to get over this – which would probably be a bad sign for them for the remainder of the obstacles. I stood along the sideline and listened to the event MC talk the heat through their pre-race routine. A little more hyperbole about the “toughest event on the planet”, and explanation of safety procedures (including the obligatory note to skip the electrified obstacles if you have a heart condition) and the runners were all asked to repeat the following rules:
- I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge
- I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time
- I do not whine – kids whine
- I help my fellow mudders complete the course
- I overcome all fears
These rules are central to the ethos of the event – have fun. There are no timing chips and it isn’t about who can finish first, but who can finish. On average, 22% of the participants will not complete the course. And I can now tell you from experience, that almost no one will complete the course alone.
I watched that heat depart but still had nearly 90 minutes to kill before my start time so I walked out to view some of the nearby obstacles and relax in the sun while another few heats went by. I even got to hang out with some of the locals.
After a nice nap in the sun and some more food my anxiety and nervousness had completely turned to excitement. Walking around the obstacles and seeing that they weren’t impossible really helped me to believe that I would conquer the course. I was almost ready, just needed to decide whether it would be long sleeve or short sleeve gear. At the time I was wearing my long sleeve gear underneath a sweat suit but wasn’t overheating at all. The high temperature for the day was predicted to be 55F (13C), and I chose to strip down to running shorts and a sleeveless shirt. My logic being that with the sunshine and running I would actually be plenty warm, and less would be better because then I wouldn’t have to drag around water-logged clothing. This was the right choice.
It was nearly 10:20. Go time. Time for my secret weapon.
I bought these hideous gardening gloves from the local hardware store in preparation for a rough day. The idea was to find some that would protect my hands but also not soak up water like a sponge. I got these because they made me think of HULK SMASH, and also because they were the only ones that fit. Did they help? Yeah I think so, at least for most of the obstacles.
I made my way to the beginning of the start site. The emcee again greeted us with a series of exaggerated statements (12 miles of pure hell!), the safety blurb, and the TM pledge. All that was left was mandatory playing Eye of the Tiger, some Oooh-Rahhhs, a countdown, and some smoke bombs. We were off.
It only took about 200m and we hit our first natural obstacle, in and out of fresh water. This should be an easy one right? Run down the hill, leap into the water, and climb out the other side. Well it went just like that, but I didn’t prepare for how cold the water would be and how much my body didn’t like the cold. After climbing up the other side and helping a few people up I started running again and my body was in shock. I have 11.8 more miles of this! WHAT DID I SIGN UP FOR? Thankfully the sun was shining and once I started moving again I found a good rhythm and was back on track. It is difficult to establish a decent running pace when you are trying to dry off and your nerves and muscles are recovering from an obstacle, especially the cold ones.
Hey, another natural obstacle. Just when we started to warm up again time for a plunge into much deeper water. If you look closely at the left bank you can see the one drawback of this event, queues. Some of the obstacles have a bottleneck and you have to wait in line to complete it.
Pro-tip: Try and get out early in your heat to avoid the backup of hundreds of people. I got this advice from a seasoned competitor and raced out ahead of most of the people in my heat. The running will separate you eventually, but in order to avoid the queues at the beginning it is worth a little extra push right away.
1. Kiss of mud
After climbing the bank of the second water obstacle we were immediately thrust into the first official obstacle the Kiss of Mud. This took me by surprise as I didn’t see it when I watched people jump in the water earlier in the morning. Anyway it isn’t nearly as rough as advertised. There is smooth wire between you and most of the barbed wire, so gouging yourself is much less of a possibility – although not impossible. Just hope that the dude above you in the Borat mankini doesn’t slip down backwards.
Pro-tip: Get down and dirty. You signed up for a Tough Mudder after all, so why not take the opportunity to get muddy. Digging elbows and knees into the mud makes the climb easier, and also helps to avoid snagging your Tigger costume on the barbed wire.
2. Arctic Enema
Ever put a hand or foot into an ice bath? How about your entire body? Although this obstacle was short in length, it wasn’t short on shock factor. It is essentially a large ice bath with a wall in the center forcing you to submerge your entire body in order to get to the other side. The water is not clean, and not even close to warm.
Here I am popping out of the water. Having grown up in Michigan, I have been in my share of cold bodies of water and even fallen through ice so I wasn’t as bothered as some others trying to get through this one, but it did take my breath away (literally).
Pro-tip: Keep moving. Your muscles will constrict to conserve heat and you will find it trouble to coordinate movement well. Just keep moving, it will be over soon and you will be off running again in no time (assuming you can feel your legs).
3. Berlin wall
This is just like the wall at the start of the race, but only a little bit taller and covered in mud and water which makes it slippery. Just like the one before, there is a step built in about two feet up and by standing on that I could reach the top so jumping up and over wasn’t too bad.
Pro-tip: If you struggle with this type of obstacle, ask for help. People will be very willing to act as a support base to hoist you up, and you might even get someone to extend an arm from the top to help pull you up. On your decent back down the other side, take it slow and lower yourself down instead of jumping. Don’t want any sprained ankles this early in the race.
4. Hay bale pyramid
I’m not sure if this is at every event, but it wasn’t too difficult either. There isn’t much strategy here, just up and over and try and enjoy the view from the top.
Pro-tip: Go slowly. The hay can be quite slippery if the bales are starting to fall apart, especially if they are covered in mud. I didn’t see anyone fall, but I felt like I could have very easily.
5. Hold your wood
This obstacle is designed to wear you out. We approached a giant pile of logs and were instructed to pick one up and carry it. Not all of the logs are 15ft long, I opted to carry one that was about 3 feet long instead. The course is about a 400m loop through the woods and mud back to the start in order to put your wood back on the pile for the next guy.
Pro-tip: Carry the log on your shoulder like these guys. If you try to use all arm strength your biceps will be gone within 100m. Also, don’t worry about running at this point, just keep pace walking it will be over quicker than you think. And please resist the urge to throw your log onto the pile, I saw some ricochet and blast incoming Mudders potentially causing injury.
Up one set of logs and under the other. You go under the one with the barbed wire, so it is just for display and to make sure you don’t cheat. It also forces people to really go under the logs which get lower and lower as the obstacle goes on, so you are basically crawling through mud. The logs weren’t anywhere near this clean when I got to them, which means they were very slippery. Climbing over things has always come easily to me, so this was no different.
Pro-tip: Use others for help on this one too. My gloves helped me a lot, and using other people as steps helped to avoid scraping your exposed body parts along the logs saving many little annoying cuts and bruises. I met a lot of random people on this one helping each other through.
7. Log Bog Jog
I’m not exactly sure what this obstacle is, but if my memory serves me right we did some running through the woods and deeper mud after the log jammin one. Here is one of the places that the natural terrain helped, weaving in and out of trees, over streams and then through the 6-12 inch deep mud. It sucked a lot of energy out of me, but it was possible to run through this one.
Pro-tip: Make sure your shoes are tied tight and high step this one. Raising your knees up with each stride helps to keep from getting stuck. It might make your look silly and will splash those around you, but nobody cares about that stuff right?
8. Devils Beard
Not really sure why this obstacle is named the way it is, maybe because the netting is red and stuff gets stuck in it? This is another chance to crawl through mud. The netting is heavy and pulled very tight forcing you to go through on your hands and knees. Not a lot of skill require for this one either, just be prepared to get dirty.
Pro-tip: Help your fellow Mudders out and hold up the net at the beginning and at the end like the guys in the picture above. Also don’t enter too closely to the person in front of you, chances are you will catch them and get kicked.
9. Killa Gorilla
This obstacle is probably a play on words, and should really be called Killa Guerilla. We essentially traversed woods, mud, hills, water on repeat about four times. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the girls are sort of stuck in mud. This isn’t your everyday water and sand mud – this stuff was thick and slippery. The kind of mud that sticks to your shoes makes them heavy. Try to run through at least a mile of that while also going up and down hills, around trees and through stinging nettle. Naturally, the pace here slowed as people were cautious in the slippery surface. If you have never tried to run in this kind of mud, it is really frustrating. One stride basically turns in to half a stride because you slip so much. My motor was still functioning on high so I ended up passing a lot of people here as I was confident in my stabilizer muscles. My knee was really starting to ache at this point, especially with the hills, but I was so focused on the ground and terrain in front of me that I didn’t really get the chance to think about how much my knee hurt and it wasn’t so bad.
Pro-tip: There is no shame in walking through parts of this one, most people did. It also helped me to take a break now and again to wipe the three inches of mud from the bottom of my shoes onto a nearby tree.
10. Spiders Web
The Spiders Web was one of the “mystery obstacles” not detailed on the original map of the course. In the black above is my friend Stuart, who competed the day after I did. When I approached this obstacle it was no where near this empty. This was another bottleneck with a 10-15 min queue. Some people really struggled with this one and you can only fit so many people on the net at one time. I flew over, but again, I like climbing.
Pro-tip: While you are waiting your turn, stand on the bottom of the net to give the guy above you an easier climb. There is a big difference climbing a net that is tied down compared to a net that is free flowing. Also, pay attention to the other climbers, my hands got stepped on and I nearly got my head taken off by a leg swinging over the top.
Pro-tip #2: Take water breaks and eat all the food they provide. There were a few stations that had bananas in addition to water, and I would recommend taking a few minutes to slow down and eat something. The water is a little laughable because everyone is covered in mud, so the spigots and water were dirty, but it won’t matter at that point.
11. Mud Mile
This is Tough Mudder’s signature obstacle. Over 400m of energy-draining mud piled high and deep. We climbed hills of various height, and jumped into pools of various depths. This was also quite frustrating because it was so slippery and difficult to move. Everyone got really muddy on this one, and was exhausted afterwards.
Pro-tip: Go slowly on this one too, and have fun. Trying to run and jump will only increase your chance of injury. The pools are of different depths, and also have some hidden ledges or holes so that could be ankle twist city if you aren’t careful. The photographers are all over this so try and take a second to look for them and pose for a fun shot. As you can probably see from the guy above, it isn’t possible for them to identify you by your number bib, so take a second for a picture so you can pick yourself out later. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any such pictures of me, I think I was in too much of a hurry, something I regret.
I’m not sure which obstacle was actually the Quagmire. My best guess is that it is more mud, because I don’t remember climbing over anything between the Mud Mile and the Boa Constrictor and do remember running through lots of mud. It is also possible that my I don’t remember because my brain was a little disconnected from my body. My body was beaten and I was on autopilot for a little while. I ran by many people through the fields and mud and although I remember doing it, much of what I remember is hazy.
13. Boa Constrictor
This obstacle is exactly what it looks like, crawling through giant drainpipes. At my event there were two pipes, one at a slightly downhill angle, and then then a transition (above) and a second that goes uphill. I didn’t find the claustrophobia too bad, but I’m also small enough to fit easily in these pipes.
Pro-tip: Try to avoid sliding as quickly as you can going down, I cut my legs up pretty good on that one. And on the way up keep moving both elbows and knees. The guy in front of me sort of freaked out and stopped moving so I had to push him forward.
Another obstacle that isn’t nearly as dangerous at the pictures on their website show. This one is just a muddy path that is lined by smoldering hay bales. It does get a little warm but mostly it was just smokey.
Pro-tip: hold your breath, and run through it quickly.
15. Tired Yet?
16. Bale Bonds
I couldn’t find a picture of this one, probably because it was super lame. Just about four big bales of hay across the running route that we had to go over. Only by the time I got there half of them had been decimated to little piles. I still picked the biggest ones to do somersaults over, making it more fun.
17. Electric Eel
Hands down the worst obstacle for me, this one was brutal. On my approach this didn’t look so bad. It is a large square area of plastic sheeting covered in mud and water. There is a guy on the far end casually spraying people with water and as you can see above, a series of little wires dangling down. I waited for the person in front of me to go ahead of me by a person length, and then I slid right in. Crawl one, two, three BANG! 10,000 volts of electricity hit me for a millisecond and send shockwaves through my body. Now I see why everything is wet, to make the entire thing conductive. So I try and crawl faster, BANG! It makes all of my muscles tense up at once and sends pain throughout my entire body. I can’t help but scream in pain, it was like a reflex to the electrical pulse. BANG! Another, I’m sick of it at this point and really try to scramble to exit, but the girl in front of me is in pieces. She is in tears and refuses to move. BANG! I’m hit again and decide that I’ll give her a friendly push forward. Her arm reaches the other side and someone pulls her right out and I follow suit quickly. I reach behind me to pull the next guy out, and just as we connect arms, BANG another shock. I’ve had enough at this point and stumble forward on the course.
Pro-tip: Wait for the person in front of you to clear at least half of the obstacle, this way you don’t get stuck behind them for some unnecessary shocks.
18. Berlin Walls II
Exactly the same concept as the first series of walls, but these are taller (15ft), covered in more mud, and I was much more tired. This was one that I absolutely needed the aid of others and returned the favor. I straddled the wall for a while pulling people up, it was rewarding to help strangers.
Pro-tip: Again as before, take turns helping each other, and lower yourself down the other side. The fall is much worse on this one.
It appears as though this obstacle takes many forms depending on the course. For my race it was a single cable about three feet above the water, stretching from one side to the other. I watched a few people try and walk/swim across while holding on and facing forward, and then I watched a team of RAF boys take this in reverse like the guy above, only they let their legs fall. I used their strategy and flew across. My gloves definitely helped on this one.
Pro-tip: If you only have one cable like I did, lead with your hands and dangle your legs in the water behind you and just pull yourself across hand over hand. It wasn’t too bad.
20. Greased Lightning
Ok, this was the easiest one. Essentially a giant slip and slide. Many people treated it as such and ran and dove to slide down head first. I took a more conservative approach and slid down feet first. The water at the bottom was waist height which slowed people down, but it was also soapy so many people took the chance to clean up a little bit.
21. Twinkle Toes
A 30 foot long balance beam across water. This one is tricky because the beam gets really shaky in the middle, and seems to wobble about four inches left and right. Also, we were 11.5 miles in to the race and my stabilizer muscles were shot because of the mud, and my shoes were still plastered with mud despite all my attempts to wipe them clean. This was the worst bottleneck of the day, because people take their time trying to walk across and putting more than two on each beam really makes it wobble and ruins it for everyone. The upside is that I could catch my breath, but the downside is that we stood there for at least 15 min and my body started to cool off and tighten up. I got on the beam and slowly made my way across. The person in front of me lost their balance and dropped in to the drink, but I was seriously focused. I slowly and evenly continue walking, one step after another until I reached the other side. Victory!
Pro-tip: Go across at as slow but constant pace. I saw many people try and run across quickly, or do a super balancing act with each step, both are a waste of energy. Also, for the benefit of others, try and wait until the person ahead of you has finished. After I completed it I turned around to watch the guy behind me and he did the classic Hollywood fall, lean one way, then the other, then fall directly on his man parts. Ouch.
Just like when you were a kid right? I actually practiced for this obstacle on some playground monkey bars around Oxford, but this wasn’t anything like those. Not only do these bars ascend up then down, but half of the rungs are loosened and spin around, and a handful have been greased. One funky monkey indeed.
Here I am on the way up. I’m clearly exhausted by this point, but I know deep down that my upper body is strong enough to complete this obstacle. I really focused on each rung, one by one in order to not make any mistakes. Just after this I switched strategy to flexed arms, and that actually made it a little easier.
Pro-tip: Don’t wear gloves. Even though my gloves were tough rubber, they were wet and still a bit muddy and didn’t do me any favors on this one. Also be sure to take this one rung at a time. Literally, right onto the rung, left onto the same rung, right onto the second, left onto the second, and you get the point. I watched many people, and the highest success rate was the slow plodding moves like I did.
23.Walk the Plank
Although I managed to avoid the water in the previous two obstacles, there was no chance for this one. It was as easy as it looks, climb up to the top of the platform, jump down in to the water, and swim over to the shore. I was surprised how many people hesitated on this one, it must be the height (~15ft). I guess I just love jumping off high places.
Pro-tip: Try and spot the photographers and do something fun. There will be many people taking pictures of this one, so jump off in a team, or do a flip or make a funny face or something.
A halfpipe covered in rubber. And covered in mud. So much failure on this one, but so cool to complete it successfully. The idea is pretty simple, take a running start, hope to grab the arm of someone on the top, and pull yourself up and over. As with many of the obstacles, I am probably the perfect build for this one as well. Lightweight and strong enough to pull myself up. I got a good headstart up the wall, locked arms with one guy, and then pulled myself up and over with the help of two guys on the top. I didn’t get to help pull anyone else up, I have a feeling that some of the really strong armed guys enjoyed this one so I figured I’d save my shoulders from dislocation and let them have fun.
Pro-tip: Try and make eye contact with someone at the top, otherwise your run up might be in vain, and at this point energy is at a premium.
25. Electroshock Therapy
Very much the other signature obstacle of Tough Mudder. Another 10,000 volts of electricity is all that separates the Mudders from the finish line and their well-earned free beer. I figured that this wouldn’t be nearly as bad as the electric eel because it isn’t under water and I’ll only get a shock if one particular wire happens to be live.
I was mostly right in my prediction. I probably got shocked two or three times on this one, but I think I felt better as I wasn’t trapped behind someone awaiting the next jolt. This picture might have even captured the very last shock, which almost took me down. My calf muscles cramped up so badly that I could barely make it the additional 50m to the finish.
And there we have it – I am all that is man. I got around the course in about two and a half hours, and I probably finished in the top 10% of my heat. Although the whole thing is more about teamwork than individual times, it did feel nice to catch people in front of me. You can see the smile on my face for my sense of accomplishment at earning my orange headband and free pint of beer. I am now officially part of Mudder nation.
Even writing this review has made me smile on reflection of what I put myself through. I was pleasantly surprised at my fitness level and how well I was able to scale all of their obstacles. Somewhere on the course I also learned something about myself too. There was about a two mile stretch of straight running toward the end that really hurt. My knee was on fire and radiating pain to my entire leg, my upper legs were numb, I was exhausted and my body wanted to quit. All sorts of things were flying through my mind, including my favorite quote from Lance Armstrong:
“Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.”
I also thought of an interview I heard not too long ago with a professional athlete who said that a lot of his teammates would channel both physical and emotional pain in their lives and use it to propel them to perform. So as I was running I thought of my stupid leg injury, and I thought of everything I have been through in the past year. And you know what? I finally understood what that interview meant. I got angry and energized at the same time and really kicked myself into another gear that I didn’t know I had. And it felt great.
In summary, it really couldn’t have been any better. The weather was perfect, and the course very challenging. I had such a fun time and would recommend it to anyone thinking about signing up for a Tough Mudder or any other events of the same ilk. If I’m near enough to you, let me know and I’ll do it with you. My only regret from this entire process is that I didn’t have a team to go along with me, but then again, it was probably the best thing for me.
And I think about you, now and then, every time I try and every time I win.
Thanks for reading.