My World’s Toughest Mudder Experience
It’s been a week since I took on the challenge of World’s Toughest Mudder 2018, a 24 hour obstacle course race just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Now that I’ve slept and my emotions have calmed, I’ve had time to reflect on my experience, and determine how I feel about it…
A year ago I decided I would take on the Tough Mudder challenge the #questforthegrail to celebrate my 40th birthday this year. Tough Mudder first released this challenge a few years ago where you can complete a Tougher Mudder (competitive 10 mile course), a Toughest Mudder (a midnight-8:00am course), and the World’s Toughest Mudder (a 24 hour course) in a single season… if you can do this, you receive the “Holy Grail”. (yes, an actual chalice-fancy-cup-thingy from Tough Mudder) 😉 When TM first announced this
challenge a few years ago, I immediately knew that it would be a goal of mine someday… as I continuously add new goals/challenges to a list to accomplish each year. (Yes, I have an actual written list I check off. lol) The following year I got sick from chronic Epstein Barr and chronic Lyme. For a year or so I suffered chronic pain, extreme fatigue, brain fog, etc… so, I put the idea of a Grail attempt out of my mind, as my only goal during that time was to get better. At my sickest I decided that WHEN I was healthy again, I would never take my physical abilities for granted again.. So, when I recovered I felt like this milestone birthday was the perfect opportunity to check this goal off.
When I first decided to take on this challenge, I naively thought I would be able to find people to conquer each event with me… either convince friends to join me, or maybe I would meet a guy to date with the same adventurous spirit as me. (a nicer way of saying the same level of insanity) 😉 But, that was not the case.
I did convince my friend (and client) Lynn to do the Tougher Mudder with me… the competitive 10 mile course. We conquered that course – no problem.
Another friend (who shall remain nameless) agreed to do the 8 hour Toughest Mudder overnight course with me, but backed out before the event…. so, I was left to take on that challenge on my own. I was nervous, not because of the duration of the event, but because I was doing it solo… I had completed 4 Full Tough Mudders before this event, so I knew what to expect on course, but I had always done them with a team. Even though my teams are mostly comprised of first timers, it gives me comfort to know I have people with me. It was a 5 mile loop that you were to complete as many times as possible in the 8 hour time frame. During this event I sprained my ankle 5 minutes into the course (literally). It was dark, and I didn’t have my headlamp properly adjusted, so I didn’t see a hole in the ground… I stepped in it and my ankle popped, and I fell to the ground. I knew immediately that it was a pretty
bad sprain, as I felt it instantly swell. I got up with the help of the Mudders around me, and continued on my way. After the first 5 mile lap I stopped at the pit area and switched the ankle brace I had on my other ankle (my previous bad ankle) to my new injury. Then I went out for another lap. I had a goal of completing 20 miles (4 laps) during this 8 hour race, but by halfway through my second lap I knew I needed to stop. The course terrain was very difficult. It had rained all week, so it was so muddy and the ground was so uneven… I kept rolling my ankle just walking it. I began to cry. Partly out of pain, but mostly out of frustration. I knew I wouldn’t make my goal, and it was very difficult to do the obstacles or even walk for that matter. I got back to the pit area a little after 3am, and I changed out of my wet clothes and attempted to warm up… I had to stay there until 8am or I would be considered disqualified, and my quest for the grail would be over. So, I stayed there, had my pity party, then received my headband at 8am… feeling disappointed that I only completed 10 miles… the same distance as a regular Tough Mudder. Even though I didn’t hit my goal of 20 miles, I knew I was capable. I could’ve completed 15 in enough time, even on my bum ankle, so I know had I been fully functioning the 20 miles would’ve been no problem… as the only thing bothering me was my ankle. My body was fine. My energy was fine. So, I continued on in my quest for the grail…
After my ankle healed I began focusing on training for World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM). My training mainly consisted of running… something I hate to do. Initially when I signed up I figured my work schedule would slow down, as it usually does in the fall, and I would have more time to train for this event. But, to my surprise, my schedule did not slow down at all… in fact, I was as busy as ever. Which is fantastic! But, it also caused me a lot of anxiety because I couldn’t dedicate as much time to training as I would’ve liked. I wanted to focus on endurance running, while still lifting weights for strength, and adding yoga in the mix to keep me agile enough to do the obstacles, but with my schedule I was lucky to get the running in… To be honest I thought about quitting multiple times. I’m a (recovering) perfectionist that lived most of my life with an all or nothing attitude, so the fact that I couldn’t do “all” made me want to not do any of it. The thoughts of “What if I can’t do it?” or “What if I only hit an embarrassingly small number of miles? What will everyone think” etc. flooded my mind. But, I pushed those thoughts aside and decided to train as much as my schedule would allow, and focus on my weaknesses during that time to strengthen them. So, that’s what I did… I focused on running. I knew I was strong, and I tried to incorporate foam rolling and stretching into the mix as much as possible between clients to help keep my muscles loose. Instead of focusing on a distance that I needed to cover each time I ran, I would just run for as long as I had time in my schedule… if I had 30 minutes to run, I would. If I had an hour to run, I would. In the end I did set out one Saturday to run 15 miles, as I had the entire day free…. and I did! This was the first time in my life where I could go out and run 5 miles without feeling like I was dying… I remember the days (not very long ago) where I couldn’t run a quarter mile without feeling like I was dying… and I remember a time where I couldn’t run a quarter mile at all! Running has never been my strength, and I don’t enjoy it – it’s very tedious and boring to me… but, I knew I needed to do it for this event, and I did get to feel a sense of accomplishment just from seeing the improvement in my training. I wasn’t running at record speeds, or even remotely impressive speeds, BUT I was able to run farther and easier than I ever had before… so, I celebrated my mini-achievement. 🙂
Over the next few months of training I completely lost motivation. I didn’t want to train anymore. I didn’t even want to do WTM anymore to be honest. I don’t know how many times I thought to myself “I should just quit. This sucks. It’s hard. I don’t even care about this goal right now, so why am I spending my time doing things I hate? (like running) I could quit, and go back to things I enjoy instead.” But, despite these continuous thoughts,
I kept training. I found the discipline to keep working towards this goal… not because it was important to me now, but because at one time it was important to me, and I knew that if I quit due to lack of motivation I would regret it. I would always wonder “What if I would’ve continued? What if I would’ve tried it?” I knew that even though I was dreading the cold, I was dreading the running, I was dreading pushing myself to do something very, very difficult… I knew that I would be filled with regret for the rest of my life if I didn’t take the chance now. Even if I would’ve decided to go for this goal again at a later date, I would always remember quitting in this moment… and THAT is something I didn’t want to live with… so, I kept going.
The morning of WTM I was nervous. Really nervous… like feeling like I needed to vomit nervous, which honestly I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that way before in my life. The weather was supposed to reach record lows, so I was concerned about hypothermia…. I was doing the course without a team, so I was nervous about doing the course alone… I didn’t know how my body would stand up to these conditions. I am healthy today, but it wasn’t that long ago that I was so sick and weak that I could barely walk up one flight of stairs… let alone do any kind of activity for 24 hours. I was nervous I would push myself too hard, and cause my health problems to resurface… a fear I’ve learned to live with.
I was talking to Jason (my pit crew) that morning as I was eating breakfast, and I said “I don’t want to do this.”… because I didn’t. Every fiber in my being did NOT want to do it. I kept thinking of the cold, the fatigue, the difficulties…. Even the morning of, I didn’t have the motivation to do it. But, we headed to the venue anyway…
We set up our pit, and I started to prepare for the race.
Again, WTM was a 5 mile loop, with 26 obstacles, and 2 miles worth of penalty laps for certain obstacles that you failed. To qualify as a “Finisher” you had to complete a lap after 8am. So, my main goal was to “finish” even if it meant I needed to pit for a few hours overnight if I got too fatigued or too cold, and go back out on the course the following morning at 8am. Next, I decided I would aim for 25-50 miles… I know that is a huge range to aim for lol, but at this point the longest I had ever run in my life was 15 miles… so, I had no idea what I was truly capable of. Third, if everything was going well on course I was going to aim for completing the entire 24 hours without taking a break….
As we all lined up at the start, we heard the motivational speeches that Tough Mudder gives at the beginning of each event, they played the national anthem, and before we knew it… we were off. In that moment, the moment of action, all of my negative thoughts went away. Suddenly, WTM wasn’t something I was dreading… it was something I was doing. As I ran along the other 1200 participants that first lap all of the fears and negative thoughts I had over the past few months disappeared. Instead of freezing, like I was standing on the side lines before the race, I was actually too warm as I was running… to the point where I had to remove my thermal shirt and run in my sports bra instead. I realized that all of the things I built up as “terrible” or “too hard” in my mind before the event, weren’t nearly as bad as I thought they would be. I realized just how capable I really was in that moment… I was no longer scared. I was a World’s Toughest Mudder.
I got through the first lap in about an hour. That was the “sprint lap” without any obstacles. The course was very hilly, with some VERY steep hills up and down along the way that were impossible to actually run without falling… so, for those, I walked… as did everyone else. I got back to my pit area and dropped off my thermal shirt I had tied around my waist, and I headed back out to the course…
On the second lap is when the obstacles started to open up one by one… this lap went pretty well too. I got wet. I got muddy. I scaled walls. I ran. I was crushing it physically and mentally…. until I hit Cage Crawl. This obstacle consists of trenches filled with muddy water covered by a cage. You must float on your back in the water, and pull yourself along under the cage until you reach the other side. Well, this particular day they had filled the trenches too high with water… which only left a couple of inches for your face to stay above water as it was pressed up against the cage. They were
attempting to drain some water, but they hadn’t yet. That was a mind f*ck in itself, but to complicate my mental well-being about the obstacle I actually had a bad experience at this obstacle in my 8 hour race that I did by myself… during that event my headlamp got caught on the cage, which caused me to submerge under the water. I freaked out because I was trapped under the cage and couldn’t stand up to get air, so I panicked and held my breath trying to get through the obstacle as quickly as I could. I aspirated dirty water along the way, and finally came up coughing on the other side. This was my first time attempting this obstacle since that incident. Even though I didn’t have a head lamp on this time, the water level was giving me flashbacks to being submerged under the cage. I started to attempt the obstacle, but only made it a few feet before I freaked out. One of the workers lifted up the cage so I could stand and compose myself. I started to panic as other competitors were trying to push past me. I told the worker “I’m freaking out right now. I don’t know if I can do it” He looked at me and asked what my name was, I told him, and he said “Stacie, you can do this. Go slow. Keep calm. I’m going to talk you through it.” So, I did… I dunked my head back in the water, and began moving under the cage again. Though my ears were submerged in the water as my face was pressed up to the cage, I could hear his muffled instructions “Go slow. Keep calm. Stacie, you can do this.” over and over until I reached the end… as I ascended out from the muddy water, I turned to him and yelled “Thank you!” and I was on my way…
The rest of that lap went on without a hitch. When I got closer to the Start/Finish/Pit Area I finally saw Jason on the side lines. I gave him a big, wet, muddy smile and a wave and kept pushing on. I was feeling good. Good about my condition, good about the course conditions, good that I faced my fear of the Cage Crawl… I felt good. I made it back to the Pit Area and decided to change into my wet suit. I wasn’t cold at the moment because I was still running, but I had decided before the race that starting at lap 3 I would start walking to conserve energy so I could run some during the night hours to stay warm as needed. So, I put on my wet suit – an obstacle in itself. lol I grabbed a quick snack, a quick drink, and headed back out on course…
For this 3rd lap I not only put on my wet suit, but also a pair of neoprene gloves and a ski mask to stay warm. I climbed up the hill to the first obstacle – Twin Peaks. This was a new obstacle revealed at WTM. It consisted of 2 pyramids spaced about 5 feet apart with water underneath. The idea was to climb up one side of the first “peak” then lower yourself down with a rope on the other side, then while holding onto the rope step one foot across the 5 foot gap to the other “peak” then climb up a rope to the top and climb down the other side. So, I climbed up the first side, and grabbed the rope on the other side and started to lower myself down… my neoprene gloves had no “grip” on the wet, slippery rope, so I slid all the way from the top of the obstacle (about 10 feet) down into the pool of water below (about 5 feet deep). Since I fell at full speed I hit the bottom of the pool of water pretty hard. I felt my right knee “pop” and collapse inward. It felt as though it hyper-extended just slightly. I knew immediately that this was not good. So, I climbed out of the water and sat down on the ground. My knee ached, badly. After I sat there for a few minutes composing myself, I stood up to start my penalty loop for “failing” that obstacle. I could very slowly limp, without much pain, as long as I kept a bend in my knee. If I tried to straighten it, it would pop and collapse on me and I would fall down… so, I continued on… limping. I was hoping after a while of gently moving my knee it would improve, but it didn’t. I couldn’t run, and the obstacles were excruciating. Every climbing obstacle (which was most of them) I screamed out expletives, and I was sobbing in pain – to the point where other Mudders were concerned with my wellbeing. lol… During my 8 hour course, when I was crying it was mostly out of frustration, but this time… it was all due to pain. I have sprained my ankles 3 different times over the years, including falling 15 feet from a ladder one time, and none of those times compared to the pain I felt in my knee. (moral of the story… don’t hurt your knee) 😉 I knew I would need to stop after this lap, as the sun was starting to go down, and I wasn’t able to move quick enough to keep my body temperature up… plus, I could barely walk. All of the muscles in my leg were spasming, as they were trying to protect my knee. At one point I did start to get frustrated, as I was re-living what I went through in May, but then I stopped… I looked around me and I noticed just how beautiful the course was. I was limping along a tree covered path alone. There were still yellow leaves on them, and it was just peaceful. I started thinking about why I like to do Tough Mudders… Was it the obstacles? The mud? What was it that keeps me coming out and doing this crazy stuff? I realized – it’s the people. I realized my favorite part of the whole experience is getting a team together. I love challenging people to step outside of their comfort zone. I love helping them see that they are capable of so much more than they give themselves credit for. I love cheering them on, getting to know them on course, sharing stories, laughing, and creating memories together. THAT is my favorite part of Tough Mudder… but, this time, I didn’t have anyone to cheer on… I felt like a burden to the other competitors on the obstacles because I required so much assistance. Even though part of me wanted to try another lap before I pit for the night, I didn’t want to slow anyone else down, and I knew the smart thing was to stop before the sun went down and it got colder and visibility decreased….
After making it through the 5 mile loop and about and 3 penalty laps (another 1-1.5 miles) I saw Jason on the sidelines again. I hobbled back to the Pit Area, and told him I think I needed to pit for the night, but I would attempt a final lap after 8am… He looked at me hobbling along, and rolled his eyes lol, and said “Sure. OK. That’ll happen.” That made me even more determined to do a morning lap, as I hate being told that I can’t do something… so, I was determined to prove him wrong. #stubbornAF lol 😉 It wasn’t the way I pictured this race going, as I wouldn’t reach my 25+ mile goal or the 24 hour goal, but I would reach my main goal of “finishing” the race and earning my black head band and Holy Grail… so, that’s what I was going to do.
I changed out of my wet suit, and into dry clothes. I bundled up in a sleeping bag and space blankets, and waited out the night. I called my daughter and talked to her on the phone. She was crying and telling me how much she missed me. I didn’t tell her I got hurt, because I didn’t want her to worry, so I reassured her that I would be home later Monday night, and that I loved her and missed her. Hanging up the phone with her I was flooded with mom guilt. I felt selfish for pursing goals that don’t involve her, for traveling without her, for being away from her this weekend… I was mentally beating myself up that I was a terrible mom.
I couldn’t sleep that night as it was loud outside the tent, it was freezing cold, and I was laying on the hard ground. My knee was killing me, and I couldn’t find a comfortable position to lay in… I had texts and messages all night long from clients and friends encouraging me, telling me I was an inspiration, etc. But, let me tell you… in that moment I didn’t feel like it. I felt like I was letting everyone down by laying in that tent instead of out tackling the course. Now, I was a terrible, selfish mother, as well as a failure for not pushing through the pain… I finally fell asleep about 4am…. I woke up around 6am to find even more texts and messages of encouragement. Texts telling me to push through and accomplish the goal I set, otherwise I would regret it. Messages telling me how inspirational I am, etc. I started to cry. My knee was killing me, but I decided I was going to push through, because I didn’t want to let everyone down… I didn’t want to let myself
down. So, I stood up… and my knee completely collapsed from underneath me, I started sobbing in pain, and in that moment I knew it was over… but, I still didn’t give up all hope. I decided to go to the medical tent to see if they could help in any way. There was a chiropractor on scene. He evaluated me, and determined that it was a sprain based on orthopedic testing. He KT taped it, and told me to ice it… so, I did. Even after that I thought maybe if I iced it for a few minutes it would give me enough relief to go limp through another lap, and maybe they would just let me bypass the obstacles and let me take the penalty laps instead, and I would earn my headband and Holy Grail. But, as I exited the medical tent I felt God tell me to stop… to not injure myself further… I faced reality. I knew it was over. I limped over to the awards booth and received my orange participant headband instead of the coveted black Finisher headband. Then I made a quick video to post on Facebook, so everyone would quit texting me and telling me what an inspiration I am etc… and I went to pack up my stuff, defeated. I didn’t reach my Finisher goal, I only did 15 official miles (about 16.5 total miles), and I was packing up my stuff before the 24 hour mark even hit.
To my surprise the outpouring of support was overwhelming. I received so many messages, texts, private and public words of encouragement. I couldn’t believe it. Here I felt like I had let everybody down and failed, but the resounding message I heard was “You showed up. Because of that, you are an inspiration.” I was filled with so much emotion. I didn’t know how I felt to be honest… that’s why it’s taken me a week to write about it. So, here is my takeaway after getting caught up on sleep, and not being in pain anymore….
The goal of my #questforthegrail was a year in the making…. There were a million times I wanted to give up before the moment I actually quit. So many moments in my training that I wanted to quit – but I didn’t. So many moments where I was thinking about the race – but I didn’t. There were times I wanted to quit because I didn’t have a teammate and I was scared to do it alone – but I did it anyway. The moment in the Cage Crawl where my anxiety was suffocating me and I wanted to quit the obstacle – but I completed it. There were moments after I got hurt and I wasn’t performing in an “impressive” way – but I kept going… one foot in front of the other. Even though though it was taking me longer than I wanted, I didn’t stop. Not once. I kept pushing on. Even after I went to the Pit for the night, I mentally was still in the race… If I had stopped at any one of these points, for any of these reasons, I would’ve regretted it. But, I didn’t… so, I don’t. I don’t regret stopping when I did, because I know without a shadow of a doubt that I gave it all I had. I didn’t get my mileage, I didn’t make it 24 hours, I didn’t get my headband… But, I made it further than I ever have before. I made it 5 hours and 45 mins. I showed up. I earned my orange headband. Every person I told about this endeavor over the last year would respond with “You’re crazy” or “I could never do that”… now, I’m not going to argue the level of saneness required to do these events 😉 But, I don’t understand the mindset of “I could never do that”, because even though I had personally never run a 24 hour (or 8 hour) race, others have… so, if they can do it… so can I… right?! The fact that I believed in myself enough to show up and do the impossible is a win in itself. Even if I would’ve only completed one lap – I showed up. Even if I would’ve come in last place – I showed up. I conquered my fears. I didn’t give up on myself. I did what the rest of the world was telling me was impossible.
So, in conclusion, I am thankful for this experience. I learned a lot about myself from it… I learned that even though I can do Tough Mudders on my own, what brings me the most joy from them is lifting others up. I learned that the things I dread doing, but end of doing anyways are usually not as bad as I imagined them to be… and they are usually the things that I learn and grow from… not because of the actual “thing” but because I discover a new thing about myself and my abilities. I learned that I don’t have to have a stellar performance to inspire others, I just need to show up and do my best…. that’s it. I learned that I set impossible standards for myself, and that when I shoot for the moon… even when I miss… I land among the stars… not too bad. 😉
I have reminded myself over and over this week that I am not a terrible mother… I hope my daughter watches me work through failures and learns to pick herself back up when life knocks her down. I hope I inspire her to do the hard things, because living in a comfort zone isn’t really living. I hope she knows that sometimes it’s okay to go it alone, but no matter how strong you think you are, you sometimes need others to lift you up… whether it’s the worker at the Cage Crawl, or friends sending words of encouragement – even when we feel like we’re struggling alone, there is always someone there that is willing to lift us up. I hope I am modeling to her that any goal she sets for herself is possible – even when the rest of the world tells her it isn’t… as long as she does the work, it absolutely is possible. I hope that she sees that when she reaches that goal, even if it didn’t turn out the way she planned – it’s still a win. Because she showed up. She did it. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be a victory, it doesn’t have to be a super human amazing feat, and it doesn’t have to live up to impossibly high standards… as long as it’s HER best – it is a victory…. black headband or orange. 😉
And btw… I did find out that I did do enough mileage to receive my Holy Grail. So, I guess I did accomplish my yearly goal after all, and I will receive the chalice-fancy-cup-thingy from Tough Mudder… just icing on this 40 year old’s figurative Tough Mudder Holy Grail cake. 😉