Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tough Mudder Bear Creek, PA (Race Report)

After finishing a Rugged Maniac 5K race in Southwick, MA in the Fall of 2010 (which was neither Rugged nor Maniac-al according to my humble opinion) we started looking for a new challenge. Eventually, my attention was caught by an facebook ad for an event called "Tough Mudder". Dissatisfied with the Rugged Maniac and similar-length/difficulaty races such as the Warrior Dash and Spartan Race (partially, because they do offer 8+ mile and 48 hour races), the Tough Mudder looked like a formidable challenge. First, there was the distance of 11 miles, then the elevation changes since the race was held in a ski center with some snow still around, and finally the nature of obstacles. Before I describe my experiences from the race (I know, I know it is not a race, it is a challenge) I will share some of my observations and opinions.

Tough Mudder Pledge.

Although I have never participated in the Tough Guy challenge (after Tough Mudder though, I think I would like to), it appears to me, that the Tough Mudder is a near complete copy of the English, shall we say, original. Of course, I may be wrong. But when I watch this video I feel I am right to think just that. Of course, Tough Guy doesn't own the patent for all those obstacles but I still believe it would it be delusional to think that Tough Mudder is an original in any way shape or form, especially in light of Tough Guy's 20-year existence. The fad of these adventure/mud/obstacle races is sweeping America in a fashion similar to all those obnoxious TV shows with their ubiquitous British hosts. Just consider that both Tough Mudder and Spartan Race proudly state on their websites that their courses were designed with the help of British Special Forces or the Royal Marines, respectively. They all appear to be successful business models and I think it is important to see them as such, regardless of however differently they try to brand themselves. Tough Guy people, it is time to get over the fact that someone in the US created (or copied, whatever) a similar (or same, whatever) challenge. Turns out, it was a sizeable market in the US, which you were either unable, unwilling or uninterested to explore. That is fine of course, just don't be all surprised or offended. You are still the original and because of the whole January timing, probably tougher. And remember, imitation is the highest (or sincerest or greatest) form of flattery.

Anyway, here is the course outline from Bear Creek. The final course (order of obstacles) was almost completely different from this sketch but at least it shows the types of obstacles we had to overcome as well as illustrates the overall nature of the course - up and down, up and down, up and down the ski slopes.

It was precisely this constant up/down (ok, mostly up) that proved most draining for me, followed by frequent baths in cold water. That, and then the sheer distance of 11 miles (over 17 km) on either snowy, rocky, muddy, very muddy (or some combination of these) surfaces. Although I am a decent shape, it was obvious from the moment I saw the course, that I will not be running the entire distance. I was very excited about the obstacles, some of which were quite bad-ass. We (Millicent, Hyuck, Bill and I) were set to start in the 10:40Am wave. All in all, 10,000 people registered for the race (5,000 on each day) along with another thousands of spectators.

Shortly before the start of our wave.
The start was in waves of (I think) 500 people. The smoke grenade and a bull horn went off and the mass of people starting to run down a snowy/muddy slope. Not 30 seconds into the race I already noticed people losing shoes in the mud.

The first opportunity to get our knees bloody was an icy/snowy slope covered with a net, under which we had to crawl. Fortunately, my running tights protected my knees reasonably well. After that we climbed to the top of the hill, ran down, slid down the Greased Lightning which was followed by a death march the steepest hill of the race.

Greased Lightning.
Death March.

At the top of the hill we had to climb over three 10 foot wall-type obstacles and then wait in line for the "Boa Constrictor". This was a wooden tunnel on a slight downslope one had to crawl into (knees on sharp rocks kind of deal), followed by a fairly deep ditch, that didn't look like a ditch, but like a puddle and then another tunnel, on a slight upslope, again with a soft bedding of mud and sharp rocks. From there we headed back down through the woods back to the parking lot/registration area. The next obstacle required us to take a bite out of red hot habanero chili and then dunk into a container sloshing with ice water and red dye. I abstained from the habanero but did enjoy cooling down in the tank of red liquid.

Then under a net again to crawl up a slippery hill. The size of the openings was much smaller than the very first net we encountered and therefore easier to move under. Down a hill again through two obstacles similar to the Berlin walls but this time with thick steel bars instead of a solid wooden wall. Not too difficult but definitely much more slippery. The next obstacle was the famed "Walk the Plank" - a rope assisted climb to the top of a 15 foot (estimated) platform followed by a jump into the lake. After canyoning in the Susec Canyon in Slovenia last summer, I was ok with the jump but I was worried about how I would react to the cold water. To my surprise I hesitated a bit at the top when I realized just how high it was, probably because my own height added extra 6 feet. It is hard for me to estimate the temperature but, fuck, it was cold. As soon I resurfaced after the jump I felt my like my lungs were closing up on me but the feeling quickly disappeared as I swam to the shore past the paramedics and firefighters chilling in the water in their thick neoprene suits. We climbed out and immediately wrapped ourselves in the provided emergency ("space") blankets.

The next obstacle in line was "Twinkle Toes" with massive lines of people waiting for their turn. Given the nature of the obstacle we took a shortcut and jumped into that stinking pool of cold muddy water and swam across to continue on "Ball Shrinker". Now that I think about it - I am not sure if that made it easier for us, since the point of the obstacle was not to fall in that water. Ball shrinker was fun, both me and Millicent passed it without falling off. Not that it mattered that much anyway, since the ropes were stretched so much, we were waist deep in the pond anyway. After all these wet obstacles we had a chance to dry out a bit during "Cool Running" which was - in a nutshell - a three or so mile long muddy, rocky, uphill run on what seemed like a good old fashioned singletrack.

The field of participants was pretty stretch out by the top we finished the trail run only to be greeted by the "Mud Mile" on top. It was not a mile long but it did seem like some took a backhoe there and dug out a series of pits and filled them with water. What made them extra spicy though was how unpredictable they were. I was tempted to run through them, you know, for extra visual effects but quickly realized it would not have been a good idea. The reason was that bottom was very uneven, and by uneven I mean, that there were boulders the size of suitcases with sharp edges left in them (nice touch, I admit) or seemingly random three foot deep holes. Careful walking was a better idea, especially after seeing people jumping in and injuring themselves. The best of the Mud Mile was left for last. Long, knee to waist deep trench with what looked like telegraph poles laid across it. Arrows attached to the poles directed us to either climb over or crawl under. The closer the poles were getting to the water level, the more often we had to crawl under - which for the last two poles meant complete submersion. And it still wasn't over. Enter "Funky Monkey" as series of monkey bars which first climb up and then down. I felt confident I would pass this obstacle, although the almost 9 miles at this point sucked out quite a bit of energy out of me. That and the fact my gloves were completely soaked and muddy and were super slippery on those pre-greased bars. I took the gloves off and went for it. To my surprise I made it more 3/4 of the way (4-5 bars remaining) and then my fingers started opening involuntarily. I hang in there helplessly for a few seconds, before I fell down into a surprisingly shallow pool of water sprinkled with hay. I thought nothing of this and continued on only to find out later that the obstacle was later closed because someone broke a leg, busted a knee and quite a few people snapped or twisted their ankles. I did see someone being carried off the mountain on a stretcher but didn't quite connect the two things together. Well, lesson learned for Tough Mudder HQ hopefully - deeper pool and a lot more hay.

"Kiss of Mud" followed after a descent down a steep snowy slope and featured actual barbed wire. There was some mud to crawl in but mostly a lot of sharp rocks. Looot of sharp rocks. And the mud seemed stickier too. And smelly. At this point I admit I was getting pretty tired and cold and so the walk through burning kerosene-soaked hay bales was quite nice. Until of course I started choking a bit from all that smoke. Up the hill again, down the hill, pick up a heavy chunk of wood, carry it up the hill, then down the hill and then onto a couple of cargo nets. There was some wait time but nothing too bad. In the spirit of Tough Mudder people were helping each other and the person who climbed over the net would sit down a hold the net for the next person, who would then replace them.

Up and down again, and then to a pretty technical "Evil Knievel" obstacle, that required (for most people anyway) the assistance of other mudders to conquer. This is how it went down. Two mudders would do a wall squat at the bottom of the obstacle, then the next person in line would step on their knees and shoulders to reach up where another mudder or two would grab their hand and help them pull up. Again, a very nice example of putting camaraderie and teamwork before one's course time. At this point anyway, because of all the waiting at obstacles, the course was pretty meaningless (I think) for most participants. After a few more obstacles (some more cargo nets, stacked up hay bales) I arrived at the obstacle I feared the most. Electroshock Therapy. Within sight of the finished line, this perhaps 50 foot scaffolding with hundreds of wires, some of which were "live" with 10000 volts of electricity. Very low current I imagine but still - quite unpleasant I imagined - like an electric fence or something similar. I have watched this video from Tough Mudder Texas quite a few times and thus had a healthy dose of respect. I watched others go through for about 15 minutes. Most went through ok, but some did wipe out quite spectacularly. Andi was standing there with the camera ready to shoot the video and making fun of me. Then this woman in a blue shirt walks up to me and asks me if I am waiting in line to go. I said yes, but in the sense that I am hesitating - more than anything else. The she asked if I am waiting for someone, and after I said "no" she said "Let's go" and that was it. I put my hands in front of my face to avoid getting zapped in the face and we went for it. I am not sure how many times she got hit but I got hit three times. Twice in the right arm and once in the hip. It wasn't as bad as I had imagined but still unpleasant.

Only my ass made it into this picture.


Well, that is about it. It was an awesome race, or challenge, or whatever. We had a lot of fun. A lot of fun. Tiring as well, I was quite exhausted at the end. My legs were doing ok but I felt like I had Popeye forearms. Even turning the key in the ignition hurt afterwards. I would never say it was easy, Rugged Maniac was easy. I definitely enjoyed the 25 or so obstacles but I could still do more. After all, I was still able to walk or untie my shoelaces :-). After the race we we bussed back to the parking lot, went back to the hotel to clean up (with a brief stopover at a chocolate store), and then hit a Mexican Restaurant in Kutztown for awesome dinner.


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