Tough Mudder. You’ve probably heard about it. But if you haven’t, it’s basically an endurance event roughly 12 miles in length, over uneven terrain that people pay to take part in. You can enter by yourself or in a team, but a huge part of the course revolves around teamwork. It’s specifically designed so that you can’t actually complete most of the obstacles without help from your fellow Mudders.
My experience was prompted by a close friend being diagnosed with cancer for the second time. Myself and some of her friends and colleagues wanted to do something to help raise money and awareness for oesophageal cancer. Whilst she was going through some pretty challenging cancer treatment, we would be putting ourselves through gruelling physical training in order to complete the ultimate test of mental and physical strength.
In the build up to the event, I watched a lot of videos of previous Tough Mudders, read about what to expect and spoke to people who had completed it before. Everyone we spoke to said, “You’ll be fine”. On the day I was nervous, but excited. We were in a team of 12, albeit we all had differing abilities, strengths and weaknesses. But we’d trained, so we were prepared. Weren’t we?!
The course we signed up for was at Culden Faw, Henley-on-Thames, UK. A hilly estate made up of woodlands and steep valleys. Beautiful surroundings, which in all fairness I probably didn’t get to appreciate enough of!
We all got a minibus up together. As you can imagine, talk was dominated by what we were about to embark upon, any apprehension and things we were nervous about. The thing that dominated my mind was mostly my bowel movements. Sorry to be crude but there are limited toilet facilities around the 12 mile course and we’d heard horror stories about what happens to people when they get electrocuted (say no more). Luckily this was something I didn’t have to think twice about! One of our team had done a few Tough Mudders and was reiterating how horrible Arctic Enema was. This is an obstacle where you plunge yourself into a skip of ice water. Not something to look forward to when the weather is about 8 degrees outside. Despite our nervous chatter, we were all looking forward to getting there and getting it done.
There is a huge buzz when you arrive at the event. There are loads of people, some covered in mud having recently completed the course already (first kick off is 7.30am) and like us, some clean, fresh faced people full of anticipation, with a ‘Let’s do this!’ attitude. You register, get your number, write it on your head (or in some cases you just get a penis drawn on your face, unlucky Batesy!) and mosey over to the warm up area. Our start time was half 12. There’s music and motivational people on the mics, there to get you ready, loosen your muscles and get your head in the zone, ready to tackle the course. Adrenalin at this point is soaring. You just want to get going. You feel pumped and ready for anything.
Before you know it, there’s a ‘3,2,1’ and you’re off! Some people are sprinting ahead. But I knew I wouldn’t get round unless I slowed my pace. Starting off with gentle jog, my team mates had the same idea. A few up front and a few behind, our aim was to try and stick together as much as possible, stay with similar ability ‘run buddies’ who would run about the same pace as you. We reckoned it would take us about 3hrs.
Before you get much of a chance to level out your breathing and set a running pace, there’s an obstacle up ahead. Yes! First obstacle! But it’s a sheer wooden wall, about 6ft tall. No foot holds, nothing. Panic sets in. I take a run up and jump, I get my finger tips over the edge but I’m just not strong enough to pull my body weight up and over. Flashback to training, wish I’d done more pull-ups!
A couple of the stronger lads in my team had made it over and they attempted to pull me up. But it’s awkward, my feet are scrabbling against the wall, my knees are banging against the wood. Suddenly there’s enough momentum & pull to get my leg over and before I know it I’m on the other side. Woohoo! I look around and only half my team are there. I feel helpless as I can’t assist the others as I’m just not tall or strong enough. Moments later, we’re all over and jogging off again into the forest. One obstacle down, only 22 more to go!
You start thinking, well that wasn’t so hard. Well, it would’ve been had my team mates not been there, I am thankful for that. The course at this point stretches out for about a mile of running, attempting to jog up and down really steep inclines, failing and resorting to walking up instead. At this point, the sun was out and I’d built up a lot of body heat. You’re really tempted to strip off your base layer and leave it behind. Some people do, there are piles of strewn tops along the trail. But in the back of my mind I was thinking that I’m going to need that extra layer after Arctic Enema. I tried to enjoy the warmth as much as I could, as I’ll most certainly be craving it later. Little did I know how much!
Then came Arctic Enema. The ice bath. A last minute panic and everyone removes their top layer, to have something dry to put on when you’ve finished. You climb up a ladder to the top of a vertical chute. Arms crossed over your chest and three of you plunge in at the same time, feet first into a skip of water which is filled with 100 tonnes of ice. It is hard to describe the sheer shock your body goes into when you hit it. Nothing can prepare you for it. You’re submerged under the freezing water and once you surface to gasp air, your chest is so cold and winded, it literally takes your breath away. Your body goes into emergency fight or flight mode. Once you come up for air, you’re supposed to take one deep breath before ducking under a line of tyres and coming out the other side. My team mate to my right panicked and clambered over the side of the skip. I was struggling to breathe and in that split second I chose to do the same. Our other team mate didn’t bottle it and ducked under the tyres to swim out the other side. Halfway along she realised she was not quite clear of the tyres above her head, and went down further, but hit her mouth on something at the bottom, resulting in a split lip! Not only did she have to suffer the frozen plunge, she’s now bleeding from her mouth! She totally manned up though, no time to hang around, we had to keep running to try and warm up our shivering bodies! Onwards and upwards!
The next few miles were fun. The obstacles were all about team work, Everest and the Blockness Monster were two of my faves, along with Mud Mile.
Everest is a slick half pipe and if you’re a short ass like me with stupid stumpy arms, you’re just out of arms reach for the person at the top to grab your hands and pull you up. You have to take a good run up, and the guys at the top had to be lowered down to be able to reach my outstretched fingers. That sinking feeling of running up it, touching someone’s fingertips, missing them by inches and sliding all the way back to the bottom is so frustrating! Four attempts though and I did it.
The Blockness Monster is where you’re waist deep in water and there are two rotating blocks that are high enough (again for shorties like me) to just about reach a corner with your finger tips. Whilst you’re gripping on for dear life, other Mudders push and rotate the oblong block around so you get propelled to the other side back into the water, on to the next block and to help others do the same.
Mud mile, is not a mile. It’s about 100 metres. But one half is thick, waist high, quagmire of ‘lose your trainers’ mud (several did!), the other is smooth, liquid mud which looks a bit like the chocolate river in Willa Wonka’s factory. Although definitely NOT edible, nevertheless you did end up with some in your mouth! #yuck. But it was fun and brilliant and at this point and I still had some fuel left in me.
Funky Monkey however was the start of my downfall. You had to walk up a near vertical hill to get there and arrive to hear constant splashes of people falling in. This obstacle involved a series of monkey bars over 5ft depth of water (I’m 5’2″ so it doesn’t leave much room for standing). I got a couple of bars across and fell straight in. As I hit the water, my calf muscle immediately cramped, which doesn’t help when you’re supposed to swim across to the other side. Luckily there are guide ropes which I used to drag my body through the water and up the other side, whilst trying not to cry as my calf muscle felt like it was being stabbed with several cold sharp objects. Once again most of us soaking wet (although some of our team heroically made it across!) we had to start running it off to keep our body temperature up. But one by one people around us were dropping like flies with the same calf cramp I’d experienced in the water. It was certainly a sight to behold! People crying out in pain and collapsing to the ground, lying on their backs with team mates helping stretch each other out. Cramp is the worst, especially when you’re cold, dripping wet and already exhausted.
From then on I think my body went into power save mode and slowly drained like a battery. It became harder and harder to keep going. Wincing in pain coming down steep inclines and by the end I felt like an automated zombie. Desperately trying to make it to the end.
I’m not proud, but I skipped around two of the water based obstacles. King of the Swingers and Cage Crawl. The thought of immersing myself in cold water one more time and having to desperately try to regain a glimmer of body heat through my soaked wet clothes again, terrified me. I wanted to get to the end, I didn’t want to be stretchered off the course because of hypothermia. Although I am massively disappointed in myself, it was the right decision for me.
But I continued. Much like my fellow team mates, despite an array of injuries suffered. One seriously hurt her knee only a few miles in, but battled on through pain to the finish line. One hurt his ankle and by no means a natural runner, but he continued none the less. One girl was so strapped up she could barely move, with several different pre-existing injuries, but she kept her head down, gritted her teeth and carried on. One was petrified of heights, but at each toweringly high obstacle, took her time and through pure determination, conquered every single one.
Even those without pre-existing injuries were amazing inspirations. They often had to work doubly hard to get the less able of us through different parts of the course. Or at the right time, say the exact right words of encouragement to give our team morale the boost it needed to carry on. It took our team 5 hours to complete the course. Which is a long time to be constantly physically exerted, whilst all the while cold, wet and weighed down by water and mud. But it really was the best experience ever.
The whole day was a true example of team work, camaraderie, friendship and unity that was demonstrated throughout the whole course. Not only our team, but all the participants I came across. When you’re climbing up a sheer wall, using only wooden pegs to pull yourself up, and you look up and are greeted with the face of a complete stranger, arms stretched out and pulling you up the final bit. You experience such a feeling of gratitude and respect you can’t really describe.
From start to finish our team stuck together and lived up to the ‘No Mudder Left Behind’ ethos. I cannot describe how immensely proud I am of every one of them and my experience of Tough Mudder is something I’ll never forget. Not only that we completed a gruelling mental and physical challenge together, but that the reason behind it all was for ‘Lucy’s Challenge’. To support our friend and colleague through cancer.
Our battle is now over. We’re now warm, dry and refuelled. Sure, we might be sore and achy for a few days, but we’ll recover. But the girl that inspired us all to push ourselves to our limits, still has a battle ahead of her. She was the team member who was most important, who although wasn’t there with us physically, was in every one of our minds every step of the way. Our thirteenth member of Team Lucy, who has to wake up and fight cancer everyday. Respect to you my friend, you truly are our model Mudder and brave team captain. And from the bottom of my heart, I know you’ll beat this. #teamlucy #teamlove #respect #bravery #cancerfighter #noonegetsleftbehind