Sam and I sat at the top of the slide. Not a fun “weee!” sort of slide though. This one led into muddy, waist-deep water filled with ice. We took a look at each other, grimaced and pushed off. The next second I hit the water and started yelling, “Oh my god!” I waded through the ice as my body started to seize up and saw a barrier ahead. There was nowhere to go but under it. I took a deep breath and dived. My brain started screaming at me and when I met some resistance from the 10 tonnes of ice on top it started panicking. I was confused, my body didn’t know if it was in pain or just cold, and it started blaring, “Get out now! Get out now!” I broke the surface, pushed forwards to a ladder and was suddenly out. I had just survived Tough Mudder’s 20th (and widely regarded hardest) obstacle, ‘Arctic Enema’.
For those who don’t know, Tough Mudder is an 18km course with 25 obstacles in your way designed to test you both physically and mentally. It’s meant to be completed as a team, with no emphasis on finishing time. But for the record, we took 5 hours. That’s about an hour shorter than the average time for that particular course, and 2 hours longer than the typical Tough Mudder course. Why was this one so tough? Unluckily for us, a storm had rolled in the night before, turning the ‘knee deep’ mud obstacles into chest-deep ones, and sometimes complete swim-fests. There was practically no dry-land running as our Tough Mudder route wound through the misty mountains and forests of Glenworth Valley. On the plus side, most downhill slopes enabled penguin-sliding!
Just after Arctic Enema my team of four (my sister Sam, boyfriend Mark and friend Blair) started running again.
“3.5km and 5 obstacles to go!” a course volunteer called out to us.
“Not long to go,” I thought, “You can do this.” But what I didn’t know was that those last 3.5kms were going to be harder than the rest of the course combined.
The trouble started on the next uphill stretch. I noticed a weird, intense tingling in my hands. Like the painful pins and needles you get sometimes. Except these were spreading. Fast.
I started clenching and unclenching my hands, trying to force the blood back into them as I ran. The weird numbness and pain crept up through my wrists and into my forearms.
“My hands feel really weird,” I said to Mark as we ran. “Do they feel cold?”
He held them as we ran and suddenly looked concerned. “Very.”
As the tingling reached up past my elbows I realised that I was in the very early stages of hypothermia. Thanks to running in wet clothes for 4 and a half hours, with intermittent rain and then an ice bath, my core temperature was in danger of dropping. My body was taking blood away from my extremities to keep my organs warm.
I decided that the only course of action was to move faster and get those big leg muscles pumping. So I did, and it took another 2kms and three obstacles for normal sensation to return. I was lucky though, we saw multiple people being carted away to the medical tent, wrapped in silver space blankets.
At this stage, you might think I was beginning to feel relieved. Only 1.5kms to go! But I was exhausted and freezing with muscles so stiff that running was a major effort. And I still had to run through a field of live wires.
Tough Mudder’s Toughest Obstacles
Live wires, you say? Why yes! Welcome to the infamous Electroshock Therapy – just run through a field of dangling wires that deliver 10,000 volts each (that’s the same voltage they use to keep the dinosaurs in check in Jurassic Park). It’s the final ‘thanks for coming’ from Tough Mudder.
You can see most of the Tough Mudder obstacles here but some of the other well known ones include:
- Cage Crawl – Where you lie on your back in the water with 20 metres of metal fencing lying on top of you, allowing only a few centimetres of air to breathe as you crawl along.
- King of the Swingers – Leap off a platform 4 metres in the air to catch a swing arm in the hopes of then swinging further to hit a small bell. Mission accomplished by Sam and Mark.
- Funky Monkey – A pair of upward angled monkey bars, a swinging trapeze and then a down pipe above water. This is an all upper-body strength test that Mark destroyed.
- Berlin Walls – Two walls, 2.7 metres each. It’s as simple as that.
- Everest – This is a slick 15 foot quarter pipe that requires some serious team work and frequently ends in an awkward slide to the bottom.
The Mental Challenge
- Claustrophobic? Birth Canal will make you feel all warm and fuzzy as you slide on your belly between the mud and a plastic sheet filled with water, pressing down 45kgs onto you.
- Afraid of the dark? You’ll love Mine Shafted, which involves sliding down a tube into underground darkness with waist-deep mud for company. Fun fact: Sam dislocated her thumb on this one.
- Not a fan of drowning? Enjoy the water-boarding sensation of Rain Man, similar to the crawling-on-your-back-in-water fun of Cage Crawl, except with water pouring in from above as well.
10 Tips & Tricks for a Better Run
If this all sounds like your idea of a good time (and it really was a good time), then here are some things I learned for next time:
- Cut your nails. You’re going to be army crawling through mud and scraping up walls so it pays to come with short nails.
- Wear quick-dry clothing and good shoes. Sadly your shoes may get wrecked, but you need really supportive ones to feel good after 18kms as well as excellent grip to handle all that mud. You’ll also be getting frequently wet so lightweight, quick dry clothing will be your friend. I wore full length compression tights (that still got filled with mud) and a super lightweight sports singlet.
- Have a team of at least three. While you can make friends along the way to help you out, most obstacles require three or more people to conquer.
- Prepare to bleed. I guess I should have expected it, but I was surprised at how scratched up we all got. After the first obstacle most of the team were already bleeding and throughout the course we sustained significant cuts and grazes to our hands, knees, elbows and chests. Maybe get your tetanus shot before?
- Close your eyes and mouth in the mud. That stuff splashes everywhere, and it’s not always the cleanest substance. More than a few Tough Mudder participants have sustained eye infections or unwillingly ingested something nasty (like norovirus or campylobacter) so keep as much as you can closed when you enter mud obstacles.
Be a strong swimmer. Sure, I do a lot of water sports, but crossing rivers in clothes and shoes while exhausted is something else. You’ll be doing plenty of short distance swimming so only attempt water obstacles if you’re a decent swimmer, and if you’re at all concerned then stick to the outside lanes where you’re closer to shore and help.
- Concentrate on your breathing. When you’re gassed or on the verge of panic, slow, measured breathing is a way to calm down your sympathetic nervous system (your fight or flight HQ) and switch on the parasympathetic nervous system instead. It’ll come in handy for the fear-inducing obstacles as well as the exhausting ones.
- Eat everything. There were six drink stops along the way, four of which offered snacks. Seeing those shining beacons of hope made my day and I smashed through the oranges, bananas and muesli bars that were offered with the biggest grin on my face. I highly recommend you do the same.
- Train. I can’t really talk here because…I didn’t train. I had intended to work on my long distance running, or like, any distance running before Tough Mudder but between the Australian snow season and then battling a lung infection for a month, it just didn’t happen. As a result, my cardio was one of my weakest links and something I really want to work on for next time. However, my leg strength from snowboarding and general adventuring saw me through. In my opinion you need cardio, leg strength, core strength and upper body strength to nail Tough Mudder – in that order.
- Prepare to throw out everything you wear. I’ve farewelled the socks I wore and heaps of people threw out their shoes at the venue – the bins were literally overflowing with them. I still can’t get the mud stench out of the clothes I wore, and I’ve washed my underwear five times now.
What’s the Real Point of Tough Mudder?
Tough Mudder is based on military obstacle courses and works in conjunction with the charity Soldier On. This charity supports those who have served in the Defence Force and helps them to deal with the physical and psychological wounds left behind. Tough Mudder aims to show these people that we have their backs, and this sense of solidarity carries on into the event. You take a pledge before your race, and it goes a little something like this:
- 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.
My favourite thing about Tough Mudder was the camaraderie it encouraged. There were so many beautiful moments where complete strangers helped us out – and we passed on the love. Here are just four of them:
1. As we ran towards the very first team obstacle, a 3 metre slanted wall named Skidmarked, our team of four discussed how we’d approach the climb. But when we got to the wall, two huge men were standing at the base, helping people up. They looked at us, said, “Up you go!” and boosted us over without another word. This was our introduction to the no-questions-asked style of teamwork that Tough Mudder encourages.
2. Now we knew the drill, we were ready for the slippery incline of Pyramid Scheme. This requires you to form a literal human pyramid just to get to the top. Two lovely men were being the base of the pyramid and helped Sam and Blair up, so Mark and I passed on the love by replacing them and helping them up, along with a few more people. On the other side, we started running with the two guys that had helped us and learned their names were Kyle and Jesse. Suddenly we had two new team mates, and we stuck together until the end.
3. With our new team of six, we got to Hold Your Wood. This 500m team log carry requires you to pass your log over a wall, and with six people to one log it was going to be a breeze. As we approached the final wall, we noticed a two-person team struggling beside us. Without a moment of hesitation, Blair and Jesse quickly moved to join them and get them over the line.
4. Finally, there was a somewhat benign moment that brought our team together. Right at the end of Mud Mile, a hellish hill-and-pit landscape of liquid mud, I got my foot stuck. I mean really stuck. No matter how hard I pulled it just wouldn’t budge. But before I knew it my whole team had run back to me and were desperately digging out my shoe. A few strangers joined in and when my foot was finally freed with a loud ‘pop’ everyone cheered.
You see, many of the obstacles are designed so that they’re impossible to complete by yourself. You need a team, you need to make friends and help others out. And that, my friends, is the point of Tough Mudder. I came away from the experience with my faith in humanity restored. I met so many selfless, friendly people. While some of the course was hell, most of it was just really good old fashioned fun. When we weren’t gasping for breath, our team was frequently laughing. We cracked jokes with people we’d never met and made bodily contact with way too many strangers. It was great.
An Electric Finish
So how did it all end for me? I reached the 18km mark, fatigued and still cold, with one obstacle to go. Of course they had saved the best until last – Electroshock Therapy. To top it off, it was being live broadcast, MC’d and had dozens of people watching.
As Mark and I jogged up to the final obstacle, a clearly anxious man behind us asked, “How are you guys feeling about this one?” We shrugged, “Yeah, ok.”
We jogged closer and could hear the electricity humming. There was a group of four guys ahead of us and they pulled off to the side to mentally prepare themselves. That left Mark and I at the front of the line.
We took one look at each other, high fived, and then sprinted into electric oblivion.
Keep running Tough Mudders,