Canada's Toughest Mudder 2017: My First OCR Experience
Last weekend I got a little dirty. And wet. And cold. And scared. And tired. And invigorated. And giddy. And humbled. And...maybe even hooked on a new sport? Oh boy. Why oh why do I have to love crazy? At least I know I'm not the only one. I may have just found my tribe;)
Toughest Mudder Whistler came into my life as quite a surprise. "Tough - EST Mudder?" I repeated, when crazy Joe told me what he was training for this year. He said it was a training race for the "Worlds Toughest Mudder", a 24 hour obstacle course race in the desert near Las Vegas. If you're like me, you have heard of Tough Mudder and the series of similar style Obstacle Course Races (OCR) that have gained massive traction over the past few years. Everyone and their grandmother seems to have tackled a mud run or the like as part of a new age bonding experience complete with barbed wire, electrocution, free beer and the coveted 'head bands'. But what, you ask, is the "Toughest Mudder"?
This year, TMHQ (Tough Mudder Head Quarters) came up with a new endurance racing format for their hugely popular obstacle race series. Not as insane as the Worlds Toughest Mudder and not as tame as the 'to complete' Tough Mudder, the Toughest Mudder is an endurance racing beast that combines ultra endurance with upper body strength, power, agility and dose of courage. Classic 'Type 2' fun.
It sounded crazy. It sounded impossible. It sounded painful and a little bit scary. It sounded way out of my comfort zone. So, of course, I figured I had to give it a go.
I love learning. I get a kick out of watching my body and mind work together to figure out new skills, patterns and concepts. Being really shitty at something is one of my best motivators to continue forward. It is not about being the best or winning a top spot for me. It is about improving and seeing what I am personally capable of. I cannot control what others are capable of, only what I put in and get out of the work that I do. I love the feeling of progress and the 'aha' and of improvement. We don't grow from what we know. We need new experiences for that;).
TM exposed all of my weaknesses. I get cold easily...like really cold. When you are warm, I am cold. I have Reynauds in my hands and once it sets in I shut down. The only times I have given up (or wanted to) have been due to the cold. Cold temps freeze my motivation, the pain in my hands literally brings me to tears and all I want in those moments is to go home and get warmed up. It is so bad that my friends all pitched in to buy me battery powered heated gloves! They give me freedom in the winter! But you can't wear those in the water lol;) TM took place in Whistler...and required endless immersion into ice water. Suffering from the cold was, by far, biggest fear going in.
I have terrible night vision. I am seriously blind as a bat in the darkness and have to hold onto my walls when walking through the house with the lights out. Can't see a thing. TM started at midnight and we were in the dark for the first 4.5-5 hours. This one would be a challenge but was not a true fear.
But there is more! I also hate having dirt on my hands (yes I was a firefighter and tree planter lol), can't really swim, I am a germaphobe and I have epically weak grip strength for my fitness level. Sounds like a perfect fit for Toughest Mudder LMAO!
On the mental side TM would also strip away all of my super motivation powers. No beautiful scenery, no music for a strong push to the finish and no motivation to run faster so that you can finish faster.
Talk about vulnerability! So...you may ask...why would you WANT to do it, then? Because. When you strip away your skills and powers and strengths you are forced to uncover and build new tools. There is power in 'failure' through new experiences and expanded perspectives. Improving our weaknesses elevates our strengths...which is sure to help us grow.
3 months out from TM Whistler, I switched from ultra endurance and static gym strength to obstacle specific training with the support and expertise of a coach, Alison Tai, of Van City OCR. Alison is one of the best OCR endurance athletes in the world and I was beyond grateful to have her support and guidance in preparation for my first OCR adventure. She taught me so many things and I could never have pulled off my race result without her support. I haven't had my own sport coach for a few years and it was awesome to once again become familiar with the other side of the athlete-coach relationship. It was a first hand reminder, that there is so much value in having a coach to answer your questions, provide feedback and ensure you are on the right path while you are tackling new challenges. So much energy is saved when you know you are following an effective plan so that you can relax and focus on your workouts. Of course, working as a coach for nearly 20 years now, I know this to be true...but it was a great reminder of just how powerful this support can be when you are the student. Never underestimate the value of a professional coach! Your goals and dreams are worth every penny invested! *End of speech.*
So- what is it like to complete an 8 hour Toughest Mudder as your first OCR? Let me tell you! I will share my training tips in a future post...but for now...here is my firsthand OCR experience:
Canada's Toughest Mudder Whistler
8 hours, 5mile (8km) laps, 17 obstacles per lap, as many laps as possible.
Sub 5 degrees celsius (mountain weather)COLD
48kms (plus 10 in penalties!)
6th woman and 28th human
Team Vancouver Island! Before...11pm... That is Kong in the background. Total Crcus!
Pre-race we spent 2 hours loitering in 'the pit' aka transition zone/aid zone, setting up our gear and, really, trying to decide what to wear. It was highly entertaining to see 275 racers (mostly guys) humming and hawing over their outfits for hours on end lol! The temperature was cold enough for wetsuits but no one really wanted to wear them so the debating was intense haha. Up until 30 minutes before the race I was still refusing to wear my wetsuit. As an ultra runner it was really hard to get my brain around running 50k in a wetsuit. But once I saw all of the pro's in full wetsuits, I hustled back to the pit for a quick change from my two piece into my 3mm farmer john, along with about 4 other layers under and over. Once we hit the water, my outfit choice ended up being absolutely perfect and I was pretty comfortable temperature wise for the entire 8 hours. I will post my gear at the bottom of this report fyi.
Lap 1 was a 'hot lap' where only 2 of the 17 obstacles were actually open. After a an entertaining and inspiring TM motivational speech in the start chute, we were read the rules, required to take the TM oath and then proudly sing the Canadian anthem...all new start line rituals for me lol! And then we were off! Sprinting up a hill in a wetsuit! OMG. It was a quick pace with the goal of making up some ground before the obstacles opened up. That 8k lap with 2 obstacles took me around 50 minutes whereas my other laps took 1:15-1:25 per lap for the rest of the race. We were moving at a good pace, and without any water to jump in, it was like running in a sauna in that wetsuit! We were running on a mix of undulating dirt road, muddy quad tracks and through the bush, blazing a new trail by the looks of things (over logs and slash and branches etc). In the dark, moving fast over very uneven terrain, it was an injury waiting to happen. Quickly out of my comfort zone but running with it!
My first surprise was severe shin splints setting in within the first few kms. Uh oh. I quickly realized it was the pressure of the tights and wetsuit combination restricting my lower leg and ankle movement while I was running. My shins were burning so bad! I knew I wouldn't be able to continue if the pressure built any greater so I stopped to unzip the ankles of my wetsuit and that provided instant relief. Mental note!
The two obstacles we faced on that first lap were Skidmarked and Everest 2.0. Skidmarked is a ten foot wall that angles towards you, without any ropes for assistance. After all of my wall climb practice, I reached Skidmarked without a hope of jumping high enough to reach the top. I felt like a tiny human without a clue of how to get over this thing. Tall racers and those with powerful jumps were grabbing the top and pulling themselves over while I stood and watched in wonder. There were support beams that some racers were using to scramble up but I couldn't get enough traction, and I just slid down them every time I tried to get up. Before long, however, someone offered to give me a boost and I quickly learned the power of team work in the TM experience. I received so much kindness from strangers and so much gratitude for their assistance during the race- I literally could not have completed the course without their support! Awesome part of TM.
The second obstacle was Everest 2.0, which is a big, steep, slippery wall climb that requires a hard sprint and either a hand up from the top or the assistance of a knotted rope (which you had to throw over and hook set like a grapple). The line was long and it looked to be taking racers some time to set the rope and complete the obstacle, so the three of us made the quick decision to skip the obstacle, save our grip and take the short penalty run instead. This was the one obstacle where the penalty lap took almost the exact same time as the obstacle so it was a good choice for my mountain running legs:). All of the other obstacles had penalty laps that added a few minutes, say 2-5, over completing the obstacles. It was definitly a disadvantage to not make the obstacles as it set you back time and added miles (that didn't count!) to your legs. As the night progressed and my grip weakened I took more penalties and the miles added up- but I didn't mind the extra running! It was the only familiar part of the race (well, kinda, in a wet suit lol). Over the course of the 8 hours I believe I took about 30 penalty laps with about 300m extra running- thats about 9 extra kms (above the 48k) that I did not get credit for (and that added to my legs)! Definitely motivation to nail the obstacles after adding that up!
The second lap we got to tackle all of the obstacles and I was super excited to finally see them all! From Youtube videos to the real deal, I was in for quite a surprise lol. Some of the obstacles were easier than I expected but some were much harder. With wet hands and slippery bars, I failed repeatedly on the obstacles requiring grip and movement. Although my grip had improved dramatically in the 3 months of my awesome training plan, I didn't train on wet bars and I definitely didn't train with an extra 20lbs of gear on my body (all the wet layers added up!). I tried, and sometimes I made them but more often I fell and I failed. The falls were either high, or hard or into water or all three lol.
It was during lap 2 that I decided I was never doing another OCR. I decided it 'wasn't my thing'. Wet, slow, in the dark, doing challenges I couldn't attach purpose to, with no beauty and no finish line, I couldn't get my brain around the 'WHY'. This is a very dangerous place to be in a race. You must have a WHY if you are going to continue forward and overcome inertia. The only WHY I could find at the time was - 'Because you said you would do it ONCE'. Completing the 8 hours 'because it was the only time I would have to do it in my life', became my motivation. That's pretty flimsy, but it kept me moving forward. I wasn't in it to win it. I was there to experience everything for the first and last time. Something BIG to work on...
On my third lap I unexpectedly took a hard fall from a great height when my grip slipped on 'Stage 5 Clinger'. I had made the obstacle on the previous lap and it didn't cross my mind that I might fall...from 12 feet up. My feet were about 7 feet? off the deck when my hand slipped and I lost my grip, landing on one leg, with the knee fully locked. I felt the INSIDE of my knee stretch. I thought I had blown my ACL for sure. The racers around me went silent when I hit the deck. 'That was a really high fall.' I heard. Yes, yes it was. My instinct was still to get over the obstacle, however, and when I stood up, my leg supported me, so I jumped back up to give it a go. A kind racer offered to let me stand on his shoulders to make sure I got up and over safely. So much kindness! I made it up and over with his help and climbed down the other side. My knee felt 'wiggly' and very unstable. I didn't like that at all. I had to walk the next few kms as the terrain was very muddy (Mud Mile in there) and uneven and slippery and my knee just didn't feel right. I decided it was over and I would drop at the finish line if my knee still felt like this when I finished the lap. But then I jumped into icewater at Arctic Enema and it numbed out my whole body including my knee! I was able to jog again after that and my knee felt progressively better as the night went on. (Not so great the next day, however, but not a blown ACL - phew!).
The laps went on and honestly I cannot remember lap 4 other than the great courage collapse. After my fall, I lost my confidence entirely on any obstacle with a risk of falling. I focused on the falling and the 'what if' rather than the task at hand. It was a mental meltdown and I didn't have the motivation to rally and reset my mind. I was afraid of getting hurt and the reward of making those higher risk obstacles was no longer important to me. Something very BIG to work on...
During my 5th lap, they opened a bonus stage- a trek to the top of the Whistler Olympic Park ski-jump. They literally opened it right when I got there- myself and another guy were the first victims -good timing lol!
I ran through the finish without stopping at 'the pit' all but one time as I choose to carry my food with me and to fill up at water stations on course. As an adventure racer it is against every cell in my body to stop for anything so I was happy to just run on through. This definitely saved me time- although it was a drop in the bucket compared to all of the time I lost due to inexperience, lack of courage and weak grip lol! I spent quite a bit of time chatting with the volunteers to try and work out the 'best' way to get through the obstacles and to psych myself up for some of them. That gal at 'Hangtime' talked me off a 20 foot ledge 5 times lol! Thank you! I often stood and watched 4 or 5 racers complete an obstacle, so that I could see their techniques (and be amazed by their skill!) before I would attempt it. And I had an unexpected time killer when my GI (belly) went haywire right off the line and I ended up in the port a potties 4 times over the next 4 hours! Can you imagine how long it takes to get out of 4 layers and a wetsuit (with a headlamp that is tied to your pinny/bib hahaha) in a tiny outhouse? Eeeesh. At the time I was just grateful they had portapotties (and that I didn't fall down the hole trying to maneuver in them) but afterwards I realized how much time those stops took away from my mileage. Likely 15-20 minutes in pit stops alone lol! LESSON: Starting a race at 12am requires completely different nutrition (if you don't want to be making stops). Don't eat full meals at lunch or dinner and lay off the protein mid day onward oh my. In a midnight start ultra or adventure race, this may not be a big deal, because you aren't dealing with a wetsuit, but in this scenario nutrition timing is critical. When you start a race at 8am, you have had the entire night to digest and you are ready to rock after a light breakfast/snack and your usual morning routine. But at 12am you are still digesting lunch...and dinner if you had that too. No bueno. BIG breakfast, then light carb snacks for the rest of the day.
The obstacles were fun and challenging and scary. All required some strength and agility, some required team work and all were highly entertaining lol. Here is a run down of the obstacles on our course- you can google them to see them in action (for sure look up Hangtime and Arctic Enema lol!)
Balls to the Wall- 15 foot wall climb using a rope with a few knots in it and 2 by 4 ledges. Up and over. Mandatory- no penalty option. Easy at first- harder once the rope gets muddy and slick.
Funky Monkey- Incline monkey bars to horizontal wheel to 3 vertical wheels. Fail and fall into water like I did 5/5 times.
Hangtime - 20 foot platform over water. Jump out to catch t-bar 4-5 feet away, bar swings to reach for a cargo net, grab the net and hook feet into net, letting go of bar, then shimmy down a cable 30 feet. Or fail and take a high fall into water like I did 4/5 times!
Augustus Gloop- swim under cold water blind, pop up other side then climb up a tunnel while cold water is being sprayed down on you. Easy one! Wear a hood!
Black Hole- can't remember this one lol!
Stage 5 Clinger- climb up a wall via ledges, to monkey bars on the ceiling above, monkey bars backwards to edge of ceiling, then reach over the top to grab a bar and pull yourself up. Use the supports! Don't fall on a locked leg!
Mud Mile- giant trenches full of mud. Gross and slow and a gasser.
Arctic Enema - Slide down a tunnel into ice water then swim under water to get under a short wall, JUMP out and run like hell screaming and cursing like a crazy person until you warm up. Repeat haha.
Operation- just like the game but giant scale. Reach for something with a pole, don't get electrocuted by touching the sides. No thank you! I am not really into getting electrocuted and thankfully TMHQ has decided this is optional so you can choose the penalty run instead. Yes please!
SkidMarked- the angled 10 foot wall
Pyramid Scheme- use a knotted rope to climb up an angled, slippery (plastic) wall. Go for the longest rope! Shorties like me had to jump to even reach the ropes lol. Took a couple of tries to reach it once I got tired.
So far to reach for shorties like me!
Shawshanked- Crawl under barbed wire (or army roll like I learned from the pro's!) and then crawl up an angled tube, pop out the other end and drop 4 feet into filthy water. I am sure there is a technique to this but I didn't figure it out lol- flailed upside down into the water every time hahaha.
Lumber Jacked- get over a series of 4 foot high horizontal logs. Use the supports or a buddy if you are short like me:).
Everest- as above- super high, slippery, angled wall with the grappling rope option.
Kiss of Mud 2.0 - Crawl under tarps filled with water- look for the openings! Watch out for rocks digging into your forearms.
The Blockness Monster- giant rotating blocks that require teamwork to pull each person up and over while they are turning. Push, jump, pull repeat. SO fun! I loved this one! And this obstacle had the best cheerleading volunteer team too;).
Kong- ha! Thought I would crush this and fell on the first ring every time. Slippery devils. 5 rings on long ropes, elevated 6-8 feet above an airbag. #goals
That's it that's all! Just do it again and again! The faster you go, the more times you get to do the obstacles oh yay haha!
What a wild ride. On my last lap, I was filled with joy! I would never have to do these obstacles again! I said goodbye to each and every one and fully intended to never see them again...
But...after I added up ALL that time I lost and ALL those extra miles...you know what I started thinking...I could do it so much better after all I have learned...hehehe.
If you are still reading this you are seriously procrastinating from some task that you really should get back to. Go on, it can't be that bad. Just go and get it done;)
Seriously, thanks for reading. I hope my story helps you with your own adventures in Obstacle Racing! Here is my gear etc:
Lole Women spandex shorts, swim tights and 3mm farmer john MEC
Tank top, wool longsleeve, Lole Women long sleeve rash guard, 2mm sleeveless hooded top
Wool socks and Salomon Sense Pros. These don't have much grip compared to other trail runners but they were just fine! So much mud I really don't think it matters what is on your feet. I choose these because they drain the best and I was very happy with my sock shoe combo- did not have cold feet ever.
Blegg Mitts (special OCR mitts were the BEST if you have cold hands!)- and kayak gloves for the coldest hours from 4-8am when I had given up on grip related obstacles anyways lol.
1-2 Huma Gels per hour. Only thing I could eat with that full icky belly. About 8-10 of these.
Water - about 2 cups per hour
S-Caps 1 per hour
Questions? Send them my way! Message me over on my Facebook page anytime!
HUGE thank you to the TM community for welcoming me and supporting me in my first OCR experience. Big thank you to the amazing volunteers who cheered us on for 8 hours in the middle of the night- you are crazier than we are! BIG hugs to my OCR coach, Alison Tai for helping me feel as prepared as possible in such a short period of time. HIGH fives and big thanks to Joe Koropecki for encouraging me to try this crazy sport. Can't wait to do it again!