Prior to May 20, 2017 I had completed races longer than 30 miles. I had done races with more than 60 obstacles. I had spent over 13 hours climbing up and down mountains, at some points even carrying heavy buckets of rocks or sand bags. I had raced in weather where it was below zero degrees. I swam in a lake when the temperature outside was only 32 degrees and I was in just Under Armor Cold Gear. I had almost been pulled off a course for being borderline hypothermia but was able to find a way to warm up enough just to stay in the event. I have fallen off of ropes from ¾ of the way up into muddy water and have been electrocuted/shocked a few times. I’ve ripped my hands open bloody several times on obstacles over the years and continued on. I have crossed the finish line at races that the pain in my knee was so bad I couldn’t even walk or bend it for days afterwards. With all of these things I had already overcome, why was doing the Toughest Mudder on May 21st making me feel more nervous than I have been in years and making me have doubt about my ability to finish this event?
It came down to really one thing, my autoimmune disorder. I suffer from both Psoriatic Arthritis and Reynaud’s, both of which can be painful at times, but when you are an avid obstacle course racer and you lose feeling in your hands and feet when the temperatures are below 55 degrees it can be quite difficult. Add in the obstacle Arctic Enema in the dark where there is no sun to warm you up, especially after you have been in this obstacle 3 times previously in the daylight and it almost took you out way before your Reynaud’s has worsened, you start to question if your body can handle these conditions. This fact coupled with overnight temperatures so low you can see your breath and several reports of hypothermia in other similar events and the strong urge from others to wear a wet-suit had me very concerned. How does one do obstacles in a wet-suit? What do I wear on my hands/feet? How will it feel submerged in freezing cold water with no sun to warm me up? All of these questions were looming and no one I knew had ever done an event like this before so I basically feared the unknown.
I decided to purchase a heavier wet-suit and read up on some athletes that I followed that competed at World’s Toughest Mudder. One that stood out to me was Deanna Blegg because at one point she was the Female World’s Toughest Mudder and also suffered from Reynaud’s. She also invented Bleggmitts, which are neoprene mittens that can easily transition to bare hands, which I highly recommend and several of us had these on out there on the course that night. Based on her recommendation, I also ordered a thin pair of neoprene based socks that I ended up wearing over my wool compression socks. Not only did these help keep my feet dry, but they helped me get my wet-suit on a little easier. I also packed my Frogskins, Under Armor Cold Gear, ski gloves, hand warmers and basically any other article of clothing I had that might help me stay or get warm.
Before the Toughest at night, I did the NY Warrior Dash earlier that day with a team for fun. It was a great race and the temperatures were not much warmer than they would be overnight according to the Weather Channel. After the race was completed, I was covered in mud so I headed down the hill to the showers and hosed off in the mildly warm water but then when I had to walk back up the hill I got a terrible chill and lost the feeling in both of my hands from my mid palm to my fingertips. It was so painful and the use of my hands was very limited. I struggled to change out of my wet clothes and this panicked me. How was I going to be able to get through tonight when it would be colder, longer and have so much more water on the course with so many much more difficult obstacles?
I headed home, showered and tried to sleep before I had to leave for the event, but my anxiety would not allow more than 45 minutes of sleep. I just laid there tossing and turning thinking how this might be the race I receive my first DNF/DQ (Did Not Finish/Disqualified). It was 6:45pm and it was time for me to pick up my pit crew and head out the Coatsville, PA which was about 3 hours away. I decided to drive because I was restless and needed to stay awake at this point. We arrived at the event, parked and headed up to the festival area where I checked in and received my timing chip and bib. We then headed over to the pit area, which was already packed. This was probably my one and only complaint about this event. We were told we would have a designated space, but people were spreading their stuff out all over and there was no room and there were many people coming in after me. We found a little spot open at the end of the table and decided to set up there.
I decided to take my chances on the first lap without wearing my wetsuit because it was said that the first lap many of the obstacles would remain closed and would begin to open gradually. So dressed in my Frogskin top, Bleggmitts, Under Armor Cold Gear compression pants, wool socks & my Camelback filled with a little water and fuel but mostly hand warmers, a heat sheet and extra gloves I headed over to the start line. We were lined up at 11:30 and they gave a series of speeches including rules and spoke about a fellow Mudder that was injured in a car accident on his way home from TM earlier that day. His words were moving asking us why we were here and what did we expect out there. After taking a knee, the national anthem and a whole bunch of Hooyah’s at the stroke of midnight we were released on to the course.
I had gotten to the start line early so I was a little closer to the front of the line and it was so cool to see the lights of fellow Mudders in front of you. What was even better is when I looked back and saw the long stream of white headlamps from about 600+ racers behind me. It was truly a remarkable sight! The first lap we would run past most of the major obstacles. Even though they had volunteers and were illuminated, we were told to go on and they would see us soon. Some minor obstacles, like water crossings or low hurdles, were on the course so it wasn’t completely without obstacles, just not the 17 major ones listed on the map. I was running a decent pace and actually felt very hot, almost like I was going to overheat. By the time I reached Pitfall it was open. This one would get me wet and muddy up to my ribcage. Once wet I was afraid I would get cold, but miraculously I wasn’t and was actually quite comfortable temperature wise. After lap one was complete I headed into the pit to fuel and debated if I should put on my wetsuit or brave another lap as I was.
In the pit I fueled up as I had felt not eating since hours earlier. I kept questioning what to do about the wetsuit. I decided to keep on what I had and headed back towards the start line. About halfway down I caught a chill and heard them announce “Arctic Enema is now open” and I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach so I turned to my pit crew and said “I’m going back to get on my wet-suit”. In the pit area we didn’t have much room but I started to change and since I was muddy and wet it would be quite the comedy show me trying to get out of my wet clothes and into my thick wet-suit that only had a small opening in the chest to fit my whole body. After struggling to get it on, both my pit assistance and another person in the pit area came over to help me. One was pulling my sleeves up while the other was literally picking me up and trying to shake me into it. It was really quite comical. After finally getting it on and putting my bib back on, I headed back outside. I didn’t feel like I had enough on, so I headed back in the pit area, added a shirt under my wet-suit and over then put my bib back on. By the time I headed back to the start line for lap 2 I had spent approximately 55 minutes in the pit area. This indecisiveness and panic would ultimately cost me enough time for another lap in the end.
By the time I started lap 2 every obstacle was now open. In previous Toughest Mudders there were 2 course loops and only half of the obstacles were open but this time it was a single loop and all 17 were opened up pretty much within minutes of each other. My headlamp kept slipping off of my head so I ended up tucking it under the strap of my Camelback and held it to light the pathway. Mud Mile was obstacle 1/17 on the map and my short height made it impossible to complete on my own. I recruited a few that helped me over and I returned the favor as we went over mound by mound. Covered in thick mud I approached obstacle 2/17, Skidmarked, which was basically a very high inverted wall that I couldn’t even reach the top of so again I had to enlist the help of strangers to give me a boost to so I could reach the top. Once I did I was able to pull myself over but it was already pretty slick. Next up 3/17 was the Blockness Monster. This was one where you really needed teamwork to turn the heavy block and we took turns grabbing it and sliding over. Once you got it moving it would become easy to get over with teamwork but when I would arrive at this obstacle on lap 3 I couldn’t move it on my own so I would have to stand in the water and wait for enough of us to get it going. The Pyramid Scheme (4/17) was next, which was basically the equivalent of a Spartan Slip Wall, however, the rope was so short and the board so slippery I was jumping up and belly flopping and still not even close to the ropes. A guy came up and offered me his knee to stand on to get up and I gladly accepted. Once I was able to grab the rope I climbed up relatively easily.
I ran for a little while then made it to Everest 2.0 (5/17). At this obstacle I had to throw up a rope to catch in-between these wooden triangle structures and then pull myself up on this VERY slippery quarter pipe. I climbed to the top and my hand became wedged between the rope and the pipe and was crushing it because all of my body weight was on the rope. I was finally able to free my hand and a guy that had just made it to the top came over to give me a hand up. After thinking about what I could do better next lap, on round 3 I got up the rope all by myself with zero assistance! Next up came Hang Time (6/17). This was very high up and you just had to leap out and hope you grabbed the trapeze style bar. Once on the bar, it would swing you to the cargo net, which the first time I made it to but wasn’t as lucky on lap 3. After grabbing on to the cargo net you had to climb over another rope then shimmy down that rope. I made it ¾ of the way on the cargo net but then slipped off right into the water below. After swimming to the other side I was told to take the penalty lap for failing the obstacle.
After the lap I arrived at the Ladder to Hell (7/17). This one was high but I have been on obstacles like this before so I did this one fairly with ease. We would then run for a little while before heading to obstacle 8/17, Augustus Gloop. At this obstacle you went into the water and then had to climb to the top of the pipe while water poured down on you. After this obstacle there was a nice stretch of running and then there it was, the dreaded Arctic Enema the Rebirth (9/17)! As I approached this obstacle my stomach started hurting. My hands started shaking. My mind started racing. Should I put on my neoprene cap or take my chances as is? After standing there for a few minutes I decided not to wear the cap. I headed up, covered my hands with the Bleggmitts and headed down the tube into the freezing cold water. Once in the water I had a low cargo net over me and had to go under a piece of wood and completely submerge myself under the cold water once again. I hit my head (both lap 2 & 3) on the wood and when I got out of the water I was cold, but surprisingly with my gear I didn’t feel like I had feared. I began to run immediately to generate heat but I felt relieved…I did Arctic Enema and it didn’t take me out! After completing Arctic Enema obstacle I felt a sudden burst of energy, like I totally can do this again!
Next up would be Funky Monkey the Revolution (10/17). This obstacle was a set of monkey bars that went up, which normally I can do but these were super slippery. I made it almost to the top where I would have to transition to the moving pipes, but I fell into the water, which after Arctic Enema actually warmed me up. When arriving to Stage 5 Clinger (11/17) I had to watch other athletes complete it before coming up with a plan on how I was going to do it. It was very slick and covered with mud and pretty high up. After letting a few people go ahead of me, I attempted it and succeeded (both laps 2 & 3). When I arrived at Balls to the Wall (12/17) it was extremely muddy and the ropes were very slippery so it was not as easy as I thought it would be, but luckily I was able to conquer it both laps 2 & 3.
Here came my second most dreaded obstacle, Operation (13/17). This evil obstacle is like the old game by Hasbro Operation and was the same concept, only for this one you took a metal rod and as you stood in water tried to get it through an electrically charged hole without touching it as you hooked a ring onto the end of your metal rod and had to bring the volunteer the ring. If you touch the hole, you were shocked. As I was doing it the girl next to me got shocked so bad she literally flew out of the water and on to the ground. That was my tip to ease the pole back towards me and just take my penalty lap! Lap 3 honestly I didn’t even try it, just took the penalty. I we shocked pretty badly in the water at Electric Eel back in TM 2012 and didn’t want to feel that again. After my long penalty lap I arrived at another muddy water obstacle called Quagmire (14/17) and made it in & out relatively easily. The Black Hole/Birth Canal (15/17) was a series of tarps you had to climb under that were full of heavy water so I had to do a soldier crawl through it. Then it was back into Pitfall (16/17) so I actually did this obstacle all 3 laps. Next up was the final obstacle, Kong (17/17)!
When I arrived at Kong there was my support crew cheering me on! I climbed up the muddy and slippery ladder to the top and the rings were so high up and full of mud. I grabbed on, swung and fell straight into the huge pillow below, which left me laughing hysterical. It was actually fun. I got off the pillow and a sand bag carry would be my penalty for failing this one. After the carry was complete I headed over to the finish line. After lap 2 I would enter the pit area once again, fuel up and headed back out within about 15 minutes. After lap 3 I realized that I had wasted too much time previously in the pit and based on how long it would approximately take to complete lap 4, I realized that I would have to have a better time than lap 2 & 3 and I felt like my body was telling me enough is enough. At this point the sun was up and I was struggling to stay awake. It was all finally catching up to me so I decided that 3 laps would be how I finished but in order to be a finisher I had to remain in the area until 8 am, which I did. I changed out of my wet clothes and wet suit (which was also pretty comical) and headed to the pit area one last time to fuel up, clean up and await the final step to achieving this tough but awesome accomplishment. I headed over to the finisher line and received my very first black headband and I am now officially a Toughest Mudder!
They say this course to date was the hardest one, and I believe them. Not just because I felt it was, but it is a new series and they really took a look at the previous ones and figured out how to make it harder. There were more participants at Philly, but there were less people that made that 25+ mile mark. It was a tough course, but fun too. I really enjoyed many of the obstacles they had and while my ending mileage was 15 miles (penalty mileage is not included in this number) and I wanted to complete that 4th lap, I am very proud of my performance and how well my body held up in the chilly night conditions while I was soaking wet and muddy basically the entire time. If the others were a little closer I would have definitely done another one and perhaps next year my ultimate goal will be to compete in World’s Toughest Mudder. I guess you’ll have to wait and see 😉