(The following post is from an article I did for the short-lived national obstacle racing magazine Mud & Obstacle back in 2014.)
Maybe you’re on the fence about whether to sign up for a Tough Mudder. You probably think it looks like fun, but . . . you’re not sure if you can run that far. Or, you don’t think you have the strength to climb over the Berlin Walls. Or, you don’t like being shocked by electricity. Or, you’re too old.
If that sounds like you, you’re like a lot of people . . . a lot of people who weren’t sure they could do a Tough Mudder at all, but survived it and have gone on to do many, many Tough Mudders. We talked to 10 obstacle-hardened veterans of the tough mud about the mental and physical pitfalls of a Tough Mudder and how to avoid them. Sign up for one, and then take their advice.
IGNORE THE VOICE OF DOUBT
We all have that nagging voice of doubt in our heads, the one that says you’re out of your league, you can’t do it, you’re probably going to hurt yourself. And sometimes that voice of doubt comes from outside your head.
“My first Tough Mudder, I was out of shape. People laughed at me and told me ‘Really, YOU’RE doing that?” says Ernest Garcia. “I’ll be honest, the first half-mile on my first one I was looking for the way out.”
But, determined, Garcia pushed through and completed the course. Today, he’s a veteran of four Tough Mudders and counting.
“Trust me, there’s no reason to doubt yourself,” says Garcia. “Great shape or not, don’t ever limit yourself. It’s all mental.”
Doubt and nervousness are things everyone feels when they toe their very first Tough Mudder start line, says Frayah Bartuska, a veteran of seven Tough Mudders. It’s common to worry if you trained hard enough or are truly ready for a course you’ve never experienced before.
“I think my biggest fear was that everyone else was going to do great, and I was going to look like an idiot,” says Bartuska. “Not the case at all.”
Kristy McBride, who has completed 10 Tough Mudder events, says she still tenses up at certain obstacles. But, she says, countering that nervousness with a confident, positive attitude helps. “Most of the feared obstacles are actually really easy to get through and not nearly as bad as what you think they will be,” says McBride. “If you convince yourself that you will fail ahead of time, then you probably will.”
YOU CAN GO THE DISTANCE
Many of us think simply running for 10 to 12 miles is out of our league. So 10 to 12 miles with obstacles? Forget it.
But don’t let Tough Mudder’s distance fool you. Veterans like McBride say the obstacles that break up the course often give you a chance to rest your running muscles. And, when you get tired or you want to conserve your energy, you can always walk. Most people do.
“As long as you can comfortably run three miles at once on terrain similar to your event course, and you can continue walking for at least an hour without much rest, then the overall distance shouldn’t be much of an issue,” says McBride.
You can certainly incorporate long-distance running into your pre-event training, but you don’t need to. Chris Cesario, a veteran of four Tough Mudders, says the bulk of his workouts consist of interval training that mimics the stop-and-go pace of running the course. He runs in roughly half-mile increments broken up by strength-training exercises. “I never ran more than three miles in training for any of the courses I completed,” he says.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
You have no vertical leap, and your upper-body strength is questionable. So when you read about Tough Mudder’s 12-foot-high Berlin Walls that you somehow have to get up and over, you have visions of being stuck at a dead end.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
“Tough Mudder is first and foremost about camaraderie,” says 8-time Tough Mudder veteran Ryan Josti. Tough Mudder participants are known for their great spirit of teamwork, says Josti, and your fellow mudders are always willing to lend a helping hand.
In fact, getting help at the Berlin Walls is almost mandatory. According to Tough Mudder, roughly 80 percent of participants require help conquering the walls.
“I’m met some of my closest friends at the Berlin Walls, no joke,” says Bartuska. She says upper-body strength-training is helpful to pull yourself over the walls. But, she adds, the walls should never deter anyone from signing up. Thanks to teamwork, she’s seen people of all shapes, sizes and ages conquer the obstacle. And that spirit of teamwork extends to all other obstacles on the course, from Everest to Mud Mile.
“The secret to completing a Tough Mudder is the company you keep and the people that you find on the course, not your level of physical fitness,” says 11-time Tough Mudder, Mathieu Lo. “If you can round-up four of your closest, adventurous friends to do it with you, you’re halfway there.”
EMBRACE THE SHOCK
Perhaps nobody has completed more Tough Mudder events than Jim Campbell. As a veteran of 45 Tough Mudders, you’d think he’d be used to all the obstacles by now, including the notorious, electrically-shocking obstacles Electroshock Therapy and Electric Eel.
“I have probably done these two obstacles more than anyone in the world,” he says, “and each time I come up to them I hesitate.”
It’s hard not to hesitate when you’re about to get zapped by electricity. Physically, there is little challenging about going through a field of hanging wires. But it’s hard to get your body to move when your brain is screaming “NO!”
“It’s the mental grit that gets you through it,” says Bartuska. “I just tell myself to suck it up and get through it. It always makes for a good story afterwards.”
Of course, you can always walk around the electric obstacles. (And, if you have a health issue, Tough Mudder asks that you do just that.) But if you avoid them out of fear, you might regret it later. Lo says that he was already beaten, broken and demoralized when he reached Electroshock Therapy during his first Tough Mudder. He decided to walk around the obstacle. And he soon regretted it.
“Hours later, I found videos of people falling, screaming and laughing through the wires,” says Lo. “I regretted my decision and vowed that the next time I did a Tough Mudder I would embrace the obstacle.”
Of course, there’s no way to truly train for the electric obstacles. There’s also no real consensus on the best way to approach them. Five-time Tough Mudder Jennifer Rowback recommends participants go as fast as they can. “It is painful, it is scary, but if you hesitate and let that fear build up, it only makes it even scarier,” she says.
However, 9-time Tough Mudder Ken Jacobus recommends people don’t sprint through Electroshock Therapy. He says sprinters run the risk of falling face-first after they’ve been shocked.
DON’T SWEAT THE TALL STUFF
Every Tough Mudder participant has at least one obstacle that always tests them. For 11-time Tough Mudder Sonya Goodwin, that obstacle is Walk the Plank.
“Everytime I stand on top, I have to draw in that strength from somewhere and step off,” says Goodwin. “I know I can swim well, and I know I am not going to get hurt or even bruised, but it still knots my stomach every time.”
However, Goodwin says her fear of Walk the Plank only adds to how rewarding it is when she conquers it. “The sense of achievement when you conquer your fears is indescribable and worth every ounce of sweat and moment of hesitation,” says Goodwin.
Like Electroshock Therapy, there isn’t a way to train for Walk the Plank. It’s an obstacle for your mind.
“Walk the Plank is definitely an example of how Tough Mudder pushes your mental toughness as well as your physical toughness,” says Cesario. “My advice is take a deep breath, feel the fear and do it anyway.”
BRAVE THE COLD
Outside of the electric obstacles, perhaps no obstacle inspires as much dread and fear as Arctic Enema. Jumping in a dumpster of ice has made participants literally freeze up in pain, contort their faces for memorable photos and inspired many great Mudder stories.
“It’s awful, fun, hilarious and traumatizing all at once,” says Bartuska.
Rowback describes the experience as an intense pain throughout your entire body. “I have had three children, and I would classify Arctic Enema as a similar pain to childbirth,” says Rowback.
Like many Mudder obstacles, Cesario says Arctic Enema is another great place for teamwork. “When I came up from going under the wall, I was literally frozen in place,” says Cesario. “Fortunately, a woman reached out to me and said, ‘I’ll help you, brother.’”
Jacobus says the best strategy is to try jumping as close to the center partition as you can. Then bob under quickly and shoot for the other side. “You want to be in and out,” he says.
Cesario recommends that after you get out of Arctic Enema, you take a few moments to move your limbs and stretch out. Otherwise, he says, those cold muscles could begin to cramp.
LIVE IN THE MOMENT
Ten to 12 miles is a lot of ground to cover. You’re going to be out there awhile, so don’t ruin it for yourself by going too fast or being distracted. Campbell says it’s important to pace yourself on the course, especially early on. Go too fast and you can gas out, not to mention pull a muscle or twist an ankle.
Campbell also says don’t let the fear of one or two obstacles cast a shadow over the rest of the course.
“Mentally, you have to keep your mind on the obstacle or stretch of path in front of you,” he says. “It sounds simple enough, but I always hear those who say, ‘Where is Leap of Faith?’ or ‘Is that Everest?’”
If you’re distracted, you might miss something great about the loop you are on, he says. And staying in the moment makes the distance go by faster.
YOU’RE NOT TOO OLD
If you’re in your 40s or even 50s, you might be thinking Tough Mudder looks like fun, but you’re too old to tackle that kind of course now. Hogwash.
Ken Jacobus is 53 years old. Not only is he running Tough Mudders, but he does so while hauling his tall, hulking 260-pound frame over the obstacles. He’s not trying to break any speed records or win any championships. He just trying to challenge himself.
“I have no plans on stopping,” says Jacobus. “As we get older, we need to tailor our workouts and races to what we are capable of while still pushing the limit and striving to improve. Smooth and steady is the key.”
Jim Campbell — that guy whose done 45 Tough Mudders — he’s 49 years old. “It’s really about bettering yourself,” says Campbell, “no matter what your age or ability.”
If you’re training for your first Tough Mudder, you’re probably focusing on improving your running and upper body strength, and perhaps even your mental discipline. But there’s one aspect of running a Tough Mudder that is often overlooked: fuel.
The fact is no matter how many miles you run or how many pull-ups you do, your muscles will be useless without the proper fuel to power them.
“Eat whenever they offer you food,” says Cesario. “It’s intuitive to drink, but it’s not always obvious that you are burning a tremendous amount of calories and you need fuel.”
Cesario says the bananas that Tough Mudder volunteers hand out at aid stations are a huge help because the potassium can keep you from cramping.
Campbell says that during his first Tough Mudder event, he began to run out of steam and started cramping around Mile 6. He was given an energy gel from another runner, and that helped save his day. Now he recommends runners eat at every aid station and bring a few gels for themselves and to share with a runner in need.
YOU CAN DO MORE THAN YOU THINK
Too old. Can’t run far. Not strong enough. There are plenty of reasons for you to think you can’t handle a Tough Mudder. But what if you’re wrong?
“The great thing about Tough Mudder is that it’s not a race, it’s a challenge against yourself,” says McBride. “Tough Mudder may just seem like another mud run if you haven’t done one, but it has the ability to turn people’s lives around. From losing weight to overcoming addiction, I have seen Tough Mudder have an amazing influence on several people.”
Josti says anyone who is fit enough to walk several miles can make it through a Tough Mudder. “The goal isn’t to do it the fastest,” says Josti. “Tough Mudders are meant to be completed. Whether that takes you two hours or eight hours, your solitary goal is to make it across the finish line.”
Rowback recommends that if you’re not confident in your abilities, then try a Tough Mudder as part of a team. Teammates can help you through difficult obstacles, she says, and give you confidence when fear creeps up.
And, remember, if you’re scared, maybe that’s why you should sign up.
“Sometimes,” says Jacobus, “we have to remind ourselves that we are still alive.”
(Originally published in Mud & Obstacle Magazine)