Commentary

One tough mudder

Behold the merry mayhem when Ironman meets Burning Man

Originally Published: June 21, 2011
By Kayleen Schaefer | ESPN The Magazine

Alex Tehrani for ESPN The MagazineCross the finish line of the Tough Mudder and you get free beer. Costumes optional.

This story appears in the June 27, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THE FIRST TUTU FALLS EARLY at Tough Mudder. I'm running the 10-mile obstacle event with about 5,000 other people on a chilly Saturday in late May at Snow Valley ski resort, about two hours east of LA. As I sprint past the muddy skirt, I wonder why its owner threw it away. Guys are wearing leopard-print unitards, big-hair wigs and those minuscule neon shorts from the women's section at Sports Authority. Some have even forsaken shoes -- one explained his decision to go barefoot by scrawling "Shoes are for pussies" across his chest. Maybe, but I've just shimmied through a corrugated tube filled with wet gravel (the Boa Constrictor) and belly-crawled through muck below barbed wire (Kiss of Mud), and I can only say I'm happy my feet are covered. Just as I'm reading the barefoot Mudder's chest, I see another runner pick up the filthy tutu and slip it on over his spandex tights. "Pretty," I tell him.

I'm actually about as dirty as the tutu, which is funny because, as I was hiking to the start, I'd shirked from the snow-blowing machines pelting icy sprays. Why? Because I didn't want to get wet. When I first heard of Tough Mudder, the best known event in the burgeoning obstacle course field, I thought it sounded like a cross between Survivor (in one obstacle, we run through a field of wires, some charged with 10,000 volts) and a fraternity party. It also seemed like a crappy way to spend a Saturday. Why run around and get dirty with a bunch of pseudo military types with bad tattoos when I could be having Bloody Marys and a bacon sampler? At the very least, a cash reward might be nice. Or a T-shirt. What's a Mudder finisher get? Circa-1970, Day-Glo orange headbands and free beers. Sign me up!

I'm running the Mudder with friends from the University of Texas at Austin: Julien, a 32-year-old business analyst from Houston, and Hoa, a 35-year-old video editor who lives in LA. And as soon as we start the event, I begin to understand its draw. Although I'm not usually one to enjoy an exercise in paramilitary torture, romping through a gauntlet of mud and obstacles is surprisingly fun. A blast, even.

It turns out, there's liberation to be found in the muck. As soon as I stomped in my first puddle, during the Braveheart Charge (a mad dash down a steep hill), I morphed into a filthy child, thrilled to be free, dreams of brunch long forgotten. Failure wasn't even a deterrent to the fun. When I was stymied in my attempt to cross greased, spinning monkey bars, I had to slog through a chest-high mud pit instead. I didn't care. I was grinning ear to ear, like Swamp Thing on laughing gas. By the time I emerged from a swim through a Dumpster filled with water and ice (Chernobyl Jacuzzi), I was convinced there wasn't enough fun in my life.

Alex Tehrani for ESPN The MagazineAmong the obstacles Mudders must tackle: the Ball Shrinker, Electroshock Therapy and the Cliffhanger.

That reflection is exactly what Will Dean, who cofounded the event, told me would happen when we spoke a month earlier, although I didn't believe him. An Englishman with a slight paunch and mellow demeanor, Dean had tired of competing in triathlons and was looking for something more worthy of a weekend warrior. Running races, he said, are just "an exercise in changing your socks quickly." He also thought they were boring and too competitive. That's why Dean created Tough Mudder as a challenge, not a race. He even refuses to give participants timing chips, unlike other obstacle events such as the Warrior Dash and Spartan Race. Tough Mudder is a test of grit, not athletic prowess. (From the Mudder pledge recited just prior to the event: "I do not whine -- kids whine.") Rather than emphasizing finish times, Tough Mudder prizes teamwork; the circuit's unofficial motto could be "Leave No Mudder Behind."

"Who came in first, second or third is a pretty artificial construct," Dean explains. "Lots of things we do aren't timed and they still represent a significant achievement. If I told you I'd climbed Everest, your response would not be to ask me what time I did it in." As a result, the course of the Mudder is as thick with camaraderie as it is with gooey slime. I hear "Need a hand, bro?" all day. At one point, my teammates hoist me, without complaint, sack-of-flour style, over a wall coated in Crisco. You won't see that at Ironman. Of course, there are always some people who are in it just to win it. "Run up the hill," one guy shouts to a teammate on the precipitous Death March to the top of a mountain obscured by fog, even though 90 percent of the field is strolling the monster of a climb. His teammate's response is unprintable.

Before Tough Mudder, I'd never even run a competitive 5K. My training was limited to about 20 miles a week on a treadmill. Dean had said about 20 percent of entrants don't make it. But after a couple of miles, I know I am going to be fine. If you're in above-average shape, can swim about 30 yards and manage a couple of pull-ups (or have teammates to hoist you), that orange headband is as good as yours. Finesse is not required. Most obstacles require little more than throwing yourself at them and hoping for the best. It's your brain, not your body, that you'll need to convince to keep going. My low point comes after three successive water obstacles.

Alex Tehrani for ESPN The MagazineOur writer finds her inner dirty kid.

Before Mile 6, I'm bobbing like a baby seal under endless rows of blue barrels (Underwater Tunnels). Next I wait in a long line, with teeth chattering and body shaking, for an assisted tightrope walk over a pond (Ball Shrinker). When everyone falls into the icy drink, we have to pull ourselves to the shore, where we wait in another line before we can Walk the Plank. If I weren't so cold, jumping off a 15-foot platform and swimming to shore (again) might be exciting. But I'm cold; hypothermia cold. I want to get it over with, so I can start running and get warm. But I do not whine -- kids whine.

I should probably note at this point that, despite having embraced my inner Mudder, this sort of thing isn't going to become a weekend habit for me. It's not that I can't hack it, it's just that I'm not obsessed with it, which many Mudders seem to be. Like 25-year-old Tyler Danielson, who is also at the event. He has a Tough Mudder season pass and is carrying 100 test tubes of tequila, vodka and raspberry schnapps in his CamelBak. He does a shot with anyone who asks. Danielson and his pals even down shots while dangling from the monkey bars. He has the Tough Mudder logo tattooed on his right calf and posts helmet cam video on muddercam.com. It's Danielson whom Dean has in mind when he talks about Tough Mudder becoming addictive.

New employees -- a staff of 23 devotees stage the events -- must watch Fight Club to better understand the event's target demographic. And presumably Dean has included obstacles like the Primal Scream (shouting from a mountaintop) to appeal to the same bored, miserable worker bees who are drawn to the Brad Pitt flick. Ray Upshaw, a 23-year-old day laborer at a Kawasaki plant in Maryville, Mo., is another Mudder regular. He has the entire 46-word prerace pledge tattooed on his back, guaranteeing him free entry for life. When he got the ink, friends called him crazy. "When I'm back home, I'm Clark Kent," he says, "but when I'm out at Tough Mudder, I'm Superman."

The tradition of wearing your headband to the office the Monday after a race is obviously part of the appeal. Dean also notes that some women write on their online dating profiles that they're interested only in Tough Mudder vets (80 percent of participants are male). For me, though, the most appealing part of Tough Mudder is the macho-free esprit de corps. If we can't do this together, a Tough Mudder says, then we're not doing it at all. That's hot. Which brings me to the Berlin Walls, a set of four 12-foot walls about half a mile from the finish. One of my friends could vault over them by himself. Another doubts he has the energy to even try. But I need both of them if I'm to have a chance of getting over the obstacle. So we stop for a few minutes to summon energy for the attempt.

Hoa scrambles to the top of the first wall, then I get a boost from Julien. As he lifts me up as far as he can, Hoa steadies me from the top. (Think cheerleader at the top of a human pyramid.) And though my teammates are doing most of the work, my arms feel as if they're about to give out each time I lift myself to straddle the fence. Slowly, steadily, we clear the three remaining hurdles.

Then it's a short run through one last mud bog to the final obstacle: Electroshock Therapy. I'm losing my Mudder spirit again. I've been on the course for more than four hours and I don't want to rush into a cluster of high-voltage wires hanging over a puddle. Before the event, everybody has to sign a waiver indemnifying Tough Mudder from the "effects of contact with natural and man-made fixed objects; natural and man-made water, road and surface hazards; close proximity and/or contact with thick smoke and/or open flames," but I'm not actually eager to die. I watch for a few moments, stalling, trying to formulate a way to avoid the fate of fellow Mudders. Guys who look like SEAL Team Six members drop as if shot when shocked. My plan is to sprint through as fast as possible and hope nothing kills me. It almost works. Just as I'm about to raise my arms in victory, I get a shock. It's a bit like getting snapped in the ribs with a rubber band the size of a baseball bat. I keep going, though, for two reasons. First, I can see the beer table at the raucous after-party.

A sign on the course asks, "When was the last time you really earned a beer?" I know the answer only too well, and I want my suds. The other reason I refused to lose my legs?

Hey, only tutus go down.