Tough Mudder style events: as tough as they proclaim to be, or just wholesome fun?

Mudding up a storm! (Source:Jim via flickr.)
Insights from Tough Mudder London West 2017

by Liam Davies

Every December, the inevitable “so what do you want for Christmas?” question is shot your way by parents. Hence, we likely direct them to websites whose products we’ve been poring over longingly for many weeks. This year just gone however, my direction saw an aberration. Hey Mum, can Santa pay for my entry to this event please? Spartan Races, Warrior Dashes and Mud and Obstacle Runs have witnessed a steady increase in popularity over the last decade, enjoyed by those of all ages and levels of fitness. Just Google “Mud Run” and you’ll get a plethora of events fill the search results. There exists a wide array of reasons for participation: stag or hen do activity, for charity/in aid of a respectable cause, for fun, to appease your mental imbalances even. So how best to submit to this growing hype than by signing up for Tough Mudder of all events? This option seemed to serve as favourable medium: popular (held all over the globe) and challenging but not too extreme. With final coursework all submitted and exams just days away, what better way to indulge in a quick hiatus from revision than by taking an afternoon out to run 12 miles whilst simultaneously conquering obstacles involving vertigo-deteriorating heights and electrocution by 10,000 volt wires when soaking wet?

With a few weeks of running in preparation narrowly squeezed under the belt and a day of borderline carbicide before, Saturday 6th May quickly dawned. With plenty of chocolate bars and Lucozades down the hatchet, a high-intensity Spotify playlist being fed to the stereo through a high-tech Aux and morale at a somewhat alarmingly ill-found high amongst our trio, my best friend’s Nissan Micra Sport was gunning it down the M4 to Henley-on-Thames; finite traces of blood to be found in our glucose streams. Other topics of conversation pushed aside, we contemplated our imminent venture, discussing GoPro videos of previous events and posts through the Tough Mudder UK Facebook page. Would Tough Mudder really be as “tough” as the promos purport it to be? I mean, someone died at one of these events in 2013. But no, surely not us. Would we burn out by mile 6? Face an adverse reaction to one of the obstacles? This concoction of thoughts sent the diabetes-inducing sugar level in my stomach swirling in unpleasant directions. A snap of reality was needed. “Man up Liam you fecking wimp,” I thought as we pulled into the vast Culden Faw Estate (which is actually not even in London; near-ish though seeing as we confusingly went through Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and over the Thames in the space of about ten minutes).

The event itself was huge. Seriously, this could be Glastonbury. Throw in some people storming over your head on broomsticks and you’re not far off the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Tents, tents and more tents. It’s huge. Flags flying, saturated in a sea of orange all around.

With one of us working at the event as part of a degree placement, we soon parted ways and headed to the registration tent. Camaraderie, banter and excitement abuzz amongst everyone, we pinned our numbers to our t-shirts and filled out participant waivers, promising the possibility of broken bones, grazes, seizures, organ failure and several other festivities. With a few ‘before’ pictures to treasure the occasion taken, Snapchats and Boomerangs captured, we filed into the warm up area.

Reciting the Tough Mudder pledge at the start, my friend Jake and I stifled a giggle. What was this, the preamble to some sort of faux military Convention or Treaty? Scaremongering? Or just part of the fun? I took a good few moments to size up our other runners in the wave (which is laughable seeing as I stand at only 5’10”). Many, so many. Doing a few 360-degree eye-sweeps of the starting circle: a pleasing balance of both genders, almost all being in groups. Girl groups in matching coloured t-shirts, bunches of lads in their vest tops. People of literally all shapes and sizes eager to surmount this predicament right in front of us. A notable and heart-warming feat of this event was the real sense of companionship between everyone, completely devoid of elitist competition you’d find tainting events such as 10kms or half-marathons. Even the friends and family spectating and camping overnight were ensuring everyone had a blast (we later found out all the campers were ordering Domino’s together for that evening. Brilliant). You’re not in it to win it; you’re in it to finish it. A few roars of “hoo-hah” in unison and screaming in a random competitor’s face attempts to crank up the morale. My newly toasted heart however soon regressed to a colder state of being as the countdown began. Adrenaline was racing riot around me. Oh god, is this what it felt like to be in the Hunger Games? When they all stand on the pedestals in front of the Cornucopia seconds before that massive bloodbath? I think of that guy in America who drowned and hope the odds be ever in my favour just as Effie Trinket tempts everyone they might be. As I was pondering that rather drastic hyperbolism, the count hit zero, smoke grenades were thrown up and around and everyone began shuffling forward. Apart from the runners in front of you kicking up clouds of dust in their wake for you to inhale, this wasn’t so bad.

For this first mile or two, everyone from the wave is clumped together, so you’re a bit tight for space. You’re met with the odd diagonal 10-foot wall to clamber your way over or patch of barbed wire to crawl under. Fine. Tension alleviated right? Try again. At the mile three border, you meet a hypothermic menace, Arctic Enema 2.0: two gigantic skips to slide into and wade through, being poured full of ice by two huge trailers. Drop down into the skip and it’s systems shutdown and everything goes dark. Bye Felicia. The contact with these perishing temperatures literally renders you unable to draw breath. C’mon Liam, it’s time for those twelve hours a week you spent in a swimming pool throughout your teenage years to finally be put to use. Swim through and get out.

The Culden Faw Estate was undoubtedly a setting competing to give the adjective “picturesque” a new definition. Varying woodland and some truly stunning views all around. The hills and their gradients you faced however, were inevitably bent on disrupting the comfort your already-worn legs had found solace in when running on a flat stretch of ground. A few drained souls had already decided to drop out after a few miles of tackling these. At the top of several hills, look down and you’d see streams of runners trickling in all different channels up and down them. Carry on through the course and you’ve got a varying range of new obstacles to beat. A twelve-foot wall to climb over next. Your reward for conquering that? Another one. Progress further and you’ll be crawling though pipes or scooting your way up them as you’re blinded by a torrent of water and then stepping on people’s shoulders as mud flies everywhere to get to the top of “Pyramid Scheme.”

The fun ratchets up when you reach the monkey bars. Proving your worth on these damn things is a formidable challenge. Get half way across them and you’ve beaten most people, or just follow my tactic of desperately reaching for the next wheel-rung as you’re dangling in the air and then find yourself instantaneously flailing downwards to be met by an inviting crash mat of muddy water.

It sure is a long way to run though and by mile eight I’m wondering if this seemingly perpetual course would end. My one leg’s starting to get some irritating shooting pains through it by this point. My brother’s girlfriend recalled munching through a strip of paracetemol when she ran a marathon not too long back. Probably a great idea right now but I’ve got none of those and the only medication you’re being served every two miles is water and yet more Lucozade with the odd protein chunk at a hydration station somewhere in a field. This event is easily getting through some metric tons of energy drinks. There are literally so many.

The participant feel you have is diluted partly by that of a more customer one – sponsorship and advertising boards decorate the course, fuelling your awareness of Kingstone Press cider as you drop into the ice skip, Head & Shoulders shampoo as you queue for the monkey bars and Lucozade drinks as you sprint your way up a gigantic ramp entitled “Everest,” ultimately encouraging commerce. The event itself is utilised by companies such as these as a selling platform. Perhaps the scale could be toned down a little though considering the £100 > entry fee. This was surely enough to part with before you’ve even started, do they really need more money from everyone?

As we entered mile ten, Jay Asher’s character Hannah Baker pushed her way to the forefront of my mind. Looking riled and vulnerable against the school lockers just as in the Facebook memes, her infamous “welcome to your tape” tagline softly ricocheted off every arc in my brain. And me in contrast: soaking wet, wheezing more ferociously than that penguin on the top shelf in Toy Story and covered in mud, grass and a mix of other substances that probably accumulate to shite. Seriously, I’m getting tired. All the water, pasta and isotonic drinks in Tesco Extra can power you through but you’ll struggle if you’re not a regular gym worshipper or distance runner. But no Hannah, you gave up on life. Tough Mudder you’re not getting a tape. We’ve got finishers’ T-Shirts to collect. Also I wouldn’t stomach the continuous ribbing from everyone for months to come dare I drop out. Mumma didn’t raise no quitter (as much as he might have considered it, his asthma-ridden lungs already surpassing overdrive, heart smash-pumping in his chest). If you can survive 26-hour stints in the ASSL slaving your way through soul-wrecking essays, this is nothing.

The final two miles were over pretty quick. If you can endure the Electroshock Therapy at the end and the power of the current zapping you intensified by the sadistic staff member who thinks the height of hilarity is to spray you and the wires with water, exacerbating the shocks. Then you’re at the finish, being crowned with a headband. Mission complete. Amen. Unintentionally re-enacting the horror stories of people taking these electrodes to the face and blacking out averted. We did it! Cue me scooping up all the offered rewards from the finishing tents (involving a t-shirt, more sports drinks, protein shakes, cider, flapjacks) and scurrying back to the car in a fashion not too dissimilar to Emily Blunt after she raids the petrol station in Wild Target, my legs trembling at the culmination of combined exertion and electrocution. The showers deserve a quick bypass too.

All in all, Tough Mudder is a seriously great event, even if you’re merely spectating and/or cheering friends and family on, but it’s certainly not for the weak or faint-hearted. It pushes you to (maybe new) extremes, particularly if fitness isn’t your paramount concern in life, enhances your teamwork skills, builds endurance and allows finishing to be documented as a new achievement. A full three-hour body workout (depending on your pace) ensures an abundance of lactic acid that’ll leave you aching mildly for days to come. If you can run a fair distance anyway, nothing will stop you tearing up Tough Mudder. If fitness isn’t your thing, train up for it before you hit it head on. At the end of the day, 12 miles and some pretty gruelling obstacles are quite something.

From participation alone, it is evident that people give these events a bloody hard go. Even where parts of the course we completed met, a relentless flow of people ran past you. Thousands of people enter, willing to beat the challenge. You’re guaranteed so many laughs along the way. Where else are you likely to see a guy covered in mud streaking into the woods, pulling down his shorts and yelling in his friends’ general direction, “tell Emma I’m having a piss!” If you’re apprehensive about the distance, just remember, your body can do incredible things in the heat of the moment when it’s powered on adrenaline. People have lifted boulders off themselves; finished that marathon, climbed Everest, and walked 500 miles. Obviously there’s a dichotomy between those extremes and this, but you get the picture. You’ll surprise yourself. Ignore the “Toughest Event on the Planet” slogans because they’re assuredly apocryphal. Complete it and you’ll be looking back on your performance with a well-deserved grin as you nurture your wrecked muscles.

The unfortunate characteristic to these events however is their parallel purpose in existing as a money-grabbing franchise. Even dropping your bag sees a £3 tariff. Everything costs. But hey, you get plenty of drinks, snacks and goodies at the end of the day so perhaps these delights you reap leave the money vacuuming versus produce-providing balance in a fair equilibrium. Perhaps a lowered entry cost and a toning down of the “give us your money” feel could award these companies more competitors.

Let’s go back to one initial consideration. Do these types of events live up to their hype? Certainly. If slathering round in mud, running a considerable distance and risking personal safety is your dirty cup of tea. Tough Mudder gives you plenty of gains, a few being: bruises, laughs, memories and muscle.

And possibly pneumonia. Take it or leave it.

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