I have never understood Tough Mudder. I get it, but I just never felt like doing it until now. I’ve got my reasons:
- I’m a social person, but when I’m running, I’m running.
- Put your headphones back in.
- No we can’t take a rest.
- Yes, this is a good pace.
- No I don’t do this often (lies).
- Where I get my shoes is my own business.
- What am I listening to… the sound of your voice mainly…
I don’t really want to talk to anyone else when I’m racing, and I certainly don’t have time for helping anyone else (apart from those in dire need). Being British doesn’t help matters and the thought of American style ‘Hoorah’, bowing earnestly on one knee, repeating mantras and oaths and touching (I mean actually placing hands on the shoulders of strangers) harks to a military convention of camaraderie that I’m not privy or partial to. Hearts are firmly worn on sleeves here. I find it awkward, but in the chaotic world of OCR events, there isn’t a whole lot of room for the reserved in nature – especially in a Tough Mudder.
Things first got uncomfortable for me in the starting pen; the MC on the stage called for everyone to put their hands into the center of the circle (as must be the tradition). We were to become as family. Leave no man behind, work as a team, help each other, finish together. All that bonding, high fives, chest bumps, meet your closest neighbor stuff… What? Finish, yes. But together? Hold that thought.
Someone deftly placed a hand on my shoulder. I glanced backwards; the gentleman had his eyes closed and his head bowed – fully penitent. My hand, remained hovering awkwardly over the shoulder of a bearded stranger ahead of me. He seemed like a nice enough bloke, but he probably didn’t want to be touched either. So it’s time to start then?
Um. No. Not yet.
In fact, we moved to another starting pen for another pre-race ritual. By now I was really ready to get moving, but there was more bonding to be performed. I took a few quick glances around while the warm up act continued.
Drumheller is a cool place for a Tough Mudder. Beyond the start line was 9 miles or so of canyons, hills and hoodoo formations, scarred with the rusting shells of past mining industry. Dinosaur bones are often found here. The obstacle course would take us down into the heart of the river valley and I couldn’t wait to get out there and experience it.
GO! We started off out of the pen. Finally we were away.
The first three kilometers were on a dirt bike track and were fairly sparse on obstacles. Before too long, my reptilian brain had made sure I was out ahead of almost everyone, on my own – breaking through into my race pace across the small hills and jumps. Something felt off though, and a course volunteer reminded me that being alone on a Tough Mudder isn’t a good thing. I was going to need a team to help me through this.
I slipped back a little, embarrassed at how aggressively I had started. Soon I reached the 8ft wall obstacle, which I cleared alone, before realizing that I should probably help other people over too. I turned and ran around the wall, joining a few guys with their hands ready to help others over the wall. I helped a few people up, then ran on. I don’t know whether anyone else really needed the help or not, but it was customary to offer it and accept it.
Eventually I fell into a rhythm with two guys from Medicine Hat, a body repair shop owner from Calgary, and a seasoned ‘Legionnaire’ from somewhere in British Columbia. They became my teammates for the rest of the race.
As I got to know these guys better, through the emasculating cold of ‘Arctic Enema’, each amusing slip or fall into a muddy pool, over the unpredictable ‘Block-ness monster’ and through each punishing hill climb, something changed in my understanding and attitude towards the non-competitive concept of this event. All of the bonding and ‘hoorah’ started to make sense. We talked among ourselves. Discussed our previous races, our training, our jobs, our families. We didn’t always need to help each other through an obstacle, but it made it easier to get everyone through if we did. Occasionally one or another of us had to use our skills or abilities to get the rest of us through the challenges.
My own moment of need arrived at the ‘Pyramid Scheme’ slip wall. I couldn’t get traction and kept slipping back down. After multiple attempts failed, my team formed a human chain, reaching down the wall headfirst, and then pulling me up and over the top. It was a huge effort on their part. But we made it work. Together we were unstoppable.
Then, I finally got it. Or rather, I allowed myself to get it; Tough Mudder is a unique and distinct concept in the realm of OCR because it taps into and exercises that basic altruistic behavior we should all exercise once in a while. Tough Mudder creates a set of circumstances that forces you to need each other and to extend muddy hands to lift each other through it.
More people needed to be there.
I was sorry to see that on the second day of the Alberta Tough Mudder, there was a very low turnout this year. Poor weather the year before is likely to be part of the reason for that. I felt disappointed that people didn’t show up in the numbers this event deserves. It’s too good to miss.
As the miles and obstacles fell, our makeshift team transformed from 5 strangers into family. I understood more about the concept and learned a lot. Tough Mudder teaches you how to trust others, build friendships, rally morale when cramps and injuries surface, find courage in the face of high voltage (yes, it’s a team-building exercise that ends with you getting electrocuted in front of a crowd), to laugh at oneself, to helping others, and maybe most importantly for me, to accept help.
It seems almost too small a reward to get a headband for crossing the finish line, but then again those who see only the material value in Tough Mudder swag have probably missed the point altogether. I’ll see you all there next year!