or “How I got 50 miles at WTM without ever running”
This article recounts my experience in completing World’s Toughest Mudder 2021 without a pit, and without running in training, or during the race. This is not a race review, but an account of a non-traditional approach to training for, and competing in, the greatest obstacle course race we have.
There I was, at WTM 2018 in Fairburn, GA. It was a cold, clear, Saturday night around 9pm, at mile 1 of Lap 5. I’d failed Twin Peaks, lost my headlamp (wasn’t tied to my bib), and took the long, dark penalty alone. Four miles later, I met my brother Brian in the pit and said, “I’m done. This is my last lap.” Two hours later, I walked off the course. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t quitting because I was too cold. I just didn’t want it enough to keep going.
I memorialized my failure at the brunch Monday afternoon with a custom inscription on one of the free Guinness glasses that were given out.
On my drive back home to Virginia, I replayed the race in my head a few times. I just didn’t want it bad enough, and it didn’t seem worth the effort to complete 20 more miles in 12 hours to get another brown bib. That’s when I decided that my next WTM would be different. I was going to do something that nobody else had done: run the whole race without having a pit, carrying all the gear and nutrition that I would need for the entire race.
I didn’t run WTM 2019 or Virtual WTM 2020, but my plan stayed the same. I would start WTM 2021 with everything I would need for the full 24 hours, except whatever was provided to us on the course (drinking water). I did the math and figured that 50 miles was achievable under these circumstances, even without knowing the weather or the course. I was excited to try something new and different, and it motivated me to train.
As a bit of background, I didn’t think this was a stupid idea. I had completed a 36-hour adventure race in West Virginia, as well as 4 WTMs in Vegas (with Brian as pit crew), averaging 55 miles. I had also completed Ranger School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection back in the day, but now I am twice that age and have half as many functioning ACLs.
Since I’d be carrying everything, gear selection felt a bit different than previous WTMs. If there’s one phrase I hate, it’s, “Fall down 7 times, get up 8”, because you’re already up! You can’t get up again!! But a close second hated phrase is, “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” (I know, I know, it’s generally good advice, but do we have to use it in EVERY SINGLE THREAD?) Anyway, I wasn’t going to have the luxury of a pit to store a 3rd pair of gloves or frogskins or extra locklaces, etc., so I had to be extra particular. I knew I wouldn’t finalize my packing list until the week before WTM, when I could see the course map and have a decent idea of what the weather would be, but I made some assumptions and found an Xterra dry bag/backpack that seemed about the right size. Fully loaded, it weighed around 11 pounds.
My final gear list: Scuba hood, BleggMitts, two headlamps (with pre-tied lanyards this time!), shorty wetsuit, full wetsuit, windbreaker, glowstick, two soft water bottles, and enough Tailwind and Gu for 25.5 hours. Seriously. That was it. (Side note: I had been successful with just Tailwind and Gu in the past.)
I had a pretty decent training routine from previous years combining some strength work with just enough running to get me through the first 2-3 laps. Strength training was about 90 minutes, 3 times a week focusing on grip strength, bodyweight work (dips/pull-ups/box jumps, etc.) with squat/bench/deadlift thrown in. I’ve been pretty consistent in my garage gym for a couple of years now, and I am happy with my WTM results. I rarely have an issue with an obstacle that doesn’t involve a mini-trampoline (0 for 7 on Tramp Stamp, but I’m in good company on that one, right Amelia?). My initial plan was to keep the same training and add some rucking with my new pack. As I put the plan to paper, I started to have some doubts about ruck vs. run mileage and the effort needed to support my goals. I scheduled a 1-hour training consult with Brakken Kraker and walked him through my plan.
If you’ve listened to The Running Public podcast, you’ve heard Brakken talk about “teaching to the test.” In my case, application of that mantra made it pretty easy; if I wasn’t going to be running during the race, why would I allocate training time to running? I replaced all of my running with rucking. 3 miles, twice a week, with 15-pound weight vest, and 1 longer ruck each weekend, building up to a 4-hour effort, two weeks before the race. My walking goal was a brisk 16 min/mile pace.
One week to go: This could possibly be my favorite time of the year. Training is over, World’s Toughest Mudder Community Facebook Group activity is at its peak, and we are receiving puzzle pieces from Tough Mudder Headquarters that will help us complete the course map and obstacle list. Based on the weather forecast and obstacles, I made final adjustments to my pack (no extra gloves or neoprene socks, for example). I also decided to make laminated note cards for each lap. Initially, this was just to keep my nutrition straight, but I kept adding to them. On the front, I had Lap #, Miles Completed, Estimated Start Time, Likely Gear Changes to consider, Nutrition to take on the course and what Ziploc # it was in. On the back I wrote when the obstacles would open and the schedule for any carabiner-related activities. I found this to be very helpful, and I will definitely do the same thing for 2022.
”Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth – Mike Tyson” – Patrick Guzik
I can’t say I was better prepared for this WTM than I had been for previous ones, but it was the first time I walked across the start line carrying my pit on my back. First time anyone has, I think. The first three laps were the hardest of the 10 I completed. My pack was at its heaviest, there were few obstacles, so I was pushing to keep a 15-20 minute mile walking pace and cover as much ground as possible before obstacles opened. My super-fancy Timex Ironman was more than sufficient to let me know if I needed to pick up the pace to beat the next obstacle opening.
I spent some time the evening before WTM evaluating each obstacle and deciding if it would be easier to keep the pack on or to take it off and throw it to the other side. In hindsight, I should have thought about this more. Worst decision of the race: keep the pack on for Cage Crawl. As you would have expected, it’s almost impossible to stay facing up with an inflated and sealed dry bag on your back. I pretty much did the entire obstacle sideways, with my face fully submerged. I’m very fortunate Mike Jones didn’t have to rescue me. Other decisions were easier. Keep the pack on for Mega-Mire, Pyramid Scheme, “Mud” Mountain. Take the pack off for Dublin Walls (although I did it with the pack the first time just to see if I could), Skidmarked, The Gauntlet XL, Funky Monkey, Slip N’ Squeeze, Arctic Enema, Lumberjack Your Wood, Mudderhorn. For some, I tried it both ways – Ladder To Hell, Castaway, Blockness.
While I could have put on my wetsuit at any point on the course, I still ended up changing in the pit. I sat in Sharkbait’s tent after Lap 4 and put on my shorty (and had a couple Oreos). I put on my full suit in the med tent after lap 6, only because they had a chair and light, and a tent to block the wind.
I got “punched in the mouth” on lap 6 at Fear The Beard. Every lap, I tried something different: wear my pack on the front, drag it beside me, walk up and leave it and walk back down to do the obstacle. I even skipped it a couple times using earned carabiners. Finally, I’d had enough. I was under the cargo net, dragging my bag up the hill when I heard a group come up behind and start the obstacle. And I heard them pass me and finish the obstacle while I was STILL dragging my pack under the cargo net. Once I crossed the finish line, I changed from shorty to a full wetsuit and put on my windbreaker. I stuffed the pockets with all my Gu/Tailwind and the soft water bottle and left the bag in the pit, not to be seen again until after the race.
From then on, things were pretty easy. The caffeine in my Gu and Tailwind kicked in hard after going the previous 3 weeks caffeine-free, and I made great time on laps 7 and 9. Lap 8 would’ve been faster, but I had made another stupid decision. I had little trouble completing Everest earlier in the race (THANK YOU, EVEREST ANGELS), but the lure of a Mini-Mudder headband convinced me to do the penalty. Easy, right?? Wrong. I did not expect Mini-Cage Crawl or Mini-Everest, or that it would take me as long as it did.
The race ended like WTM does for many of us non-Atkins mortals, SLIGHTLY changing your goals because you want to stop. The sun came up strong during lap 9, and I was feeling baked on lap 10. I told myself that another 2 hours in the sun without a hat or sunscreen was a bad idea, so I stopped at 50 with a clean brown bib, just after 9am. Physically I know I had at least one more lap in me, maybe 2. Had my brother been there to hand me a hat and yell at me to get back out there, maybe I would have created another excuse, maybe not.
My goal was to complete the race, unsupported. It’s arguable whether I accomplished that. It certainly wouldn’t satisfy the FKT police, but there were very few areas where I didn’t follow my plan.
- Did I use only what I carried with me across the start line, or what was available to everyone on the course? I feel pretty good about this, even considering the 4-5 Oreos that Sharkbait forced on me.
- Did I cross the finish line with everything I started with? Nope. But I didn’t reuse anything once I stopped carrying it. I really wanted that hat back around 8am though…
- Did I spend minimal time in the pit? I originally figured the total time I would spend in the pit would be less than an hour (10 laps = 9 pits, figure 5 minutes to walk through, fill water bottle). I still ended up spending a total of 90 minutes in the pit. Just for fun, here’s how my 2014 WTM compared to 2021:
A Tale of Two Fifties
So what did I learn from this experiment, and is there anything useful I can pass on to others?
There is more than one way to get a brown bib at WTM, and you don’t need to run to do it. Do you need to be able to walk at a decent pace for 21 hours? Yep. But you don’t need to run in training to get a brown bib. I know, ‘cuz I just did it. Walking with a weight vest (or pack) at a good pace for hours can be an excellent prep for WTM.
My plan for 2022 is much more traditional. I’ll take what I learned from 2021 (minimal gear, minimal time in the pit, more rucking/less running in training, laminated notecards) and stay on course for the full 24 hours. And I am definitely bringing my brother back as pit crew. Join my “6th-timer ex-military over-50 brown bib goal for 2022” Facebook Group to learn more!