Tough Mudder Philly 2016 Course Overview
This past weekend, Tough Mudder returned to Planation Field in the “Philly” area for the second time. This venue offers plenty of rolling hills to make the terrain challenging yet not absolutely brutal. The location also features lots of hilly open fields with a good mix of wooded trails and river beds, along with a couple extra 1-2 foot walls along the course, courtesy of the equestrian facilities on site. The parking is located off site on Saturday, unless you pay to upgrade to onsite VIP parking, but Tough Mudder under promises and over delivers in this area with an advertised 30 minute bus ride, which turned out to be 15 minutes or less. Nobody enjoys parking off site, but Tough Mudder made it a breeze in this case. Same thing goes for Registration and the Festival Area: everything was efficient, clearly marked, and accessible, with friendly staff and volunteers along the way to help.
The weather at Philly/Poconos Tough Mudder has historically been uncomfortable, from the over 100 degree temps in summer 2016 to windy and in the 40s in fall 2015. This weekend, the weather was not as extreme as either of those cases but with temps in the high 50s, constant drizzle, and a bit of wind, it took a little more grit to bear through.
The course started off with some rolling hills through fields, and after just over a mile the first obstacle was one Berlin Wall. After another half mile, Mudders got their first opportunity to get wet and muddy at Shawshanked, a low barb wire crawl to an upward incline corrugated tube with a drop into a pit of muddy water below. A short jog later was Pitfall, which includes walking a big mud/water pit with purposefully uneven terrain below the surface. After some creek beds and wooded trails was Balls to the Wall, conveniently placed after shoes were nice and muddy, so upper body strength was well tested.
Next up, were two obstacles that force you to live the pledge line, “I help my fellow Mudder complete the course”: Pyramid Scheme and Blockness Monster. Pyramid Scheme is taller and steeper than ever, where you must climb on top of teammates in order to ascend a slick inclined wall. The crowd favorite, Blockness Monster, requires coordinated teamwork to rotate large floating blocks on a spit, to rotate Mudders over the top. Both of these epitomize Tough Mudder by making teamwork vital, providing a physical challenge, and inducing ear to ear smiles. More on Blockness later…
Kiss of Mud, the classic barbed wire crawl, provided a head to toe covering of soupy mud, then Hold Your Wood reinforced teamwork again by forcing you to team-carry a heavy log over and through two walls, placed along a loop of rolling hills. The next obstacle had two different pegboard ascent options: Liberator, which is a traditional two-track incline pegboard with footholds placed immediately to both sides, for the first timers, or Backstabber, which is a single-peg/single-lane with footholds wide apart and well off the ground, for the legionnaires. This was followed by navigation under heavy cargo nets laid on the ground, named Devil’s Beard, and a climb over several levels of hay wheels, at King of the Mountain.
A longer section of wooded trails led you to another Berlin Wall, where you could see Artic Enema upcoming. After taking an ice bath there, the course skirted the perimeter of the venue and tasked you with carrying a follow Mudder for a short distance and then trading tasks, at Hero Carry. The after some of the steeper hills of the course, participants tackled a wet and slippery Everest in the rain. Teams were utilizing 3-foot segments of rope to dangle down for extra grip, and I could not decipher whether this technique was helping or doing quite the opposite, but I applaud the inventiveness of whoever it was that supplied them.
Next was another climb over hay wheels, at Bale Bonds, followed by a medium steep climb up a hill to Ladder to Hell where participants faced their fear of heights and climbed a frame with large slats and descended the other side. The Tough Mudder classic, Mud Mile, followed which consisted of pits taller than some participants with little to no foot/hand holds again acting as a forcing function for teamwork. At last there was an opportunity to rinse off at cage crawl and rain man, where mud people entered the water, and pulled themselves along a cage about 8 inches over the water pit, where they came out less muddy on the other side. Funky Monkey was slightly harder than usual given the chilly and wet conditions, but Birth Canal that followed had a higher clearance than normal which was a welcome change for those who have perfected the low crawl.
In the final stretch, first was King of the Swingers. It looks as if TMHQ has gotten the kinks out of this obstacle and it works reliably at this point (kudos since few OCR brands take the time to build and maintain an obstacle with so many literal moving parts) and I believe the bell was located further out than the 2015 season, as very few were able to induce that sweet ringing sound. Second to last was the inverted wall, Skidmarked. Before the finish first timers were sent into the infamous Electroshock Therapy and legionaires were given the choice to get shocked or jump off a platform onto a giant airbag in the form of Frequent Flyers Club.
At the finish line, mudders were awarded their hard-earned headbands, a finisher t-shirt, and a cold beer (and a 10x headband for me). Overall, this was a course that aligns with the standard expected from Tough Mudder, founded in being challenging yet approachable for the average obstacle course racer, with an emphasis on teamwork.
BLOCKNESS MONSTER: the Pros and Cons
As promised earlier in the article, I have more to say about Blockness Monster (formerly known as Roll the Dice, to World’s Toughest Mudder 2015 veterans). Philly was my first Tough Mudder since I participated in WTM 2015 and I was psyched to get a turn at this obstacle again. As I mentioned earlier, this is a quintessential Tough Mudder obstacle, which embodies everything the brand is known for, and it is a ton of fun. In fact, I was so excited for it that I stayed at the obstacle for over an hour helping and giving tips to fellow Mudders, most who had never seen it in action before. Being there for such an extended period of time, I got to see that it isn’t as smooth an operation as I expected. For the first half hour everything was seamless, people were having a blast, working together, and my arms felt like jelly… I was a happy lady.
Over the second half hour that I was there, the second block started to experience issues: one side of the spit would come unhinged and the block would start to float away. This happened 4 times before I decided to move on and finish the course. Time to fix it varied between 2 and 10 minutes, and the obstacle shut down during that time period. Some Mudders were left waiting between the blocks (seen in the picture), some bypassed the obstacle, and others helped the staff by lifting the block back in place from within the water and turning wrenches to re-secure it. Oddly enough, the whole series of events seemed to embody the Tough Mudder nature since the participants jumped right in and worked as a team with the staff to get the obstacles back up and running. In contrast to other OCRs where I’ve seen people complain and throw fits when obstacles go out of commission, people offered their help. It was truly refreshing to see.
But the real question is, is Blockness worth the hassle? Given the complexity of the build of the obstacle, since it has moving parts that are influenced by the people using it and the water levels, I am sure it is not easily maintained. There is also the risk of bad PR by having obstacles shut down. I did not perceive any imminent safety risk, but I know TMHQ is always keeping those factors in mind as well. All cons of an unreliable obstacle. But I am on team keep Blockness! As mentioned earlier, it is a crowd favorite. There is something special about working with friends and strangers alike to complete a physical task, plus this one results in a fun ride and spin over the top. I think it may take time and tinkering to perfect the design to make it consistently reliable, much like the maturation of King of the Swingers, but in my opinion, it will be worth it in the end. I hope to see Blockness as a staple in Tough Mudders for a long time going forward.
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