The 2016 version of Tough Mudder’s Tri-State event came back to its original home at Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ. Last year, the event was held at Liberty State Park, which offered spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, but the organizers were stymied by their inability to dig, which eliminated a number of signature obstacles to the disappointment of returning Mudders. This year, Tough Mudder came back to one of the best sites in their roster, the home of the original World’s Toughest Mudder, and used it to its best advantage. This was the gold standard of obstacle events at the gold standard of venues. The course designers use the landscape here in a way that few other events do, and this time, they got an assist from Mother Nature.
Saturday morning started out clear, as you can see from this video taken by friend of ORM Ryan Meade:
While there was plenty of mud, Ryan still ends up remarkably clean throughout.
As the day progressed, the remnants of Hurricane Matthew hit New Jersey, turning the course into something a bit soupier. If you followed Tough Mudder on Facebook Live, you would have seen this video, following Dancing With the Stars celebrity athlete Noah Galloway as he pushed his way through Mud Mile.
This video gives an idea of what the course looked like on Sunday:
By the time I reached Raceway Park on Sunday morning, nearly two inches of rain had flooded the course. In the same way that Tough Mudder is “a challenge, not a race”, heavy rain came as an opportunity, not a hindrance. On the one hand, the organizers closed some obstacles, including Cage Crawl/Rain Man. Normally, the water level was supposed to be a claustrophobic few inches below the wire fencing. Flooding raised that level to a point where there was no breathing room at all; sensibly, runners were instructed to bypass this obstacle.
On the other hand, the rain turned the rest of the course into one giant obstacle. A common obstacle at Tough Mudders is Pitfall: a pit is dug and filled with murky water, but the bottom of the pit is uneven and has holes. Since you can’t see how deep the water is at any one point, the trick is to avoid any muddy, ankle-turning surprises. This obstacle was in the first few miles, but the rain turned pretty much all of the trails into miles and miles of Pitfall.
For me, another bonus of the flooding came at Kiss of Mud, Tough Mudder’s barbed wire crawl. Usually, I don’t enjoy this obstacle because putting all my weight on my knees and forearms is a surefire way to get them scraped and bruised. Not much sense of accomplishment in that. However, because there was so much water at this obstacle, I could float just beneath the barbed wire to the end.
The rain made the course extra slippery. One of the best features of Raceway Park is that it includes steep man-made hills for motorbike racing. Running up and down these hills is tiring when they are dry. When they are wet, they are slick, and plenty of runners made it halfway up before sliding back down to the bottom. The trails in the nearby forest are also simple to run in dry weather, but when wet they were a series of puddles and slippery mud patches. At an ordinary trail race, this would have been annoying, even hazardous, but for Tough Mudder, it was perfect.
Tough Mudder prides itself on constant innovation of its obstacles, and I noticed at least two examples yesterday. Birth Canal, which requires participants to crawl underneath heavy plastic sheets filled with water, was aligned perpendicular to the participant, which meant that instead of traversing one large sloshing container of water, you crawled under a half dozen shorter troughs. I also appreciated that the water was no longer died an amniotic pink, which I thought was creepy.
The best part of the day was trying out a new obstacle, called Block Ness Monster. Two large rotating blocks are positioned in a pool of water. Some participants push the heavy blocks, while others ride the blocks over the top. It requires teamwork and, most important, it is fun to do. I could have spent hours at that obstacle, and not just because the water was a little warmer than the air temperature at that point.
I noticed two other innovations from previous Tough Mudders: as in past years, participants are given a Tyvek number to pin to their shirts and a Tyvek wristband. As in past years, the course is littered with both after each obstacle. This year, we were also issued a cloth wristband with an RFID chip. This wristband stayed on, but more important it was also used throughout the course, to separate full Mudders from Half Mudders, to hand out the appropriate headband to legionnaires, and to assign the appropriate amount of beer after the finish line. As one of my teammates pointed out after the first time we scanned our wristbands: “Just like at Disney!” I haven’t been to the Magic Kingdom in over forty years, but my guess is that the Happiest Place on Earth features a lot less in the way of mud, electrical shocks and ice baths. At least I hope is does.
This was also the first Tough Mudder I attended which offered an option of doing only half the course: the Half Mudder. While I don’t have any numbers on which to base this conclusion, it would appear to me that this program has been a success. I saw plenty of white Half Mudder headbands at the end of the day, and I’ve noticed several YouTube videos of the event posted by people on teams that did only the first five miles of the course. It turns out that offering an event that doesn’t include electrical shocks and ice baths is a good way to attract customers.
If Tough Mudder can get thousands of participants to return year after year, even when they go home wet, dirty, scraped and bruised, they must be doing something right. I know that I am looking forward to next year.
Photo Credits: Rachel Castellez-Davidson, Tough Mudder, Shayne Bo, and Chris Maxfield
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