Competition Vs. Camaraderie?
To be honest, I didn’t know what to initially think of the Toughest Mudder series. Besides World’s Toughest Mudder once a year, Tough Mudder always emphasized teamwork and camaraderie over course time. Finding your personal best and having fun were two of its distinguishing characteristics from other races and I didn’t know how this new series would effect Tough Mudder’s culture. I was worried that the inspiration and motivation I drew from these events would be overshadowed by competition.
But there I was, pulling into the final race of the 2017 Toughest Mudder Series. The stage was set. Five races down, one to go. Coming into this race, I sought out inspiration and motivation from my fellow competitors. I wanted to find something more than just competition at these races. I could only hope that the Tough Mudder culture and the spirit would be upheld.
Starting the Day at Toughest Midwest
As I arrived at the festival area, it was filled with welcoming hugs, hellos, and nervous energy as people prepared for eight hours of racing at the Rockford International Airport. Toughest Mudder Midwest had the highest registration and it was obvious as the energy was immediately palpable. I noticed a mix of first time and repeat Toughest competitors. There were even a few people who attended all six Toughest Mudder events including Jim “Da Goat” Campbell, Melissa “Sharkbait” Dugan, Sara Knight, and Mark James.
Whether athletes were out there for a podium spot, earn WTM contender status (25 miles) or experience an event unlike any other, everyone was equally excited and nervous for what the night would bring.
As we prepared for the race, it was noticeably warmer at the start line. With a chance of thunderstorms looming in the distance, we weren’t sure how long these near ideal conditions would last. Every endurance event brings an element of the unknown and I was all too aware that conditions can quickly change. While elevation gain would not be a factor in this race, I knew Tough Mudder would have a few surprises for us along the way
Countdown to Midnight
As the countdown to midnight began, we were shuttled away from the pit area, giving many competitors a chance to warm up to the start gate. Surrounded by tall fields of grass, we were isolated in our own little world. Sean Corvelle inspired us like only he knows how to, with a riveting speech about achieving our personal best and overcoming our obstacles on the course and in life. His spirit is behind every one of these events as he reflects on the inspiration he draws from the community. Just like that, the tone was set and we were ready for what the night would bring.
The countdown ensued and just like that, we were off.
The elevation profile pointed to every sign that this would be a fast course and it lived up to the expectation. In TMHQ’s attempt to slow us down, we quickly encountered a river crossing known as the Kishwaukee Krusade. With no way around it, the river crossing was the only obstacle open from the very start. As the obstacles began to slowly open, it was clear that without epic hills of LA or Whistler, the double mud mile of Atlanta, or the cold from the UK or Philadelphia, that this was going to be a fast course. It held true throughout the race.
The flat fast course was mitigated by the obstacles, which slowly opened until 02:00 am. It was clear that TMHQ wanted to keep us wet, with multiple water obstacles scattered throughout the course. “Operation” had a shockingly (pun intended) long penalty, enticing competitors to at least attempt it. Arctic Enema was placed right before Funky Monkey, making it cold and wet for the grip-strength intensive obstacle. Everest 2.0 and the Grappler both had ropes that competitors could use, but the slippery slopes of the quarter pipe still left them difficult to complete.
The race provided plenty of room for competition. Ryan Atkins dominated in his usual fashion and Allison Tai stayed well ahead of the competition throughout. The competition between second and fifth place was heated throughout the race as athletes continued to change places throughout the night. Amidst the competition, I was searching for inspiration to keep me going throughout the race. These races are difficult, period. No matter who you are, whether you are going for 50 miles or 10, everyone is out there trying to find their “personal best”. It is the very thing that Sean Corvelle preaches at the starting line, yet is something that is often hard to reach. I looked to my fellow competitors for inspiration and luckily found it throughout the night. Amidst the dark of night, competitors brought the light.
Dan Kosick was one such athlete. With his sights set on 25 miles and contender status at WTM, he fell just short at the Toughest Mudder Northeast. Even though he knew he didn’t make it, he completed the final lap just minutes past the 08:30 am cut-off time. As I saw him finish, the look of defeat covered his face as he crossed the finish line. I was proud of what he accomplished, but it was clear he wasn’t satisfied. That defeat turned into motivation as he returned for another shot at 25 miles at Toughest Midwest. Throughout the race, his no-quit attitude resonated in his voice as he continued his relentless forward progress. This time, the course would not stop him. He overcame disappointment at Philly to complete 25 miles in less than 8 hours to earn contender status at WTM.
Jesi Stracham, a wheelchair bound athlete, took on the course with a team of friends throughout the night. I saw the definition of teamwork portrayed throughout the night with her group. She proved that Tough Mudder is more than physical ability as her spirit and determination propelled her and her team to complete 15 grueling miles of the Toughest course.
Yancy Culp (often referred to as Yancy Camp), a legend within the OCR community, is another example of using racing as fuel to overcome life’s challenges. After battling cancer over the last year, he credited obstacle course racing as giving him a purpose to stay healthy throughout the chemotherapy process. He didn’t let cancer stop him from crewing at World’s Toughest Mudder in 2016 and even though he didn’t compete, it served as one of the most defining events of his athletic career. He knew he wanted an event to circle on the calendar for 2017 and chose to tackle Toughest Mudder Midwest. It was during the race that he found the joy of running and competing again. He wasn’t out there to win, but rather enjoy the process of racing and living life to the fullest. While he said the Tough Mudder community inspired him throughout the race, he is an inspiration to all of us.
Billy Richards was another inspirational individual as he carried the American Flag throughout the entire event. Every time I saw him and the flag on the course, it gave me chills. It is one of many ways Billy shows his patriotism. After serving as a United States Marine from 1999 to 2003, Billy decided to honor our military and law enforcement by carrying the American Flag in every race he does. So far, the flag has traveled with him to over 150 races, including four 100 mile ultra marathons (more information on his endeavors can be found at the link under the photo).
Inspired By The Midwest
If I took anything from Toughest Midwest, it is that this is an awesome community, filled with amazing people. I came to the Midwest looking for inspiration and I found it. While this race is a competition, it is much more than that, filled with incredible stories of everyone who accepts the challenge of completing 8 hours through the night. The final race in the Toughest Mudder series was a memorable one and only time will only tell what next year’s Toughest series brings. One thing is for sure; the finale at World’s Toughest Mudder is destined to be the best one yet. I’ll see you in the desert one last time!
Photos Courtesy of Melissa Dugan and Tough Mudder
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