World’s Toughest Mudder is a BIG THING. You can’t just show up and wing it. Success at WTM demands both careful planning and intelligent training, which is what this series will be about. Before submitting these articles, I thought I’d ask a guy I know what he considers to be the optimal way of approaching WTM. The good news is that his approach and mine were essentially the same. The bad news is that he was super concise, so I’m here to expand on it and flesh it out into usable tools and guidelines. Oh yeah, here’s what he said:
Think through every possible detail/angle carefully, practice it, then systematically kick ass. – Ryan Atkins
I am not one for clichés, but I can’t put it any better than these, so here is a short list of planning clichés :
- “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” – a bunch of memes
- “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmut von Moltke
- “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson
- “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
When your plans meet the real WTM, the real WTM wins. Few things go exactly as planned. Mistaken assumptions chow down on your asses. The most brilliant plan loses touch with reality, and if you’re not careful you’ll follow it down the crapper.
OK, what’s the deal, Dobos? To paraphrase Hamlet: “to plan or not to plan, that is the question.” Well, the answer is a qualified “yes.” DO absolutely definitely plan thoroughly, but DO NOT place absolute reliance on your plan. Accept that your beautiful plan will start falling apart at some point during the event, likely much sooner and in more and shittier ways than you had anticipated. Make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for “plan B”, “plan C”, or just going into survival mode. Reality will not yield to your plans, so you must adapt to the actual circumstances at hand.
The first step to planning is to understand as much as possible of what will go down in Atlanta next year at WTM. Do all the obvious things: watch videos of past WTMs, read race reports, go to WTM groups and pages online, look over maps of past WTM courses, etc. That will give you a good idea of what challenges will be presented to you. The other big thing you need to understand is exactly what you will be bringing to the show. Where is your fitness now? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How much improvement can you realistically expect in those by the time Atlanta rolls around? (That last refers to TRAINING, which I’ll come to later in this series)
As you can see, it’s very, VERY easy to get hopelessly buried in details, so you need to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Try to group things together into categories of challenges that you need to overcome for success.
The challenges presented by WTM can be boiled down to 3 big ones:
1. dealing with the cold and wet conditions
2. being on your feet and moving for 24 hours
3. completing as many obstacles as efficiently as possible
I have cleverly triaged those challenges in order of importance: 1 is to survive, 2 is to complete, and 3 is to perform. Number 1 can end your race prematurely. It has done so time and again, to rookies and veterans and elite racers. It is the first thing you need to figure out how to deal with because without it the rest of your grand plans are just so much fantasy.
WTM Challenge #1: The Horrible Laws of Thermodynamics
Regardless of where and when WTM is held, it’s always cold. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check and monitor the weather forecast as race-day approaches, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. Every single person at WTM this year – racers AND crew – knew that the single biggest challenge, the #1 reason for DNFs, was going to be cold. Just like it was last year and the year before, and so onto into the mists of prehistory. However, knowing the problem is only half the problem. You need a solution or, preferably, several solutions.
Problem: you’re cold
Solution: dress warmly, with layers and stuff. No problem, right?
Well…not exactly. The other thing every single person knew was that you would be wet for pretty much the last 22 hours or so. Therefore that bitchin’ fleece hoodie you got yourself, far from keeping you warm, will be worse than useless once it’s soaked. That’s why you see almost everyone wearing wet-suits from late afternoon through to well after sunrise.
Problems: you’re cold and wet
Solution: get a wet-suit. Problem solved, right?
Nope. We need to understand the basics of heat transfer, and exactly what clothing can and cannot do for you. Time for a thought experiment…
Take 4 identical water bottles. Fill 2 of them with cold water, and 2 of them with hot water. Now go dig up the toastiest sleeping bag you have. Bring out that 800 fill -40C rated monster, the one that has you sweating inside of 12 seconds if you dare crawl into it in anything warmer than -20 conditions. If you don’t have one, borrow from a friend.
Place one cold water bottle inside the sleeping bag way down at the foot end of the bag. Place a hot bottle up near the head end of the bag. Place the other 2 bottles a fair distance apart on the floor outside the sleeping bag. BTW, this is happening in your living room, so the ambient temp is around 22C. Go re-watch 2 hours of your fave WTM coverage, then come back and check the temperatures of the water in the bottles. What do you think you’ll find?
<Spoiler Alert>Let’s start with the easy ones: outside the sleeping bag. Both of those should be pretty close to room temperature. Heat always travels from warmer to colder, so the hot bottle will have lost heat to the room, while the cold one will have absorbed heat from the room. Both bottles will be around 22C. Easy peasy. Now, what about the sleeping bag?
At first blush, it’s tempting to assume that the ones that were in the insanely warm sleeping bag would be warmed up. Sadly, first blush is dead wrong in this case. What you’d actually find is that the cold one stayed quite cold – much colder than room temperature – and the hot one stayed quite hot – much warmer than room temperature. This is because a sleeping bag is simply a thermal insulator. It neither heats nor cools, it simply insulates whatever is inside it from whatever is outside.
Clothing, including wet-suits, are the same: they generate exactly 0 heat. None. Zilch. Bupkus. SFA. If you’re freezing and throw on a 20mm wet-suit with a dryrobe over top, it will NOT warm you up. At least, not quickly enough.
At this point, you may be asking “why wear anything at all?” Well, the reason wearing insulating clothing works is because your body is constantly generating heat. Even if you’re curled up in the fetal position in your crew tent, your body is still generating heat because it needs to keep things at around body temperature in order to function properly. In the above scenario, you will slowly warm up as the heat generated by your basal metabolic rate gets trapped inside the dryrobe/wet-suit combo until you eventually get toasty warm. You need to know how to speed this process up, so keep reading.
There are several ways to warm yourself up much faster. The most enjoyable one is called “shared body warmth”, and all I’ll say about it is that you had better know your crew very, very well. The most effective strategy when you are in your pit is to ingest something hot, like a bowl of hot oatmeal or steaming cups of coffee or soup. The next pit tactic is to pour hot (not scalding – be careful) liquid into your wetsuit. The most important way may be less obvious, but it is the most critical because you can do it throughout the event: MOVE.
The only way you can move is through your muscles doing work. Human physiology is laughably inefficient, and most of the feeble trickle of chemical energy that we manage to generate in order to move gets wasted as heat. This heat builds up until your core temperature starts to get too high, and your body starts dumping it by pumping blood (essentially like radiator fluid in this scenario) out to your skin and limbs. Your clothing traps some of this heat, creating a progressively warmer micro-environment right next to your body surface and voila: you warm up!
Your body knows this even if you don’t, and has come up with a fantastically inefficient pattern of muscle contractions to cope with cold stress. Inefficient at moving, but super-awesome at generating heat. It’s called shivering. Shivering is ok, but it’s exhausting and makes things like Operation hilariously impossible. Your goal is to spend muscular energy moving forward, not jittering madly in place, so work on moving forward as hard as you can. Conversely, if you know that you’ll be forced to go slowly, whether from exhaustion or injury, then dress more warmly.
Even with all of the above dialed in, there is still a big make-or-break challenge related to overcoming the wet coldness: the wetsuit. The next (much shorter) article will delve into the hows and whys and dos and don’ts of WTM wetsuits.
I am a Knowledge Junkie, Adventure Racer, Writer, Procrastinator, Coach, and Online Research Ninja.
My evidence-based Realism is tempered by Hope.
I am a Secular Humanist who hates labels and loves Irony.
I live in Canada and don't own a hockey stick.
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