Our team turned out to be awesome, even though we had never practiced together and were about to take on the biggest physical challenge of our lives. We each knew this experience would take teamwork to be successful. In fact, the event stated with pride the challenge was so great as to require participants to work together.
The two men on our team, Myron and Bruce, were in top shape, ready to run long distances or leap up, catch the narrow edge of an eight foot wall with their fingers and pull themselves over using only upper body strength. We three women, myself, Monica, and Allison, were willing to belly crawl under twenty yards of criss-crossed barbed wire, jump from fifteen foot high walls into muddy water, and creep through pitch-dark narrow tunnels, but we were woefully unprepared for upper body challenges – and we knew it. Without a hefty boost we women wouldn’t scale the eight foot wall, never mind the twelve foot ones.
For one series of mud and water filled trenches, we had seen videos of participants propelling up and out with a push of hands against muddy embankment. My plan was to find mud ledges low enough to crawl out of each one. Each of us had anticipated this day for months. Our goal was to make it through the course, trying to overcome as many obstacles as we felt able to try. For Monica and I, that meant skipping the two electrified obstacles, since the voltage has a nasty way of causing people to pass out face down in the mud. (Yep, we had seen enough photos to decide against that one.)
Each wanted to test our determination, perseverance, and ability to tackle the twelve mile twenty-two obstacle Tough Mudder course. The guys were far better able to take on the course without the girls, and since they had prepared better for the challenge, I thought they would go ahead and we would see them when we finished. After all, we women knew all along what we needed to do to develop upper body strength – we just hadn’t done much about it. As we walked over to the starting area, I said something to Myron about catching up with him at the end. He looked at me surprised and said, “We’re sticking together. We’re a team.” “You’re going to stay back with us?” I asked, as gratefulness and possibility began to unfold in my mind. “Yeah, we’re in this together,” he said. And just like that, I knew we truly were a team.
Myron’s words brought a new excitement into the day. He and Bruce weren’t concerned with how fast they could make it through the course! Their goal was to make sure we all made it to the finish, with support and encouragement along the way. My tempered expectations for the big day were released into full-scale excitement, as a smile spread across my face. I knew we could clear many more obstacles with the guys determined to stay with the women as a team of five. It was like I’d been given a second chance to do well and I couldn’t wait to start!
Off we went, finding ourselves required to climb over a five foot wall before we could line up in the starting corral. Monica, Allison and I were boosted up, while the guys practically jumped over. The starting announcer intensified our excitement with group shouts and promises, and reminded us it was not a race. When he stated there had been many sprains and a few broken bones the day before, Monica said twenty percent of those who start do not finish. “Twenty percent?” I asked, “That’s a lot of people in a race this size.”
“I know,” Monica answered as the countdown began and we turned forward to start. The first belly crawl under barbed wire went smoothly. It was a fun and muddy way to jump right into the adventure of it all. Jogging along in mud and muck we quickly came to the second obstacle, an ice-filled giant tank of water with a wall rising out of it about half way across. Barbed razor wire curled along the top of the wall and arrows pointed down indicating you must go under water to pass beneath the wall.
I love cold water and sit in cold plunges longer than hot tubs at my favorite spa. In other events, ice scattered across water actually felt good after building body heat along the course. This was not like other events. First of all it was about fifty-two degrees. Second, we had been running a short time and had not built up internal heat, and third, the water was absolutely crammed full of ice. I ran into frigid water up to my waist. I could feel ice cubes rubbing my shins, but kept moving until I reached the wall and ran my hand down it to feel how far under I would have to go. It was pretty far. Scary far, and the extreme cold made it hard for me to breathe. Seriously, I was close to hyperventilating and needed to catch my breath. Allison had a similar experience and jumped up on the wall, clinging to it in a way she never knew she was able. The guys had gone first and could see Allison’s head above the wall, just beneath the razor wire. “Go down!!” they shouted. “You can do it. Swim under!” Monica came up from behind. “We can’t stay in here y’all. It’s too cold. Go under!!”
“I just have to catch my breath,” I said. “Go ahead,” I told Monica, “I’ll go in just a second.” Then I joined in trying to convince Allison to drop off the wall. “Come on Allison – we can do it!” I shouted as she dropped back in the water and we both went underneath swimming as fast as we could to the other side. Bruce leaned across the steep embankment and put out his hand. “Watch your feet,” he said, “there are boards to help your footing, but they’re tricky.” I found my footing and he pulled me up and out of the water in a flash. Myron was pulling Allison out at the same time and then both he and Monica shouted at us to start moving. “We have to warm up, we can stop in a few minutes.”
I am so glad we had a team. Right there, at obstacle two, it was clear each of us was looking out for the other and no one would be left behind. If we needed a shout, a word of encouragement, or even a commonsense reminder of what to do next, our team was ready. If we needed to be physically pushed, pulled, or untangled, our team would stick it out until we all were ready to move forward. It felt good to be part of this team.
All five of us slowly and carefully started along the muddy and uneven terrain, waiting for the numbness to leave and our breathing to return to normal. A few minutes later, a tingling sensation began and warmth returned to our bodies. “That was a lot worse than I expected,” one of us said, and we all agreed. I tried not to think about how much worse some of the other obstacles might be.
Soon enough we passed a sign for the two mile point, which was good news. The running was going well, although footing was tricky, sometimes slippery, always uneven, and often on a slant. We kept the pace slow and I was happy not to have to work hard to maintain the group pace. An obstacle resembling giant Lincoln logs came next and we climbed and ducked under and over until clear. I was the slowest, but it didn’t matter. The dark tunnel went well too, and those muddy water troughs could have been really tough, but Myron and Bruce made sure we had a hand or a boost out of every trench.
Being on a team was amazingly different from practicing on my own. We had covered seven obstacles and were having a good time. “We’re doing it!” I shouted, excited I was able to compete in this challenge after all. The day before, I had seriously imagined skipping most obstacles and walking much of the constant up and down trail we traversed. Yet here we were one-third of the way through, and we had made every obstacle and kept up a good running pace .
And then, on a relatively smooth, dry and hard-packed part of the trail, I took a step wrong and heard a pop as I went down. It must have been my lack of training that felled me, because there was no reason other than “tired feet” to miss my step right there. The trail was plenty dicey in areas, but not where I went down. The team came back and rallied around me. Both guys are EMT’s so they had my shoe and sock off in seconds. As far as sprains go, this wasn’t bad, but I was not going to be able to finish the course. I was very disappointed.
Another team called The Bearded Men came upon us and blessed my injury, praying for a speedy and complete recovery. Shortly after, the pain went completely away and I could stand and walk. (Thank you Bearded Men.) We made our way through the next hurdle, a muddy, steeply banked pond about waist deep, with the team staying close enough to me I could hold on for support, then walked to the ninth obstacle where event staff had been notified by passing runners to bring the medic jeep to pick me up.
It was then I knew what my role in the team needed to be. I wanted to finish the course, even by walking around obstacles, and my ankle wasn’t so swollen I couldn’t put my shoe back on. Leaving the course in a medic jeep meant I could neither claim the title Tough Mudder nor receive the headband given to finishers, but I worried the team might insist on staying with me if I tried to finish, and how my selfishness might hold all of them back. I had to let go of what I wanted for myself to allow the team to finish strong.
Once assured by staff the medic jeep was on its way, my team waved to me and started climbing up and over large round hay bales stacked five high. I watched and cheered them on, then waited for my ride. Thirty minutes later, my husband, Marc, greeted me in the medic tent, where my ankle had been wrapped and iced, and silver thermal blanket draped around me.
A change to dry clothes and picnic lunch made our waiting time quick and pleasant. When we spotted our team in the far distance near the next to last obstacle, Marc jogged over to take photos of them coming over a fifteen foot tall quarter pipe. The greased surface and outwardly curving shape made it impossible to surmount without being pulled up and over by other participants at the top. My team soon was over and jogging toward the last obstacle where I was waiting to cheer them to the finish. They looked great – determined, tired, and very glad to see the finish line.
No one really wanted to complete the last obstacle. You were guaranteed to be zapped by up to 10,000 volts of live electrical current if you ran through it, but Allison took a long hard look and decided she was going to run it. As the other teammates walked around the obstacle, she geared herself up to dash through the dangling wires. Myron realized Allison had stopped, and true to the team spirit encompassing us the entire day, he went back to join her. Together they ran over at least a fifty foot expanse of muddy berms while being randomly shocked in the crossing. Dazed, but still upright, they joined Monica and Bruce to cross the finish line as a team.
Wistfully, I watched them don orange Tough Mudder headbands, though my smile held pride and satisfaction, too. Our team had finished well, completing more obstacles than expected and in less time than I estimated we would take – even with extra time out to take care of me. Although their bodies were cold and sore, I saw in each tired muddy smile how good their achievement felt. Tough Mudder is over and our team may never form again, but it was a great team and I had a blast being part of it.