Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tough. Mudder.

The first thing I saw was the video.  A friend announced on Facebook that he was competing in a thing called "Tough Mudder."

I come from athletic stock.  I come from competitive stock.  My father played college football under a legendary coach, Charles McClendon, and my mom was a college cheerleader and is a state-champion tennis player.  I've played sports since I was 6.

When you watch the video for the first time, your first thought is "What the hell IS this?"  Tough Mudder appears to be some cracked-out, Kubrick version of a military boot camp.  Training camp on 'roids. Or meth.  But, honestly, that is what makes it intriguing.  It is defined as a 10-12 mile obstacle course in the mud with a course designed by British special forces.  Even that definition does not do it justice.

For days after first witnessing the online presence of "Tough Mudder" , I asked myself "Is this something I can do?" "Is this something I want to subject myself to?"  I've never been much of a masochist (believe it or not), but there was something compelling me to challenge myself, to push myself further than I had up to that point.  I began searching for dates and locations of the next Tough Mudder competition... and then my eyes came upon it.

July 7th, 2012.

My birthday.  A milestone birthday in my life.  What?  Well, it's none of your damn business WHICH birthday it is, thank you very much.  Just know it was a big un.  And that sealed the deal... this is how I was going to turn ____.

I began training in April.  Cardio, weights, cycling.  I've always been athletic but my disdain for the gym has kept me from being ripped in any way, shape or form.  I varied my training... pushing myself to do Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles as hard and as many times as I could so I could get used to uphill and downhill running.  I hurt my both my knees and thought I tore something in my ankle during this training.  Not used to injury, this sort of thing threw me for a loop.  But I overcame it all, and on July 7th, 2012... my friends Todd Milliner, Will Hackner, Will Sherrod, Nick Peet and I arrived at the Snow Valley Resort in Big Bear, CA ready to take on this Tough Mudder beast.

You begin at a starting line with loud, blaring music and a host whose job is to pump you up and remind you of the monumental task ahead of you.  Then, you're off...

The first "obstacle" is called Death March.  It is an incline up a ski slope in the Southern California heat.  No matter how much you stretched or warmed-up beforehand, the Death March immediately slows you down.

You are then immediately herded to #2: The Arctic Enema.  This is an ice bath.  But not just any ice bath.  It is of such epic proportions that I would actually prefer to roll naked in the snow during a blizzard than do that again.  Apologies for the graphic description, but my testicles shrank so much that for a moment I remembered what it was like to be 10 again.

The next few miles consisted of obstacles that slogged you on your stomach through mud, brought you up increasingly steeper hills (which during the winter are Blue and Green-level ski slopes), shocked you with electricity as you crawled underneath barbed wire, squeezed you into cramped, dark tunnels, made you leap off high platforms into mountain lakes and more.

At Mile 4, we encountered "Hold Your Wood."  Before you go getting excited about that one, we were required to grab a solid chord of wood and carry it for a mile (mostly uphill).  This is the first point that the physicality of this course hit me.  My brisk pace of the first few miles began to slow a bit under the weight of the wood.

At the end of the mile, my team and I threw down our logs and sighed with relief. Turning the corner, we didn't expect what would come next:


Now, imagine having spent the last hour or two pushing yourself up hill, through physical obstacles, being shocked and carrying heavy wood... and then looking up to see ahead of you 1/2 mile of almost straight-up mountain.  Seriously... almost 90 degrees from top to bottom.  Imagine realizing that is your next obstacle.  Imagine your team letting out a simultaneous and collective "Aw shit".  Cliffhanger might have been the hardest physical thing I've ever done in my life.  1/4 of the way up my legs were burning with the heat of a thousand suns, my heart was pounding in my ears and my lungs worked overtime just to draw in breath not to mention trying to keep it in long enough for it to be of any use.

On the side of the path, people were hunched over, some threw up, one passed out (or at least had fallen asleep), and many were stopped, unable to do it all at once.  Each resting person seemed like they had it right.  I could stop for a second right? Compose myself, I thought.  But my team and I also knew if we did stop, Cliffhanger would not only get more difficult but would never feel as though it ended.  So on, we went... pushing ourselves.  Our clothes completely dry in the hot sun despite all the water obstacles, sweat now began to soak our shirts once again.  Todd made it to the top first. Todd, despite being the oldest man on our team by 10 years, was/is one beast of a competitor.  Nick made it after, and I was right behind.  The Wills followed shortly behind, completing Cliffhanger as a pair.  We all hunched over or placed our arms over head to suck in breath.  When we turned to look behind us, we saw a view that made us realize what we had just accomplished.

Cliffhanger ended right at about Mile 6, which meant 60% of this Tough Mudder course took us up Blue, Green and Black Diamond ski slopes.  Another 10% of the course would also somehow be spent going uphill, while the remainder brought us sharply downhill (a killer on the knees).

"Berlin Walls" made us test both our upper and lower body strength as we had to hurl ourselves over large walls.

The last 2 miles were the toughest for me.  "Hanging Tough" were gymnastic rings suspended over a pit of cold water.  I would estimate 70% of competitors did not make it across and found themselves in the pit.  The Wills both fell in, but Todd and Nick made it across using their momentum to glide from ring-to-ring.  Following their lead, I did the same.  Upon grabbing the last ring, one accessory I thought would be a complete advantage caused my downfall: my gloves.  I lost my right hand grip and not having totally secured my left hand on the final ring, I fell.  Being so close to the edge of the pit, I fell straight into the wood siding.

You know those moments in life when everything slows down- and it's not really a good thing? Well, it felt like it took about 3 minutes for me to come crashing down on the side of that pit yet my arms were moving through some sort of molasses.  I managed to get them up just in time to prevent my face ("the moneymaker") from smashing into the ground at high speed.  The cost?  A chest, forearm and shin that hit in the most inopportune of spots, sending me crashing down into the cold water. As soon as I submerge, a large Tough Mudder candidate followed suit and landed right on top of me.  I came up to find my entire team and a TM official with hands extended, worried like good brothers would be.

It hurt like a bitch.  My chest pounded and I struggled to catch my breath.  A medical guy rushed to me.  I took a quick survey and there was no internal red alert, so I waved him off.  I was fine. I was, after all, trying to prove that I am a Tough Mudder.  So, on we went.

"Everest" was a slippery mess of a steep ramp that we had to scurry up in order to begin the final mile.  We watched as some people cleared the top and then tumbled all the way down.  Understandable considering how tired our bodies were at this point.  My knee throbbing with pain from almost 4 miles of downhill jogging, I scurried up- our team made it up easily.

"Funky Monkey" was the second-to-last obstacle.  Much like the rings, these bars were suspended over a cold pit of water.  I was NOT going to be robbed of this one like I was with Hanging Tough.  The gloves came off... literally.  I watched as Todd, Nick and Will Sherrod made it to the other side, and up I went.  What I did not expect was the bars to roll as you grabbed them.  By the 4th bar, pain was shooting like crazy up the forearm that had been smacked in Hanging Tough.  Gritting my teeth, I reached for the next bar- all the weight impossibly bearing down on my right arm- and in I went.


C'est la vie... and on to the final test.

"ElectroShock Therapy".  Now this was the only thing about Tough Mudder that I could say I was scared of.  The threat of fire, ice, dark tight places and tests of endurance did not scare me.  But TM likes to advertise that in order to complete the course and be an actual Tough Mudder you must race through live wires of electricity- some containing up to 10,000 volts running through them.  This was not something I looked forward to.

But it was the end.  The Finish Line lay a mere 20 yards ahead of us.  "The Lucky Sevens" (our team name though we only had 5 instead of the originally intended 7) locked hands and went through as a team.

I was happy to find out later that Todd, Nick and The Wills all made it through relatively unscathed.  Hackner said he didn't feel any shocks at all, give or take a few minor ones.  Todd got hit by a few.  Sherrod took one to the jugular but plowed forward.

I, on the other hand, was not so fortunate.  At some point along the way, I hit something.  For all I know Tough Mudder could have had a Mac truck hidden on the side of the course and run me over with it.  I don't remember being hit.  And I don't remember hitting the ground.  What I do remember is coming to in the water (yes, they make you run through water while hitting these wires) and trying to stand back up... and getting hit again.  When I say "get hit" you should understand that this is only partially accurate.  I now know what it feels like to be punched on your insides with an iron fist.  My teeth rattled, and down I went again.  Hard.

Screw this shit.  I decided to Rambo this shit the rest of the way.  On my stomach, I crawled my ass toward the end of this Therapy crap.  I got hit a few more times by some gnarly shocks but I made it out and quickly got to my feet.  5 yards and there was the end.  The sweet, sweet end.  The Lucky Sevens high-fived, hugged, whooped and hollered.  We had done it.  We were Tough Mudders.

Tough Mudder's host was there... high-fiving everyone that made it through.  When you crossed the line, Dos Equis had a beer waiting for you.  Tough Mudder issued t-shirts and orange headbands to everyone who completed TM.  For me, that orange headband was my trophy, my championship belt.  You cannot receive those headbands unless you finish.  I would estimate from the injuries and people being driven down the start line that maybe 30% of competitors did not finish TM.  But we did.  We had our orange headbands and they did not.

There is merit in pushing yourself.  In testing your limits.  When you know you can go further than you thought, it opens up new doors.  Suddenly, more seems possible.  Training for something like that- and then participating in and completing in- is a reminder that if you want to do something, if you want to do it right and finish the task... you have to just put your head down and say "Fuck it. Here we go."

As strange as it may sound, Tough Mudder has given me renewed strength in my career.  I gain confidence from working.  As my tennis coach once diagnosed, "You are a rhythm guy."  Once I get a rhythm going, I am hard to stop.  But I am an actor.  And sometimes, gaining even the smallest bit of momentum is impossible.  What Tough Mudder has helped me remember is that the most frustrating and difficult times requires me to put my head down and say "Fuck it. Here we go" and conquer that Cliffhanger.  Maybe I'll fall into a pit along the way or get knocked on my ass right at the Finish Line, but I'll reach it anyway.