I’ve always viewed obstacle races as something that “people who don’t understand running” or “people with short attention spans” do. Not my bag at all. Having concentrated on running longer and longer and getting physical endurance and mental fortitude tested, stretched and grown, getting out of bed for a race shorter than 13.1 miles (a tough sprint!) doesn’t really work for me. So when I was offered a place by Merrell to take part in the South London Tough Mudder I was on the fence quite a bit.
I looked it up and, in my haste, saw it was a 5 miler with some mud, some walls, an ice bath and some electrocution. (Hm, attention to detail - 2/10.) No worries for 1 week after managing 25 miles of CW50 and 3 weeks out from A100, shouldn’t be a problem at all, but I doubted I’d actually enjoy myself. And the offer of a nice new pair of Merrell shoes to run it in with the rest of the Merrell team tipped it over the edge, I have to admit. After a few days I was moseying around on the Internet, having a bit more of a look at Tough Mudder and I realised I’d been looking at the details for etc one on 17th Sept instead of 24th. The one on 17th was indeed a 5 mile jaunt with some obstacles to negotiate. The one on 24th was actually 10-12 miles with twice the number of obstacles. Hm. More of a thing but by then I’d agreed and my shiny shoes were on their way!
|Merrell All Out Crush - Tough Mudder Edition|
Cue 06:00 on 24th - my alarm goes off so I can get up and cram some tea in me, make a second one to drink on the way, feed kitties, haul on some shorts and a t-shirt and my lovely new shoes (which were really surprisingly light so I wasn’t expecting much out of them on the terrain) and my glorious Dry Robe. A little amble to our nearby tram stop with a nice dry bag full of clean stuff (full change of clothes plus a warm jacket - doesn’t matter how warm it is on a race day, I almost always need a warm thing to put on to put on afterwards) and a tiny towel to dry off after my shower (again thanks Merrell for the hospitality - a warm shower was very welcome vs the cold ones outside the corporate hospitality areas). Changing at East Croydon onto the 0753 to Horsham (Crawley is quicker, but not for the time I wanted to be travelling) I had a nice sit and my tea while I wondered whether I’d actually find the other person who was running for Merrell and coming by public transport too. We’d arranged to share a cab from the station to the event and I’d no idea what she looked like, so a quick message and I was identifiable by my huge Dry Robe when we got to Horsham.
The cab driver did the right thing as we got close to the event venue - one lane of coned off traffic being filtered into the venue with the right hand lane for the rest of the traffic, he took the right hand lane and dipped through a gap in the cones just after the venue entrance to chuck us out onto the grass verge. At that point it was pretty clear that the reverse journey would be *interesting* but not worth worrying about until after the mud-based fun.
|Me and some of the Merrell crew|
|Lightly foxed wrist bands post-event|
Registered, liability waiver form handed in, and now covered in various wrist bands (participant, media and corporate hospitality) we headed to the Merrell tent to finish getting ready for our 10am wave.
120 Merrell runners! Covered in fluorescent orange face paint, orange hair spray-dye, one huge guy in a dress and another in leopard print hot pants, we followed the team flags down to the start area for the pretty cheesy motivational speech, a little bit of safety stuff (don’t attempt the water obstacles if you can’t swim; if you see someone in difficulty, stop and make a sign with crossed forearms in front of you) and then reciting the Tough Mudder “pledge” (*eyeroll* - sorry but this was a step too far for me). And we were off!
The team mainly trotted off ahead of me like any parkrun - cue internal monologue about the fact they’d not be able to keep that up and I’d see them again later. The ethos of Tough Mudder is that it’s a team thing, it’s about team work and camaraderie, but having met none of this team before that morning I wasn’t really feeling it, especially as there were sub-groups within the team who already knew each other. I felt like an outsider and didn’t really expect that to change during this event.
|Kiss of Mud 2.0|
The route wandered mainly through very pretty woodland with a few little sections out into fields. I don’t really remember the first two obstacles; 1 - bale bonds (I assume something with hay bales?) and 2 - skid marked (nope, doesn’t ring a bell at all). Obstacle #3 was the first one that registers - Kiss Of Mud 2.0 - a mud pit with barbed wire suspended about 18” above it that you had to crawl under. Thankfully I’ve watched a few races like this on TV before and the advice on those programmes was still clear in my head; don’t go down on your belly and elbows, but get as flat as you can on elbows and knees and crawl. Oh boy was that effective! I did catch my shorts on the barbed wire a couple of times but otherwise progress was easy and quick like that. More jogging through woodland for a bit to get to the 4th obstacle and I’d caught up with the back markers from the team.
4 - Hero Walls; wooden walls with a ridge along the side facing away from the approach. Even if you’re super tall, you can’t reach the top of the walls without a huge leap and then hauling yourself up, so I took the tactic of using the side support, which was angled, as well as proffered hands for a leg up, to get half way up and high enough to grab the top and haul over, yelling back to team mates who’d not gotten up yet about using the supports. I hung around to help pull other folks over the wall and promptly lost the rest of the team. Didn’t really see them again after this obstacle. I had no idea if they were in front or behind me, but given the start of the race I assumed in front so kept trucking to try to catch up again.
Obstacle 5 - Pyramid Scheme - came after more lovely trotting through woodland and seeing various people in road shoes skating all over the place in the mud - those super light shoes I was wearing turned out to have impressive grip and I was trusting them pretty much like I trust my La Sportiva Helios SRs! This obstacle was fairly easy in teams as it’s a hard neoprene slope - too steep and slippery to run up - with a ridge part way up. Folks basically form a human ladder and help haul people up to the ridge and then to the top. I found a couple of the Merrell team here, but nobody I recognised and again got split up straight after the obstacle.
|Ice. Lots of it.|
The 6th obstacle - Arctic Enema - I thought I’d be totally OK with. It’s the first proper water obstacle and I’m not only a strong swimmer but I’ve done a fair few swims in pretty cold water so I wasn’t worried about it. It’s basically a great big, deep tin bath full of water with a lot of ice cubes in, with a bar half way across that you have to swim under. Watching race marshals dumping a few more industrial bags of ice into the tubs, I climbed up the steps to the chute area where as a group of 3, we were counted down to drop down the slide into the water. Smug as all heck and full of bravado I was talking with the guy behind about what a relief the cold would be after getting a bit warm jogging about beforehand.
|Muddy water full of ice - Artic Enema|
I dropped into the water and OH BOY was it a real physical shock. As I surfaced, I simply couldn’t breathe - the cold had knocked the breath out of me and it took a couple of minutes to get it back. The race medic next to the tub was trying to be reassuring; I was fine, just needed to get my breath back! He then counted me down and shoved me under the bar to the second half of the tub where it was quick and easy to get out. I was pretty cooled down by that so upped the jogging pace to warm back up again and got yelled at, by a fellow participant that I passed, to slow down (um, OK, how about no and I’ll run my own race - yes it’s not a race, but you know what I mean). It took a little while to warm up but I was actually starting to enjoy myself!
The log carry - Hold Your Wood - was the next obstacle (#7) and that was a breeze. The logs were totally manageable even though I’ve not done any upper body strength work for a year now. Obstacle number 8, though fairly easy, proved the most damaging of the day.
The Mud Mile - a set of 3-4 mud and water filled trenches with steep sides up to mud hills that were slick with slimy mud. There was no way to control your descent into the trench and no idea how deep they were. I started to regret wearing shorts as sliding down the mud banks into the water meant moving fast over hidden sharp stones which raked the backs of my thighs. I couldn’t see how bad it was at the time, due to the layers of mud over me, but it sure stung and a week on, the deep gouges are still sore and scabby! If I ever did one of these again I’d likely sacrifice a pair of capri pants under my shorts, to protect my upper legs. The fun was in the mud and shoving on other peoples’ bottoms to help them up the hill out of the trench :o)
|Very very sore gouge on my thigh|
Two tube crawls next - obstacles 9 and 10; Sewer Rat and Prairie Dog - big, slightly ridged plastic tubes to crawl through. The first flat and into knee deep water, the second angled downwards a bit and onto firm, dryish mud. Again, if I was going to do this kind of event again I’d think about a long sleeved top to protect my elbows from the burns I got crawling through these, but probably not bother with longer tights to cover my knees despite how scratched they got too.
|Messed up, swollen, scraped knee|
Lumberjacked - the 11th obstacle, was a bit weird. A rotating wooden pole at about head height, supported at each end. The aim simply to get over it. OK, it’s pretty high so you need help, but fairly straightforward. Again I was pleasantly surprised by random strangers offering to help out of nowhere - despite having lost my team and feeling quite like I wasn’t 100% with the spirit of this event, it was great to be a part of that sort of overall camaraderie and I ended up jogging with these guys who helped at this obstacle for a while before losing them as well. The woodland trails were so pretty and great running that I was really enjoying that part too - I’d expected a lot less running, so I was pretty happy to trot through the trees and enjoy the moderate amount of trail specific experience I have paying dividends in making progress with joy rather than trepidation about falling over.
I skipped the 12th obstacle - Funky Monkey 2.0 - having had bad experiences with my plated collar-bone and previous similar gym work (pull ups etc.) I wasn’t about to have a really unpleasant experience with crunching, clicking, popping and horrible sensations that have made me feel pretty sick in the past. I did, however, help pull someone out of the water when it was pointed out that they couldn’t swim and they’d fallen off the bars (almost everyone fell off the bars so it was inevitable to end up in the water).
The Cage Crawl - obstacle 13 - was great fun. Like the Kiss of Mud earlier, only a water-filled pit and a wire fence about 6” over it so you had to slide in on your back and pull yourself along in the water on your back. Super super quick and easy, so I wasn’t sure how the folks ahead of me ended up being so slow that I had to tap the guy following me on the head to slow down so he wouldn’t end up head-first on my feet while I waited. At least the water in this obstacle was a lot warmer than the ice bath so it wasn’t a horrible shock to the system getting into it, and it washed a lot of the mud off!
The alternate obstacle for experienced Tough Mudder participants was - Rain Man - I’m assuming something water related but that’s all I’ve got as I didn’t get a good view of it.
Coming into obstacle 14 - the Hero Carry - I’d been steaming through some lovely woodland trail. Lots of fast shallow descents, flat sections with pretty difficult ruts and roots underfoot and twisty switchbacks that were really slowing down folks more used to road running (or not running much at all). I arrived at the obstacle in a bit of a gap; nobody ahead of me waiting so I turned to see behind. Spotted a bloke who looked like a handy victim and invited him to get on my back for the first half of the piggy-back. He was thankfully pretty small and light - about my height and 76kg (I asked!) and way stronger than me so at the half-way changeover point of the Hero Carry, he picked me up and we moved a lot faster! Fun! Really enjoyed that!
|I pinned this bib back on after every obstacle - given it's state I'm not sure why...|
The 15th obstacle was the most innovative - the Birth Canal - a long wooden frame with multiple chute entrances, over each tunnel a tarpaulin filled with water such that it hangs down into the tunnel. Not a lot of clearance in the tunnel - you absolutely have to lie on your belly and get your head to one side to fit - the water is so heavy that you can’t push it up other than with your body existing so it’s really hard to make progress. The trick turned out to be to turn your head to one side, stay to one side of the tunnel where the tarp was a bit higher (not much though!) and use the batons of the frame, which were about 3 feet apart, to drag yourself along the ground with your hands and push on them with your feet. Ideally, someone helps to pull you out at the other end, but being not with a team and the teams ahead having moved on, I had to sort myself out. Not too bad really, but I did wait for the guy behind to be near enough the end to start pulling him out. All part of the fun and sense of achievement to help others out!
The most pointless obstacle of the event was the Devils Beard - obstacle 16. A cargo net stretched over some hay bales. It slowed you down a bit, but nothing to write home about. The only obstacle that required no upper body strength, and had neither mud or water involved. I guess it was there to up the numbers?
The Liberator - obstacle 17 - was pretty hard. A pretty much vertical wooden construction with parallel, vertical wooden poles, about 2 feet apart, with diagonal notches cut into them, and 1.5” holes drilled into the panels in between those poles into which you were supposed to insert wooden pegs. The intention is to haul yourself up the wall using those wooden pegs and using the notches in the poles to perch your toes. It was super, super hard to use the pegs and I’d got about 12 feet up before getting a bit wobbly and worrying about losing my grip and falling back down the wooden panel, filling myself with splinters and grazes. So I ditched the pegs one by one and used those notches in the poles for my hands to climb up. Waaaaay easier! So I yelled across to a woman having the same trouble and advised her to ditch the pegs - to similar effect! It’s all about ingenuity and team work, right?
|The Block Ness Monster|
My favourite obstacle of the day was number 18 - The Block Ness Monster. Really something out of Takeshi’s Castle or It’s a Knockout; a big ditch full of water with pair of square-sectioned tubes that rotate barring the way. They’re huge and rotate enough that you can’t simply climb over them to get by, you need to work as a group with some on one side pushing to rotate them, some already across that one to pull from the other side and one or two folks grab onto an edge and rotate with the tube to land head-first in the grubby water on the other side and then help to rotate the tube for the next people. Great fun yelling at people to push together and get those really heavy tubes moving with people on them!
|King of The Swingers|
I skipped obstacle 19 - King of The Swingers. With an iffy shoulder for that sort of activity I didn’t much fancy it. It’s a very very high construction over a pit full of quite deep water. You climb up one side and there’s a free-swinging pole with a t-bar at the bottom that you have to jump to grab and then swing forward with enough momentum to jump further at the end of the swing to hit a cow bell before dropping into the water and swimming to the exit. Many many people didn’t make the jump for the bell, some even didn’t make the jump for the t-bar. Hey, at least the water wasn’t full of ice cubes this time!
Everest 2.0 came up next and I’d found some of the Merrell team on the other side of obstacle 19, finally! We reached the 20th obstacle together and was really going to need team work to get over it. This one is a curved slope made again of that super hard and slippery plastic; you need to run up it as hard and as far as you can to reach the top and haul yourself over onto the ledge at the top of the obstacle. It’s really very difficult to do that under your own steam, so what you really need to do is run at it really hard, aim for the bars behind the top ledge and reach out for your team mates’ arms to haul you over the top. Which I failed to do at the first attempt and bounced and slid back down the slope - burning and bruising more bits of me. I was pretty sore by this point and most of the mud had washed off in the water obstacles.
|Me, being hauled up Everest 2.0|
My second attempt, on of the guys at the top managed to get enough of a grip on one of my hands that with some hauling and getting one leg high enough for someone else to grip, I was 100% man-handled over the ledge. No mean feat for those guys at the top, I’m not exactly at fighting weight at the moment! I turned around to help another guy up by grabbing him under the arms, but he was pretty strong and managed a lot of the work himself. Still, it was nice to have helped a bit!
Somehow I missed obstacle 21 - Frequent Flyers Club - I think I thought it was an alternate obstacle for folks who’d done a few of these. And having seen a video of what it is, I’m a bit miffed that I missed it!
|Frequent Flyers Club|
The last obstacle came up pretty quickly and it was the one I was never planning to have anything to do with - number 22, Electroshock Therapy. Having initially assumed the shocks would be like little jelly-fish stings, over the course of the event I was hearing more about it, that folks end up knocked to the floor with the shock and it’s not only not advised if you have a pace maker, but also if you have any metal implants. I’ll take that, a titanium plate in my collar-bone is enough of a get out of jail card for me! So I jogged around the side of it, only to see the finish line a couple of feet afterwards. Bah! I was hoping for a bit more of a run into the end, but there it was. Anyway, over the line in 02:45, way quicker than it should have been because I’d spent most of the event thinking the whole Merrell team was ahead of me when it turned out that the majority were actually behind me! Off to the hospitality tent for some hot coffee, hog roast and a quick shower to scrape off the worst of the mud.
Heading home was going to be tricky, I knew that from how the taxi had had to drop us off earlier. I’d planned to walk to the station from the event site and get the train home. But as the thought of the dual carriageway loomed I was contemplating hitching a ride. There was no easy way to get a taxi to pick me up without them spending ages in thick traffic and probably charging loads due to that. So by the time I got almost to the exit of the site, I was hailed by a marshal who said they were not allowing pedestrians to exit the gates. I stuck out a thumb and the next car picked me up right away! Thanks to those guys for dropping me off at the station (they turned out to not have done the event themselves, but one was in the middle of interviewing for a job with Tough Mudder and came to experience the event first hand - nice chaps and I’m grateful of the lift!)
|Nice t-shirt; super light!|
So. There we are, I really really enjoyed myself. Tough Mudder was lots more fun than I’d expected it to be. A lot of it was down to everyone helping everyone else regardless of which team you were part of or even by yourself. A lot of it was down to enjoying being a not-totally-shit trail runner and having shoes that were super light and super grippy in the slidey mud. I would suggest that it’s not particularly friendly if you don’t have a car, but I managed on the day. I would heartily recommend an event like this out of season for trail runners - it’s super fun, no pressure about time, a bit of a fartlek and quite satisfying running with a pretty nice quality t-shirt at the end. Bit expensive though unless you volunteer a bit as well.
[Merrell is the Global presenting partner for Tough Mudder. For more information go to www.merrell.co.uk]