Time to catch up on some skipped race reports. There’s a draft report from the Denver edition of the Skirt Chaser 5k that I did back in August, shortly after I started a new job, but that never got done before we headed off for a few weeks’ vacation to Egypt in September, followed by up and moving the rig from Golden to Bend via Bonneville in October.
So now it’s practically 2011, we’re done flying around the country to visit family for the holidays, and have settled in SoCal for the winter, so it seems as good a time as any to get back in to things here and update some bloggy goodness.
A Brief Background
For the past few years we’ve been doing Thanksgiving with my family in New Jersey, which we preceded for the past two years with a 26.2 mile run through the streets of Philadelphia with a thousand dozen or so of our closest friends. This year, however, we opted to pass on the chaos, expense, and frustration of an overnight hotel in Philly and figured we’d find something more low key to do closer to my parents.
Somewhere along the way we caught wind of the Warrior Dash series and eventually managed to register for the one they run in Copper Mountain resort north of Denver. Starting just a day or so after I joined the Warrior Dash Facebook group I started to get about half a dozen ads each day from Tough Mudder. Which is a behavior core to the problem with the Tough Mudder event, but still enough of an interesting looking event for C and I to notice that they were doing one just ten minutes from my parents’ house in New Jersey the weekend before Thanksgiving. Oh, Fortuna!
We didn’t register immediately, as Tough Mudder is significantly more expensive than the Warrior Dash and we weren’t sure if we’d actually enjoy an obstacle course “race.” So we held off until after the three-ish mile Warrior Dash before signing up for the twelve-ish mile Tough Mudder Tri-State. And damn is it fun. These courses are completely different than a road race or even a trail run, but incredibly fun in their own right. So we registered for Tough Mudder.
Tough Mudder is all about hype. Just take a look at the opening paragraph of their home page:
Tough Mudder is not your average lame-ass mud run or spirit-crushing ‘endurance’ road race. It’s Ironman meets Burning Man, and it is coming to a city near you. Our 7-12 mile obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. Forget finish times. Simply completing a Tough Mudder is a badge of honor. All Tough Mudder sponsorship proceeds go to the Wounded Warrior Project.
WARNING: A Tough Mudder is 3-4 times longer and much tougher than a typical mud run such as Warrior Dash. Only 78% of participants at our last event in New Jersey finished. Only those in reasonable physical condition should enter.
So, yeah, they want you to feel hard core for finishing it. In fact, if you tattoo their logo on your person at the post-race party you get free entry to any and all Tough Mudders for life. Or, presumably, until you come to your senses and get it grafted off or covered up with some other corporate logo.
The problem is that the majority of it is an “average lame-ass mud run.” All they did was make it longer. The fact that they build themselves up to be cooler than a “typical” mud run and use the Warrior Dash as an example1 of that just highlights my problem with the event. And it is an event.
Not a race, but an event. They make quite the point of this. So, after building it up as the most difficult thing possible, they want to make the day about taking your time and having fun. In fact, they don’t even time it – there’s an “elite” wave, which requires a 3:15 marathon time or 2:15 Olympic Tri, and everyone can submit their own times to qualify for the as-yet-to-be-scheduled “Toughest Mudder.” You’re supposed to just take your time, have fun, and help each other out.
So then why are we running?
Despite them being down on other events and not being sure whether they’re a difficult event or a fun event, they do not turn a deaf ear to complaints and negative feedback. After every event their Facebook page is covered with race organizers letting us know what was wrong, what they’re doing to fix it for future events, and asking if there’s anything they don’t have on their list yet. Even between days on multi-day events. That type of communication and commitment to improving is something you rarely see in small local races, let alone large corporate ones, so kudos to them on that!
Also, they have a great bunch of volunteers and/or employees at the event. They could use more along the course, but their pre-race people and post-race people were awesome. (The guy who would supposedly give you a free tattoo was nowhere to be found, but I’m guessing they were contractors for the day.) Since everyone was started in waves, they had a staging area for us to gather in before a pair of gatekeepers would hold up a poster that matched the bibs of the next group up. I was in one of the last waves and they were still going strong, keeping things in line, and putting up with obnoxious New Jersians[2. I promised myself I wouldn't rip on my home state in this post. So, to clarify, I'm not saying that everyone from New Jersey is obnoxious. Obnoxious New Jersians is a subset of New Jersians. A large subset, but a subnet nonetheless. Also, I made up the word Jersians.] who can’t read signs, listen to announcements or follow common sense.
So, pretty much the only people that suck are their marketing people. Play nice with other events and promote it as a fun event OR a hard event and you’ve got a very enjoyable day.
In other words, for the record, before I go in to the play-by-play, I HAD A GREAT TIME.
The Race Event
This particular edition of Tough Mudder claims 19 obstacles over just over 12 miles (12.08). For comparison, a “typical mud run like the Warrior Dash” consists of 11 obstacles over a 5k. Why do I point this out? Because an average of 1.58 obstacles per mile is not “more extreme” than 3.54 obstacles per mile. Especially when the first an last obstacle is “run in a straight line on a flat surface.” Just sayin’ . . .
So here’s what they had;
- The Monster Chase – This makes more sense if you noticed where the event was; Raceway Park is a drag racing and motocross venue. The gun goes off at the starting post of the drag strip, and a monster truck floors it down the 1400 foot straightaway. We follow in his exhaust, with some smoke grenades thrown by the staff to make it more, uh, smokey, until a rather unassuming arc of traffic cones indicates that we should turn off the strip around the 900 or 1000 foot mark. Perhaps the obstacle is not missing the turn? I’m hanging on to the lead pack in either fourth or fifth position, which is more of a concern to me.
- The Ball Shrinker – This is simply a very slack line postman’s walk over a cold pond. Being in the lead group had a huge advantage here as there was only one person on the rope at a time, so other people’s swaying didn’t affect you. Plus, with only two or three lines crossing the water, it’s the first bottleneck.
- Walk the Plank – Climb up a wooden ramp with a rope assist to a platform fifteen feet over the water. Jump in before the National Guardsman feels you’ve taken too long or he makes you go back down. It took me a couple of beats to work up the nerve, given how cold it was OUTSIDE the water, but I was in the air before “last chance” was declared.
- Underwater Tunnels – Three rows of 50 gallon drums tied together to create a floating barricade you have to duck under before you can get out of the water. No so much a physical challenge as a mental one as you’re already in the water and know damn well how cold it will feel when you’re totally immersed. Two gentlemen wearing nothing but black Speedos caught up with me as I was catching my breath before the last row. And by “caught up” I mean “attempted to swim up my bum.”
- Spider’s Web – Cargo nets. Up, down, up again, down again. Shorter cargo nets than the Warrior Dash, if anyone wants to be sizing them up. The real challenge is that this is where you start catching up with the prior waves, so any advantage for being toward the front – or even in a mid-pack pocket – is gone.
- Mud Mile – Just big ol’ trenches filled with mud. The dirt they dug out of them is piled up every twenty feet or so to create little hills you have to climb over before you can slog through the next part of the trench. It’s a little unclear how far this obstacle “officially” went, as the trench led right in to the motocross track, which has it’s own hills and dips, and was wet not only from wet mudders, but from strategically positioned hoses. I’m proud to report that I only wiped out once, but that one of my Speedo-clad friends passed me and was never seen again.
- Cliffhanger – This is the first obstacle where the whole spirit of teamwork was really apparent – and necessary. Aside from helping people up when the slipped in the mud or encouraging them across the ice cold water, there’s not much to do other than plod along at whatever your pace of choice is. But when you get to a pretty darn steep twenty-some-odd foot mud cliff, you’re suddenly very glad there are people at the top holding their arms out to help you up the last bit . . . if you can get to them. I imagine the instructions to “grab onto anything you can” might have been more relevant for the first dozen waves, but by my noontime start it was nice and smooth. Which is good for slipping and sliding back down on your butt – or face – but not so good for getting to the top. Some people managed to maintain their momentum right up and over, but it took me a dozen tries before I was able to get to a point where there was something – and then someone – to grab. I tried to turn back and offer a hand to others for a bit, but the top of the cliff was already overcrowded with people sticking around for their own teammates, so I continued on, having lost at least a couple others from my wave.
- Kiss of Mud – More mud, but only surface mud this time, instead of hip-deep. Kind of like Warrior Dash’s “Muddy Mayhem” obstacle2, only the wire’s not barbed, the mud’s not deep, and there’s no sharp gravel involved.
- Berlin Walls – This is where my complete lack of upper body strength caught up with me. As the description says, it’s hard enough dry, but try it wet… I might have been able to swing a leg over if the wall and my feet weren’t covered in mud. After a minute or so or struggling, three girls in hula skirts caught up and offered to help me up3. Since there’s no staff on the course or signs to say otherwise, I then popped around the wall and helped them do the same. I think there were four or six walls to scale, so I had to make friends a few more times, but that’s apparently their point. If I did this again, I’d really want to cross train better to prove to myself I could do it solo.
- Boa Constrictor – Contrary to the photo on their website, this was actually a series of wooden tunnels somewhat narrower than the plastic drain pipes pictured (which would have made it the exact same thing as Warrior Dash’s “Tunnels of Terror”). In a cool little variation, they built a platform up over the tunnels for spectators to stand on. I’m pretty sure squeezing through these tunnels (twice – once in each direction) is the source of most of my scrapes and bruises.
- Rubbernecking – This one is actually pretty cool. Grab a tire and carry it around a lap of a paved track. Probably about 400 meters, give or take. Lots of people were carrying them around their waists like a pool doughnut, but I opted for the over-the-shoulder technique, which, with the exception of getting mysterious water dumped on my shoulder when I first lifted it up, seemed to be the better approach.
- Tired Yet? – More tires, this time flat on the ground a la the classic high-knee football workout. Maybe twenty yards worth? Warrior Dash called it Knee-High Hell. Pretty much identical executions.
- Fire Walker – “Walk, run, or leap over fire.” Except not. The challenge here is actually two rows of flaming hay bales set about 12 feet apart which you are expected to run between. So, provided you don’t panic and come to a complete stop or lose your way in the smoke, it’s just a refreshingly warm (and dry) ten or fifteen yards. Another mile or two of this would have been very welcome, though the local fire fighters might have disagreed with my request.
- The Devil’s Beard – Another cargo net, but this time on it’s side for us to crawl under. I think there was another one of these in between the Mud Mile and the motocross track, so it was a little confusion when we got here and were all like “uh… didn’t we do this already?” Maybe we were all hallucinating from inhaling too much hay smoke. Anyway, this was another great teamwork obstacle, as it’s much easier when there’s a row of people on the far end pulling all the slack out of the net. Of course, that’s assuming that six burly Marine-looking guys don’t let go when their last teammate emerges right in front of you. I managed my way out, hend the tension as best I could until there were enough people to keep it going, then continued on.
- The Log Bog Jog - This barely qualifies as an obstacle. It’s a nice trail through the woods with a couple of downed trees crossing it with no instructions. Over? Under? Around? This is par for the course on any wooded trail in any park in America.
- Funky Monkey – These are greased monkey bars over another body of cold water. With a massive line in front. I stood around for five minutes. The line didn’t move. My body was cooling down. Waiting in line is not an obstacle, so I skipped my first obstacle and took the “easy” way out and just swam across the water, noting that most people were falling in and having to swim anyway, only after waiting for half an hour.
- Twinkle Toes – Of course, what I didn’t realize until much later is that these two obstacles are connected. You skip Funky Monkey and you also skipped Twinkle Toes, which starts from a floating platform half way across the water and is just a balance beam to the opposite shore. No wonder it backed up! Continuing merrily along my way, oblivious that I’d skipped two, I came to the last obstacle . . .
- Mystery Obstacle – Jellyfish – They don’t let you know what the mystery obstacle is until race day. It’s right near the start and finish line so they can point at it when you line up and make clever remarks about how no, it’s not the framework of an unfinished one room house; it’s the framework of an unfinished one room house with hundreds of electrified wires dangling down from it. And there’s no way you’re getting to this point dry and graceful. I took the blind and stupid approach and just picked a path with no others in my path or wake and charged in full speed. I made it about 80% of the way through before completing a circuit and going down, face first, like a professional wrestler who doesn’t get a cool nickname. Now I understood why this spot had the most spectators. I pulled myself along the last bit as quickly as I could on my elbows, taking a few more zaps to the back before I made it to open air.
- Insane Bolt – Supposedly, this final obstacle is a mass wave started every two minutes for the last 100 meter dash. If there was someone who was supposed to be holding us back for a scheduled start, I – and dozens of others – missed it. I was one of maybe three people putting in a “run” effort, let alone a sprint, but I made it to the finish, where there was no clock and no staff members to be seen. (You could barely see the finish line itself with all the spectators mulling about.) I found a spectator with a watch and learned that it was 1:55, which, given my high noon start wave, was a 1:55 finish time. But it wasn’t a race.
In between the obstacles there were a few other minor obstacles, like having to climb over the barricade of the drag strip to continue the race on the other side, or hitting a twisted part of the non-muddy motocross track and having no idea which way to turn, loop, hook, or meander to get to the continuation of the trail on the other side4. It would have made more sense to give these things names and eliminate the “Monster Chase,” “Fire Walker,” and “Insane Bolt,” since there’s no point in straight running if the thing isn’t a race.
The run itself was awesome, though the runner in me wanted it to be a full half marathon. The mileage seemed arbitrary – with 12 miles to play with they could have spaced things out and avoided bottlenecks, but instead things were clumped together with random stretches of aimless running (or jogging, or walking) in between.
The obstacles were, for the most part, pretty cool and a lot of fun, save for the bottlenecks5. The staff, though lacking on the course and finish line, were really quite good. It’s just that nagging “we’re so hard core, but it’s not a race, and you’re still tough if you skip some obstacles” indecisive marketing that annoys me. A lot.
When all is said and done, I suppose if I had stood around and waited for the monkey bars, I would probably have had a 2:15 or 2:20 finishing time. Technically, if you skip any obstacles you don’t qualify for “The Toughest Mudder,” but I entered my results in to the results anyway (though at the time I thought I’d only skipped one obstacle, not two). Imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail saying I’d qualified for the Toughest Mudder. A little part of me wants to put my name in anyway – not sure if it’s an error or if they didn’t have enough people who waited in lines or whatever so they grabbed some of the one obstacle skipped people.
I’ll reiterate one more time: I had a great time.
But the finish line “party” was awful. You get one Dos Equis for doing the event. The music was over by the time I finished. (Or hadn’t begun yet?) Plus, we’re all cold and wet and there’s not really anywhere to remedy this. I could get hosed off by the fire department, but I wanted to get a photo first, so I ran back to the car for that, by which point the last thing I wanted to do was get wet again, so I joined a dozen other people in the men’s room washing up at the sinks. Between the mess in there and the trash people left around the parking lot, I’d be amazed if the facility ever lets Tough Mudder come back.
Seriously, people, if there’s a place at the post race party to donate your shoes, why the hell are you leaving them in the parking lot?
Oh, and no medals. Because medals are for soft mamby pamby marathoners, right? Us cool kids just need a cotton t-shirt and an orange headband. (“You’re checking out my awesome headband when . . . oops.“)
When it all gets down to it, the event is just disproportionate to it’s cost. Am I glad I did it? Yeah. Hell yeah. Was it fun? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Probably not. Not unless they dropped the cost significantly or I had a really good reason to want to do it again. I’ll just donate directly to the Wounded Warrior Project.
That is all.
- In their defense, on another page, they acknowledge that the Warrior Dash and the Spartan Race are also fun events, but of course in the same sentence they claim that their obstacles are tougher. ↩
- The Warrior Dash’s only mud-related obstacle, by the way. Since, you know, mud isn’t technically an obstacle, unless it’s making a near-vertical surface very slippery. ↩
- I was going to have my own teammate, but Ceridwen was sick and couldn’t come… ↩
- I thought I was doing it right until another runner approached me head-on… ↩
- Which, according to other people’s feedback, hit different obstacles at different parts of the day. ↩