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My Top 9 Ironclad Tips for Tough Mudder Virgins

This is my hero shot taken at a moment where I look like I'm actually doing a pretty good job. There weren't many of these moments.

This is my hero shot taken at a moment where I look like I’m actually doing a pretty good job. There weren’t many of these moments.  I have no idea what Wheaties has to do with this, incidentally.

I became aware of the Tough Mudder a few years ago after discovering Crossfit and completing a couple of Warrior Dashes.  In case you’ve never heard of the Tough Mudder, it’s a 10- to 12-mile mud and obstacle run, infamous for being one of the most difficult of all the wildly popular mud runs out there these days.  (Feel free to debate this distinction in the comments section.)  For a couple of years, it became a goal that I liked to verbalize to friends with a Barney Fife sniff — “Yeah, I’m thinkin’ about doing the Tough Mudder.”  It made for good conversation.  But secretly, I never thought I would have the nerve to do.

It probably won’t ever come to Middle Tennessee anyway, I reasoned, so I’ll never be faced with the decision to do it.

Then came an announcement last winter.  It was coming to Middle Tennessee.

Gulp.

OK, maybe if I act like I didn’t notice the announcement, I can get away with it.

Double-gulp.  A friend of my wife’s, Paul, a guy in his mid-50s who hadn’t worked out in several years, challenged me to help him form a team because he “wanted to do something stupid.”

Crap.  Now I was trapped.  Since I was the “Big Crossfitter,” I couldn’t talk my way out of it.  With no other recourse, I made my first critical error: I agreed.  We formed a team, “The Incompitent Basterds.”  (We named it this in hopes that nobody would look at us and think that we were competent or that we could even spell.)  It was a team of four — myself, Paul, and two ladies with whom he works, Heather and Rebekah.  A month before the June 7 event, though, the founding Basterd tweaked his hip while running.  He was out.  Three days before the event, Heather became a foster mother of a newborn.  She was out.

And then, there were two.

The day of the event, the last surviving Incompitent Basterds showed up with Paul as a spectator, along with my wife, Holly, who is in far better shape than me but was terrified of the high obstacles and much like any sane person, had no interest in voluntarily subjecting herself to electrocution.  More on this later.

The atmosphere at the event site in Spring Hill, Tenn., was circus-like.  There was a lot of nervous energy and laughter as participants used black Sharpees to write bib numbers on each other’s arms and foreheads.  After a couple hours of mental preparation, people-watching, and anxious trips to the Porta-Johns, Rebekah and I joined about 300 other Mudders in the starting chute.  For an eternity, we were whipped into a bouncing frenzy by the motivational dudes on the microphones before they finally released us and we ran onto the trail with shouts of unbridled and apprehensive energy.

Four hours or so later, and with a noticeable absence of unbridled energy, we finished.  Based on that experience, here are my Top 9 Ironclad Tips for Tough Mudder Virgins in no particular order (except for No. 1) along with one bonus.

9.  The Mud — Over-prepare for it.  Yeah, I know that I should’ve suspected there would be mud.  It’s not called the Tough Dirter or the Tough Grasser, after all.  But, y’all don’t understand.  Mud was a problem before we ever stepped out of our Nissan minivan.  The “parking lot” was a hillside pasture that had been rained upon for a couple of days straight, and with the vocal encouragement of an overzealous flagman, I essentially “drifted” the van into its designated spot like a scene from “The Fast and the Furious.”  (I don’t think they used minivans, though.)

The “Mudder Village” was how I imagined the last day of Woodstock, minus the blankets and topless hippies.  Just walking to the starting chute constituted an obstacle, and and I was a mess before I even took a step onto the course.  As of the writing of this particular paragraph, it is five days and five showers after the event, and I’m still digging eraser-sized dirt-clods out of various orifices of my body.  Suggestions? Drive a 4-wheel-drive vehicle if possible, bring multiple trash bags to dump your disgusting garments in, and several old towels to sit on in your car, which will later require detailing and delousing.  Better yet, arrange to have a lake nearby that you can jump in.

8. Running?  Fa-git about it.  At first, running was good.  Running was fine.  Like I said, we’d all been cooped up so long, running actually felt awesome.  The Mudders in my wave all started out running with a nice, jaunty pace and lots of conversation, joking, and laughing.  That lasted for about a mile and a half, maybe.  Then began a four-hour ordeal of running, walking, and leap-frogging our fellow competitors.  (Not actually leap-frogging them, because that would’ve been silly, right?)  It was after the “Mud Mile” obstacle (more on this in a minute) when running really became fun, and I don’t mean “fun.”  I had enough soil between my socks and the soles of my feet to support a vegetable garden my granny would be proud of.  It felt like I was running barefoot on a gravel road.  By the last two miles, the runners had dwindled down to a couple of overzealous marathoners and a lady being chased by a bee.  The takeaway?  Don’t worry about having to run 11 miles.  You won’t.

7. The Funky Monkey — You need to train for this one.  This obstacle is like the monkey bars at the playground when we were kids.  Y’know, back when the objective was to get OUT of the house rather than to turn into Gollum in a darkened basement with an Xbox controller in your clammy, translucent, webbed hand.  So, although the last time this 48-year-old was on monkey bars was probably during the Carter administration, I walked up to the Funky Monkey with a distinct air of confidence, even though failure would result in plummeting into muddy water below.  I derived even more confidence from the fact that I was wearing extremely cool, molded rubber, Batman-like Tough Mudder gloves that would make gripping a breeze and made me feel badass.  After traversing the first two or three bars — which are slanted up for about 10 feet and then slant down another 10 feet — I realized I was in trouble and was not, in fact, badass or even kind-of-not-good-ass.  It felt nothing like when I was 7 and weighed 65 pounds.  I knew I was doomed when my hands started slipping inside my Batman gloves.  The Funky Monkey dropped me like a banana peel and I ended up doing a half-gainer into the brown water.  Takeaway?  Train your shoulders and grip strength.  Acquire some upper body strength, of which I apparently had just enough to pose for this picture

6. Enjoy the company of superheroes — You’ll feel like one, too.  Speaking of the Funky Monkey, I watched in amazement as an incredibly ripped, short black guy wearing nothing but Superman boxer briefs grabbed the sides of the monkey bars — not the horizontal pieces you’re supposed to use — and shimmied his way across the thing in about 10 seconds.  He dropped onto the platform on the other side with a wide grin arched across his face as we all cheered in astonishment.  Later in the race, I saw this guy leap over a wall without touching it at all.  It made me wonder what it must feel like to enjoy such superior health and strength, and how joyful such a person must be during an event like this.   It was cool.

5. The Arctic Enema — Prepare to exit the ride immediately.  This is essentially a big dumpster, about six feet deep and 20 feet long, filled with ice water.  Your task is to jump in one end, swim under a barrier in the middle, and exit the other end.  So, imagine jumping into and swimming through a muddy-water Slushy full of those little ice cubes from Sonic that you love to chew on.  I’ve never removed myself from a pool that fast.  Maybe Jaws would’ve motivated me to move faster, but I doubt it.  Here I am coming out from under the barrier.  (You can see Rebekah’s gloved hands emerging at my left.)

4. Choose Your teammate wisely — They make all the difference.  I just got lucky.  Rebekah, whom I had met only once before the race, turned out to personify the true spirit of the Tough Mudder.  You may think that distinction should go to any one of the hundreds of shirtless, ripped, tatted-up Bros who made child’s play of the obstacles with one hand while simultaneously doing shots of 100-proof testosterone with the other, but that would be too easy.  Rebekah, an attorney, is a mid-30s-ish long-distance runner, soft spoken and slim as a twig.  She had never done anything remotely resembling the Tough Mudder, but saw an opportunity to push herself into unchartered territory.  Mile after mile, Rebekah conquered one fear after another by scaling high walls, slogging through unimaginable mud, struggling through the partner wheelbarrow carry, and scampering up sheer half-pipes, always with an attitude of, “I’m ready.  Let’s go.”  By the end of the thing, we were both bruised, battered, and spitting gobs of mud, but Rebekah persisted without pause.  This is the kind of teammate you want, period, the end.

3. You can do it — The Force will be with you.  Speaking of attitude, let me return to the testosterone-swigging Bros.  I bet you expect me to say that they were a bunch of meat-headed, arrogant, douche-bags, right?  Wrong.  I’ve never seen a greater demonstration of unsolicited help and encouragement in my life outside of a national disaster or emergency of some kind, and most of it was delivered by the Bros.  At each obstacle, these guys were assisting people over without the slightest regard to their own progress through the course.

At one obstacle in particular, the “Balls to the Wall,” several hundred Mudders were backed up while only four at a time scaled a very imposing 15-feet-high wall using a thick rope.  As we waited nearly 45 minutes for our turn, we witnessed several overweight and very frightened competitors start up the wall with Bros giving them the initial boost.  There were several feet that they had to conquer with their own body strength, and a few seemed ready to give up and return to the starting position, but as I watched, this amazing crowd of people literally WILLED the terrified Mudder up the wall.  All of us screamed “You can do it!” and “Get up that effin’ wall!” over and over as the person inched their way up.  When they reached the top, the crowd erupted in wild cheers, with many of us in tears as the competitor thrust a triumphant fist into the air.  It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, and made the hardships of the 10.6 miles irrelevant.

2. The Mud Mile — Don’t think about it, just do it.  But enough of that inspiring stuff.  Let’s talk about mud some more.  At about the four-mile mark, Rebekah and I rounded a corner in the trail and came face-to-face with what I was convinced was some type of living hell on Earth.  The Mud Mile.  Stretched out before us was a series of eight or 10 mounds like you would see in a motocross course, except these were composed of shiny, gloppy mud rather than nice dry soil.  In between each set of mounds was a six-feet-wide and three-feet-deep trench full of mud, sludge, water, snot, shit, and I’m sure, other unmentionables.  Remember when Andy Dufresne had to crawl through that stinking sewer pipe to escape Shawshank Prison, vomiting all the way?  OK, this wasn’t really anywhere near as bad as that, but it was really nasty.  Hundreds of people were slipping and sliding in and out of the pools, pulling themselves out of the muck like putrid zombies, and the 85-degree air was thick with that sickening sound of viscous material being repeatedly displaced along with a chorus of human voices exclaiming in disgust as horseflies buzzed overhead.  One of those Medieval artists who illustrated horrifying scenes of Purgatory would’ve started painting this, only to abort the project for fear of coming off too graphic.

All in all, it was one of my favorite obstacles.

Oh, and did I mention that the trail took us through the Mud Mile TWICE?!

1.  Electroshock Therapy — Use the careful approach.  So you’ve made it 10.599999 of the 10.6 miles.  You stopped running miles ago. Now, you look like a member of a throng of The Walking Dead.  You’ve been beaten all to hell and every fiber of your body is cramping all at once, including your teeth.  You’ve got ONLY ONE obstacle left and you can see the finish line at the other side, replete with smiling volunteers handing out the much-sought-after orange Tough Mudder headbands and even MORE-sought-after cups of cold beers.  Just a few more steps!  Piece of cake, right?  Wrong.  The infamous “Electroshock Therapy” is a wooden structure, about 20 feet wide and around 50 feet long within which are dangling hundreds of innocuous looking white wires.  All you gotta do is run through it.  Problem is, many of these wires are crackling with 10,000 volts of electricity — you don’t know which — and the ground, of course, is thick mud.  I chose, unwisely it turns out, to take the direct, bull-in-the-China-shop approach and run through as if scampering from the car to the house in a downpour.

I didn’t run far.

ZAP! I was down.  Some rude, giant man slugged me in the back, it felt like.   Up, run, ZAP! Down again.  Holy hell, get me out of here.  Up, run, ZAAAPPP!!  I awoke — that’s right, awoke — at the end of the obstacle with my open mouth, right eye, and right ear submerged in the muck.  Click here to see that moment.  I remember none of the last four steps.  Perhaps that’s for the best.

Bonus:  The End — Don’t expect any hugs.  The volunteer placed the headband on my sunburned head while actually laughing at me to my face.  I stared at the person without comprehension, stumbled over to the beer table, grabbed one, upended it, and unceremoniously spewed muddy brew all over the ground in an attempt to rid my mouth of Tennessee soil.  At this point, any semblance of pride was long gone.  I rudely snatched half a banana from the hand of another horrified volunteer and shoved it into my mouth with a guttural noise.

Behind me, Rebekah was just making her way out of the Electroshock.  She spent five minutes eeking her way between the devil strands, somehow making herself approximately two inches-thick, and successfully completing a human version of the old board game, “Operation.”  We posed for the obligatory horror photos, exchanged fist-bumps, said our muddy goodbyes, and slogged our ways to our vehicles on powerless legs.  Later, as I stood under the shower for about 40 minutes and the feeling started to return to my electrified shoulders, the significance of the whole thing began to sink in.

I trained.  I participated.  I survived.

Rebekah and I paused to bask in our exhausted nastiness. We did it!

Rebekah and I paused to bask in our exhausted nastiness. We did it!

I’m one Tough Mudder.

(Dec. 2015 addition: Check out this very cool collection of Tough Mudder training tips created by some folks who actually good at it: CLICK HERE.)

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34 Responses to “My Top 9 Ironclad Tips for Tough Mudder Virgins”

  1. Mitch says:

    You can compare my experience to yours with simple math. Subtract 50 deg F. Add rain. Add another electroshock station. Add buckets of blood from falling on Mt. Everest and splitting my head open. Do it in the Kentucky hills. I had a blast!

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Mitch, there’s no way in hell I would do a cold Tough Mudder, so my headband is off to you, my friend. Crazy about you falling on Mt. Everest! Hope you’ve recovered!

      • Mitch says:

        It wasn’t horrible. We started at 9:20 and finished in about 3’45”. Being in the early wave allowed us to run a major portion of it. The later waves were taking 6-7 hours and lots of folks got hypothermia. The head wound was like a “boxer split”. It bled really bad and made for epic finish line shots, but didn’t hurt. I decided not to stitch it and got a nice keepsake scar. 🙂

  2. Jules says:

    Thanks Mark! I just got an ab cramp from laughing for the last 10 minutes! Just had a group of friends do this in VA! Gotta show them this! I’m wiping the tears from my eyes now and getting back to work!

  3. Mark Johnson says:

    Glad you enjoyed it!! That makes me happy.

  4. Rebekah Shulman says:

    this is absolutely fantastic, mark. i could not have asked for a more supportive teammate. thank you for helping me to push my own boundaries. we sure did survive it!! and next year will be even better!!

  5. Tara says:

    Excellent summary Mark. I just got a great ab workout from laughing so much! All great points, especially 8, 6 and 4. I got knocked down going through the electric shock therapy finish too. I was down before I even knew what hit me. It felt like I got slammed in the chest with a 2X4. I’m doing my 3rd one this August. Not sure what I was thinking when I agreed to join the team.

  6. john foster says:

    Tough “Play Music For A Living” Mudder Here. Proud of you, MJ. But then again….I always have been.

  7. Stephen M. Clegg says:

    If you hadn’t finished, you’d be a mudder flunker.

  8. kloidulent says:

    I’m doing this tomorrow in Sydney (Australia) and this was a great preparatory read! Thanks 🙂

  9. Jackie Bosco says:

    Excellent recap for a newbie! My first one is this August…. Absolutely terrified. I can’t even run a mile consistently.

  10. Ian Hargreaves says:

    Doing my first one 1st August in Yorkshire England with a team of four girls I am meant to help them along and your post has been a great help cheers

  11. Jo S says:

    Doing my first tomorrow and absolutely crapping myself. Excited though, and so helpful to read this. Thank you from London!

  12. Lou says:

    I’ve just signed up to do a Tough Mudder in England in summer next year. I’m already terrified but this post has given me a good laugh as well as reassurance that people do actually survive these things! Well done. I’m most scared about the high walls and monkey bars as my upper body strength is pretty dire – Better start training now..

    Any tips about what to wear? I’m assuming gloves come in handy?

  13. Dorabril says:

    WOW, I´m very excited for my first TM, is in 2 weeks, is the first time the race comes here to Mexico, in Monterrey, your story has been very helpful for me to get ready for the race!! cool experience!!

  14. Tacoma Boy says:

    Thanks for the article… awesome experience and I am lookking forward to not being a TM virgin anymore. Doin’ my first TM tomorrow here in LA. I am so excited. Running with my bro-in-law, nephew and his girlfriend. Gonna be a blast. Thank you Jesus it will be 80 degrees!

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Tacoma Boy, how did it go??

      • Tacoma Boy says:

        It was AWESOME! But totally kicked my butt. The only bummer is I injured my leg to the point that I now have a skin infection… but that’ll heal.
        We loved it so much that I and my other teammates are already signed up for October’s TM SoCal. Gonna do two in a year…
        Thank you so much for asking! Maybe I see you at an event someday.

        • Mark Johnson says:

          Very cool, except for the skin infection part. Yes, hopefully I can get myself back into Tough Mudder shape one day and try it again. Look for the old, tall, bald guy!

  15. Aakash S. says:

    Thanks a billion, Mark! Representing the Steel City of Pittsburgh, PA and getting pumped for this September’s Tough Mudder!

    Thanks so much for the tips and advice! Tbh I feel like I should be more nervous and less overconfident about it, but I just feel ecstatic about the event! Hope it’s as fun as they say!! 😀

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Aakash, thanks for the comment! I think the key it to view it as a fun thing to do, not a competition. Take your time and enjoy yourself. (Until the Electroshock Therapy part. There’s no enjoying that!)

  16. Chris C. says:

    Just turned 44 and doing my first Tough Mudder in 4 days in Ohio! I’m fairly fit (and by ‘fairly fit’, I mean…not really very fit) but “running it” with my 20 something gym-rat nephew! I WILL finish…with him dragging me, of course….and I WILL have a blast!
    Thanks! Enjoyed reading your humorous synopsis and looking forward to writing a chapter to my own story this weekend!

  17. Chloe says:

    Hi Mark, my roommate and I are doing TM in 2 weeks are have belly aches from laughing so hard. Will keep you posted, hoping we survive.

  18. Peyton says:

    Reading this was immensely enjoyable! My hubs and I are attempting our first this Sat in vegas. Thank you for your honest and hilarious insight!

  19. Selene says:

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