By Dan Rubinsky
On a recent Saturday I woke up at 5:30 in the morning; it was 41 degrees outside and I was on my way to do Tough Mudder. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s an obstacle course where thousands of people voluntarily crawl in mud, climb over barriers, and run through electric fences. It isn’t a new concept – my grandparents did it, but back then it was called “being Jewish and getting out of Germany.”
Actually, it really isn’t that new of an idea. This incarnation of a cooperative obstacle course was started by a British student in 2010 for his Harvard MBA business-school plan competition. Many claim that he stole the idea from an ex-British soldier who started a 15-kilometer midwinter mud run called Tough Guy back in 1987. Tough Guy in turn is based on a British special-forces training course. Currently, there are at least another half-dozen similar events with testosterone-inspired names like Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, and Rugged Maniac.
Tough Mudder is hosted in different cities throughout the country with people traveling from near and far to participate. Last month, California hosted a Tough Mudder in Tahoe, but I traveled to a town outside Seattle to do mine.
My day really started at 8 a.m., when the first 200 of us climbed over a 10-foot wall to huddle in a pen near the starting gate. A DJ warmed us up by shouting inspirational quotes he stole from the movie 300and the band House of Pain. He also reminded us that this was not a race and that real Tough Mudders help each other finish. In fact, these were central tenets of the organization and were emphasized again and again in the pledge we had to take before we could even start the course.
At 8:15 a.m., the smoke bombs went off and we started running through the 12-mile course containing roughly 22 obstacles. The first one was a mud crawl under barbed wire. I was able to make it through the 30 feet of mud singing “Ride of the Valkyries” from Apocalypse Now without getting my shirt dirty or my back scratched. I accomplished this feat by having a strong upper body and no ass.
This was going to be easy, I thought. I live in San Francisco, where we train for these crazy-sounding races all the time. We do seven miles at Bay to Breakers after a morning pint of Jack. What’s 12 miles sober? We bike through dirt in drag at the Urban Outlaw Cyclocross Cross-Dressing Series. What’s a little mud on our shorts and T-shirts? We surf at ocean beach. We don’t even know what cold means.
At least this is what I thought going into Tough Mudder.
At mile two, I pulled my groin on the right side. At mile four, my left leg locked up, causing me to run by swinging my leg while my overactive inner monologue screamed, “Run, Forest, Run.” I taught my inner monologue a lesson about a mile later by falling head first down a 12-foot muddy embankment into a puddle of water. By mile seven I was in so much pain I had to walk.
Of course, as we learned in the beginning, this was not a race, and my friends said they wouldn’t leave me. I hate making people wait, it makes me feel guilty. So for the next five miles, I alternated every 25 feet between limping and limping while pumping my arms to make it seem like I was running.
At no point did I think about quitting. In truth, I couldn’t quit. The 36-year-old me foolishly lets pride convince myself that I can live with the pain of an experience like this but I can’t live with regret.
Beyond that, I was doing Tough Mudder so that the next time someone bragged about how tough it was, I could say, “It wasn’t that hard.” Solid logic, I know. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of mental deficiency that pushes me to do just about everything in life.
As I pushed forward, there was one challenge I feared the most. The Arctic Enema – an eight-foot long box filled four feet high with ice and water. In theory, you jump into one side of the box, swim under a submerged wooden board, and climb out the other side of the box. In practice, I learned, your testicles shoot straight up and hit your lungs.
The obstacle right after is called the Electric Eel. Here you crawl through mud while electric wires hang above you. If you touch the wires, your prize is an electric shock. I was hit twice, but since I’d just left the Arctic Enema, instead of feeling the intense pain of electric currents running through my body, I simply didn’t feel numb.
Throughout the day I jumped off a 30-foot wall into a swimming pool, climbed up a 30-foot wall because it was in front of me, and rolled down a 30-foot hill because I was in too much pain to walk down it.
The final obstacle, and the one everyone talks about, is called Electric Shock Therapy. This last one forces you to run through about eight feet of unavoidable hanging wires that send electric shocks through your body. Unfortunately, at this point I hadn’t just left a pool of ice water and I felt every volt course through my body as I somehow ran into every wire available. On the plus side, the Electric Shock Therapy effectively cured all but three psychiatric ailments I suffer from.
At the end I was rewarded with a beer, a T-shirt, and an orange headband.
I can now check Tough Mudder off my bucket list, and while I won’t do it again, next time someone brags about how tough it was, I can say, “It wasn’t that hard” – although I’ll be lying through my teeth.