Blood, Beards and Beer: Finding Sunday Salvation Over Twelve Miles of Masochism

“It’s supposed to be hard.
If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.
The hard is what makes it great.”
-Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own

AS A TOUGH MUDDER I PLEDGE THAT:

When your start time approaches at the Tough Mudder, you are marshaled into what amounts to a tiny holding pen. Overly eager participants have already beaten you in to this pen while the laggards slowly compress your group towards the two-story inflated black arch labeled ‘Start’ like cattle to the slaughter. While you stand uselessly, unsure of where to look or what to think, a short man with a very arrogant megaphone surfaces. Your shepherd (and his loudmouthed cane) welcome you to the toughest endurance event on the planet, and whether it’s hyperbole or not, you believe him. He apologizes that the course is an indeterminate number of miles longer than the event organizers had expected and he hopes that’s ok with everyone; whether that’s true or not, you believe him. He details the dangers that lay ahead, including snapped femurs, detached retinas, and on this particularly still and pleasant North Florida morning, the story of a man who, in the course of his race, put a tooth through his own front lip. Mortified, you believe him. That megaphone cockily points out the agonized shouts, tense grimaces and defeated gaits of competitors who are already on the course but within visible distance of his newest herd. The shepherd leads his newest flock through the customary and mandatory pre-race pledge while excitement and anxiety course through the group. He vows to drink a beer with you on the other side . . . should you see the other side.

The shepherd and one of his flocks.

I am an anxious person by nature; my family, friends and the horror film that is my fingernails can attest to this. In high school I would remove my glove standing at the edge of the third base infield grass in between pitches and gnaw on the dirt and clay-ridden hand underneath. I have no idea why. I just did it. I would still do it.

The morning of the Tough Mudder I woke up to multiple texts from my friends and soon-to-be fellow Mudders. They were ecstatic. They were so excited for what they were about to do that they, as grown men, had giddily texted me the instant their alarms set them on their paths to Dade City, the kind of old Florida town where churches outnumber the cars. I was excited too but hadn’t exchanged their sentiment; the anxiety was winning. I don’t recall speaking much while gumming the banana I ate for breakfast. In the car en route to the course I appointed myself DJ of the iPhone speaker system and promptly played Justin Bieber’s “One Less Lonely Girl” thinking the sheer lunacy and irony of the Biebs on a morning like this would generate some much-needed laughter. It didn’t, so plan B was to pull a 180 and get into serious pregame mode, which meant Eminem’s “Till I Collapse,” though this plan was equally useless. I tried heartily to mock our driver/lifelong friend/fellow Mudder as he continually got lost navigating the Dade City streets, each one reminding you you’re in God’s country by never intersecting at right angles. Six months of a constant mental tug of war over my perception of what I was about to do (This is awesome! Wait, how long is the course? Cool, fire! I’m going to die in a swamp…) were coming to a head in a compacted hurry, and my nerves had it, 60/40.

The man with the megaphone is wrapping up his routine and pre-race staple “Oo-rah!”s are flying fast and furious from an increasingly raucous bunch of macho cattle, though I’m so stuck in my own head I’m analyzing the ethics of re-purposing a United States Marine Corps rally cry for a bunch of weekend warriors running an over-sized obstacle course. He has slowly worked his 9:00 AM flock into a frenzy, and the gathered runners begin to bob up and down, boxing each others shoulders and screaming to the heavens, eventually hitting a level of rabid fervor more akin to a mosh pit. I do it with them, hoping desperately to join in their carefree exuberance, but instead I just dwell on how moronic I feel to be wasting energy jumping up and down before starting this psychotic race. Picture one of the final un-popped popcorn kernels while it’s being microwaved, vainly vibrating inside a small enclosure amongst taunting kinetic explosions.

In the midst of all this anxious introspection, it’s time. Our shepherd’s staff barks its final well wishes of luck that it is very confident we will soon require and two emergency flares begin emitting thick orange smoke ahead of us, setting my eyes in line with what my brain has long assumed: I’m not even walking, I’m voluntarily running into a war zone. The horn sounds and the cattle begin their wild stampede, some laughing maniacally and some screaming equally so as they tear through the noxious orange cloud and into the unknown beyond.

All I can think as my feet start to churn towards the orange haze is to wonder; “What the hell am I doing!?”

***

I understand the Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.

The Tough Mudder, for anyone who spent the last few paragraphs very confused, is essentially the mutant spawn that would result from a half marathon, Navy SEAL training and Mardi Gras conceiving a child (the course is legitimately laid out by British Special Forces). It has fashioned itself as “Ironman meets Burning Man,” and it is so far the most prominent name in the very quickly expanding market of adventure racing, amongst competitors like the Warrior Dash, Savage Race, Rugged Maniac and a litany of local mud runs across the U.S. The Mudder held three events in 2010 after Harvard business student and founder Will Dean was informed his proposal for a traveling adventure race catering to ostensible lunatics was an inevitable failure – and he sold out all of them. There were 14 last year (more sell-outs) across the United States. There will be 35 at least in 2012, with locales now blanketing the U.S. and even reaching into South Africa, Australia, Japan. In times of economic mayhem and financial protest, this is the best kind of runaway train imaginable.

And this train is typified by scaling high walls, leaping from great heights, gulags of mud over a topography of Swiss cheese, marches through mazes of fire and baths in vats of ice. Further still, every event culminates in the ultimate baptism of idiocy: a 20 yard field of live wires with some pumping up to ten thousand volts the Mudder likes to call ‘Electroshock Therapy.’ For your efforts, your prize is a plastic cup of Dos Equis (product placement!), a Tough Mudder t-shirt (advertising!) and a neon orange headband with the event title stamped on it that has to be a dime a dozen to buy. For a fee, Mudders can have the event logo tattooed wherever they choose on site immediately after crossing the finish line. It is hearing of these ultimate rewards that usually elicits the most dubious facial expressions and mockery from inquisitive non-Mudders.

For 2011, the state of Florida’s chosen site was sleepy Dade City at the Little Everglades Ranch, an enormous property consisting of an immaculately manicured equestrian park and its juxtaposed surroundings of rolling horse pastures and fetid swamplands. Ancient oaks besieged by millions of dangling tendrils of Spanish moss obscure the horizon and filter the slowly rising Florida sunshine down to your waiting eyes, so that each infinitesimally small shift in perspective makes the growing morning dance like a kaleidoscope. Our course consisted of 12.5 miles and 26 obstacles, with some meant to scare you (underground tunnels), some meant to punish you (a point-blank fire hose barrage) and some you’d think would be simple (a set of monkey bars – more on them later). A few were even entirely unique to our locale, including a kamikaze run through a marsh full of alligators. Each obstacle is designed to challenge you, sometimes equally physically and mentally. The course is certainly difficult; describing its composition usually elicits an incredulous eyebrow raise about the length of your route or the electrocution, take your pick. However the greater challenge is simply to keep going, to not doubt what you’re capable of, to keep helping others who are struggling worse than you. And if the Tough Mudder is more of a mental challenge and a test of teamwork than it would like to admit, any future participants are in truly capable (and occasionally hilarious) hands.

Participants run the gamut from hyper-competitive racers to men in frilly skirts, embarrassing body paint and animal print unitards. At our event alone there was a man who carried a six-foot inflatable monkey with him the entire race. In my 9:00 AM flock, towering even over those manic jumping heads, stood someone in a full-body Gumby costume (regrettably it only survived about a mile of the race, done in by obstacle 2: the ‘Chernobyl Jacuzzi,’ a wooden swimming pool filled with ice and enough water to make you believe you’re trapped under said ice when a wooden partition forces you blindly down into its frozen depths). One group ran in full business attire, right down to the loafers and briefcases. Some ran in old-time prison jumpsuits. My teammates and I repeatedly passed or were passed by a group of individuals in authentic khaki and green German lederhosen, ecstatically and unceasingly singing German folk songs as they stumbled through the mud (I will never hear ’99 Red Luftballoons’ the same way again). Perhaps most impressive baffling unsettling was a man who had made himself up to be an ultra-realistic zombie, complete with missing tufts of hair and the remaining raw scalp that for the life of me really did look to be bleeding (an aside on this man: we passed him on the course staggering behind a genuinely frightened woman and he never broke character. EVER. After finishing, we watched him approach the bed of live wires assuming he’d speed up that lumbering zombie walk in the name of damage control but instead he walked even slower. Better yet, just as he was about to breach the final dangling coils, he stopped. And he TURNED AROUND and went back, collecting the yellow wires with his arms until two thick bundles draped over his shoulders like a nightmarish Rapunzel. He showed no indication the shocks bothered him in the least, and the display led us to question his possible zombie legitimacy. Eerie, but I digress).

On top of the carnival of outlandish costumes is the sense of humor the course organizers bring to the event themselves. Signs line the course route, shifting from the almost motivational (“If you can’t taste blood, is it really a challenge?”) to the ludicrous (“Beware of velociraptors – stay on course!”) to the humorously macabre (“You signed a death waiver.”) My personal favorite, however, took some of that Dade City mud and slung it in the direction of the Mudder’s closest competitor in the adventure race field and all those who espouse its virtues; at the end of the third mile sat this banner:

Pandering to my developing sense of superiority . . . shrewd move, Mudder.

On top of everything, obstacles and nut jobs alike, the tie that binds this freak show is the Wounded Warriors Project, a nonprofit organization catering to wounded American servicemen and women coming home. A portion of your entry fee goes to the charity and all fundraising proceeds do the same. It even fosters what is perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the Tough Mudder, the legion of amputees and other disabled veterans (and non-veterans) who participate, who may occasionally rely on their fellow Mudders for help (you’ll meet one shortly) but more often than not prove their limitations are anything but.

Mix all of this together and you’ve got what race promoters and ardent supporters enjoy saying is something everyone should do before they die, and I agree with them, but on the Summer day I signed up, I was more concerned about having that happen somewhere around mile five. The Mudder would certainly require actual athletic training, something I’d never bothered with before and was already scheming how to avoid this time. What I found was that life happens in the journey, not at the giant black inflatable destination.

***

I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.

I had a single, powerful, overriding fear in the months approaching the race; I did not want to be the liability. We had assembled a sizable team and my nightmare was to watch 19 guys frustratedly scowl backwards at me while I tripped, fell or slid backwards off of something making the high-pitched squeegee squeal of embarrassment cartoon characters make descending glass doors they’ve just flattened themselves on. I wanted to be able to help my teammates, some of which I’d known for twenty years but was going to war with for the first time. So I trained. I trained out of fear I would become a statistic, part of the 20% of Mudder participants who never feel the wonderfully scratchy fibers of their finisher orange headbands. More-so I trained to not be the liability.

The ultimate training goal: not sinking and vanishing into the Ranch swamps.

I hate running. Running gives me PTSD thinking back to running poles at high school baseball practice. Running is monotonous, exhausting and at no point involves eating, quoting movies or sitting, all of which I am a borderline All-American at. Or at least I thought. The race website gives you two paths to choose: the first would be the high road, consisting of a full, exhaustive, Tough Mudder approved workout designed to stress and strengthen every muscle in your body that you could conceivably have to count on come race day. It made no mention of running; perfect. It looked extremely difficult (but so did the race) nonetheless and most of the exercises required a kettlebell. Fair enough, I’ll go buy a pair. Turns out, kettlebells at Wal-Mart appear to be coming in around $40 and up, pending on how much money you feel like dropping on them. The low road it is!

That shameful alternative was what the website listed to be the minimum athletic requirements needed to not die on the course, and that was having the capability to do 25 push-ups and run five to seven miles, three to four times a week. Running. And outside running at that, not the two miles of cushy luxury I used to stupidly call running at the Winter Park YMCA on a treadmill with my personal machine-embedded television tuned to ‘Pardon the Interruption.’ I balanced my annoyance with the reassuring thought that this would get me outside more often (something I prefer), maybe even lead to some foolish adventures, some stories worth telling, some unique memories I would never have made otherwise. Funny how that worked out.

The continuing training for the Tough Mudder turned out to be the real adventure, an extended prelude to the paralleled insanity of race day. It took many forms, from the humble beginnings of always forcing myself to run incrementally farther along the route I had mapped out to crushing despair that, for whatever reason, I was unable to go run for one week, two weeks at a time. My mini-adventures really did get addictive, and it made me hate daylight savings time all the more as by the time I got home from work after November 1st, dusk had already fallen, and my route was regrettably not a smart path to be on after dark. Running took me to new places I would have never seen and it provided amazing and surreal new perspectives on old ones. Like a huge dork, For motivation, I’d close my eyes and sing Jackson Browne and Bob Seger, goofily trying to emulate one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies, Forrest Gump’s soul-searching exodus running through the Blue Ridge mountains, past Mirror Lake in Yosemite to the Santa Monica Pier and back again.

Most of the life-affirming and quirky stories came from the well-worn paths of the three-mile and later five-mile circuits I had carved out around my apartment. I found a geocache (treasure hunting for non-pirate adults) stuck under an elementary school sign. I encountered a department of transportation speed trailer on Oxford Road, the kind placed on busy streets to scare you by flashing how egregiously you’re exceeding the speed limit. After checking for traffic to make sure it wouldn’t pick up an approaching car, I sprinted past it as fast as I humanly could and checked the readout (having no point of reference for what would be an exciting result, I was briefly thrilled with my 31 miles per hour, only to find out later that the record over the course of timed human existence is around 27 mph and the radar was reading a car a half a mile away. Oops). I ran past the same carved out section of trees that served as the local bum hovel nightly. There was a day I became ungodly ill about a third of the way out and decided the public park was closer than turning around; approaching hysteria at the time, pretty funny to think back on. Perhaps the greatest roller coaster of an adventure came courtesy of a late September evening that I neglected to check the weather before setting out, courtesy of some enticing and unseasonal cool winds and the deceptively serene Fall sky. I was promptly caught in an incredible flash lightning storm with the type of unpredictable spattering rain that comes with a fair deal of force from any direction like birdshot. As it turns out, truly fearing for your life serves as quite the accelerant, and I pounded the pine needle carpeting sidewalks again seeking refuge at that same public park. I made it to the covered pavilion just as the traveling curtain of torrential hell enveloped the Kewannee Trail I had just arrived on. While the gravity lunacy of my situation sank in (no rescue would be arriving for a while), a funny thing happened; I laid down on my picnic table life-raft and listened to the drops spatter off the thick, tough palm fronds with rapid but deep rat-tat-tats. I glanced over and watched the clothesline-hung fresh sheets of rain billowing in the accompanying swirling winds across the shattered surface of the neighboring lake. I recall that particular night painted in the shifting blues the moonlight couldn’t reach through the rain towards the woods and lake and hazy oranges from the drowning sidewalk lamps towards the road. For all the chaos and panic involved in arriving at that pavilion on that night, it was one of the most satisfyingly peaceful moments I have ever experienced. When rescue arrived some time later, it was surprisingly tinged with regret. However, even the living painting of that late Summer storm could not speak to the more exotic adventures that surfaced thanks to training for the Tough Mudder, the first of which found me in my coastal Florida hometown walking on water, the other a few time zones away in Los Angeles getting beeped at crossing the 101.

Until deciding to be an adult and move to Orlando more or less on a whim (and my former and then again roommate getting a job here), I lived in the sleepy little country-lovin’ beach community of Englewood, Florida for 22 years. If you look at the peninsular West coast of this state on a map, you will find two blue whale’s tails of Gulf of Mexico water jutting into the typical swamps and pastures that make up the mainland. Englewood has the southern of the two to thank for being one of the most laid back, maritime-loving, fishing and water recreation-friendly cities in the state as the bulk of Charlotte Harbor and the split fin of the Myakka River separate it, Rotonda and Placida off from the mainland, carving out a strange appendage from a state that is already this country’s strange appendage. There is water quite literally in every direction (except towards Venice, but they’re a bunch of stuffy jerks anyway), so, needless to say, you spend a lot of time with sand stuck in odd places or drinking unintended gulps of Gulf brand salt growing up here. One of the most frequent local visits is the water-sport death tunnel that runs one thin strip of palms and mangroves away from the Gulf we call Ski Alley, and to get there you idle through a place called Stump Pass, where the intercoastal connects to the churning waters of the Gulf. I have boated, floated and been thrown off of inflatable objects here hundreds of times.

Stump Pass. Ski Alley begins off-screen at bottom-right, though that’s not why this picture is here.

On another September day, I had traveled home for the weekend, and a soon-to-be-fellow-Mudder/the aforementioned Dade City driver suggested we go for a training run. I was excited to do it as I’d never managed to run anywhere in my hometown but along my high school warning track and the weather was flawless; hell, this photo could have been taken that day for all I know. Besides that, he and I have been friends for ten, fifteen years, having even been roommates, but this would be something different, more akin to brothers-in-arms-preparing-for-battle-flavored camaraderie. So we set out from his fluorescent-painted condo overlooking the intercoastal at the base of the Tom Adams Bridge and headed south on Beach Road, passing the last dry landmark I even know on that road, the White Elephant restaurant/bar. We jogged past some old beach-side condos and cottages, and eventually, the increasingly cracking pavement expired. This was apparently not an issue; I was directed around the beach resort building that book-ended the road and into the mangrove trails, stumbling over roots and now, infuriatingly, sinking into thick Florida sand. At the time, I was not in very good shape, so I was suffering trying desperately to keep pace with my comrade, all the while ducking low branches and ironically avoiding muddy puddles. I was not prepared for this.

That path seemed to be interminable and my lungs were an inferno due to humidity so thick it felt like a gypsy’s beaded curtain that must be separated to pass through, yet I was goaded on and on, always “just a little bit further.” I eventually realized we were running alongside the north shore of Ski Alley but for some reason that never registered as something I particularly cared about; my legs felt like wet clay and I was failing to keep pace. I was the liability. Then, while I was dwelling on the fact that we were still running away from the condo, we staggered out of the mangroves and onto a miniature spit of sand in the middle of nowhere as if we’d both been marooned by a disappearing mutinous crew. The sand was blinding and a thousand seagulls cocked their heads at our surprise entrance. We were standing on the barren spit of sand that cut into Stump Pass that I had passed by and ignored a hundred times, the very inlet shown at the right of the above photo. The only thing within 100 yards, other than the confused birds, was a wheat field of scarred, shattered and eroded tree stumps, each splintered into a thousand pieces from centuries of Florida storms. I sat down to soak in this mirage we had somehow actually reached through the shifting sand trails and stared off at the scenes I thought I knew by heart from an entirely new perspective. It was something I would never have seen, never have enjoyed without going out to run, without having to train, without the Tough Mudder. After acting like adults for at least a couple of minutes, my training partner frantically ran into the heard of seagulls whose sense of self-preservation sent them pelting out over the waves. I looked for shark’s teeth. We both sat and made sure to not forget how privileged we were that we could even enjoy a scene where distorting your vision could lead you to think you were standing on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. After we left, we took a different route back to the trail, and why not? On our new path, we got smashed by some high tide waves, which weighed us down substantially, but we’d have to get used to that in a few months anyway. We found an enormous log and tried to lift it, excitedly shouting “Tough Mudder!” for motivation. It was too heavy. We laughed, and ran off. I do not recall struggling on the run home.

This all repeated itself a month later when I landed in Agoura Hills, California for two weeks of work training. Perhaps more on that some other time, but I was surrounded by rolling green hills, tall coastal mountains and the sparkling cobalt of the Pacific, all within a few miles. There were endless sights to see for someone who had never been West of Dallas and new coworkers from states across the country to meet. Yet I stubbornly insisted on spending the first hour out of class each day out running. I wasn’t sure where I was going, I just knew I had to do it, or two weeks eating on company per diem in the land of fresh seafood (Orlando fails on this front) would undo months of actually getting in decent shape. So I found a four-ish mile circuit that encompassed our hotel, our corporate training university and god knows what else that I would quickly discover. I ran through some corporate strip mall shopping sidewalks, past a rolling cemetary set around a tree so big even Tolkien would have laughed it off as implausible. I crunched over fallen leaves of actual Fall colors, something Floridians can not understand, past the foothills of the mountain ridge that ran north of Thousand Oaks.

Normally I'd say, eh, it's a camera phone. Out there, I was pissed.

I played a vintage game of Red Light Green Light running through the on and off ramps of the LA 101 at the Reyes Adobe exit. I ran up a perfect sidewalk through a wannabe Beverly Hills where the streets were lined by those tall, pencil thin trees stolen from the Tuscan countryside (botanists, chime in!). I ran through a golf course and passed the Agoura Hills sirens beckoning to ruin my quest, a Panda Express and a Chipotle sharing the same building (managed to compare myself to Odysseus. Hyperbo-lert!). I crossed a foot-bridge that bent over that LA 101 and stopped to take a picture of the once-in-a-lifetime scene, causing rush hour drivers to either vent towards or try to embarrass me as they passed below. I ran the loop four or five times in my two weeks in California, each trip a little quicker, each one more of a joy to take in instead of endure. Other than a brief group effort that did not last long, no one ran with me; it was my adventure. I miss my California loop.

I began feverishly running out of fear that I would never be fit enough to finish the Mudder, that I would assuredly fail the teammates who should be able to rely on me. It ended up taking me miles through Central Florida and even further out across the country, to sights and sounds I would have never experienced otherwise. And I didn’t go parasailing. I didn’t spelunk some underground caves or scale an ice-wall. I went out and jogged in a few circles and these are the memories that I found. I am eternally grateful for that miserable training and what came from it, and look forward to March when Daylight Savings allows me to partake in it again. How much do we miss by having never bothered to look for it?

***

I do not whine. Kids whine.

When my fellow cattle and I were marshaling at the starting line, the megaphone instructed us to take a knee in the misty Florida morning. After a few minutes of the mouth of the Mudder’s posturing, I was getting uncomfortable, and dammit, my knee already hurt (though I was not alone in this; a man about ten yards ahead in the pen actually stood but stooped, also tired of the seeping burn in his knees). It occurred to me then how completely screwed I was that I was already having issues and all that had been asked of me so far was to not move. I got in my own head; don’t complain. But the Berlin Walls are fourteen feet high! Don’t get down on yourself if you suck. I’ll be lucky to make the third monkey bar. Laugh if you fail. Just don’t let me be the liability. . . Don’t ruin this once-in-a-lifetime experience doing anything but having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And that’s precisely what the Mudder wants to happen. However, while this may have seemed to have been a fun and whimsical journey so far, come race day, the Mudder will pace you through hell and back twice to earn it.

It didn’t take very long for some pain to set in, but I assumed it would be my own shortcomings that would cause it. After a quarter-mile around the lush and thick, green equestrian track (which was the very pleasant calm before the storm looking back on it), we hit our first obstacle, a very fitting for our locale steeplechase. Anticipating the swollen sprained ankle that would wreck the remainder of my day, I climbed atop the first low wall and inspected what lie below and beyond, and was right to be cautious. Wave after wave of adrenaline-filled lunatics unflinchingly hurdled the walls only to find themselves stunningly devoid of footing, unexpectedly falling into deep, freshly dug pits at the base of each low-rise. I climbed and dismounted each wall and had reached the top of the final waCRACK. A fellow Mudder’s right elbow connected somewhere around my left tear duct and I awkwardly stumble-leapt halfway in and halfway out of the final pit. Don’t complain. The left side of my skull hurt more than I expected it would and the culprit was revealed to be not only a teammate but one of my best friends. I can take a headache; this is what it’s all about.

I think I had about 300 yards before we approached the Tough Mudder staple Chernobyl Jacuzzi. It is both terrifying and hilarious to hear the yells and see the expressions on people’s faces as they surface from the watery glacier and desperately beg to be lifted free of the cold. I decided the strategy for the mid-tub barricade that forced you under a second time was to jump in, ignore the shock and start kicking until I felt confident I’d passed under the wall, whatever reaction my body had to the water be damned. Men plan, God laughs.

It was hideously worse than I expected. Your brain fires signals to every inch of your body of panic! Fear! Flight! Shutdown! Chaos! Retreat! (and somehow, as it is that cold, pain!). You are in an environment that evolution has not gifted the human body an understanding of and your brain is ill-equipped to give orders while your muscles decide to contract as tightly to your bones as possible all at once, themselves desperately shrinking away from the cold. I don’t know how long it took to get my bearings back but I started kicking. The pools are dyed various colors (we were the red pool) to partially create some hilarious imagery at the obstacle but mostly to guarantee even the souls brave enough to open their eyes while under will gain nothing. As I kicked, I could feel the ice compressing towards the tub’s exit with my body taking up too much room in the water, and kicking any further became useless. I prayed I had passed under the wooden wall at some point during my frantic dash and decided to go up. This is the worst moment in the frozen coffin, and I will remind myself of it every year from now on; with the ice compacted towards the back half of the tub, surfacing feels impossible. You feel trapped under a shelf of heavy ice and a brief, illogical, terrifying fear shoots through your mind that you will be forced to helplessly smash your fists into the shelf above you while you choke on frozen food dye. But of course you burst through and your mental faculties return and that is when you truly realize how cold you are, without panic-induced adrenaline forcing you ahead. A young girl perched atop the wooden stairs at the end of tub was waiting for me and offered her hand, pulling me out of the frozen quicksand with a chilling, rattling concerto as the ice filled the void I had left behind. It was cold enough that 200 yards later, swimming under floating barrels in a lake in December felt warm and therapeutic.

A bit further ahead lie what they called the “Kiss of Mud,” perhaps forty yards of dirt and gushing hose water (thanks for the plug, Mudder!) set under tight barbed wire. The wire was set high enough that it could be ducked fairly easily but the slog through the muck took every ounce of energy from my upper body, which was already in very limited supply. After raising from the crawl, I evaluated my newly acquired ten-pound mud suit and genuinely worried if I could hack the next ten miles; I was pretty beat. But some simpler obstacles and some restful jogging helped . . . until they did it to us again, only this time with feces.

I will never believe that was only dirt.

They called this abuse the “Devil’s Beard,” I have to assume because foul things get caught in huge beards and by the end of this crawl we would certainly match that description (look at the standing Mudders; don’t see too much colorful clothing anymore, do you?). It was an enormous piece of cargo netting pulled taut, forcing you face first into the fetid swamp gravy it covered. We assumed it was more mud. It smelled more like they had sequestered the ranch horses over this thin strip for two weeks and cleared them right before installing the net. It smelled hideous and squelched through your fingers like nightmare chocolate ice cream. I was fighting off the urge to gag when a Mudder and teammate exclaimed “It tastes even better than it smells!” eliciting some genuine laughs from the entire procession, myself included. Fifty yards later, after slogging through what really seemed like Florida horse pasture sewage, you’d have found a couple thousand smiling Andy Dufresnes had the clouds cooperatively parted.

The race ran on for a while, and we passed numerous more obstacles. Empty GU packs and other energy gel packets blanketed the path like spent bullet casings on a battlefield. We climbed hay bales and tall walls, we crawled through underground tunnels in the dark. We traversed a lake by shimmying along a cable and stumbled through countless watery marshes. We jumped from a tall tower, free-fell into the pool below (more on that shortly) and we carried a huge log across a lake. We marched up and down an extended motocross course of tall dirt tables that forced my first round of walking on the day, my calves burning and exhausted. We approached a second set of walls to climb, much taller than the previous ones I had scaled on my own volition. Luckily, a line of cheerleader pyramids thrusted tired bodies up and over them. I was pushed to the thin summit and briefly sat there unsure of how the hell to get down until my friend/teammate/fellow Mudder/elbow tormenter screamed “Bernardo! Get your dumb ass off the wall!” I trusted my grip and flipped my legs to the other side, dangling briefly before releasing to fall the last six or seven feet.

It was difficult. It was absolutely thrilling and hilarious and incredible but it was a slog. And yet I knew I was only getting closer to the end and I wasn’t breathing too hard. A few teammates had been forced to slow or stop to gather themselves and I realized I was more eager to keep running. Ridiculously, I was the opposite of the liability, one of the two of us jogging a bit ahead, not wanting to abandon our friends but also curious as to how hard we could push ourselves and what we truly had in the tank. I was getting a little jumpy and a little arrogant, with the last wisps of fear that I’d be leaving the course with the assistance of some EMTs disappearing. I wanted my orange headband. I was remembering our frustration waiting in line to walk the above-water balance beam, my disappointment that the event’s signature fire run amounted to nothing more than a short, straight, dirt culvert pipe with some smoking mossy scrub lining the sides. I was soon riding impossibly high after a turn of events I could never have expected (as usual, more in a bit). I was in much better shape than I’d thought I’d be, bitter the race was coming to a close and actually shifting my mindset to, wow, this was not that hard (had to work in at least one Stephen King double-italics). And then we all marched up to Everest.

Maybe the sword and helmet would have helped?

Everest is what they call the above quarter-pipe you must scale with what little energy you have remaining after eleven miles and 24 of the 26 obstacles in your rear-view. You must pray the fellow Mudders at the summit who have already exhausted themselves reaching its peak will still be willing to throw themselves back over the ledge to lift your dead weight over the precipice, as only the very few spry monkeys on the course can simply scramble up its face and bound over it to the final stretch. What the photo does not reveal is the hours of unwittingly runner-delivered mud, smeared across the surface by thousands of tired bodies rejected by the wall like a bowling ball return. Rumors also swirl that the event organizers slather Crisco across its entirety early in the morning. I had been warned about this obstacle above all others by my cousin who had run the Indiana Mudder two weeks earlier. His warning was to reach the top on the first try or you might not reach it at all.

It was incredibly daunting in person, and more so as we waited our turn while Mudder after Mudder came back to stand with us to gather up another effort’s worth of energy. After a few teammates reached the top I took off, still very confident this would be my only attempt at the wall; after all I was not that tired. I hit what you would call a sprint with what remained in my legs and flew up the curve. I don’t know how to explain what happened then, only to say that instead of running up the face, I kept sprinting ahead assuming my momentum would lead me to where I needed to go. I smashed my face into the wall perhaps two-thirds of the way to the top and tried very hard to look tough and cool while shamefully sliding back to the ground.

I waited a bit before a second effort, my cousin’s prophecy floating in my now worried mind that knew I was only going to get slower on each pass, but still confident I would be successful on this run. I took off again and got much higher and filled with excitement, only to realize I’d come to a vertical stop with only my hand reachable by my teammates above. I frantically slapped at the morning’s driver’s outstretched hands while gravity began to claim its prize again. I slid down the wall, now devoid of any confidence what-so-ever.

By this time my entire team was atop the wall or down its rear ladder and in the grassy road beyond. I took an incredibly long wait before trying again, afraid of failing and embarrassed that the others just arriving to the great wall’s queue were watching the jerk in the neon orange shirt fail more times in a row than Kevin Costner at the end of Tin Cup. I had no clue how to change the outcome or if I even could when I took off on run number three. I was pessimistically already preparing to start sliding back down when my feet hit the bent wood and I sprang up as high as I could. This time, I was much higher than before. While my mind was preparing another tough facial expression to wear as I rejoined the waiting crowd, my hand nearly could have slapped the ledge, and the teammate who had lightened the mood hours earlier as we squirmed under the net had me by the forearms. I cannot articulate the flood of relief, satisfaction and gratitude that immediately washed over me, especially because at that point, I knew I had no more runs up the wall remaining in the worthless fun noodles that were my legs. He began to lift but had to re-grip. He yelled at me to contribute, to contort my body or lift my legs and push myself towards the top. I stared at him from below with no ability to do that and begged for another Mudder to come to his aid, but they did not. I was dangling entirely vertically with his grip slowly loosening when I stared him in the eye and legitimately screamed out his name, an exclamation comprised of pure, raw fear that desperately implored him please . . . you cannot let go.

When his forearms finally gave out, I watched him furiously pound his fist into the wood while I helplessly slid back to the earth.

I was miserable, I had nothing left beyond all the definitions of nothing left, and curiously, I was really angry. I was angry at myself for struggling so much when no other teammate had tried more than twice. I was angry none of the other Mudders atop the wall had come to my friend’s aid (and therefore my aid). I was somehow even angry at the teammate who had just given everything he had left to pull me over the wall, frustrated he had somehow not achieved superhuman strength when I needed him to the most. I hid my face amongst the crowd and let other Mudders merrily take their shots at the wall. That was when the first shot of despair snuck into my mind, that after everything we had done, this would be where I tapped out, that I’d have to be one of the lowly souls who circumvent obstacles because they simply could not hack it. I even looked to see what sort of barriers there were along the sides of the pipe, hoping that if I did have to go around, at least I wouldn’t have to duck outside of the course markers like some pathetic weasel. Even the two teammates who had refused to move down the structure before they had me in tow were laying atop the wall, looking like dead men after lifting Mudder after Mudder while I floundered below like a caught fish.

I was out of options, energy and willing friends, and would now soon be earning a tainted orange headband I would forever associate with the one obstacle I could only conquer by quitting.

***

I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.

I only actually knew maybe six of the twenty members of our Mudder team (which means nothing by the way; our “team” finished in at least three separate groups over two hours, the first trying to finish as fast as possible, the second being us and the third including a racer and his girlfriend amongst others). There was the early morning elbow thrower, one of my best friends for a decade. There was the tree-frog (explanation forthcoming) former coworker who gave everything he had to pull me over not one but two ledges that day (the other to the summit of the Walk the Plank scaffolding). There was our morning driver, another old friend and former roommate. There was a half-marathon running teammate I’d been friends with for twenty years who could have dusted us all (and started to) before deciding to run with and help his friends.

But curiously there was a fellow Mudder who was a friend of a friend and someone I had not spoken to in perhaps a decade despite going to high school with him. He and I were frequently on the same youth sports teams when we were younger (my dad and the coach knew each other while this Mudder was friends with the coach’s son) and to put it bluntly, I never liked him. It was rooted in every youth sports player’s jealousy of “those kids that are a year older, a year better, a year cooler than you.” It did not help that he and his friends/our teammates took great pleasure in picking on us while shagging fly balls or ganging up on us in drills at soccer practice. Twelve-year-olds don’t really actively hold grudges, but they remember, and I never said a word to him in high school or after.

I knew he was good friends with my best buddy as they both lived in Tampa and I knew they played intramurals together at USF. Going in, I knew he was a member of our team but assumed he would be one of the runners I would see for about two minutes before he ran off on his own means. So when I ran into him that morning we exchanged an old friend’s handshake and a couple ‘how are ya’s’ and got ready to start racing like everyone else. Surprisingly, he instead ran with my close friends and I instead of the Mudders I knew to be his old friends. He was in better shape than the rest of us and was usually the pace car in our pack of bedraggled jalopies. We exchanged as much friendly conversation as would be expected of two men running twelve miles over military obstacles, which was minimal.

Later in the race, around the time I was getting a strong second wind and a lot of misplaced confidence, I realized that he and I were the ones leading out ahead of some of our struggling friends, so we yapped about whatever came to mind. And wouldn’t you know it? Not everyone’s the same person their twelve-year-old self seems to promise they’ll be. He of course wasn’t the taunting jerk I’d always remembered him as; he was joking and helpful and laughingly pushing the rest of us to keep up with him. These must be the strange and wonderful things you find out where civilization has forgotten about you, out in the mud. Sure, he was still a cocky guy, but you’re allowed to be when you essentially scale Everest purely on your own athleticism.

Some miles later as I grimaced up to the unreachable summit of the wall that had resoundingly defeated me, weighing my options with a group of teammates surely hopefully waiting on me in the grass beyond, it was his face that popped up along the ridge a few groups to the right of my exhausted friends. I didn’t realize he was there until I heard a yell, “BERNARDO!” And he emphatically pointed at his claimed stretch of the ledge, and he dropped his arm over the side.

It was definitely surreal to see this kid of all the people I’ve known in my life sacrificially coming back up to the top of the structure explicitly to help me. Perhaps he was tired of waiting for me; either way, it was motivating. I sidled through the crowd so I was lined up with his perch and took off. I got as high as I did on my last attempt and felt someone grab me by the forearms. Then someone had my shoulder. Another desperate plea rang out for me to kick, to lift my legs, to pull myself up, but those options died long ago. I was idly dangling again, completely dead weight swinging in the morning breeze, threatening to drag my would-be rescuers right back down the wall with me. The forearm grip let go and down I went when someone grabbed my shirt and pulled hard enough I expected it to tear. I followed the arms and it was him, on his feet, dead-lifting me up the facade. I was going up sideways with my other two comrades now joining in the fray and I felt my hand hit the ledge. I had a grip and swung my other arm to the top. Over the ledge I went with the lot of them collapsing around me. Relieved, they began to scramble down the woodwork and towards the final obstacle. I lay still, face down atop the summit and looked up as they descended. I saw the rest of my crew still gathering their breath below in the grass, waiting for me to finish. I flashed one of them a feeble and wonderful thumbs up, and stumbled down the planks and joined them.

Perhaps the greatest reward and ultimately the most memorable aspect of running the Tough Mudder is that exact teamwork, the camaraderie, the help both received from and given to total strangers and old friends alike (or childhood nemeses). Our entrance fees went in part to American servicemen. Friends and family members of Mudders you do not know in the least line the course and heartily cheer you to keep going, that they’re proud of you. The Berlin Walls obstacles are literally insurmountably tall wooden walls that no one could conquer without the helping hand of a fellow Mudder; it is said that the runner who reaches them first must wait for his pursuer to help him over (and then bring them along to return the favor). The men at the end of the Devil’s Beard can be found lifting the net as high as they can, hoping to free as many trapped Mudders as possible. One obstacle is a massive hung cargo net called the “Spider’s Web,” suspended from two trees with all of the slack that the Beard’s netting lacks. At its base you will again find Mudders on the good side of the sharp ropes digging their feet into the ground and pulling the netting to their chests in an effort to pull the lines tight for the next round of climbers. Sometimes those in need are in even more unique circumstances.

Another proud staple obstacle of the Mudder is entitled “Walk the Plank,” and it is perhaps a fifty foot high ledge requiring Mudders to freely leap to the churning cold pool below. It was actually something I was excited to tackle in the months before the race and it was a welcome sight almost precisely halfway along our march (an aside: I had assumed some ramps or some stairs would lead us to the jump-off point. What we got were three thin two by fours you could barely grasp or keep your footing on that led straight up the barely tiled rear wooden paneling of the structure. Even better, the subsequent wooden bar was always three inches out of my nervous-jump-assisted reach. I had to have the Devil’s Beard comedian teammate, who had leapt up the bars in his five-finger toe shoes without using his hands like a tree frog, stoop down at the summit and lift me to the top. It would prove to be the ultimate foreshadowing). Atop the structure, Mudder after Mudder merrily flipped, somersaulted and soared through the skies to the water below, briefly getting a chance to cut up and enjoy themselves. Yet when my assisting teammate and I reached the top, a woman was standing there, perhaps in her early forties, her expression fraught with frustration. Predictably, she was afraid of heights and could not bring herself to jump. My teammate and friend who had scaled the structure and helped me up was perhaps the most generous member of our team, helping other Mudders at literally every turn (he was always the team member the rest of us could not find in the post-obstacle chaos; it was because he was still back helping other racers). This was no different as he had stopped and was calmly consoling the panicked woman. I kept my distance not wanting to overwhelm her, and was confident he would bring her with him to the water below. They walked together to the edge and counted down, but while he jumped, she retreated again. It was my turn and I too told her that jumping from the ledge would certainly be scary, but after everything she had already conquered, it would be over so very quickly, and everything would be alright (pretty lousy guidance in retrospect). I held her hand, said we could do it together and walked her to the ledge, but again she retreated while I dropped to the water below. As I backstroked out of the pool, I tried to joke to lighten the mood by pointing out the water felt great, but she remained frozen on the ledge above. Finally out of the water, my teammate and I ignored our friends’ calls, waiting for our new friend to join us as we couldn’t each abandon her twice. And then she was falling, and she screamed impressively. She finally waded her way to the exit netting where we were waiting to lift her from the water. She wiped her face and frantically told us the Mudder behind her had followed her instructions to throw her off the ledge. “You guys should have just dragged me off with you! Thank you both.”

Earlier in the day our group had entered the obstacle the race prides itself on the most, an endless gulag of mud as thick as honey (this isn’t a joke; jogging into it, it had sucked my triple-knotted shoe clean off my foot without a second’s hesitation) they call simply “the Mud Mile.” What I had envisioned was watery mud up to my chest, designed to sap whatever energy I had ready at that point of the race. What we got is difficult to describe; the mud was so dense we were convinced it was mixed with corn starch and it floated and gurgled over a submerged trail that could best be likened to the surface of a block of swiss cheese. Sometimes you could simply walk through the ankle deep muck. Sometimes it would drop to knee deep. But most ridiculously, pits, wells and trenches four and five feet deep were randomly interspersed along your path. Comrades would be laughingly sloshing through the mud when on their next overconfident step they would literally vanish from sight, surfacing seconds later in mud up to their neck. And then you would have to wade through your newly discovered mud bath before randomly walking directly into a shelf of pure earth. Up and walk and down and slog and up and stumble and laugh and plummet. There was no way of knowing what each step would bring. It was hilarious, and it was this comedy of errors that found us approaching a group ahead of us who seemed to be having a lot of trouble navigating the quagmire.

When we caught up to them, we saw why.

What the Tough Mudder is really all about.

That group ahead of us was moving so slowly and flailing so wildly because they were literally carrying this man across the mud. Perhaps five men each held a piece of his wheelchair, and, ignoring the consequences of not paying attention to what they themselves were doing, were keeping him raised above the mud so as to get him to the other side. He would fall and the chair would begin to sink but they would lift him again and keep going. Navigating the submerged walls and invisible pits was impossible enough on my own, let alone carrying someone as well, so we jumped in to the effort and helped lift the man out of the muck. Some of us found easier paths ahead and pointed them out to the trailing group. I think most of us couldn’t believe that we were helping someone with the stones to do what we were struggling to do with only one leg. The rest of us were honored to walk crawl and stumble alongside men who had spent and would spend their entire race experience helping someone else reach their orange headband. Reading about the Tough Mudder you’ll find stories of amputee ex-Marines and paraplegic servicemen who bravely conquer the course, but you assume all you’ll experience on race day are hyped up macho gym-rats. We were privileged to help that fellow Mudder across our version of the Suck. We were proud hours later to watch him wheel himself through the dangling electrical wires and across the finish line.

***

I overcome all fears.

Regretfully, most of the descriptions of obstacles and events in this post are out of chronological order as we actually experienced them; it is the sacrifice I made to frame this piece around the Tough Mudder Pledge. However, it has enabled me to save my favorite portion for last, even if it didn’t happen that way.

Before race day, I had studied the course map like the Zapruder film, making sure to identify the obstacles that would scare me the most, challenge me the most or hurt the most. I was giddily terrified of the Chernobyl Jacuzzi after months of seeing photographs of the terror-stricken faces of Mudders erupting free of those technicolor glaciers (it was hilarious and so much fun). I was appropriately nervous for Everest after my cousin’s foreboding description and warning (it was cake, who put that stupid speed-bump there?). I couldn’t tell if the race’s ultimate destination, Electroshock Therapy’s wet live wires, were going to be funny or the reason my sixty-year-old self always rubbed the left side of his forehead and winced near microwaves (they weren’t so bad, though they got me in the end).

However, above all of those, there was one obstacle about three-quarters of the way through the course that was not elaborate or slathered in mud or even intended to scare people in the least. Hell, six-year-olds do it. Just after the carrying of the mighty log through the chilly lake but just before the hay bale mountain was a set of monkey bars. The Tough Mudder calls it the “Funky Monkey,” and they are a long, rising and descending set of monkey bars that come to an apex in the center. Over a grimy lake. Oh, and the event staff greases the bars with paint rollers. I hate monkey bars.

I hate monkey bars. I have a sadly legitimate complex about monkey bars. I never successfully traversed the arced set on my elementary school playground (or the level, parallel to the ground easier ones for the even smaller children). When I was a camp counselor at the hometown YMCA, nine-year-olds would casually discuss which items of theirs they’d be willing to put on the black market lunch trading block while dangling from the bars. When their tragically limited attention spans would lure them elsewhere across the fields, I would casually walk over so as to not attract attention and stare at the bars and think I am a college student. This should be a joke to me. I could not cross them; I fell every time. I have no upper body strength, a product of always hating lifting weights and having a high school baseball coach who didn’t care enough to put us on a strength and conditioning regiment to actually win some games. I have never hit a home run at any level of competitive and organized baseball, I have never done more than perhaps four consecutive pull ups and I have to adopt a strange and confusing stooped stance to crack jars of pickles or Gatorades. What I’m trying to say is that sets of monkey bars are the bane of my existence.

I had told everyone prior to the race that when I arrived on the platform at the bars, I would just take a nice, relaxing dive into the water below and enjoy a leisurely dip instead of burning precious energy on such a useless venture. But I said that to drum up a few chuckles; of course I would try because who knows how many bars I would clear before the inevitable. Even a short ways up the ascending half of the bars would have satisfied me, and besides, then I could do a flip or strike some moronic pose for a laugh before tumbling into the drink and swimming to the opposite ledge. Except when I arrived at the looming structure set in an uncharacteristically bland and grassy field, I was muddy. My shins still bled from the cheese grater that was the Spider Web cargo netting. I was full of an entire morning’s worth of determination and was not in the mood to quit or fail after everything we had already been through. And there was my family. Wait, what!?

I knew they were on the grounds somewhere but having not seen them since the first mile’s “Underwater Tunnels” (the ones that felt so warm after the ice), I assumed they were waiting at the finish line to congratulate us laugh at us as we got electrocuted. But there they were, standing out in the sun, having a great time watching grumpy Mudders tackle the Funky Monkey and waiting for us to come be claimed by the churning pit. I instantly forgot how little air actually remained in my lungs and sprinted directly at my dad, who was laughing at me way too smugly, with every intention of sharing the muddy wealth I was covered in. He realized my intentions and ran off, promising pain and suffering (he knows villainous and cheap wrestling moves) but I gave up on my efforts when I realized a teammate had fallen just outside of the copse of trees after leaving the lake. We walked over and found him cramping furiously; we legitimately watched his leg muscles hit like massive bass speakers. He felt like he was holding the team back and his face was full of guilt that no one asked for, but I was happy as long as he was alright (he was); it allowed me time to tell the morning’s stories (I love telling stories! Can you tell?), time to take goofy pictures and time to receive some much-needed motivation.

So that is to say I was screwed. As I trudged over to the steps up to the shallow stalls that reminded me of the final waiting area just before boarding a thrill ride, I was apparently the mouse that just never learns the cheese is electrified, and was going to give the stupid thing whatever I could muster and assuredly make a fool of myself again. When my turn to take the leap arrived, I was somewhere in between you will fall on the third rung and always know that you suck at this and the only thing your family will watch you do today is embarrass yourself.

I had no clue how to even begin or which rung to start on; the closer ones seemed like they would provide me no momentum while the distant ones seemed likely to deposit me in the churning failure pool below for even trying to reach them. All of them seemed like choosing which rifle I wanted to shoot me at my own execution. It is my understanding that some people actually climb vertically through the bars allowing themselves to crawl across the top of the lanes like cats. Apparently some choose to pause at the apex of the rungs to honor Cirque du Soleil by doing a full backflip, only to regrip and quickly swing to the other side. I’ve been told some do a few stretches of the bars one-handed. These were certainly not my experience. I leapt from the platform and grabbed the third rung and was already dead in above the water. It was right then I decided an entire childhood of watching American Gladiators was finally going to pay me back (I thought of my sister who would have heartily supported this line of thinking). I worked up a free enough grip to reach for the next rung, barely held on to the first one in the process, and began to progressively pull on each bar to set myself swinging like a pendulum. It worked for old ‘Gladiators’ contestants who had to navigate the hanging rings and it was going to be my method of choice to see how far I could get. It was extremely difficult. There were a lot of desperate, exhausted pauses to let my forearm muscles regroup before working up the gusto to lunge again and, though they were unavoidable, each delay allowed my brain to realize and remember Oh my god. My hands are going to rip from my wrists like a cooked chicken wing joint. Blister after blister developed, opened and began bleeding solely in the time I stupidly dangled up there. I lost maybe 15% of my grip every time I moved to another rung and while I patiently plodded along I watched as 15, 20 people were born, lived and died on the bars beside me. I’m sure the entirety of my family delegation was yelling at me but I couldn’t hear them; panicked focus and creeping doubt have sound-dampening qualities to them. My mom’s voice screaming encouragement got through once or twice maybe six bars in. Some advice from my dad unexpectedly got through a rung or two later crystal clear: “Daner! Two bars at a time!” Is he serious!? He wanted me to build some momentum and skip rungs to get across faster, but my reach and grip were struggling to even conquer one at a time and I’d left my Go-Go-Gadget arm in the car. I quickly relegated the laughter that elicited to the chunk of my brain that wasn’t at DEFCON 1 trying not to fall. The pressure of my own dead weight pulling the skin off my palms like taffy was approaching critical mass when I decided to look up and realized the next bar was beneath me. I was so confused. Why was it down there? I promise you it had never occurred to me I might last more than the usual three or four bars, but oh my lord I had reached the apex, was halfway, and had completed the hardest part. Seriously?

The day's, ahem, high water mark. Your fearless writer (orange shirt) at the apex.

So down I swung. The next few hurt just the same but seemed to fly by. I could see the faces of my teammates, most of which had been forced to swim to safety, growing with anticipation and motivation from the other side. I was getting closer and closer . . . but I was tired. And I was hurting a lot. My legs and torso felt like thousand pound ACME weights that had been hung from my extended shoulders, and two bars from safety I came to a final halt hanging worthlessly by my right arm. I thought I could swing myself close enough to let my foot take a shot at the landing and tried it, but I couldn’t get my left arm up to the bar any longer to get any leverage. I couldn’t believe I had accomplished all of that to be forced to tap out here, an arm’s length from the ledge.

It turns out it was almost exactly an arm’s length, as our morning driver scrambled back up onto the platform, imploring our teammates to help me, and stretched over the water for my left hand. It connected, and focusing everything I could on not letting go so damn close, I was towed safely across the remaining few feet, my foot connecting on plywood and my right arm finally relieved of its burden. I was across. Why was I across? I hate monkey bars! How was today of all days the first time I would clear even a grade school set of them? I felt like I’d somehow cheated the water of its prize; I was as dry as a bone. How was I as dry as a bone? I should have fallen like the rest of my teammates had, but that hadn’t happened. One way or the other, oh my god, I did it. I was riding impossibly high and felt like I could have carried a few teammates the next few miles with each arm (unbeknownst to me, the misery of Everest was a mile ahead. Pride cometh before the fall, I suppose. All three falls). Perhaps now I know the monkey bar secret that has eluded me for 20 years; just before you jump for the first bar, when your brain is swimming with doubt and depression and you know you will fail, run nine miles through a muddy swamp.

I am an occasionally obnoxiously humble and self-effacing person so I did not consciously choose to do what I did then. What I did was unleash an unintentionally showy and unexpectedly loud rebel yell that meant so much more than having not fallen into the muck below, and it became increasingly cathartic the longer it shot towards the heavens. I felt like I screamed backward through time, at every mediocre athletic memory or disappointment I still clung to. It was a loud train that felt wonderful and ran long enough to blow through the station at Last Two Minutes of the High School Basketball Game Sympathy Substitution, another stop at Splitting Time at Third Base My Senior Year With an Unmotivated Pothead Sophomore, blew through the downtown station of Always Being Too Much of a Wuss to Get Across a Set of Damned Monkey Bars. I have never felt satisfaction or achievement like that in my life. I think of that scream, that train, as the Absolution Express, and I have a psychotic race for lunatics dressed in Gumby costumes where all you get is a beer and that stupid headband to thank for the ride.

***

I started this ultimately long-winded novella about just how much of a basket case I really am in an effort to try and figure out what I was actually doing standing in that Dade City holding pen. I questioned my motivations every day before the race, trying to nail down exactly what it was I wanted from this torture I’d volunteered for. I struggled before and after the race to explain to confused friends and coworkers exactly why anyone would choose to do this to themselves.Their responses ran from respectful interest to well, we’ll say less tactful declinations.

“Some of that sounds pretty fun but twelve miles? That’s ridiculous.”

“I’m perfectly comfortable on my couch on Sunday mornings, thank you very much.”

“How is being covered in mud fun?”

“Oh my god, you’re being serious. Are you nuts?”

With enough time to reflect on what I did (and after this many words), the question doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. And at what age does it become reprehensible to wallow in the mud, to climb some tall thing or to do something that’s only seeming reward is that it just seems fun?

I started down this long and strange road because of a perfect storm of media attention that made me confront my own insecurities, an orange and black pick that pried at my pride. There was a lengthy article at the butt end of an ESPN the Magazine that arrived in the mail (why is the last article in sports publications always the coolest one?) detailing “the greatest race you’ve never heard of,” where people wear asinine costumes and drink test tube shots and stumble over a massive obstacle course (read a professional’s personal account here). It felt like reading about some wonderful mom and pop restaurant in some quaint American town; sounds fantastic but I’ll probably never get to go there. Then while toiling away another graduate school weekend in Gainesville, some fellow classmates were kicking around starting a team and signing up. I laughed and said I’d heard of it, said how cool it would be to do, but would intentionally and successfully fade into another conversation if pressed on whether I would actually sign up. I had already looked at the course for Tough Mudder Florida and promptly given up and did not feel like looking like a wuss if they asked. As all of this was happening, Facebook joined in the assault. On the right side of every page of my account there sat a targeted banner advertisement, a guy my age smiling a huge but clearly embattled smile through a helmet of dripping mud. In over-sized bold letters it read, “ARE YOU A MAN?” And on any other day, at any other time, I would have chuckled and tipped my hat to whichever Don Draper crafted that ad, laughing at its blatant play on the insecurities of the world’s toolbags. Except I was feeling like one of them that day.

Listen, I am not that tough. I typically do my best to not call attention to myself if I’m hurt or sick. I’ve never been in a fight in my life; hell, I’ve got one thrown punch to my name and it was weird and it hit the back of my friend’s neck and it did not get returned because he stormed off because he knew he deserved it. I am hideously bad at building and fixing things, which is something all men are supposed to know how to do. While my dad (and my mom too, crap again) tiled/resurfaced/remodeled my childhood home for 25 years with their bare hands and some trial and error, I get anxiety about walking into a Home Depot because it makes me feel stupid. The group of friends I have made since moving to Orlando almost four years ago like to inform me that I am the “girliest” and “gayest” guy amongst the group’s male contingency (I’m getting annoyed typing this). They would be mortified if they knew the extent it got under my skin and they say it in jest but I know it’s rooted in truth (and, sadly, a fair amount of homophobia). I am forced to assume they have given me that title for reasons like having never enjoyed the taste of any variety of beer I have ever drank, my penchant for reading “books,” and probably for using words like “penchant” in social conversation.

So you know what? I got pissed off. All of those things collectively pushed all the right buttons and I decided to think less and just sign up. I even started the team avalanche by signing up first, teammates be damned, and called, texted and badgered my buddies into joining me. It was somewhere between completely infuriating and blissfully rewarding to hear their reactions of, “Wait, you’re doing that?”

I am always afraid that people simply wake up, go to work, have a few laughs at a sitcom when they get home, walk their dog, take a vacation to the in-laws sometime during the year and call it a day. A lot of people, myself included, do not have adventure in their lives, truly unpredictable, wild, difficult to explain to others as to what you did or why you did it flavored adventure. And not necessarily a foolish obstacle course with electrocution but maybe just trying some ridiculous food (a personal beloved favorite). Dancing poorly or singing along to an embarrassing song despite no dancing or singing ability. Not enjoying the crashing waves but sprinting through the surf with your pants getting soaked and throwing rocks at the horizon. I signed up for this to, as the country song advises, “throw a little gravel in my travel” to “get lost and get right with my soul.” I did it because life is lived in the margins, learning from and reveling in the strange and surprising places we’re too scared to go.

And you know what? I just wanted to see if I could.

***

The grand finale of the Tough Mudder was oddly anticlimactic after I raised my beaten self from my spread-eagle and face-down bed atop of Everest. My team was scrambling towards the waiting electrical wires and fire hoses that were showering down upon the pour souls stumbling through the muddy voltage. I remember I couldn’t find most of the team and assumed they had already finished. I remember helping my teammate and friend who had cramped so viciously a mile earlier as he seized up again only yards from the final obstacle and I remember him refusing any help. I remember thinking the wires were over-hyped and really just there to scare you before taking one directly to the forehead that put me on my knees instantly. I remember the final 50 grassy feet devoid of any surprises or beatings and I hobbled under a new inflatable black arch, this one mercifully labeled “FINISH.” And it was over.

I had nothing left or I’d have asked to start again.

You are immediately shuttled to the nearest waiting Tough Mudder hot babe employee who happily dresses you in your newly earned lush, kingly robe, that precious orange headband.

You’re pointed to the spoils of your success, your godly nectar and ambrosia which comes in the form of a small clear party cup full of Dos Equis. Regrettably, I hate beer, but I took a long victory gulp. It tasted hideous and I could not have cared less because I’d earned that bitter swill. I handed what was left to my dad and briefly dwelled on having never played college sports or signed a major league contract or set any high school athletic records. In a very perverse and ridiculous way, it was satisfying to finally hand my dad a game ball.

We found a grassy spot against a tarp barricade, sat and collectively recalled the crazy things we had done, completely physically and mentally exhausted. My family members congratulated us and signed off to drive home. We finally mustered the energy to walk to the walls lining the Electroshock Therapy structure and laughed at cheered on newly finishing Mudders. We all shook each others hands, lurched to our cars and went our separate ways home across the state. The next morning, texts began ringing through from numbers I knew and numbers I previously had not.

“My skin is raw as $#!&”

“Did they post the pictures yet?”

“When can we start signing up for next year?”

***

In the film The Replacements, Keanu Reeves plays Shane Falco, perennial failure quarterback but adopted leader of a team of eclectic also-rans collectively hired by the Washington Sentinels to play football because the real team has gone on strike. Before the dramatic final play of the replacement players’ final game before they are replaced by the pros, Falco looks around the huddle at the faces of his motley crew of mismatched, out of shape, defying the odds by even getting this far, usual weekend warrior troops (sound familiar?). Their expressions are ones of confidence and nerves, energy and exhaustion, excitement and crippling fear, and he unifies them with one last piece of motivation.

Pain heals.”

It does. The only proof of the sizable gash that the Chernobyl Jacuzzi’s jagged ice shelf left on our morning driver’s forehead is the oxidizing blood left behind on his “kingly robe”.

“Chicks dig scars.”

That ESPN article mentions that there are women in the world who troll internet dating sites exclusively for proven Tough Mudders.

“Glory lasts forever.”

That uppity megaphone in our holding pen promised us the same thing.

I will always have a cheap, ugly, dirty, neon orange headband to remind me they were right.

***

Pictured, from left to right: The tree frog, the marathoner, the elbow-thrower, the pace car, your fearless writer, the morning driver.

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4 thoughts on “Blood, Beards and Beer: Finding Sunday Salvation Over Twelve Miles of Masochism

  1. mizerle06 says:

    too long; didn’t read.

  2. Deke says:

    mizerle06 sounds like a D-U-S-H.

  3. Woz says:

    I’m doing this in May here in Jacksonville. I knew you had written about this before but I didn’t finish the article the first time around. I did this time and I must say after reading this, I’m looking even more forward to it. Thank you Dane.

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