Category Archives: Wonderous Stories

2014 Year in Review: The 11 (More or Less) Best Things I Consumed This Year

That’s right everyone, it’s your (on a good year) biannual reminder that I do in fact maintain a blog, despite readership soaring into the single dozens and almost three of those people not being blood relatives of mine. And would you look at this! I’m actually continuing an attempted tradition I started last year! To recap, upon moving to Minnesota I discovered the locals’ penchant for making year-end best-of lists, mostly involving bands they’ve proudly discovered the rest of us won’t hear of for another four years ever. Combine this with popular periodicals and media outlets throwing their hats in the ‘best of’ ring and you’ve got a year-end recapstravaganza. I took this as a chance to make some jokes at my own expense (always fun) and blow some creative juices on some nonsense. So here we are! A new year! Food and places and sights and one thing I actually kind of hated! I hope you enjoy it, all twelve of you.

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11. Serial (Podcast)

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This one comes with a few disclaimers. 1. This will be one of the longer sections. If you’re strapped for time or not sure why you clicked this link at all, just skip ahead. 2. This is the elitist NPR radio show section, high potential for boringness, skip if needed. 3. The show received a lot of criticism for having issues with racism; I find them mostly unfounded but, coincidentally, I am also a white person, and may very well be guilty of the same ignorance, and am not terribly qualified to comment on their validity. Ok, disclaimers over.

Serial is a podcast about a murder, with the investigative purpose being that the man who was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life for it may in fact be wrongly imprisoned and innocent. It is the most popular podcast in the history of the word ‘podcast’ with millions of people downloading it weekly (it is so popular there are numerous other podcasts that exist just to discuss this podcast). It is also all true; the murder in question did happen in 1999 in Baltimore. Serial consists of 12 episodes of NPR’s Sarah Koenig, a journalist who used to work for the Baltimore Sun, re-investigating that murder, that of a Baltimore teenager named Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed was found guilty of the crime; he vehemently maintains his innocence to this day from his prison cell. Imagine if True Detective was real, and we listened to it on the radio, 45 minutes at time, for 12 weeks (eat that, stupid binge-watching!). It became a phenomenon with the internet (specifically Reddit) collectively taking it upon itself to become an armchair police investigator, digging through thousands of case exhibits and police records thinking someone could confirm Adnan’s guilt or prove his innocence. We unexpectedly crowd-sourced a homicide investigation, fifteen years after the fact. It took me a long time to warm up to it for a lot of reasons and issues, ethical and otherwise, like Aren’t we opening some heavy wounds for Hae’s family just for our entertainment? Aren’t we putting the man convicted of the crime, guilty or innocent, through the same hell (again)? Aren’t we jeopardizing the livelihood of some of the principals involved in the case if Reddit is discovering their identities and addresses and publishing them on the internet? Perhaps silliest, What does it say about us that we cry foul about “spoilers” when this is a real case that happened fifteen years ago? Isn’t that willful ignorance? I kept listening and gave them the benefit of the doubt, as the possibility they were going to exonerate an innocent man certainly deserves as much. And I won’t discuss what they found, in case anyone still wants to dive in, but I really don’t know if the work they did here was worth it. I don’t.

What was amazing, and why it sits on this list, is not what they found; it was listening to how they found it (or failed to find it). We got to listen to what Slate called “show your work” investigative reporting, something the journalism nerd in me finds to be catnip. There’s never been anything quite like it. We got to listen to Koenig talk to Adnan from prison over and over; imagine if we got to listen to Truman Capote work through investigating and writing about the ‘In Cold Blood’ murders. The show evolved as it gained notoriety, with people who weren’t willing to speak to Koenig for the past year of her investigation suddenly calling with information and testimony (including Hae’s current boyfriend when she went missing). For the worse, the show also became self-influential, with its findings bleeding into people’s memories and “realities” of the days surrounding the murder, in a way its popularity inadvertently corrupting its own integrity. It got bigger and bigger, maybe too big for what Koenig and crew intended. Major media outlets began reporting things like the fact that Adnan has an appeal coming up in January. It got so big the same was demanded of it as is every other piece of popular media these days; a perfect and completely satisfying finale where everyone loves everything or the entire thing was a huge waste of time and we hate it forever. The public demanded that Koenig prove Adnan guilty. Prove Adnan innocent. Either one, just make your choice, Serial. In the final episode, with Koenig still poring over the case and uncertain of her own thoughts on that question, Adnan himself, from behind the permanent bars of a life sentence, almost teasingly and certainly ironically asks Koenig, “So, you don’t really have no ending?” It was fascinating to listen to and discuss it, warts and all.

10. Yellowcard at the Varsity Theater (Performance)

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There was the slight issue that I badly underestimated how many disillusioned teenagers would be at this show moshing violently. The band was popular a decade ago, I thought I fairly assumed the crowd would all be my age (wrong). So Jake and I spent a decent portion of our night fending off psychotic morons while trying to enjoy the show. That aside, I watched one of my favorite bands of all time from twenty feet away. They rocked enough to impress JJ, who tagged along despite never hearing their music until the week of the show. I ended up with Ryan Key’s (lead singer, front and center) guitar pick after some impressive floor scrambling by Brady. It was a fantastic two hour time machine of songs of sun and surf that brought me back to high school. Good times.

9. Tie – Christian Ramirez’s bicycle kick goal, Giancarlo Stanton’s Home Run Derby performance (Sporting Event)

I’ll just let you watch both of them. Some quick background; Minnesota has a soccer team that plays in the NASL (that’s like AAA for baseball fans). It’s a blast to watch their games, as quite an assortment of my friends will now attest after I dragged them to a game. This year, fans of the NASL voted one goal to be the goal of the year. I was in the house to enjoy it, and freak out about it accordingly. Enjoy.

As for background on that Home Run Derby, I already blew a couple thousand words on that. If you missed it, enjoy. If you just want video of the home run (and that .gif! Ahhhh!!!) that almost left Target field, enjoy that too.

8. Tie – The Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer, The Martian, by Andy Weir, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin (Books)


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That first one is basically LOST meets Stephen King’s The Thing, a story about a mysterious quarantine zone that no one can explain, and the shady entity that keeps sending team of scientists to investigate it (with horrid results, unsurprisingly). It wasn’t always great (and I have my suspicions I got played into reading them by some tying deal Entertainment Weekly had with the publishers). They were difficult to read and left much to the imagination (like LOST), with one perfect review saying reading those books is like trying to read someone’s dream, not always so easy to tell what’s actually happening. But they were so, so weird, so unique, which is wonderful. I’ve never read anything like them, and had a blast watching the author unravel his own mysteries. If you dig some funky sci-fi with a surprising amount of horror, I’m happy to lend them to you.

The second one is the opposite, about astronaut (and Macguyver-wannabe) Mark Watney being stranded on Mars after a terrible accident sends his crew fleeing, Watney presumed dead. It’s Castaway on the red planet. It’s ingenious and incredibly funny and suspenseful as all hell considering you logically “know” Watney will survive until at least the end of the book; Weir doles out his catastrophic setbacks terrifyingly believably. Ridley Scott is bringing this to life with Matt Damon this year; you might be better served by a couple fantastically stressed out nights with this version instead.

The final one I read in one night, and is the only one I’ll ever reread, the highest respect I can give to a book. A bookstore owner who’s kind of an elitist douche finds a baby on his store’s steps and his most prized rare book stolen. What ensues is a celebration of the power books can have on the world. Have some tissues on hand.

7. True Detective (Television)

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Apparently people hate this show for a dozen reasons: mainly, that it was less about the case Rust and Marty investigated and more about what said case did to them (uh, that’s awesome?).  That the mythology of Carcosa and the Yellow King ultimately amounted to nothing (yeah, and? Wasn’t chasing that info down the rabbit hole kind of fun?). That the finale was underwhelming (see: every show in history these days, people are the worst). That it might have been plagiarized (if that’s true, crap). And, most famously, that it was male wish-fulfillment and horrid to women, both in plot and theme and empty female characters (you be the judge). That last one does ring true, but the writer also cautioned the show is told from Rust and Marty’s perspectives, so it is what it is. What it definitely was was the best acted TV show I have ever seen. It’s dark Louisiana grime and horrors were gorgeous to behold as Cary Fukunaga shot them. Its credits were haunting (that shot of of Louisiana interstates played across Woody’s face like bondage and bandages over wounds!). The finale was terrifying and then completely unexpected. How they ultimately solved the case waaaaaaas kind of idiotic, but none of it mattered. Watching the two leads throw acting punches was riveting. The eight episode format and promise of complete cast turnover each season was new and weird. Excited to see what season two has in store.

6. The Guardians of the Galaxy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman (Film)

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I always have a tough time of picking movies because they’re all so unique in tone and mission. Plus, I feel like I’ve failed to see about 30 films this year I badly wanted to watch (Whiplash, Nightcrawler, Wild, Big Hero 6, etc etc). For Guardians, I defy anyone to watch that movie and not laugh or have fun. It’s the most entertaining and re-watchable superhero movie ever, and that comes from someone who bows at the altar of Nolan’s Batmans. It pleases me to no end that some weirdo story no one had heard of about the Bad News Bears in space made more money than any other movie this year. Please put Chris Pratt in every movie currently in production.

For Grand Budapest, I’ll be brief. Are you among Wes Anderson’s legions of nerds/obsessors? This might have been his most fun movie ever. Do you hate his movies? Don’t bother, skip ahead. Actually, no. Try watching this one and don’t be such a jerk. Never seen one of his movies? This might also be his most accessible, and a great place to start.

Birdman is weird and magnificent, and I don’t even remember half the movie because my boss sent me into a furious rage six minutes before I walked over to the mall to watch it. The story is great, the acting is great, the fact that they trick you into thinking the entire movie is one continuous shot/take is unsettling and involving and great. The ending has instigated debate as to what actually happens in that final scene, and I looooooooove debatably open-ended movies. I look forward to seeing it again, soon. Go enjoy some weird.

5. Lake Street Dive (Music)

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I am unhealthily in love with this band and its lead singer Rachael Price’s voice (Amy Winehouse and Adele and Motown and Americana). I have cruelly subjected my coworkers to their new album Bad Self Portraits a hundred times but fortunately they just asked if they could go to their show the next time they’re in the Twin Cities. I’ve watched this performance twenty times, this one a dozen more. It’s been a good time clicking their “related artists” on Spotify this year and finding other Americana acts like Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, ten others. It all started with them, and for my fellow MN PIP adjusters, they do a heck of a lot to rewrite the stimulus attached to the phrase ‘Lake Street.’ Enjoy!

4. The root beer served at the South Gate Brewing Company, Oakhurst, CA (Food and Drink)

For this paragraph, if everyone could pretend I’m discussing craft beer and not root beer, it will go a long way towards you finding me a bit less nuts. Phil and I stopped here as it was a stone’s throw away from our hotel during our two days in Yosemite National Park (more on this shortly). The staff was fun and enjoyed needling us about our trip, the food was great, highly recommended. But the root beer, my goodness. Their menu advises the draft root beer is made with “sarsaparilla and Tahitian vanilla.” Describing what something tastes like is about as futile an exercise as exists in the world. All I can say is it tasted very different. For the most part, root beers taste the same with variances in levels of carbonation, or maybe honey or something like that. This one was out there. It was good enough I demanded we eat there again Friday night, which Phil obliged, even taking home a growler of it to his fiancée. Ugh, I can still taste it.

3. The food, drinks, architecture and funky voodoo spirit vibe of New Orleans, LA (Adventures)

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I made it to both New Orleans and Las Vegas for the first time this year. I have spent many years assuming that of all the cities in this great nation, those two would be the women I would have absolutely nothing in common with. That I’d need to throw on some body armor before wading out into their open, wretched, disease-riddled arms. For all six people who will understand this reference, what Homer Simpson feels about the great city of New York kind-of disdain. And while my maybe six waking hours in Sin City did nothing to dissuade me of this opinion, the Crescent City fared the complete opposite. I. Can’t. Wait. To go back. The people are magnificent and weird. The culture is weird. The drinks are weird (that hurricane kicked my ass). Their architecture is like drugs for your retinas, from the cemeteries to the Garden District. It is spooky, but in a fantastic way because I can’t stand scary crap? The FOOD. The CHURCHES. The STREETCARS. I think I’m mostly still stuck on the architecture; there were no directions to gaze in that didn’t demand a second look. Dave Grohl spent a song/episode of the Foo Fighters’ new Sonic Highways on the jazz influences of New Orleans, and an opening lyric sings you can find Dave “dancing with the spirits in the Square.” A strange city, indeed, to have been overrun by ghosts, but only in New Orleans can you party with them.

2. The Apostle Islands frozen sea caves, Bayfield, WI (Adventures)

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This past Winter, Lake Superior froze. It hasn’t happened in a long time, and it’s sadly plausible that it may not happen again. Since it froze, the Bayfield, Wisconsin sea caves flipped from glorious kayak swiss cheese holes to frozen caves for walking and staring and, in some extreme cases, crawling and shimmying under the earth itself (Luke is in a tunnel in that photo about the circumference of his torso, reaching out to the open air lake surface where I was sitting; be grateful Wisconsin Winter’s aren’t typified by earthquakes). I have never seen such sights, such impossible things. Walls of icicles. Caverns fifty yards under the state of Wisconsin. Ceilings made of smoothed frost that looked like wind-blown desert sand dunes. A line of people, single-file, walking across? Over? To? nothingness, on nothingness, post-apocalyptic nomads in search of refuge from the all-encompassing white. The ground was ice, and we walked where no person has any business standing. It was all so impossible, if not for what I did in September…

1. The treads on my shoes, hiking across the trails of the United States of America

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I got to start in on some wish-fulfillment this year, living out some dreams, doing things I will never forget and couldn’t if I wanted to. Franconia Notch State Park and the White Mountains of New Hampshire in April, walking up and down and up and down the crests of mountains like the Fellowship of the Ring (thanks Wayne). The Superior Hiking Trail up Minnesota’s flawless North Shore, looking down upon the lake that vanishes like an ocean (thanks Brian). Most amazingly, in September, the impossible vistas, slot canyons, desert highways and extraterrestrial landscapes of the national parks of the American West, chasing the ghost of John Muir, Lewis and Clark (thanks Ash, Phil, and God). Every hour of every day for various weeks at a time, more impossible, and I mean it when I say extraterrestrial, sights and scenes that have no business of this planet because they are so, so far removed from my typical routine, from my office desk, from my couch cushions. Things you would never believe exist a few hours from Phoenix, San Francisco or, hell, your house.

I asked to go back to working four-day weeks for the Winter, and aside from teaching myself to suck less at hockey, I intend to find a way to write something that matters, something memorable about some of the things that happened on that adventure, because some of those things that happened were the definition of memorable. It’ll be probably be very long, and no one will read it. Or them. Whatever it is. I hope it/they doesn’t/don’t take me forever to finish, but it/they sadly probably will. I hope the sometimes strangers who encouraged me to do it will read them. And some others too. I hope so much as one of them, or one sentence, one anything, will inspire anyone to go enjoy them as I did. So to be continued…

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War in the Rose City: A Day Spent At Ground Zero of Soccer’s American Takeover

On the northeast corner of 18th Avenue and Morrison Street, Flounder, Ariel’s impossibly loveable and supportive roly-poly fish of a best friend from The Little Mermaid, is drenched in his own blood. There is a lot of blood, so much so that the spatters reach back to his tail fin, leaving him simply looking like a slightly more exotic species of fish, striped now in all three primary colors. His eyes are literally exploding forward from his head in horror, betraying the fact that he spent his final seconds terrified and confused before an unknown assailant drove a double-bit axe deep between his eyes. The axe remains buried in his head.

The sight is gruesome, unsettling and intentional; Flounder’s killer has not only remained at the scene but is proudly resting the hilt of the sickening axe/fish/trophy on his shoulder like a grotesque knapsack, parading the chilling image of Flounder’s cloven body through the streets, proof of his ritualistic killing. The murderer is using Flounder’s body to send a message in papier mâché to intimidate his enemies and compromise their will before they wage war in earnest later tonight.

Tonight, in Portland, Oregon, at the corner of 18th Avenue and Morrison Street, there is a soccer game.

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***

I love soccer. I love it despite the fact that almost no one else even likes it. My dad was a high school soccer coach and it was the one sport when I was a kid that all of my best friends also played, so I spent a lot of hours dodging bees on the fields at Pine Street Park. I obsess over the World Cup and I was frequently one of the scant few fans in the stands at the fledgling third-tier Orlando City FC’s home games in the mass of stone and tetanus that is the Citrus Bowl. This dog stuck prominently to my mirror as a kid (and wherever that mirror is it may still be stuck to it . . . sorry, Mom). I love it for being the purest display of community and passion in all of sports, the very reasons I love sports, the fan section at the Swamp for a big Saturday night game only cranked up to 11. Sadly, liking soccer after the age of twelve is not only a minority opinion in this country but one that will usually catch you some abuse, some mockery. The game is a frequent punchline for jokes, especially if their subject is boredom, even from the mouths of comedy sources I respect the highest like The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live. So when the opportunity presented itself to attend the real deal (as far as America goes, anyway), an MLS game in the Pacific Northwest, the inexplicable cradle of America’s soccer rebirth, I was so thrilled I decided I would document my experience by keeping a running diary through the day. I did it so I could remember my experience and in hopes others might see what a real match day environment is like in a place where soccer not only matters but is absolutely beloved (maybe it could somehow magically change a few minds?). Plus, it wouldn’t be just any old MLS game, but a home game for one of the MLS’ greatest success stories, the Portland Timbers and the Timbers Army, their group of fanatical supporters. Oh, and I’d be sitting amongst those impassioned lunatics, including team mascot Timber Joey, a man prone to sawing plates of wood from a massive log for every Timber goal. And the Timbers would be playing their hated rival the Seattle Sounders (who they derisively call the ‘Flounders,’ get it?). And the Sounders would be bringing along their equally zealous fans, the Emerald City Supporters. And it would be U.S. national team star Clint Dempsey’s first game in a Sounders kit at hostile Jeld-Wen Field since being paid a fortune to come fall down on U.S. soil instead of Her Majesty’s. And one point separated the two teams in the standings with the playoffs on the line. And the winner would find itself in first place in the Western Conference.

Barring playoff games, it would essentially be the best game an American soccer fan could possibly attend.

Portland has embraced soccer fandom to an extent I previously assumed would only ever be a pipe dream. I was excited to see what gameday looked like in a place where thousands of people are obsessed with futbol instead of foo– well, the other one. Above all else I really, truly wanted to see something that would validate my optimism that what’s happened in Portland, Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia could happen in other cities across the country; that this whole American soccer thing might finally catch on. There has been hope in the past, but America’s soccer history is bloodier than a Game of Thrones novel. To summarize that as briefly as possible, we’ve had a number of leagues field dozens of teams that last a couple years and then fold due to financial ruin and fan apathy; no one in this country ever gives a crap, plain and simple. The popularity of those leagues was directly tied to the fortunes of the U.S. national team’s World Cup performances, so in 1994 domestic soccer love for our shiny new professional Major League Soccer was off the charts after we hosted the Cup that summer (and wore the single finest sports uniforms in competitive athletic history). Six years later, the MLS was nearly bankrupt and contracting teams (bye bye, Tampa and Miami). It is doing much better these days, even planning new expansion teams (COME ON, ORLANDO), but it is still an also-ran in the American sports consciousness, let alone compared to the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. Teams like Chivas USA bring bad memories and anxiety due to mismanagement and lack of fan interest, just like the good old days; one step forward, two steps back. The rest of America has never given me reason to believe soccer will ever succeed here or the U.S.A would compete for a World Cup in my lifetime, even though I want it to flourish to the point that it leads the evening news like it does abroad. I want people to experience the passion of singing for 90+ minutes in a supporter’s section of doctors and attorneys by day, mild degenerates by night. I greedily want my friends to find it exultantly fun. I so badly want to look back laughingly on the day when everyone thought soccer was boring, but I know better. I do not get my hopes up.

So I enlisted in the Timbers Army for a day.

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***

all times noted are Pacific Standard Time, October 14, 2013

7:04 am – Alarm is going off, and it’s doing that before 9 am while on vacation because the Timbers Army section of seats is general admission; thousands of seats sold and no one has a specified seat number. So, you must get a wristband with a number printed on it, and that is the order Army personnel will be let into the stadium 90 minutes prior to kickoff (and before anyone else is let in). Earlier you get in line, the better choice of seats available come match time. I choke down two Tylenol to stifle a headache and throw on a green flannel shirt (go Timbers) and even greener underwear (go Timbers). Steeling my nerves for a day of tough-talking bravado and faux macho idiot hooliganism.

7:51 am – Starbucks, grande chai tea latte. Well, I gave it my best shot.

8:17 am – An uphill hike brings us to Jeld-Wen Field and the line, which stretches an unknown distance north into the foggy Portland morning. Chairs set up, meet fellow Timber militia who are part of our group, settle in. The entire line is decked in green and gold and I am the only jerk without a scarf which is annoying (if this makes no sense, soccer supporters wear team scarves . . . just go with it!), as I love soccer scarves only slightly less than I love soccer. Line rumor places the folks at the front of the line in their spots since Thursday evening. It is Sunday.

9:01 am – The cold is settling in better than we are (it’s in the 40s) but a Minnesota winter has prepared me well, as I am fairly warm and teaching people cribbage (and nothing says rowdy fandom like math-based card games!). A group waiting behind us has begun juggling a ball, quite well actually. The day’s first alcohol is consumed when one member of our party walks across the street and buys a shot of tequila solely so she can use the bathroom. Upon returning and reporting feeling much warmer, two others immediately leave to also buy tequila shots.

9:54 am – Boredom leads one of our party to walk to the front of the line for some investigating; she confirms they arrived at 7 am Saturday and have been camping out since. Not as insane as was thought but still pretty insane awesome. As there are legal issues with camping in downtown Portland overnight, police have apparently set up barricades to allow the fans to stay as some form of legal temporary housing. Good job, Portland’s finest!

10:02 am – Yelling breaks out ahead of us but, alas, it is not hooliganism, it’s celebratory; the line is moving. The team’s policy is to distribute the wristbands anywhere from three to eight hours prior to game time, strategically maintaining this window of uncertainty to weed out the fair-weather fans who can’t be bothered with such hassles. Mercifully, today’s decision is the maximum eight hours prior to game time as I am now cold and all that “Minnesota winter” was a bunch of bullcrap. Papier mâché Flounder and his murderer are first glimpsed.

10:29 am – Wristband secured. Upon receiving them, fans are free to leave but asked to return to the line in their designated section before 4 pm for kick-off at 6 pm. I am a member of the Timbers Army, number 0569.

***

3:40 pm – The walk from pre-game drinking at a local soccer bar to the stadium is on, with my current anticipation/giddiness level not dissimilar to the slow clanking of a roller coaster as it crawls up the chain to the first drop. As we walk, Kasey Keller, the greatest goalkeeper in American soccer history and the man single-handedly responsible for the only time the United States has ever beaten Brazil in 17 attempts, hurriedly passes us heading the other direction. I panic with excitement; not only does no one else in the group pay attention but one actually turns around to loudly mock him about finishing his career playing for hated Seattle. Awesome.

3:48 pm – I detour from the group to satisfy my quest to purchase a scarf from the Timbers Army tent instead of the Adidas store, as it’s way better when it’s handmade by real fans, sold at cost and not available anywhere else because it’s custom designed for Army members (you heard me right; specific soccer scarves made by fans specifically for other fans sitting in a specific section) but my plan derails; they’re sold out. I sulk back to the group, all of whom are now in line again, extremely bummed out and resolve to just overpay for an Adidas scarf at the team store. One of the longest-tenured and most passionate Timbers supporters of our group hears the story and hands me his scarf, the same scarf he has worn to years of Timbers games, with untold numbers of memories now woven in the threads. I immediately refused, knowing exactly how much it is killing him to offer this to me but he ignores it, says he’ll buy another one, is just happy to have another soccer lover in the Army tonight. I am impossibly grateful. In the meantime, joyous songs have broken out, chants are increasing in volume and a parade of pro-Seattle signs and fans that is passing by is met with screams of “GO HOME, SHITTLE.”

4:00 pm – The mad dash for the choice Timbers Army seats begins as the line is now being let in. Confusion breaks out as we lose track of the line entirely before smashing through the dense crowd and jumping in again; who knows if we lost or gained spots. Two members of our group are gone, now twenty people back. The people we have fallen in with are angrily singing ‘I’d Rather Bomb Seattle Than Iraq’ to the tune of ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain.’ I forcibly pinball off of strangers and end up reaching the gate with only one other friend, a veteran Army member. Right before her ticket is scanned and knowing I am underestimating what is about to happen, she turns to me and says “Are you ready?”

UNKNOWN TIME – Chaos. Shoving. Grown men and women in dead sprints past the closed concession stands. Vision and memory of events fuzzy. People screaming at strangers, frantically trying to secure seats. Others are literally jumping over rows of chairs like hurdlers, which is made extra challenging as the team has placed massive flags in every third seat for the fans to wave. We briefly secure one chunk of seats before leaping down three more rows to better ones. We finally settle here.

4:54 pm – Cheers have been continuous since reaching our seats. There is not a fan in sight without one or more beers on their person. Someone is running through the aisles blowing bubbles. The Seattle supporters, sequestered in a single section of chairs on the total opposite side of the stadium, begin to wave massive banners and sing; Timber war drums respond, reverberating thunder from every direction, boom boom boom boom.

5: 05 pm – Handfuls of Monopoly money with Clint Dempsey’s face printed on them are distributed (teams that don’t spend as much money always like to point out success is hollow if bought; I can’t tell if Seattle cares in the least). The Army unites to sing a song about their two Cascadia rivals, Seattle and the Vancouver Whitecaps, set to the tune of ‘Oh My Darlin’:

“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put Seattle on the top!
Put Vancouver in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot!”

5:24 pm – Seattle first hits the field. 3,000 adults jingle their car keys with one hand and flip them off with the other.

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6:03 pm – Timbers coach (and handsome sonofabitch) Caleb Porter enters the field to euphoric cheers as the PA announcer whips the entire stadium into a frenzy. Music is played, the army is dancing in the aisles. The jumbotron shows footage of one row of Army members who brought letters to spell out “GUT THE FISH” which causes further joyous pandemonium. The aforementioned flags are being waved furiously, one of which is being manned by a drunken idiot over my right shoulder who crushes me across the head with the PVC pipe flagpole. I wasn’t mad until I turned and saw he was oblivious to what had happened, was wearing no Timber’s gear, no green at all, and a Boston Red Sox hat. Then I was mad.

6:05 pm – The national anthem. The entire Army proudly sings along and drowns out whoever is singing on the field. The second it ends, as instructed, the fans toss the provided Monopoly money into the air in a technicolor cloud of Dempsey-trolling mockery. As the bills float to the ground, the Army unveils its tifo (here’s the video if you want to see for yourself or hear how loud it was). If you’re not familiar with tifo, it’s the term for essentially any large-scale choreography performed by a team’s fans, usually in soccer, usually orchestrated/paid for/hand-made entirely by said fans, always personalized to each game and almost always reserved for momentous anniversaries or local derbies rivalry games. Tonight’s did not disappoint.

tifo

Pretty clever, with some Beatles-themed abuse targeting Seattle’s pricey Dempsey signing and ingeniously setting their fans up for disappointment regardless of the game’s result; if Seattle wins, they’ll have had to buy their success. If they lose, they will have wasted that money, for today at least, at the hands of the courageous, small-market underdogs. Ingenious (we were behind the word ‘me’ in ‘can’t buy me love’). Fans are grabbing handfuls of the monopoly money that’s now carpeting the aisles and are Lebron-ing them into the air. They are jumping up and down alongside the falling bills, dancing, screaming, every flag is waving.

6:16 pm – Kickoff.

***

I didn’t keep any notes during the game because I just wanted to enjoy the experience and, let’s be honest, what was I going to say? There are plenty of inspiring, phenomenal sports writers who with ease do what I’ve been haphazardly trying to do by writing this, that is vividly detailing what is so beautiful about the beautiful game. What I do remember is that Clint Dempsey did what he always does, which was spend more time on the ground than the ball did, and it’s a lot less defensible when he’s not wearing the red, white and blue. The guy in front of me looked and acted like Andy Kaufman if he had Sideshow Bob’s hair and never put his damn arms down the entire game, as if Malcolm Gladwell and one of these things had a love child. Just before halftime the Timbers scored to go up 1-0 and confetti and streamers and people began raining down everywhere. Gas canisters were burst and green and yellow smoke swallowed the Army while Timber Joey’s chainsaw roared to life. The chants and songs literally never stopped, so many I cannot remember half of them, 4,000 people strong singing for 90 minutes. At some point during the scoreless second half an actual fight happened, that started with the Sounders captain elbowing a Timber in the face, continued when he then tried to fight the referees and ended when security removed him from the field. As the dust settled, the drums got louder, BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.

8:01 pm – After an INSANE final few minutes in which a Sounders shot hit the goalpost for the second time that night, the ref blows the whistle for full time. Timbers win, 1-0. The gas began billowing again, the flags literally filled the air, strangers emotionally embraced, couples made out in the war zone.

8:10 pm – Timbers players and coach Caleb Porter walk to the North end zone to thank the Army. Porter holds his Timbers Army scarf aloft, the players do the same with Timber Joey’s wooden plates (one is given to the Timber goalkeeper for the shutout). The drums are pounding and pounding.

8:16 pm – While the stadium has emptied, no one in the Army has left their seats. Coincidentally, neither has the Seattle section, which sits across the stadium, stoically watching us revel. Four thousand adults again flip them off, this time with both capable hands, and instead of cheering ‘Let’s Go Tim-Bers!’ with some pace-keeping claps in between, loudly scream “FUCK SE-ATT-LE!!!! FUCK SE-ATT-LE!!!!” long into the night.

***

A couple of years ago, the Timbers Army newly came under fire (previously, management had disseminated pamphlets warning the Army to cut their swearing from cheers, had even posted security in the Army section. Fans responded by abandoning section 107 entirely and singing the same chants while spread around the stadium). This time, a mother sent an email to the team’s owner. She was furious with the amount of cursing her three sons had been subjected to at a recent game, saying “this is not England, and you should not tolerate Portland Timbers Hooligans.” Her email labeled army members “a bunch of angry white guys tanked up on liquor,” stated the team would never succeed financially because “there are simply not enough drunks in Portland to pay the bills,” and warned ownership to do something about the stadium’s “mob mentality.” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson personally responded. While professionally addressing her concerns, he also promptly refuted her accusation of hooliganism and wrote “MLS soccer teams would be ecstatic to have a supporters group like the TA, which provides an authentic soccer ambiance second to none in the U.S.” He ended his email with this: “If you are … offended by the TA, then do not sit near them. – Regards, Merritt.”

My day rooting for the Timbers was a great day, an indelibly memorable day, because I spent it amongst the best kind of company, the selfless kind who gives you a hug after the game even though you only met them that morning, that asks to read the blog post you’ve been weirdly keeping notes to help write even though you might be a piss poor, rambling writer who abuses run-on sentences, that sincerely tells me “You earned that scarf.” It was a great day to be amongst so many who, win or lose, were having an absolute blast. It seems less significant that the Timbers won the game. Or that they beat their rival. Or that come midnight they were in first place and I got to watch it all. Because what I want to happen in this country, what I came here greedily hoping to also see, other than simply a good soccer game, might actually be happening this time. It certainly has already happened in Portland because they’ve all lost their minds. They somehow love soccer! An owner defending his supporters section’s insane behavior! Law enforcement going out of their way to help passionate fans bend the law instead of, well, enforcing it! Fans not only showing up to soccer games but showing up days early! With tifo! The list goes on and on. So we can only hope (or maybe just I can only hope) this same insanity reaches the fanbases, ownership and players of the other MLS clubs. That new cities for potential expansion clubs in Orlando, Miami and elsewhere can embrace it where in the past it has failed. That the average American sports fan stops thinking of soccer derisively as that insufferably boring game for foreigners where everyone just fakes injuries all the time, something unfit for American television sets, the punchline of the joke. At least in Portland, soccer is no one’s joke.

Ask Flounder.

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Winter is Coming or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Snow

“Renewing one’s spirit through reading new books, taking up new hobbies, adopting new viewpoints, making new friends, traveling to new places; that is the art of adventure.”

-Wilferd Peterson

“Minnesota? Why?”

-Everyone else

So, last September, I up and moved from sunny Florida North of the Wall. (To be clear before anyone asks, this post’s title is a Dr. Strangelove ripoff and this ‘Wall’ is a fictional defensive stronghold from the fantasy/HBO/Tolkien-wannabe series Game of Thrones. It separates civilized land-developed Westeros from the snow-blanketed death, horror and ice-zombie-riddled barren wasteland North of it. No sane person ventures north of the Wall. I like to front-load these posts with nerdy references like these because, well, if you’re not on board with them you are going to hate everything that comes next and probably everything else on this blog. I’m really saving you time and energy. Onward!

A couple weeks ago when trying to brainstorm an interesting way to write about my first Winter in Minnesota ever, I thought it might be fun to detail all of the wintry things I did and compare them to something a Floridian would understand. I know plenty of people in Florida DO understand what a real Winter is like but I certainly didn’t, so I’m going to try to summarize the last seven plus months for myself, circa three years ago. Maybe then he/I could actually appreciate the Winter X-Games or Olympics or the first twenty minutes of Empire Strikes Back for once. Besides, some Winter activities are very obviously frozen versions of something familiar, like swapping Jet Skis for snowmobiles or building snowmen instead of sand castles. It seemed as good of an idea as any.

On a related note, I’ve been holding off on writing anything about my Winter exploits (let’s all just ignore and move past that I haven’t written on this blog for over a year) because the damn thing isn’t over yet. It snowed yesterday. It’s going to be in the ’30s for Cinco de Mayo.*** Depending on which hyperbolic local news telecast’s statistics you believe, this is the longest/soul-numbingest Minnesota Winter in 30 or 130 years. That wasn’t a joke; there was more snow in April this year where I just moved to than in any year dating nearly to the American Civil War. Everyone jokes it’s my fault, that I caused this, and that Minneapolis is either trying to tell me to go home or is thoroughly hazing me as some sort of Minnesota fraternity induction. Anyways, I was going to wait until Spring arrived but right now, this place is pulling some sort of Day After Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day voodoo and I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. So I’ll just write something now and hope it’s somehow so stupid it manages to drive the cold away (for a solid four months when it’s going to stroll right on back over).
***Editor’s Note: I wrote this paragraph two weeks ago (I get distracted and it takes me forever to write). It has since gotten much warmer and now the weather problems are flash floods and tornado watches complete with sirens going off. So let’s say it worked, I did it!

Some VERY loose rules: I tried to use activities exclusive to non-Snowbirds, the ones that take advantage of extreme weather. Nine degrees Minnesota Winter, 99 degrees Gulf Coast Summer. Also, I tried my best to toss out things you can do in both of those environments like kayaking (SNOWKAYAKINGAMAZING!!). That’s cheating. Lastly, an apology: some of these comparisons will be used in lieu of much more obvious choices and most if not all will be complete nonsense. Some will probably ignore/violate all of the rules I just laid out. That said, ladies and gentlemen, start your engines (and hope it actually started on the first try because it might somehow be -21 degrees outside and your steering wheel is like, whoa, ow!, totally stinging your hands and holy crap why isn’t the heat working faster and oh fun! I’m fishtailing through an intersecti . . . sorry).

***

SNOW TUBING

Front row, thumbs up.

Front row, thumbs up.

Snow tubing consisted of exactly what it sounds like it would consist of: renting a tough rubber inner tube and riding it down a hill. An important distinction between this and sledding: this costs money, the hill usually undulates on the way down to avoid gathering up too much speed and your route is usually divided into lanes to keep you from bowling-pin-obliterating slower tubers, seven-year-olds or yourself on a pine tree. Bummer, right? Tubing was a blast and was a hundred times more fun going down in a linked-up pack of people/tubes, which never held the straight-line formation you start with but more so resembled a flying downhill chemical compound. Going by yourself was soooooo slow and infinitely less hilarious, although if in a group, the couple people at the back of the chain did get covered in a shower of ice shavings leaving you looking a little bit like diamond-form Emma Frost. It’s simple, you ride down the hill, you walk up ride a long, thirty-degree-incline people mover to the top, you wait in a line a bit, rinse, repeat.
Florida Comparison: No-brainer: Water Slides. There are even shorter, flatter, safer lanes and taller, more daredevilish ones, complete with matching long lines.

***

SNOWBALL FIGHTS

Just as fun as they look in movies, you pack snow and you throw it at stuff. What I did not know is that only certain kinds of snow work for snowbalWAIT THERE’S DIFFERENT KINDS OF SNOW? Apparently there are different kinds of snow. It wasn’t in the brochure. The kind you don’t want for snowballs comes down when the weather’s the coldest and the snow is devoid of any melty moisture. It resembles powdered sugar falling from the sky and if you try to pick it up, the mere action of reaching for it will send it flying. The GOOD stuff comes down when it warms up a bit, maybe when the air temps are in the 30s or so, and this stuff comes down like wet beach sand is heavy to shovel and magnificent for the pummeling of faces. It packs into a ball like cookie dough and holds its lethal shape flawlessly. It is extremely unwise to throw a single snowball unless you wish to be immediately revenge attacked tenfold; a better decision is to quietly build up an arsenal of snowballs and then absolutely demolish an unsuspecting person so they are unable to retaliate. This is also secretly extremely exhausting and an awesome workout and reloading freaking sucks because you’re totally exposed. Beware the occasional hybrid snow/dirt/mud snowball, a weapon favored by ex-convicts, Yankees fans and general classless reprobates.
Florida Comparison: Since wartime rules for both activities are either nonexistent or immediately ignored by the participants, and just like the light v. heavy snow issue, using salt water in your gun will corrode it immediately, Super Soaker battles.

***

SNOWBOARDING

Turning left, good. Turning right, separated shoulder.

Turning left, good. Turning right, separated shoulder.

Easily the most insane and insanely difficult thing I did this Winter, I took a stab three stabs at snowboarding. Keep in mind, I have never gone water-skiing, surfing or even skateboarding, which was made embarrassing public knowledge immediately when the Buck Hill board rental guy asked if I ride”normal” or “goofy” and I stared blankly at him for a full six seconds (Fun Fact! ‘Board rental guy’? Venice High School, Venice, Florida, Class of 1996. Second Fun Fact!! He could not have cared less I went to Lemon Bay. He really couldn’t have).  Turns out it was “normal” and Kyler and I went out to our beginner snowboard class, progressing pathetically by our standards but Shaun White-ishly by judging our classmates attempts. Somehow, this came to me just a little bit intuitively? I wish I was joking but I’m not when I say I think playing snowboarding video games like 1080 and SSX actually kinda helped, as I started leaning into turns or dipping and rising for momentum. Speaking of momentum, it is so so so weird to be moving extremely fast when NONE of your muscles are moving at all. Eventually, our instructors cleared us to go up to the top of the smallest run at Buck Hill and do our damnedest to not die on the way down, which we failed at beautifully. Speaking for myself, I can lean back on my heels and turn left or stop with ease. Transitioning from that lean-back left-turn to then being on your toes to turn right or managing your speed at ALL while on your toes? A complete impossibility. You either get going insanely fast with no hope of slowing other than strategically sitting down or you get stuck on a flat part of the hill with no momentum and have to stupidly wiggle yourself to the closest sloped portion. At one point while going what felt like 100 miles an hour (reality: maybe 15), I fell so hard and the impact was so fast I was absolutely certain that everything connecting my right shoulder to every other part of my body had just snapped clean through like rubber bands you didn’t realize were old and dried up, just pain-free, POOF, everything cleanly disconnected, like that *snaps fingers*. Luckily that wasn’t the case, shoulder was just a little sore, moving on. Kyler, who was much better at this, was also cruising down with ease when he caught the back lip of his board instead of the toe edge and just . . . vanished. Picture following someone down the hill and then in a tenth of a second, all you see is the design on the bottom of their board flash like a dolphin fin and then both it and the rest of them are just absolutely nowhere. Now, picture boarding right past them down the hill unable to help since you can’t stop! Fun! He seemed fine at the time so we went out on that all-day lift ticket and went down the hill for like six hours (later, we’re both fairly certain he had a mild concussion). I got to try the same thing with my sister a few weeks later and gave it a shot at a bigger ski resort in Wisconsin with some coworkers a couple weeks after that. The highlights from that one, other than me finally giving up and just watching the professionals come flying down the hill, included me going 0 for 5 in dismounting off the chairlift (not a joke), with one instance resulting in me wiping out not just myself but both of my passengers as well. The 40 or 50 bros standing around at the summit cheered and laughed at my incompetence.
Florida Comparison: People want to say wakeboarding but wakeboarding is too flat and my sister adamantly denies that comparison (and she’s quite good at wakeboarding). Instead, let’s say Surfing. Both are gravity-operated and only last as long as the hill or wave lets it last. Both require patience to swim out to catch a wave/ride the chairlift to the top of the run. Both make you look insanely cool even if you suck at them.

***

SNOWSHOEING

Gratefully, snowshoeing was one of the things I enjoyed the most this Winter because I didn’t instantly suck at it while everyone else got a good laugh in at the adorably incompetent Floridian. Zero learning curve and instant exploration of parts unknown? Perfect. We actually snowshoed around Giant’s Ridge ski resort while the rest of our cabinmates happily carved up the slopes, something I’d about had my fill of for the year since the only things I had carved up were my checking account and both of my shins when I fell off the chairlift onto Brady’s snowboard. Snowshoes were not at all like I imagined: I stupidly thought snowshoes ingenious design kept you perched perfectly atop the snow without sinking in so much as in inch. That was very wrong, as they sink like crazy, most of the time just as helplessly into the powdery abyss as regular shoes, but the important thing being at least in these you can lift your foot and keep walking with some effort. We trudged across some very fresh snow, sinking hilariously, up some hills, through some wooded areas, followed some deer tracks at one point. If given the choice, I don’t recommend the poles they offer you. They just become a nuisance and you won’t need them. This takes the cake for peaceful, outdoor excellence. It was essentially prolonged sightseeing with incredible views and was awesome exercise without crossing the line into exhaustion. I’m going to have to buy a pair for next Winter.
Florida Comparison: You’re out there for an eye-opening, fun adventure exploring remote landscapes and you’re using technology and equipment to be in an environment humans really have no place being. This must be Scuba diving.

***

CROSS COUNTRY SKIING

Made sure to at least dress the part.

Made sure to at least dress the part.

This one I have regrets about and they’re mainly orchestrated around only having gotten to do it once. Similarly, this exact thing is what I’m clinging to whenever the prospect of this year’s Winter not being that many months off comes up; I look forward to doing this often and, don’t hold your breath, enough that I’m not abysmal at it. You’re outdoors. Stress is low. Nature high. It can be horribly taxing and then SUDDENLY EXHILARATING! I mostly sucked at it but could tell this is one of those things that’s worth sucking at for a while (things that are not worth sucking at for even a small while? First-person shooter video game, tolerating the two hottest wing flavors at Buffalo Wild Wings and the Insanity workout). As I’ve become someone who enjoys running quite a bit over the last couple years, this was both a dream and a nightmare and here’s why. It was a dream because it preserves all the extraneous benefits of running: minimal stress exercise that’s really just a disguised excuse to go watch animals do stuff and see plants that are awesome and sometimes find weird places you didn’t know existed. It was a complete and utter nightmare because I strapped my skis on and I wanted to run on them. And I kept stubbornly subconsciously trying to do exactly that, making life miserable for myself and hilarious for Steph and Marie, my comrades/instructors. This might be intuitive to people who skateboarded or ice skated with any regularity as kids but I never did. I just do not trust any kinetic movement unless my brain and my feet coordinated and approved it, one at a time, nice and slow and completely predictable. Snowboarding was terrifying, I barely rode a bike as a kid and people who get a running start on sidewalks and go sliding across ice make me think they’re insane. So that smooth, natural and necessary peaceful gliding motion is nowhere in my psyche; I was running on five foot long blades and falling on every available square foot of snow and that was just in the practice area. For like a half an hour. Eventually we mounted up and just hit the trails (it’s possible my guides lost patience watching me flounder around like a caught bass in the practice area and said screw it, it can’t get any worse. I wouldn’t blame them) and luckily, once your skis are set in the grooves that run the trails, it came to me much easier. I was still trying to run which was stupid and dysfunctional but now the walls of the trails kept your motion completely linear, forward and back only, like an elliptical. And then you zone out. Enjoy the sights of everyone out defying the cold or an awesome sunset like we lucked in to or you can try to push yourself to race around the course. Talk to fellow skiers if you want. The uphill portions you have to stagger your skis and kind of walk on the insides of your feet, using the blades to dig into the wall, which took me a while (it probably didn’t help I was clutching to trees as way points and slipping backwards in between), but the downhill portions were incredible. Some were fairly steep downhills where I pinched the front of my skis together in terror to slow down (aka “pizza-ing”) and some were long, easy slopes that let you coast down with your poles tucked and enjoy the ride. It had every mix of the good and the bad things I love of being outside, so here’s hoping I’m less terrible at it this Winter. Also, eNORmous thank you to Steph and Marie for putting up with my learning curve that day.
Florida Comparison: Golfing.  Subtly stressful while also peaceful. You cover long, tree-lined distances with repetitive strokes. One, you watch out for alligators and other players hitting in to you. The other, you watch out for deer and other people literally hitting in to you; when we were passing the Como Chalet, I awkwardly panic stopped as a small sledder went careening just in front of my skis. More proof the two are kindred spirits? The cross-country trails are laid out right on top of and along the snow-flooded and hibernating local courses.

***

SLEDDING

This would be the one on the list that everyone just read and thought, wait, what? Seriously? Yes, seriously. I know nothing of sledding. However, I have since learned many quirks, like, even small hills are super fun. Like that sleds don’t have to look like Rosebud; they can look like Clark Griswold’s metal saucer (duh, I’m an idiot) or plastic surfboards with edging. Like that you can go down the hill sitting, standing or laying face down like Superman. Lastly, like I mentioned before, if you want to and are kind of a jerk, you can totally try your hand at skeet shooting cross-country skiing passersby. I look forward to finding some bigger hills next Winter.
Florida Comparison: Sledding is something everyone does or has done a million times here and the fact that it might be foreign to someone else is completely baffling. It is repetitive and requires little to no effort; I will say this must be Looking for Shark’s Teeth. Another common trait? If you’re doing either one of these things there are very good odds you can see tons of people in your immediate vicinity doing way more exciting stuff.

***

ICE FISHING

Ice-fishing Jedi Master and Padawan.

Ice-fishing Jedi Master and Padawan.

This would assumedly be the activity requiring the least description. This time, Steph’s wonderful friends (thank you Sara and Tyler!) provided every conceivable piece of equipment as well as their hangout time to go spend some peaceful hours on Pebble Lake in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I think my perception of ice fishing, right up to the point we rolled down the SUV’s windows down before driving out onto the lake (P.S, there are like sixteen wtfs in that sentence alone. This thing’s going ON the water!? And we’re rolling the windows down WHY!?!?) was something like this: sitting on something next to a hole in the ice with a line and only avoiding hypothermia by virtue of the just, gallons of alcohol coursing through your blood. And I’m sure some would prefer that but in reality, what actually happened was a scaled down version of this: organized ice houses and little portable tents each choosing a shiny spot and panning for slippery gold. I also can’t describe the seeming violation of nature and everything that makes sense to a coastal Floridian that is driving out on a lake. There are entire acreages of just, new land that doesn’t exist half of the year, like some parallel universe! And right now, as I type this? Gone. Once again a lake, impassable save for human ingenuity. And if you skip ahead a bit to once we’d folded up shop, I grabbed one of our lanterns and tore out across the untrodden expanse of snow with my best labrador impersonation, jumping and kicking and faceplanting and laughing. That is so exhilarating, but I digress. Anyways, when we pulled up to our spot, I shoveled a 6 x 12 plot of flat ice and we hand-drilled our fishing holes as Tyler’s gas auger had broken. Even though it took me ten minutes of cartoonish pushing, pulling and weird-noise-making, drilling that hole by hand was totally worth the completely exhausted arm muscles. You have to earn your first one, right? We unfolded our tent, dropped some stakes, set some lines, had electronic depth finders, warming coils and even a boiling pot of water for hot dogs to accompany the truckload of cookies Sara made (delicious). We didn’t get too many bites but Tyler’s mongoose reactions did pull us one walleye (which he fileted and cooked for us that Sunday. Delicious again). I really suppose it’s just an excuse for most to go be outside with good company in the months that normally relegate to your couch, grumpy and claustrophobic. I was extremely grateful for exactly that.
Florida Comparison: Ok, stick with me on this one: Playing sports video games, especially EA’s Tiger Woods series. Keeping in mind I’m sticking with January Minnesota and July Florida activities, both are something most people would prefer to be doing in very different circumstances (fishing off a boat, playing ACTUAL golf) but the extreme temperatures forced us to get creative in order to get our fix. Both are literally 100% sitting and I’m sure many would vote they’d prefer to do these versions than their more common counterparts. Also, just as video games have lovingly incorporated fishing for decades, those electronic depth finders I mentioned are called ice flashers and they would light up like a SONAR when fish were nearby so we could adjust the length of our lines. If this doesn’t look like a piece of rejected concept art for a video game console, I don’t know what is.

***

DOWNHILL ICECROSS, aka ‘CRASHED ICE’

An aerial view of the Saint Paul Cathedral with the course glowing blue.

An aerial view of the Saint Paul Cathedral with the course glowing blue.

OK, so, this is technically cheating since I didn’t participate but we did go watch the insanity. It is a massive international Olympics-style competition where heats of four lunatics take off down a huge ice cliff and then skate as fast as humanly possible through the ice obstacle course. They slip, they slide, they wipe out most heinously around hairpin turns. They go insanely fast, they beat the crap out of each other jockeying for position and then they all choose creative ways like baseball sliding to go careening across the finish line as fast as possible. It is completely insane. Also, for some reason Lil Jon was there, they played good music the whole night and a continuous light show played out on the cathedral facade which was awesome. It pleases me to no end that this exists, that it came to Saint Paul and that I got to watch it. If you want more, YouTube it. You won’t be disappointed.
Florida Comparison: Ummmmm, yeah. Absolutely none. This was complete lunacy, everyone should watch it in person sometime and when you are watching it, you can’t believe some wonderful psychopath even thought of such a thing . Hey, wait a minute . . . there is a comparison here! It must be THIS!

***

Well, I hope you got at least some enjoyment out of that; I certainly did. Thank you so so so much to all of the magnificent people who helped me do all these things or did them with me. I hope you’ll help me tolerate next Winter too when it arrives in like six weeks. And like I always do when finishing one of these, I will say I’ll write more but yeah . . . I can’t promise that. I get dumb ideas when I get dumb ideas . . . which is daily, so I have no idea what takes me so long. See you soon!

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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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