What a day. It was one of the best 21-hour road trips of my life. The climax was crossing the finish of the Toronto Tough Mudder race in record time, having accomplished the ONE thing I set out to do. Plus, all of this was done with my best friend of over 31 years, J-Roc. It was a day to remember.
Let me tell you all the gory details. You’re about to discover…
• The best way to do a Tough Mudder
• 3 of the coolest adventure race obstacles you’ll do anywhere
• How I beat my nemesis
• The failures that I still need to overcome
• My most embarrassing moments of the day – caught on camera
• How you can be fit enough for Tough Mudders at 40
• How to prepare for adventure races of any kind
If you’ve been around Turbulence Training for more than a few weeks, then you’ll know that back in June I tackled my first Tough Mudder race in Beaver Creek, Colorado. That race murdered my hips because of the downhill running (the race went from 8000 feet in elevation to 11,500 feet, and then back down).
As much as I enjoyed the experience, I felt the Beaver Creek race was too long (12 miles) and had too much downhill (a 3-mile almost pure downhill stretch to end the race). Plus, my recovery period was a full three days before I could walk properly last time.
I know, I know, shut up and stop complaining, already.
So here’s the good news. The Toronto race must have been designed by Goldilocks herself because it was ‘just right’. Now don’t get me wrong. It was by no means easy. In fact, they saved the toughest obstacles for last – and a few of them popped up after you thought things couldn’t get any worse.
The Toronto course was just 10 miles long and included a couple of different obstacles compared to Beaver Creek. One of the new obstacles was the highlight of my day.
Cool Canadian Factoid: With the race being marked off in kilometers (16) rather than miles (10), it felt like you were making progress faster, because the kilometer signs were more frequent. I felt like we had barely been on the course for 15 minutes by the time we hit kilometer #4 (25% of the race). It gave me a big mental boost each time we passed a kilometer marking – plus, knowing the race was 2 miles shorter than Beaver Creek also gave me a mental lift from the get-go.
Now here’s one of the best tips that I can give you for doing a Tough Mudder:
Sign-up for an EARLY start period.
Here’s why. First, you get to be one of the first people to run the course before it gets sloppy. Second, if you’re fast, like my buddy and I, you get to be one of the first people to cross the finish line. Third, you don’t have to wait at any obstacles. Fourth, you finish so early that you still will have a full day to enjoy doing other stuff. And fifth and more importantly, you spend less time waiting in parking and shuttle bus line ups.
Sad Factoid: The Toronto race logistics were nightmarish. By the time we left our hotel, got to the parking lot, waited in a line-up, and had a 30-minute shuttle bus ride to the event, the ordeal lasted over 90 minutes. And that was at 6am. If you arrived at 10am, I’ll bet the ordeal would have been 2 and a-half hours. And that’s just to GET to the race.
The organizers need to do something about that next year. I would not go through that again. This was a big contrast to the Beaver Creek race where we drove to parking in 10 minutes from the hotel and then had a 7-minute shuttle bus to the event. Done and done.
Alright, enough whining. Kids whine, Tough Mudders don’t, as they pre-race MC always tells you at the Tough Mudder start line. Let’s get to some mud, obstacles, personal bests, and most importantly, hilarious episodes of Craig Ballantyne looking like a totally uncoordinated goofball.
It was a little cooler than I expected for mid-August, but the Tough Mudder conditions were actually perfect. At 4am I woke up, cleared my head, did thirty minutes of writing on a TT newsletter, and then started my race preparations. And yes, this time I brought shorts with a drawstring so that my pants wouldn’t fall down. My shorts almost slid right off when exiting the Arctic Enema obstacle (like they did in my first Tough Mudder in Beaver Creek, Colorado).
My pre-race meal was actually finished at 9pm on Friday night. J-Roc and I drove up from Toronto to the ski town of Barrie, Ontario. After checking in to our hotel, we had a late dinner on Friday night at Houston’s steakhouse.
My meal: An 18-ounce rib eye steak (delicious), mashed potatoes (mistake, should have went with baked potato), vegetables, and half a bottle of Cabernet. I was still full the next morning, but I drank lots of water as I did my writing and daily Facebook posts:
At 5am I started my old-man warm-up. First up was to roll the soles of my feet over a spiny little blue Acuball. I also rolled my calves over the ball, concentrating on any sore spots. This was followed by some specific stretches – personalized for my troublespots – and then I basically went through my Old-Man warm-up, although I didn’t have a foam roller with me.
I was concerned about a few specific potential injuries. First, I knew my hips would be sore. Last time, my gluteus medius muscles took a heavy pounding. There’s not much I could do other than simple bodyweight leg exercises (a few reps each). I finished with some stretching and hoped the downhill running wouldn’t be too hard on me.
Second, I knew my forearms, rotator cuffs, and neck were potential problem spots and could be injured by the Berlin Walls, rings, and monkey bars. That’s why I had taken almost 5 days off from lifting weights, visited my chiropractor on Thursday, did my old-man warm-up, and reminded myself to use the right technique on all the obstacles – and to not be afraid to bail out of an obstacle if I felt like something wasn’t feeling right.
That’s a big tip. Safety first. Don’t be afraid to drop into the water on the rings or monkey bars if you are experiencing pain beyond regular discomfort. No reason to put yourself into 3-months of rehab just to last another 3 seconds on the rings.
That said, if you prepare for the challenges like I did, you just might beat your nemesis…more about that in a moment.
At 6am I felt like a caged lion. I was ready to start now. But no such luck. J-Roc and I loaded up the car and drove to the shuttle bus area. I ate a banana on the way – so that was my entire pre-race nutrition. A banana. I’ve done lots of long runs (over 8 miles) fasted, and there were snacks on the course in case I needed energy, but frankly, the big dinner from the night before (only 10 hours ago) would power me through the race.
We were treated to the perfect weather for an August race. Temperatures were in the high 60’s (farenheit) – or high teens (celcius). The sun was shining, the weather was sweet, makes you want to move, your running feet.
Our scheduled race time was 8:15am, but as we dropped our bags off at the well-run bag check area, the MC was giving a last call for the 8am start time.
“You want to join them?” I asked J-Roc.
“Let’s do this,” he replied.
All systems go. We scaled the Berlin wall separating the spectators from participants and joined in the final minutes of the pre-race pump-up. It was delivered by one of the most enthusiastic men on the planet, the same pre-race MC as in Beaver Creek. The pre-race pump-up is almost worth the pain of the race alone. Tough Mudder, you’ve got the right guy for the job there.
After the Canadian national anthem, we high-fived the MC and started a slow jog with the rest of the group (about 150 people start at a time, with groups staggered every 15 minutes). At the first hill we picked up the pace and passed a few folks so that at the end of the first mile, and just before obstacle #1, we in the top 10% of the pack.
At the Kiss of Mud you get down and dirty. Crawl through the mud and under the wires. You better have been doing your Spiderman Climbs in the TT Adventure Race workout, because your abs and mobility will be doing the work here. Good times. We popped up and for the rest of the race it was just J-Roc, myself, and 7 people in front of us.
Even though the Tough Mudder is not a race, in my mind, it’s still a race. I’m too competitive to look at it any other way. And it’s definitely a race against yourself. That said, while we ran it fast, we also ran it the Tough Mudder way – helping out people when it was our turn to help, as you’ll see in a bit.
While we were on to a good pace, we knew the Arctic Enema lay just around the corner. This was the infamous obstacle where I nearly lost my pants in Beaver Creek. I did, in fact, give the world a nice dose of plumber’s butt in Beaver Creek because my shorts didn’t stay up. But this time, my black basketball shorts were tightly secured.
I warned J-Roc, “Jump close to the wood, go under and come up strong because there’s going to be a LOT of ice on the other side”.
Boy was I wrong.
If there’s any downside to being in the first start-time, it’s that not all of the obstacles are ready. They were still loading ice into the dumpster (you jump into a dumpster of water and ice for this obstacle) and while the water was cool, there wasn’t a piece of ice to be found. It was a little anti-climatic, but that’s okay.
Time for an uphill jog followed by some Berlin Walls (9-foot wooden walls that you had to scale, swing yourself over, and then lower yourself down). The key is to pull yourself up just enough so that you can swing your body over. You don’t need to do it all by upper body muscle, but it sure will help if you can do a bunch of pull-ups. If you’re too heavy or not strong enough to do pull-ups, then you’ll need a boost from someone to do this, or frankly, you might have to skip it.
Over 50% of the people doing a Tough Mudder are NOT prepared for it. The hill climbs are murder, the events require decent upper body strength, and anyone over 18% body fat is going to have too much dead weight for a lot of obstacles. If you aren’t prepared, it’s going to take you a long time and you’re going to be hurting a LOT the next day.
Super Cool Obstacle #1
Next up was a unique obstacle that they didn’t have in Beaver Creek. This may have been a mystery obstacle, or else it was poorly named – Underwater Tunnels. Behind the ski hills lay a reservoir lake. The water was 2-3 feet deep and the distance across was about 200 meters. We had to walk through it (didn’t see anyone actually walking on the water), and then halfway across we had to swim under some barrels. It was refreshing, a good challenge, and tough on the quads. The resisted water walking made the following jog a little awkward. Took a few minutes to get my legs back.
Up next, more hill climbing. The hills are the biggest test of your fitness, because otherwise you just generally jog between events. But walking up a ski hill is tough no matter what your size, body fat, or VO2 max. These are GOOD times, and are a chance for you to see what you are really made of.
NEVER, ever, ever, EVER give up. Stay strong. Fight through the pain. Strong and steady. Eat up that hill with every step. Take diagonal steps. Walk up a little sideways so that your calves don’t tighten up. Recruit every muscle of your lower body.
How do you train for the hills?
Find some and hike and climb them on a regular basis. Get strong in squats and lunges. Use the treadmill if you must. Increase the incline to 12% and walk as fast as you can. Plus, follow the program I have designed in the TT Adventure Racing program.
If I may brag for a moment, I dominate the hills. I put my head down, I lean into it, I have the right mindset, and physically, I’m well prepared for the climbs because I’m small, light, and have a good strength-to-mass ratio. Plus, I can internalize the pain and summon up some anger (mostly at my Internet service provider – LOL) to power me through these tough portions.
So just remember…you can do it! Strong and steady. Embrace the pain. It will all be over soon. Never, ever, ever give up.
Next, Hanging Tough. The rings. One of my nemesis events. And they remain a nemesis. I didn’t make it far at all. On the bright side, falling in the water cleansed me of the mud. If I ever do another Tough Mudder, my goal is to simply finish this obstacle.
On to the Mud Mile. Now one thing I loved about the Beaver Creek event were the snow-based obstacles. Alas, there was no hope in heck of having snow obstacles in August for the Toronto race, so we got mud instead. The Mud Mile consisted of mud trenches and walls that you had to jump into and climb over, respectively.
We followed that with a short jog to the Spider’s Web. This is one of those Tough Mudder events where teamwork is required. You need to help out perfect strangers, but that’s really what this is all about. The Spider’s Web is a rope netting that you need to climb, however it swings like crazy when you reach the top, so someone needs to anchor the bottom and minimize the swinging by holding it tight at the bottom. Teamwork pays off and makes this a fun climb. High-five some strangers, do your part, and then make sure they stick around to pay it forward to the next group.
Time for the creepiest obstacle of the day – Trench Warfare – that consisted of crawling through dark muddy tunnels. You sure as heck better not be claustrophobic, because you were in some tight space, let me tell you. But just go like heck, keep moving, and eventually you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. My buddy hated this, but he faced his fears and conquered it. Proud of him, and I’ll be proud of you too when you do it.
Next up, time to face more fear in Walk the Plank. There was an obstacle with the same name in Beaver Creek, but not the same challenge. There it was running over a 15-foot water pit by balancing on a wooden plank. It was tough and I was happy to have made it.
However, the Toronto version was different. And it was a HUGE surprise. First, you climbed a wooden obstacle. And at this point, let me say, “Hat’s off to the construction guys that build these Tough Mudder obstacles.” I don’t know who you are, but you probably don’t get the recognition you deserve. So a big THANK YOU.
Okay, back to the obstacle. Once you climbed to the top, you had to jump off a 15-foot ledge (although J-Roc and I will be telling everyone it was 25-feet high) into water. Imagine the Olympic high dive, but with terrified average joes and janes.
After getting over my initial surprise of what lay before me, I listened to the spectators on the ground. “Take a deep breath and just jump!” they yelled. I didn’t even think. Down I went. In fact, J-Roc says I jumped really high in the air first, adding height to my plunge.
I don’t know how deep the water was, but I didn’t touch the bottom. Exhilarating. This was another “feel the fear but do it anyways” moment for J-Roc. Proud of him. You could see the excitement in his eyes as we talked about it on the jog over to the next obstacle. That’s what makes the Tough Mudder such a great event.
Right after this a guy running at a 6-minute mile pace passed us. He came out of nowhere. Then I realized he must have started in the group AFTER us (15 minutes later) and here he was at just over the halfway point actually passing us. I’ll bet he finished in close to 90 minutes…impressive stuff.
The point is that if you are an elite endurance athlete, you can CRUSH the course like a regular training run. That’s also a good comparison for the average Joe to realize just how far away they are from the elite performers…not in the same league at all.
Following that we had some necessary but not too thrilling events like the Boa Constrictor and Log Jamming. But something else interesting happened, and it teaches us a big lesson. As J-Roc and I were running downhill, he tripped over a bump on the ski-hill and went headfirst to the ground. Fortunately, he rolled out of it so smoothly that he bounced right back up and barely missed a stride.
But the lesson: NEVER lose focus. Concentrate on every single step you take.
All it takes is one split-second where you make the wrong move and you could seriously hurt yourself in the Tough Mudder event. From the Spider’s Web to the monkey bars, from the Shock Therapy to the even the hill climbs, there is a potential for injury on every inch of this course. Take it SERIOUSLY.
By this point, we were 75% done the race. It was smooth sailing up this point, and things were about to get even easier before they got a LOT harder. Our next obstacle was called Greased Lightening and it was at the bottom of a downhill portion of the race. They didn’t have this obstacle – if you can even call it that – in Beaver Creek.
Essentially, it was a water slide ride. A black tarp, continually sprayed in water, was placed over the bottom 20 meters of the hill, and you could slide down it anyway you wanted to…ending up in a small pit of water at the end. Fun, but not challenging.
Now it was time to fight my ultimate nemesis – The Funky Monkey obstacle. This was the monkey bar challenge that beat me in Beaver Creek. I made it 2/3 of the way, but it was a struggle, and I ended up with sore forearms and a sore neck for over a week. I was not going to be broken this time.
The day before the event I received an email that turned out to be incredibly helpful. It was from my friend Jeff Schneider, our Director of Operations at www.EarlytoRise.com. Jeff was my partner-in-mud at the Beaver Creek race and he knew how focused I was on beating the monkey bars. “You won’t let the monkey bars beat you this time. They are no match for you,” he counseled. “Make sure to keep your arms bent at all times and keep moving forward. Your persistence will win out.”
And he was right. I followed his advice, moving along in a near eternal flexed-arm hang, from one rung to another over the open pit of water. The monkey bar course moved not only horizontally, but vertically. The rungs went up and then down, and the downward portion was fun because you started to speed up as you got closer to the end. It was at that point that I knew I had it made. I finished with a huge smile on my face.
This was my biggest personal victory of the day.
And you’ll have your own. My friend J-Roc probably had his when he stepped off the 15-foot (I mean, 25-foot) ledge at Walk the Plank. Let me know when you had yours.
Stoked with a natural high, we ran onwards. This time to the Electric Eel where I was zapped with a shock four times as I belly-slid through the lime-green colored water. J-Roc had never been shocked before, so he was a bit stunned as we got out and continued, turning a corner where our jaws dropped as we discovered an unlisted obstacle…
It was a straight climb up to the top of the ski-hill. What followed was at least 10 minutes of pure quadriceps agony, calf torture, and glute punishment. At the top I shared some famous last words, “Well, at least nothing can get any harder from here on in.”
We jogged over to the 2nd round of Berlin Walls. These were a little higher but demanded the same strategy. Surely we were done all the hard obstacles by now. But alas, the answer to that wishful thinking was, “no, no you’re not”.
Up next was the Hold Your Wood challenge. You need to pick up a log and carry it up a hill and then back down. Our legs were still recovering from that massive hill climb, but we decided to attack this event. The sooner we got it done, the better. The climb was short, but steep, and my legs were screaming as lactic acid built up. So I summoned my anger at my latest cell phone bill – LOL – and fought through it.
And now I could see that the end of the race was near. Our next obstacle was Everest, and that seems to always be placed as the penultimate obstacle on the course. However, unlike my success with Everest in Beaver Creek, I was about to get humiliated by another Tough Mudder obstacle.
“Did they make it bigger?” I asked myself as I got closer. A tall, lanky participant in front of us scaled Everest with ease. I told J-Roc how to approach it. “Build up some speed and leap up as the ramp curves. Throw your arms to the top and grab on. It’s no problem.” Unfortunately I was far too optimistic.
I took off and noticed that this Everest obstacle was really slippery. I was soon on my butt and sliding back down. J-Roc gave it an equally unsuccessful attempt. I tried again, this time jumping in desperation…but still I was inches away. Finally on my fourth attempt, one of the Tough Mudder staff reached his arm down and made it easier for me to grab and pull myself up. Then I did the same for J-Roc. After a combined 9 attempts, we were finally done with this humbling challenge.
But our humiliation was just starting. It was on to Tough Mudder’s signature event, ElectroShock Therapy. At the Beaver Creek event
However the Toronto course was different. Instead of it being a flat run through the mud, this version had sunken water pits and elevated mud hills. It didn’t look as though I’d be able to sprint right across it. But still I tried, and quickly got my butt kicked.
What followed was probably 15 seconds of clumsiness as I lurched from pit to mound, fell down, and basically crawled through the remainder of the obstacle while getting shocked at least six times. Fortunately, none were so strong to knock me out, but my upper back got blitzed. It felt like I had done eight sets of heavy barbell rows by the time I emerged. And just as I was getting out of the obstacle, I got one more shock for good measure. I smiled and waved to the crowd as they laughed, and waited for J-Roc to make his way through. He did slightly better than I did, but looked a little stunned.
We high-fived and finished the final few steps of the race. Victory was ours. And so were a pair of brand new Tough Mudder orange headbands, which we proudly wore for the full trip home.
We’ve been through a lot…31 years of highs and lows. From winning sports championships to getting through the loss of one of our best friends in high school. This was another amazing chapter added to our story. Great times.
After the race we grabbed the first bus back to the parking lot. We were the only ones on it, as most people were still arriving (over 17,000 people would participate in the 2-day event). As we got closer to the parking lot, traffic started to snarl, and that 30-minute ride turned into nearly an hour. But we were in a great mood and no rush, plus the Tough Mudder staff stocked us up with post-race snacks.
But we felt bad for the folks that were just showing up. They probably spent an hour in their cars just getting parked. That’s another reason to do things first thing in the morning – one of my mottos in life.
When we finally got back to the car, we changed into dry clothes, hopped on the highway (going in the opposite direction of all the traffic jams!), and I was home in Toronto by 1:30pm. It was time for a blender drink followed by a well-earned nap.
As I write this, it’s Sunday morning and I’m a little stiff, but not even half as stiff as I was after the Beaver Creek event. My right hand and wrist are a little stiff and bruised from who-knows-what, my neck is a little tight (from the monkey bars and from looking up during the crawling exercises), and my hip flexors are sore on both legs.
But my calves, glutes, forearms, and rotator cuffs all seem to be doing fine. Thank you Goldilocks, for a well-designed course.
The race course was a 9/10.
The parking/logistics was a 3/10.
The atmosphere wasn’t as “party like” as the Beaver Creek event, but still good.
My personal experience was fantastic. Jumping off that 15-foot ledge into the water, crushing the monkey bars, and finishing the course in the top 10 with my best friend by my side was worth all the effort.
Cap that off with a feeling of “getting out like bandits” and it falls into my life philosophy of “beating the game”. I love that feeling. Thank You, Tough Mudder. I may be back.
Craig Ballantyne, CTT
Certified Turbulence Trainer
PS – How did two 37-year olds finish a Tough Mudder in 2 hours?
Gives you a full workout program to properly prepare you for the Tough Mudder.
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