MUD CHRONICLES: The Struggle to Define “Success”

DAN WTM PHOTO 2013 (2)It’s hard to measure success when that line is constantly shifting.

Shortly after my first obstacle race in 2010 — a Warrior Dash at a ski resort in New York, where I felt like I was going to die after making the mistake of sprinting the beginning and gassing out — a friend said I should do something called a Tough Mudder in Vermont. I laughed and dismissed it. I was approaching 39, and even in my best days, there was no way I could have ever run a 10-mile race, never mind full of obstacles on a mountain.

But when friends said they were signing up for it, I figured if they could do it, I could. The idea of a Tough Mudder scared the hell out of me, and, fueled by fear, I trained my ass off. I came in a little over three hours, but I walked away with a nagging feeling that I could do better. I resolved to return the next year with new goals — to qualify for World’s Toughest Mudder (at the time, you had to qualify for WTM by being in the Top 5 percent of finishers) and to complete the Mount Snow, Vermont course twice in one day. Motivated by my new goals, I got myself into the best shape of my life. I qualified for WTM with a 2:30 time on my first lap, and then proceeded to complete a second lap. With this, at the age of 40, I had seemingly reached my peak. I signed up to run WTM that fall just to experience being there, with no illusions of doing well.When I stood on the WTM starting line in 2012 and looked around, I felt out of place. Everyone looked young, ripped, downright bionic. I was way over my head. Worried about pacing myself for 24 hours, I set a very slow pace. At 2 laps and 20 miles, my lack of attention to equipment revealed itself. The sun had set, and I was ill-prepared to run in the cold. Thinking I’d run again in the morning, I woke to find my wetsuit frozen solid. And when I was left to review the race, I was kicking myself. Physically, I’d approached the course too cautiously, thinking I couldn’t handle it. I could handle it. And with a more aggressive approach and better equipment, I was sure I could do 50 miles.

So it was with that 50-mile goal in mind that I went to the 2013 WTM on November 16 and 17 in New Jersey. And — spoiler alert — I achieved that 50 miles. But, once again, I have come away feeling like I came up short.

CROPPED (2)

This year’s WTM featured some changes. Instead of 10-mile laps, the course featured 5-mile laps with more of a focus on obstacles. It was also warmer – mid-50s during the day, and low-40s overnight. Early on I felt great. I felt I could physically handle all the obstacles (with the exception of the rings, which elude me). Mentally, the one I feared was a new obstacle called Leap of Faith, set up much like Walk the Plank, but instead of jumping into water, competitors leaped to try to land on a mat on a cargo net. Fail, and you fell into the water. The obstacle tortured my fear of heights, but I continued to do it successfully. Still, I hated it every time.
Around the 4th lap (20 miles in), my upper body strength began to fade. My ability to pull myself up and over walls and grip monkey bars began to leave me, which surprised me. I liked the idea of this obstacle-heavy course because upper-body challenges played to my strength. But now the strongest part of my game was fading.

I pitted after the 4th lap to eat and pop some Advil. The 5th lap felt better, and it seemed my strength had started to return. The 6th lap was even better. And I felt like I had so much energy after that lap heading into the evening that I went right into my 7th lap. Halfway through that lap I began feeling hungry and weak. When I got to Everest, no one was atop the obstacle, and I finally couldn’t get myself up. The penalty was my first swim across the pond of the night. As I ended the 7th lap and 35th mile, I felt cold and a bit rundown. With 12 hours still to go, I figured my best strategy was to take a halftime — eat a bunch, get out of my cold wetsuit, climb into my sleeping bag and warm up for awhile. This was a rookie mistake that proved to be my undoing.

Struggling to warm myself, I stayed in my tent too long. When I finally put my shortie wetsuit over my regular 3mm wetsuit I felt warm, and wished I had done that right away. Warm, I set out again, but quickly found I could no longer run. My right leg had stiffened, I could barely bend my bruised right knee, and my right foot was in terrible pain (a week later, it still is). Instead of recharging me, the rest had undermined my body.

I spent the next 7+ hours dragging myself stiff-legged over the course like a zombie. I was able to complete three more laps that way, completing 50 miles. But I felt no satisfaction. All I could do was second-guess my approach and think what might have been. What if I had fueled myself better in the evening? What if instead of a halftime break, I had changed right into warmer clothes and set back out again when I could still run? Deep down, I KNOW I could have done at least two additional laps. Maybe more. Who knows?

Now I’m back home, and I’m getting congratulations from folks. They tell me 50 miles is an insane accomplishment and fantastic. And knowing where I’ve come from – from that guy who felt like he’d die doing a Warrior Dash to this – logically I get that. But in my heart I feel unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Did I reach 50 miles? Yes. Did I run the best race I could and squeeze the most out of my abilities? No. And I guess, in the end, that’s the ultimate goal.

I still have more work to do . . .

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