I went to Las Vegas to bury some ghosts. But I came back haunted by new ones.
World’s Toughest Mudder has a way of haunting its participants in a way few other races can. There are so many variables to this epic 24-hour obstacle race – physical preparation, weather conditions, gear, race strategy, nutrition, mental grit – that it’s hard to get it all clicking on one day.
So we come home haunted – maybe if I had done this, or maybe if I had done that, I could have squeezed out more miles – for at least another year.
In my case, I had been haunted for three years. The last time I ran World’s Toughest Mudder was 2013. It was in New Jersey. I hit 50 miles, but a terrible race strategy cost me several laps, and I came home knowing that I could have done much more.
I thought about World’s Toughest Mudder every day for those three years. About what I would do differently. How I would train. How it would feel when I crossed that finish line again knowing that this time I had made the most of it.
An injured leg in 2014 and a broken wrist in ’15 caused me to miss WTM those years. And, entering my mid-40s, a part of me wondered if I’d ever get a chance at redemption. But my chance came in 2016.
I knew the Las Vegas course would be a challenge. Whereas New Jersey was flat as a pancake, the Las Vegas course had 850 feet of elevation gain each lap. That would make mileage goals more challenging. But with my hill training at a nearby ski slope, I felt ready.
My primary goal heading into this race was a Top 100 finish. The elevation wasn’t going to affect my ability to finish in that group, I thought. If anything, with my hill work, it might hurt other runners and help me. My ultimate goal was to hit 75 miles. Breaking down the numbers, I knew everything would have to go just right for me to hit it. But I felt it was doable.
As I toed the start line, I felt the most prepared I’d ever been. Besides tons of miles on elevation and gnarly terrain, I’d been improving my grip strength and endurance by training at an American Ninja Warrior gym – lots of dead hangs, peg boards, cliffhangers, cannonballs, rings, etc. My nutrition plan was on point. I’d wear a hydration pack with snacks to keep me on the course. And, whereas I hadn’t used a pit crew before, this time I had the right guy to crew me. The stage was set for me to put up miles.
But, no matter how much you plan, World’s Toughest Mudder will always have the element of the unexpected. And, this year, that unexpected element was the warmest weather in WTM history.
The sun beat down on us while we waiting for 40 minutes at the starting line to begin the race. Once the race started, while wiping sweat from my brow, I almost missed the cool temps of the Garden State. Two laps in, I was running about 15 minutes slower than I expected. I chalked it up to the elevation and rocky terrain. I started thinking that while, mathematically, the 75-mile goal might still be doable, realistically it might not happen.
This year’s obstacles were much more ninja-like. And, thanks to my training, I felt ready. I had no problems with Funky Monkey 2.0 or Double Rainbow – two obstacles that were tremendous fun. I was excited for the rings at Kong. This was a chance at redemption as I had been unable to complete rings in New Jersey. Now it was no problem at all. I learned rings are all about technique. And, having mastered that technique, the rings were now easy. One ghost buried.
The afternoon was warm, but as the sun set it began to cool. I changed into my wetsuit around 4 p.m. That may have been too early, but I wanted to be safe, as I don’t do well once I’m cold and wet, and once I get cold it is hard to warm up again. I figured better to slow it down and be a little warm for a short while rather than gamble with early hypothermia.
It was the right call. While the first half of the course seemed warm, the second half always seemed several degrees colder. It may have been the way the wind hit it or the elevation. But often I would be too warm the first half of a lap only to be shivering in the second half.
As nightfall arrived, my plan to do two laps at a time began to fall apart. I was stopping often – to eat more, to mess with gear, to mess with a headlamp I didn’t like, to use the bathroom. Yep, the bathroom. The bathroom was a problem for me. My stomach was grumbling a little early in the race, but mostly I was pausing to pee. I had a mental block about peeing in my wetsuit that started back in New Jersey. That year, at one point, I even stepped off the trail and stood in front of a tree to visualize peeing in the woods. Couldn’t do it. Vegas was turning out to be the same way. I was stopping each lap to try to pee and it was costing me time. That is, until about 4 o’clock in the morning when I had a breakthrough. As the pee ran down my leg, it was like a choir of angels were singing. It was a major breakthrough, and the flood gates were open for the rest of the race. Another ghost buried. (Ah, the stuff we shamelessly talk about with WTM.)
A strategy that had worked well to keep me warm in Jersey had been to use a 3 mm wetsuit and then throw a 2 mm shortie on top of it late at night. That kept me warm and preserved my mobility. Around 9:30 in Vegas, I decided to try the same thing. I quickly realized this was a huge mistake. I severely overheated the first half of that lap, draining me of so much energy and making me feel weak. On top of that, the combination of the shortie and the elevation was a game-changer. In flat New Jersey, I hadn’t noticed how the wetsuit combination restricted my leg and hip mobility. With the elevation in Vegas, it was pure hell. It felt like my legs were tied to tires as I tried to go uphill. That combined with overheating, and that lap killed my race. My lap was more than half an hour longer than previous laps, and I was beaten when I came in to pit. I took off the shortie, sat down, ate a ton and, more than anything, just tried to regain the will to go back out and punish myself some more. New ghosts were gathering.
When I returned to the course, the obstacle I feared more than any else awaited me: The Cliff. If you don’t have a true fear of heights, it is hard to understand what that fear is really like. Logic abandons you. You can’t reason that you won’t die or get hurt. You can’t tell yourself other people are doing it and are fine. Something primal takes over your mind and body, and you can’t think yourself through it.
I have always had a deathly fear of heights. From climbing trees to standing on a ladder, I can’t go up high. My legs begin to actually shake, my heart races, it feels like death. But I knew that to truly say I did this course, I would have to tackle The Cliff.
This year’s Cliff stood 35 feet above the water. Going in, I told myself to look at this as an opportunity for something great. To face down such a fear and overcome it would truly be a moment of courage and something I could be proud of for the rest of my life. When I set up my pit the day before the race, I looked at the Cliff and told myself it didn’t look that bad. But when I stood atop it, my legs shook, my heart raced, and I honestly wanted to cry. I stepped back several times and said out loud that I didn’t think I could do it. Then, I stepped up to the edge, grabbed the outer rails, squatted down for some unknown reason, leaned forward . . . and let go.
It may have only been a second and a half or two seconds, but it felt like an eternity. And as I fell, I instinctively put my hands out to brace myself. That was a huge mistake, as it was like giving the water a high five, and my left hand instantly stung and swelled up dramatically. It hurt for about half the next lap, but the pain and swelling eventually faded. I ended up jumping five times. It didn’t get much better. Each time was terrifying. But my jumps got quicker, my time got better, and – although I didn’t think it was possible – it actually started to be kind of fun. Huge ghost buried. I will look back on conquering this fear as one of the great moments of my life. And that is what makes World’s Toughest Mudder so special. It makes you look within yourself.
As the sun started coming up, I started to feel alive again. Knowing the end was in sight, I pushed hard. But my early morning laps featured penalties – perhaps unnecessary penalties. I began to take penalties at Kong although I had never failed it. I worried about my grip strength maybe failing, the wetness and slipperiness of the bars, and the fact it was so high up (see that thing about fear of heights again). Also, I failed once on Funky Monkey 2.0. With the same worries in mind, I began just taking penalties when I came to it. New ghosts.
It wasn’t until Hunter McIntyre, of all people, showed up that I started trying Funky Monkey again. Preparing to take my penalty, The Sheriff appeared next to the course and began talking shit, saying it was bullshit that I wouldn’t try and how he would crush that all day. I cursed him and cursed peer pressure . . . and then I started up the monkey bars. They felt okay. With words of encouragement from Hunter and his crew, I started on the wheel portion of Funky Monkey and felt strong. As I completed the obstacle and landed on the platform, I heard Hunter say something about me being a “stud” . . . words that my own crew, watching from the other side of Funky Monkey, still haven’t let me live down. But I completed the obstacle, and completed it the following three times I came up to it.
I was still chasing a Top 100 finish and I knew every lap counted. I kicked it in and my 12th lap – 60 miles – was my fastest since my early laps. My final lap – my 13th, marking 65 miles – was also among my fastest. I finished that with eight minutes to spare.
Ultimately I finished in 117 place out of more than 1200 racers. Decent, but not my goal of Top 100. And, looking at the standinds, if I finished just 45 minutes faster, I would have been in the Top 100. I wasted that and much more in my pit doing things I probably didn’t need to do.
And now I have new ghosts to haunt me until next year, when I return to World’s Toughest Mudder with hopes of burying them. And, in all likelihood, getting some new ones to haunt me.