Monday, June 2, 2014

Tough Mudder New England 2014

Yesterday, for the second year in a row, I took part in Tough Mudder's New England race at Mount Snow ski resort in Vermont. After watching last year, Seth decided to take part and have this 10 mile trek with almost 3,500 feet of elevation be his first OCR (obstacle course race). As a bonus, I signed us up with the awesome NE Spahtens, the obstacle course racing group that I had joined for Ragnar.

When we arrived at Tough Mudder, I could instantly see that things were just as organized as last year -- maybe even more so. Check-in was a breeze, taking less than five minutes. The lines were short and the volunteers were very organized. This year, for the first time, they allowed you could check-in using a QR code on your iPhone -- so much easier than having to print registration forms. We snagged our bibs and bracelet (for your wrist to ID your number in case you lose your bib during the event.) I even paid for parking ahead of time online and just got my phone scanned. Fantastic.

After check-in we heading into base camp, the main area with sponsor tents, the merch tent, and bag check.

Tough Mudder moved the markers for writing your number on your face and arm/leg from check-in into the base camp area this year. Great idea because it removed some of the bottle necking at registration. I marked Seth's face, we put on sunscreen, and checked our bag. We were ready to go!

Seth and I arrived at Mount Snow slightly late for our 9:20 a.m. heat. Though check-in was a breeze, we missed our wave and ended up with the 9:40 a.m. group. Fortunately, Spahtens abounded, easily identifiable in their team shirts. I found a group and went up to introduce myself. (My Ragnar friends had done Tough Mudder on Saturday, so I missed them.) The group of around a dozen Spahtens that were at the race were instantly welcoming and told us to join them. They were decked out in pirate gear along with their team gear and had plans to take a pirate flag all the way through the course.

Together, we headed to the starting chute. There, we had to climb a medium-height wall to get into the chute. Seth, who was worried about the wall, was happy to nail this one. He arrived at the starting line feeling confident.

As always, there was a pep talk prior to the race. Tough Mudder is all about supporting the military. As a result, the focus of the race is on camaraderie and teamwork -- not course time. The event, which is more of a challenge than a race, is not even timed. Last year, the pep talk seemed very very long, but this year things were a bit quicker. After about ten minutes and some group cheering, we were off! Seth and I tracked after the pirate flag.

As always, the most challenging aspect of Tough Mudder New England is the elevation changes. There are around five significant climbs and descents on the course. Going up is a cardio challenge; coming down is rough on the joints, quads, and feet as they all get a pounding. In either direction, your muscles are working.

The obstacles at Tough Mudder in general, to me, seem to be more about grit and facing your fears. They do have some obstacles that require strength and many that require team work, but lots of the obstacles don't have much of a physical factor. You just have to be fearless. To me, the truly brave people who make the most out of Tough Mudder are those who tackle those obstacles despite their fears. As for me, I just encounter an obstacle and think, "Cool -- let's go!" For some reason, I am really quite fearless -- lucky I guess.

I know some people remark that the obstacles at Tough Mudder are not the hardest. I think that's fine. The race is more about fun and teamwork. You can challenge yourself with obstacles that you fear as much as you want. Sure jumping from a high plank into water isn't hard, but it takes grit. Tough Mudder tests your mental muscle here more than the physical one. Plus, the course is tough enough to get in your hard work.

The course this year featured 16 obstacles or 19 if you were a Legionnaire. This year, Tough Mudder started a program called, the Legionnaires, which rewards repeat attendees. For those Legionnaires who were "multi-Mudders" there was an extra loop with three bonus obstacles. There was also a bonus headband (what you get at Tough Mudder instead of a medal). Legionnaires get headbands with colors that correspond to how many events they've done: 2x = green, 3x = blue, 4 - 6x = yellow, 7 - 9x = pink, 10x or more = black. This was my second Tough Mudder so I got to experience the Legionnaries' Loop and got a bonus green headband.

As always, the obstacles were a mix of physical and mental challenges. There were a few new obstacles at the race this year. Here's a write-up of all the obstacles in order they are on the map above. (The course was slightly different than the map, so they must have reworked the obstacles at the last minute.)

  • Kiss of Mud: Your standard crawl through mud under barbed wire. As a bonus, the crawl was uphill this year. This obstacle is found at every OCR I can think of, and its never my favorite. I always get scratched up on the rocks. (Seth got scratched up terribly.) For me, this isn't too challenging. One of the advantages to being small is that I'm easily able to get under the wire and shimmy along.
  • Glory Blades: Walls pitched forward at a 45-degree angle towards you. Climb up the front and slide down the back. I like Glory Blades. They were the first obstacle I tackled at Tough Mudder 2013, and they are a fun one. Like with most of my wall climbs, I hoist myself up using the a-frame that supports the wall, then push myself up with my hands and vault over. The Glory Blades have a bonus, which is that you can slide down the back like a slide. Teamwork can help here too. The Spahtens were boosting up anyone who needed it and helping them over the wall.
  • Funky Monkey: Two set of monkey bars; one on an incline and one on a decline. These are over water. If you slip, you go into the water. Here was an obstacle where I wanted redemption! This was midway through the course in 2013, and my wet hands could not get purchase on the slick bars. Fortunately, this year, I got to Funky Monkey before I was wet. I was determined to get over. This is one of the obstacles that requires grip strength and some technique. You really have to have momentum to swing yourself upwards on the first set. You have to be able to not let momentum overtake you and fling you off the bars on the downwards set. I was very satisfied with I made it all the way across the two set of bars -- success! My teammates were very nice and congratulated me warmly.
  • Balls to the Wall: A rope climb up a tall wall and down the other side. There were foot hold on the wall and knots in the rope, which is a big help if you are not someone who is able to practice rope climbs regularly. Some strength was required, but in general, this was easier than I anticipated. The hardest part was getting up high enough to get my shorts legs over the wall.
  • Muddersection: Honestly, I cannot keep all the mud obstacles straight. I would definitely say that there were too many in this course. I would not be able to even pick the mud obstacles out, and they weren't very memorable. I am sure this was what the rest were: getting into some deep mud and wadding your way through. The course, overall, was very muddy due to a lot of rain over the past week. This made the mud obstacles not seem like obstacles at all.
  • Arctic Enema: Jump into a dumpster filled with ice water -- 34 degrees on average. Completely submerge yourself under a plank before coming out the other side and getting out of that water as fast as possible! I would have to say that this is probably the one obstacle that I am legitimately afraid of. I dread it. I truly fear the cold. Jumping into water floating with ice is a painful experience for me, and it takes me ages to warm up after. When I get into the water, my entire body locks up, and I truly almost panic. After diving under the board, I can feel myself go into survival mode. I hate this obstacle, but I am always glad that I had the grit to get myself through.
  • Walk the Plank: Jump from a platform 15 feet in the air into the water below. This is one of those obstacles that falls under the category of grit versus strength / ability. After all, all you need to be able to do this obstacle is fall and swim. Last year they had this obstacle at one of the ponds at the top of the mountain, which was wonderful -- the water felt so refreshing and almost clean. This year, likely in order to have increased safety, this obstacle as a the bottom of the mountain and you jumped into a large pit of water they created. This obstacle always seems fine to me; however, in the moments when I am falling before I hit the water it suddenly seems like a long fall. You certainly go deep into the water. I've done an obstacle like this at most of the OCRs I've done and always think, "Geez. Why am I still swimming to the surface."
  • Quagmire: Um, another mud obstacle. Seriously, let's quit it with the big pits of mud and get some other types of obstacles here. There was mud all along the mountain as we hiked up and down -- it was often slick and I was slipping around in my shoes. I use old New Balance Minimus road running sneakers for my OCRs, and they are terrible OCR shoes. No tread. Still they are old and beat-up. It almost seems crazy to invest in shoes for OCR that I am going to destroy the first time I use them, and yet at some point I'm sure I'll give in because the going is tough when you're on the mountain in road shoes.
  • Devil's Beard: Navigate your way under a gigantic cargo net. Team work saved the day with this obstacle. Our team of a dozen all created a row and lifted the net. The person in the back then worked his way front while the rest of the team held the net and took the net at the front. We did this sort of pass all the way through the obstacle. No problem.
  • Berlin Walls: 12 foot walls to climb. Two back to back. Some how, I now can't imagine how, I made it over one of these walls by myself lasts year. It's so much better with a team. Honestly, the walls are tough for me, since I'm almost too short to reach where I need to to pull myself up. The men on our team did a great job boosting us all over. Awesome job guys, and thank you!
  • Lumberjacked: Three set of log hurdles around six feet off the ground. I love this one. It's fun to grapple your way over the logs. They are well supported with an easy to climb a-frame. If your tall you can run, jump, grab the top, and vault yourself over. If you're short, the climb up the a-frame and over is a breeze and can be done super quickly. I showed Seth my technique for this obstacle, and he was also successful.
  • Pole Dancer: Parallel bars going up and down. These are usually situated over water, but at the New England event they were just over a pile of sawdust. Lame. If you did these like they do at the Olympics with straight arms the entire way, that would be pretty epic. For mere mortals, there is the option to put your legs on the bars to assist you as you go across. I was looking forward to this obstacle and wish that they had made it more exciting with the added element of doing it over water.
  • Pyramid Scheme: A new obstacle for 2014 and likely the most challenging on the course. Team work is a must here. This obstacle requires you to create a human pyramid along a slippery inclined wall and boost your teammates to the top. Some people are the bottom of the pyramid for standing on and others hang out at the top to grab people as they come up. My job was to hold onto one of my teammate's ankles as he grabbed people and brought them up the wall. We had to work together a lot of this one. The Spahtens were organized and nailed it. I was so pleased to be part of such a great group of athletes.
  • Pitfall: Another mud obstacle. Need I say more.
  • Warrior Carry: Carry a team member for a set distance; switch and have them carry you. This is largely a symbolic "obstacle" and ties into the Tough Mudder's charity, the Wounded Warrior Project. We had an odd number of people in our group, so two of the women and I created a group of three and did a two person carry.
  • Legionnaires' Loop: The special obstacles for repeat Mudders. The Legionnaires' Loop featured two obstacles. The first were Over and Unders. You climbed a wall and then did a short barbed wire crawl. There were three walls of increasing height and two crawls. The walls were all fairly short, the tallest maybe being as high as the wall at the starting chute. Fun enough but not very special. Before the next obstacle there was a fake Electroshock Therapy for ha-ha's I guess. Odd. The second Legionnaires obstacle was a log carry with a tube crawl. You had to carry the log down a very short hill and then climb up the hill in a tube with your log. A lot of people have reported they found doing the tube crawl uphill to be a challenge, and certainly the man in front of me was having a hard time of it. Fortunately, I am so small that I can crawl on hands and knees in the tubes instead of just having to pull myself up by my arms. As a result, I did not find this that difficult.
  • Fire In Your Hole: At the end of the Legionnaires' Loop is a special prize obstacle for repeat Mudders. This obstacle is a nearly vertical water slide. At the bottom is some fire (for effect) before you crash into a pool of water. Can you say fun! This obstacle was a blast. There are marker next to the pool at the bottom to indicate how far you fly at the end of the side. Rumor has it I flew far. I certainly hit the water going at a good clip. You don't really notice the fire except maybe to briefly smell it as you fly by, but it sure does look cool.
  • Electroshock Therapy: Run through a field of live wires as you dodge hay bales and sinkholes. Don't get your feet caught in the water and mud. I had actually skipped this obstacle last year (because being shocked seems kind of crazy) and then regretted not doing 100% of the course. So this year I did it. Unpleasant? Sure. Did the shocks hurt? Yes. But honestly it was not as bad as I thought. Things stung badly, but when it was over, in about 15 seconds, it was over. No residual pain like Artic Enema. And then onto the finish line!

While the course was fun, I would definitely say there were some long stretches between obstacles. Lots of the Tough Mudder was hiking, followed by more hiking, followed by more hiking up and down the mountain. I definitely think there could have been a much higher concentration of obstacles.

I would also have loved to see some slightly more complex obstacles on the Legionnaires' Loop. Overs and Unders are find, but not that exciting. True, Fire In Your Hole kind of made up for it. I wouldn't call it an obstacle per say -- it was more of a very fun reward. What a blast! As a bonus, I'm sure it's making for some excellent pictures.

Probably the best part of the day was getting to run with Seth and meet some amazing new Spahtens. I definitely think that running with the team helped Seth on his first OCR experience.

All in all, a great day. The weather couldn't have been better. The event was fun. I met some great new people. I can't wait until my next few events with the Spahtens and more OCR fun!

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