When the going gets tough, the tough get muddy and Katie Scott gets muddier…
Over the years now I have attended numerous races and events that I have used to test my mettle. I still remember by first little 5km Race for Life event that I walked as I began my fitness journey; now you’ll see knocking our PB’s on a 10km or 15km course, with three half marathons under my belt and my fingers crossed for my first marathon ballot spot. I have now established that running is not only something I can do, but something I can do well as I work on my leg strength and stamina to see me tackle the longer distances in relative comfort, just building on the speed. With regards to team events, I’ve done one duathlon relay where I took on the opening 10km run, so again, same game, different purpose.
Scratching my chin in search of a new challenge that I hadn’t done before, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Tough Mudder. The big brand obstacle course race was probably one of the first to introduce its borderline dangerous, adrenaline rush of a mud slide to the fitness event market, but since then the war cry for them hasn’t diminished in any way, shape or form; instead this unique style of physical and friendship challenge has only grown in popularity. So much so that Tough Mudder decided to introduce a shorter, snappier version of their original 10-12 mile route to act as a bit of an introduction into this speciality. The Tough Mudder Half would instead be a 5 mile course that would bypass the electrical and fire-based props that have given Tough Mudder part of its fame and instead have 14 physicality based tests instead.
I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea – I have zero upper body strength, dislike mud and am on the short side – but I couldn’t get the niggle out of my head about taking on this Tough Mudder Half. There was even one a mere hour away on the M25 based at Holmbush Farm in West Sussex so it’s not like I would even have to go far. Before I could change my mind, I signed up. Either way, whether I was a lover or a hater, I was going to find out whether obstacle course racing, or OCR as the pros shorten it, was for me.
Building my team
The unique thing about Tough Mudder compared to the other races that I have completed, is that time is completely irrelevant. It’s not about who can do it the fastest, it’s just about who can actually do it. Also, it’s not you racing against the clock, racing against your past PB’s, racing against your sister (sorry Jess!), but it’s about teamwork, both within your own team as well as alongside random strangers. So, in short, there was no way I was doing this shindig alone. I promptly tag teamed in my twin sister Jess and I also manged to rope in friend Nicola along with her ex-personal trainer and policeman husband David, who I still thank my lucky stars for now that I have actually completed the course! All of my comrades for this adventure all have decent levels of fitness and do plenty of physical activity, so I knew they would be game for the ride.
That sense of community and unity is amplified at every opportunity with Tough Mudder; before setting off you are encouraged to meet and greet strangers, and you all kneel with a hand solemnly placed over your heart to recite the Tough Mudder pledge. The only part of the pledge that I actually remember is “Do not whine. Kids whine”. Note duly taken.
It was with some trepidation that I crossed the starting line. We decided to take a gentle job in between obstacles and if I’m honest, this was the one and only bit I was actually any good at. The running is distinctly cross country, with grassy and lumpy terrain and oh, lots and lots of churned up and gooey mud, so watching your feet is a good idea if you don’t want to land face first on a tree stump.
Of the 14 obstacles we were due to face, the first few were warm-ups. We clambered over large round hay bales and then also did a stint where we had to give each other piggy backs, with Jess and I partnering up and swapping half way and David steaming though with Nicola. It was after these that things started getting tricky.
There was a lot of climbing over stuff, if you can call what I did climbing. One obstacle featured a diagonal raft of wood and teams had to reach up to the top before clambering over and going down the slanted raft the other side, so you were basically trying to climb thin air. David gave each of us girls a boost from a kneeling position, launching us over the top before simply jumping to reach the top himself. Another one we had to climb over was instead a vertical raft of wood. For this one, David boosted one foot and one of us girls boosted the other foot to act as a floor for the climber, who had to then grab on to the top and roll themselves over. Again, getting us girls over was a two person job, although David managed to sort himself out fine. A further climbing challenge featured a rolling cylinder, standing high off the ground on poles in a horizontal position. I couldn’t even reach the pole, yet alone attempt to pull myself over it! Luckily David was at hand to boost us girls over once more before making it look piss easy when he did it!
As well as climbing challenges, there were crawling challenges, the first one starting mildly by having us scarper through wet and slimy mud under barbed wire, mud banks changing how close we got the barbed wire, with the last section having the barbed wire lowered even more too. We also crawled through a lot of black plastic tube-style tunnels, which you are instructed to go through head first. The first lot we did sloped downhill and we just landed in more mud. The second set of tubes was horizontal and came out straight into a pool of water. Jess saved me belly flopping into the water dead fish style, by teaching me an easier way. You spin round on your back, grab the top of the exit hole with your hands and push yourself so your bum is hanging out. Jess then grabbed me under the arms and caught me as she pulled me out. Another crawling challenge saw us scamper over hay bales that were tidily tucked under a cargo net, so we all took turns holding the net up for people as they came over and round the bales, a continuous flow of helpful people.
Then there’s what I would call the wet challenges. One that I didn’t particularly get along with was the mud mile, which was basically a stretch of mud banks with a moat of mud and water in between. The moats were too wide to cross by jumping, the sides of the banks slick as the mud got wetter and more deformed; the sides of the bank were also annoying vertical. There was nothing for it but to slide down into the moats themselves and then try and clamber up the other side. We took the tactic of staying the corner so we could utilise two sides to help us up and down. This one was very much about teamwork, as the hand and foot holds were few and far between if there even were any, so you’d try and find a decent patch of mud to plonk your foot for a boost and then throw your hands at the nearest person to yank you up. Numerous strangers helped me up and one even pushing my rear – if you are precious about personal space, this isn’t the challenge for you.
The mud mile also caused more personal problems for me as I reached the last moat. Sliding down, there were sharp stones hidden underneath the mud and I felt the rip as I slid down. On further inspection, I had gained a lovely rip in my leggings, right on my butt cheek. After consulting my team mates, we decided that yes, my bum was actually out, no it was not covered by my pants or leggings and how the hell was I going to finish the course with my butt on show? Luckily David had the answer, wearing a pair of shorts over leggings, so he kindly whipped off his additional shorts layer so I could wear them instead to maintain my dignity. Not my hottest look but appearance is again not really a concern here.
Another wet obstacle was actually a natural one, with a muddy stream against a vertical mud wall. The course indicated we had to go up this. After watching one guy face palm the swamp like substance at the bottom to a rousing round of applause, we all took much greater care jumping in and hauling each other out. The next wet obstacle was actually great for getting the bulk of the mud off, as this one featured a big pool of water, with three triangular prisms going horizontally across the pool at regular intervals. For this, one batch of us had to reach and grab the topmost part of the prism; the others at the foot of the prism would push it so it rotated, sending your pals round the top. The pushers would then hold on so they could in turn be pushed over. It was all about balance and weight distribution this one.
There were also running challenges. One again featured a pyramid style shape, so a diagonal slant, with a beam of wood running horizontally along the centre. The aim of the game was to get to the top. There were a few ways to get there; Jess for example used David as a climbing frame as he lent casually against the side of the pyramid. With David easily lobbing us girls over so many of the obstacles, I wanted to do just one without manly assistance, so I decided to run up the pyramid. Yeah, not sure why I thought that was good either. It took me a few attempts but I ran up the slope, launching myself at Jess and a random woman, who caught a hand each to help bring me up the full way.
The very last obstacle was a running based one and I think mentally, this is up there with some of the most difficult stuff I’ve had to comprehend. Called Everest, it was basically a curved slope like slide, starting with a gentle curve to promptly become clean vertical. You had to run up it. Yep, up it. Hordes of people who had already made it clustered the top, reaching and catching people as they neared the top in an attempt to help haul them up. Nicola’s mum, who was our chief supporter for the day, told us nervously that she’d just seen someone have their front two teeth knocked out on this one. I gulped.
Jess did brilliantly, launching herself up and then luckily, a whole roster of muscle men at the top easily caught any flailing limb they found and yanked her up. Nicola was next to succeed after a few more attempts with a few guys pulling her arms and one reaching down for her leg. David got up third, not needing as much help to pull himself up. I don’t know why, but I struggled with this one. I clunked my chin on the way down after one failed attempt, giving myself a lovely bloody gaze. A further failed attempt saw me bruise one knee and hip badly after landing on my side. I don’t know whether I was nervous about injury but try after try after try, I was not getting up there. I gave myself one last go, looking at Jess and Nicola pumping the air and Jess giving me her stern doctor look, David reaching down and gesturing me forwards. You had to sprint on this one or you had no chance whatsoever, so I gave it all I got to get as high as I could, which happened to be the highest I’d got so far. David caught both my arms and I tucked my feet flush against the side, shuffling up in little steps with David’s support. That’s when my foot slipped. As I screamed at them to not let me go, another guy joined in my plight, instructing me to fling him a leg so he could pull me up that way. With my team tugging my upper body and random stranger grabbing my legs, I rolled over the top a complete puddle of gratitude and shot nerves.
We took up our familiar jog to cross the line in style; gaining a sweatband, bottle of cider, t-shirt and seedy snack 9bar for our efforts.
After using the sparse and open rinse area to get the worst of the mud off so I could change into clean clothes, we took some celebratory pics before going our separate ways with our teammates. Having gulped my cider eagerly, Jess and I decided to nab some food in the event village before heading home. There were numerous food stands where you could get hot drinks, chips, chicken, burgers, etc, however we opted for the hog roast option, getting deliciously tender and flavourful pork in a tub with sage and onion stuffing and shards of crackling, paired with a box of sweet potato fries too. We also had a hot chocolate too as the weather was way colder and wetter than I had expected.
Mulling over the experience in the onslaught of traffic on the way home (it took us twice as long, yes that’s two hours people; I know, M25…), I tried to assess how I felt about my Tough Mudder experience. I didn’t feel as muscularly tired as I was expecting, however I felt really beaten up and battered. Bruises, cuts and grazes were blossoming by the second and my bones seemed to ache. To be fair, I had walloped myself into a lot of inanimate objects with quite a bit of force. I did enjoy the experience and I am glad I got to try a Tough Mudder – I now finally know what all the hype is about. Would I do it again? Not anytime soon is my honest answer. I don’t think I’d ever be able to tackle the full course, but I might be persuaded to do another half event as part of a large team in the right circumstances. I honestly don’t think I brought much to the table and if anything, I realised how little upper body strength I actually had, despite trying to work on this in the gym before the event. I might have strong legs, but when you lower body in encased in water and mud, it’s your upper body that is doing the majority of the work, and I would say that this is consistent theme for the whole way round.
It’s been a week now and the scabs are just about falling off and the bruises are beginning to down die from their vivid shades of yellow and purple. I am very incredibly proud to say I finished the event; however I would never have crossed that line without my team to support me. All of them were absolutely brilliant, motivating and strong and we worked together to tackle the challenges ahead. Granted, David did have babysitting duty on a lot of the obstacles due to his height and excellent upper body strength, but I like to think my cheering helped in some small way! They were amazing comrades and I’d pick them all again in a heartbeat – love you team! J
I was looking for a challenge and Tough Mudder certainly was that. It pushed me in ways I hadn’t expected in the slightest, as that near mental defeat at the end of the course proved. It’s as much about mental strength as physical, not only on working out how to actually get through the obstacles, but also in telling yourself that you can do it. To do as well as I would have liked, I’d need to put in masses more in terms of training, but on the whole it was a very well organised, unique event, that tested me and made me grateful that my pals have stronger pecs that I do.
Things you might not know about Tough Mudder:
- It is compulsory to use a Sharpie pen to write your race number on your forehead. For those of you also allergic to ink, you’ll need to dodge the pen police at the entrance to the start line.
- You won’t need a water bottle as there are regular water stations throughout. You even get a snack on that last one thanks to sponsors 9bar so fuelling works out peachy.
- Participants leave the start line in waves which go every 15 minutes from 8am. We went for the 9am start wave; we thought the course would be less churned up if we took an earlier start time. We hoped this would make the course easier. We were wrong.
- Every shape and size can take part. We saw men and women of all shapes and sizes, some in massive groups, some in pairs. It really doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, anyone can take part, so get rid of the image of Army commandos cluttering the course as it wasn’t like that at all.
My top tips to do better than I did:
Get your clothing right: Layer up and wear long sleeves. Trust me, you don’t want your own butt-cheek-gate experience and if you could see the state of my elbows after those tubes, you would be reaching for the nearest long-sleeved garment with lightning speed.
Do plenty of training before you go: Although I did do some training, life got in the way and it was lacklustre as the event neared. Big mistake. It’s very hard going on the upper body so start pumping your chest, back, shoulders and arms to help with all the pushing and pulling.
Photos courtesy of Michael Ellis.