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Race Reviews • April 20, 2011

Guest Post: Tough Mudder Event Review

Tough Mudder (TM) is a new “challenge” series (not a race, as they constantly remind you) that held its inaugural event just last spring on Bear Creek Mountain, PA.  The courses are 10-12 miles, with 20+ obstacles thrown in to test your physical fitness and mental grit. It’s essentially a step up (but a big step up) from other 5K obstacle courses like Warrior Dash and Muddy Buddy.  TM emphasizes team work, camaraderie, and completion of the challenge over personal course times, fancy swag or prize money. The series is rapidly gaining popularity, with ~100,000 “mudders” scheduled to participate in 10+ events throughout the US in 2011.  Clever marketing that appeals to the inner badass/rebel /braveheart mentality in us draws folks to these events.  Some of this marketing seems to put down other race formats, which I don’t agree with, and I would contest their claim that its “Probably the toughest event on the planet” (I have a feeling one of those 200+ milers across the Sahara is tougher).  But beyond this,  as I found out at the 2nd annual PA event on Bear Creek, TM delivers on its hype, and poses a unique challenge to any athlete.

Now I fit smack dab in the TM target audience – 28 yr old male, borderline fitness addict, part time gym rat/runner/challenge seeker.  I’ve done 1 marathon,  PR’ed at the Baltimore half with a 6:33 pace, and I’ve done a few unique races like Reach the Beach and the Urbanathalon in Chicago.  And yes, there have been times I wished I lived in the Braveheart era and could fight some dude with a claymore.  So the second I saw the TM website with promises of 10-12 miles of mud, fire, ice and electrocution I was hooked.  I recruited some of my friends to join my team (TM is largely a team event), and I was shocked that I could convince 10 buddies to join me.  My team (Team CAWW, go Ravens!) had diverse backgrounds: 8 guys – a couple personal trainers, a couple weekend runners, a few ex-rugby players who I convinced by challenging their masculinity, and one guy who had never run more than a mile in his life – and 2 ladies, both track stars/workout junkies.  This 80/20 split seems pretty representative of race day at TM events.  Our team had about 4 months to train, and we trained hard.  Inspired by the event and using each other for motivation, everybody seemed willing to push beyond their comfort zone and challenge themselves; to me this alone was worth the price of admission.   We were particularly fortunate because one of our team members, Ken Bennett, is a trainer at 368 Athletics in Frederick, MD.  They let us use their stocked facilities to pull weighted sleds, flip tires, and do all sorts of dynamic functional training perfectly suited for this type of event.  Between the resistance training and distance runs, our group felt (mostly) ready.  We must have done something right, as all 10 members completed the course, no small feat when 1 in 4 participants did not.

Our team was scheduled for a 9:40 start time on Sunday.  The weather was about 45 and overcast.  TM PA had 5000 contestants each day (2 day event), and there was a staggered start with waves of 500. Registration was smooth, and overall the event was surprisingly well organized. I got my bib, and they wrote my number in permanent marker on my forehead and arm (b/c most bibs don’t last).  Now while I loved the team training and the team-first mentality of the event, I’m not one who doesn’t care about his course time.  Additionally, the top 5% of finishers at all TM events qualify for an event called the World’s Toughest Mudder (a 24hr suicide wish).  So I decided that I was going to sneak off with the first wave at 9 to try and avoid lines and finish in the top tier (I heard from reviews that lines at the obstacles were an issue).  If you’re a runner concerned with course time, I strongly suggest you do the same.  So just before 9 I walked halfway up the mountain with about 500 other guys who I think shared my mentality.  After one of the TM officials gave us an entertaining mockery of the legal jargin (“if you can’t swim, our lawyers warn you not to jump in the ice cold lake”), they blasted the national anthem, put on “Eye of the Tiger”, got everybody all kinds of pumped up, and fired the gun.

We started trucking down the mountain, and immediately people started biting it left and right in the snow/mud muck.  At the bottom we made a sharp U turn and started heading back up the mountain – like steeply back up.  And within a minute a lot of the running stopped.  This course was freaking HILLY (could’ve seen this coming, it is a black diamond ski mountain).  I kept pushing longer than most, but eventually it was so steep I was basically climbing up on hands and knees; running was not an option, and my legs were significantly challenged in the first mile.  After a fun slip and slide, a crawl through tunnels filled with ice cold muddy water and rocks (while they blew the snow machine at you, a bit sadistic), and scaling of a few 10 ft walls, the trail running began.  This was one of my favorite parts of the course – long, winding stretches of decently precipitous downhill trail running where you had to pay attention to each footfall.  At the bottom of the mountain (~ mile 5) there were several obstacles revolving around a lake.  A very, very cold lake.  One was a 15 ft. jump into the icy water followed by a lung-crushing “swim.”  They also made you eat a habenero, which I did (well I took a bite), but I found this kind of gimmicky and I hope they stick to physical obstacles in the future.   I actually was able to pass the leaders on the lake obstacles and found myself (to my serious surprise) in first place –  borderline hypothermic (which makes it really hard to run) and heading back up the mountain (yay!).  The two leaders, a couple of collegiate runners, caught me pretty quick on the uphill and I could not keep up over this long stretch – they were just too fast.  I spent the rest of the race pretty much alone, the two leaders getting further and further away and the other 497 runners well behind.  The run back up the mountain was extremely challenging and almost demoralizing – relentless kickbacks on a constant incline with unsure footing.  I went down hard one time and got some good battle scars on the rocks, as my footfalls tended to be less precise with my increasing fatigue and diminishing coordination.  It definitely had a “me against the mountain” feel.  After about 3-4 miles of uphill running, I was finally back at the top of Bear Creek.  Here I went through the “mud mile,” a number of large trenches filled with muddy water, rocks, and logs laying across the surface that you had to completely submerge yourself in the muck to get under.  Then there was “funky monkey”, a long set of peaked and greased monkey bars that were later shut down because too many mudders had fallen off and busted their ankles (only ~20% made it all the way across).  After a long muddy crawl under barbed wire, running through fire (well more like lung-filling smoke) and carrying a tree stump a couple hundred yards, I was pretty much shot.  And that’s when the course just got mean.  The last 1.5 miles are basically double backs up and down the mountain, when your mud-filled shoes weigh about 8 pounds and your legs are dead and dragging.  At this point, it was a serious challenge just to keep moving.

You finish the course off with “electroshock therapy” – running through a field of live wires, some carrying a 10,000V charge.  But after what you’d been through over the past 11 miles, this was just a fun final jolt on your way to the finish line.  The real challenge of this event doesn’t lie in the gimmicky obstacles; it comes from long stretches of uphill running over unsure terrain, and obstacles that physically exhaust you and test your mettle.  At the finish they jotted down my name for position, gave me my free beer (which was absolutely delicious at that point), my orange TM headband, shirt, and pat on the back.  There are no prizes for winning a TM event (and certainly not for coming in 3rd).

With my “quick” finish (still took me over 1:45, you don’t come within 30 min of a PR at TM) I was lucky enough to catch the second half of my team’s performance.  Watching them I realized they had a very different experience from my own.  Sure, they got bogged down in lines a few times- but nobody really seemed to care.  It was all about pushing themselves and each other, and helping everybody on the course through each obstacle.  It had the feel of a group of mud-covered soldiers pushing one another through a hellaciously demoralizing bootcamp, and no one was going to let anyone be beaten down or left behind.  I’ve never seen this mentality in any other race – it was inspiring and one of the coolest things of the whole day.

The event was summed up for me right at the end: one of our team members was facing the field of live wires and was hesitant to run through – he had seen a few folks get knocked over by the shock and his heart was racing.  After a few minutes of trying to coax him through, other mudders coming to the end realized what was up.  They were seconds away from their victorious finish and free beer, but they were not going to let this challenge get to a fellow mudder.  They stayed back, and together with the marine manning the obstacle, we fired up our teammate until he got over his fear and busted through the wires, together with about 8 other guys yelling like madmen.  The bulk of our team finished the course in about 3.5 hrs (about average), but I mean who cares about course time when you can have that kind of camaraderie?

Overall I felt more satisfaction from TM PA than from any other race, including my marathon and PR.  I would highly recommend it to any athlete/runner looking to find out how far they can push (and who has a bit of crazy in them, but let’s be honest most of us do).   It uniquely challenged me to do things I’d never done before, and to me that confers the greatest sense of accomplishment.  And my teammates, despite having a markedly different experience from my own, felt an equal level of accomplishment and pride.  All of us to a man (or woman) would do it again.  TM Georgia, with its 70% completion rate, is calling my name for next year.

About the author: Ben Prosser, is a 28 yr. old biomedical researcher at University of Maryland School of Medicine where he studies cardiac physiology otherwise known as heart research or nerd things.  Ben loves everything health and fitness related – he is a huge proponent of functional training, speed workouts, and running races that cause him physical pain and injury (he once broke his leg while running the Baltimore Marathon).  Ben thrives off motivating his friends and family to exercise with him and live healthy lifestyles!  He lives in Mt. Washington with his smart, hot and humble wife, Erin (who may have written this bio) and his old and smelly Boston Terrier, Bubba.  Follow Ben’s training on dailymile


Have something to say? Leave a Comment

  1. Ben P says:

    Haha I like! (I suppose I should)

  2. Laura says:

    Thanks for putting the thoughts of the other 9,999 of us into words! and Congrats on your super finish!

  3. Kimberly says:

    Wow..Now thats a new for me, i gotta say! It surely tops some other “events” ive seen through the years. Try this out: Garmin Forerunner 310xt Review and let me know if it can handle the mud!

  4. Foxmead2 says:


  5. Amy_Christopher says:

    You are a dork. A lovable dork who is totally hard core and sadistic, but at your very essence you are still a dork. FYI.

  6. Robbotoyne says:

    Loved the commentary. Excited for so cal. you made me so excited that I am going up to Idylwild and jump in the lake for a quick swim them run around the lake.

  7. Tori says:

    Congrats on earning that orange headband! I’m commenting because I have had a problem with Tough Mudder and feel that others should know about it. I participated in TM SoCal this year and decided to to NoCal with my Husband that is being held Sept 17th. We signed up in June or so, my husband is in the Air Force and at the time he didn’t have anything going on. However, the military can send you wherever they want when they want and you have NO say over that. Around August 20th we found out that he had orders and was going to be away with the military come Sept 17th. So I figured since TM was so Military Friendly, they have a military discount, donate to Wounded Warrior and what not I’d see if we can switch events. I knew that they had a no transfer policy once you were within 30 days of an event but I gave it a shot and emailed them. They responded stating that they don’t typically allow transfers but since it was a military thing they would allow it. After some back and forth I tried to switch our event on their website and it did not work. So I emailed them back and they responded stating that there was a “miscommunication” and we cannot transfer!!!! A MiSCOMMUNICATION?!?!?! No I was lied to! A company that claims to be in support of the military clearly only does it for the tax write off and to look good. Making a buck is more important than supporting our military. It’s not like we even wanted our money back!!!!! I would have been more than willing to get them a copy of his orders but we weren’t even asked!!!! Many military members do not have the luxury of knowing when they’re going to be sent somewhere. The last time my husband deployed to Iraq he was given a 2 week notice…2 weeks!!!! If Tough Mudder wants to advertise to the military they should be Military Friendly and not just act like they are!!!

  8. Heather says:

    Did you follow a specific training schedule? I’m running my first Tough Mudder in 6 months. I’ve trained for a couple half-marathons and one full (although they were over a year ago). But, I have no idea how to prepare for this event. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!

  9. Ben P. says:

    For a TM event you will certainly benefit from that running base you have built.  For the running part of your training I would put a strong emphasis on hill work; there are wicked hills in most TM events, and you will also perform better on many of the obstacles from the increased leg strength you will reap from hill work.  As far as strength training goes, you want to focus on functional, full-body exercises.  Isolation bicep curls aren't going to help you in TM.  Work in plyometrics (explosive training for power, e.g. squat jumps), compound lifts (e.g. clean n press), and place a an emphasis on building your aerobic and anaerobic capacity.  In other words do circuit style training, use minimal rest intervals, do explosive/fast lifts – anything to push yourself and not let you catch your breath.  You will use all your different muscle groups in a TM event, so make sure to diversify your training.  You can find more tips on the TM training site
    Good luck!  Which event are you doing?

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