by Roger Smith
November 2015, in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. I stood in my running gear among 1,200 excited and terrified athletes. We were clustered in a ball of humanity listening to Sean Corvelle tell us how great we are and how amazing we can be. This was the World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24 hour test of endurance, a 24 hour celebration of the human spirit, the toughest physical challenge most of us had ever faced.
My friends from MudRunFun Orlando were standing on my left and a new friend from New York was on my right. We were about to find out if we had prepared physically, mentally, and strategically for one of the toughest events in the country. We were also about to join a very special community.
When Sean shouted, “Go! Go! Go!” all 1,200 of us began the shuffle toward the starting line and up the first hill. Those in front were already racing ahead. Those at the back had to wait for the mass to spread out as we shuffled, kicked up dust, and chatted about our plan.
Was I ready? Had I trained enough? Did I bring the right gear? Did I pick the right tent? Did I bring the right food? I didn’t have any idea. It seems right to me. Everything would unfold in the next 24 hours.
The 2015 race started at 2:00pm. The mob would run for one hour without entering the obstacles, to get everyone spread out around the five mile course. Then a horn would blow and everyone would enter the next obstacle they came too, that is when the real fun started.
This is not a story of 24 hours of endurance, smart decisions, goals achieved, and internal victory. This story is about how unprepared I was for this kind of race. But how glad I was to have done it and how excited I am to be doing it again. I was not alone. There were hundreds just like me, bested by the course and a bad plan.
Las Vegas is not like Orlando, Florida. In the desert, the days are hot, the nights are cold, and the water is even colder.
Like most people I started the event in running clothes – light shorts, a tank top, hat, sunglasses, a buff, knee socks, and trail running shoes. All open skin covered in sunblock. It was 90 degrees and sunny in the middle of a desert. This was the perfect outfit at 2:00pm.
As the minutes of the first hour ticked down I was around the 4.5 mile mark. That meant there was just one obstacle between me and the Pit, the campsite where my tent, food, and dry clothes awaited. When the horn sounded I entered the “Mud Mile” obstacle, a simple march through several ditches of water. As an experienced obstacle racer with 60 races behind me, this was a piece of cake. The slogging was easy. But the water was really cold. Even though it was only 3 feet deep, it chilled my legs in the few steps it took to cross each one. Emerging from the last ditch I stepped into the Nevada sunshine and was quickly warmed back to normal. From there it was a short quarter mile to finish my first lap and enter the Pit.
I reached the end feeling really great. I had done 5 miles and one obstacle. It was a little past 3:00pm and the Nevada sun was warm on my body. I was running the World’s Toughest Mudder and doing great! The sun was still up, I was warm and dry, and there was no need to visit the Pits for a change of clothes.
So I skipped the Pit and continued straight into my first full obstacle lap wearing my running clothes.
This is where you should hear the sound of ominous music. This is where our hero makes a fatal mistake. This is where a 24 hour race is cut horribly short. This is where I needed a better strategy or a team to talk sense into me.
The WTM obstacles are outstanding. They are big, fun, and challenging – but not impossible. The first was Mount Everest – run up a warped wall, grab the top, and pull yourself over. That is the bread-and-butter of obstacle racing. Next was the Whale’s Turd, three large inflatable sausages stacked up and covered with a net. But first you had to swim across a short finger of Lake Las Vegas. The water is over your head, so this is full swimming for 50 yards. I got my first taste of full immersion in the lake that I would soon be very familiar with. It was cold! But not unbearable or numbing. I reached the sausages and easily used the net to climb out of the lake and over the obstacle. That was 2 down, just 18 more to finish this lap.
In quick succession there was the Hydroplane, running on mats across another finger of the lake; The Liberator, climbing a pegboard wall; Abseil, also known as rappelling; and the Gamble, where a spinner tells you which wall to climb. These were pretty standard obstacle fare requiring upper body strength. They were also a good opportunity to get my body warmed up and dried out.
Without listing every obstacle, I will jump ahead to a later sequence of obstacles which are characterized by water, water, water. Cold water. Chilling water. Not enough time between dunkings to get warm again water.
I was soon shivering in the Las Vegas sun. One long stretch of desert running was a welcome reprieve from the cold water dunkings. But then it happened. The sun set behind the mountains at 4:30pm. Within minutes it was dark and cold on the course. Everyone is running to stay warm. But then we approach a series of water obstacles. Dunk, chill, shiver, try to move on. Dunk, chill, shiver, try to move on.
I was shivering uncontrollably as I passed a floodlight powered by a gas generator. The generator was putting out an exhaust of warm air. So I stopped and stood in the exhaust trying to get warm. Trying to stop the shivering. I was immediately joined by two more runners with the same problem. We had all made the mistake of not stopping at the Pit to put on our wetsuits. Runners in wetsuits passed us looking comfortable.
The next obstacle was called the Tramp Stamp. I missed the catch and plunged into icy water. Running and shivering to the next generator lighting up the Royal Flush obstacle. All I had to do was slip into a pit of 4 feet of water, walk to a large sewer pipe, dip myself entirely underwater to enter the pipe, then pull myself up the inside with a rope, all while water rushed down on me from the top.
I was frozen in the generator exhaust trying to regain a little body heat. Shivering more by the minute. Looking at the obstacle. My mind yelling, “Enough! Stop!” It was barely 5:00pm. The race just started three hours ago. I had been water dunking and running for just two hours. It had only been dark for 30 minutes.
Another runner from Fort Lauderdale, Florida entered the generator exhaust. He was pale, blue-lipped, shivering twice as fast as I was. A friend had to help him walk. He could not communicate. But nothing needed to be said. We called for the medical team and waited miserably for them to arrive.
The medical team said, “We can transport you to the medical tent. But you will be disqualified from the race if we carry you. Do you want to go?” He answered with shivering head nods because he couldn’t speak. Then they looked at me and said, “What about you?”
If I jumped into the pit of water I would emerge looking just like my frozen friend, and just as mentally incoherent. I had made my fatal mistake at 3:10pm when the sun was still up. Without a wetsuit my Florida metabolism could not tolerate this cold.
“Yes, I am ready to go.”
The ride to the medical tent was miserable. The wind whipped through the open Gator chilling us to the bone. But I also realized that my race had just ended. All of the preparation and gear for a 24 hour race had ended in just over three hours.
Inside the medical tent I was shivering so bad I could not hold the cup of soup they gave me. I wrapped my blanket tight and just waited for the shivering to stop. The medical team was outstanding. They had clearly done this before and knew how to warm us up before sending us back to the Pit. My case was relatively mild. Fort Lauderdale could not speak or think straight for many minutes. One guy in the tent was literally blue from head to foot. Another had triggered a condition that caused his heart to race uncontrollably. But as we warmed we all became a community. We were not the heroes who raced for 24 hours. We were the short-timers who made bad decisions, shortened our race, and took the ride of shame to the medical tent. And every single one of us said we were coming back next year.
I already have my ticket for World’s Toughest Mudder 2016. I also have a thick new wetsuit.
This is the kind of challenge that I want. These are the kind of people I want to race with. I am part of the community that is the World’s Toughest Mudder.