Since competing in my first event, Tough Guy, obstacle course races have been just that for me, races. I could see through the marketing and knew with my fitness level and a little discomfort I could get through. I was therefore missing out on why the majority of people take on these challenges, they scare them and to provide the opportunity to conquer something you are scared of is one of obstacle racing’s best traits. Whatever petty fear you have, be it heights, enclosed spaces, water…you will likely face it, hopefully overcome it and feel elated.
I will be honest and say the thought of Worlds Toughest Mudder scared me. 24 hours of ridiculous discomfort, not stopping in an attempt to find my limits, to reduce myself down to nothing and see if I would continue. There was also the thought of not wanting to let down my team mate in our attempt to reach the goal set. I would be traveling to Vegas to not only prove to myself if I was capable but also had the trust of a friend that I was…this was going to be an interesting trip.
Worlds Toughest Mudder is organised by Tough Mudder. Tough Mudder events by nature are just that, they are events, not races. You go to them to challenge yourself against the course or enjoy the experience with friends, not to beat the clock or other people. World’s Toughest Mudder is a race, there is timing, penalties and prizes. Competitors are given 24 hours to complete as many 8km laps as possible in the dessert just outside of Las Vegas. With sweltering daytime temperatures, freezing night time ones, many challenging obstacles and a good amount of swimming – this isn’t for the feint of hearted.
Everyone has their target mileage. The main goals are 25miles, 50miles, 75miles and 100miles. 100miles! 160km! to picture the distance pulled out in a straight line with all the obstacles, hills and swimming sections hurt my brain. That was a long way, but of course, that was the goal. Tough Mudder had set an additional challenge. If a team of two could make 100miles whilst running together the entire time, they would win $100,000.
I would say ‘my teammate of choice was…’ but that would be a lie. Ryan Atkins is by any means the daddy of Worlds Toughest Mudder. With two wins in the single category and one in the team he has never shown a weakness at this event…and he was choosing me to take on the 100mile challenge with him… I had never even run 100 miles, let alone in a wetsuit whilst doing over 400 obstacles.
Preparations should start very early for a challenge such as this one but with such a busy season and three weeks of the championship obstacles races split between two continents finishing under a month before – time wasn’t on our side. I stayed out in Canada to train with Ryan for a few days but the main talking point was kit.
Durng the race the equipment, nutrition and pit crew to organise both for you is everything.
We talked extensively about wetsuits, head torches , trainers, socks, even what boxers to use. One mistake with kit over 24hours can make a massive difference, for us $100,000 worth.
On the nutrition front we were going armed with clif organic food, electrolyte drink for sick babies and a selection of every type of food we could think of.
The all-important duty of pit crew would be performed by family members who would sacrifice just about anything for us to succeed. Ryan would be bringing his sister, Allie together with Chris and I would be bringing my sister, Beth, together my dad to take care of me. I can’t stress the importance of the role these guys play and I am in no doubt we had the best.
Arriving just under 48hours before the event started there was much to prepare. Final kit preparations including food shopping and pit setup together with registering and extensively reading the rules took up most of our time. In the weeks prior we had been joking about ‘bulk season’ and this continued with us eating any food we fancied in vast quantities. A storm was coming and we were getting ready to face it straight on.
The event was due to start at 12 noon on the Saturday finishing at 12 noon on the Sunday. A grace time of 1.5hours was available, so a maximum of 25.5 hours of racing laid before us. This was exactly the type of thing I tried not to think about as we began. Concentrating on one lap, one obstacle or even one step at a time was far better.
Completing the first hour was fast, hot and especially dusty. This period is obstacle free to split the field up and we had completed nearly a lap and a half before hitting our first open obstacle.
After completing a full lap with the obstacles open we got a good feel of the course. There was far less swimming than in years previously but the obstacles had been made far more difficult, with especially long penalties. This suited Ryan and myself and we were encouraged by our lap times thus far…our first full obstacle lap was under an hour!
We spent those first few laps deciding which hills would always be walked and what technique would be best for each of the technical obstacles. These initial decisions turned out to be key and had a massive effect on our final result.
Although there were many obstacles on the course that were difficult, it was the balance beam that plagued my thoughts to begin with. Being roughly 6m long and with steps in the middle I felt this obstacle would require maximum concentration every time. ‘merely standing upright after running for 24hours will be hard, let alone tiptoeing along that thing’ was running through my mind but I never failed it, and neither did Ryan.
In fact we barely failed anything. It was just the grappler that got us on one occasion. Throwing a grapple hook (ball) on the end of a rope up a cliff we then had to climb up. A rule change meaning me and Ryan couldn’t share a rope saw us miss and have to take the penalty. Apart from this we had a 100% completion rate throughout the 24hours.
Something that meant a lot to us as we completed our laps was how we behaved. As top contenders we get priority if a que forms but we still tried to be polite. Once over the obstacle we then also tried to lend a helping hand as much as we could. On many occasions we were shouted away by fellow racers who wanted us to reach 100 miles as much as we did but it didn’t stop us trying. On a few occasions Everest 2.0 (ramp with a curved over top) had no one up it. Dutifully I would run up and complete it without help before helping Ryan up, we would then get two more people up restarting the chain so everyone else can do it rather than take the easier ramp and the penalty.
The feeling of camaraderie on the course was amazing and it was an honour to be a part of that, not simply having tunnel vision on the 100miles. It was true that the majority of people wanted us to do the 100, I say ‘us’ but I was more of an unknown compared to Ryan. As we ran many would shout ‘go Ryan’ or ‘go Team Ryan’ more considerate ones would shout ‘go Ryan’ only to pause and then add ‘and Jon’. This prompted my new name for the day to be And Jon but the best new name I got was from one competitor who shouted ‘Go Ryan….and Co.’. I could only laugh.
Saturday daylight laps done it was now nearing 5 o’clock and time to don the wetsuits. This would be the beginning of a serious downturn in my condition and I have to say lap 6 was not a good one.
Wetsuits on we started out on course only to find every water obstacle except the last one was closed! Coming back into the pit I was severely overheated, dehydrated, felt sick, my right leg had seized up and the dust had destroyed my lungs making my breathing wheezy and shallow. With worried looks the pit crew did their best to cool, rehydrate and feed me but nearing spewing not much went in.
The most worrying was my right leg where an old injury flaring making the entire thing feel stiff and painful. As my legs became more and more destroyed this would ease up by lap 10, either that or my brain had given up registering the pain signals.
Being hot is an uncommon problem during the night at WTM but the weather was being kind. We both kept the top half of our wetsuit of until 12 o’clock when the infamous cliff jump opened. At 35 feet (over 10m) into Lake Las Vegas, this was something we wanted to be in a layer of neoprene for.
I had a dream a few weeks prior to the event that went along the lines of if I got to lap 13 I was going to manage the entire thing, no matter what. Lap 13 came and went and me and Ryan were still making good time. We had left our competition behind and were now steadily growing our lead. Thoughts now turned to sunrise and the euphoria it brings to someone that has been running since it set.
At sunrise we hit lap 17. Still leading the entire event out of the singles and the teams we had three laps to do and 6 hours to do them, I liked the math considering we had been averaging an hour and 10 minutes per lap all night.
By 10 o’clock we crossed the finish line for the 20th time becoming the first people to make the 100miles and the proud owners of $100,000. Elated we decided to complete one more lap walking with, helping and talking with all the other competitors on the course. Everyone had pushed themselves beyond their limits and it was great to share the experience with them.
Crossing the line for the 21st and final time we were now done, after 24hours and over 168km of racing we could finally sit down.
Ryan and I are both proud of what we had done but conversations soon turned to how we felt we could have done or can do more. Who knows what the future holds with such thoughts like these after such an experience. First things first though I had to address the fact that walking had suddenly become a near impossible task!