See that guy there? The one wincing? That, dear reader, would be me—a hundred feet from the Tough Mudder finish line last fall. You'd think that after enduring two-dozen military-style obstacles over 11 miles of high-altitude hell at Squaw Valley, I'd be thrilled to be so near the end. Instead, I'm locked in a full-body cringe, terrified of the curtain of electrified wires that hang between me and a free Dos Equis. "Electroshock Therapy," with its promise of a 10,000-volt jolt, is the obstacle I'd most feared. And that right there is the pained expression of a man wondering, What the fuck am I doing here?
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. Especially for a guy like me.
If you haven't heard about Tough Mudder or read about it or at least seen Facebook pics of your friends doing it, here's a quick snapshot. It's a 10- to 12-mile mud run that employs extreme obstacles like ice, fire, electricity and barbed wire to sensational, almost sadistic effect. And it's insanely popular, with 35 events in 2012 that, by year's end, will have drawn an estimated 500,000 Mudders and $70 million in revenue.
I've never thought of myself as particularly tough. While I was one of the biggest guys on the football squad during my senior year in high school, I was also one of the softest. Whereas Tommy Tremarco and Anthony Cacase played with casts covering broken bones, I'd sometimes ask to sit out wind sprints because of "chronic shin splints," a self-diagnosed condition. "Maybe if you'd actually hit someone instead of just pussyfooting around all the time," said one coach, "your shin splints would go away."
These people all thought me a pansy, though I preferred to think of myself as pain averse. Regardless, not much has changed in the years since. I've been known to sniffle at Applebee's commercials, cry while watching The Voice, sob during Glee and squeal at the sight of spiders. When writers write about the death of the American male, they're writing about me. Which, incidentally, is why I was so shocked by what happened after watching my first Tough Mudder promo video.
At first, I was mortified by the montage of obstacles "designed by British Special Forces." Just watching it made me want to pop a Vicodin. But there was something disarming about seeing all the costumed crazies conquering the course. Tough Mudder, with its festival atmosphere and countercultural vibe, seemed to be doing doughnuts at the intersection of fun and fitness. It looked exactly as promised: "Ironman meets Burning Man." And its motto—"Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet"—was a call to arms for the alpha inside. So without pause or ponder, I decided right then and there to run the next NorCal event, just three months out.
Never mind that I hadn't seen the inside of a gym or run 10 miles—total—in the previous three months. That video and the many others I watched flipped a switch, and for the first time since I realized that a career as a linebacker for the New York Giants wasn't in my cards, I trained as if it were. I ran. I set daily pull-up goals. I did side planks during commercials. And I spearheaded a few healthy initiatives I'd largely avoided. Like eating greens. And drinking less. I thought about going raw, but then I realized I had no idea what the hell I was talking about.
This was all welcome news to my super-fit wife, Amber, of course, a personal trainer who serves as the yin to my sin. I became a regular at her circuit-training classes, even though said classes seemed largely designed to make me puke. I got stronger, strengthened my core. I got to the point where I could do a plank for 30 seconds without my whole body shaking like a Magic Fingers mattress. I ran the same Lake Sonoma loop, five miles a day, day after day, and kind of started loving it. I did interval sprints up steep trails, and sometimes screamed "Fuck yeah!" at the top. I was a man on fire.
But I knew Mudder wasn't just about strength and stamina; it was about mental toughness and grit. And since I will stop a trail run dead in its tracks to pick out even the tiniest pebble in my sock or shoe, I knew I needed to harden up in a hurry. I needed to steel myself like Rocky Balboa might, so I started agitating my routines. I swam in the lake with my sneakers on. I ran up fire roads with stones in my toes. And in anticipation of the ice water obstacles, I took cold showers every once in a while. (Well, maybe just once—but it was for a good 20 seconds or so.)
Slowly but surely, bit by bit, I amassed a thin layer of grit, which I tried to shellac with a viewing of Rocky IV the night before the race.