Lessons from the Tough Mudder

I have never been much of a goal setter. If anything, I would probably classify my goals as more along the route of guidelines. Generally, my goals start as wild ideas that come and go in my thoughts wistfully until they randomly suddenly take seed one day. And then I can’t seem to shake the idea.

That’s how I got the bee in my bonnet to pursue the Tough Mudder. I’ve known about the event for a while, perusing the event website, using some of their training plans for workout ideas. But it wasn’t until I really got back into working out earlier this winter that I began to seriously consider it. I didn’t start training specifically for it until about a month out, but it was always in the back of my mind at the gym.

For those who don’t know, the Tough Mudder is essentially a giant obstacle course. It’s not a race, per se, because there is not time clock and there is no winner or loser. It’s designed to test personal endurance, mental toughness, and teamwork. The full Tough Mudder is about 10-12 miles long, with crazy obstacles thrown in through out. In the very recent years, they’ve also designed a Tough Mudder Half, which, as the name suggests, is simply half the length as the full. After some hemming and hawing, this is actually the one we (my brother Adam and I) decided was the most appropriate for our maiden Mudder voyage.

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I have never been one to gravitate towards races or competitions. I am not a competitive person...except with myself. I love obstacle courses – as a young private at Basic training, obstacle course day was what I looked forward to the most and enjoyed every minute, even while drenching in sweat and covered in sand. Since I’m newer to my fitness journey, I also know how important it is to challenge yourself, but not overshoot yourself. That’s why I knew the Half Mudder would fit me like a glove. Don’t let the downgrade fool you though – it was still a challenging few hours! And of course now, I get to have running the full Mudder in my sites for next year 🙂

Participating in an event like this always lends the opportunity for you to learn a little more about yourself, others, and how we each pursue and participate in life. Here are some observations/thoughts that came to me throughout the day:

1) What a beautiful sight it is when total strangers come together like this and without argument, hesitation, incentives, or reward, help one another. When signing up for the Mudder, while it’s not required, they highly recommend putting together a team (of at least four people) to run the course. Adam and I were a little apprehensive because we thought we would be struggling with only each other to help us out. But it didn’t matter. Facing a vertically challenging obstacle, all you had to do was look up and there was someone reaching out a hand at the top. It had a pay-it-forward like flow – someone helps you up, you turn around and help the next up, they turn around and help the next up. Sometimes a grateful thank you was exchanged, sometimes just a kind smile. And then they were gone.

2) Sometimes the best way to overcome an obstacle in front of you is to just run full steam at it and take it as it comes. Don’t let yourself hem and haw over it – it’ll only make it that much harder to get through and allow more time for talking yourself out of it. Trust yourself and your body to know what to do – our bodies are amazing things and are capable of much more than we give them credit for.

3) It’s ok to admit that you still have room for improvement in your training. Participating in the Mudder sort of automatically puts you in a ‘beast mode’ mindset. Maybe it’s a survival response to the necessity to overcome a challenge, I don’t know. At the beginning of the course, I was charged. I was feeling good about the training I had done prior to the event and was ready to crush the course. The first running stint was a little shaky for me, though I’ve found that it usually is until my muscles get warmed up. Strength-wise, I felt like I had well prepared myself for the obstacles. It was actually the running in between obstacles that continued to kick my butt. Adam was a good pusher, so I tried to walk as minimally as I could, but I did have to take brief walk breaks now and then. I had recognized a weak point and knew that if I wanted to overcome that struggle and be better, I would need to boost up my cardio endurance training.

At the gym, I tend to gravitate towards weight lifting and strength endurance, and have a hard time making cardio a priority as often as it should be. Of course, with any fitness training, you get out of it exactly what you put into it. So now I was reaping my rewards in the strength department..and feeling every cheeseburger I ever ate in the running department. These reality fitness report cards certainly humble you again, but also serve to direct and motivate you on where you need to improve and refocus.

4)  In hand with that, it’s important to accept that you are going to have weak points, trouble spots, areas you’d rather avoid altogether because they are uncomfortable, boring, or challenging to you. Everyone does. But don’t let those fears and feelings stand in your way and keep you from overcoming them.

Under Armour recently had a campaign for female athletes that was tied with the phrase, “I Will What I Want”. When I first came across this, it didn’t really strike much of a chord with me, to be honest. But the more I became passionate about being active and fit and the more I had to some days drag myself kicking and screaming to the gym, the more I began to understand and live by those words. It’s so easy to quit, to throw in the towel when things aren’t fun anymore and when there is no one holding you accountable for yourself but you.  I have seen myself do this so many times before. What I began to do is to look past the point where I got instant gratification from quitting and recall how I felt afterwards. Feeling guilty because I had sold myself short, upset because I (no duh) wasn’t where I wanted to be, unmotivated,  and sad because I knew when I did talk myself back into it (as my body has the good sense to keep doing),  I’d be starting back at square one again because of the momentum I was allowing myself to lose by giving up. Like always.

The Mudder sort of works along these same lines when it comes to mental toughness. I was a little surprised to find out that the event ‘rules’ are actually pretty loose for the Mudder, for all the touting it does about being such a tough course. There is no time clock, no winners or losers. It’s written that if you come across an obstacle that you physically/safely cannot complete, you can walk around it. I balked a little at this. Absolutely, there were going to be people who mechanically would not be able to complete an obstacle (I saw a few amputees in our iteration, and stories on the Mudder website highlighted wheelchair bound people participating in the course). Of course, those are the people who are looking challenge straight in the face and laughing and often didn’t walk around an obstacle. But from personal experience and from seeing people do it to themselves in the days at Basic training, I knew that in the heat of the moment, what is going to keep a person from just using that as an easy out and allowing himself to just ‘sit this one out’? Once a mind has been made up to quit, it can be a hard one to move. Why would the Mudder allow this hidden opportunity for those who were in all sense of the word able to complete the obstacle, but chose not to? Because that’s the point.

Mental toughness and determination are huge factors in your success through an event like this, through your fitness journey, and in life itself. Sort of like the world, the Mudder provides the settings and tools for you to look your weaknesses and fears in the eye. Teamwork will help you along the way. But you are the only one who will mentally get yourself through the tough times and hold yourself accountable for it. Your determination will help your muscles push past where you thought your limit was, get past your fear of heights for even just a moment, trust a complete stranger, and get past the temptation to take the easy way out. If you want something bad enough, you will find a way. Don’t sell yourself short.

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5) An ice-cold beer at the finish line is the most amazing tasting beer in the world.

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 The Tough Mudder or Tough Mudder Half may not be the ‘hardest’ race/course out there. It may be easier for some and harder for others. But everyone comes away from it with something. It challenged me, but didn’t break me. It left me with a hunger to do more things like it (a pre-race conversation with the group of guys standing in front of us brought to light for me many other endurance race options around the area), and it reinforced and rekindled my burgeoning passion for personal strength – physical and mental – and fitness. It also made me realize that conquering dreams like this and putting in the time to train actually opens a lot of doors of opportunity for you, while indirectly.

And heck, it was simply a lot of fun.

I challenge you to break through the barriers you are feeling in your life. It may not always be a pretty ride, and it won’t be easy. But with enough determination, grit, and passion behind it, you can do anything you set your mind to.

Victory is sweet. Personal victory is sweeter. 

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