WTM 2016, Part 1: Looking for Limits
World’s Toughest Mudder is a 24 hour Obstacle Course Race during which participants will complete as many laps as possible on the five mile course. This loop has to be tackled over and over again, while getting dunked into water several times along the way, and with 20 obstacles thrown in for good measure.
This is Part 1 of 2 about WTM. Here, I will talk about the actual race and how it went down. In the next post, I will talk about my preparation, which gear I packed, what worked well and what did not, etc. (Part 2 is now available)
The 2016 race season culminates in this event, marking the 6th time this event occurs, and the 3rd time the race would take place at Lake Las Vegas, Nevada, after being previously located in New Jersey.
Just five weeks after running my longest race ever, over 30 miles at the Spartan Ultra Beast at Lake Tahoe, it only felt fitting to also take on my first World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM) in the same year. The Ultra Beast had left me with a slightly sore Achilles tendon, which had my running volume down to about 20mi per week for the time between those events.
On one hand, this made me feel uneasy because I did not want to taper off five weeks before WTM. On the other hand, it forced me to give my body sufficient rest. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t going to change much for the better if I push my body in training, so I accepted my fate and focused on my gear preparation instead. While I had completed distances around and slightly beyond Marathon distance (26.2mi) before thanks to BattleFrog Xtreme (8 hours of completing multiple laps on the same course), I knew that WTM would be an entirely different animal.
I had signed up for WTM in January, motivated by my friends’ glowingly positive reports about the race and my desire to keep on attacking challenges where I can push my limits.
After doing research and talking to people, I had originally decided I would run this event with my friend from the Spartan Race NBC show, Joel Burrows. I liked the idea of finally doing something with somebody else instead of being on my own. However, as the months went by, my competitive side slowly started to get the better of me. My running improved, and so grew my thirst to push hard at WTM.
75 miles was my primary objective, or at the very least to keep on moving for the full 24 hours (secondary goal). Should neither of those be achievable, I would not accept anything less than 50 miles, unless I got injured (tertiary goal).
75 miles sound like a lot, and it is, but 24 hours is also a lot of time to cover this mileage. After the Ultra Beast, I was confident that I could achieve this goal with proper planning.
Tough Mudder (TM) events are never timed, with two exceptions: World’s Toughest Mudder and the new series “Toughest Mudder,” which will launch in March 2017.
This results in an event and a crowd where teamwork reigns supreme. Where Spartan Race takes itself very seriously and everything is about competition, TM gives their obstacles silly names and does not care whether or not OCR becomes an Olympic sport. It is an utterly different experience for sure.
The WTM community is probably the tightest group of people in OCR that I have ever seen. While it is an incredible treasure trove of information and experience, it is also a bit weird to approach as a First Timer, aka an Outsider. Fortunately for me, I had made great friends in OCR who were more than willing to help me find my way around and feel comfortable (thank you so much Wesley, Ben, Team SISU, Phoebe, and many others!). Many pre-race events and gatherings were offered, and I would recommend visiting them and just mingling with people. It helps to be active in the Facebook groups for the event as well to get your bearings about who is who and what is going on in general.
As always there is a caveat to this: Be careful who you listen to. Always do your own research and be critical. Others might be less competent but more confident than you. The people yelling the loudest are usually not the ones you want to listen to. Some might even have ulterior motives or simply want to sell you something. Talk to people you trust and find out what works for you by going out and actually testing it. Example: Someone seriously recommended you should flush your wetsuit with cold water during the longer water crossings… Nope. Nope. Nope.
Friday: Registration and Pit Load-In
Tough Mudder HQ (TMHQ) had sent out a comprehensive info package as PDF the week before the event. Friday was the day to register at the Westin Hotel and receive your race bib, as well as build your tent in the pit area. Unless you live within a few hours of driving distance, I would highly recommend traveling to Vegas on Thursday.
Registration and Pit Load In was organized with priority given to people with more accumulated miles at WTM events. While people with 125+ miles over the last 5 events were able to check in at 8 am, newbies like myself had to wait until noon. The whole registration was ran very smoothly and we were allowed to check in ahead of schedule.
A short drive just behind the hotel where all of this was happening, we were able to load our gear into the pit from a small staging area. I was impressed with how well everything was coordinated! After setting up the tent and writing your name on the wooden block marking your pit spot, all you had left to do was register the pit spot at the hospitality tent.
Building the tent was quickly done, the hard ground required either very long and thick nails and a hammer, or you could use sandbags or rocks and paracord to fix your tent to the ground. I went the paracord and sandbag route. I had heard about individual issues with theft overnight Friday to Saturday, so all I left was water and some other random items like duct tape, hand warmers, or space blankets.
It was a lot of fun to talk to my friends of Team SISU and many other good people I had met through OCR over the last two years. I may have not been sure about the WTM community before I got to know them better, but I was just amazed how great it was in person. In times where a lot of people are quick to “like” or “heart” something on social media but then they don’t actually do anything, the WTM community is awesome at following through. I left the pit area in good spirits!
After picking up my trusted pit crew of one, Taylor, we went to the community dinner at the Fiesta Henderson buffet with Joel and then watched the excellent Rise of the Sufferfests documentary. The movie was great, even after seeing it for the 5th time, but the buffet food on the other hand did not sit well with many. Note for next year: Avoid the Fiesta buffet!
Saturday: Race Day
Starting the day with a solid breakfast helped with the pre-race excitement and around 11am I was nicely settled in at my tent, and had said my hellos to everyone around my spot.
The mandatory athlete briefing was at 11:30am, but we got called over at 11:15am already, probably thanks to CBS. This had me jumped into a rush a little and my warm-up got almost completely cut out. I don’t need to warm up my muscles that much, but I need to get my system going to see how everything feels, if I need a bio break, if I can eat something solid or should stick with gel at the start line, if I need more water, etc. Oh well, in the grand scheme it would not matter that much.
I definitely should have brought a disposable water bottle to the start line. It was noon in the LV desert so of course it was hot… A rookie mistake, really. Fortunately, I was right by the announcer tent, so I could sit down in the shade while Sean Corvelle gave his start line speech. Check out the video below:
Lap 1 & 2: Sprint Hour
This is what I started in: Standard gear that I would never change during the event (Salomon S-Lab Sense 5 SG, Injinji OTC 2.0 Compression socks, Nike Pro Combat running tights, 2XU long sleeve shirt, fuel belt) plus sunglasses. After finishing the first obstacle-free Sprint lap in 42min, I handed off my sunglasses to Taylor.
Chugged 500ml of my 2 scoops Tailwind/1 scoop Cellucor Amino Acids mix in the pit after Lap 1 and had a gel out on the course. I took the gel at the water station around mile 2 while drinking 2-3 cups of water. The water station was about 2mi into the course, way too soon for my liking. My favorite gels are GU Energy Labs and Honey Stinger.
I was way ahead of pace right from the start, but made sure I felt very easy and relaxed at all times. I was able to say thank you to several people who had shared info ahead of the event and said hi to friends. A good indicator for staying aerobic during running is being able to hold conversation easily. I made some race buddies during the sprint hour and we all could chat normally without issues.
I almost made it past Block Ness during Lap 2 but missed the cut off by a few seconds. At least I got to do Block Ness with a handful of others as first obstacle and it was really easy. The people who were that fast knew how to work this obstacle so that helped me to learn how to do it right from the beginning. Hey, at least we made it past Operation, no electric shocks for the first two laps! At that point, the bars on Double Rainbow were also still freshly wrapped in some super grippy rubber tape, which made the obstacle a cake walk and super fun. It definitely paid off to practice Trapeze transitions at Apex NorCal.
Lap 3 to 6: Cruising
I put on the Orca Swimrun Core wetsuit early on during Lap 4. At the start of Lap 5, no runner was allowed to go out without headlamp/strobe, which I put around my neck and tied to my bib with paracord. On Lap 6, I also put on the neoprene sleeves, since the warming sun had started to disappear now. This is also where I reapplied lube and asked Taylor to remind me to apply lube every other lap.
I chugged 500ml of my Tailwind/Cellucor mix in the pit and had a gel out on the course at the water station at every lap, along with 2-3 cups of water. After Lap 4, I started drinking some pure water in the pit as well to flush down the sweet taste of my mixture. On Lap 6, I grabbed a Kind bar in order to get something more robust in my stomach.
I could tell Funky Monkey Revolution, Double Rainbow, and Kong would get pretty interesting later on, but for now everything was sunshine and (double) rainbows. “Operation” would shock me 5 times before I figured out a technique that worked best for me, which kept me almost completely shock-free for the rest of the night. I did get lucky once though at some point later: I touched the metal plating of the opening in the wall and nothing happened! Suddenly a disappointed spectator peeks around the wall and says “Oh come on! Where’s the entertainment for us spectators when you don’t get shocked?!” Sorry to disappoint, bud.
At Funky Monkey you ascend monkey bars and then transition to a horizontal wheel. From there you grab a vertical wheel with wide diameter, transition to a medium diameter wheel and finally end it with a small diameter wheel. I always had a lot of momentum coming down from the wheels to the landing platform. On lap 4, I thought I could skip the last wheel altogether…
Turned out, I cannot. My feet landed on the ledge of the landing platform, then slid forward, and I banged my butt on the ledge and dropped in the water backwards. It must have looked hilarious haha. Now, I was a little bit dazed from the impact. I climbed out of the water pit and started to continue running. For some reason, I didn’t think about the penalty loop, being a first timer and all. Fortunately, another runner pointed it out to me and I turned around to complete the short sandbag carry. Integrity first.
At Lap 6, my right hip flexor started to become a little tight. From here on out there were plenty of minor discomforts coming and then fading into the background in my lower body.
Also during Lap 6, I changed my approach to Everest. While Everest 2.0 is possible solo, I had no experience with doing it on my own. Everest 1.0 right next to it was lower and had an easier to reach lip to hold on to. Taking 1.0 resulted in a very short water crossing with a tiny bit more distance. For people who could not do either of those, there was a penalty with a longer swim and more distance as penalty.
Soloing Everest 1.0 was very easy for me at all times, in hindsight I should have even attempted 2.0. Next time!
Pyramid Scheme had been modified with some ropes so it would be more like a Spartan Slip Wall, which can be tackled solo. However, some people would not straighten out the ropes behind them… As I was lunging for a rope, my foot slipped and I impacted hard with my chin on the wood. I saw stars for a moment but pressed on. Once I was through the obstacle, I made sure I did not bleed. No blood, no foul, and I was good to go.
Lap 7 to 10: Slow and Steady
Before starting Lap 10, I put on my red neoprene cap to avoid heat loss and my windbreaker since the wind was slowly but consistently blowing on the first 2.5mi of the course.
In addition to my Tailwind/Cellucor mix and water, I also had some blue Powerade. I cannot really tell you why, I just had this craving for something different and I knew Powerade sits well with me. I also had some beef jerky and a Snickers bar.
Beginning with Lap 7, I started taking a GU Energy Labs stroop waffle with me out on the course every single lap. In order to protect them from crumbling, I slid them in between my compression shirt and wetsuit on my chest. When I pulled them out on the long walk to the Ladder from Hell, they were not only in one piece, but my body had warmed them up to perfect temperature with a gooey core. Sweet heavens of deliciousness! One more reason to get a front zip wetsuit, folks!
Though I cannot be totally sure when, somewhere around Lap 7, I kicked a boulder with my left big toe really, really, really hard. I had already stepped on some sharp rocks during the event and the pain had always faded within minutes. The same happened with the toe and I basically forgot about it. I got incredibly lucky with this incident since I would later discover that the impact on the boulder was way more forceful than I had realized. 10 days after WTM, this blunt force trauma still caused the most residual pain from the event.
There is always talk of people peeing in wetsuits at WTM, and yes, everyone does it. What I had not expected was that I would go for 45 miles, drinking several liters of water and electrolytes, before I could do the same. This had actually become a concern over the last five laps, since a lack of urine is usually a bad bad sign. I reasoned that it probably happened as it did because I ran relatively quick laps so far and now started to fatigue and drop the paces, which loosened my body up a bit. I got relief every lap from here on out, which put my mind to ease in this regard.
During Lap 10, I could tell my pace was now starting to fade, but because this was expected, I did not get worried about it. I had plenty of time in the bank, no injuries, and felt strong. The pains had settled in and mentally, I was very happy that I was about to tick off my secondary goal as well as the second Third on the way to my primary goal.
Lap 11 to 14: Harden the Hell Up
Before Lap 11, I put on my NRS Maverick neoprene gloves. The current gear would be the outfit I would keep on running in for the rest of Night Ops (neoprene hood and gloves, windbreaker). After the Cliff opened at midnight, I always wrapped myself in a hooded Space blanket during pit stops to stay warm.
On Laps 11 and 12 I did take caffeinated GU Roctane and caffeinated GU Stroop Waffles to get a little boost. Otherwise fueling stayed the same, which was a mistake. Taylor had asked me if I wanted anything warm to drink or eat and I declined the offer. The smart thing for me would have been to say YES, the smart thing for her would have been to just push warm liquids into me. But it was around that magical 2-3am time where nobody makes a lot of sense anymore. Me being a rookie at WTM and her being support/pit crew for the first time, we did not know better.
Plus, she had actually tried to get hot water to me earlier, but in the chaos around the hospitality tent – which holds the microwaves and water heaters – the water got knocked out of her hands. With a long wait for the water heaters, she did not want to risk missing me when I came in from the lap, so she abandoned that mission.
I arrived at The Cliff past midnight, which meant my first time cliff jumping would happen off of a 35 foot ledge in the middle of the night. There were actually a few people standing around at the platform and I asked them if they mind if I go ahead. Not that I was in a rush to jump, but I knew that it helps me to step off the platform and into the darkness to have someone breathing down my neck. I pulled my headlamp down to my neck and stuffed it into the front of my suit to keep it from smacking me in the face. We were told to keep our legs together, cross our arms in front our chests, and tap the top of our heads twice once we re-surface. This would ensure our safe water entry and then inform water safety that we were fine.
I did hesitate two or three seconds before I jumped, just taking the moment in, appreciating the opportunity to be there and do things like this, as well as reminding myself that this is pretty much the safest possible environment to jump from this height. The jump was exactly as someone had described it to me: It is just long enough for you to wonder when you would hit the water – and that’s when you hit it!
Fortunately I did hit the water right and had no issues resurfacing. By quickly pulling up the headlamp out of the suit I could stop the rush of cold water into my wetsuit and started swimming to the cargo net climb out of the water. I definitely had a rush of adrenaline in my system and was euphoric about the experience. Another plus of the cliff jump: No longer running around the water! The jump was definitely a quicker way to the finish line.
Lap 12 was the first time I could feel the cold and checked out a little mentally. I went straight for the penalty at Funky Monkey, Double Rainbow, and Kong without attempting them.
I came up to Block Ness on my own and easily completed the obstacle on my own. During extended stretches of trail running, I lost focus once or twice, which made me acutely aware that my body was having issues with low temperature. Extended exercise and sleep deprivation do not get to me so quickly, therefore I figured it must be low body temp which affects me like this.
Regardless, I knew that I had to power through this lap to get to the mentally important milestone of having only 10 miles left to the 70 mile mark. I had already made the decision I would stop and rest after Lap 14 and then return to complete a “24 Hour Finisher Lap” at noon.
Lap 13 was basically a much slower version of Lap 12, with two exceptions: I did complete the Double Rainbow and the caffeine had started to get my mind back on track. My running on the flats was barely quicker than power hiking, and my downhill run was more of an accelerated fall. I kept telling myself to put injury prevention and risk reduction first. There was no glory in getting pulled off of the course because you hurt an ankle.
Lap 14 was even slower than the previous lap but again with a success on Double Rainbow. I counted down from 5 miles and mentally argued several scenarios. At this point I was mildly hypothermic and my mental faculties were definitely diminished. You lose your brain during physical exercise anyway, add sleep deprivation to it and it gets worse. But hypothermia on top of it all really tones down your ability to do anything. Taylor could barely understand me in the pit because my speech became so slurred.
I considered several scenarios how I should proceed once I finish Lap 14: Keep on moving non-stop, risking hypothermia or injury? Knock out Lap 15 now to get the 75 miles accomplished? Stop, warm up, and then get going again?
At the end of it all when I came back into the pit from this lap, the sun was up, Taylor was waiting with hot chocolate and there was the promise of warmth and dry clothes… I decided to stick to the plan, come back for the victory lap around noon and play it safe.
Intermission at 6:50am
Sipping on a warm drink felt amazing and I headed straight to the warm showers. With Taylor’s help, I got out of my cold, wet gear, showered, and put on heavenly warm and dry sweatpants and hoodies. This process sounds easy, but in actuality, I was shaking pretty badly which made the whole process much harder.
I slowly made my way to the pit tent, had some soup, and told Taylor to wake me up at 9am so I would have enough time to get ready and start to walk the final lap around 10am. The sun had warmed up the tent and I passed out hard as soon as I put my head on the ground.
Apparently I ended up sleeping for about an hour… and found myself unable to move my legs out of the tent. I could not lift the legs, I could not move the feet, it felt unreal. As I was unsuccessfully trying to get up, I had severe doubts I would be able to make it out for the final lap. Just making my way to the restroom was so incredibly painful that only a few conversations along the way with fellow mudders and the Las Vegas sun could keep me going. I forced my feet and legs into some mobility exercises by manually moving them around with my hands – they would still not work really on their own.
Finally, I decided to suit up, walk up to the start line and see what my body would tell me.
Lap 15: Finish with a Smile!
- Salomon S-Lab Sense 5 Soft Ground, half a size larger than my usual ones.
- Injinji Trail socks above the ankle
- CWX Tracker tights
- UA short sleeve shirt
- Hyperflex spring suit
I had a lot of water, Tailwind, Powerade and a Clif Bar before I started off into the final lap, but also took the fuel belt with two gels with me just to be safe. Stupidly, I did not take any water along. Since it was very warm now and walking the whole lap would be very slow, it would have been smart to bring water.
Barely any running was done during this lap. Sun and warmth meant the obstacles were as dry as possible and only people with gloves managed to get them slippery again. This was also the only time I even attempted Kong with the two straight bars.
I completed all the obstacles during my final lap without issues. My upper body felt phenomenal all around but walking was not fun at all. Not having to do any penalties was definitely a high point to end this on. As I was coming up to the Cliff Jump, I saw people huddled in the shade next to Kong.
It was about 11:40am and the Cliff would now only be open to Top 20 contenders or people with 75+ miles who were wearing their brown bib. I slowly made my way to the Cliff just as they announced the eligible people would now be allowed to make the jump. Stepping up to the final cliff jump felt amazing, and when I noticed several Pit Crews and spectators waiting for their people on the other side of the swim, it finally became real that I am about to finish 75 miles at my first WTM.
The jump was easy and the water felt refreshing. As I made my way to the group of runners waiting for the final finish line push I met several of my friends and all pain was forgotten for the glorious minutes of being in this pack of people. The positive energy and euphoria was tangible and could make everyone forget about their dark moments in the middle of the night, in cold water and wind.
I’m beyond happy with my results since I did achieve exactly what I set out to do. I could have done 1 or 2 laps more, but that might have resulted in more injury to my body. Therefore, I definitely have no regrets and give thanks and credit to Taylor, who did an awesome job keeping me fueled and moving. It gets heated and stressful during these short pit stops and she handled it very well. I could not have done it without her.
I already have plenty of thoughts what I can do better, before and during the event, and will go into that on Part 2.
There I will talk strategy, damages, preparation, thoughts, and improvement. (Update: Here is Part 2)