When Kathy Taylor, of Lodi, finally crossed the finish line at Tough Mudder NorCal, she jumped up and down giddily, and performed a triumphant victory dance.
Considering what she endured for five hours, Taylor’s celebration was well-earned.
On a crisp September afternoon, she swam in a chilly Squaw Valley lake and walked through vats of chest-high ice water, never fully drying off. She hauled a foot-long, 20-pound log. She crawled through muddy terrain underneath live electrical wires. She hiked eight miles uphill.
Around the finish line, she was stopped suddenly by an event organizer.
“He asked, ‘Wait, can I ask: How old are you?’” said Taylor, 54. “Then he said, ‘Here we have someone who is 54 years young!’ I guess that’s the point. I’m not 54 years old, I’m 54 years young.”
Her day-long adventure is no one’s fountain of youth.
Taylor, a physical therapist’s assistant, had run a half-marathon and played basketball, volleyball, field hockey and soccer, but this course represented something completely new for her and the Lodi residents who partook.
Chiropractor James R. Wilson, an outdoor and rock climbing enthusiast, decided to finally take on September’s event with a group of friends after previously talking himself out of Mudder.
And Richard Yee, 39, a family doctor in Lodi, listed the Half Dome hike as his only prior endurance event experience.
Was it a taxing day at Squaw? Perhaps.
But unforgettable? Absolutely.
And that’s exactly the Mudder mission.
“Anyone who shows any interest it in it, you definitely have to do it,” Taylor said. “You just have to put up with a little pain.”
‘Not a race, but a challenge’
For anyone motivated enough to push their physical limits and mental toughness, the Tough Mudder endurance event is rapidly becoming a standardized test. Since its first-ever course last May in Pennsylvania, the one-day adventure run has amassed half a million participants worldwide.
The Squaw Valley events on Sept. 17 and 18, which drew over 16,000 people, are just two of the 30 Tough Mudders run in America this year. Next year, Canada, Australia and the U.K. will be Mudder territory, as well.
Any proper description of the event starts by clearing up one misconception.
As its website proudly proclaims, “Tough Mudder is not a race. It is supposed to be a personal challenge — the goal is simply to complete the course.”
That was precisely the aim of Tough Mudder’s founder Will Dean, an Englishman whose series of courses are modeled after training used by British Special Forces.
The Tough Mudder recipe: Take nearly a half-marathon distance. Strip it of flat ground and place in a rugged, hilly setting. Liberally sprinkle 23 to 24 rigorous military-style obstacles throughout, and you have an event specially designed to “occupy the space that marathons, triathlons, mud runs, and other adventure runs weren’t filling.”
So far, Tough Mudder’s unique intensity has helped its events live up to that goal, and then some.
Spanning 10 to 12 miles, the courses are nearly four times longer than those of Warrior Dash, another popular brand of endurance events.
On average, more than 20 percent of participants fail to complete Tough Mudders.
‘A day of torture’
How exactly does one prepare for “probably the toughest event on the planet”? Is there even an effective way to do so?
Wilson, 31, says yes — even if the length of his own Tough Mudder training regimen may not be suitable for beginners. Like Taylor, Wilson tackled the NorCal course in Squaw — only he signed up just three weeks before the event date.
Though he says the limited amount of time helped him stay focused, Wilson recommends closer to five or six months of intense preparation.
“If you can get more than that, then great,” Wilson said. “It’s gonna be a lot easier on your body. I didn’t have any set training program ready, as much as I was trying to get in as good of shape as possible.”
Leading up to the event, Wilson hit his gym four times a week, while upping his protein through shakes and lean meats, and cutting down even on his rare glass of wine. Taylor, meanwhile, focused on lunges and preparing for the impact of running and jumping.
Overall, the most important elements to Tough Mudder preparation are two-fold: strengthening the upper body, ideally through push-ups and pull-ups, and training with incline and elevation — because come course day, any level ground will be a rare commodity.
“When you’re two and a half miles up, just walking is gonna have you winded,” he said. “You gotta do elevation. If you need, get out of town, go to Yosemite, go to the hills. Or if you don’t have that ability, go to a treadmill and put it on the highest incline and just start running for several hours.
“It will be more effective and you’ll enjoy yourself that much more. Otherwise, it’s just going to be a day of torture ... and it’s already close enough to that.”
‘I do not whine’
Being physically exhausted is one thing.
But Tough Mudder also specializes in helping people — or forcing, depending on your point of view — to clear some mental hurdles.
“I was pleased with the mental challenge,” Taylor said. “I’ve heard from many people that the hill never seems to end.”
It’s little wonder that all participants recite “I do not whine — kids whine” and “I overcome all fears” as part of the event’s official pledge.
For Wilson, hills and elevation were actually the easier part — rather, his Mudder experience really became a grind during the incessant water obstacles that popped up every 30 minutes.
His biggest challenge came a third of the way through.
Wilson had to walk through a vat of ice water and stick his head under — a sensation he compared to “thousands of needles being shoved into your head” — before resuming the rest of the course with ice chunks still sticking to his body.
Participants can always skip obstacles, but where’s the fun (or toughness) in that?
“If it was easy, it doesn’t really test you,” Wilson said. “But if you have sand in your shoes the whole time, you’re soaking wet and you’re freezing cold and you’re running up these hills, then that’ll test your perseverance a lot more.”
Yee’s largest hurdle came as the Squaw race was winding down — though to him, it didn’t feel like anywhere near the finish.
He would have to tackle a nagging phobia head-on in an obstacle nicknamed, with cruel accuracy, “Walk the Plank”: Mudders had to dive down 15 feet into a 20-foot-deep lake, then swim across about 50 yards.
“I can’t swim very well, unless it’s a pool,” Yee said. “If it’s like the ocean or lake, I’m not going to jump in unless it’s with a life jacket or something. Usually, I’ll just scoot in.”
No such luck. Tough Mudder doesn’t believe in wading in.
With his body already aching and a few miles still remaining, Yee originally opted to skip the “plank.”
He had heard of other participants cramping up due to the cold.
“My buddies were like ‘Hey, Rich, if you don’t want to do it, we’ll just move past it,’” Yee said. “But when you get closer, I guess there are spectators out there and I saw my wife. She had the camera ready.”
She would not be disappointed.
Walking up to the final stop before the “plank,” Yee had made up his mind.
“I just got to, I got to do this,” he remembers thinking. “If I don’t do it now, I’m going to regret it.”
He went for it, and passed the test.
‘Help my fellow Mudders’
As Taylor was toughing out the course, she couldn’t help but notice some entertaining sights.
One group of Mudders passed by in colorful tutus. Another wore sports shorts and rubber floaties on their arms, carrying a six-man rubber raft the entire way. Then, there was a group of wannabe waiters, hauling trays of dishes during the race.
Tough Mudder’s trademark camaraderie was on full display.
But it’s not a quality defined simply by outlandish outfits; more importantly, the event prides itself on making all participants work together in order to complete the course — be they close friends on a team, or complete strangers.
One obstacle at Squaw, aptly called “Everest,” tested that teamwork and resolve more than any other.
Mudders had to climb over a 15-foot quarter-pipe — a ramp of slick wood meant for skateboarders. Scaling it presented an impossible one-person task, so collaborating on a strategy was a must. Scores of participants would form a human ladder or pyramid, with the first batch of Mudders on top helping to pull everyone else over.
“There’s not really a way to prepare that much for that one,” Wilson said. “When we got there, we had to try and figure out a way to get up and so we did that. We actually helped probably another 30 people we hadn’t even met get their teammates up.”
Added Taylor: “It just kind of ends up being a big social event.”
Indeed, after bonding through assistance and mutual motivation, random participants inevitably end up hugging each other and cheerfully slapping high-fives at the finish line.
“(Without helpers), I probably would have thrown in the towel,” Yee said.
‘Knowing you accomplished something’
The day after he finished, Wilson worked out at his gym, received a massage and has felt great ever since.
Yee experienced his worst soreness — around his thighs, calves and hamstrings — two days following Tough Mudder.
What will never go away, however, is the immense personal satisfaction of finishing.
Even getting hosed off by volunteer firemen at the finish line and sipping complimentary Dos Equis at the post-race party may not match that feeling.
“When you finally run through,” Wilson said, “it’s more like, ‘Thank God, I survived.’”
In the end, he and his group crossed the line in just over four hours, which he says is above average for the course.
Yet, times or records are irrelevant in the end.
Just completing Tough Mudder is an important accomplishment in and of itself.
“At some point, I won’t be able to do this thing much longer,” Taylor said. “It was kind of a test for myself. Who knows? Maybe my knees will give out next week and I won’t be able to do it.”
“It’s one of those cool things I’m glad I did,” Yee said. “Especially when I’ve never done any type of race, 5K, 10K or anything like that. It’s just like, ‘Wow, I did it.’ And you want to do more.”
Spoken like a true Mudder.
Contact reporter Ed Yevelev at firstname.lastname@example.org.