World’s Toughest Mudder 2013: and it won’t change a thing?

World’s Toughest Mudder registration went live two weeks ago, and judging from the Facebook and social media reaction, you would have thought TMHQ had punched a baby.

“NO qualification process?!?” seemed to be the resounding outcry. Hundreds (read, in reality: dozens) of
affronted people, worried that the race wouldn’t be “elite” enough, or that the out-of-shape masses would crowd Raceway Park in New Jersey, leaving the finishers to step over frozen bodies littered around the course after 24 hours. I skimmed the new changes, and the only thing that came to mind was “meh”.

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The Trouble with Chicking

As I passed a group of guys at the sandbag carry during the Indiana Spartan Sprint this past weekend, I heard “Are you kidding? She’s passing us. A girl. Fuuuuuuuuuck.”

Yay me, right? Woo women! Go chicks! How empowering and badass and wonderful!

So why did it feel so horrible? And why did it bother me throughout the race, and still bothers me, almost a week later?

Because “chicking” shouldn’t be a big deal.
I don’t know the origin of the term “chicked,” but if you are in any type of runners circle, the term gets thrown around. It’s the idea of a woman passing a man, beating a man. It was created, I believe, as a term of empowerment, and I think serves that purpose well – you can see this in groups like the ever-expanding “Spartan Chicked,” which is an incredible forum for female obstacle racers to provide advice, tips, encouragement, and support for each other.

In the eyes of men, however, the term turns ugly. It’s a blow to the ego to get “chicked,” and it’s used by men in a derogatory manner. I get it, doods, that it hurts your ego that you got “beat by a girl,” but get over it. Your chest hair isn’t going to fall out, your biceps have not atrophied, and the size of…things…are still the same (I think).

The Elite heats at Spartan Races lead to a particularly interesting phenomenon surrounding chicking. The male heat goes off at 8am, and the females 15 minutes later. Since this has been the case, the top females have started catching up with the back of the male pack, sometimes a matter of miles into the race. In Indiana this past weekend, I caught up with the first guy on the barbed wire crawl, which was less than a mile in.

As a result, I passed close to 100 guys during the race. In Vegas, it was likely more due to the sheer number of runners (and the top two females passed even more). This requires a breathless “excuse me,” or “can I get through” or “on your left!” every few minutes.

For the most part, the guys were supportive and courteous. There were shouts of “you go girl!” or “killing it!” and those that would step aside to make way for you. But a smaller number were NOT so happy, failing to get out of the way on a single track portion, or murmuring less-than-kind things. (I suppose this is further exacerbated because they realized they got a 15 minute headstart, and the women were catching up to them).
It brings me back to my World Toughest Mudder experience this past year, when people realized I was mere minutes behind Junyong Pak. TMHQ was flabbergasted, people were besides themselves trying to understand: HOW did a female manage to get within minutes of Pak?? That’s impossible!

And the entire time, while people were running along side me to run faster, to catch up to him, I thought to myself “what’s the big deal? And more importantly, WHY are we making a big deal out of this?”

I guess it’s a reverse feminism-type of thing: while it’s empowering for a woman to beat, or be on par with, a man, the more attention we draw to it by declaring it “unreal” or “amazing,” the more we reinforce the stereotype that females aren’t, and can’t be, equal to males.

[Yikes. That’s the most feminist thing I’ve ever said. And that’s a lot of phrases in a sentence. I’ll stop now.]

Don’t get me wrong – I’m beyond proud of my finish at WTM, and at races like Indiana. But, in a way, it saddens me to think that people still believe that it’s “abnormal” when a woman can beat the vast majority of the men at an event like this. And it’s frustrating that men are affronted by the fact that a woman could possibly best them.

So let’s change the conversation. While running with the “lead” girls at the Kids Race, I noticed that none of the little boys were saying similar things as the girls flew by. So here’s to hoping we can take the negative out of “chicking,” and just realize that some girls kick ass.

[stumbling down off my soapbox]

How World’s Toughest Mudder Ruined My Life

The second ever World’s Toughest Mudder is rapidly approaching on November 17th. It’s not technically a perfect one-year anniversary, since TMHQ moved the race up a month this year, but on that day, it will be 11 months since the beginning.

The beginning, you say? Ah yes, the beginning of the descent into the world of obstacle racing, adventure racing, endurance racing, and all kinds of idiocy.

And while the jury is still out on whether or not I’m going to be able to make an appearance at WTM (to perhaps once again continue my second-place winning/losing streak), I look back and realize how dramatically different my life has become over the past year. As an ode to WTM, let’s take a step back to remember exactly the ways in which it has ruined my life:

(1) Running on the road bores me to death. I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to do another road race. You mean, you just…run? In a straight line? On pavement? That’s cool, but where are the walls and bars and mud pits?

(2) It introduced me to the Death Race. The DR is a race that really has no point. No start, no finish. No real…point. But it’s the hardest, most fun, and most mentally/physically/emotionally tasking (and rewarding!) thing I’ve ever done. And now my life revolves around making it out to Pittsfield Vermont twice or three times a year to spend 48+ hours out in the woods. For no money. For no glory. For a plastic skull. And unless you’ve done one, you won’t get it. And you shouldn’t do one. ‘Cause like I said, it has no point.

(3) My co-workers treat me with caution. Though, that could be because I have a Death Race finishers skull and a WTM sign sitting on my desk.

(4) I’ve had to buy all new shoes. My feet have grown from an already large size 10 to a 10.5 or sometimes 11 in the past year. And at WTM last year, I gouged massive holes in my heels (making it impossible to wear any type of shoe for 3 weeks), that are now knobs of scar tissue. And they’ve widened out. My cute narrow feet are now ugly and sausage-like.

(5) My definition of a “long” race is completely skewed. Case in point: when describing the UltraBeast to my mom a few months ago, I told her “don’t worry, it will start when it’s light out and end when it’s light out.” Before WTM, I thought 24 hours was ridiculous. Now anything less seems…pedestrian. (In related news, I’ve become an endurance snob)

(6) It introduced me to Crossfit. It’s way too expensive, my hands are always ripped or covered in blood blisters, my collarbone is always covered in clean bruises, and I talk in strange acronyms and code that annoys the shit out of everyone.

(7) It made me think that running around a city a night with a backpack full of bricks was totally normal. At WTM, I meet my first GRT’s (they were EXCELLENT at shaking handwarmers for me), and immediately signed up for my first GoRuck Challenge. I’ve never met a more batshit-crazy cult in my life.

(8) I can’t wear dresses to work. Well, I can (and I do, everyday), but it’s not pretty. Obstacle racing has permanently mottled my legs, and as soon as one set of scabs/scrapes/bruises heals, the next race is up. I attended several weddings this summer where people gasped in horror. And thanks to the scars, I suppose I’ll never be able to live out my childhood dream of becoming a Nair model.

(9) My balcony will never be clean again. Currently, it’s covered in bricks, rucks, sand pills, muddy shoes, Camelbaks, an axe, and stuff from the UltraBeast that I still haven’t washed out. I need a hose. Those don’t work very well in a high-rise condo.

(10) Facebook has owned my life. I think I doubled my number of friends (and I stopped taking requests from people I’ve never met). All obstacle racing discussions, planning and strategy take place in Facebook groups, which grow by the day. I get probably close to 100 notifications a day. But if I tune out, I miss important stuff–I couldn’t quit if I tried. Damn you, Facebook.

(11) I started blogging. And we all know that blogging is a completely narcissistic exercise. It’s “me me me” and “look how awesome I am at something that no one cares about” and “listen to my deep thoughts and validate my emotional worth.” So yes, I suck. And I contribute nothing useful…why are you reading? Word.

(12) It introduced me to Joel Gat. He bites nipples. Enough said.

(13) sends me angry reminders that I’ve constantly “exceeded my budget for travel.” Living in Chicago, very few of these races are within driving distance. I’ve flown more than I ever have in my entire life, and my savings account hates me for it. Along those lines, my gearwhore-ness has no bounds. Rucks are expensive, winter clothes and wetsuits are expensive. So instead, I’ve just increased my budget–take that,

(14) I’ve met enough weirdos to fill a psych ward. Seriously, I love you fellow racers, but most of you are just plain nuts. Some of you are annoying, going around talking about how “badass” you are all the time. That’s cool. I just roll my eyes. Most of you are the good crazy. But still, crazy–I don’t think I’d take you home to meet my mom or anything.

(15) I’ll never look at a wetsuit the same way again. Wearing 2.5 of them for the better part of 24 hours and still nearly getting hypothermia will skew your perception of any innocuous object.

(16) My hair may never grow again. (and no, it’s not from the hair dye, assholes) Keeping it pulled back in tight ponytails for hours on end and then getting that wet, muddy, in knots, and ripped my barb wire will cause some very attractive breakage.

(17) My competitive side came back to life. I avoid races/competition for several years before WTM because I knew how innately competitive I am, and how that can become ugly. And now it seems like everything I do is a competition. Hell, even my daily workouts are competitions. Or walking faster than everyone else on my morning commute.

(18) Certain foods have weird associations. Sharkies. Peanut M&Ms. Mint Oreos. Ice Cream Sundae Poptarts. Hot Jello. Bananas. YoGo. Nutella. Cashews.

(19) I can’t wear sandals. Well, once again, I SHOULDN’T wear sandals. But I do. But I’m down to 6 toenails, and the ones that are there fall off post-race at a regular interval. Yes, it’s ugly. But I’ve gotten really good at painting the skin. So deal with it, people.

(20) Though it’s faint, my apartment will always slightly smell of Jersey. At times, I’ll get a whiff. And then I’ll either smile or want to cry.

Let’s be honest. I smile. I love this shit.

It’s ruined my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Ten Commandments of World’s Toughest Mudder: Part I

(1) Thou shall respect the power of neoprene

All stripping down was done separately
All stripping down was done separately

While there were many different types of crazy at WTM, it quickly became apparent that many people underestimated the cold. Compression gear, whether CW-X or Under Armour, does wonders, but mostly only when it’s dry. When the 40 degree water hits (as it did in the second obstacle), all of those wetsuit-haters began to realize that they had made a critical tactical error. I was one of them. Given that it was a sunny, mid-40’s day, I didn’t plan to put on my wetsuit until after the first lap. Needless to say, the first lap was perhaps the coldest, and most miserable, that I was during the entire 24 hours. Once I was fully armored in layers of neoprene: socks, hood, wetsuit (and 2 wetsuits in the later laps), my core stayed toasty, even during the full submersions.
Of course everyone asks about chafing. Lube up, people, and you will be fine: Bodyglide, vaseline, buttpaste, diaper rash cream. All work wonders.

(2) Thou shall dry off completely between laps

What two wetsuits and a hood look like
What two wetsuits and a hood look like

That’s right. Strip your ass down and get nekkid. I know its cold, and I know you are wet, but as most outdoor survivalists tell you (of which I am not), when you are hypothermic, getting everything wet off is key. Bring towels–lots of towels. I went through about 6 just drying myself off between laps. Once naked, jump in your sleeping bag, conveniently warmed with handwarmers or MRE-heaters shaken and thrown in the bottom. I repeated this routine between every lap (save the last two–no time, which made the last lap miserable). Getting the core temp back to normal saved my sometimes-boney ass.

Yes, your wetsuit is going to be wetsuit (or sometimes, completely frozen solid. WTF?) when you reemerge. But through on some dry compression gear underneath, and get back out there to embrace the suck.

(3) Thou shall know the beauty of aid stations

Yeah yeah yeah. We all run road races where we are “too good” to stop at the aid stations. We learn to drink our water while running (it’s an art, really). But when you are going for 24 hours, pace is the key. And learning how to utilize what is out there on the course is just playing smart. By the final three laps, Joel (my partner-in-crime who will get a full introduction later) and I were stopping at almost every aide station and medical tent for one main reason: the hot water. Not to drink (though it’s helpful if you do that as well), but to warm the frozen phalanges. We figured out the best way to do so: pouring the hot water in cups, and basically dipping the fingers (this is assuming you are wearing neoprene gloves. If not, hello third degree burns…) until they regained feeling. For the feet, pour the hot water down into your neoprene socks.

It may have looked funny, but I came away with all my phalanges with little to no frostnip. Win!

(4) Thou shall learn how to climb tactical ladders

Yup, those dangly nylon bitches are actually quite simple if you know how to climb them: reverse grip (palms facing towards you), stepping up wrapping your legs around and hooking them into the rear of the ladder. Coming into WTM, I heard horror stories of the “Rope a Dope” at Tri-State. People stuck, ass over backwards, trying to get up the ladders.

Come WTM time, once again, I saw the same thing at both sets of tactical ladders. [begin rage] On the first lap, I waited for 15 minutes at the bottom of the Massive Turd waiting for some dickwad to pull himself up the ladder. And he sat, spinning and spinning helplessly. It kinda reminded me of a fly in a spider’s web. Except that this fly was giving me hypothermia from waiting for his ass to die. For the love of god, climb the effin ladder or get down so I can show you how its done [end rage].

(5) Thou shalt not underestimate the power of logrolling

At a certain point, an endurance race comes to choosing the past of least resistance: saving energy, and just getting through. While I have always been adamant about belly crawling through Kiss of Mud, Turd’s Nest, Shake n’ Bake, etc. But by the third lap, energy conservation became key. And my knees and hips were so mottled, belly crawling became an adventure in finding the one non-bruised spot.

Enter the power of the logroll.

You all know you did constantly when you a kid. I used to climb to the top of really steep hills (we had those in Oregon), and logroll down like it was a professional sport. So while it may not look as bad ass, logrolling under those barbed wires or over that turd’s nest is just plain sexy. I mean, smart. Next up: learning how to logroll uphill (damn you Kiss of Mud).

(6) Thou shalt not get wasted the night before

I did not. And I felt great the next day. Others, however, thought shots of everclear limoncello were a perfect carbo-loading opportunity (*cough Joel cough*). Not getting wasted also prevents you from making an ass of yourself in front of 50 of your newest friends and fellow racers. And biting women’s nipples. And dick-punching dudes you just met. Lesson: save the beer, tequila, and everclear shots for after the race. I mean, we are “athletes” after all, right?

(7) Thou shall get your ass into the water

Standing there, staring at it, isn’t going to make it go away or magically get warmer. It’s December. In Jersey. Normal people don’t get into freezing bodies of water at this time of year. And they definitely wouldn’t do so, voluntarily, repeatedly, over the course of 24 hours.

So I have two musings on this point.

First, to you people trying to walk around the outside of “Jesus Walk/Mud Mile?” Grow some balls and get into the water. This is your first obstacle, not your first attempt at Twinkle Toes on the embankment. You signed up for it, you knew it was going to be there, so get your ass into the water.
Second, the anticipation of the water was 10x worse than the water itself. I have to extend a congratulatory bitch-slap to TMHQ for strategically placing (most) of the full submersions at the end of the loop (I assume they did it strategically, but sometimes even the dunce gets an A). Running through those woods after the Massive Turd, knowing that 4 (potentially 5) submersions await you may be the worst mental torture out there. But, assuming you are wearing wetsuit (or two and a half), once you were in there, it really wasn’t THAT bad. Right? Sure, standing up on top of Walk the Plank at 4am when its 20 degrees out is a complete mind fuck, but that’s the lesson: you don’t stand up at the top of Walk the Plank. You get up there and jump like a Pointer Sister. That is, unless you agree to jump simultaneously with your race partner. And you do for the first two times and then he screws you on the last one by jumping without you. Thanks, Joel.

(8) Thou shall smile (and thank your volunteers)

You hate yourself. You’ve been doing this shit for 20 hours, and all you want is a hot shower and a bottle of tequila. Every three steps you are saying out loud “this is so effin retarded.” Every spectator is telling you that you are crazy (but then again, there are no spectators at 4am).

The only thing to do at that point is to realize the ridiculousness of it all, laugh, and smile. As cheesy as it is, smiling totally makes anything bearable. Oh, I have to crawl through water under live wires?? How fun! Oh, you want me to get up this 12 ft wall alone? Not a problem! You mean I get to jump off this 25 ft platform in the middle of the night into a 40-degree lake? HELL YES.

Along the same line, you can never be too grateful for your volunteers. As previously mentioned, at 4am, there are no spectators. There is no one cheering you on except for those volunteers at aid stations and certain obstacles. And if you smile, and thank them a lot, they may do things for you. Like let you eat bananas out of their hands. Or stick energy chews in your frozen mouth. Or tie your shoes when you can’t feel your fingers. Or offer you wine from their tent (did not take that one up). Or talk to you for the entire length of the Mud Mile/Jesus Walk (thanks Fuzz!). Thank you volunteers. I almost felt that you had it worse having to stand around in the cold during the middle of the night. At least we were moving.

(9) Thou shalt not stop for bathroom breaks

Truth: There is nothing better than peeing in a wetsuit. Especially when it’s cold. Before WTM, there was a lot of naysaying about wetsuits: chafing, dehydration, etc. But despite wearing 13mm of neoprene at one point, I never found myself remotely close to dehydration. I attribute this to the fact that I was guzzling water at every chance, not because I was thirsty, but solely so I had more fluid to pee in my wetsuit, warming myself up.

You got that right, I’m the classiest lady that you’ll find around here. Any takers, boys?

(NB: I have heard that you are not a real man until you shit in your wetsuit. I don’t think I want to be a real man)

(10) Thou shalt never travel alone.

Scene: 8pm on Saturday night. My tent. I had just finished my second lap, and was huddling in my sleeping bag with MRE heaters at my feet, trying to get up the courage to get back out there again. It was cold. And miserable. And I was alone. WTM had set up the pit areas in a line about a mile long, and, while I had met dozens of fellow racers the night before, I had no idea where their tents were or if they were even in them. I had ran the first two laps on my own, not sticking with any particular person. While this was tolerable for the first lap due to the number of people out there, the second lap was only bearable thanks to the amazing Tom Keller that followed me, taking pictures, and encouraging me every step of the way.

But I was lonely, cold, and a bit depressed. My wetsuit and my shoes had frozen solid from being outside my tent for a half hour. And I was scared at the prospect of getting back out there for more laps. By myself.

Suddenly, I hear a familiar voice from outside my tent: “Amelia?” The tent unzips and Joel’s head pokes through, wearing his infamous “I’m Joel” hat: “You ready to head back out there?” My body told me to stay snuggled up and warm in my tent, but I knew I was in this to compete. Hell yes, I’m ready to go back out there.*

And so began the journey of Amelia and Joel. Over the course of the next 14 hours, we laughed, cursed, bitched, and probably learned more about each other than any two people (that had just really met the night before) should ever know. I used him as a stepstool over the Berlin Walls, and he let me break through the ice and find the holes in the Jesus Walk/Mud Mile. A reporter interviewed us as we were warming up in the wetsuit tent. Unbeknownest to this poor reporter, we were both peeing in our wetsuits** at the time. Sorry for the smell, bud. And for that odd puddle that formed around my feet.

Together, we took probably the least sexy shower known to mankind both covered in 10+mm of neoprene (see left). The shower was a desperate attempt to dethaw before the final lap, in which I also proceeded to vomit on him (note to self: the orange FRS is not my friend. Note to everyone else: apologies if you used that shower afterwards). And all we could do was laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was a true suck, and one that could only be embraced together.

As we embarked on our final lap at 6:30am, the sun was rising. Throughout the night, volunteers kept saying “things will get so much better once the sun comes up.” We dropped our headlamps and crossed our fingers. What those effers didn’t say, however, was that the wind was going to pick up tenfold. So began the lap of misery. Of me being certain that I was going to lose a few fingers to frostbite. Of us wrapping heat sheets around our gloves to try and block the wind. Of aide stations no longer being manned and out of hot water. Of dizziness and the inability to walk in a straight line. Of Joel picking up heatsheets along the way to wrap around me to attempt to control the uncontrollable shaking. Thanks, bud.

And we crossed the finish line together, holding hands. The asshole still somehow managed to finish 3 seconds ahead of me according to official time. Figures. I can’t describe the feeling at that moment. Did we actually just do that for 24 hours? Did we actually slog through sub-20 degree air temperatures and 40 degree water temps with the prize being…a kettlebell? Do I still have all my fingers and toes? Check, check and check. And I couldn’t have done it without you, Joel.

*Note that I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to go back out there in the dark, in the woods, with the drunk-ass dude that tried to bite my nipples the night before. I should have brought my rape whistle.

**Shout out also goes out to Turtle, Joel’s girlfriend, for letting me borrow her wetsuit which I proceeded to pee in about 20 times. I’ll buy you a new one.