Monday, May 16, 2011

Muddering Through It: Tough Mudder/New England Race Report

On Saturday, May 7th, I had a new racing experience. As I should know by now, signing up for events months and months in advance can make such events seem like abstractions, like intriguing ideas that will never ripen into actual physical activities of the most challenging and uncomfortable order. Tough Mudder falls squarely into the "it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time" category.

For the uninitiated, Tough Mudder grew out of a Harvard Business school class project, which the professor found interesting, but critiqued the fact that the organizers would likely never be able to attract enough participants (about 500) to break even, much less turn a profit. Tough Mudder events now exist all over the country, and sell out regularly, with well over 10,000 people doing events on any given weekend. The idea behind Tough Mudder is to create a ridiculously challenging, but nonetheless surmountable, course, ostensibly under the auspices of "former British Special Forces". The races involve - of course - mud, along with challenging terrain, icy water hazards, and all manner of obstacles requiring one to go up, over, through or around, with a lot of effort.

For my part, bounding up and down a mud- and snow-covered mountain did not intimidate me. Climbing, balancing, jumping . . . no problem. Electrical shock?  Bring it.  But being immersed in near-freezing muddy water time and again required me to confront one of my own demons. Ever since my body started to adapt to high running mileage by getting leaner, I've had almost zero tolerance for cold water.  Turns out, that's a significant part of the Tough Mudder experience, especially in Vermont in early May.  So, while my relationship to cold water might not be a phobia, per se, it definitely qualifies as a strong aversion, and thus became the "thing" upon which I fixated as the Tough Mudder start approached.

I got up early and made the longer-than-expected drive to Mount Snow.  It was a mostly gray, cool morning, with the car thermometer reading between 38 and 46 degrees.  It was blustery, but didn't look like it would rain.  As one friend put it, one good thing about Tough Mudder is that the weather is basically irrelevant.   True enough.

I arrived early enough to park, take a few pictures and get into the "zone".  I strolled around, appreciating the clever-but-contrived signage.  I got my face and arm "marked" with my race number.  I saw all sorts of folks: military-types, runners, triathletes, costumed wing nuts, tall, short, fit-looking, not-so-fit-looking, well-geared, and minimally-dressed.  Hairstyles were colorful and interesting, with the dyed Mohawk perhaps the most favored look.  Many teams had matching uniforms, some more fanciful than others.

Seeking to stay warm, I lingered inside, then got into my racing clothes before checking my bag and making the 1/3-mile hike up to the starting area.  I was one of the first participants to line up, and we were the day's first wave of "Mudders".  I chatted with a few folks at the start, including a young Army guy who'd just run a 1:18 half-marathon off minimal training (hate him!) and a guy who operates an adventure race blog featuring Tough Mudder reviews.  I talked to two guys who are striving to do ALL Tough Mudder races around the country, including twice in one weekend sometimes.

The pre-race speech was a tad too canned for my taste.  The announcer read a prepared script, whipping us into a frenzy, and fomenting an atmosphere of this event being an expression of rogue courage which would somehow elevate us to a higher state of being.  He brandished a large poster of Osama Bin Laden, with a large red "X" through the photo, and some of the crowd started yelling, "USA, USA, USA!!!"  I found the demonstration somewhat distasteful, and while I appreciate that Tough Mudder raises money for the Wounded Warrior Project, the Bin Laden gesture seemed cheap, disrespectful and completely contrived.  We were there for our own sakes, to play in man-made obstacles with only minimal danger to ourselves.  This was semi-extreme recreation, not the sort of goal-based sacrifice that would make the world a better place (and analogizing that premise to our current international conflicts is a loaded exercises in itself).

And, so, after months of anticipation, the gun sounded and the masses dashed down the steep base of Mount Snow, some yelling like medieval warriors, before turning left and heading STRAIGHT UP the steep ski slopes for a mile and a half.

I was trying to find a rhythm, and it soon became clear to me that trying to run up a 30+% grade with alternating surfaces of slippery mud, grass, wet rock, snow and ice was to embark on a fool's errand.  Add to that the charming touch of being sprayed with snowmaking machines (meaning, thick mists of cold water), and I changed my slogging jogging gait to a power hike, letting a number of fellow Mudders go ahead of me.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally stopped climbing and started to confront the obstacles which supposedly set Tough Mudder apart from other endurance events and adventure races.

In all honesty, I cannot remember the particular order of the challenges/obstacles, but I certainly remember many of them, particularly those involving exposure to frigid water.  Here are some highlights:
  • Devil's Beard - After missing this obstacle because a wooded lateral trail section was poorly marked, several us had to run back UP the mountain before slithering under taut cargo nets across rugged mountain terrain.  I'd imagine that this is where the scraping of my body began in earnest
  • Boa Constrictor - Possibly the least appealing obstacle, involving two long tunnels which each dipped down into frigid muddy water, leaving barely enough room for one to turn one's head and keep breathing.  This was my first immersion, and I emerged from this obstacle with numb hands and feet, and with blood dripping down my knee and shin
  • Tires - basically running up through a series of tired, with an occasional mud pit making it interesting
  • "Ball Shrinker" - this water crossing involved a suspended tightrope which plunges the intrepid participant into chest-high water.  I asked the safety kayaker near me if he'd be kind enough to return my testicles to me if he saw them (though, we all know to where they retreated in an effort to survive)
  • "Kiss of Mud" - crawling under barbed wire wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared

  • "Hold Your Wood" - physically, this may have been the most challenging undertaking, as we had to grab a ~40-pound log and carry it up and then down an extremely steep pitch.  The footing was treacherous, and I had to "learn" how to fall safely, so that the log wouldn't land on me or roll down and take out any fellow competitors.  I commented to a fellow sufferer that after the cold water festivities, that was the only "wood" any of us would be holding.  Tossing that log back into the wood pile was a major relief.
  • Evil Kenevil - This turned out to be an easy up-&-over.
  • Spider Web - climbing cargo nets proved very manageable, and gave weary legs some much-needed rest
  • "Walk the Plank" - The mother of all Mudder obstacles, at least for me.  This involved climbing a rope up to a 15-foot platform, then plunging into what was billed as 35-degree water.  This was my moment of confronting and conquering many a personal demon.  I did it, but the effect of that water was truly a shock to my system.  I pulled myself out of the pond, and told the volunteers that "You all suck", with a big smile on my face.  I felt like the worst HAD to be over by that point.

  • Underwater Tunnels - This obstacle merely involved plunging through a muddy pond, under several progressively lower horizontal posts.  Not fun, but short.

  • Funky Monkey - Greased monkey bars make for good times, as I got through about 4 rungs before falling into the - you guessed it! - muddy water below
  • Berlin Wall - The only challenge which required a group effort to surmount.  I hooked up with three other guys, and we figured out how to get each other up and over.  It was a great mental, physical and social exercise.
  • Glacier - This involved climbing up a large heap of snow, and then descending down the hard, cold, rough downside.  Here I managed to pass the only woman who'd been ahead of me in our wave.  I don't usually care much, but it was nice not to get "chicked" in this particular testosterone-heavy endeavor.

I was passing plenty of others in the final stages, and ended up in a sort of "head-to-head" battle with a guy I'd seen since the beginning.  On the poetically-named "Turd's Nest", I passed him and did not see him again until after the finish.

The final few obstacles involved trudging through iced red water in the "Blood Bath", sliding down the mountain on wet plastic, hurdling some uncomfortably handled metal pipes, and then the two Tough Mudder signature finishing obstacles: "Fire Walker" and "Electroshock Therapy".  The fire segment was mostly a noxious stretch of blinding smoke.  The much-ballyhooed electric shock was little more than the sort of ticklish pinprick one would get from a novelty hand buzzer.

I charged through finishing chute alone, arms pumping while a few people cheered, with the clock reading 11:19:xx am, meaning I'd just taken nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes to go 10 measly miles.  I also heard - informally - that I was 10th overall in the heat, which I guess was a good thing.

I got my finisher's headband and race t-shirt, some food, a space blanket and lingered around waiting for others to finish.  I grabbed a Dos Equis, drank about two sips and tossed the rest.  I watched as people threw kegs at cardboard cutouts of celebrities.  And then I de-briefed briefly with a couple of other finishers before heading towards the gear check in an effort to get dry and warm.  The line was very long, as the later starters were checking in, and only a couple of us were seeking to get bags we'd checked earlier.  There was some confusion, and I just stood there, shivering, while the volunteers looked for my belongings.  Several aspiring participants started asking me questions, commenting on my bloody legs, seeking reassurance that it wasn't "so bad".  One young woman asked, "How do you feel?" A: "Tired." Q: "But happy, and glad you did it, right?" A: [after long pause] "I'm tired."  She seemed deflated.

Looking back on Tough Mudder, the life-timing of this event was apropos as it turned out, given that it fell  at the end of a very intense and difficult couple of weeks.  I'd been in a bit of a post-Boston funk, running less than I have in years.  I've been tired, somewhat listless, and quite preoccupied with the transition I'm making from married father of three to separated part-time "single" dad.  Other personal confusion and challenges have also abounded.  But Tough Mudder was a great opportunity to do something "different", something outside my athletic comfort zone, and to do be pleasantly surprised by doing it pretty well.  As usual, the life lessons and parallels are there for the taking.

One common question since May 7th has been, "Would you do it again?"  The answer for me is that I'd consider doing it in a warmer place and perhaps with a team of similarly-conditioned folks, since the camaraderie of the experience is one of the things which sets Tough Mudder apart from the typical running race experience.

Thanks for reading. - ESG

Monday, May 2, 2011

"More (or Less?) Than a Feeling": Boston 2011 Race Report

A goal properly set is halfway reached.
--Abraham Lincoln

It's probably only a tad ironic that the marathon which has taken me the least amount of time to run has resulted in my taking the longest amount of time to generate a race report.  There are a couple of reasons for this, the main one being that - two weeks removed from it - I still don't know how I feel about my performance in the 2011 Boston Marathon.  And, so, without further qualifying equivocation, here's the report.

After the debacle which was Boston 2010 (and my running year as a whole), I had trained for and expected to run a certain time in 2011.  That time was not to be.  My sub-3:05 goal slipped away in the Newton Hills, but rather than an epic blowup, I managed to contain the slowdown and finish my second Boston Marathon with a new PR of 3:08:48.   It's difficult to characterize the result in terms of good or bad, satisfying or disappointing.  It's all of those things - and more - but the experiences from the race (and from the weekend as a whole) are more significant than the final time on the clock.

With so much going on in my life at the moment, it's difficult to know where to begin this year's race report, but it may serve everyone's interests in just focusing on the race itself.  Suffice it to say that the weekend involved some personal highs and lows, as I reconnected with some friends, forged new friendships and struggled through the complicated dynamics of marital separation.


After some crazy scrambling with my friend Steve/TTM on Sunday night, where we raided a number of southern New Hampshire chain stores in search of a tarp on which to rest at Athlete's Village on Monday morning, we finally found one in the automotive section of Wal-Mart.  I had not set foot in a Wal-Mart in about a decade, and Sunday night was a bit of a freak show there.  Still, we acquired 160 square feet of vinyl protection, and ended up back at my place a bit after 10:00 p.m., later than either of us had hoped.

We crashed at about 11:00 and I had the alarm set for 4:00 a.m., so that we could be on the road and under the Boston Common in time to get on the first wave of buses leaving Boston for Hopkinton.  The drive went smoothly, and we found James and Kevin with no problem.  My other friend Steve was also supposed to meet us, but he left his phone in his car and never did find us among the assembled throng.

The ride to Hopkinton was fine, and I was calm and relaxed.  I had not looked at pacing spreadsheets, brought no pace band with me, and otherwise was not thinking about tackling 26.2 miles in a certain time.  Instead, I was thinking only about saving some energy early and settling into a sustainable sub-7:00/mile pace.

We arrived at Athlete's Village and set up our monstrously large tarp.  Friends and strangers kept finding us, claiming small swatches of dryness as we all waited for 10:00 am to roll around.  Everyone was fueling up, drinking, standing in bathroom lines, etc.  Seth found me, and we hung out with his Swedish friends for a while.  The wind was blowing, but the frenzy over the unprecedented tailwind had everyone feeling at peace with the weather.  Sunday's storms had blown over, and the sun was shining from a brilliant blue sky.

Time passed in fits and spurts, with some segments seeming long; other moments passed by at warp speed.  We all started getting our gear on, applying BodyGlide, eating, drinking, shedding layers.  The whole scene definitely had the feel of a religious gathering, with shared rituals co-existing peacefully with individual habits.

The time finally came to meet up with some friends who'd come on a charter bus, check the gear bags and head to the starting corrals.  I had a twinge of regret about the incompleteness of my last bathroom stop, but it turned out to be too late to do anything about it.  I also forgot to put my calf compression sleeves on, which makes a second critical omission in two consecutive Bostons (forgetting my HR monitor last year).

I found my way into an overflowing Corral #8, said good-bye to one of my friends who was several corrals ahead, waited for a bit, shed my long-sleeved shirt and then pushily made my way towards the front of the corral.  The energy was palpable as thousands of highly-trained, tapered runners endured their final moments of energy restraint.


Miles 1-5

1 - 7:18
2 - 7:00
3 - 6:55
4 - 6:54
5 - 6:57

The Boston Marathon boasts 115 years of distance running lore, staged on the same course year after year after year.  For all the great moments and triumphs, it's a course which has surely chewed up and spit out more runners than probably any other road race in the world.  As a sort of recreational runner's "All-Star" race with a pronounced downhill start, Boston tantalizes many an aspiring PR-seeker to go out too fast before paying dearly for such over-exuberance.  I wanted to go out "easy" and take 3 or so miles to settle in.

Other than the annoyance of navigating the crowd, things seemed to start well.  I felt an uncomfortable pang in my stomach, which I attributed to nerves and did my best to ignore.  I found a tangent along the left side of the course, weaving more than I should have, but less than I wanted to.

By the end of Mile 2, I had found my groove, and was feeling good about the pace, my effort and what lay ahead.  I tried to draw energy from the fans without expending any extra by high-fiving or otherwise hamming it up.  I stayed alert to those around me, especially during the aid stations, but very much sought to remain in my own space.

Miles 6-10

6 - 6:54
7 - 6:49
8 - 6:49
9 - 6:52
10 - 7:21*
*includes Garmin distance adjustment

I paid attention to my stride and form, being careful not to over-run the downhills.  It seemed like I was doing fine, and my heart rate stayed relatively low throughout this segment.  Somewhere after Mile 5, I passed a guy in a bodysuit animal costume.  I pulled up next to him and said with a grin, "I hate when costumed runners are so fast."  When I saw his face and heard him speak, I realized that he was from Japan, and he replied, "Oh, thank you.  You have beautiful form."  I'm guessing he didn't quite grasp what I'd just said, but I gladly accepted the compliment, knowing that if it wasn't a lie at that moment, it was likely to be soon enough.

With my stomach still a bit of a question mark, I took my first gel at about Mile 7, a Gu Roctane pineapple (no caffeine), chased by two cups of water.  I'd drunk only water at aid stations to this point, and fueling-wise, I seemed okay.

In about Mile 9, I saw a runner towering over the rest of the field.  I ran next to him and told him that his ability to move at that pace was very impressive.  I guessed that he was 6'8" or 6'9", but he told me that he's actually 6'11", and that he's never seen anyone taller in a marathon.  He said that there's nothing special about him running, as he's just putting one foot in front of the other just like the rest of us (except with about half as many strides per mile).

Up until Mile 10, the pace felt right and encouraging, such that I had a sense that it could be a stellar day.  Yet, for no obvious reason, Mile 10 was very difficult.  I suddenly felt labored and tight, and thought that my day may be coming to a premature end.  Still, unlike in marathons past, I stayed with it, kept my wits about me, and regrouped.

Miles 11-15

11 - 6:58
12 - 6:57
13 - 6:55
14 - 6:54
15 - 7:11

This was a strange segment for me, as I didn't feel great, but remained encouraged by the mile-by-mile splits.

The Wellesley women were MUCH more boisterous than I remembered from 2010, and the "Wall of Sound" greeted us a good half-mile before the screaming co-eds came into view.  Unlike last year, though, I stayed in the middle of the road, glanced at some of the scream tunnel signs and soaked in the energy and atmosphere.  I felt privileged to be running the Boston Marathon, to be treated like someone special for a day.  I also resolved to make sure I stayed positive for the second half of the race, regardless of what ended up happening.

I crossed the half-marathon mark exactly where I had hoped to be, at 1:31:31.  I simultaneously felt hopeful and concerned.  For reasons that I can't completely explain, I had a sense of foreboding, but I tried to discount it as the irrational fear of a runner attaining a new fitness level.

Mile 14 marked my second gel, a Carboom raspberry.  My stomach was not calm, and the GI melodrama went into full swing, as my stomach and I transitioned from a state of a detente of benign discomfort to possible full-blown disagreement, but each time I thought about making a pit stop, there'd be no port-a-potty, and when I did see one, the urge would temporarily subside.  I finally decided that I would stop, but there was a line.  So, the decision essentially made itself.  I was going to roll the digestive dice and see how long I could hang on.

Miles 16-21

16 - 6:57
17 - 7:20
18 - 7:13
19 - 7:27
20 - 7:29
21 - 7:56

At this point, I knew the hills were coming, and I was not sure what to expect exactly.  I was prepared to slow down, but wanted to feel like I was maintaining a pretty even effort. I stayed as steady as I could, but I knew that I wasn't going to be pulling off any late-race heroics.  I ground my way up the hills, and somewhere around Mile 17 or so, I felt a hand on my butt.  It was a rather incongruous sensation at that point in a marathon, and I was not feeling particularly flattered or amused by the attention.  I turned to see my friend Seth behind me, not a good sign.  Our exchange went kind of like this:
Me: What are you doing?!
Seth: Jogging, dude. I'm done.
Me: [With a somewhat disgusted glare of disbelief] I can't talk to you now.
Seth: Cool.  Go for it.

I spent the next mile or two feeling badly about having been such a jerk to my friend, but as a runner I knew Seth would understand.  Given that his goal was even more ambitious than mine, I knew he was in a bad place, but I realized that I was, as well.  I was very much trying to keep myself in the race mentally, to accept that marathons are not - at least at my mediocre level - all-or-nothing endeavors.  I still had plenty of "room" for a PR, and I knew that I had a good chance to break 3:10.

So, I rode out the hills as best I could, and figured that - if nothing else - I would hang in longer than I did last year.  Progress by degrees, rather than by leaps and bounds, became my new reality.

And, with no particular degree of pomp or circumstance, I was up and over Heartbreak Hill, slowing down, but still running.

Miles 22-Finish

22 - 7:28
23 - 7:36
24 - 7:31
25 - 7:45
26 - 7:29
0.2+ - 1:37 (6:24 pace)
Most of the hoopla surrounding the Boston Marathon is about getting in, known to runners as "qualifying".  The training, the careful selection of qualifying races, the new need to rush to register.  It's all about getting to the party.  And, while I'll readily admit to having gone through all of that myself, I've spent more time thinking about the end of the race, particularly those last 5+ miles when one has earned the opportunity to run through the streets of Boston as someone special for a day.  Last year, my greatest regret was that I death-marched the last 5+ miles in a cramp-riddled, depressive slog.  I was more war victim than celebrant.

Before this year's race, I vowed to run the last 5 miles strong and with a smile on my face.  As I came down from Newton, though, I realized that "strong" was subject to situational redefinition.  The promise to sport a smile, on the other hand, lay entirely within my control.

No math whiz on a good day, it's ironic that the last miles of a marathon put me in human calculator mode.  I was trying to figure out what it would take to hang on and break 3:10.  I had the WILL to run faster.  I believe I had the CAPACITY to do so.  But, in the critical moment, I lacked the ability to turn my legs over any faster than I did.  I knew I was slowing down, but I refused to stop.  I knew my dreams of a major marathon breakthrough were on the side of a road somewhere in the last few miles.  I also realized that I was slowing down to what used to be my goal pace.  In other words, my "bad day" used to be my "good day".  That meant - and means - that I have reached a new level as a runner.  And I took great solace in that late-race epiphany.  

My reality may not yet have caught up to my ambitions, but I was getting closer.  So, with that wonderful observation at the front of my fatigued consciousness, I took it all in.  I gave thumbs up and pumped my arms.  I smiled.  I patted struggling runners on the shoulder.  I beheld the Citgo sign.  I enjoyed the drunken college kids, the silly signs, the air horns.  I basically allowed myself to be part of this pulsing, throbbing, living mass of human energy.  And it was wonderful.

Mile 25 was a struggle.  I felt myself bending, but refused to break.  I would not stop.  I would not walk.  I would not grimace or frown or wallow in self-pitying notions of what might have been.

And, with a final push, I was through the underpass, quick right, quick left.  And then impossibly long final straightaway, the runner's equivalent of putting the 18th green at The Masters.  And I saw the time, and I knew that I could not only break 3:10, but 3:09, too.  And I did, with a 3:08:48 official time.


As usual in a marathon, I was glad to be D-O-N-E.  I felt mostly numb, but not shattered like I had the year before.  I did not cast murderous glances at runners in wheelchairs, didn't stumble my way while deliberating whether to seek medical attention myself.  Instead, I went through the post-finish receiving line, collected some water, snacks, my medal and a space blanket, and looked for the gear buses.  I went to designated meet-up area, where I saw friends who'd already finished, and waited for those who yet hadn't.

It's now May 2, and I still don't have a handle on how I feel about the way I ran in Boston.  26.2 miles yields great opportunity, but also provides a rather large platform for screwing up.  Did I run too fast in some of the early miles?  Did I blow my pre-race nutrition?  Did the stress of life, the chronic sleep deprivation and other worldly distractions detract from my ability to run to 100% of my fitness level?  I still don't know the answers to these and other related questions, but I do know that I am a new and improved runner.

And I hope that the lessons gleaned from the training cycle - discipline, persistence, focus - and the race - more persistence, flexibility, tenacity in the face of potential disappointment, joy in the moment - will carry over into my life.

After the race, a good friend of mine who is a lifelong endurance athlete now in his early 60's, wrote me the following:
We invest a lot of time and effort in trying to change a couple of minutes on race day, but when all is said and done, the time and effort changes us way more than the minutes do.
So true, Dave, so true.  Thus, with a nod to Dave and to President Lincoln as quoted at the start, I'll call Boston 2011 a qualified success, and an important stepping stone on the way to greater achievements, in running and in life.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron