by Martha Hicks Leta
On Sunday, May 6, members from Fitness Together in Norwell, 2 trainers and 3 clients, formed a team with 4 other South Shore residents to take part in the Tough Mudder New England Challenge at Mount Snow, VT.
Client Allison Jones of Team Boom Factor gave herself the gift of finishing the Tough Mudder Challenge for her 36 birthday. She says, “A special thanks has to be made to Joe Caruso, Mike Eaton and Alicia Tasney, the trainers at FT. Without their guidance, encouragement, and challenges, I would never have been able to do TM. They have made FT Norwell the success it is today and they keep us coming back year-over-year to push our physical boundaries. I was absolutely amazed that I could do what I did on that mountain. I give myself lots of credit, but I know it wouldn’t have been possible without FT and my teammates on Team Boom Factor!”
Here are photos and Part I of Team Boom Factor’s epic journey through one of the toughest adventure races on the planet.
Pulling into the parking lot of Mount Snow in Vermont, the range looms large. When it is being used for its intended purpose as a recreational downhill ski and snowboarding slope, Mount Snow is ideal for its steep and varied terrain. But with a summit elevation of 3,600 feet and a vertical drop of 1,700 feet, the resort also draws its share of adventure challenge events, like the Extreme Games in 1995 and the Winter X Games in 2000, 2001. Most importantly, at least for today’s purposes, it has mass quantities of a particularly sought-after commodity: mud. Across the mountain from base to peak, there is glorious goo as far as the eye can see. Not since the Woodstock revelers left Yasgur’s farm has there been such a spectacle of sludge.
The mud is important on this beautiful May morning to an army of mud-seeking oddballs who have come from near and far to partake in an event called The Tough Mudder Challege, proceeds from which (over $3 million to date) benefit the Wounded Warriors Project. Described as “Iron Man meets Burning Man” and “Probably the toughest event on the planet,” the weekend event consists of a grueling 10-12 mile course designed by British Special Forces to test strength, intestinal fortitude and camaraderie. The course has been stuck into the steep contours of this muddy mountain and consists of 26 obstacles with names like Arctic Enema, Electric Eel, Firewalker and Kiss of Mud. The obstacles feature heavily on disconcerting elements like ice water, barbed wire, real fire and 10,000 volts of electricity, and of course, the mud. Always the mud.
The organizers are careful to point out that the event is a challenge, not a race. Participants are advised that it’s about the fun as much as it is about the accomplishment, so they’re not to take themselves too seriously. Despite the grueling parameters of the challenge, silliness is encouraged, so participants come dressed as super-heroes, or drag queens or super-hero-drag-queens. Others come dressed in kilts or matching t-shirts with clever slogans like, Mind Over Mudder; Mud Sweat and Beers; Old and Weak, Do Not Resuscitate.
Among the 14,000 or so who have come to endure this trial is a team of nine stalwart South Shore residents, men and women ranging in age from 25-47. They call themselves Team Boom Factor and a larger portion of the group has met through Fitness Together in Norwell. Trainers Joe Caruso and Mike Eaton, who work with clients Eric Petersen, Allison Jones and Lou Leta (my husband), will lead their team into this madness.
At 47, Lou is the old man of the group. Lou initially came to Fitness Together to build stamina and burn off stress from the long hours and often physically demanding work required for his video production company, Digital Video and Consulting. Eric Petersen, 45, president of North East Distributors, came to FT for similar reasons and to keep up with his wife, who trains separately with her own hardcore group of adventure racers. Allison Jones, 36, VP of marketing for an IT company in Boston, came to Fitness Together four years ago out of desperation. “I was grossly overweight and out-of-shape and didn’t want to live that life any longer.”
Looking at the three clients now, it’s hard to imagine they were ever anything but fit. Petersen is tall and lean, with the broad shoulders and slender waist of a man much younger. He is gregarious and loud and isn’t the sort to quietly check out the vibe of a room before diving in; when he walks into a room, he is the vibe.
Lou is similarly built and is the straight man to Petersen’s boisterous comedian, although he’s known at the fitness studio for making an absurd amount of noise during workouts. It was this racket that made Allison Jones want to start pushing her training to a new level.
“Lou was often in with Mike or (trainer) Alicia Tasney while I was training with Joe,” says Allison. “I remember thinking to myself ‘who is this guy that keeps grunting and groaning?’ And then I would say to Joe, ‘We need to kick this up a notch!’”
Jones credits the Pack training sessions and her competitive nature for driving her fitness level to the point where she could consider a race like the Tough Mudder. “When FT introduced the Pack program, I ended up training with both Eric and Lou in different sessions. Pack provides a great dynamic. You end up working twice as hard because you don’t want the other person to beat you.”
Leta agrees, crediting the trainers at Fitness Together for brining him to this level of strength. “I never would have dreamed of doing something like this at my age. It’s beyond crazy. But the Fitness Together trainers thought I could handle it, and I decided to trust them on it.”
Joe Caruso, 27, is manager of the Fitness Together Studio. Joe has the sort of jacked up, compact physique acquired from years of heavy weightlifting and competitive bodybuilding. He’s quiet and intense and he likes training to classic rock turned up very loud.
Mike Eaton, 32, has been with Fitness Together since 2009. A college soccer player, Mike looks like he could still tear up the field easily. He is pleasant and polite until you train with him, and then he doesn’t take any grief. “Oh quit being a baby and just do it,” he’s been known to tell whiny clients.
Throughout the fall and winter the team has met with trainers Mike, Joe as well as Alicia Tasney as often as their schedules would allow. To prepare the team for the challenge, Tasney began amping up the sessions with more-than-usual cardio and upper body circuits. Mike doubled up the intensity on core, shoulder and leg circuits. Joe kept pushing their limits on the weights. Outside the studio Mike and Joe stayed focused on their own workouts, adding morning treks up Blue Hill to their already rigorous routine.
The team, rounded out by several others outside of the Fitness Together group, is made up of friends of Joe Caruso’s: his longtime girlfriend and workout partner, Kristen “Krissy” Gridley; Kurstin Meehan, a coach and trainer from Martha’s Vineyard; Megan Elizabeth from Quincy and her boyfriend, bodybuilder/trainer Chris Simons from Westwood.
Along the road to Tough Mudder the group has endured a winter of various illnesses, scheduling challenges and, just weeks before the event, injuries—Joe with a badly pulled calf and hamstring and Kurstin with bruised and broken heel bones. They have come together today to put that behind them and to test themselves on this incredibly challenging course.
Lou and I have brought our daughters, Bonnie, 16 and Caroline, 12. They are curious about this badass thing their workaholic father has gotten himself in to. I am here to bear witness and to drive us home safely, anticipating exhaustion and perhaps injury by day’s end for my husband.
As we sit in the parked car gathering ourselves, the zany spirit of the place shows itself immediately. A guy saunters by wearing a batman mask, batman underwear and not much else. Bonnie shudders and scrunches down in her seat, “Oh my God. I am so concerned.”
Caroline gets out of the car and pulls on her favorite hat, a striped wool thing in Rasta colors with the face of a monkey stitched into it. She stretches and inhales. “I like it here,” she declares.
Over by the registration tents where IDs are checked, wristbands are issued and race numbers are assigned, Lou finds Mike, Joe and Krissy. Mike introduces his wife Sarah, who will also be a spectator with the girls and me today. Sarah is a fresh-faced and energetic 20-something attorney. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, she wears her hair pulled into a neat ponytail, which I will spend much of the day trying to keep sight of as she leads us up and down the mountainside in pursuit of Team Boom Factor.
Here at the registration tent, contestants and spectators alike sign the death waivers required of those who wish to proceed past the entrance gate. By the end of the weekend as many as 14,000 participants will have signed these ominously worded waivers. Once contestant numbers are issued, participants step into an area where volunteers write assigned race numbers in indelible ink across their foreheads and over their arms—for identification purposes only, they say. Fully 20% of them won’t finish the race. No one says why.
As we pass through the entrance gate, the vibe turns more surreal and intense—a wild contradiction of post-apocalyptic merriment. Death metal music blares from speakers the size of NBA guards. People in ridiculous outfits line up for a costume contest. A burly dude with a neck-tattoo tries his hand at hurling empty beer kegs at cardboard cutouts of Fabio and Mini Me. Over by the main lodge a competitor bends over a trash barrel, vomiting profusely.
Up on the scar-addled mountain a grimy platoon of participants from an earlier wave marches through a haze of orange signal smoke. The only thing missing are the army fatigues and medevac dust-off. The place feels like a concert festival dropped into the middle of a war zone: Lollapalooza meets Hamburger Hill.
After storing gear and visiting the bathroom a final time or two, the Fitness Together portion of the team assembles at the base of Mount Snow eyeballing the changing sky. Temperatures fluctuate wildly between chilly and warm as the sun dodges in and out from patchy cloud cover. On paper the weather forecast seems perfect—dry with temps in the mid-60s and lots of sunshine. But now there is much discussion on clothing strategy: To layer or not to layer? Gloves or no gloves? What about the hat? Yes or no?
Eric Petersen’s wife, Bridget, jogs up to the group dressed in jeans and a brand new Tough Mudder shirt, which she has earned by completing the course the previous day. She is absurdly perky for a person who’s just endured these hellish challenges not 24 hours prior. She has a few words of advice for the novices. Air temperature is a tricky matter, she concedes. For the next several hours they will go from being submerged in ice water to running a gauntlet of fire; from a nearly vertical climb to standing around in wet clothes waiting for an obstacle to clear. They will be all over the mountain from base to peak, where temps can vary by as much as ten degrees. Moreover, most of the obstacles involve gravel, rough wood and sharp things with edges. She says it’s important to protect against such things. “But you’ll be fine,” she says. “Piece o’ cake.”
Anxious to catch up with a friend, Bridget turns and darts off into the crowd. Throughout the day Lou notices her popping up at various obstacles. He doesn’t know how she manages to cover so much rough ground so quickly and pictures her charging through the woods like the Last of the Mohicans.
Making their way toward the starting line, the group finds the rest of the Boom Factor team members in the staging area among the 600 other competitors who are part of the 10:40 a.m. wave. This is the first time Boom Factor has been together as a team, and for some, it is the first time they have laid eyes on some of their team members. They size one other up as they exchange friendly greetings. Chris Simons has brought camouflage colored war paint, which they draw on each other’s faces and then they smile gamely for a team picture.
Large speakers crackle to life, drawing our attention toward the booming voice of a be-mudded, muscled black man in a fleece beanie and army fatigues. He stands on a wooden pallet addressing the group with a drill sergeant’s authority. His speech is peppered with expletives and “hoo-rahs,” which the participants heartily echo back.
He tells the group that what they are about to face, they cannot do alone. This day is about helping teammates and total strangers alike. No Mudder gets left behind. He instructs the crowd to take a knee, and with a prayer of sorts, he reminds them why they are here—this is not a race, he says, this is a challenge. This about shredding your comfort zone and the wide margins around it that contain the trivial annoyances we complain about on a daily basis. This is about saying “no” to whining, and “yes” to trying something that scares the crap out of you. It’s about supporting the Wounded Warriors Project and saying to soldiers, wounded or otherwise, I can never do what you’ve done, but I’m making this gesture to gain a glimmer of understanding into the sacrifices you’ve made for me and my family and our national security.
The crowd erupts in an “amen” and another “hoo-rah” and after pausing for a prerecorded, country version of the Star Spangled Banner, they toss handfuls of mud into the air. As the mud rains down all around us, they charge off, en masse up the muddiest stretch of mountain I have ever seen.
Next Up: Find out how Team Boom Factor fares on the course through challenges like, “Arctic Enema,” “Hold Your Wood” and “Funky Monkey.”
Go to FTNorwell.com for more about the group and personal fitness programs available at our Norwell studio, or to find an FT Studio near you in Northern New England, go to FTGetsResults.com