In Part II of the Tough Mudder Challenge, Team Boom Factor goes off the grid as they navigate the early part of the course where they endure harrowing challenges and injuries. Meanwhile their trusty support team waits anxiously on the mountain side watching other challengers endure the “Hold Your Wood” obstacle, until, at last, Team Boom Factor appears…high?
As the team trudges up the mountain, one thing is clear: it will not be easy for spectators to track them. Unlike other more conventional races, the competitors aren’t monitored via GPS tracker. Nor are there golf carts or people movers or pedestrian-friendly paths. There is a chairlift that will drop spectators further up the mountain, but from there they are on their own. Throughout the day we catch site of a smattering of course officials here and there, but they are almost always on the move and not always available to answer spectators’ questions. What we have to work with is a fairly ambiguous map and not much else.
Fortunately for my daughters and me, Sarah Eaton is a horsewoman who’s ridden in her share of three-day equestrian events, the horse equivalent of a Tough Mudder challenge. This experience proves to be invaluable since it’s given her the ability to read course maps and estimate the time to cover distance over rough terrain, or at least as much as one can under these circumstances.
Judging from the map, the first few challenges aren’t easily accessible to spectators, so we take the chairlift up, which drops us below the fifth obstacle near the first of only five water stations along the 12-mile course. At this point, we know we are a good bit ahead of the team, but we’re not sure by how much. Once we get sight of them, we’ll be better able to track them through the rest of the course.
Just past the chairlift drop, the Mudders are coming off the fifth obstacle called Spider’s Web where they’ve had to scale two cargo net walls before charging up yet another rise. At this point, if they’ve elected to take on all the obstacles, they’ve endured submersion in an ice-filled dumpster, a 1.5 mile charge up a red graded ski run to the top of the mountain, a belly crawl under barbed wire set only 8 inches from the muddy ground, and the first of two 12’ walls.
Here, they come off the hill sweating and soaked to the bone in filthy water. They are sucking wind and unable to speak. I wait for a couple of guys to catch their breath and grab a drink before asking them what heat they’re in. One says they left at 9:20, more than an hour before our team. He wants to know what time it is. When I tell him it’s after 11 both men are clearly frustrated by their slow pace.
The other says there are long lines to go over the obstacles that are slowing them down more than they’d like.
Since we’re not sure what sort of a pace our team is keeping, we have no choice but to wait it out. After some time, perhaps another hour, Caroline catches a glimpse of her dad heading down a steep ravine toward obstacles 6, 7 and 8. Somehow he’s passed by right in front of us and we’ve missed him. Now we’re not even sure if the group is still together, or if all are still in.
We decide to move over toward the 9th obstacle where we will certainly catch them coming up the hill. Settling in on a dry, flat rock alongside a steeply graded, black-diamond slope slick with ankle deep mud, we watch the battle with gravity unfold before us. This is the challenge called “Hold Your Wood” where, somewhere at the top of an incline, contestants have chosen from a huge pile of logs. This hunk of wood they will schlep down the greasy mountain and up the other side, where we now sit.
They file past in an endless queue like Roman slaves locked in servitude to a sentence of their own choosing. Here, it is the first time we begin to understand the role mud plays in this sort of physical challenge. There are stretches where the foot struggles for purchase with each step and once footing is gained, sinks again to the ankle, only to struggle again for release. This is a forceful suction that demands exertion on each step. Shoulders, quads, calf muscles strain as each person tries to manage his or her awkward load.
You can tell a lot about a contestant by the log they’ve chosen. Some choose logs of a manageable size that can be balanced on the shoulder. Some choose awkward logs the size of a fat child they can barely wrap their arms around. Others go for the masochistic route and take two. There are only a few who take the easier way out, choosing logs that look more like sticks. But still, there is no mitigating the steepness of this slope.
It is a helpless feeling, sitting on the relative comfort of a hard rock and watching this display. You want to help, but can’t.
There is little else to do but photograph the spectacle and try to keep morale up.
“Go, Mudders! You got this,” Sarah yells continuously.
I join in with her cheering. I feel silly at first, but when a few people nod and smile back, I start to believe that maybe it’s helping. As the time passes, we try to help in other ways, with more creative cheering or directing climbers away from a particularly greasy patch near the edge. Some appreciate the support and tack toward dryer ground, but one guy looks at me defiantly and heads right toward the deepest mess. He’s not here to be coddled by comfortable spectators. He is one of the exceptional challengers still in possession of great reserves of strength and energy. These are the few who charge up the mountain as if pulled by an external force.
Others are clearly overwhelmed. A doughy couple dressed in matching grey shirts comes along. They look like they’ve spent their recent years eating take-out and watching reruns of Lost. It’s hard to fathom what impulse brought them here. As the woman draws near, she slips and loses grip of her log. She watches helplessly as it rolls past her partner down the hill. For a moment it appears that she might start to cry. But then a young guy– shirtless, with war paint showing through the mud on his face–traps the log with his foot. He picks it up easily and carries it to her. She thanks him, gathers herself and follows her partner up the hill.
Time passes. Everyone now looks the same. Caroline thinks every guy with a similar haircut and build might be her dad and she keeps shouting, “There they are!” but it’s never them. We’ve stopped cheering and have given in to worrying. We’re not sure if we should stay or move. Sarah takes a phone call from Mike’s parents. They are concerned. Sarah says she’s not worried that Mike has been hurt; he’s arguably the fittest member of this group, especially considering the injuries the others have started out with, but it seems possible the group could be hung up by some sort of misfortune.
Maybe this is all too much, I start thinking, way more than mere civilians can endure. Maybe they’ve bailed for some reason. I wouldn’t blame them. Certainly my husband must be beyond miserable right now—cold, wet, muscles aching, starvation setting in. He gets woozy if he misses dinner. There’s no food out here apart from a few meager offerings of sliced banana. This can’t be good.
Sarah, the girls and I decide to take a position further down the hill for a change of scenery. After a while Caroline calls out again,“There’s Dad!” She starts jumping and waving and some random, dirt-covered guy about the same age and build as my husband waves back. It’s not him, I’m sure. But as he gets closer, I see it is, in fact, the man to whom I’ve been married for the last 20 years, smiling through layers of black grime that makes his teeth and the whites of his eyes shine like polished marble. His grin, I notice, is actually quite broad. Extravagant even. Bigger than any smile I’ve seen pass over his face in all
the years I’ve known him. His spirits are absurdly high.
High: that’s it exactly. He seems high. Higher than high. Giddy on some form of energizing mood enhancer. I’m suspicious. Maybe that Arctic Enema was spiked with Zanax or Red Bull or both. This can’t be the result of exercise-induced endorphins and camaraderie alone.
As the other members of the team approach, equally covered in filth, they too are in remarkably high spirits. Beneath the grime, Allison’s face is flush with excitement. She’s turned 36 just three days prior. This day, this race that isn’t really a race is the gift she’s given to herself and she seems pleased as heck about it. Mike eases down the hill next looking relaxed and loose. He and Sarah catch up as the rest of the team comes along. Joe has endured muscle cramps, but still looks remarkably perky as does Krissy. Kursten has acquired a nasty scrape on her leg early on, but she’s unfazed by the blood. “There’s plenty more where that came from,” she says. Eric is uncharacteristically quiet, but his eyes shine with the glassy clarity of a mountain top guru.
They pause while Lou gives us a brief report. The Arctic Enema was painful. The underground tubes were dark, rough and claustrophobia-inducing. At the Kiss of Mud, one team member got snagged on the barbed wire and another came to help. Eric has torn his shirt and deeply scratched his right shoulder. Going over the 12’ wall, Megan fell from the top and landed on her back and they thought she was a goner, but she’s rallied and is doing remarkably well. Allison says the hills are way more than she anticipated, but every time she starts to lag, Eric comes back and yells in her face, “Come on, baby! You can do this!
You’re a machine!” The teamwork is keeping them going.
They’re still smiling like half-wits as they turn and head up the mountain.
Next Installment in Team Boom Factor’s push through the Tough Mudder. Getting through The Firewalker, Electric Eel and Everest.
Missed the first breathless installment of this hard-hitting, mud-filled, pushing the envelope of teamwork and friendship, pain-inducing, race? Trek over to here.
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