To this day, I'm not sure what I did wrong last September. Maybe I brought a wine for dinner that didn't pair as well with the meal as I'd promised. Maybe I didn't pledge enough to VPR during their fall fundraising drive. Maybe they're just sadists and I'm that "sucker born every minute." Whatever the reason, my Bro- and Sis-in-Law felt compelled to talk me into signing up for the New England Tough Mudder at Mt. Snow on 5/5/12.
If you've never heard of the Tough Mudder (or Spartan Race), spend the next 1:45 watching the lead-in video here: http://toughmudder.com/
Having run a marathon in 2011 (and not planning on doing THAT again any time soon), I was looking for a good challenge to keep me motivated through the winter going into 2012. So, like a good sucker, I bit. I registered.
I was ready for something new, something that didn't involve following a strict running schedule for months on end. My wife decided she wanted to try P90X2, so we committed to starting that in the New Year. The workouts looked pretty intense and, at the very least, they would start putting some much needed meat on my upper body. We rocked the first two phases and lost steam (me more so than her) with what really seems like a gimmicky final stage that I plan to blog about in the near future. Regardless, I actually started getting some upper body strength!
We decided our team name for the event would be "When Pigs Fly!" since for about half of us, that was our response when we were asked if we'd like to do the event. We had a handful of good group training exercises where we'd run up/down, crawl under/over, jump over/on/off, lift, throw, carry, climb and drag various and sundry things around our neighborhoods to whip each other into shape.
In hindsight, we should have met at the bottom of the appropriately-named Cliff St. in Burlington every Saturday, jumped into Lake Champlain, and then simply run up & down that stupid hill until we were on the verge of paralysis. Then we could jumped back into the lake, find a boat anchor, gnaw through the rope, and carry it up & down Cliff St a few more times just for good measure.
I went into the event knowing I was in the best overall shape I've ever been in, but also knowing that getting my upper body improved came at the expense of running conditioning. I could still knock out 7 miles without a problem, but the P90X2 program focused only occasionally on the lower body and I knew that I was somewhat down in lower body strength & power from the fall. My cardio was still strong and I admit now that I overestimated the benefit that cardio conditioning would have for this event.
We had a pretty decent early May day for the event; 50s and mixed sun & clouds with an occasional light breeze. I'm sure the breeze was lovely for the spectators, but constantly jumping in & out of 38F water and encountering a "gentle breeze" was far from pleasant. The best part about the mud-caking on your clothing was that it was a temporary (but hefty) wind block.
The gist of the event seemed to be to run the participants up & down blue-square ski trails for about 6 miles while occasionally giving you a "rest-break" with an obstacle that would either soak you or cover you in mud. You got to confront many common fears -- heights, drowning/water, claustrophobia/darkness, electrocution, roundworm, fire, hypothermia. Some obstacles incorporated several at once, such as the "Electric Eel," a scramble-on-your-stomach crawl through several inches of water through a myriad of wires, some of which would occasionally deliver 10,000V electric shocks.
Leading in to the event, for over a month I've been fighting a losing battle against calf cramping during some of my longer runs. It's been something that'll come & go, but they've been pretty mild and have worked themselves out before causing me to stop mid-run to address it. I fought these cramps in the latter stages of my marathon run, but rarely encountered this at any point in the past. Before we hit mile 2 in the race, I knew I was going to have issues before the event was done.
What I didn't know is that I'd be dealing with various calf & quad issues for about 2/3 of the event. Before Mile 3 (out of 10), my calves were starting cramp whenever I wasn't running/hiking. This was good incentive to keep moving, but for a while, any obstacle that involved crawling or jumping (i.e. all of them) was done with limited leg assist. Crawling through tubes/mud/water with limited propulsion from your legs sucks, especially when your primary goal is to GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS THING NOW!
The calf knotting was more annoying than painful and more had the effect of trying to move around when your leg has fallen asleep -- you can move around, but the leg is pretty useless and you're a little gimpy-looking. Somewhere around Mile 6, we were bombing down a steep slope and I felt an all-too familiar twinge in both lower inner quads. In my first Half Marathon (Fall 2010), I started getting cramps around mile 10 out of 13, but was able to run through it and they went away. A few weeks ago during training, I was doing a lot of leg work and had my left quad completely seize up.
As I continued to bound down the mountain, the trail detoured to the right into the woods on a muddy/rocky/rooty single-track "trail" (and I use that term VERY loosely). I paused briefly to check where my team was behind me and felt both legs start to lock. Decision time: stop now & address it or press on and see if, like the calf cramping, the quads would work themselves out. Giddy-up, let's run. On with the show!
It didn't get any better. After several minutes of traversing the mountain on this mucky track I found a relatively dry area and pulled off the side and both quads instantly & completely locked. While squatting, the knots in my quads would quickly subside, but as soon as I stood up, they immediately returned. I couldn't navigate the terrain on tin-man legs, so we had let the world pass us by while my mind attempted to convince my body to STFU and get on with the program. My team-mates (I don't even remember who at this point!) tried a bit of deep-tissue massage and suggested some stretches which helpled, but the only thing that got me back up and on the train was a couple minutes of rest, relaxation, and deep, calming breaths.
In many ways, my struggles during the marathon last May was probably the best training experience I had for this event. Knowing how to manage your body when Plan A and Plan B have gone out the window and knowing that you can grit through the pain and discomfort and FINISH is a huge motivator to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had an AWESOME team and there wasn't a single person who was going to let any other member fail to get through the course. While I personally felt like crap that my conditioning fell apart, I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to be with for the day.
At the end of the day, we got our lame orange TOUGH MUDDER headbands and lousy Dos Equis draught to mark our successful completion of the course. At the end of the day, we all were cold, wet, muddy, bruised, scraped, sore, exhausted, and relieved. At the end of the day, we all faced obstacles, both physical and psychological that we said we'd do willingly, "When Pigs Fly!" On a lovely Cinco de Mayo in Southern Vermont, for about 4 and half hours, there were seven pigs flying up & down Mount Snow...and Piggy makes 8.