It’s 2:30 in the morning and I am struggling. My headlamp has gone out, and I’m slipping and sliding in ankle deep mud, cutting my hands on rocks and exposed branches as I fumble in the pitch dark. This was not part of the plan. My legs are tired, I’m cold and wet, and I know I’ve still got 6 hours to go…
Welcome to Toughest Mudder Texas.
An 8-hour, multi-lap, obstacle course race that lives up to it’s name as one of the “Toughest” OCR races out there.
I’d arrived in Smithville, Texas a few hours before at 10pm and joined the throngs of other excited and nervous racers who were all getting their kit and nutrition set up in the Athlete’s Pit Area tent. While laying out on my 1m x 1m patch of table all the gear and food that I thought I would need over the next 8 hours, I immediately struck up a conversation with the guys getting ready around me, and the strategising began…
“What are you going to wear?”
“How cold do you think it will be?”
“What’s the best way to approach Kong, or Blockness Monster?”
“What distance are you aiming for?”
Everyone had their own game-plane, everyone had their own target – but we were all united in our pursuit to BEAT OUR BEST. That’s really why I had signed up. I wanted to know – needed to know – what would happen to my mind and body when pushed beyond my limits.
I would soon find out.
The race started on the stroke of midnight, and with adrenaline pulsing through my veins, and the cheer of the crowd in my ears, I and five hundred other Mudders bolted out into the dark. The first lap was pretty fast, and only a handful of obstacles were open, so it passed quickly and in a bit of a blur. One thing was clear though right from the start – this was going to be one hell of a race! Because of the enormous amount of rain the area had seen in the days leading up to it, much of the course had turned into thick, leg-sapping, strength-draining mud.
So much mud.
Mud for miles.
The first lap took 47min and I opted not to pit and continued back out into the night for lap two. Now more obstacles began to open and the second realisation dawned. This course had a lot of water… Most of the obstacles – like Arctic Enema and Cage Crawl – included getting wet, and somewhere in the middle of the course was also a 500m section of creek that we had to wade waist deep through. Temperature regulation was going to be key.
Having opted to wear my Frogskin Wetsuit 1mm top, I definitely overheated a bit on lap 1, but by lap 2, and as the temperatures continued to plummet through the night, I was so glad to have it.
The obstacles themselves were fantastic. Having never done a Tough Mudder before, many of them – like Kong and Funky Monkey, (that tested grip strength, especially being wet and covered in mud) – were completely new from me, but ones I had seen or heard about. Personally I love the obstacles, and having the majority of them packed into the second half of the lap, meant that that section of the course always went by faster for me. There was something else to focus on other than running through mud in the dark.
Also, as is Tough Mudder’s tradition – many of the obstacles like Blockness Monster (basically a large rotating block suspended in water that you have to scale over twice) require help and assistance from other racers. I loved this aspect of camaraderie and teamwork, and usually, after clearing an obstacle, I would take a moment to turn around and help whoever it was that was coming up behind me. This really creates a sense of community out on the route, and is part of the secret sauce of Tough Mudder’s success.
Back to the race…
At the end of lap two (53min split) I felt pretty good and was in high spirits. I took a quick pit-stop to grab some food and drink, and headed back out.
Then lap 3 happened.
I had been making mental notes of certain checkpoints along the route and monitoring my time at those points. So, when I arrived at checkpoint one (a long barb-wire-crawl called Kiss of Mud 2.0) a full 5min behind my previous lap time, I realised how much I had slowed down. Combine that with my headlamp giving up on me in the middle of the forest’s most technical trail section, and things started to get real.
I dug deep, pressed on, and made it back to the start in 1h07min – a full 14min slower than the previous lap! At this stage (3am and 24km in) I had also started to get pretty cold and my legs had started to really stiffen up. Also, my shoes had taken in a lot of mud and debris in the creek, and small stones were cutting my feet and causing blisters on my heels. I tried to clear the stones but couldn’t, so after changing out my headlamp – limped out again into the fray, somewhat dejected and a little overwhelmed that this was still a LONG way from over.
Oh, and to top it off, it was at this stage that Ryan Atkins, undoubtedly the world’s best endurance OCR racer, came flying past me – lapping me and adding insult to injury!
Nevertheless, I counted it a blessing to be racing with such incredible athletes like Ryan and tried to pick up the pace a bit into lap 4.
To be honest I don’t remember much of lap 4 or 5. It was a case of one foot in front of the other, one obstacle at a time, managing the pain…
I do remember putting on my hoodie to stave off the cold.
I do remember wondering what the hell I was doing.
I do remember thinking how far away from home I was and how much I missed my family.
I do remember praying.
And I also remember seeing the first signs of light as dawn approached. And I remember stopping and looking around in the creek at how incredibly beautiful this place was.
It’s amazing how just that light can bring with it such a sense of hope.
And then almost suddenly it was morning. A glorious morning, and I had completed lap 6.
Total time 7 hrs. Total distance 51km
Now I faced a tough choice: Stop, rest, get warm – as most of the racers were doing – or push myself for one more final round. I knew I had been running the last two laps around the 1h18min mark, and that I only had 1h27min left before the clock ran out. That meant I was going to have to push it to make it.
All the excuses I could muster came marching through my mind in defiant procession.
I’m so so tired.
My feet are sore.
I’ve done well – why do more?
No one will care whether you do 6 or 7 laps.
This is just stupid.
Don’t do it.
It was at this point I thought of my coach, Trish. And I knew exactly what she would be saying to me:
Tom, you’ve got this.
You’ve done the prep work.
You’re stronger than you think you are.
C’mon – dig deep.
Just one more lap!
Thankfully I listened to Trish and not myself and decided to give it one last push! I ripped off my socks and shoes in the pit area, put on a new pair of both, and with a renewed sense of determination and grit, headed on out one last time.
In the end my last lap was one of my fastest, and once I realised I was gonna make it with time to spare, I relaxed into it, enjoying the last few obstacles, and crossing the finish line with an exhausted body, a full heart, and all of the feels.
Total time: 8h19min. Total distance: 59km
A huge thank you to my incredible coaches Claude & Trish who have walked with me through the ups and downs of the daily training grind. To my beautiful wife, Jess, who loves me unconditionally – even though I want to do these crazy things. To my boys, who I thought of so much during that long night, and who inspire me daily to be the best version of myself. To my AOT family who messaged and cheered me on all the way from South Africa. To my mom and dad – for everything, really. And of course to my sponsors: Salomon, Keto Nutrition, AOT, Supamama – without whom I would not be able to do what I love.
T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”.
That night I found out how far I can go, and came out realising I can – we can, all of us, go a lot farther than we give ourselves credit for. So whatever your dream – go out and get it! Because you’re a lot TOUGHER than you think you are!
That’s what TOUGHEST MUDDER taught me.