Tough Mudder: Dirty, Adventurous Fun!

Oct 232010

Tammy and I just did the Tough Mudder (NorCal ), and it was a blast! Tough Mudder bills themselves as

the TOUGHEST one day event on the planet. This is not your average mud run or boring, spirit-crushing road race. It’s Ironman meets Burning Man: our 7-12 mile obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test all around toughness, strength, stamina, fitness, camaraderie, and mental grit. Forget about your finish time. … Simply completing the event is a badge of honor.

All the machismo and marketing hype aside, we love new adventures. Hearing that this one amounted to dashing all over a ski hill sprinkled with nineteen military-style obstacles that we would get to play on, we knew we had to go check it out! Factor in doing it at elevation, an air temperature of 60 degrees or so, with water and ice among those obstacles, and that’s pretty much irresistible for a pair of CrossFitters. ;^)

Costumes are strongly encouraged, though strangely there weren’t a lot in evidence when we got there. No matter — we were on a mission to maximize the fun! Rather than go with choices we could see in photos from past events, like some sort of Braveheart warrior thing, or natives from Avatar (or the sometimes super-risque ones that left a lot of skin exposed) we decided to hit it with an old-school prison-break theme! This earned us a lot of attention throughout the course: As we passed people or approached obstacle managers, they would often chuckle, making comments about Alcatraz, or how they could hear the dogs and that we should run faster. At one point, a couple of guys behind me were singing about workin’ on the chain gang. Lots of people called out Hey, Convict!, asking what we did (“nothing, we’re innocent!”) and why we were running (“we were framed!”). And whenever the helicopter was hovering overhead capturing images, people commented about the search closing in which only increased the feeling of our making an escape — like something out of a movie.

The course really did have a lot of fun twists! Here’s the blow-by-blow. (Sorry for the length of this post; feel free to just skim and look at pictures. :^)

1. The start was a mob-dash straight down a ski slope right, after we all recited a little Pledge acknowledging that this was a challenge and not a race; that mudders help each other out; and that mudders don’t whine (“kids whine!”). I think this last is clever of them, given how likely it is for hiccups to happen in a complicated event like this. They called this part the Braveheart Charge (“Charge into battle with 5000 fellow Tough Mudders. Battle cries essential.”)

2. After running back uphill for a while, we hit the Kiss of Mud (“Eat dirt as you crawl on your belly under wire set only 8 inches from the ground.”)  Yeah! A low-crawl through cold mud, under barbed wire — that’ll take the shine off your uniform!

3. After that came the Death March (“Feel the burn early on as you charge straight up this red graded ski run right to the top of the mountain.”) Burning legs and lungs, check. But their description forgot to mention the descent that precedes the ascent: steep, switchbacking, single-track, winding through a field of boulders. (You can see how the single-track aspect  bottled people up a bit in the picture on the right.)

4. Once we got to the top, we were greeted by Boa Constrictor (“Prove you can cope with cold dark confined spaces and a few nasty scratches with our specially designed Tough Mudder tire tunnels.”) This was basically some lengths of corrugated culvert pipes connected with a bend so you couldn’t see light until you were halfway through them. And they were tight enough that we had to basically drag ourselves through with our arms.

5. After some more running, we came up on Dragon Wheels (“Just when you thought it was all running and crawling, try your hand a climbing. Claw up and over these three giant spools lined end to end. Stop complaining.”) I got a little clumsy on these — couldn’t swing my legs to the side since the vertical parts made it too narrow, and there were Mudders doing their best to be helpful to other Mudders, which was cool, but basically put them in my way. So I flailed going over and landed in an undignified heap on the far side.

6. Next came The Gauntlet (“Prepare to feel like you’re at a South American political demonstration as you get high pressure hosed from both sides as you run though Bear Valley’s half pipe.”) This was awesome, just the kind of thing you’d expect out of Tough Mudder: running up a really muddy halfpipe, getting hit by snowmaking machines blasting water at you from both sides. Refreshing!

7. That was followed by Cliffhanger (“Grab onto anything you can as you scramble back to the top of the mountain up this nasty slippery and very steep black run.”) This was an even steeper ascent that was just loooong — I hit my threshold and was powerwalking a bunch of it, but Tammy just ran all the way up. Enduro-trail-running badass! (A Marine who had just limped to the top was giving her big props for making what’s on the right look easy. :^)

(Something about climbing up a glacier wall was supposed to happen about now, but we didn’t notice any 100-foot ice sheets that needed scaling… not that we were worried about this at the time, as the course was basically a blur of activity anyway.)

8. We came up on a crowd of people all bottled up, briefly wondering what we should do and why people weren’t moving. Turns out it was the Swamp Stomp (“Get stuck in with our knee-high energy-sapping trademark Tough Mudder thick mud.”) Seriously, you could lose a shoe running through this stuff! The wait wasn’t too long, and they kept us entertained by letting a handful of folks try to demonstrate their best bellyflops into it.

9. Next was the Kentucky Derby (“These eight foot jumps are too much for even the biggest of thoroughbreds, so you’ll need teamwork and camaraderie to get yourself and your fellow Mudders over these giant beams.”) No kidding — the top of that big, smooth beam was way up there!

10. After some more dashing, we all clambered over a schoolbus at the School of Tough Knocks (“Be the kelly Slater of bus surfing as you climb cargo nets to the top of this yellow beauty just to make the 12 foot jump back down again.”) Looks like they skipped the jump down in favor of cargo nets on both sides.

11. Then there was more mud, and we hit the Berlin Walls (“Show team spirit and camaraderie as you work with other Tough Mudders to scale our series of 12 foot high walls, tough enough when dry, but really fun when wet.”) Now it was Tammy’s turn to be a little clumsy — she hit that slick white board on the front side and went down hard, rocking and holding her leg like Peter in that recurring joke in Family Guy. Walk it off, Mudder!

We fled the scene and soon arrived at a manmade reservoir way up on top of the mountain. Approaching it from the far side in this photo, there were four ropes that people were using to climb down to the water for…

12. The Underwater Tunnels (“Bob underneath the obstacles on the surface of the water as your head shrinks to the size of a walnut.”) Yeeeeahh!! Swim across, going under the floating barrels. Okay, I’ll just say that swimming in a cotton jumpsuit isn’t the best idea, but the challenge was really the temperature: apparently it snowed the day before and the water was 40 degrees! We could seriously feel the clock ticking the entire time we were in it. When I first waded in up to my chest, my diaphragm stopped cooperating on that whole breathing thing, so I backed up to knee-depth to let the shock settle in a bit and hit it again. Unfortunately, Tammy (who was already working on enjoying the cold) thought something was going really wrong because I was suddenly coming back at her, and I wasn’t able to speak very well to explain what I was up to.

13. After swimming across and climbing up the other side, we were sent right back in with Greased Lightening (“Have some fun sliding down the hill, real Tough Mudders go head first back into the pond.”) Woo!!  That really was fun! Well, at least until we hit the freezing water a second time and had to swim around a boat out there before climbing out again. Oh, and getting in the water wasn’t only unpleasant because of the cold: it absolutely REEKED. We’re pretty sure it was the smell of a thousand years of fermented goose poop.

14. Dashing away, I noticed that I couldn’t feel a few of my toes and fingers, and Tammy was saying that she couldn’t feel her feet, so at this point we were looking forward to anything that might warm us back up. That turned out to be Hold Your Wood (“Make like a lumberjack and drag a log up a ski slope and then try to keep your footing on the way back down.”). Grabbing a couple of good-sized ones (the longer, shared ones were all gone), we headed straight downhill. Eventually there was a turnaround, and we all headed right back up! Sure, sounds less than stimulating, but I’m pretty sure everyone was enjoying warming up at this point.

15. Next up was Devil’s Beard (“Try as you might you will get caught like a fly in a spider’s web time and time again in our annoyingly low cargo nets.”). This was just another quick low-crawl, but under a big cargo net. Meh.

16. Running along the ridge at this point, we arrived at a long snow/wind break co-opted for the next event: Fenced Off (“Show your mental toughness as you cross back and forth four times over this 8 foot fence.”). This actually felt a lot like part of a CrossFit workout: You go over on this segment, come back on the next, and continued doing that until you run out of fence. We crossed the fence sixteen times in total.

17. Continuing along the ridge as we headed down, it was starting to feel like it might be ending. Sure enough, that’s when the Mystery Obstacle showed up, which was supposed to be the last thing before the finish. It turned out to be a table filled with shots of the world’s nastiest, most badass hot sauce. Or so they said. As best we could tell it was only watered-down sriracha sauce, so maybe this was supposed to be more of a test of mental grit or whatever (willingness to just throw back the “fearsome” stuff and move on).

18. More winding downhill, then finally — a little more than two hours after starting — we hit the finish line of Fire Walker (“Plain and simple, run through our blazing kerosene soaked straw. Expect flames at least 4 foot high.”) Looks like the Forest Service nixed the flaming bales of straw, because it was a gauntlet of propane flames that marked the end. Woo! High fives!!

The event was of course followed by the all-important party, where everyone was drinking beer and listening to a decent band. The organizers noticed our costumes and pulled us up on stage to be interviewed for a while (and we’re pretty sure we would have won the Best Costume contest if we hadn’t missed it by being off at the porta-potties to relieve SOMEONE’s tiny chick-bladder ;^).

Unfortunately, we were driving home the next day and couldn’t take the organizers up on their challenge for everyone who did it on Saturday to return and do it again on Sunday. That would have been a hoot! Next time.

We are seriously impressed with a relatively new and inexperienced organization putting on so large and complicated (and well-designed) an event, and seeing it all go so smoothly! That’s not easy. The bottom line is that if you’re reasonably fit, you’ll have a great time doing Tough Mudder. (And if you’re a CrossFitter, you can probably show up with no event-specific preparation and turn in a strong performance. :^) Just be sure to wear a costume — the people in costumes have way more fun!

A Better Test of CrossFit: "Toughest Half-Marathon in the Northwest"

Apr 242010

Recall that the goal with CrossFit training is not to be elite at anything in particular, but rather to perform well at everything in general — to “specialize in not specializing” athletically. CrossFit’s founder thinks this is possible, and that their methodology is the best way to pull it off. Of course this just begs to be put to the test, as I explained last time with the story of Tammy taking on her first ultra run.

We had a lot of fun with that test, but wouldn’t it have been even more interesting to use someone who didn’t start out as a trained runner? Sure!

That would require finding the right lab rat. Maybe someone who wasn’t athletic and sporty growing up… think “classic band-geek who’s into computers.” Like me. :^) Even as an adult who became active, I simply didn’t enjoy running. “Sorry dear, I know you looooove running, but it’s mountain biking for me — your ‘fun’ hurts too much!” So of course I’ve never trained to run any of the races I would never have thought to enter in the first place. Like Robie. (Cue the ominous music.) Growing up in Boise, I was well aware of this annual rite that draws thousands of masochistic runners from all over: The Race to Robie Creek, billed as “the toughest half-marathon in the Northwest.” No kidding.

It’s so easy to be all macho about stuff in the future, isn’t it? “Alright, T — if you actually run that Moab ultra, I’ll run Robie!”

Then, wouldn’t you know it, the future arrived. It was test time. Would my unspecialized training let me “perform well” at this fabled exercise in running brutality? Or, failing that, could I at least finish the horrid thing and not be prevented from using stairs for a week? Here’s how it all went down:

As for the stairs question: happily, no problem! While I could certainly feel tightness in my legs for a couple of days, I wasn’t hampered. Case in point: the Monday morning following the race I turned in a strong performance on our regularly-scheduled random CrossFit beatdown, which happened to be dominated by lunge-walking and squats.

(P.S.: Did you notice who was already there, waiting for me at the finish line? Yeah, the little sandbagger. Even that morning, Tammy was saying she didn’t expect to be able to do more than jog/walk Robie in a social way because of training for, running, and having only three weeks to recover from a very different kind of race. Yet she ended up being the 25th female over the line and outright won her age division! Needless to say, she’s thrilled with having gained the capacity to so casually demolish the best results she ever saw with her previous training methods.)

Putting CrossFit to the Test: Tammy’s First Ultra

Apr 052010

Earlier, I shared what CrossFit is about and that Tammy and I had decided to give it a try. Eight months in, I’m happy to report that we’re still having a blast with it! The feeling of adventure is still there, with no burnout or boredom, no noticeable wear-n-tear on my mid-40′s body, lots more physical capacity, and new friendships formed through a little joyful shared-strife bonding. Very cool.

Recall that the goal with CrossFit training is not to be elite at anything in particular, but rather to perform well at everything in general. CrossFit’s founder thinks this is possible, and that the CrossFit methodology is a great way to pull it off. Doesn’t that just beg to be put to the test? We think so.

Tammy loves to run. When I met her, she’d finished a bunch of races including a couple of marathons, and she had trained for several more. But her tight focus on the endurance thing meant that she simply hadn’t developed (and had maybe even untrained!) the kind of core strength needed to sustain her in those sorts of efforts. That’s why she ran so many fewer marathons than she trained for. She spent lots of time just grinding out long miles on her legs, totally avoiding interval and strength training. And it didn’t help that she’d spent decades eating a lowfat vegetarian version of the typical distance-runners’ carb-heavy diet filled with lots of grains and legumes. This was not exactly a sustainable recipe for robust fitness and health.

After jumping into CrossFit we got wind of CrossFit Endurance, which purports to let endurance athletes avoid those “chronic cardio” workouts while providing the sport-specific conditioning necessary to go out and supposedly crush ultramarathons and triathlons and such. CrossFit Endurance basically turns the conventional approach to endurance training on its head: their prescription is first to do the same CrossFit training that every CrossFitter does, and to then supplement that with run-biased workouts a few times a week. But these additional workouts are not long chronic-cardio sessions: they’re relatively short interval and intensity work, skills work, some tempo work and specific conditioning for body parts that will need to withstand the stress of an actual endurance event.

Tammy hasn’t raced for several years, and had never attempted anything as ambitious as a 50-mile ultrarun. But she was intrigued by the idea that she might be able to complete one — and with a dramatically smaller training investment that also avoided the chronic-cardio thing. So this January, about five months into our general CrossFit adventure (and long after we were both eating paleo), she signed up for the 12/24 Hours of Utah ultra in Moab. To gear up for it, she added two or three CrossFit Endurance style workouts per week (varying tempo runs, tabata interval runs, etc.), coordinated with our usual four-day-a-week random CrossFit regimen to not step on recovery days. Oh, and she also started using our normal CrossFit warmup periods for a little additional conditioning of her core and legs.

It would be an understatement to say this was counterintuitive for Tammy. These super-long running events are no joke, and she wasn’t out there getting ready by running! Imagine training for your first marathon by doing mostly weights, some sprints, and no running over, say, an occasional 5K. This was leaving her with a lot of questions, doubts, and insecurity… Was she just setting herself up for failure, even injury? What if the CrossFit Endurance poster-children she’d read about were simply elites in the first place who would do great whether or not they flouted everything the experts said? Or what if they were more normal but had previously established a huge capacity the standard way and were now just maintaining it with CrossFit Endurance? On and on. It left her uncertain enough that she even panicked a bit and tried to slide a bunch of standard-issue miles in near the end of her training window, over a few weekends last month. Of course those miles were insignificant compared to the volume that the traditional approach would counsel.

After three short months of this training, we packed the car and headed to Moab to put it to the test! Sensing a little adventure in the making, I borrowed a video camera to stick in her face all along the way. She absolutely loved that! (Um, NOT. But stressing her out with all that camera time really was for a worthy documentary cause. ;^) Here’s how it all went down:

Woo! Mission accomplished!! She ended up placing 3rd (just one minute shy of 2nd place) in the Solo Female 12-Hour category, an unexpected bit of fun. And with no limping around for a week afterwards like with earlier marathon efforts: though a bit depleted, she was right back in the gym for our usual Monday-morning random CrossFit beatdown.

Most interesting was what she learned from actually doing it and watching other runners do it — in contrast to imagining doing it and reading lots of runners’ online descriptions and hints for doing it. The bottom line? CrossFit Endurance was vindicated! Her doubts and insecurities around it are now gone: even with the weird IT band/knee thing that progressively diminished her pace and forced her into walking a few laps in the middle, she ended up doing better than average. And [I'm] pretty sure that without that hip issue, and with some obvious, easy improvements like a little discipline on her pit stops, she would have outperformed all of the female solo runners and all but a couple of the males as well! Sure, that sounds awfully bold for a newbie.  Here’s the deal, though: she found so many ultrarunners talking online about their “walk strategies” and how only the elite didn’t walk that she went there fully expecting walking to be a necessity — and sure enough, we saw a lot of walking at the event. But Tammy’s training left her feeling just fine motoring up all the hills, etc. If it weren’t for the weird IT band/knee thing, she would not have needed to walk at all. She would have simply run the entire thing at her “easy” pace of around 10 or 10.5 minutes/mile.

I expect she’ll want to verify that by going and running every step of it next year, so we’ll see!

CrossFit: Three.. Two.. One.. GO!

Oct 172009

I started looking into CrossFit after seeing it mentioned by various health/fitness guys I’ve learned a lot from — like Richard Nickoley, Mark Sisson, and Art De Vany, who talk about the value of mixing things up, using high intensity, intervals, resistance training and such. I liked what I was finding in the methodology and was intrigued at its potential, so I was eager for an opportunity to try CrossFit in a way that includes the coaching I knew I would need to not hurt my middle-aged self. (Sure, it’s free if you do it at home, but who goes out on their own and just starts doing Olympic-style lifts? Not me!) Happily, a couple of months ago Tammy and I noticed that a CrossFit gym was about to open near our house. We checked it out and took the plunge! So far, it’s been very cool.

Before giving reports from the front and breaking out the obligatory pictures of progress, let’s start with a little about what CrossFit is. The headquarters site says

CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.

Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.

And in a CrossFit Foundations article, creator Greg Glassman writes, “CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program. We have designed our program to elicit as broad an adaptational response as possible. CrossFit is not a specialized fitness program but a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of ten recognized fitness domains. They are Cardiovascular and Respiratory endurance, Stamina, Strength, Flexibility, Power, Speed, Coordination, Agility, Balance, and Accuracy.”

Of course, I’m not a Navy SEAL, a stick-fighting champion, or a fireman — but developing serious competence in all of these domains, and therefore a powerful “ready state,” would be awfully useful for the sorts of play I like to engage in: mountain biking, summit-scrambling, snowboarding, maybe a spontaneous half-marathon hill run or whatever else Tammy or my friends might want to draw me into. And it would come in handy for those (hopefully vanishingly) rare times when Stuff Happens — plus as I age, maintaining as much physical capacity as possible would be invaluable for health and autonomy.

There’s a lot of empirical observation and some pretty good epistemology behind various aspects that I can go into later, but today I’ll just share the central CrossFit prescription for efficiently achieving that broad, general, and inclusive fitness: constantly varied functional movement performed at high intensity. Every element of that is essential. Glassman breaks it down in a brief article on Understanding CrossFit:

Functional movements are universal motor recruitment patterns; they are performed in a wave of contraction from core to extremity; and they are compound movements — i.e., they are multi-joint. They are natural, effective, and efficient locomotors of body and external objects. [Author's note: Examples include squats, pullups, situps, jumping, running, throwing, lifts like deadlift and clean & jerk and overhead press. They are elemental movements, used in lots of activities.] But no aspect of functional movements is more important than their capacity to move large loads over long distances, and to do so quickly. Collectively, these three attributes (load, distance, and speed) uniquely qualify functional movements for the production of high power. Intensity is defined exactly as power, and intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with maximizing favorable adaptation to exercise.

Recognizing that the breadth and depth of a program’s stimulus will determine the breadth and depth of the adaptation it elicits, our prescription of functionality and intensity is constantly varied. We believe that preparation for random physical challenges — i.e., unknown and unknowable events — is at odds with fixed, predictable, and routine regimens. [emphasis and paragraph break mine]

Plateauing is not easy when the adaptational response never has a fixed target — plus, the novelty of not knowing what will be coming next keeps us from getting bored. As sick as it might sound, it actually becomes a fun adventure to show up at the gym not knowing what challenge we’ll be hit with! One day it’s a 5k run or row for time; another day it’s finding the maximum weights you can deadlift, press, and back-squat; on another it is a butt-kicking, lung-searing sequence of a dozen varied exercises done for time (here’s one we were given a week or two ago, as demonstrated by a bunch of uber-fit trainers at a certification: [wmv][mov]).

CrossFit turns fitness itself into a sport by making general fitness quantifiable, setting standards, and measuring performance in a very visible way. So people get to see their own development, have fun competing with themselves and their buddies in some sense, get encouragement in a group setting, and so on. This all goes toward motivation and intensity (making it fun to show up, and keeping you engaged in the work when it’s soooo hard).

Turning fitness into a sport also makes the CrossFit Games possible. The Games are a proving ground for demonstrating general fitness, and a way to draw attention to those who might have a more effective training method. Elite athletes train all year and show up to compete — but what’s special about this competition is that they have to train while not knowing exactly what the events will be. They only know they will be tested in some way that is broad and brutal enough to differentiate the fittest person. So the athletes have to focus on developing that well-rounded, inclusive fitness to win. The rest of us get to marvel, and learn.

Then we throw ourselves into tomorrow’s unknown workout. Three.. Two.. One.. GO!

Some links:

  • What is CrossFit” is a one-page promotional summary from an affiliate gym’s website.
  • The Okinawa Speech is a video of a great talk by CrossFit’s founder, Coach Greg Glassman. He presents the the origins of the CrossFit definition of fitness, the development of the training methodology, addresses safety, efficacy and efficiency, and a lot more. Worth the time.
  • God’s Workout” in NY Times Magazine made me laugh (and of course I have seen no dangerous, macho behavior, nor any cultlike attitude — in fact, I’ve only seen the opposite on both counts).
  • The Truth About Crossfit” is a pretty good perspective piece by a fitness writer, fun to read, from a big bodybuilding site/magazine (though it has some goofiness, like defending another of their writers who apparently had some sort of tussle with CrossFit’s founder, Glassman).
  • Eight quick perspectives/reviews by people.
  • World HQ for CrossFit itself is a free website with a huge amount of information.

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