What it’s Like to Run the Tough Mudder for the First Time

I’ve just finished running the Tough Mudder 2016 in Scotland! Now when I get asked questions like “One Amazing Thing You’ve Done,” I’ll have an instant response!

Please note: As a participant I wisely left my camera behind, so I don’t have a lot of photos. As soon as the pro’s that work at the course send them, I’ll update this post.

What is the Tough Mudder?

Per the Tough Mudder website:

“We are 10 – 12 miles of mud and obstacles built to test your mental grit, camaraderie and all-around physical fitness. We are a team-oriented challenge with no winner, no finisher medal, no clock to race against—just an ice cold drink and a few good scrapes from a day spent outside and free from everyday bullshit. We are for anyone who has ever followed their gut, tried to defy gravity, chosen “dare” over “truth,” taken risks, sought thrills, or is generally awesome at life. Turns out, it’s all been training. We are made for this.

Joining the Tough Mudder

The Tough Mudder started in 2010 in the US by two men who wanted to test the limits of human endurance. I found out about the race short after this when my best friend Sasha invited me to run the race with him. It’s been a bucket list item of mine ever since.

While living in the States, I was never able to get time off work to run the race when it was in town. Then last year when I was in Edinburgh, I heard that the Tough Mudder was also available throughout the UK. But it didn’t reach Edinburgh until after I planned to leave, so I forgot about it.

This year, just a few days after I arrived in Edinburgh, I was sitting at Malones Irish Pub when I heard about the Tough Mudder again. I mentioned how much I’d love to run it someday, and Alex Neilan happened to be beside me at that moment, who was in charge of the 64-man Make-A-Wish Foundation team. He offered me a place on the team at the special discount available to team members. I signed up immediately.

Training for the Tough Mudder

Part of joining the Make-A-Wish team was a boot camp three times a week. Unfortunately, I was only able to make three training sessions before I went out of town for a month, touring the highlands, right up to the race itself. The boot camp lasted an hour, and included tons of sprints, planks, push-ups, sit-ups and other brutal exercises that Colm devised for us each time.

However, training for the Tough Mudder only goes so far. Part of the race is overcoming your fears of ice swimming, heights and electroshock. The best way to overcome these is to just DO IT, and experience the thrill of accomplishment.

There’s also the small matter of the run. 12 miles is no small amount. While I’ve run three full marathons in the past, many people find this distance quite a challenge.

Tough Mudder Training

Who Can Run the Tough Mudder

If you’re suffering from a major injury or ailment, or have metal in your body, I wouldn’t recommend this race. Otherwise, I’d have to say this race is for everyone! Well, kids should stick to the Fruit Shoot Mini Mudder (for kids). While on the course I saw all kinds of participants, from a man weighing easily 300 lbs. (20 stone), to a grey-haired woman. Of course, there were also the true Tough Mudders showing off their muscles as they vaulted over the obstacles meant to be impossible without a helping hand.

Running with a Prior Injury

My biggest worry about running the Tough Mudder was my right knee. In 2012, through a series of injuries I managed to crush the bone, damage the cartilage and have massive swelling and inflammation which kept me in constant pain. Despite this, I continued working at the job I was dedicated to. When I finally received an MRI (months after my injuries, due to lack of funds), the doctor’s comment was “If I had this, I would be in tears of agony.” I have a really high tolerance of pain, but his words rang true.

I spent most of 2013 in physical therapy, and went back for more in 2014 when I aggravated the injury. One of the catalysts that sent me on my life path of travel blogging was receiving a letter informing me I was officially, permanent disabled. As this affected any job I had in the US, I set out to prove the verdict wrong.

However, there have been a couple times in my travels when my knee has started to ache. My meniscus (knee cartilage) is still torn, which makes me susceptible to another serious injury. Despite this, I’ve been able to ride a bike 110 km through Lithuania, go cliff diving in Chiang Mai and many other strenuous activities.

As mentioned, in the month prior to the Tough Mudder I had been touring around the Scottish Highlands and islands. That included some pretty wild adventures, including three runs to the top of Old Man Storr, a hike along the Quiraing, swimming at Luskentyre Beach and the Fairy Pools, and walking several of Scotland’s fabled glens. You can read about my amazing bus tour with Haggis Adventures here. Unfortunately, during that time my knee started giving me troubles, and I was getting more than concerned.

After finishing the Tough Mudder, my right knee was throbbing. But it turned out to be only from an abrasion, although there might have been some impact too. Today, the day after, I’m able to walk and climb stairs fine (ha, more like slow and tenderly). That’s more than I could do when my knee was injured last time, so I think I’m going to be okay. Just ask me when EVERYTHING doesn’t ache so much.

The Day of the Race

Tough Mudder Scotland 2016 was held at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway. The forecast for the day was thunderstorms. I brought a backpack with a change of clothes, some nuts and cash. The charge for dropping off your bag at Tough Mudder is £3, and there is food afterwards but it’s way overpriced.

I had purchased a base-layer shirt and exercise shorts from Primark the day before for really cheap, which I intended to be disposable. Luckily both held up better than I expected, and the shorts not only came down below my knees, but had a second, stronger layer inside which helped protect my legs considerably. I also wore my Trespass boots, simply because I didn’t have a pair of old trainers I was willing to waste. The boots had lasted me over a year of travel, and were ready to be retired. I had decided they were good for one final run. They barely survived.

The weather turned out to be absolutely perfect. It was sprinkling softly when the race started, but then dry the whole rest of the time. At least until we got back on the bus. Within five minutes of being on board, the rain came down. Hard! The timing just couldn’t have been better.

Entering the Tough Mudder

What the Obstacles are Like

1. Kiss of Mud 2.0

The race starts off immediately putting you down into the mud, crawling under barbed wires. Easy enough, except that I got my first injury. Somehow I managed to scrape some skin off my left palm, which didn’t make later obstacles any easier. I also lost my bib!

2. Skid Marked

Another rather simple obstacle. You have to get up and down a steep, muddy slope. Most people were sliding down, but my Trespass boots I wore allowed me to simply run down and keep my footing.

3. Arctic Enema 2.0

This was personally one of my favorite obstacles, although many other members of my team found it the most uncomfortable. You have to swim under a bar in ice-cold water. By ice cold, I mean it’s full of ice cubes. For me, it was an opportunity to wash off the mud and cool down for the rest of the race. For others, they came up gasping, struggling to get out of the tank as fast as possible.

4. Killa Gorilla

I’d almost forgotten about this one, and had to look on-line to refresh my memory. It was the first obstacle really requiring team support. These slanted wooden walls are about 7 feet (a little over 2 meters) high, and as they’re slanted toward you, there’s really nothing to give your feet a purchase. The only way to get up is to have someone under you give you a boost. I helped quite a few people over before scaling up myself.

5. Pyramid Scheme

I was quickly to find out most of the obstacles could only be completed with team support (unless you were in ultra-crazy shape). This obstacle was a high, slanted plastic wall you had to make it to the top of. I was able to jump off the hay bale far enough, and get enough purchase with my shoes to scale it without help, but I then turned around to help most of the rest of the team get to the top. It was definitely harder than it originally looked, and shorter runners or those with slippery shoes had quite a hard time.

6. Lumber Jacked

This one foiled me. It’s a log about six feet (2 meters) off the ground which you have to get over. I thought I would be able to simply pull myself over, but again without any use of my feet and a bar a foot thick instead of a thin bar I could grasp with my fingers, I just couldn’t do it. Basically, you have to pull yourself over the bar with your elbows over the bar, and that’s hard! So it was another teamwork obstacle and we all made it over. Well, almost all of us. I won’t mention any names, but there was at least one who chose to go around (or rather under). That is an option for every obstacle on the race, and it wasn’t the first time for someone to bail.

7. Hero Carry

Here we all got to find a partner to carry. I was actually disappointed when it turned out we only had to carry them about 50 meters. I was expecting a lot more. My partner Jack weighed about the same as I, and we had no problem running through this obstacle together.

8. Bale Bonds

Bales of hay, that is. Certainly not a hard obstacle, even though the mud on the hay made it a bit trickier. It was over almost before it started, and we were back to running.

9. Cage Crawl/Rain Man

This one was a blast, and actually really, really fun. There were two options to take, one of which was for those who had run the race previously. I figured this one was harder, so I chose to do it myself. Turns out all you had to do was float on your back and calmly pull yourself along the top of the water with the metal cage a couple inches above you. Really nothing to it, and again I was able to wash the mud off and cool down. But when you have a hard time swimming, don’t like closed spaces or don’t want water getting in your eyes and want to keep them closed, this obstacle can still pose a challenge. I think the only real difference between the regular and legionnaire versions is that the later had sections where water was dripping in your eyes. But it was clean water off a 2×4, so I didn’t care.

10. Hold Your Wood

It was nearly a mile and a half of running through the forests to this obstacle, and then you had to grab a log and walk around a lake. Not too hard, but I made the mistake of keeping it on the same shoulder the whole way and jogged the beginning, so I was a bit sore after that. The logs varied from about 2-4 feet long (60-120 cm) and about 6-12 inches thick (15-30 cm). Of course, there were some smaller chunks for those without bulging biceps.

11. Hero Walls

These were another set of walls to climb over, and significantly higher than any others on the course. I’d put them at about 10 feet (3 m). The only way to get up was with a boost from below, and someone pulling you up from the top. Once I made it up myself, I stayed at the top to pull another three or four dozen more runners over.

12. Devil’s Beard

I think this one was meant to be quite difficult. It’s a crawl through the mud with a net pushing you down. But I held up the net so everyone could basically get through in a crouch. Don’t worry, there were plenty of other obstacles which were still plenty hard.

13. Mud Mile #1

Luckily this wasn’t a mile long. But it was a series of trenches and embankments you had to climb up and down, with watery mud knee high in all the trenches. I think there were about five embankments to climb over, and a couple made it to the other side being covered head to toe in mud. Well, that might have been because I pulled Alex into the mud, after he pulled someone else down. The worst part of this obstacle was my boots were filled with small rocks, the shoe laces were too wet and slippery to get undone.

14. Sewer Rat

This is another simpler obstacle. You have to crawl through a rather short tube down into a pond. The best part was another bath at the end to clean the mud off in, and I was also able to get my boots off and clean out my shoes, somewhat….

15. King of the Swingers

This obstacle was fantastic! There were certainly a few other runners who didn’t think so, but I love heights, and you had to jump out onto a pole and then swing across a pool (like Tarzan) to hit a bell at the end before dropping into the water. I just missed the bell and wished I could have tried again, but this was also the obstacle with the longest wait. About half an hour actually. So my next chance will just have to come the next time I run Tough Mudder.

16. Quagmire

This seemed like a scaled-down version of the Mud Mile. Just one big trench to get through, and a bit of a steeper wall to climb up. But really not that hard.

17. The Liberator/Backstabber

This was another with options for first time Mudders and returnees. It looked like the former had to climb a ladder to get over a slanted wall. I picked the latter, which included using a single peg and small footholds in the wood spaced out to your sides to get up the wall. It was also a lot easier than I was expecting. But then again, this is a course where everyone is expected to finish. So none of the obstacles are really impossible.

18. Funky Monkey

This was a test of upper body strength, and I was really happy that it wasn’t raining. You have to climb monkey bars at an incline, and then climb a swinging pipe the rest of the way back down. I was doing fine, until I got halfway and up to the person ahead who was stuck. I held as long as long as I could, but by the time they finally fell into the water, I had run out of strength, and a moment later followed them down.

19. Pitfall

This one was really interesting. It was a long part of the path covered in mud, with waist-deep pits scattered around it. Technically it was possible to walk all the way across in only ankle deep mud if you could avoid the pits. But you had to walk quite tentatively, and that defeated the “race” aspect. But I preferred to stay clean after washing off in the Funky Monkey, so I took it careful and slow.

20. Mud Mile #2

The exact same as the first time, except that this time I managed to keep the rocks out of my shoes.

21. Birth Canal

This was interesting. You had to climb under a long tarp with water on top. If you didn’t stay low enough to the ground, the water bunched up at the end of the tarp and made it more difficult. So you just had to hug the ground as you crawled and it was fine.

22. The Block Ness Monster

This was a new obstacle for Tough Mudder, and my favorite obstacle of the entire course. It’s a little hard to explain this obstacle, but try to imagine a large pool five feet deep. Across the top of the water left to right are three obstacles, one after the next. The obstacles consist of a “block” of plastic with four sides, about three feet to the side and the width of the pool. In order to get over them. You had to hold onto the upper edge of the block, while others helped to push and rotate the block, carrying you up and over into the water on the other side. This was definitely a teamwork activity, as the more people who were holding on to the block, the more people it required to rotate it, and the block was only so wide. So about 5-10 people went over at a time, while a dozen or so helped to rotate it. I was glad there were three blocks, as it was something I would have liked to do all day!

As a note, it was just after this obstacle when I ran across a man who was already wearing the Tough Mudder Scotland 2016 Finisher t-shirt. Um, that was today’s race. Yep, it was his second lap of the day! The two laps yesterday put him at 8 times through the course in total. Twice in one day is some serious talent!

23. Everest

Finally, after running 11.5 miles (18.5 km), you had to climb Everest! This is a quarter pipe you have to run up which is covered with mud and supposedly grease, although I think that after a few hours the grease has worn off. Either way, there were very few of us who were able to grab the upper lip of the pipe and get pulled up. As soon as I crested the top, I turned around and helped a few dozen more people get up, many of which were barely able to grasp my finger tips. Surprisingly, this was the most difficult for me to help others, as the plastic digging into my ribs and the weight of holding everyone up took its toll. Of all my aches and sorenesses today, the bruises on my chest and abdomen are the worst.

24. Electroshock Therapy/Frequent Flyers Club

Finally we were up to the final obstacle. This is the one I had the most dread about. I really don’t like electricity (at least when it’s applied to humans) and I heard that the voltage can be as high as 10,000 volts! But the guy I had met mentioned that not all the wires were electrified, and when I got to the obstacle, I imagined I could see a path through the center with fewer wires. I ran through this, only managing to clip my elbow once on a live wire. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. In fact, probably every other time I’ve been zapped in the past was worse than this one.

I do have to mention that anyone wearing the green, pink and black headbands of the repeat runners got to skip the wires and instead jump off a high platform onto an inflated landing. Lucky!

Crossing the Finish Line

And then it was over! A few more steps and we were through the finish line, where race officials were waiting with our orange headband, finisher t-shirt and bottle of cider.

There was a washing off place, and then we had a chance to jump into the hot tubs! Not for long, as we were already late to catch our bus. But we really deserved that short soak after the run.

Tough Mudder Hot Tub

What it Feels Like to Finish

Elated. Exuberant. Energized. Exhausted. I think I could include practically every adjective here. In short, this was one of my best days of my life. And mentioned earlier, when talking about one incredible thing I’ve done, the Tough Mudder Scotland 2016 will be at the top of the list. And I can’t wait for the next!

Today I’m definitely sore, bruised and my shins had a lot more scrapes than I thought. Luckily I plan to twin up with someone tomorrow to trade Thai massages, and then I’ll be able to utilize my own skills as a Thai massage therapist to help the other runners of the race to recover.

The one thing that didn’t survive were my Trespass shoes. I’m so happy they lasted as long as they did in the race. It was around the 18th obstacle when the soles almost came off completely. But they didn’t and I was able to complete the race without being barefoot!

Trespass Shoes after Tough Mudder

What The Race Looked Like Through The Eyes of a Go-Pro

This video isn’t my own, but it’s great for showing what the full race was like.

I've just finished running the Tough Mudder 2016 in Scotland! Now when I get asked questions like "One Amazing Thing You've Done," I'll have an instant response! Please note: As a participant I wisely left my camera behind, so I don't have a lot of photos. As soon as the pro's that work at the course send them, I'll update this post. What is the Tough Mudder? Per the Tough Mudder website: "We are 10 - 12 miles of mud and obstacles built to test your mental grit, camaraderie and all-around physical fitness. We are a team-oriented challenge with no winner,…

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for the update – reminds me of my outward bound training in the UK in 1961

    • You’re very welcome! Actually I had thought I was originally developed by the military for civilians, but then learned while writing this that it was just developed as a business. Either way, I’m glad it’s here. SOOOOOO much fun!!!!!!!!!!!

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