Tough Mudder – the ESPH team took on the challenge
When my brother Max, came up with one of his insane, hair-brained, fitness team-building schemes & entered an ESPH team for the Tough Mudder Event challenge on Sunday, 25 September, in Sussex, I shook my head, laughed and, immediately said: “Great, but count me out”, owing to the state of my body.
But for a few late withdrawals I would have maintained that position, however not wanting to see our ESPH team of originally 15 dwindle to below 10, I gave in and an: “Oh all right then. I’ll do it!”, was swiftly uttered. 20 years ago I was an international decathlete but that pursuit has left my physical abilities somewhat below what they once were having addled my joints and limbs. I don’t enter these types of things lightly but boy am I glad I changed my mind!
The ESPH Tough Mudders
Our team consisted of physios Tom, Sophie, Claire, Lizzy & Sarah, the front of house contingent of Alison, Beth M & Marita and ever-game massage therapist Anthony joining Max and me. Lizzy’s partner Gareth also came along as a last minute fill-in for some late cancellations. Age-wise 20s, 30s, 40s & 50s were all represented and all but Gareth were Tough Mudder virgins. There were healthy helpings of anxiety and nervousness to accompany the excitement before the start as we departed ESPH ED HQ in our mini-bus.
I was looking forward to the event bar two obstacles – “Arctic Enema” – an ice bath experience akin to a Bear Grylls arctic dip and the “Electroshock Therapy” – running through an area with hanging electrified
cattle fencing and bales of hay as obstacles. The inevitable running through slippery mud would also no doubt take its toll on my worn out back, knee and arthritic big toe.
As we readied ourselves at the starting area a very energetic and amusing warm-up began followed by an equally fun declaration that the day would be enjoyed and all would help their fellow Mudders on the way. To the left of the start area we could see the Mini-mudder youngsters getting stuck into their course. It’s lovely to see kids being active in that way and it made me immediately think of my four kids all doing a mini-mudder in the near future, which they would all love. The weather was good with sunny spells expected and a decent temperature of 16°-18° C which was even more reassuring for those with jangly nerves or cold-weather haters (like me).
The course was laid out over the rolling hills and forests of Holmbush Farm just off the A264 heading to Horsham. The pungent mud was in evidence immediately as the course unfolded in an out and back layout tracking back over previously run parts. There was a half mile run before the first obstacle “Bale bonds”, which were fairly simple steeplechase style barriers of hay, then another half mile plod to “Skidmarked” which was an angled (away from you from the top making it harder to get any purchase with your feet) wooden fence of about 9ft high and which presented an immediate challenge for the team to traverse. I knew that I would have to help those whose reach and climbing skills were poorer than mine so I hopped up first, eschewing the offers of help from those other competitors who had already climbed aboard, straddling the top in readiness to help the team up and over. Tom, Max & Gareth did the same after me and we then began hauling the team up and over the wall. Having successfully completed the 1st real challenging obstacle and with confidence in our hearts and strides we set off to the next challenge.
“Kiss of mud” came soon after which was a crawl through mud under barbed wire. This was our first real (literally) taste of the mud promised to us in the name of the event. Stick your bum up too high and it was goodbye pants on the barbed wire, head too low and it was a face full of mud and grit. Knees and forearms were also scuffed and cut from the stones imbedded in the mud. Claire was particularly vocal in her lack of enjoyment of this one. The fun continued with “Hero walls”, a 10 ft straight wall the team again had to get up and over, then down again on the other side. Help was also given to any other team or participants who asked or who needed it. “Pyramid scheme” followed which required us to lay ourselves out one on top of each other on a pyramid wall. Having done all that it was fairly clear that running up it was equally effective but somewhat quicker.
Then came the dreaded “Arctic Enema”. I knew at this point that the self-protection mechanism would take over and I would become momentarily selfish in order to get through the forthcoming painful and unpleasant experience. Having been an athlete I was used to ice baths but I’d never been fully immersed in icy water. I pressed forward and ascended the climbing bars to the top, an angled slide awaited me with a cage on top so as to stop you from crawling your way forward or changing your mind halfway down. I looked to my right to see two ladies negotiating a start, mumbled to myself “$%@* that” and just got on with it. The angle of the slide forces you to slip into the water at a reasonable speed and suddenly you are submerged in the icy hell. A momentary pause occurred as the full cold hit me before I reminded myself to put my feet down and stand up, breaching the water further reinforced the frigidity of the environment I was in. I gasped ineffectively for breath and immediately forced myself forward to an obstacle mid-way through the water which forces you to duck under a barrier and again submerge yourself in the icy horror. Breaching the water a second time on the other side I pushed onward to the edge and climbed out as fast as I could.
To describe the experience as breath-taking does it no justice whatsoever. Once I had hauled myself out of the other side I struggled to expand my chest to get the much needed oxygen into my lungs. 4 or 5 breaths went by before I gained some measure of composure, after which I let out a primeval roar to get my mind back in gear. Watching me must have been demoralising for the rest of the team because I know that I didn’t look like I handled it well (because I didn’t). I waited on the ledge at the end and watched in a mildly confused state as my team-mates followed. When I finally gained full composure I reached into the water to help those who had braved the challenge. By that time several ESPHers had passed me by and I hadn’t even noticed. I have a new found respect for Bear Grylls whenever he drops in to an icy river for a quick swim on one of his survival shows. Beth told me later that this one had temporarily ruined the day for her – that and my company I’m sure. Ironic, as a Canadian, she should be the most used to the cold. Beth had told us about avoiding bears when out for snowy jogs in her hometown in Canada at her interview. Beth – we were impressed then and we’re only more so now impressed!
No more than 2 or 3 minutes after the obstacle, a deep euphoria embraced me. It is hard to describe but I felt fantastic and I fully understand the evidence based studies of treatment for depression involving swimming in cold water. If you have seen any of the episodes of the current and excellent BBC series “The Doctor who gave up drugs” it is highly recommended viewing and includes someone using cold water swims to successfully contend with depression. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07w52tp)
We got moving quickly again amid plenty of consolatory chatter and onto “Hold your wood”. I can’t remember what this involved but the irony of the name after such a chilling previous obstacle was not lost on me. “Mud mile” followed which was basically a mogul field of mud. In between the hillocks was filled with muddy water up to the waist (for me) or neck for Marita. This would have been a good photo op as we were all covered in mud, but sadly we couldn’t take any cameras on the course and no one had a go-pro. “Sewer Rat” and “Prairie dog” followed which were fairly similar sewer like crawls through a tube into a river of mud at the other end. “Lumberjacked” scaling a slippery horizontal tree trunk was definitely one for the team as a unit, which was closely followed by “Funky monkey”, which I had really been looking forward to, a monkey bar challenge over a watery pool.
Lose your grip and in you went for a muddy dip. At the various feeding stations I had foolishly avoided taking on any food and was now feeling hypo-glycaemic. I was now not looking forward to the challenge which was disappointing. I managed to haul myself across without a swim, with relief. Others followed. Sophie’s strength was particularly impressive before narrowly failing to make it across to the dry safety of the other side. A warm smile was maintained on her face after, as it was throughout on the day.
“Cage crawl”, almost fully submerged in water on your back with a chicken fence suspended 6 inches above the water and 2 inches above your face, pulling yourself across was next. Sarah and I partnered up for this one. The water was surprisingly warm. After “Arctic enema” anything was warm! Sarah had confided to us that she was claustrophobic, afraid of heights and hated the cold. If she was before she isn’t anymore! Sarah is one of our resident fitness nutters at ESPH, can run all day and was positive and great company throughout the event. She has been on a year-long challenge to benefit Prostate Cancer UK and MacMillan Cancer. Read more about her escapades here: https://www.esph.co.uk/blog/fitness/sarah-mid-way-charity-challenges
A lengthy run ensued with “Hero carry”, not good for my back, even with little Marita for company and “Birth canal” – squeezing through a very tight space under tarpaulin filled with water. Various muscle spasms and cramps ensued. “Devil’s beard” – can’t remember that one either – went past as did miles 8 and 9 of our 10.6 mile adventure. Dampened spirits were lifted once more. “The Liberator” was a fun climb using holes, pegs and minimal foot holds to scale a 12 ft wall. Lizzy got stuck into this one with the help of her ever-smiling beau Gareth. A lovely couple these two make.
“Blockness monster” was next and this one wins my vote for best obstacle. A genuine team challenge both with the ESPH contingent and the other Mudders mucking in to help out. The obstacle consisted of four rotating prisms set in 4 feet deep muddy water. The only way to get over was with help from behind and in front to rotate the prism. After climbing up onto the prism and getting to the top you had to turn around to avoid sliding face first into the filth on the other side. Fun, hard work and rewarding.
Another favourite “King of the swingers” was next. This was probably the best spectacle for the watching crowds. After ascending a ladder to a platform, we waited a good 5-10 minutes before it was our turn. A swinging pendulum trapeze awaited with the goal of hitting the bell at the end of the swing before plunging into the muddy pool below. Alison shined bright on this one, although narrowly missing the bell, she held on throughout for a satisfying and well-deserved mud bath finish. I used to think that Tough Mudder was a challenge for Mums before I found out what it was really about. Alison is most definitely the Tough Mum in the group.
Two more obstacles to go and less than half a mile to the finish we ran down the hill towards “Everest”. Drying off our feet, Anthony took off and made it look more like Dog Kennel Hill as he comfortably strode to the top. A few of us followed suit before Max “nut-planted” and narrowly failed to get the top. We all finally made it up and were on our way to the final obstacle, not before helping some rather large Mudders up to the top. The final obstacle in our way was the “Electro-shock therapy”, which Alison daintily traversed without incident. I followed Max and received what I can only imagine a tasering or cattle-prodding feels like. It was quickly forgotten as the finish line was breached and I was swiftly crowned with the requisite TM orange headband and a very welcome hug from the young lady dispensing the headbands. A bottle of cider was also thrust into my hand along with various other goodies and souvenirs. I haven’t had cider in about 20 years but it was so good I grabbed a 2nd shortly after finishing the first.
The whole event was a wonderful experience but the camaraderie, determination and perseverance of our team as a unit particularly stood out and was very pleasing to see. We can’t wait for the next one and getting a bigger team from ESPH involved. I’m also looking forward to getting my kids entered in the Mini-Mudder events.