I’d never heard of Tough Mudder until J told us that he was entering it with a team of work colleagues.
I now know that it is a huge international organisation; this is taken from the website:
Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile (18-20 km) obstacle course challenges designed to test your all-around strength, stamina, mental grit and camaraderie. With the most innovativeobstacles and over one million participants globally to date, Tough Mudder is the premier obstacle course series in the world.
Tough Mudder is more than an event; it’s a way of thinking. It’s about pushing yourself to the limits and helping others to do the same. It’s not a race, it’s a challenge. If we timed you, what would be your motivation to stop and give someone a hand? When you run a Tough Mudder, you’ll meet new people and overcome challenges when you get through the course—together. Running a race gets you busted knees and a medal you’ll never wear again. At the end of a Tough Mudder, you get an orange headband to proudly wear to work on Monday morning, a pint, bragging rights and membership into Mudder Nation. And it gives you an excuse to get all your friends together and start a tradition.
They are partnered with Help the Heroes, but participating teams can split their fundraising between H the H and other charities of their choice.
We went along to a very muddy field near Henley-on-Thames with some trepidation – J was expecting to get muddy from head to toe, but we hadn’t signed up for that, and as it was raining torrentially for a good part of the two hour drive there, with more rain forecast for the day, we expected the worst!
The event was extremely well organised from parking through spectator registration to signposting, food, drinks and loos. The atmosphere was that of a festival rather than an athletics event (the only thing that I had experience of for comparison) – and in fact it really wasn’t an athletics event. It was a day of stamina, endurance and bravery. We walked for several hours around the course, covering probably 4-5 miles in the time that the competitors covered 12 miles (plus negotiating all the obstacles) – but of course we had a break for a drink and a sandwich. There was an anxiety provoking half hour when an air ambulance landed by an obstacle that we knew J’s team should be at, and it was then another half hour before we caught up with him. It transpired that someone had fallen awkwardly from the 12ft drop and sustained a nasty leg fracture. A shame, as on the whole the event seemed well thought out and organised, as you’d expect from such a big organisation.
After the triumphant finish complete with many pictures of the head-to-toe mud and smiles of relief and achievement I reflected on the day.
Firstly we’d had a great day, proving yet again that pessimistic expectations are generally a bad thing, and that (as we’ve said many times on Cornwall holidays) it very rarely rains unremittingly all day in England.
I was thinking about the emphasis on teamwork in this event. At the beginning the participants were told repeatedly that this wasn’t a race, it wasn’t about getting the best time for yourself or your team, it was about not only helping the rest of your team get through each obstacle, but also about helping other participants who needed it. This was manifest at the end, when J’s team had completed the course, but were waiting to cross the finish line for possibly ten minutes, as they had ‘lost’ the last two members of the team. Those waiting were clearly getting colder and colder, shivering uncontrollably, but they were determined to cross the finish line together (which they did).
I assume that a lot of this ethos derives from the military, and of course this creates problems for me. The idea of teamwork is great, the idea that no single person is better/ faster/ stronger than the most vulnerable member of the team is one that I can happily subscribe to. The problem comes on that fine line between helping and encouraging, and pushing someone beyond their limits. J said to me that at the top of the ‘walk the plank’ obstacle there were people who completely froze when they realised that they had to leap 15 feet into the unknown. (The obstacle was constructed so that the participants climbed a 10ft wall, but at the top they discovered that the other side was excavated to create a 15ft drop into water). At the top there was effectively no way down, and apparently people were just being pushed over the edge by their teammates or others. Equally the peer pressure to negotiate obstacles was pretty big, especially amongst the boys, even though it was made clear that they could be bypassed. In this year of World War I ‘celebrations’ (an awful term) the idea of people being pushed over the edge of the obstacle has disturbing associations of the many young men (mostly 10 years younger than most of the guys there yesterday) who also blindly went over the edge. Of course, they really had no choice whatsoever about going back.
There were a couple of other things that disturbed me a bit. The sight of the air ambulance of course – with the death of my nephew at last year’s Brighton marathon still very fresh obviously I had heightened anxiety. However, the need for this air ambulance was in many ways much more predictable. If you set up obstacles that result in some people dropping twelve feet straight down, then statistically I guess some will end up with tibial fractures. Presumably the actuarials have made a risk-cost analysis of this and okayed it, but compound tibial fractures can result in losing your leg – never funny, but definitely not for a young woman in her twenties. Similarly, with all the ‘drop/ jump’ events there must be a risk of spinal injury. Again, very small, but again, I wonder how small a risk is acceptable. It is really difficult – at this year’s London marathon there was one death out of 34,000 competitors. Certainly that is a way smaller risk than the risk of death from elective surgery or anaesthesia, and a risk that personally I would find totally acceptable for anything. It is much smaller than the risk of being killed on the roads each day.
The other things that disturbed me were the two electrical obstacles – the ‘eel’ that gave electric shocks to the head and neck of the swimmer as they crawled/ swam through a muddy trench, but more so the final ‘electroshock therapy’ obstacle. If I’m honest I was already upset just by the name – ‘electroshock therapy’ is alarmingly and upsettingly close to ‘electroconvulsive therapy’ for anyone who has been in close personal or professional proximity to the latter. However, the participants had to run the gamut of perhaps 30 metres of a forest of dangling electrified wires through deep mud in order to reach the finish. J was ‘got’ by a wire, and despite his tough 6′ 4″ muscle said that it was pretty painful. Some people were falling in the mud and had to crawl out slowly, being ‘stung’ multiple times on the way out. This just felt too much for me, and slightly spoilt what was a great day. Not only does the electroshock therapy have unpleasant associations with ECT, but I feel that there are also dark allusions to other abuses of electricity, in torture and ultimately in the electric chair.
Even as a spectator I could have done without it.