Monday, 27th March 2023
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World's Toughest Mudder

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Friday 24th November 2017
By James Jelfs

It has been a week now since the dust has settled (mainly in my lungs) from World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM) and I now have time to reflect on a race that ended with me saying “I’m never going anywhere near another Tough Mudder course ever again”.  WTM is a race with a simple idea, do as many obstacle filled 5 mile laps as possible over the course of 24 hours. Obstacles open at random anytime after the first hour and then stay open throughout the rest of the race. There are often changes to the course as well to make things easier or harder on competitors depending on what the race directors wish to achieve at that point in the event. The races starts in the boiling desert heat and then once the sun goes down the temperature drops to the point where all racers need to wear a wetsuit to keep warm.
So I wasn’t exactly at my fittest or energy filled when I arrived in Las Vegas after the journey, thanks to flight delays, ended up taking my about 22 hours. I had only run once in 2 months and I was nervous as hell mainly due to the height of the Tough Mudder obstacles, my only really OCR fear is heights so turning up to a race that basically aims to be bigger and tougher in every way was only going to end badly for me. Of course, it wouldn’t be right to enter a race like WTM without a goal, so I was aiming for 50 miles, not including penalties, which would be good enough to qualify me for the 2018 Obstacle Course Racing World Championships while also being considerably further than I’ve ever run before. What could possibly go wrong?!
The race started with a briefing by the race directors who let us all know that in previous years they felt too many competitors had hit their mileage goals and their aim for this year was to make them harder to reach. I seem to remember their theme for this year’s event was “Hell on Earth” and if I’m wrong and that wasn’t the theme it should have been. Haha.

©Fred Webster/Fredsphotos.net

The first lap there were no obstacles open and so knowing this I went off way too fast, overheated and had to slow right down for the middle of the lap. I knew it was going to be hot in the daylight and that the course contained a lot of elevation, but I underestimated both. I was two miles into my first 5 mile lap and my legs were on fire, I was already walking, great start. 
Luckily the second half or the course was largely downhill meaning I could catch my breath and relax back into my running. I downed a bottle of water at the end of the lap, dumped the baseball cap I had been wearing and went back out for lap two, making sure I kept at a slow and steady pace, not making the mistakes of the previous lap. It felt like I was going much much slower but when I looked at the times at the end of the race it was actually only one minute slower than my sprint lap. I actually made it through this second lap without having to do a whole load of obstacles, in fact I only had one to do which was a nice surprise meaning I was able to bank a few laps nice and early and put me ahead of schedule for 50 miles.
The obstacles started to open rapidly during my third lap and the pre-race plan was that I would stop at the end of this lap to put on my wetsuit, however I was still moving quite quickly, it was still hot and I was certain I could make it through a fourth lap before sunset. Lap three had been good fun and I had enjoyed the obstacles I had faced, although I didn’t realise how much my grip strength and arm strength would be affected by just one obstacle filled lap. Lap four started well but the fatigue in my arms was soon apparent, I started failing obstacles and having to do penalty runs and/or swims. I knew that this lap would be slower than my last but was still hoped I’d make it back before sunset. I was wrong! The sun set faster than I thought and my last 2 miles were spent in the dark with the temperature rapidly dropping. In fact due to my lack of grip strength my last two miles were closer to 3.5 miles when you added in my penalties and also included rather a lot of water. This was one of the most miserable lonely laps I’ve ever run, I was constantly having to take penalties while steadily getting colder and colder plodding on alone in the dark. By the time I finished the lap I was frozen. 20 miles done in 5 hours meaning I had 19 hours left to do 30 more to hit my target. I was 4 hours ahead of my target time but I was shivering and could not get warm, at this point I was worried that my race was already over. I got into my tent, put on some neoprene base layers, my wetsuit, a windproof jacket and then put my dryrobe over the top, and that’s where my race was put on pause for two hours!! 
Two hours spent sat shivering in a tent trying to get warm, there was a problem with the electricity on site so there was no hot water therefore no warm drinks for me. Just when I was beginning to think I would never get back out on the course I remembered that one of my friends was out on course and had been roughly one lap behind me so I decided that when she came back to the pits I would go back out again with her. Thank god I did, running with Sara was the one good decision I made all race. The next 2 laps were slow and steady but having company meant I was still moving forward and although we were taking a lot of penalties we were keeping each other going, our morale was still high and we were still on track for the 50!
Lap 7 and things changed: all the obstacles were open, the course directors changed some of the obstacles to make them harder, the penalty loops were punishing and some had been extended, there were now two or three more water crossings and the dreaded 35ft cliff jump was now open (which neither of us were ever going to do, damn you vertigo!). This lap ended up taking us three times longer than my first one and we had lost so much time that we were no longer on course to make it to 50 miles. We were now going to miss our target by 15 minute. I have to admit this was largely my fault, we took a large penalty on this lap because I wasn’t able to do the “Stage 5 Clinger” obstacle and did not trust my grip strength to make it over even with help so off we went around the penalty. On finishing the lap we went into the medical tent to get warm for twenty minutes before we went back out for lap 8. Sara…if you’re reading this I apologies for the pace I set on lap 8. Knowing we were not going to make it to 50 miles without an increased pace I set off with Sara hot on my heals, only I didn’t stop, even at obstacles. I didn’t want to waste time attempting any of the non mandatory obstacles and went straight for the penalty, keeping the pace high to make sure we got back on track. This was again probably a stupid decision but it worked. We were 45 minutes faster than the previous lap and we were now in a position where we could afford to take 3 hours for each of our last 2 laps, unfortunately I had run myself into the ground to get back on track and I would later find out that I’d actually got a stress fracture in my left leg. 
Luckily for us Sara’s boyfriend Joe, who was already at 55miles, was waiting in the medical tent getting warm when we came back in. Joe either decided he wanted to or got dragged into coming back out to do the last two laps with us, I’m not sure which, but lap 9 was great. We chatted and laughed our way around the course and Joe was able to help us over obstacles that we had not been able to get past since the day before, suddenly it all seemed possible and the 50 was in reach. 
Lap ten! The final lap! I don’t know what happened, I shut down, the pain in my leg was unbearable and I could barely keep myself awake. Sara, Joe and I stuck together over the whole lap, but I was no longer chatty in fact I was silent, I generally had my eyes closed and I think I nearly fell asleep while swimming across a water section. The most common phrase I heard during these laps was from spectators asking “Is he asleep?”. Nothing was going to stop us hitting our targets but now that it was within reach my body was not going to let me enjoy it. Joe and Sara managed to make sure I didn’t drown and somehow kept me on track through to the finish by counting off the obstacles that I would never ever have to do again. We ran (Sara dragged me) over the finish hand in hand and it was over, we had hit the 50 mile mark with 21 minutes to spare and Joe had matched his 65 miles from the previous year. 

WTM collage
© Bob Mulholland/OCR Photography

WTM was the hardest race I have ever done. After a promising start my race was almost over only a few hours in based on a poor gamble on when to put on a wetsuit (you really should listen when people tell you it’s better to put the wetsuit on early than late), luckily it didn’t stop me and in the end it came down to stubbornness and good friends to get me through. Could I have done it alone? Maybe, in fact I would bet on myself managing it. Would I have wanted to? Not a chance. Running such a hard event with close friends meant that I could still enjoy it in a weird way. 
I’ve said I would never do it again but one week later I do find myself looking back and wondering how well I would have done if I hadn’t messed up my clothing choice on lap 4. Could I have hit 65 miles? I think so, the only reason Joe didn’t get more was that he also succumbed to the cold (he’s more than capable of 75). It would be nice to try again, but not anytime soon. Maybe a standard 24 hour run would be a good idea for me in 2018 instead of throwing in obstacles as well. If you’re an OCR runner then WTM should definitely be on your race bucket list but be prepared to suffer. Build up to WTM, don’t just sign up and wing it (Oops). 

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