I was a spectator at one of the annual Tough Mudder obstacle runs last weekend. If you don’t know what Tough Mudder is, it’s a team-oriented, 11-12 mile (18-20 km) obstacle course designed to test physical strength and mental fortitude. Obstacles involve crawling through tight, enclosed spaces, climbing 4-5 meters plank walls, running through water and mud, then more mud. Oh, did I mention mud? Watching the participants push on, smiling through gritted teeth unavoidably made me think about why people would do that to themselves.
I understand why people run or go to the gym, or do any sport for that matter, I do it myself. But what makes someone want to willingly submerge into a container filled with ice water, or getting zapped by thousands of volts of electricity? Is it temporary insanity? Or the glory of it? Is it the swag, the headband and the t-shirt you get for completion? There is no medal for the winner. Tough Mudder is not a competition in the conventional sense; it’s not a race but a challenge. Some surely participate just so they can say they did it. On the other hand doing it once might be just a fluke, so why not complete the course three times over a single a weekend? How about doing it only once, simply for fun then? Tough Mudder indeed brings fun to a whole new level. It might be one of the most interesting social phenomena I’ve ever experienced. People of all age, shapes and sizes participate, some even dress up for the occasion. Superhero outfits and full-body gorilla shaped leotards colour the already colourful palette.
There are probably as many answers to the why as are people. For some I know closely there is a philosophy behind it. Because courses like this test you in the most unexpected and (seemingly) brutal ways. The event is a measuring tool of how much you actually know yourself, a sort of “am I who I think I am, and if I’m not, why did I sign up for this?”. Simply signing up serves as an instance for deciding who you want to be, for accepting the choice of putting yourself in a certain situation and the inevitability of living with the consequences of said choice. It’s about facing your own destiny, not accepting any limitations as impenetrable, but rather redefining yourself to see if you have the confidence, the determination, the willpower and the ability to get through a challenge of this magnitude more or less unscathed. In short, pushing those proverbial limits, and bringing the house down to see what you are capable of.
Yet Tough Mudder is more than individuals with their individual drives and abilities. It stands out because it’s first and foremost a social experience. All who compete react to the trials differently. Some get scared after the first few obstacles, even get angry at the hardship, but most push on fuelled by pride, and very few give up. That achievement can mostly be attributed to the social aspect. The events are branded and advertised to be about camaraderie, and armed with that knowledge you go at one with an inherent trust that there will always be someone to assist you through the hardest tests, offering a helping hand where needed. Not necessarily in the literal sense. The event is a tough challenge to test your mental grit as much as your physical fitness, it primes you to let go of your doubts and your self-defeating self-talk. But no matter how prepared you think you are, there might be times when you need someone else to talk to you then the voice in your head telling you can’t get through it. Impromptu companionships, casual conversations or a friendly smile will help you push forward. And makes most participants have one thing in common: in retrospect they all say it was absolutely worth it.
I’m not gonna lie to you. If you want to sign up and you’ve never done this before, expect pain and smaller injuries. Expect cold, water and mud everywhere, eyes and private parts are no exception. Even being a spectator had its own challenges; I had to run some of the course to keep up with the contestants and meet them at every obstacle the route touches. On the other hand I can’t emphasise it enough, how much fun taking part or just spectating is. You easily forget about your own discomfort, your wet socks (because your shoes are not fully waterproof), or even the rain that can surprise you at any turn. And those teeth might be gritted, but there is still that little smile.
Have you ever participated in such an event? What was you experience?
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