Coach Brandon takes on World's Toughest Mudder
Almost 1 week away from World’s Toughest Mudder and I’d say it was an exhilarating experience. After 24 hours and about 8 minutes I crossed the finish line last Sunday after having completed 50 miles of running and something close to 200 obstacles. It was a great test of endurance, strength and mental fortitude. Things I enjoy progressing in.
I wanted to write about the journey up to and through the event and figure a blog post is better than a FB or IG post. Feel free to jump to the sections that may interest you and if you are testing your own resiliency then give this bad boy a read.
Less than a year ago I thought I wanted to do WTM. It seemed like a lofty goal to train and dedicate myself towards. Most of the events I participate in have an endurance aspect to them which is funny because I’m a sprinter. My best distance in High School was the 100m and I shortened that up to the 40yd dash in college. In the last couple of years I’ve taken on a 89 mile mountain bike race called True Grit, a 75 miler in Park City called Point to Point, SealFit’s 50 hour event called Kokoro, a team double Ironman relay, multiple Tribute Crucible’s which are 32 hours and now World’s Toughest Mudder which lasts 24 hours. My type IIA muscle fibers are wondering what is going on. And so the prep work began.
Here is what it did NOT consist of: running. My running prep for a 50 miler was almost non existent. My longest run was a little over 6 miles about 2 weeks out from the event.
I spent a lot of time in the weight room with variations of weighted step ups and lunges, lots of hiking for the Tribute Crucible prep, squats, sprints, rowing, ski erg etc. And it worked. But I also know my body pretty well and didn’t feel the pressure to build up long endurance runs knowing that since I don’t have a strong base in running miles I wasn’t going to risk the associated running injuries getting ready for WTM.
The closer the event became the more I mimicked the event. I spent a couple of late nights and early mornings running and going through the playground jungle gym in as many varieties as I could think of.
Many of my WODs were 20-30 min AMRAPs:
Example AM workout:
Warmup: Ido Portal Squat Routine 2.0
A)Back Squat 8,2,8,2; rest full recovery
B1) BB Rear Stepping Elevated Lunges: 14 Reps
B2) Hanging Strict Leg Lowers: 6-10 Reps; rest 90 sec x 3 sets
C) Reverse Hyper: @4040; 8-10 reps; rest 90 secs x 3 sets
D) KB CrossBody Chops: 18 each side; rest 60 secs x 3 sets
E) 10 Min EMOM: 8 Dbl KB DL @106# + Max step ups @ 30" box in remaining time
F) For time: ski erg 600m, 30 steps ups @20", ski erg 600m 30 step ups @24", ski erg 600m 30 step ups @30", ski erg 600m.
Once I knew I was going to be doing WTM I needed a purpose beyond just completing as many laps as possible. Something that not only was going to push me to get back out on the course but something that was going to push me out of bed early in the mornings to get my training in.
Every September I put 20 or so people through a 32 hour event known as the Tribute Crucible. That event presents numerous physical and mental challenges to the team as a way of opening them up emotionally to our Tribute. We pay Tribute to the 343 Firefighters that gave their lives on 9/11. We do it without sleep, in the mountains and on the lakes, in various hands on classroom type scenarios, in an effort to pass on the legacies of our heroes.
I ask a lot of our group. And so I expect a lot of myself. I thought it was fitting and appropriate to pay Tribute to some extraordinary people in my life and do it in a very physically and mentally challenging environment.
I decided to dedicate each lap to somebody that was battling to overcome an obstacle or somebody that had lived a life that needed to be shared with others. I had 9 names and 10 laps. Luckily WTM used the first lap as a non-obstacle lap to get people spread out before opening the obstacles so there wasn’t a log jam.
My tributes included:
My goal was to read a bio about the individual prior to starting each lap and then run that lap for them.
Arming myself with a purpose greater than myself, I also set some personal accountability to not let those 9 down. I knew I had to get my training in if I was going to complete 10 laps. I had to make it to Aaron Butler. I had to get through 9 laps in order to read his name.
I am not a morning person. Ask my wife or my parents or my buddies, I need a large amount of sleep to function (at least 8 hours, preferably 9-10) and preferably a large glass of whole milk. The problem was if I didn’t start out owning my day the day would own me. Thus my alarm was set for 5am on training days. I couldn’t even open my eyes halfway in the mornings until I made it down the stairs. Wobbly, tired, and unsure of my surroundings it would take the better part of 10 minutes before I was coherent enough to start getting ready.
Knowing I needed all the help I could get in the mornings I prepped the night before. Breakfast was out on the counter before bed: Bowl, spoon, oatmeal, honey. I like to start every day with a glass of water so I had the glass already pre filled and ready to drink. I had a shaker cup filled with water and next to it a Crystal Light drink packet with caffeine. Also sitting out was my gym attire and gym bag.
Wake up- stumble downstairs - brush teeth - heat up oatmeal - get dressed - grab oatmeal/ gym bag/ shaker cup and head out the door.
That was the routine.
Nothing fancy, just tried to remain consistent.
I had a lot of gear for WTM. I joined a couple of the WTM facebook groups and there was an avalanche of information that just kept on coming. Here is what it came down to for me. When the sun goes down it will get cold. I needed a couple of wetsuit options, a neoprene hood, several pairs of gloves, dry compression clothing to change into under the wetsuits, a good waterproof headlamp and lots of socks. I knew I was going to carry a camelbak with me on every lap and that played a crucial role in my effort I believe.
Once I had the gear I did several test runs in the different combinations of the cold weather gear so I could get acclimated to its fit and feel. I was a little worried about getting a rash or finding rub points but I never did in training and never had an issue during the event.
There were lots of good pointers in the groups and one of them was to have a second headlamp in case the first was lost on an obstacle. You can not run at night without a headlamp per the course rules. I decided I was going to attach a carabiner to the back of my pack and then tie a little paracord between the headlamp and carabiner to ensure I wouldn’t lose it. Something in my gut told me to get a second headlamp but the first one cost me $50 for the Black Diamond Storm and I didn’t want to sink any more costs into lighting so I kept dismissing the feeling...bad mistake. I lost the Storm after lap 2 during the night. A quick text to Bobbi who was enroute to the course sent her to REI to grab another before they closed. (Insert praying hands emoji)
I brought two pairs of shoes, actually three but 2 to compete in. The third, Nike metcons, were on standby in case I blew thru the first two pairs of shoes. My main race pair was the Salomon SpeedCross 3s and they were awesome. I ended up using them for 9 of the 10 laps and regretted switching to my Nike Running Boot almost immediately halfway through. I couldn’t get the Salomon back on quick enough.
I feel a little bit like an anomaly when it comes to race day nutrition. My system runs better on food, any food, than on race goos and mixes. I can drink a glass of whole milk and go run 400s for a workout and not have any issues. So I didn’t tinker much in the nutrition department leading up to the event. I brought a bin full of food not knowing what I’d be craving and called it good. Most of the food was whole foods and not race mixes. Lots of granola bars, fruit snacks, Crasins, Pedialyte, bananas, applesauce, Snickers, fig newtons, Nutter Butters etc. I did carry some cliff blocks and stinger waffles but they were minimal compared to the other stuff.
My race pace consisted of running/jogging the straightaways and the downhills and walking the inclines. That lasted for several laps and then I would jog where I could but also walk portions of the straightaways to keep moving. I used the 2 large hills as my personal fuel stations. As I walked I ate. I would eat several packs of Mott's fruit snacks, two great harvest granola bars and sometimes a kids applesauce packet. I did this on both hills on almost every lap. I never filled my hydration pack with anything other than water. I had several pints of pedialyte at the tent and drank through 1 and 1/2 bottles but I could feel the electrolyte imbalance kicking in and never drank anything but water after sundown through the end of the race. I took 1 salt tab as a precaution after the 1st lap in the sun and then never had to take another one. I think eating on the hills and drinking mostly water was a huge factor in my body not cramping or swelling up. There were a lot of runners who faced both. There were also a lot of runners, maybe 90% without a hydration pack and thus no way to carry additional food. With the strength requirements each lap I had to keep my muscles fueled and did not treat the race as an ultra distance running event. I actually treated it as 200 WODs and fueled accordingly.
I slept surprisingly well the night before. It may have had to do with the fact that I slept in a separate room that night from Bobbi and the kids or the benadryl or both but it was a great night of sleep. I was going to rely on those 8 hours of sleep for the next 24+ and I was thankful to get them.
Registration and pit set up was the day before so on race day I basically had to get there and make sure all my stuff was still in order. I had organized my tent so everything was grouped together by type. All my neoprene gear was in 1 bag. All my socks were in a pocket of my duffel, compression's in another pocket, medical assistance (blister kit, sunscreen, tums etc) was laid out on the wagon that I used to haul all the gear in, and my food was in a tote box.
I set up my flag pole stand and raised my flag pole with the American Flag that I use at our Tribute Crucible events. Much like in the Star Spagled Banner I used the flag as a beacon all thru the night to point me in the direction of my pit.
1300+ people ended up racing of the 1600+ that registered. That was a big gathering of racers in the chute. They lined us up at 11:20 and over the next 40 minutes through a broken microphone we listened to the race briefing. The briefing was long but they made a point of emphasis that I can still hear in my head, "This year's theme is Harder than Hell. Whatever your mileage goals are, our goal in the course design is to see that you don't meet those goals." Oh cool, my first Tough Mudder ever, of any kind, and this guy is telling me he doesn't want me to reach my goal of 50 miles. Time for a deep breath. Its Go Time.
One cool moment from the briefing was the Star Spangled Banner. They started to play or somebody started to sing not sure because they hit “can you see” and they cut out. And maybe a beat later the entire group of racers picked up and carried the anthem all the way to the end. It was a fitting way to start and cemented into my heart the desire to finish what I was about to start.
It was easy to get psyched out before and during the start of the race. I had to go 24 hours and there were a lot of people that looked the part. I looked around and judged myself based on the way others looked. I quickly self selected myself as not quite up to par as the others.
I actually find myself doing this quite a bit. I’m not sure what the psychology of it is but I’m sure it’s some protective mental trick my mind tries to play prior to the race. You’re not that good. These other guys look a lot tougher. Look at their gear, they know what they are doing. What are you doing?!! (insert crying helpless emjoi)
But here’s the funny thing after my mind rolls through this self doubt b.s. It triggers something else. Something deeper inside. Something almost primal. I now have something to prove to each of those guys I just put ahead of me in my mind. The hunted just became the hunter in a matter of seconds. It’s showtime and I’m out to prove to myself that I can hang.
The first lap was a 5 mile lap with no obstacles. Everybody fell into line where they were and the 1300 person mass began to slowly stretch out. The obstacles began to roll out at 1pm which was 1 hour after the start. Once all the obstacles were out the true event had begun.
After the pre race psych out session things get pretty basic. One step in front of the other, get to the next obstacle, conquer it and then set sights on the next obstacle. At some point these small goals lead to another finished lap and a time to reset and reload.
Tough Mudder HQ started rolling out the course map online via puzzle pieces. It was actually pretty cool. They would offer up a challenge like, lets see 50 pull-ups from 50 countries and people would post themselves from around the world doing pull-ups. Once the goal was met they would unveil a puzzle piece. The full map was revealed only a day or two prior to the event.
I studied what I could but it was plainly obvious that the penalty obstacles were something to set your sites on and accomplish if you could. But there was 1 penalty that seemed worse than all the others. The obstacle was Funky Munky and if you failed that obstacle you had to go on what seemed like an additional ½ mile course with an obstacle called Artic Enema halfway through it. I don’t know what an Artic Enima is but I was sure I didn’t want to find out.
And so I had my little goals but I had one big goal:
Don’t fail Funky Munky. Not once. Not ever.
The problem was there was a water obstacle right before the Funkiness called Shawshanked that you had to plunge through two water troughs while pulling yourself through an enclosed tube between the two troughs. This caused my wetsuit to fill up and then drain out the wrists and ankles afterwards. Grip was everything on Funky Munky and having wet hands was unacceptable. I would run the ¼ mile between with my hands over my head to prevent the water from draining and at some point I would grab a big handful of dirt that would absorb the water on my hands and then rub them vigorously to get the dirt and mud off. It worked.
The next task was to find the lane that had the least amount of water on the ground. I assumed that the lanes with the most mud and water at the start line meant that most of the people were attempting those lanes and causing those rungs to be the most slippery. Once I found my lane and my hands were dry enough it was time to accomplish my one big goal for the lap.
I went 100% on Funky Munky. Never missed. Not once. (insert big smiling cowboy hat wearing emoji)
It was a huge mental accomplishment to get through that obstacle every lap. Once I got through Funky the remainder of the lap flew by. I was riding that high all the way into the pit on each lap.
When the sun set which was early, seemed like 4:45, the race started to slow down. Without the sun the cold set in and it was easy to start to shiver. The night laps took their toll and could have been devastating.
I had my shorty wetsuit on with my full length frogskins over the top and I was feeling good. Had my goal been strictly mileage I may have never taken that combo off. I still had a neoprene vest I could put on over with a hood. However that didn’t happen.
After each lap the strength I gained from the Tributes was indescribable. I would pit, which consisted of refueling, drinking lots of water, filling my hydration pack, stocking my hydration pack and then sitting to talk through the Tributes. This process took around 30-40 minutes. I was good for about 25 minutes of sitting. Then I would get cold. Really cold. So after the Tribute I would strip down and put a dry base layer on including a new pair of socks. The warm sensation was almost exhilarating but only a lasted a brief second because waiting for me was my ice cold, sopping wet, wetsuit.
It was soul crushing.
To think that I had to put on that cold mess to survive the next 5 miles was a really hard obstacle in and of itself. This is where my Why came into play and my single biggest takeaway from my experience. I had to….
Get out of the tent.
It was the only way. It was the road to my goals. But it felt so good in the tent.
I was warm.
I was near all my food.
I had hot water.
I had dry clothes.
I had blankets.
I had a sleeping bag.
I had a chair.
I had everything I needed to thrive comfortably inside that damn tent.
But everything I wanted was out there.
All of it was waiting for me to unzip that door and head back out in my wet clothes for another lap.
Aaron Butler needed me to get 9 laps in so I could carry his spirit for the 10th. In my head I was letting him down if I stayed in the tent.
And so the Obstacle became the way.
Although cold and soreness began to set in I never felt overly fatigued. I never got sleepy and I never lost the ability to go over the obstacles. Some of that was training. But a large part was staying focused on my why’s and not worrying about how I felt.
This was huge. Having family and friends down to help where they could was an unbelievably uplifting experience when I returned from a lap.
We had 3 pit passes and they were shared with our group. At almost all times through the day and night I had somebody waiting to help.
My wife Bobbi was the ringleader of the shift assignments and she was on point. Big shoutouts to my pit homies, Curtis Taylor and Shane Belnap, for providing some much needed comic relief, port-o-poty Eminem jam session, hot plate of potatoes (they were sooo good), and lots of encouragement. Shoutout to the Pit Boss himself, Cameron “BamBam” Treu for holding it down through the night. When I would come in from a lap and strip down after a Tribute Cam would take my wetsuit to the car and throw the heater on full blast to dry it out as much as he could before I got back from my next lap.
Without Bobbi encouraging me to sign up and go for the race it may not have happened. I knew the training involved and commitment and wasn't sure I could swing it and put the pressure on the family at times by being tired or too wrapped up in training. To have a supportive partner to help get through the day to day monotony of the grind was huge. I can’t express my gratitude and love enough for her support.
And lastly a huge shoutout to my friend and coach, Nick Fowler. Nick runs a gym called Massif Athletics where they pride themselves on their individual coaching and programming. Nick has been programming for me for about a year now. We sit and chat about goals and expectations and I let him know where my big events are throughout the year and he programs accordingly. It is such a motivating force to have a coach in my corner to help me and maintain another layer of accountability. There have been numerous mornings that I got up because I didn't want to let Nick down. My man, thank you.
And then seeing everybody at the finish, especially the smiling faces of my kids was worth everything. I have 9 videos from the Tributes that I hope they see one day.
From John I learned how quickly things can change and how precious each day is.
From Brian and his dedication to challenging himself and living out the motto Go Big or Go Home.
From Justin who knew in his heart the decision he had to make to defend us all and did it.
From Luc who lived his slogan, “whatever you do, don’t suck.” He was awesome in every category.
From Chris who is fighting through his leg rehab everyday the strength and will to fight the pain and get better.
From my sister Caitlin who loved life and lived every emotion everyday. To remind myself to not take things so seriously and try to live through the eyes of my kids.
From Mark and his daily battle to fight off cancer. Everyday is an opportunity, no matter your physical state, you set your mental state.
From Grandpa Warner; to love your spouse. Kids and grandchildren see the love and they will emulate it in their lives.
From Aaron, a warrior. Decide. Train. Act. Aaron dedicated his life to protecting us and he did not sit back but he attacked and took it to the enemy. No matter the enemy. Attack.
It was an honor to represent each of the individuals above. The spirit of each gave me the strength and fortitude needed to conquer an event known as World’s Toughest Mudder.