Tough Mudder Memories

There are moments in time where you know with certainty that life will never be the same afterwards. One of those moments for me came on a clear, crisp November morning in Englishtown, New Jersey. I was standing upon a stained wooded platform looking down at a massive tub fill with ice water. As I stood up there, my knees locked and shivering with cold I knew I would have to take that plunge, there was no turning back now. How in the hell did I allow myself to get into this situation? I had been averse to risk most of my life, certainly never one to set off into the wilderness or go down the rabbit hole. This was very much out of character for me but I didn’t really need to ask how I ended up here, I already knew the reason, and his name was Patrick.

Our story begins in the early spring of 2011, when the Arab Spring was beginning to shake the world and the wave of Obama optimism was rolling back. I was twenty-three years old and just watching the world pass me by behind the front desk of a car dealership. I was also becoming increasingly well acquainted with my friend Captain Morgan and spending many a bleary-eyed night working on the unpolished manuscript that one day would become my first novel. It had been about a year since my brother Patrick had returned from his third and final tour of duty in Iraq. For our entire lives, he’s possessed an almost supernatural talent for talking me into doing things I would otherwise have no part of and after he joined the army that skill only amplified. My first reaction when he sent me the link to Tri-State Tough Mudder was, “Are you out of your fucking mind? Why would you want to do that to yourself and why on God’s green earth did you think that I would join you?” He reasoned that it would be a great way to challenge myself, the race would be more fun than I thought and he absolutely wouldn’t let me get hurt. I had to admit, through all the wave jumping, roller coasters and even that time up on our roof in the middle of January he had been true to his word. Still, I brushed him off for a few weeks until I found out that nobody else had committed to joining his team. I thought about it a great deal and, in the end, I couldn’t let my brother go out there alone so I caved and said I’d do it. There were two things I knew for sure the moment I sent my brother that text. First I needed to seriously train for the first time in my life. Secondly that I was going to spend the next six months dreading race day.

The training… well let’s just say that physical fitness has never come naturally to me. I couldn’t run more than five hundred yards without needing to stop and catch my breath. I was facing an obstacle course that was twelve miles long with significant portions of purely running between individual obstacles. This was not going to be a walk in the park. After buying my first ever pair of running shoes and digging through my closet for some athletic shorts I found myself at the bike path behind the fitness center of the UVM campus. I figured the best way to go about this thing was to do it in sections. I would pick a point along the path to run to, stop to walk for a bit and pick up running again at the next point. It was odd sitting down in the grass to stretch out, took me a minute to remember the stretches from high school gym class (Thanks Mr. Mac!). I put on my headphones and the first song that started playing was Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.” Not exactly your traditional work out music but hey, I’m not exactly a traditional guy either. Work has always been a source of anxiety for me, and I expected that running after a full day’s work would do little to alleviate that. But as I started running I found I was entirely mistaken. The running itself forced me to clear my head and focus on the path in front of me while the music relaxed me. In fact, I’ve found afternoon jogs to be such a cathartic release that I continue the practice to this day, long after the last of my mudder days.

So that’s how it went, four days a week doggedly trying to work my way up from running in stretches to being able to jog the length of a 5k without stopping. It took me most of the summer and several failed attempts but I got there. On the afternoon that I finally accomplished my goal, I had no intention of running the whole thing in one go. It just kind of happened, I would reach a checkpoint and a voice in my head would tell me to push just a little further. It wasn’t until I looked down at the pavement and saw the painted 2k mark that I realized I hadn’t stopped yet. That was the moment I decided I was going to go for it. As I traversed a dirt path through the woods and a local country club I could feel the cramp growing in my side and it was all I could do to keep my feet moving forward in a jogging motion.  I’ll never forget how I felt during those last, long yards the first time I finished the 5k course nonstop. I was exhausted, my quads were on fire and the cramp in my side was causing me to feel slightly nauseous but I didn’t give a damn about any of that, I was too proud to care.

I work hard all the way up through November to make sure my stamina up to what I felt was an acceptable level to finish the mudder. Of course, it occurred to me only days before the race that I should’ve been doing some upper body training in conjunction with the running. Alas it is those little nuggets of wisdom that tends to avoid us during a wholly new undertaking. And so, half-prepared and nervous as all hell I hopped in my car and drove down to my brother’s house in Clifton, New Jersey. We had to leave the house at 5:30am the next morning so naturally we hydrated well and went to bed early… just kidding, we toasted with Irish whiskey and probably got about three hours or so of sleep. After spending the night trolling people on “Call Of Duty” and watching utterly tasteless YouTube videos my brother and I solemnly marched to his unfinished basement where, over the washer machine and a special vintage of Jamison, I recited the following toast:

There’s never a point
To sit back and lament
Tis a waste of time
Yer energy spent.

You’ve got your problems
You’ve got your woes
Life’s a bitch
That’s how it goes.

Just know
Whatever yer troubles be
There’s hope in a glass
Of Irish whiskey.

By the time I awoke (later) that morning I felt exhausted and just plain awful. After forcing down as much oatmeal as my sour stomach would allow we dressed for battle. I put on a green running shirt that was supposed to dry quickly (it didn’t) and special gloves that were supposed to come in handy for some of the obstacles according to one Tough Mudder handbook. My brother said they were going to be more a hindrance and I ought to leave them behind. I didn’t listen… and about a quarter of the way through the mudder I ditched the gloves. Touche Patrick.  We spent the entire ride out to Englishtown taking turns saying just how crazy this was and how stupid we were for doing it. As each exit on the parkway passed the anxiety increased. By the time we got onto local roads I was fit to be tied. I was somewhat lifted when we got to the Raceway Park and found a parking lot full of people dressed in all sorts of ways. Granted there were plenty people in expected athletic garb like ourselves but there were also women dressed as cows, bad-ass men with amputated legs sporting kilts, Ron Burgandy and the Channel 4 news team and, my personal favorite, the entire lineup of the Village People. Those good feelings came crashing down though when we each had to sign a death waver (yes that is a real thing) so if we were horribly mutilated or killed our family couldn’t sue the race organizers. I really wanted to turn back at that moment but felt pulled along the same you do on the line for a gigantic roller coaster you got conned into going on. Besides I’d come too far and put in way too much effort to not see the thing through.

As my brother and I made our way to the starting line we were both surprised by our step-mother Melita. She’d been visiting family down the shore and decided to pop up to support us along with documenting this idiocy for posterity.  She would end up taking a series of pictures that day and making it into a book that I still treasure today. As the appointed hour grew closer Tough Mudder’s official hype man grabbed a mic and bid the participants to gather at the starting line. As we all bowed our heads the man reminded us that we were doing all this to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. As I marshaled my own nerves I looked to my right and remembered who I was doing this for. The beginning was all bombast, featuring an almost deafening chorus of full-throated shouts, a monster truck and lots of orange smoke canisters. Nothing particularly challenging happened for about the first mile until we reached what looked like a demented swimming pool.

That turned out to be the eloquently titled “arctic enema” It’s basically a giant tub filled with dyed green ice water and a barb-wired wooden beam across the middle so you’d be forced to fully submerge. That brings us back to where we started, I watched my brother enter the tub in front of me, yelling and whooping until he disappeared below the beam. It was go time, I kicked sensibility to the curb and jumped in. Friends I don’t know if you have ever jumped into water that cold but, as best I can describe, it’s akin to having somebody pick you up and squeeze all the air out of you. I desperately tried to make my barely responsive limbs move faster as I lurched towards that dammed barb wire. Unable to draw more than a shallow breath, I dunked under, my head shrinking to the size of a peanut. With my eyes closed and one hole clamping my nose shut I blindly groped around with my free hand for the other side. When I finally did surface and climb out of that bastard tub a cool, refreshing, 45 degree wind hit me. This was only the beginning.

There were more tame things to come in the immediate, including a hay bale pyramid which was really fun and a set of hurdles that were not fun at all. Trying to scramble over one I managed to both screw up my right leg and slam my groin at the same time. To this day I still have no idea how exactly I accomplished that but my right leg looked gnarly for weeks afterwards and any future children I have may be mutant as a result.  My leg freshly open and bleeding we had to swim across a freezing, scummy looking lake towards a series of thin, unstable cargo ladders. I think I got about of the quarter of the way out into the lake, kicking desperately and convinced that I would drown when my brother shouted out to me “Dude what are you doing? There’s a rope you can pull yourself along on right over here.” I swam over to my brother and as he pulled me on the rope he said, “work smarter, not harder.” After that we found ourselves at the mud mile, which was literally a full mile worth of one mud trench after another. Not little ones either, some where ten feet tall and slick as all hell. After sliding down the other side you had to slog towards the next one in thigh deep mud water, unless you found a sink hole in which case you got trapped up to your chest in mud. I remember sliding down the back side of one trench, which was speckled with hundreds of little rocks which scraped you and slid into places rocks ought not to go. I then managed to find a particularly villainous sink hole which caught me up to my neck it seemed like. But there was my brother to reach in and yank me right out.

After that we came to a series of walls, six and twelve feet tall, that required upper body strength to climb over. I didn’t think there was a chance I could do it but my brother always had me go first and gave me enough of a boost to get over the top. For that entire race in fact he never left me behind, never gave me crap for being slow and never stopped encouraging me. I remember slogging through a seemingly endless BMX track, cold and exhausted as my brother recited every Forest Gump quote he could think of to keep my spirits up.  I’d never really noticed that side of my brother before. From the moment we were born, my brother and I have been very different people. My brother was naturally intelligent, outgoing, and a handsome devil who never had much trouble attracting the opposite sex. I, on the other hand, was more reserved and more academically astute. I was also (and possibly still am) the most awkward person I knew and as such, socializing never came easy to me. The one thing my brother and I shared equally was competitiveness, particularly when it came to sports. My brother was a fine athlete, a trait he inherited from our mother. I conversely inherited my father’s athletic gifts, which equated to spending a lot of time in right field. That didn’t stop me from having a burning passion to win mind you, it just meant that every time I lost I was filled with anger, resentment and profound disappointment in myself. I seemed to lose a lot as a kid and my brother, in my eyes anyway, seemed to take a particular glee in knowing that he was better than me. I in turn antagonized him with ease, knowing that his short fuse would get the better of him and many times turn the tables in my favor. It also lead to numerous knock down, drag out brawls which eventually earned us the nickname “The Fighting Mullany Brothers” (a moniker we would  come to make our own years later, this time with an entirely different meaning)  For this and other reasons, I feel my brother and I were always destined to have a certain adversarial component of our relationship. That’s natural for most siblings I think, but it also lead to a rather rocky relationship which reached its nadir when we were both in high school. By that time, honestly we just didn’t like each other.

Things changed after my brother joined the US Army and I went off to college. Freshman year at UVM was a lonely time for me, I made few friends and felt more isolated than ever before. One of the few bright spots was the IM correspondence Patrick and  began to accumulate. Like my father, I left my AOL IM running 24 hours a day so Patrick could reach out from Iraq. He’d send out a message in the middle of the night and I’d usually get back the next morning. We’d update each other on what was happening in the other’s life, trade movie quotes and just converse about life in general. It was the first time in years that Patrick and I had talked like that. It was subtle, but I noticed that each time he came home on leave we spent more time together. More importantly, we actually began to enjoy the other’s company. I came to appreciate that my brother pushed me to try new things, broaden my horizons and learn to relax a little. By the time I graduated from UVM I considered Patrick my best friend. I would later come to memorialize this point in time with my first novel “Slip Sliding Away.”

Now back at the race, there would be many other cruelties awaiting the two of us, including greased monkey bars, pitch black semi-underwater tunnels, crawling face down in mud with barbed wire eighteen inches above your head, rushing across a slick and muddy balance beam and running through a section with burning rubbish on either side of you. There was one part in fact where my brother had to physically carry me. He easily slung me over his shoulders like a sack of wheat while I had to resort to giving him a piggy back rid to complete my portion. By the time we had reached the ending I had barely enough energy left in my legs to walk back to the car, let alone run and there were two more obstacles awaiting. There was Everest and the now infamous “Electroshock Therapy”

Everest was a quarter pipe and, after surviving eleven and a half miles of abuse you had to run up that fucking thing. Naturally the pipe was slick by this point and you watched as the people before you rush up only to wipe out and end up back where they started. It was quite a scene, all along the top there were competitors who had already scaled it and were now lined up, shouting words of encouragement and waiting with arms extended to help you up. My brother went first and, like an overachiever made it up on his first try. I figured I would face plant at least twice before getting up. I felt like I was running with sandbags attached to my legs but I made myself go forward. I could see my brother’s outstretched arms, took a couple of big strides and leapt for it. I smacked my face into the pipe but he caught my arms and somehow pulled me up even though I amounted to dead weight.

After climbing down from the pipe I could see the finish line and sweet relief. There was just one problem, standing between us and the end was a series of hanging, live electrical wires. If you want to see what this looks like in practice have a look at the plethora of videos on YouTube about this obstacle from hell.  As we stretched out for our final dash my brother slapped me on the back and said “Alright buddy this is it! Just cover your balls and run like hell!” Before I could ask what about my face he was off so I ran after him into the wires. At first it was only uncomfortable, but by the time you hit the midway point you had to stop and roll over hey bales, all while through the voltage was increasing. The wires at the very end contained 10,000 volt shocks. I got hit by two of them and it honestly felt like somebody punching you as hard as they could. One hit the small of my back so hard the force literally lifted me off the ground and flung me out of the obstacle. At least I didn’t take another blow to the groin, and any future children I might have will thank me for that.

By the time we crossed the finish line race I was physically shaking I was so cold and still openly bleeding from my right leg. For going through all that our prize was an orange headband and a ticket for a single beer. I have to tell you… it was absolutely worth it. Outside of earning my degree I had never felt so accomplished in my life. I had set a challenge, worked my ass off and met it. I pitted myself against a race that unfolded like it was designed by a serial killer and survived. Far and away the greatest thing I got from Tough Mudder was what it did for the relationship between my brother and I. That day I proved to him I was a lot tougher then I looked and was willing to do something we both knew I was terribly afraid of because he asked me to. He in turn showed me something I’d never really seen from him. It wasn’t just the physically helping me though the course but everything he did to keep my spirits up. We mutually sacrificed for each other throughout that race, and the two subsequent Tri-State Tough Mudders we would run together (anybody who knows my brother and I should hardly be surprised that we didn’t learn our lesson the first time around). The experience of running Tough Mudder allowed my brother and I to forge an unbreakable bond. So every fall I look back and remember that moment upon the platform, before the plunge that changed my life and think, “Thank God I don’t have to do the Arctic Enema today!”