That time I was Crowned “5th Toughest Man On The Planet”
Back in 2011, I saw this thing called “Tough Mudder” advertised somewhere online. It was advertised as “Probably The Toughest Event On The Planet”. The one word that stuck with me was “probably”. How would I know if this was really that hard if they used the word “probably”? Having never ran more than a few miles in one sitting, I signed up. I didn’t train for this other than doing my normal WODs and maybe a little running.
Finally the the day came. Katie and I drove to Mt. Snow in Vermont on an early spring weekend so I could try to challenge myself in the first Tough Mudder in the North East. When we arrived, we saw a crowd of a few hundred people in attendance (as compared to the thousands that are seen now over weekend events). I completed the 12 miles alone (Katie watched from checkpoints here and there) and kept a stopwatch with my time as Tough Mudder was an untimed event. Why?.. because I am a CrossFitter and everything is for time! I ran up and down the mountain through muddy trails and rough terrain and completed obstacles all while taking several decent falls. When all was said and done, I was surprised I completed the entire thing.
Sometime after the event was finished, I received an email with a link… It said something to the effect of “If you kept track of your time, enter it here and you could qualify for the Worlds Toughest Mudder!”. This was described as a 24 hour amped up version of the regular event that would be held in December in New Jersey. This one would be a timed competition. Thinking that I would never make it anyway I entered my time. A few weeks rolled by and another email popped up. “Congratulations! You Qualified for the Worlds Toughest Mudder!”
At first I wasn’t going to do it. Then I heard the story of a young Airman named Sgt Joseph Deslauriers. He was involved in an IED explosion in Afghanistan and was coming home with the loss of 1 arm and both legs. We were the same age and his dad was a firefighter just over the boarder in Massachusetts where he was also from. We had so many similarities that I felt compelled to somehow help. I decided to compete in the 1st ever Worlds Toughest Mudder in his honor… I thought that if he could survive such a horrible event and make it home, I could make it through this. I would use my participation to raise funds to help him with medical and other expenses. I started training by adding extra strength work on top of my regular WODs and adding in some running. I also started fundraising. The local media caught wind of what I was doing and I was featured in a few newspapers, the radio and WMUR which really helped me raise a good amount of cash. In the end I collected almost $5,000 to send down to him.
After signing the check and sending it down to Sgt Deslauriers, it was time to hold up my end of the bargain. I was facing 24 hours of “fun” at 1st ever Worlds Toughest Mudder.. This event wasn’t like the event I did back in the spring….it was 24 hours of hell in the (literally) freezing cold wetness with much harder obstacles and lots of unknown. No details would be released until the day of the event so training was challenging. I had some comfort in knowing that CrossFit is designed to prepare it’s participants for the unknown and the unknowable. Of the few details that we were given were that the course would be 10-12 miles in length, that it contained 40 obstacles and that it would be completed in continuous 10-12 mile loops. We were also told that we could bring gear and food but this could only be accessed when you completed a loop.
I gathered all of my gear and set out to give it a go. In the back of my mind I wasn’t sure if I would actually be able to make it the full 24 hours but I was determined to try. Thinking again that this task was nothing compared to what Sgt Deslauriers was facing, I decided that I was not going to quit.
Once we arrived at the event, my eyes widened to what I saw. The event was held on a raceway that also housed a motocross track, several trail systems and a large pond where they held boat races. There were giant man-made obstacles, enormous hills and mud everywhere. I checked in, setup my gear and made my way to the starting line where we were informed that 1,000 people were about to begin.
If you would like to read specific descriptions of what each obstacle was and see pictures of them, go here for a great recap of each one in order.
As I progressed through the course, I saw people falling off left and right. It was freezing cold and the course was unforgiving. It didn’t take long for the feeling of badly wanting to quit to set in, but the thought of why I was there helped me to push on. Once the sun set, most people had quit or had been medically disqualified. I was out on the course thinking I was alone most of the time as it was pitch black and no one was around me. We all had tracking devices attached to our ankles and one of the event organizers found me and told me that I was one of a very small group of “Survivors”. While this picked me up for awhile.. the thought of quitting kept creeping into my head. During a few rest breaks, I met 2 people – Mario and Roxanne. They were already “out” but would meet me at certain checkpoints along with Katie to help me push through. Without these people helping me push on, I probably would have quit.
I fought through the night. Running was no longer an option. I would jog a little bit and then mostly walk. It got colder. All of the water related obstacles, even the ones where you had to fully submerge yourself, were iced over.. we literally had to break through a small layer of ice in order to complete them. Avoiding an obstacle was not an option. If you skipped one, there were event officials there that would disqualify you. Its was press on or fail.. I painfully chose to press on.
When the sun started to rise, I was in major pain. My feet were swollen, my legs were destroyed and I had no upper body strength.. add that to the cold, I was just barely hanging on. I remember seeing Katie at one of the checkpoints. When she saw me, she looked terrified, but she knew I wouldn’t quit. I was met by another one of the event staff and I was informed that only 10 people were left out of the original 1,000 and that I was one of them. I remember thinking to myself ” holy shit, I might actually be able to finish”.
The final lap was pure misery. My mind was jumbled and I felt like I couldn’t think nonetheless move and I developed a limp due to the swelling of my feet. I remember suffering so much during the last few miles that I actually wanted to cry. Then I again thought of what Sgt Deslauriers and others like him went through and this allowed me to press on. This wouldn’t defeat me.
After about 75 miles of running (ok running, jogging, walking and limping) through mud, freezing cold water and grueling obstacles.. I stumbled across the finish line. There I was met with cameras and a man with a microphone. He asked me how I felt.. and I answered him with indistinguishable mumbles. The cameras were quickly pulled away… they handed me my trophy and then hauled me off to a medical tent for evaluation.
It was clear that I was in rough shape and soon I was in an ambulance on my way to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. The rest of the day was literally a blur. I just remember being in pain all over my body and not being able to warm up no matter what they tried. I don’t remember much about the ambulance ride or the first part of the hospital stay. What I can remember is being diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis and severe Hypothermia and being told I was going to have to be admitted to the hospital. I was there for a miserable 4 days. I was in pain all over my body as a constant flus of IV fluids rushed through by body. I became so swollen that the bottoms of my feet pushed out and I couldn’t walk. I remember humorously thinking to myself “this is what you get for trying to do something nice for someone else.” Not once did I have a bit of regret.
After putting my wife and family through hell and spending 4 days in the hospital with doctors telling me how lucky I was to have avoided kidney failure from rhabdo, I was discharged. We missed our flight home… Luckily one of the people we met during the event, Roxanne, stayed with us the entire time I was in the hospital. She lived in Connecticut and offered to drive us home. She was an absolute miracle and helped us so much that weekend. We will be forever grateful. We are still friends with her to this day.
When all was said and done… I contemplated never stepping foot in a gym again. Facebook told me that was 5 years ago today. Thankfully, I was able to move past these feelings and get back into the gym not only to resume training but to also continue coaching and sharing fitness with others.
In finishing the 1st “Worlds Toughest Mudder”, I was granted the title “5th toughest man on the planet” and was interviewed for several magazines, blogs and websites. I was also offered an opportunity to compete on a reality TV show with some of the other finishers and other “tough” individuals but nothing ever came of it. Most of the other people who finished with me went on to do more with the sport of OCR, won sponsorship’s and a few became semi famous in that world. None of those endeavors really meant much to me. I honestly thought that I ended up placing where I did by accident… everyone else who finished this was an ultra marathoner or had a background in long endurance events. Here I am some CrossFit guy with none of that experience. The longest I had ever run before completing this almost 75 miles was 12 at the Tough Mudder in Vermont that Spring… I was easily satisfied with this accomplishment.. being out of the hospital and to have raised so much money to help a newly disabled veteran.
While I may do a Spartan Sprint or Tough Mudder for fun with friends in the future and am proud of what I was able to accomplish at the Worlds Toughest Mudder, I no longer have any interest in participating in any sort of competitive OCR. The trophy Kettlebell I won sits quietly in the gym today and serves as a personal reminder to me to be smart about how I train and to never underestimate what people are capable of.