I stood on the 15-foot platform overlooking the lake of fluorescent green muck — wet, tired, freezing, miserable and scared out of my mind — when I suddenly began a conversation with my 12-year-old self.
"You're still me," Little Roy said. "Yes, you feel and look like an old broken-down middle-aged man right now. Your body is all cut-up and bruised. You're so pathetically cold that you're turning blue — and shaking like a 98-year-old holding a cup of coffee, teeth chattering and everything. Worst of all, you're intimidated — you want to go back down that ladder, don't you? But remember that time we swung off a rope into a lake on our camping trip in the Sierras with Dad in 1968? How Huckleberry Finn that was? Well, that adventurous spirit is still in you! I am still in you!"
And with that, I grabbed the bar and swung out 20 feet into the middle of that forbidding pond, let go, arced gracefully in the air, splashed down and swam to the shore to the cheers of my teammates, mostly a couple of decades my junior. I was so relieved and happy and grateful. I didn't know at the time that I would feel the effects of this race for several weeks afterward (more on this later). For the moment, I'd gotten back in touch with a part of my old — rather, young — self.
I'd done a Tough Mudder a couple of years before. It's one of the top brands among the immensely popular obstacle-mud races sweeping the country. A half million people in the U.S. did a Tough Mudder last year, they claim, paying from $99 to $150 for the right to run 12 miles and conquer a bunch of challenging, oddball obstacles along the way. But this event, held earlier this month on the shores of Vail Lake near Temecula, was free — and special.
It was a beta test. About 200 Mudders, from veterans of 20 or more races to a few first-timers, came to be lab rats for experimental obstacles that management is considering for 2015, such as the aforementioned Swinger. When the day was done, we became the focus group. What new events should make the cut?
What about Birth Canal: crawling 30 feet under a plastic sheet sagging with the weight of hundreds of pounds of water? "Claustrophobic nightmare — take it or leave it," one person said. Three challenges got thumbs-up for being good team builders: Hold Your Wood (teams of 19 carry 15-foot logs over and through wooden walls), the Hangover (an inverted 8-foot wooden wall you had to climb over) and Pyramid Scheme (a slippery, steep-angled wall that required you to form people into a human ladder and crawl up them). Then there was the Ring Thing: hanging from an A-frame structure and moving across it by looping gymnastics rings over pegs? "Great physical challenge — takes more coordination than strength," was the consensus.
There were altered versions of old favorites, like Double Arctic Enema, in which you must swim underwater not once but twice through a deep bath of ice-packed water, and Electric Slide, which mates a giant slide with the electric wires that deliver unpleasant shocks. (I hate it — unnecessarily dangerous.) The verdict? Yes to the icewater swim and no to the Slide.
Interestingly, do you know what the group liked most of all? Not necessarily the new tricks but the greatly improved camaraderie.
That might sound strange to the average Tough Mudder. People normally do these races with a spouse or a few friends and momentarily team up with strangers when they need help getting over a wall. That's part of the magic, says Tough Mudder founder and Chief Executive Will Dean. He designed his event, in his Harvard Business School thesis, to be the "anti-triathlon — an emotional experience that you share for a lifetime with your closest friends — some of whom you might meet here." That's why Tough Mudders aren't timed like the other mud-race behemoths, such as Spartan Race and Warrior Dash. The longer you're together, thinks Dean, the better.
But this day proved something Dean hadn't thought of: When it comes to emotional bonding, bigger can be better too.
Here's why: For the beta test, we were set up in groups of 10 to 12 people. We all needed one another's help — me in particular to make it over the slick 10-foot Half Pipe ramp on my exhausting fourth try. By the end of the day, getting high-fives from people I'd spent all day with (and probably would never see again) was pretty special. "Having a bigger team" was the reason why almost all of my teammates said that they'd enjoyed this event more than any other Tough Mudder they'd done.
For me, the team should have been one bigger. I looked with envy at Lavar Palmer, 37, a San Diego contractor who did the race with his 19-year-old son, Jacob, and thought of my own son, Joey, 19, my partner in my first Tough Mudder. Joey had stayed out late at a Halloween party the night before and refused to get up. But that gave me the space to have my epiphany about rediscovering the kid inside.
Ironically, I can do stuff today on a bike, in a pool, or at the gym that would have blown my 12-year-old mind. I work out nearly every day — except for the week after the Tough Mudder Beta Test. By the following Tuesday, my left leg had swelled up to double its normal size and was turning bright red from knee to ankle, and I was sneezing and coughing so much that I could barely type or talk on the phone. My doctor was so alarmed by the the nasty bacteria that apparently had entered my banged-up knee that he implored me to go to the emergency room if the redness began spreading toward my crotch. Fortunately, a pile of antibiotics prevented that. It turned out to be E. colibacteria. Be forewarned: Crawling through muck is inherently risky, and a quick Google search showed dozens of infections after various mud-obstacle events.
"There's always a risk when you're co-mingling with a lot of people, tired and bruised, and crawling and running through mud — face it, bacteria is everywhere," Tough Mudder's Dean told me a couple of weeks later. "But since 2 million people have done this and only a handful have gotten anything, percentage-wise the risk is very low. If you look at it statistically, there's a higher incidence of getting sick from going to a restaurant."
I will cherish my personalized Tough Mudder beta tester's bib, the camaraderie and the youthful spirit I rediscovered that day. And I definitely have a deeper appreciation for the casual two-hour mountain bike rides I do with my middle-aged buddies on the weekend.
For more on Wallack's Tough Mudder epiphany, go to http://lat.ms/1t2zja3.