By Spartan Spencer
Toughest Mudder Atlanta, where do I even begin?
This race had all kinds of special meaning, long before I touched down in Atlanta on Friday afternoon. It’s been nearly 5 years since I ran my first OCR, and I can now say that some of my best friends are those I met through racing. I’m less than a month out from my wedding now, and a few months ago I was figuring out what to do for a bachelor party. A lot of these guys are planning on flying out to Boston for the wedding, from all over the country. I wanted them to be a part of the bachelor party, but also didn’t want to make them fly out to Boston twice in one or two months, when I know that all of us travel a good bit each year for our racing addiction! I decided to split up my bachelor parties, and figured if all of us racing bros met up at a race and made a weekend out of it, it would be at least killing two birds.
This was a big weekend of OCR, and when I zeroed in on this weekend, and took a vote, it ultimately came down to the decision between Toughest Atlanta vs Miami Sprint. On one hand you have tough, epic race experience, and the likelihood of not being very capable of going hard in terms of partying afterwards. On the other hand you have pretty much the exact opposite scenario.
I didn’t make this decision immediately. I probably let it simmer for a solid month. After all, signing up for Toughest wasn’t just “another race” for me, and looking back over the last few years, it’s crazy seeing the progression year after year, and would have never thought:
5 years ago: that I’d ever be addicted to fitness and running
4 years ago: that I’d ever finish a Spartan Beast
3 years ago: that I’d ever truly be competitive in the elite heat
2 years ago: that I’d ever be on TV show on NBC for obstacle racing, or run a marathon
1 year ago: that I’d ever finish an Ultra Beast, let alone one that would take me over 12 hours!
Obviously, you can see some progression there. And yes, even though the Quebec Ultra Beast took me over 12 hours, and Toughest is 8 hours, it’s still not like it was an easy decision. Ever since I’ve known what World’s Toughest Mudder was, I’ve laughed at the idea of me ever doing it. “Yeah, haha, no thanks”. Multiple laps? In the cold? Throughout the night? Then all of a sudden a couple of months ago, TM drops the news of “Toughest Mudder”. An 8 hour format of World’s Toughest.
I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you know what these races are, but if not, basically World’s Toughest Mudder is an event where you spend 24 hours trying to complete as many laps of a 5 mile obstacle course as possible. Toughest Mudder, is an 8 hour version, running from midnight to 8 am.
It’s like a WTM teaser, something manageable, and I when I heard the news, of course I was intrigued. Long-distance races are not my goal. I have grown to “enjoy” the ones I’ve done, but I don’t know that I’ll ever get to a place that I truly want to train to be competitive in them, so far they’ve all just been races for my own personal growth.
So here I was on the fence about Toughest ATL vs Miami Sprint. The overnight thing was definitely a factor. But on the other hand, not one of my top 10 (or maybe even 100 for that matter) experiences in life has ever involved going out and drinking, no matter how good of friends I’m with at the time. (I’m not ready to start working on that list, but I bet a lot of them would take place on a race course of some kind). So the choice became obvious to me, and I pulled the trigger.
One of the reasons I’m not more into long distance races is the amount of time required for training. I ramped up my mileage and training a good bit during the 4 months leading up to this race, and have to say I’m pretty excited about going back to training for supers and sprints for the rest of the year! I’ve grown a lot in my training, and while I used to be someone that would be ok with going out and just suffering through a race, now I want to make sure I’m truly ready, and training properly for an 8 hour race is definitely a huge commitment.
We’re at the starting line of the race. Honestly, I feel like I could write 3 pages on how much it took to get to this point alone, but I’ll spare you. Training, preparing, and traveling. And then starting a race at midnight is funny – you wake up that morning and have over 12 hours of thinking about what you’re going to be doing that night. It didn’t so much psyche me out, as much as I was just wishing I could press my own fast forward button. And then all of a sudden you’re in that moment, and it’s almost like you did press fast forward. None of that matters anymore. It’s like I blinked, and here I am at the front of this group of 500+ racers, at midnight, wearing bibs and headlamps, and we’re all about to go see what we’re truly made of.
Just for a minute, and just a couple days. Last Thursday I decided 30 miles was my goal, which is 6 laps. It’s hard coming up with a goal for an event like this when you’ve never done anything like it, and you also have no idea what the course is going to be like. To be completely transparent, I went in thinking I needed 25 miles no matter what, 30 was my goal (but kind of conservative in my mind), and if 35 was possible, I would be pumped to get it, but I wasn’t going to be upset if I couldn’t.
The reason I’ve already written 1000 words just about the lead up to this race is to try and build up to, and show the magnitude of what ended up happening in the first 5 minutes of this race as best I can.
Lap 1 – 55:18
I feel like when we took off the starting line, I was not fully present in the moment. I was running with this pack, getting settled into an 8 hour race, but it was almost like I didn’t yet truly understand what was going on. This was my first ever experience running with a headlamp. We were running in the pitch black at first, through the woods, and on some pretty bumpy and uneven terrain. All of a sudden out of nowhere, I rolled my left ankle.
Normally, running trails, I’ll have quick moments where my ankle starts to roll a bit based on where I placed my step, and I’m usually very quick to save myself and get to the next step fast enough. There was no saving myself here. I had been shining the headlamp 10 feet in front of me, where I am normally looking when running, instead of right in front of my feet. There was no getting ready for it, and no save of any kind, I just went full on ankle roll with all my body weight, and we hadn’t even made it to the first obstacle yet.
This is kind of surreal looking back on it. I almost feel like I was looking down upon the race vs actually being the one running it. I see myself roll my ankle and I’m like “oh man, that sucks! Oh wait, holy shit that’s me?!!”. I tried to continue running and couldn’t put any weight on it. I slowed down and limped my way to the edge of the trail. Everyone was flying by me. The decision making that took place in this moment set the tone for the rest of my race. I don’t think at any point I was overly dramatic, or had this great moment of motivating epicness where I decided right then and there that I was going 30 miles even if I had to crawl. But what I did have, was a quick decision to just keep moving forward and see what happens. I knew I wasn’t going to turn around and walk back to the starting line. I had to at least finish out the lap right? Might as well move forward.
After the initial shock of what had happened, it’s hard to tune out all the thoughts going on in your head: “why me”, “can I still reach my goal”, “did I travel all this way for 1 lap”, “is this going to start to feel better or worse”. As I walked, and then eventually started running through the woods again, my ankle started feeling “bearable”. I could run, almost my normal pace, as long as I kept my foot totally straight, and didn’t make any ambitious moves.
I caught up to my friend Kirk, and started running the lap with him. It was great to find someone I knew, to be able to take myself out of my head a bit, and give me a pace to shoot for.
One of the first obstacles we came to was Block Ness Monster.
This was the first of the obstacles that require teamwork in order to get through, and since this was my first Tough Mudder experience since 2013, I was really interested to see how an obstacle like this would work in a race that is both individual, and competitive.
Basically, you’re in a water up to your chest, and there’s this giant, heavy cube on a roller slightly above the water. You can’t get over by just climbing, and you can’t push the cube by yourself. A few people have to start pushing the cube to get it rolling, and then as one of the edges is on it’s way up, you grab the corner and ride it up to the top. You then use your body weight and try to keep the cube rolling for the athletes coming over next.
Another one of the teamwork obstacles was Mud Mile. Again, you were up to your chest in water, and there were mud mounds that were overhead that you needed to get up and over into the next body of water. The mounds were so muddy, rounded, and slippery, that you couldn’t grab anything to get over yourself.
It was pretty amazing in both instances how quickly you just realize what you need to do in terms of teamwork. You get up to the Block Ness, and start pushing for the people that were there before you to start going up and over. Then as people are filling in from behind, you take your turn. On the Mud Mile, you needed a boost to get up the mound, so you just naturally turn around and lend a hand to help someone up and over. I have raced individually, and I’ve raced as a team, but the concept of racing individually but needing to work as a team at some obstacles was a new, and pretty awesome experience!
Lap 2 – 1:04:14
As Kirk and I came around to the pit, I told my friend Chris that was crewing for us what had happened, and that I was going to need him to tape my ankle after the next lap. The pain was still bearable, and I was worried that if I stopped moving the adrenaline was going to subside, and I’d get stiff, and it was going to be a long race once that happened. Kirk and I headed out for a second lap.
Other obstacles in this first course included a log carry, some log hurdles, a barbwire crawl, an inverted wall, Berlin Walls, and Everest.
Berlin Walls were fun – first on was a normal wall, probably 9-10 feet high, but with a step for assistance. The second type of wall had a overhang, so that you had to reach up and around, and then jump into sort of a muscle up to get to the top of the overhang, before going down the other side.
Everest was a lot harder than I thought it would be! I come from a skateboarding background, and assumed I’d be able to just run up the quarterpipe pretty easily. The tough part is that the top was rounded, so there is no coping to grab on to. They had ropes at the bottom with a tennis ball tied to one side. You would take the rope, and try to throw it up and basically catch it on something at the top, to then be able to pull yourself up. I tried throwing 4 times and never got the rope to stay, but the rule was if someone else got it, and was climbing up, as long as you touched the rope before they let go of it, you could use that rope to climb. Even at the top though, the angle that the rope was at made it tough to get a grip, and get a leg up and over, and was a fun challenge each lap!
Lap 3 – 1:03:09
Kirk and I came into the pit at the same time again, but this time I left before him. I didn’t want to get stiff standing, and I told Chris to wait on the ankle, as it was still bearable, and I felt like I could maybe even push it a little more than I did in that previous lap.
I got off to a similar start as the last lap, and ended up pacing behind a girl that was probably running 5% faster than I would have been on my own. We made it to the Mud Mile at the same time, and without even talking about it we pushed and pulled each other up and over all 12, and was definitely the fastest I had gone through those.
Literally after like 40 minutes of pacing, which basically means also helping with the same obstacles, we were hiking up a hill and I was like “oh hey, by the way I’m Spencer”. This turned out to be KC Northup, who ran 7 laps and was the 4th place female.
Lap 4 – 1:13:42
I opted not to tape my ankle again. It was still feeling ok, and I knew that I had just had a faster lap than my second. I think this is around the time when I realized I could (and would!) still get my goal of 30 miles. I might have even been doing some calculations on what it would take to get 35.
KC was out of the pit faster than me, so I was back to my own pace. This lap started off really well. I was happy that I was starting a 4th lap on course 1. The second course seemed to have harder obstacles, and just knowing I was going to probably have 4 hours to complete the final 2 (or 3?) laps put me in a good position for success.
The lap turned bad quickly, like just as quickly as I had rolled my ankle. This is where the pain caught up to me, and when I really started unraveling. 1:13:42 doesn’t seem like such a bad time, only 10 minutes slower than that last lap that I really pushed during, BUT, this lap had almost no obstacles (they shut down obstacles after 3:45 on the first lap. So the time probably would have been more around 1:30 had there been all of the obstacles.
And to be honest – not having obstacles actually hurt me more mentally. That was the only thing to look forward to, to take my mind off the pain of running for a while, and there was none of that. It was just a nonstop switch between walking, and shuffling at this point.
I also haven’t talked about nutrition yet. Nutrition and hydration are two of the most important components of a race like this. (If you haven’t read our guide to ultra nutrition, find it here). Lack of nutrition is going to stop you before the pure mileage will. I was following my plan in the first 3 laps, and had taken in between 240-270 calories per lap so far. I think the pain during this lap was actually making me sick. I couldn’t eat during lap 4. My body was making me cough, like I was going to try to unsettle my stomach and throw something up. I was successful in not giving in to feeling sick, but I also wasn’t able to give myself more calories.
When the never-ending lap finally did, I told Chris I was going to go to the med tent and see if they could tape it for me. I had Chris grab my extra pair of socks and shoes. I told them what had happened, and they sat me down and looked at it. They were going to put ice on it, and asked if I wanted crutches. I was like… “I can use those on the course?!” (I couldn’t). They didn’t think I was going back out.
I sat with ice for 10 minutes, and then they ace bandaged it. I changed socks and shoes, and was on my way. I spent about 20 minutes here. You’re allowed up to 30 minutes in the med tent before you’re DQ’d.
During this time, my stomach started feeling better. I was able to get some calories in, and drink some water. I switched from a tank top to a long sleeve surfing-type rash guard, as the temps had dropped a bit, I knew Arctic Enema was in this new course, and I also wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to run and keep myself warm.
Lap 5 – 1:33:03
The rest and the bandage helped me for about 15 minutes before I was back to the same pain. But, I had things to look forward to on this lap, since there were some brand new obstacles I hadn’t seen yet in the last lap, and had never done before.
First was Augustus Gloop. You start in water, and climb a ladder that’s inside a tube. On the way up, there’s a sprinkler at the top just blasting you with water.
Stage 5 Clinger was a fun climbing obstacle.
Operation: this is like a real life version of the board game. You try to stick a pole with a hook on it through a hole in the wall, to a wall about 5 feet away and grab a ring, and bring it back through the hole. The sides of the hole will electrocute you. As I’m hobbling my way down around the corner, I can hear people in the distance screaming… I got down to it, picked up the hook, and tried shining my headlamp through a hole. “Yeah f*n right” I said as I dropped the hook and took a penalty lap. I could barely even see the ring, and was not in a place mentally to be getting shocked.
I have to say, King of Swinger was the most fun I’ve had on an obstacle in a long time. There was something about having to make the jump out to that swinging bar for the first time, not knowing if the bar was slippery, or what the motion was like, was just really great. If you’ve never seen it, check Tough Mudder’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/toughmudder/videos/10155225140542790/ It shows me in the video at 1:35 going to the left of the guy they’re focusing on in the middle.
Arctic Enema was not very cold this time around. There was no ice, and it was actually refreshing, and was a quick ice bath for my ankle!
Funky Monkey: The Revolution, and Kong were also fun. I love new, and challenging grip related obstacles, and was up for the challenge no matter how much pain I was in!
Lap 6 – 1:38:35
This is when shit got real. On one hand, it was definitely the worst lap. There were no suspense of new fun obstacles coming, and I was at the point where it hurt pretty much equally whether I walked or “ran”. I’d say the two pluses, and basically only things that got me through this lap, were: 1. It was finally light out, and 2. This was a “victory lap” I knew I was going to reach my goal (I had about 2 hours to finish that last lap).
I tried, and was successful, on Operation this time, without getting shocked (because I could see it).
I finished that final lap, at 8:10 AM, finishing my goal of 30 miles, in just over 8 hours.
A few things that worked for me:
- Took in 230-280 calories per hour, for all 8 hours (mostly Clif Bloks, Munk Packs, and a PBJ)
- Wore my CamelBak hydrations vest, but with no bladder and nothing in the back. Kept two 12 oz water bottles in the pockets on the straps, and changed them out every lap. This was easy access, and didn’t have to worry about my bag being bulky, getting caught on anything (it was under my bib), and didn’t have the bladder mouthpiece lying in mud when I wasn’t drinking.
- Wore my Element shorts from Human Octane for the first time in a race, and loved them. The thick Georgia mud tended to stick to them less than my skin and compression tank I had on, and I kept my Clif Bloks for each lap in the back zipper pocket for easy access.
- I completed my goal of 30 miles, with my ankle, and feel like I could have done so much more. I was fully prepared for this race, thanks to Shane and the individualized programming we do through OCR Beast. I know it’s hard for me to be objective here, but if you haven’t thought about our coaching yet, I would seriously look into it. All 6 of us that went down to ATL have OCR Beast coaches, and all reached our goals. Shoot us a message and mention this recap, and we’ll give you 30% off your first month of coaching, because I’m confident that you’ll stay for a second month, and beyond!
A few things I want to say to sum up what happened:
1. This was not the hardest race I’ve ever done, but I had one of the hardest mental struggles I’ve ever had, for nearly 8 hours.
2. Pushing through 30 miles with an injured ankle is not something I recommend. All too often we decide that pain is just temporary, and we see it as just another obstacle. If I had thought that my ankle was broken, I would have stopped. If it had hurt like it did in the 4th lap, in that first lap, as hard as it is for me to look back and think what I would have done, I likely also would have stopped. I kept going because I was confident that it wasn’t broken, and that I wasn’t going to do any major damage to it by continuing. Most decisions I make are for longterm health and goals, and I would recommend everyone else do the same.
3. The entire Tough Mudder experience was awesome. One thing I thought they got right was the level of seriousness about the race. On one hand- they realize that this is a legit athletic competition, and they treated it as such. Their rules were dialed in. There was no guessing game, no getting lost (for the most part), no easy way to cheat (burpees), etc. On the other hand, they realize this is a mud run and obstacle course. It’s supposed to be fun. Tough Mudder is not going to be an olympic sport. We are doing some crazy, fringe shit right here, and they seem to embrace that. I loved the individual race / team obstacle experience as well.
I would recommend Tough Mudder to everyone that hasn’t done one, or hasn’t in a while. The obstacles were some of the most fun I’ve had in a while!
I want to give a shoutout to Ryan Woods and my buddy, and fellow OCR Beast coach Luke Skyrunner, for having an epic battle for 2nd and 3rd place. Super proud of Luke crushing it and people getting to know who he is, because they’re going to keep seeing his name pop up on the podium.
I’m now home, and icing my ankle. I still don’t think it’s broken. The swelling has gone down a lot, but this is what it looked like the day after the race:
Thanks to everyone that wished me well, to all my bros that came down to Atlanta with me and went through this epic experience, and to everyone else that ran Toughest Mudder South this past weekend. My focus for May: prepare for, and enjoy my wedding 🙂