World’s Toughest Mudder 2017 was my first endurance run since I switched from trail running to OCR in 2016. The longest I’ve ran that year was 17 miles. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no real plan – the goal was to see if I could run for 24 hours without stopping. I expected to break down eventually, so I figured I’d just run comfortably fast until then, hopefully putting myself in a good position to place well once the wheels do come off, and then just hold it together until the 24 hour mark. But then the wheels stayed on strong.
I recently read the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson where he explores what determines the limits of human endurance. Is it our muscles? The amount of fuel we have available? Or is it our brain, and it’s all in our head? I really recommend reading the book for anyone interested in human endurance, but the short answer is that essentially it comes down to our brain dictating how much our muscles can do. You don’t slow down because your muscles are tired – you slow down because of your brain’s perception of effort, a combination of muscle fatigue, brain exhaustion, lack of fuel, dehydration, and our general desire to push hard and endure the pain. This then sends signals to muscles of just how hard they’re allowed to work in order for our bodies to never truly reach our limit (which is a good thing, since no one wants to see a bunch of runners dropping dead after they cross the finish line).
And I think this is the main reason why having no idea what the heck you’re doing can sometimes be a good thing: if your brain doesn’t know how hard the race is, it won’t slow you down.
Our brain is great at pacing ourselves, making us slow down in the anticipation of the effort. But to anticipate the effort, we have to have some previous experience with how hard the task at hand is. And I think this is the main reason why having no idea what the heck you’re doing can sometimes be a good thing: if your brain doesn’t know how hard the race is, it won’t slow you down. Of course this can be a bad thing if you’re not physically fit enough to finish, but in those few and far between situations where your physical fitness is in its peak, I think that’s where these unexpected amazing performances happen. You don’t know what you can’t do if you’ve never done it.
I remember hitting the 8-hour mark at WTM, thinking to myself “this isn’t so bad”. It was then that I decided to do all of the Toughest Mudders I could in 2018. Austin was the first one, and it wasn’t so bad – it was definitely much faster than WTM, and a close battle between me, Lindsay Webster, and Allison Tai. It was also a lot more painful than the first 8 hours of WTM. The next one was Michigan Toughest, and that was where I really struggled. I remember hitting the 3-hour mark, when everything was hurting, and I knew I wasn’t even half way yet. I was cold, tired, and it took everything I had to keep moving. I still managed to win, but I had to work hard for it, fighting my own brain and the desire to stop. I don’t think that the course was harder, or that I was any more tired coming into the race; I think the problem was that I already knew what was coming. The obstacles were similar, and all venues look the same in the darkness. And I still remembered how much it hurt towards the end of the race in Austin, so I knew how hard Michigan was going to be before the race even started. I think this is why defending the title at endurance events like these is so hard, and why so few have done it (Amelia Boone hats off to you, and we all know Ryan Atkins is a human machine). When you’re physical able to do to well in those races, not knowing what’s coming is a blessing rather than a course.
However, World’s Toughest Mudder 2018 isn’t looking all that bad for me either. First of all, there’s a brand new venue for the event. Coming back to Toughest events, I just recently finished Sonoma. Apart from my skin hurting with million tiny cuts from the wind and mud, this race wasn’t bad at all, and I had fun for the most of it. New venue, racing during the day, and a different kind of terrain made the race different enough that my brain was entertained and not solely focused on the enormity of the task at hand. So while I’m sure that the new venue in Atlanta will bring new challenges (a lot more mud and a lot less compact access roads that are ideal for running), it will also bring fresh surroundings and make it easier to run fast(ish) for 24 hours. And challenges are good – some of the easiest parts of WTM were when I was having so many issues with gear that I got distracted from the fact that I’ve been running the same 5 mile loop for 20 something hours by that point. I’ve also trained a lot more over the past year, this time actually logging some really long runs (Toughest Mudders were a great training this season). I also had a penalty free race in Sonoma, which bodes well for some of those 30 penalty miles from last year to actually count as official distance in 2018 (shout out to Yancy Camp workouts!). And lastly, while winning last year might put a target on my back, it also makes me a bit more relaxed coming into the race this year knowing I’ve already achieved things I never thought I could, so whatever happens in November it’s going to be okay. With this being likely the last race of the season, WTM is equal parts race and celebration of everything good that happened in 2018.
I am definitely coming back with the goal of defending my title, and I would be lying if I said that that orange jacket isn’t the outfit my dreams are made of. But I realize that not being a rookie can be both good and bad, and that a lot can go wrong (and right) in the 24 hours on course. So I’m mostly coming back to be with all of you – for all the chats, high fives, and for all the jokes that are only funny while crawling through mud in the middle of the night. See you all in Atlanta!