Lessons From the Mud

Las Vegas Spartan Super in March 2014

For the last few years, I’ve been an avid Obstacle Course Racer, hitting up every Mud Run and OCR that I could physically get to and spending most weekends playing in the mud.

I have never been a serious contender — I’m not nearly fast enough to compete with any of the world class athletes who are hitting the podium at the top of our sport — but it has been a tremendous medium to learn about my strengths and weaknesses, work to become a better athlete, and not least importantly to socialize with like-minded people.

Obstacle course racing is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with estimates of 2 million participants in 2015 alone. It has spawned documentaries (Rise of the Sufferfests), podcasts, online magazines, and recently, multiple TV shows on major networks like CBS (World’s Toughest Mudder) and NBC (Spartan World Championship and Spartan Team Challenge).

There is something fascinating and highly addicting about the raw vitality of this sport. When you’re running a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder, all your trivial problems fade into background noise; you are fully present in the moment facing your fears and working through the obstacles placed before you.

There is much you can gain from pushing through difficult things, and what follows are a few of the lessons I’ve learned in the mud.

Don’t Wait Until You’re Ready

This is a common refrain — that someone really wants to try one of these, but want to “get in shape” first or that they “aren’t ready yet”. The reality is that if you haven’t participated in one of these events, you probably have no real idea of what “ready” looks like. OCR athletes come in literally all shapes and sizes, from the uber-fit six-pack shirtless models to the weekend warriors, to the obese, the elderly, and a growing number of adaptive athletes.

Very few people out on the course will judge you; they’re too busy trying to get through it themselves or offering a helping hand to anyone who needs it. Unless you’re signed up for an elite wave at a race (and therefore in the hunt for prize money), you won’t have to get through it alone… many people need help getting over high walls or conquering other obstacles, and most are more than willing to offer it.

Everything is Easier with Friends by Your Side

Getting a helping hand at the last obstacle of the Team competition at OCRWC 2016

Getting over an 8' wall by yourself is tricky. It takes a combination of raw athleticism and good technique. But if you have a friend willing to give you a boost or a reaching hand from the top, it becomes trivial. Tough Mudder is all about teamwork, with many of their obstacles requiring it for all but the top 1% of athletes. Similarly, the open heats of a Spartan Race encourage you to help out your friends, even splitting the penalty burpees after a failed obstacle if someone is having difficulty completing them on their own.

Don’t have any friends willing to jump into this craziness with you? This isn’t a problem either; there are massive regional social groups on Facebook who live for these races and who love helping each other, socializing, and meeting new people. Or just offer to help someone who looks like they’re struggling, and don’t be afraid to ask for it when you need it. Many new friendships and more than one romance have started on course in a similar way. You already have at least one thing in common; you both signed up for this.

While many obstacles appear insurmountable as an individual, if you work together with others, they can be accomplished with ease. This is a lesson that is brought home in the mud, but works in arenas far removed from OCR.

Failure is OK

Most people’s first OCR results in a number of failed obstacles. This is to be expected; there’s a learning curve involved to each of them, and course designers often stack the deck to increase the odds of failure — placing a slip wall right after a mud pit so it’s extra wet and slippery, stacking three or four massively grip-intensive obstacles one after the other, or otherwise pushing athletes past their limits.

Depending on the race, the cost for failure might be burpees, a penalty loop of extra distance, unlimited tries at an obstacle until you either get it or give up, resulting in you being DQ’d in terms of placement and access to prize money, or nothing at all. Regardless of obstacles failed or penalties assessed, when you make it to that finish line, you have still accomplished a great deal and earned your medal/headband and free beer.

The lesson here is that failure is part of the process. It is a catalyst for growth, and leads many to practice a particular skill such as a rope climb, monkey bars, or spear throw until they have perfected it and conquered their “failure”.

Obstacles are Placed in Your Way to be Conquered

Funky Monkey Revolutions at WTM 2016

When life gives you obstacles, there are a number of different options. You can give up, pretend they’re not there, alter your path to go around them, or tackle them head on. At an OCR, the obstacles are the point of the whole thing, and your choice is simpler — succeed or fail at conquering that obstacle. And the one after that, and so on until the finish line.

Joe De Sena of Spartan Race talks about building “obstacle immunity” in its competitors, and participating in this sport over time can certainly do that regardless of whether the obstacles are physical, mental, or metaphorical.

Grit Can be Learned

As Angela Duckworth has demonstrated through research summarized in her excellent book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, grit is one of the most defining characteristics of success.

The world of OCR and related endurance events has taught me that grit can be a learned attribute; by voluntarily subjecting yourself to difficult and even sometimes unpleasant tasks again and again, you can become a grittier person. You are more likely to get down to business, even when the business at hand is far more grind than flow.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

When you’ve climbed to the top of a mountain battling leg cramps, swam through freezing cold water that had you literally struggling to draw breath in and out, and carried something a bit too heavy for a bit too far, the little day to day irritations that are simply part of life become far less important.

This is also known as shifting your frame of reference. No more hot water in the shower? Oh well, at least you aren’t swimming through that lake at the top of the mountain in Tahoe. Stuck in traffic? It beats crawling uphill through thick mud concealing sharp rocks under barbed wire…

It’s Fun to Get Dirty

My vivacious wife Anne enjoying the mud at the Spartan Arizona Sprint, Feb 2015

Okay, get your mind out of the gutter. Yes, that’s fun too, but we’re talking about crawling through mud here. There is something fundamentally satisfying to getting deliberately filthy. Maybe it’s a simple connection with nature and the Earth, but it hearkens back to a childhood where you couldn’t pass a mud puddle without splashing in it, just because it was there.

Too much of our lives are spent trying to act a certain way and look a certain way to meet some unstated ideal, but in OCR, the mud is a badge of honor to be worn proudly.

You Will Be Inspired

No matter what drives you, you will see it out on the course. Maybe it will be watching super-athletes like Hobie Call or Ryan Atkins crush the course in a time you could only dream of. Or perhaps you’ll be inspired seeing adaptive athletes like my friend “Blind Pete” Cossaboon tackling the Spartan Agoge or World’s Toughest Mudder without being able to see what’s in front of him or Amanda Sullivan who experienced devastating spinal injustices but doesn’t let them stop her from crutching her way through to the finish line at multiple Spartan Races. Maybe it’ll even be watching the average soccer mom getting struggling through obstacles while laughing with her friends that gets you; the fact remains that if you keep your eyes open, you absolutely will be inspired by those around you.

In one of my first events, the Camp Pendleton Mud Run, I was struggling while climbing a long uphill slope. I was in a negative head space, questioning why I had signed up for this; I wasn’t a good runner and my knee’s were hurting. As I slowly caught up to another athlete and passed him I suddenly realized he was running up the hill on an artificial leg. At that moment, all of my excuses and the pain in my knees vanished.

It’s All About the Journey

When you finally reach that finish line, the feeling is almost indescribable to those who haven’t been there. It’s a sense of accomplishment that can only be gained by doing difficult things, and it’s very addictive. Sure, you get a really cool medal too most times, but if that’s what you’re after, you can find them frequently on Ebay. The medal isn’t the point, and neither is the finish line itself. It’s what you went through physically and mentally out on the course. The trials and tribulations, the smiles and camaraderie, the blood and the tears.

When you’re old and gray you won’t care about the medals, but you’ll hold tightly to the memories they spark.

You’re Capable of More than You Think

Until you push your limits, you have no idea where those limits are. Most people are absolutely capable of far more than they think they are; some studies have shown that the brain tends to call a stop when you’ve only used up ~40% of your energy.

By seeking your limits, whether that involves a longer distance, moving faster, or going for a longer duration, you push and change both your perceived limits (what your brain is telling you) and your physical limits through adaptation.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

Dude, you’re covered in mud. Lighten up a little.

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