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Kiss of mud, ring of fire: Tough Mudder up close

May 18, 2010 – 6:15 AM


By Savanna Johnson

If you had the chance to run seven miles up and down a ski mountain, with walls, tunnels, water obstacles, and lots and lots of mud in your way, would you do it? How about if 80% percent of the field was men?

At the inaugural Tough Mudder event near Allentown, Pennsylvania, that’s just what I did. And it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

Conceived by Harvard Business School alum Will Dean to be “the toughest one day endurance race on the planet,” Tough Mudder comprised eleven waves of enthusiastic competitors, roughly 5000 in all ( including three tall men dressed as Na’vi!). Before each wave set off, we were required to shout the Tough Mudder pledge of teamwork and abstention from whining.

At 11 a.m., the first 500 runners set off down the steep grassy hill in a William Wallace charge. I was jazzed to be the very first woman off the starting line. Then came a very long, steep hill under blazing sun and a crawl through melting ice and snow. Next, we ran across the mountain and then struggled our way under 200 meters of cargo netting.

Down the mountain, we came to “Hold your Wood,” an obstacle that entailed carting a log up and down a small hill. Half the mountain later, the “Cliff Hanger” lay before us. Originally slated to be doused in water, the race director told journalists the night before that if this black diamond slope were muddied, “you would have to know how to levitate” in order to get up it. Another female competitor and I scrambled up this behemoth while grunting encouragements to each other. Hearts racing at the vertical exertion, we reached the top.

I hardly balked at crawling through a narrow fifteen-foot metal pipe to get to the water station on the other side. Down the hill we ran, and in the woods came to our first real chance at mud: the Swamp Stomp (through cold, muddy water).

Next was for me the most difficult obstacle: A classic military barrier which forced us to crawl on our bellies under 10-inch high wire. After arm surgery a month before, I’d barely worked my upper body, and I felt it as I tried to pull myself through the thick mud and long grass. Everyone else seemed to be going faster, and I struggled to catch my breath.

Finally up from the Kiss of Mud, I took off for the two-mile run along a narrow woods trail that lead out onto the lake, then the next six obstacles. First we navigated a rope bridge over a narrow offshoot of the chilly lake (the ropes sagged with our weight), then a surprisingly breathtaking bob under three rows of half-sunken barrels. Back on shore, we took a pirate’s plank plunge and swam back to land where we overcame four eight-foot high barrier walls and then a zigzag run up and down and up a steep slope to a gigantic slip-n-slide into the water.

Seeing the man dressed in a kilt and blue face paint who had been directly in front of me at the start line cheering me on after the slide, I had an extra burst of energy for the last half mile of the course. At 12:44 p.m., I ran through two closely-spaced lines of burning hay bales and a flaming half-circle to the sound of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

Why did I do this crazy thing?

Because it looked like so much fun. I tested myself and came away totally spent, but with the memory of a day that felt like my birthday all day long. I also came to realize that even in events where the gender expectation is skewed one way or the other, with the right attitude and organizational ethos, all competitors can feel welcome, encouraged, and empowered.


  1. 4 Responses to “Kiss of mud, ring of fire: Tough Mudder up close”

  2. Exhilerating! Even just to read! Way to go, Savanna. What an awesome accomplishment!

    By Katie on May 19, 2010

  3. Exhilerating! Even just to read! Way to go, Savanna. What an awesome accomplishment!

    By Katie on May 19, 2010

  4. Great BLOG and Pictures I am doing this at the same course in April 2011 on Sunday and am so looking forward to it. Thanks for sharing

    By Michael on Dec 26, 2010

  5. Simply amazing as usual!

    By Adam on Mar 29, 2011

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