My vision was still blurry as I was handed an orange headband.
I had just been shocked dozens of times by the yellow wires that organizers of the Tough Mudder claim carry as much as 10,000 volts of electricity. The pain from each shock had worn away some, and as my vision slowly began to sharpen, I walked over for my free shirt.
"Tough Mudder. 2013 Finisher,” the black shirt read.
This shirt, along with the complementary Dos Equis and headband, were my prizes for covering 10-plus miles and more than 20 obstacles on a hilly course a couple hours north of Las Vegas last month. The true reward is to be able to brag about it, something UFC flyweight John Dodson did to me a day before I took to the course.
"I made sure I did them all,” Dodson said of the obstacles. “I didn’t want to half-ass this."
That was my goal, as well. Dodson teamed with several members of the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity formed a decade ago that helps servicemen and women injured (both emotionally and physically) in battle. Tough Mudder has raised more than $5 million for the organization.
"It was phenomenal running with those guys,” Dodson said. “Words can’t describe it. Those guys are going overseas fighting so I can be in the UFC and live my dream. That’s the least I could do.”
The Wounded Warriors included Shane Kruchten, a former Marine who left Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. His life spiraled after his tour as he turned to drugs and alcohol before he was invited to a Wounded Warrior Project surfing event in Southern California.
He since has shed 100 pounds, completed an associate’s degree and has a budding MMA career.
“I think we were inspiring a lot of people out there,” Kruchten said. “We were passing a big group, and they were looking at us like, ‘What’s going on?’ John did a great job keeping us encouraged, especially when we were running up those hills.”
Those are what I feared the most going in, but at least it’s something you can train to overcome (Not sure anybody is crazy enough to simulate the two electroshock obstacles in their backyard). I had on my Inov-8 trail shoes that had studs about the same pattern as football cleats, not repeating the footwear mistakes I made at a couple other obstacle races.
The hills, however, came later. First were a few walls you had to overcome. No big deal. Then came the first cruel obstacle: the Arctic Enema, basically a pool of ice up to your chin that you have to wade through for several yards.
“That’s the one obstacle that really stands out,” Kruchten said. “Every time you got shocked, it sucked, and I’m not going to say that didn’t hurt, but it was the ice that was the killer.”
My cotton FUEL TV shirt wasn’t just heavy now, but frigid. Jumping over a fire obstacle a few hundred yards later helped. Living up to this whole event’s name, one of the next obstacles was walking through waist-deep mud.
About three miles in, I came to the one obstacle I struggled with: the monkey bars (Or Funky Monkey as it’s called in Tough Mudder). I’ll blame the incline (and decline) and the fact I hadn’t done these since I was a recalcitrant student at San Ysidro Elementary in Gilroy, Calif.
After two falls, I climbed out of the pool of water, tossed off my waterlogged FUEL TV shirt, rubbed my hands with dirt and made it all the way across. Nobody noticed (I hope) that I gave a Tiger Woods-like fist pump as I ran off.
Unlike its competitor in the obstacle-racing world (Spartan Race), the Tough Mudder isn’t timed. There was definitely more of a supportive vibe among the participants. You even recite a Tough Mudder pledge that says you “put teamwork and camaraderie” first at the start.
That was much appreciated, since I did this event alone, a day after I reported on The Ultimate Fighter Finale. There were some obstacles that required a teammate, like the buddy carry. I was fortunate enough to come upon a team of three guys.
One just told me to hop on his back. He carried me the 50 yards before we switched. I was grateful that he weighed in at about 160 pounds and my turn wasn’t too taxing, outside of the rear-naked choke-like grasp he had on my throat.
"See you at the finish,” I told him after I ran off as he waited for his buddies.
I didn’t see him at the finish, unfortunately, and I didn’t catch his name. But he and his friends were typical for a Tough Mudder participant. The average competitor is 29 years old and 76 percent are males, according to Tough Mudder officials. Competitors pay as much as $200 (the same-day registration cost) for the right to be abused.
A business relationship is forming between Tough Mudder and the UFC since they attract the same audience.
“They called and said, ‘Our demo is your demo. Let’s start doing some stuff together,’ ” UFC president Dana White said. “That’s when we started talking to them.”
About 80 percent of Tough Mudder competitors are part of teams, like the one Dodson led (Welterweight Court McGee was supposed to compete as well, but was forced to be a spectator after UFC officials told him he couldn’t take part in the event). A bit of encouragement helps, especially with those runs up the hills that seemed to go on forever.
The one obstacle that freaked me out — at least a little — was the Walk the Plank. It’s about a 15- to 20-foot-high dive into a pool of muddy water. Sounded easy enough and it probably should have been, but I couldn’t figure out which way was up after I splashed down.
The water was so muddy that it blocked out the sun on this cloudless day. I quickly figured out that I’d just float to the top — eventually. I swam to the bank and continued on my way. A week later at the Tough Mudder in West Virginia, a 28-year-old Maryland man wasn’t as lucky on the same obstacle.
Despite having lifeguards and EMTs on site, Avishek Sengupta became the first death in the three-year history of the Tough Mudder. You sign a so-called “death waiver” before the event, but I never felt I was in that much danger.
Not that it was easy. For Wounded Warrior Joe Perez, one of the final obstacles — a narrow tunnel made out of dried mud — was the most harrowing.
“I have a barrel shape,” quipped Perez, who suffered traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries in Iraq in 2003. “I felt like toothpaste coming out of the tube. The hills didn’t bug me as much.”
After the tunnel came a sprint up a half-pipe called Everest, where several mudders were there to help you onto the ledge. Last was the electroshock, the second time I came across those pain-inducing wires.
The master of ceremonies at the end made us go in two competing groups of four with our arms interlocked. Any chance of all of us actually crossing the finish line together crumbled after the two guys to my right were zapped a few times.
The person on my right and I were doing all right. I actually decided to let go of him to focus on the one on my left — even after I had gotten myself clear of the electrodes, I went back and pulled him out. His buddy was still somewhere in the middle in the jungle of wires.
Look closely at the photos and I’m smiling, for some reason. Maybe it was because that Dos Equis wasn’t far off.
After I grabbed the headband, snack, T-shirt and beer, and as my vision returned, I eventually made my way to the post-race party area. I walked over to a guy who I saw was wearing a watch and asked him for the time.
He rubbed off some mud and said it was exactly noon, meaning I had covered the course in less than two hours. Dodson and the Wounded Warriors finished in about three hours — all of us beating the average of 3 1/2 hours.
Dodson already has thoughts of organizing his own team. Somehow, I’ve had a harder time getting my friends on board for my next one.