“Why would anyone want to do that?” “That sounds insane!” “Really, philip, really?”
These were some of the comments I received when I first told people I was training for Tough Mudder. Tough Mudder is a ten to twelve mile obstacle course with 20-25 military style obstacles designed by the British Special Forces. They claim to be the toughest course of its kind available to civilians. The obstacles include everything from crawling under barbed wire or through covered trenches, to jumping into a container of ice water and diving, to running through a setup full of electrical wires with 10,000V charges. And, of course, there is a ton of mud. Several of the obstacles involved crawling, wading or jumping through deep, thick, shoe- and soul-sucking mud.
When my friend Phil told me about this race four months ago in the middle of a party, it sounded like a fun idea and I told him I would join. Having a rule that whatever agreements I make I do my best to stick to – no matter what state I made them in (it was toward the end of the party when I tipsily agreed), I began my training. Phil had done a Tough Mudder previously. He also had quite a bit of muscle mass on me – and even owned workout equipment – a world, I was not too familiar with. While I have been doing yoga on various levels of intensity for close to 25 years, I hadn’t really worked my physical body much. When I started training with him three months ago, I couldn’t even run a mile, and I do have to admit that if it wasn’t for my friends’ leadership and inspiration, I would have easily quit before even beginning.
But I kept going. We ran several times a week, my other friend Abra took me swimming once a week, and various friends shared their workout tips and PDFs on bodybuilding with me (do highly recommend 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferris – thank you Neil!) This resulted in me building myself a “Hungarian Hammer” – a home-made version of a Kettle ball, which I became intimate friends with.
For three months, I pushed myself running to the point where several areas of our running terrain where transformed from puke corner to Kahuna corner once I mastered running through them without losing breakfast. I also began swinging that Hammer first with 30lbs then 40lbs for the last month, doing push-ups when I had breaks in my day, and first and foremost constantly envisioning the end of the race:
A Beer at the Finish Line
It is good to have a goal. It is even better when you can visualize it clearly. My focus for the training and for during the course was the beer at the end of the finish line. I knew I wanted to drink it and hug my friends. I kept visualizing this multiple times a day, and ended up even lucidly dreaming about this moment the night before the race.
While a crappy beer might be a dubious motivation for something exercise related, it provided that perfect balance for me. I smoke. I drink. While I eat healthy and I use my body when I can, I have never been a poster child for physical exercise. That said, I do believe it is important to push ourselves on all levels. Most people know me for my delicious brains. My mental body functions exceptionally well, I can make complex systems simple and communicate them. I am also pretty in touch with my emotional realm, have a strong connection to my intuition, but I had been neglecting my body.
We have multiple interfaces into reality: body, emotions and mind, heart, our creative ability, our ability to see the big picture and even our ability to understand correspondences and create synchronicities. While I had been doing pretty well on some of the higher functions, I had been neglecting my root circuit. The one that connects me to this physical reality.
“In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits. However, in the province of the body there are definite limits not to be transcended.” – John Lilly
We are always changing. The key is to stay moving. Continue to challenge perceived limitations, continue to push the boundaries of our self-definition. So I went from someone known as mostly a skinny artsy intellectual, to someone who kicked ass next to Firemen, SWAT team members, and Marines.
Not to say that it wasn’t scary. When the shuttle bus that picked us up in front of our cushy hotel in Vegas arrived at the event in the middle of the desert, and I saw people running up and down the hills in the distance, I felt a mixture of excitement and utter dread. But what to do but go forward at this point? Not just for myself, not even just for my team, but for all the people who were inspired by my pushing myself – and our first job in life is to be human prototype. Each one of us has that invitation. So I pushed.
After climbing the first set of 7-8ft walls to the starting line I waited as the pit filled up with excitement and anticipation for the next launch wave. The MC was firing everyone up, repeating the Tough Mudder principles:
As a Tough Mudder I pledge that…
- I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
- I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
- I do not whine – kids whine.
- I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
- I overcome all fears.
Radical Self-Reliance and Camaraderie
One of the aspects I appreciated most about this exercise was the paradox of utter self-reliance and camaraderie. It is not a race, it is a challenge. There is no competition but with yourself: YOU are alone in this. YOU had better prepare. YOU need to make it through.
We originally started training together, but then work schedules, injuries and styles ultimately shaped each of our own training paths individually. The first time I realized that I would have to run alone I was annoyed. I had signed up for this to have a team, to have others to motivate me… Only to realize that ultimately, this was about me. My capacity, my responsibility to show up. My will to see this through. And so I ran, and then I ran some more.
At the same time, I could not have done this alone. There were moments when friends and strangers extended a helping hand, and I got to do the same for them. We all do need each other on this planet. None of us can do it all alone. Everyone needs a little support at times. Each of us has different strengths and different weaknesses. Some obstacles were easy for me and much harder for the muscled crowd – like pulling yourself across a lake on a wire, others were nearly impossible for me alone, like running and jumping up a 15ft half-pipe in the hope that someone catches you and pulls you over the rim.
But because everyone there knows that everyone else is there fighting only with themselves, everyone is willing to support each other. The more I thought about this, the more I thought what a great baseline for a cultural operating system this would be. The only other place where I had seen a similar attitude was at Burning man: radical self-reliance and gifting. What would a world look like where everyone took full responsibility for themselves and we shared freely with each other?
It seems hard to imagine this world after generations of being conditioned into believing that the slaves are supposed to be competing for the gold coins the masters let them play with. And then again, why not?
It surely worked for making it through Tough Mudder. Twice I felt a moment of panic: The first time when we were swimming in an breath-numbingly cold lake and had to bop under barbed-wire covered rows of barrels. After attempting to dive under the first one the air in my waterpack pulled me upward and I hit my head against the bottom of the barrel. I wanted to inhale in shock but realized I was under water, being pulled backward by the current. Next thing I know, I was back out in front of the barrel I had just tried to dive under – panic beginning to creep up in my neurological circuits. A stranger next to me looked at me, smiled, and said: “Now let’s do this!” – and I so did. Never saw the guy again during the rest of the course although I kept looking for him to thank him, until I decided to simply take that gratitude with me and hold on to it.
The next time I had a moment of panic was toward the end of the race. We were supposed to swim across a lake. Not a big deal, unless you have already covered nearly 11miles and are getting toward the end of your strength. Fortunately, I had been swimming regularly as part of my training, but swimming with boots, in clothes and with a backpack still sucks. The last ten or so feet seemed insanely long. My chest was cramping from the cold and I could hardly breathe. It was here that I reminded myself that all will be well, that I will make it that I just need to breathe and make it through – thank you to years of yoga and pushing out that fight-or-flight instinct with breathing. After a deep inhale a hand came out of nowhere and pulled me for the last couple of feet until I could feel solid ground underneath. I babbled a thank you as I slowly climbed up on my two feet and kept going…
After a few more obstacles, the half-pipe mentioned above, and more trenches of mud, we faced the final obstacle: a setup with tons of electrical wire hanging down, potentially providing 10,000V electric shocks. As with most obstacles, just as we arrived, we were invited to go through. This proved quite helpful. Thinking about jumping off a 15ft ledge or about running through something that could provide equal pleasure to being tazed by a police officer is not something you want to think about for too long. So we hooked arms and ran through. Miraculously, none of it got really zapped, and we gloriously made it those last few feet over the finish line.
After getting past the people offering me water and bananas, there it was: the holy grail, filled with sparkling amber delights… Rarely had a beer tasted that good.
Shortly after, I got to have my first smoke – the looks were pretty amusing. It seemed I was the only one there who had this habit or fessed up to it in front of all those fit people. But I didn’t care. Exuberant with joy, I congratulated every other Mudder who came by. Sharing this joy was probably one of the best parts of this experience, both with the people at the event, later in the hotel, and with the many wonderful supporters out there who heard about me doing this, donated to the project or simply liked my posts.
Thank you to all of you, because without you, this would not have happened!
So please give yourself a fist pump for me 😉