Endurance events might sound painful, but they can transform your life.
If you’re anything like me, the idea of climbing a mountain four times in a single day may sound unpleasant. The idea of climbing that same mountain while caked in manure, getting shocked by 10,000 volts, trudging through a tank filled with ice, and sliding through a wall of fire may sound more like torture. And yet, not only did I somehow survive this very scenario, I volunteered for it. In fact, I paid several hundred dollars for it! And to be honest, it was an experience I would never give up.
Tough Mudder and other endurance events have been growing in popularity since their introduction in 1986. Registrants pay entrance fees, usually at least a hundred dollars, to submit their body to extreme physical tests most people wouldn’t dream of attempting. At first, the idea and it’s wildfire-success seem unusual. Why would people pay to torture themselves? It turns out the event presents a unique challenge and an even more unique reward which makes the cost seem like a trivial consideration.
When a coworker first told me about Tough Mudder, I was immediately intrigued. Not because I knew any of the details or obstacles I would be facing, but simply because I was bored. At the time I was working an entry-level job in a cubicle that changed very little day-to-day. I was lucky enough to find employment right out of college, but it was nothing challenging and my average day often turned into a race to 5 o’clock. The novel prospect of a physical challenge that would require training and preparation was just what I needed to spice up my otherwise boring life.
And so I trained. I brought shorts to work and every day at lunch I would tie my running shoes and take to the streets of Manchester. This daily training not only prepared me for the challenge ahead, it made me healthier and it allowed me to explore, on foot, new neighborhoods of my city that I otherwise would never have seen. I felt more connected to my community and myself, these little benefits I hadn’t anticipated were pleasant surprises. I soon came to enjoy the habit of training more than I ever would have expected. Yet even though I was running on a daily basis and enjoying it, I was only logging a few miles per day and the 13-mile, mountainous trek was about to prove me woefully unprepared.
Standing at the foot of Mount Snow surrounded by people who seemed to be leagues beyond my fitness level was at first disheartening. Half of the group seemed to be former or current military (Tough Mudder is a supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project) and the other half appeared to be human machines who spent every waking hour running, lifting, and pounding protein shakes. Looking up from these fine specimens of humanity, I saw a double-black-diamond ski mountain that I doubted I could climb once, let alone four times consecutively. The entire thing seemed like an insurmountable challenge, and more than that: a mistake. A knot formed in my stomach.
Fortunately, the time to give up was long past and I was already in a corral of runners who were being instructed by a former drill instructor to do pushups and jumping jacks before we even passed the starting line, which incidentally was a seven foot wall we had to climb over. So despite all my trepidation, I started the race, and I quickly learned a very important lesson: giving up was simply not an option anymore. With spectators and friends running by my side, my pain (and boy was there pain) was no longer a free pass to quit. I had to continue, I simply gave myself no other choice.
Four grueling hours passed. I climbed the mountain, I trudged through mud (which later was revealed to contain a healthy amount of manure), crawled through 10,000 volt wires, jumped off thirty foot platforms, swam through ice and slid through fire. Without the option to quit, these extreme challenges surprisingly became easier as each hour passed. Sure, my body was failing as I tripped and dragged myself along, but my mind continued to push me forward. I forced myself to go beyond the limits I had thought existed. In the great words of Rudyard Kipling in his poem If:
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!”
So it was in such a spectacular fashion that I climbed Mount Snow, arriving at the peak for the fourth and last time, my body aching, shaking, and screaming in protest. I reached the top and turned my shaky legs around and saw the expanse of New England spread out before me. In that singular moment, the pain vanished. My heart, threatening to beat through my chest just moments before, calmed. I took a breath and let it hit me. Waves of appreciation for the view, the event, my teammates and a sense of mastering mind, body and nature combined into a high with which no drug could ever compare. I was on top of the world.
The days following the race I had trouble walking. While stairs were a no-go for almost a week afterward, I couldn’t help but smile. That feeling of accomplishment, of being in tune with my body and nature at the top of the mountain, was impossible to beat. The challenge and lessons learned provided a new source of confidence, and a life changing experience I wouldn’t soon forget. It was fitting, then, that the organizers had placed a small sign at the top of the mountain that simply read “The pain you feel today will be the strength you draw on tomorrow”. They were right, as I learned in that moment that no challenge was beyond my capability, and that I was limited only by what I wouldn’t attempt.