Thursday, August 26, 2010

YMCA Mud Run Recap: The Most Brutal 5 Miles I've Ever Crossed

“Instead of cringing from fatigue, you embrace it. You refuse to let it go. You get to know it so well, you’re not afraid of it anymore….You can’t hate the Beast (exhaustion) and expect to beat it; the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it” - Born to Run

Early this month I entered into my first obstacle course race. Bryce, a seasoned racing friend of mine, told me it was one of the toughest races he’d ever done. Considering this guy races a couple times a month, and has completed more than one marathon (with a respectable time), I figured I’d found the challenge I had been looking for.

The race took place at the Naval base in Virginia Beach. All I knew was that it was 5 miles, filled with obstacles, and that nearly the entire course would be covered in sand. More than two thousand people swamped to the base at 6am to run, most of them (judging by their physical appearance) looking like they were no strangers to this type of event. We weren’t allowed to scout out the course before actually running it, which made me feel uneasy as I’m one who takes comfort in knowing what lies ahead of him during a physical challenge. Oh well, I guess that was precise goal of the race host, right?

After completing about twenty minutes of movement prep, I jogged over to the starting line, wondering if I was stupid to sign up for this sort of event. Running on sand would be a new experience for me, and I had only completed one distance-training session during the months leading up to the event (which was only 4 miles, and run on concrete). The bulk of my training focused on high-intensity intervals (various shuttle runs and 100m-400m repeats on the track), strength training, GPP (General Physical Preparedness) sessions, and some recovery/regeneration sessions focusing on mobility and the development of joint integrity in key areas. I was in the first heat to go, which placed me smack in the middle of the fastest-looking group out there. (In case you’ve never raced before, they usually place the fastest group at the front in order to minimize passing during the race). Perfect. Before I could even gather all my thoughts, the horn blew and the pack took off as if they didn’t realize there was 5 miles of brutal terrain ahead.

The first mile took place along the coast. Interspersed throughout the coastline were “Berms,” or 10-15ft high mounds of sand. Immediately on the other side of each sand mound was placed a ditch full of water, which had to be crossed before climbing up another sand mountain. Adrenaline alone drove me as I sprinted (alongside the mass of racers) up each Berm, slid down the other side and immediately plunged into waist-deep water. Over and over again. Down the entire coast. I was surrounded on all sides by the men in the first wave (age 20-30ish), each one of them trying to break ahead of the pack lest he be thrown off the mounds in the frantic scramble up each Berm. What devilish obstacles. The water pits soaked me, and as I climbed up each sand mountain I became increasingly covered in sand. I quickly noticed how heavy my feet where, as my shoes were drenched and plastered in sand. I couldn’t dwell on it for long, as before I knew it the course veered into the woods for a mile of trail running.

The trail was only wide enough for one person, so if you wanted to pass somebody then you had to veer off the path, dodging tree branches as you sprinted by the racer in front. I did this twice before remembering Bryce’s words: “Don’t push it during the first couple miles. The sand will wipe you out surprisingly fast and you’ll have nothing left for the remaining few miles. Save it, or you won’t have any strength to carry your legs through second half of the race.” I held off and patiently stayed behind the runner in front of me for the rest of the trail. Bryce was running right behind me, reminding me by his actions that this was the most prudent strategy. Thank God I did this too, as I wasn’t prepared for what was about to hit me.

Before breaking out of the woods, the course took us through quite a few water canals. These were much wider and deeper than those along the coast. A few of them were nearly neck deep, forcing me to either swim, or slowly wade through the water along the muck at the bottom. They were also a good 20 yards wide, which dramatically slowed my pace and stirred me up mentally.

Upon clearing the woods, I found myself in the deepest, driest sand yet. My shoes and shorts were dripping wet, and I quickly noticed how heavy my legs felt. I had nothing firm to plant my foot against for each stride, and my breathing was heavy from climbing in and out of the water canals in the woods. Bryce and I stayed side-by-side, pushing each other and taking turns leading. After what seemed like 15 minutes of running through the dry sand, Bryce called out “It’s been twenty-two minutes, keep it up.” “WHAT?!” I thought to myself. This meant we were probably only halfway through, and my legs felt like I had been running for over an hours.

The final 3 miles of the race were most brutal, by far. The Berms and trail running during the first 2 miles had already sapped most of the strength from legs, and now I was forced run in soft, dry, sand which came up to my ankles. The terrain was hilly, too, with many inclines that weren’t very steep but would span anywhere from twenty to a hundred meters in length. The remaining obstacles included: a wall climb, mud pits to crawl through, and hills with a web of rope set at chest height which forced one to crawl up the hills (of course these hills were sandy, too). There were no mile markers to indicate how far we had run at this point, so one had to continue to push as if the finish line was just around the corner.


Physiologically, I didn’t have the energy left to finish this race at a respectable pace. However, I knew there was a powerful force I could still tap into: the human psyche. I knew I had to adhere to the words of Alwyn Cosgrove in order to keep the pace I had set from the start:

“Psychology Trumps Physiology Every Time”

I had entered the hurt locker, and the only way out was to buckle down mentally and leave nothing on the course. Physically, it felt like I had nearly zero oxygen being delivered to my lungs and the working skeletal muscles. My ankles felt like I had 10lb plates attached to them, and my vision was becoming hazy. I had to will each step out of my body, and do my best to stick with Bryce, who I knew would finish this race in a very good placing. He had much experience in pacing during a race, so I had to rely on him to keep my velocity in check. At what seemed to be the 4.5 mile mark, Bryce jumped ahead. At this point my goal was to keep him in sight through the finish line, as there was just no way I could run any faster in the non-forgiving sand. The course ended with a fifteen yard mud pit crawl, and then a straightaway (on concrete, finally!) to the finish line.

I ended up placing 5th in my age group (out of 51 males age 20-24) and 18th overall (out of 2000+ entrants). Now, this isn’t something to boast about, but I think it does add merit to what we teach at SAPT: You don’t need to undergo a high volume of long-distance training to increase the capacity of your cardiovascular system. Remember, I only did one long-distance training session in the months leading up to the race, and it was only 4 miles (the race was 5 miles). The bulk of my training comprised of high intensity intervals, intelligent GPP sessions, and strength training. I’ll touch on this in greater detail in a future post, but it just plain works!

I love you, O Lord, my strength. ~Psalm 18:1


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