Photos and Story by Tracy Middleton
What in 1492 would have been considered a cycle of torture, today’s Americans pay good money to endure. And not just a few, either.
On Saturday, July 7, at least 7,500 willing participants engaged in what must be one of the most grueling mud runs yet devised. The event, Tough Mudder, a fund raising opportunity for the Wounded Warrior Project, found its southern California venue at Snow Valley, a ski resort in Running Springs. The barren slopes of granite scree, the snowboarding stunt ramps, the lumps and dips that last February provided chilly pleasures for skiers and snowboarders alike, on this sunny July day became the site of self-imposed punishment: a 10-mile obstacle course beginning at 6,800 feet and ascending to the 7,800-foot peak of the resort. Even the snow-making machines were called into service to create slippery surfaces and cool off sweating mud-runners.
Beginning at 8 a.m. and adding 200-300 runners every 20 minutes until well after 2 p.m., participants had to scale an 8-foot wall to reach the starting pen, then received a rallying pep-talk (ooh-rah!), listened to the national anthem, swore to help one another finish, and chanted “No Quit in Here” before the start. Men and women of all ages pitted their strength and resolve against rough trails at a challenging altitude and cruel obstacles with cruel-sounding names: Walk the Plank, Rogue, Death March, Berlin Walls, Electric Eel, and Electro-Shock Therapy. The latter two actually sting like a cattle fence – only worse because the runners are soaked when they enter. Participants with surgically-implanted metal plates or screws, as well as those with heart problems were strongly encouraged to avoid them. Other pain came in the form of barbed wire, corrugated metal pipes and just plain old gravel.
Personal trainers were there, like Brandyn Duff owner of Essential-Fitness, who ran with a client from Laguna Beach’s Well Fitness Gym. Other fitness programs formed larger teams, such as Aliso Viejo’s Aliso CrossFit, which devised a color scheme to help onlookers identify the 15 athletes from afar. A color, such as fluorescent orange, identified some teams. Others chose to add spectacle to an already spectacular event: men and women ran the course clad in tiny banana-hammocks, ballet tutus, superhero costumes, Hawaiian shirts and trunks and shirts and neckties. Most entertaining of all, be-wigged mermaids and mermen joined King Neptune replete with five-foot inflatable dolphins to run the course.
Spectators observed these splotches of color snaking up and down the black diamond slopes from the base of the resort.
Doggedly, teams stuck together, helping each other on every leg of the ordeal. Duff, who had also participated in the February Tough Mudder event in Temecula, remarked that these events are exciting because there’s always a “mystery obstacle” runners encounter. This time it was rings swinging from straps over a pool of water. Duff, 26, who finished the run in an impressive 2.5 hours, says he varies his training regimen in anticipation of surprises. “Always tricking my body is a good way to prepare.”
Periodically the athletes vanished in dust clouds, whirling skyward like smoke from a wild fire. Frequent water obstacles provided relief between the hydration stations, but they were not without their own perils. Walk the Plank involved a 10-foot jump off a platform into icy water, which quickly evaporated, leaving the runner simultaneously hot and cold. Losing grip on the rings and monkey bars landed runners in a pool of water, usually directly beneath the feet of other struggling climbers who might kick or fall on them. What mattered was not how long it took to finish, but that everyone did and went on to share a well-earned cup of Dos Equis, tales of struggle and victory, and a photo showing off their scrapes and bruises won in conquest of the Tough Mudder.