24 Hours in the Desert: The World’s Toughest Mud Run

Plemmons_WTM 2015 Cliff Sunday

If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
-“Pure Imagination”

The 24 hours threw me off.

It started with a phone call in February to my friend Sam I hadn’t spoken to in years. Before the call ended, as a last-second thought, I asked how he stayed motivated to workout with a busy schedule. He said he “throws a big goal” in front of himself, having a purpose helps him stay driven from workout to workout. Of course I asked him for an example, and he said the past two years he has done a mud run at Lake Las Vegas “like the Tough Mudder events you’ve heard about, but this particular one is 24 hours.”

Like you, my initial reaction was, “that’s f***ing ridiculous.”

It took me a moment to understand what he was saying, and another to accept that it was possible. Less than 6 months before the conversation, running more than 10 minutes on the treadmill would have been a non-starter for me. So thinking about running a 5-mile obstacle course for an entire day seemed like it might as well have been swimming from New York City to London. Once I recovered from the initial shock (the second time he did the race he finished in the top 5%), I congratulated him on the massive achievement and we hung up.

Then it marinated.

World’s Toughest Mudder (“WTM”) 2015 description: The goal is to complete as many full 5-mile laps as possible in 24 hours. Each lap has 800 feet of elevation gain and 13 water obstacles, meaning roughly every ½ mile you are swimming or wading through freezing water. The temperature was 65 degrees and sunny on Saturday but dropped to 39 degrees in the middle of the night before creeping back into the 50s by noon on Sunday. The first 60 minutes is a “Sprint Period” with no obstacles. At 3:00pm an air horn goes off that can be heard around the course signaling the opening of the 21 obstacles. You must be on the course at 2:00pm on Sunday actively pursuing a lap to earn the Black Finisher Headband. You have until 3:30pm to finish your final lap.

Why?

The why is unique for everyone.

It may be useful to walk through my decision-making process, which has largely been influenced by Ray Dalio’s Principles. I want my life to be full of interesting experiences and this impacts my choices, especially big ones. I’d prefer to approach life as an endless set of projects instead of one continuous event. I never want to ask “how’d I end up here?” and be disappointed. When faced with a decision, it’s helpful to imagine you are 85 years old looking back on your life. Which choice would you regret least? Then there’s your answer.

I believe in discipline; maybe even borderline masochism. I also like the idea of delayed gratification. I’ll give up one marshmallow now to get two later. This seemed to fit the bill.

I officially signed up July 2.

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The Pit on Friday Nov. 13, the day before the race

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience.
Romans 5:3

Training

Burpees. Run 10 miles 5-6 days a week for 10 weeks. (You can skip the rest of this section.)

If you want more detail… There are two parts: the obstacles and running. I don’t have a YouTube fitness channel or a protein shake sponsor but I have been playing sports for a long time and workout regularly, therefore, I figured the obstacles would be manageable, and that I should spend the majority of my time interval-cross-training and running. The goal is to catch your breath while running.

I am not a runner. At least I wasn’t. I never understood it. Runners typically look hungry and it is hard to see the appeal beyond the observation from philosopher king Ron Burgundy, “apparently you just run, for extended periods of time.” Then in late 2014, some coworkers signed up for a half-marathon that I reluctantly agreed to enter. From then on, it has essentially been impossible to stop. The post-run high is real and it is as addictive as anything else.

WTM 2015_The Pit

In her New Yorker article on running, Kathyrn Shultz said, “the essence of the experience remains invisible.” She’s right. The Katy Trail, where I did all of my weekday runs, was a great place to reflect and listen to music—highly recommended if you can avoid the armed robberies. Most of my thoughts on runs are positive and it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the day. The first 2 miles of any run are the worst for me but it gets better from there.

Although I officially registered in July, I started training in May. That’s a long time between Day 1 and Race Day. I thought about it for hours every day. It was a weird experience because I was putting my body through amounts of pain I had never felt, and for what? An abstract idea? I had no base case to compare it to. I had never done a mud run, obstacle course, or even a marathon. For lack of a better word, it didn’t exist.

On top of this and work, I was studying for the CFA that has a suggested average study time of 300 hours. 2 marshmallows.

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The dust

Usually I sleep well, with the worst part of my day being waking up to an alarm and pulling the covers off. For weeks in August though, I slept horribly. I would wake up in the middle of the night, paranoid and sweating, knowing I was unprepared.

If I got tired during a workout, I would feel guilty and think to myself, “oh, you’re tired? After an hour. That’s great. You’ll probably meet your expectations if you’re expecting to come in last.” I needed to significantly pick up the intensity. One of my coworkers is serious about fitness and goes to Jay Johnson’s Boot Camp, a 5:30am class in various locations around Dallas. All you need is a mat, weights and water. Think P90X but outside and more aggressive. After my first class I lay on the concrete and stared at the stars until I could breathe normally. I finally felt like I was on the right path.

September & October

Now, if this was a sales pitch, here is where most of you slam the door in my face: giving up alcohol. There was no other way around it for me. I know people that don’t get hangovers. I envy them and consider that a super-power.

You young professionals out there might think, “if I gave up alcohol, I would be a millionaire.” Not so fast. All things being equal you would save money, but all things are never equal. You can throw as much money at this event as you want. During training, I went through 4 pairs of shoes. When you need a backup for every piece of gear and you realize you have spent $175 on socks and $164 on 4 pairs of compression shorts, frugality is easier said than done. There is the gear expense and then there is the time expense. Time is money, and all clichés are true.

Dating: out the window.

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You have new things in your life to balance that you have never considered, like maximizing your glycogen stores and not shitting in your wetsuit. You wonder what a grown man would be doing with Desitin (the baby diaper rash cream). You almost forget what hangovers feel like.

Average weekday

4:45am: Alarm goes off. Set snooze button for 3 minutes
4:48am: Get up. Clif Bar, pre-workout shake, fruit cup
5:30am-6:30am: Boot Camp (2.5-3.5 miles)
7:15am-7:30am Drink protein/coffee shake while studying
8:30am-6pm: Work
7:00pm: Get home, Clif Bar, pre-workout shake, fruit cup
7:45pm-8:45pm: 7-mile run
9:15pm-10pm: Dinner, shower, etc.
10:30pm: Sleep

Rinse, repeat.

On Saturday mornings I would do a long run (9-20 miles), usually around White Rock Lake and Sundays go to the gym for muscle-ups (back), jump rope (endurance), and dead-hangs (grip strength for obstacles).

Diet

The diet is ironic because you would think running 7-10 miles a day you can eat whatever you want, but it’s not that simple. The longer and more intense your workouts become, the more sensitive your body is to the inputs. If I ate a huge burger at lunch, my night run would be sluggish. Mexican for dinner? Good luck running up 24 flights of stairs at the Omni at 6am.

Breakfast: Blend up an ice-coffee-protein shake, green smoothie and ~7 eggs (1 egg, 6 egg whites)

Lunch: 2 salads w/ chicken or sandwiches (always double the meat)

Dinner: Chicken/fish with brown rice/sweet potato and avocado

I keep turkey jerky, apples, and other snacks at my desk, then deli turkey and Greek yogurt in the refrigerator. I probably never went two hours without eating except when I was sleeping.

Ideally, you want to practice how you play. Living in Dallas made things like running in a wet suit or finding a hill impossible. For everything else, I tried to replicate the course conditions. Safe to say I failed at that. On some long runs, I would stop every quarter-mile to do pushups or burpees. On really long runs, I would eat a chicken quesadilla halfway through.

The peak of my training was October 17th & 18th when I ran 40 miles in a weekend, 20 on Saturday, 20 on Sunday—which made 74 miles for that week. From there, I tapered down.

Plems_WTM_Wetsuit 1

Throughout the entire process, I must have asked a hundred questions to the two guys I knew who had done this before. I would text them anywhere from 7am to 11pm asking anything from what happens if you throw up to where to clip your strobe light.

This consumed my life. I even came down with what we’ll call the Crossfit Syndrome, where you can’t help but post workout-related social media updates that no one aside from yourself cares about.

Food 1

Meal prep

Around Halloween, most of the hay was in the barn from a physical perspective, leaving the mental preparation. You want to avoid comfort because you will get soft. The 2-3 weeks before the race I stopped taking hot showers.

My friends and parents were extremely supportive. One friend, a former triathlete, wanted daily updates on workouts, without regard to his imminent heart surgery. My dad was going to leave in the middle of his two-week annual hunting trip to Illinois to fly to Vegas, be my pit crew then fly back to finish his hunt. My mom asked about the training every time she talked to me but waited until October to ask why I was doing it. She also said, “No matter what happens, you should be proud.” I said, “that’s ridiculous. Failure happens and you have to be honest with yourself about it. I’m not going to shoot an arrow and paint a target around it.”

When I finished packing I gave myself an ultimatum: you are either going to finish or go to the hospital. That meant leaving my sleeping bag at home.

Feeding Lion

The frost. It sometimes makes the blade stick.” –Gladiator

The Race

I flew into Vegas on Friday afternoon, with more luggage for a one-day race than I brought for a month-long trip to Europe. I had called Southwest on Wednesday to let them know I would be bringing several plastic bags of white powder labeled “protein,” “CarboPro,” and “caffeine” through security.

My uncle met me at the airport and drove me to Lake Las Vegas where I checked in to the hotel, which was walking distance to the course, if you had a lot of time to walk. By the time we set my tent up, my dad had flown in and taken a shuttle to the hotel. The hotel, aware of the race, had a carbo-loading buffet with pasta, pizza and salad for $20. My dad summed up the experience with his observation, “this is really bad food.” But it had the calories and got the job done.

Sadly, this was the same night of the Paris attacks, but due to traveling, the time difference, etcetera, I was too tired to watch TV. Fortunately, I did not have race anxiety and slept through the night until 5:30am.

For the first 4 years, the race started at 10:00am. This year they moved it to 2:00pm. I viewed this as an advantage because you would have 4 more hours of energy during the night, the most exhausting and cold part of the event. The downside to a later start is that your total waking hours would be much longer and due to the quick sunset the total time spent in a wetsuit is about 22 hours, meaning slower laps.

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The Gamble: Roll a die to determine which obstacle you climb

We went to the Pit as soon as it opened at 10:00am to put my food, water, and gear in the tent. Before any race, you want to be off your feet as much as possible, not carrying cases of water and gear a half-mile. Note to Mudder Headquarters: fix this.

1:00 PM: All participants had to be at the starting line. An hour before the race? Are you kidding me? The GoPro I bought specifically for this was on the fritz so I unsuccessfully messed with it for a few minutes before talking to some veterans who had run all 4 previous WTMs.

The rule-of-thumb is if you are able to go the full 24 hours, you will most likely finish in the top 10%. That means 90% of the people will not. Judging by appearances, at least 50% of the people  were more prepared than I was. They looked like they were either ex-military or serious Obstacle Course Race competitors. The only consolation I had was knowing I had put a lot of hours into getting my mind and body ready for this.

The WTM emcee started talking at 1:45PM, and I couldn’t have been more ready. The only thing I remember him saying was, “you don’t finish at the Finish Line. You finish out there. And you make it to the Finish Line.”

Lap 1 Saturday 2:00 PM (50:32 min)

My body had so much energy that when the race started I was relieved it had an outlet. Most runners say you want to be the tortoise instead of the hare, but here the hare gets rewarded at the beginning because  skipping obstacles in that first 60 minutes is an advantage, even though it’s a long race. By this point I knew my body well enough that it was going to take a few miles to warm up. At Mile 4, my calves felt the 800 feet of elevation, and I instantly regretted training in Texas. Overall, I felt good though and came into the Pit for a quick protein/Carbo Pro/chia seed shake (thanks for the suggestion Trevor Cichosz).

Lap 2 (1:10:04 min)

When I heard the air horn, I was ~6 miles in. I came to my first obstacle and thought to myself, “How many people fall off that thing?”

WTM 2015_Obstacle_Balance

Vertigo

Next obstacle: Operation–named after the board game. On Friday night, walking back to the hotel from the Pit I saw the “Warning: Electricity” sign next to the walls and told my uncle, “that’s going to be the easiest obstacle. They can’t take the risk someone gets electrocuted and dies.” I ate my words. You take a 10-ft hooked metal pole, put it thru a metal-lined 8-inch hole, and try to retrieve a ring on the opposite wall all while standing in water. I grabbed the pole, put it in the hole and about 8 seconds later the pole grazed the side of the hole, sending 10,000 volts through my entire body. This happened 3 more times. I was so pissed off I went straight to the penalty: carry a 50 lb. bag of concrete a total of 300′ and through a 30′ corrugated pipe before dropping the bag off and heading to the next obstacle. I was only going to become less focused as the race went on, so I went straight to the penalty every lap.

Lap 3 (1:29:26 min)

This was the first “normal” lap with all the obstacles. I thought I would be too focused to talk. However, talking to other people is one of the only distractions from the pain. Midway through the lap I also developed the mantra that kept me motivated for the remainder of the race: Don’t bitch out.

Lap 4 (1:42:01 min)

I felt like I could destroy ISIS.

Lap 5 (1:51:48 min)

The significance of being wet and how it affects you physically and mentally cannot be overstated–it was by far the most difficult aspect of the race. Being cold is one thing. Being wet is another thing. Being cold and wet for an extended period of time is indescribable. The closest thing I can think of would be that first sensation when jumping into a pool lasting for hours.

When I crossed the finish line, I was shivering like Leo when he told Rose to never let go. I came into the Pit and I could tell by the look in my dad’s eyes that I wasn’t doing well. He knew better than to suggest I stop, but he also made me realize unless I warmed up it might be out of my control. I got into the tent, stripped everything off except my compression shorts and put a blanket around me as I sat cross-legged trying to generate heat. Somehow it worked. I noticed myself shaking less and able to think about something beyond warmth. I asked my dad to get the plastic bags ready (they help your feet slide through the neoprene leg holes). I got into the 5mm wetsuit, he helped zip me up and I put the separate hood on. My eyes were the only exposed part of my body. This all took 34 minutes and was my longest pit stop, but I needed every minute of it to get myself ready for the next 16 hours.

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King of the Swingers

Lap 6 (2:02:41 min)

This was the most (relatively) comfortable lap of the entire race. I even looked forward to the water obstacles to get some fresh cold water in my suit. That changed. My muscles started cramping and locking up in areas I had never had problems with. I was tired. I had waited until about 10pm before taking any caffeine. If I took it too early I was afraid my body would stop reacting to it.  On a given day, I usually put 2 scoops of a pre-workout powder in water and take one shake before Boot Camp then one before my night run. During the race, I had 14 scoops and four 5-Hour Energy drinks. By noon on Sunday I had taken 3 days-worth of recommended caffeine servings. If anything, it helped keep me from falling asleep, but other than an initial boost from 10pm to midnight I barely noticed it.

The Cliff opened at midnight. I knew it was close because the guy next to me anxiously reported it was 11:55pm. Shortly thereafter, a race official appeared ahead of us, picked up the course marking stake and moved it a few feet to the right. It was midnight.

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The 35′ free fall lasts just a moment longer than it feels like it should. What helped me was focusing on one of the spectators across the lake. Depending on your perspective, The Cliff was the easiest obstacle on the course. However, the guy with blood pouring out of his nose on Sunday morning sitting on the rescue pontoon boat unlikely had that perspective.

Lap 7 (2:20:03 min)

Then came the inevitable. I hit a wall. This was much different than running. I had the expectation that I would transcend the pain and enter this meditative state, like a monk. In a way, that is what happens, but not really. The pain is acute and sustained–the only “break” is when your mind briefly gets distracted while it’s focused on completing an obstacle. The paradox is the race would be objectively easier without the obstacles, but you need the obstacles to disrupt the monotony. Rolling under barbed wire, feeling the rocks in the mud hit your bones was not conducive to reflection as much as it was to dizziness. Crawling up an inverted tube with water spraying you in the face from the top went from comical to demoralizing. The mud in my wetsuit was getting heavier.

In nearly every part of your life, someone can lie to you. In the desert, 12 hours into this race at 2:00am, 39 degrees, soaking wet, the person next to you cannot lie. More specifically, their body can’t. The guy in the pink spandex thong is nowhere to be found. The logo on your clothes doesn’t matter because it is covered in mud. No matter how much someone loves you and wants you to succeed, they can’t climb that wall for you. It is you. Alone. Against yourself.

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Mustard & bananas help reduce cramping

Midnight to 5am was hard. And by hard I mean the hardest thing I have ever done. While crawling through the corrugated pipes, what I wanted more than anything in the world was to lie there and close my eyes for 5 minutes.

Lap 8 (2:17:55 min)

My body was rebelling against me. The plan was to power-walk up hills and run the flat parts and downhills. Queue Mike Tyson: “Evweeone has a pwan until they get punched in the face.”

The buoyancy of the wetsuit allowed me to float on my back on the longer swimming obstacles like Hump Chuck and Statue of Liberty (75 meter swim with a lit tiki torch), which offered some relief to my legs. The lifeguards looked tired.

You question the sanity of your strategy to keep warm by urinating inside your (borrowed) wetsuit.

Lap 9 (2:04:31 min)

The most uplifting moment of my life may have been sunrise on Sunday morning. I don’t remember where I was on the course, I only remember feeling like it was going to be dark forever and seeing the light made me realize I had made it through the hardest part. Only 8 more hours to go.

Lap 10 (2:16:43 min)

I picked up my 50-Mile Brown Bib and felt like I was out of the woods. The next tangible reward was the out-of-reach 75-Mile Silver Bib and I was past the point of considering it a failure if I had to stop. It was certainly the hardest I have ever worked for a piece of clothing. My dad had no idea what he was getting into when he said he would do this. He didn’t know the 2pm rule (remember you have to be on the course pursuing a lap). I said I wanted to get 60 miles. He said, “I do not want to be out here at 3:30pm.” By this point, he had been awake for over 30 hours.

Plemmons_WTM 2015 Brown Bib

50 Miles Pit Stop

Lap 11 (2:54:35 min) Total Miles: 55

The last lap was supposed to be a celebratory one. Instead, it was the second coldest because of a costly mistake. On Lap 10 the sun was up so I decided to switch into my shorty 2mm when I got to the Pit because I was getting hot.

I forgot the wind was supposed to start at noon.  This lap had to last 2.5 hours to make it past 2pm. I intentionally took my time on this one, but the slower pace resulted in my body losing heat faster than it was making it. People said if you tried to wait by the Finish Line for a few minutes, they would make you go through and start a new lap. No thanks. With no good options, I just kept freezing. Coming up to the Cliff, the final obstacle, I was met with a 30-minute bottleneck. Listening to 50 people in front of you smack the water one-by-one was exactly the punctuation mark this damn thing needed.

2:18 PM Sunday

I make it to the Finish Line. Shaking. A girl gives me the coveted Black Headband, they take my picture, and I go directly to the medical tent to get a blanket. I can’t see my dad because the wind was blowing at least 30 mph kicking off a dust storm. When I was warm enough to leave the med tent, I found my dad and changed into dry clothes. I have never been so comfortable being naked in front of hundreds of people. My dad’s text to my mom clearly showed he shared my misery, “Thank God we stayed for the sandstorm!”

When it ends you might think there would be a celebration of some sort or at least a pat on the back. The ceremony is the next day so what you see is an anticlimactic scramble through a dust cloud to leave. I felt drunk. I was uncontrollably irritable, Siri telling me to “Turn Left Now” made me want to throw her out the window. All I could think about was getting into a bed. After getting Chipotle. I wanted to tell my dad how genuinely grateful I was for his support, but it came out as “EXTRA GUAC!”

As we walked in to my uncle’s house I felt it sink in. It was over. He and my dad were patient–I could hardly walk or talk–so they helped me get around and finish my sentences. We shared a couple laughs while we ate and checked the race results, then I hobbled into the bathroom to take a shower.

I can’t remember if any of the laps were fun. When the mud washes off though, you are a different person.

Before

(Before)

Post-race.jpeg

(After) 37 hours with no sleep & wetsuit-hood-hair