Yesterday’s installment saw self-proclaimed “Soft Mommy” getting super serious about her fitness, which included signing up for a Tough Mudder race. There’s no turning back now; on race day it’s do or die. Valerie is hoping against hope, it’s not the latter.
May 5th, 2012:
A man marks my forehead with my race number in Sharpie, presumably so they can identify my body. We are encouraged to duct tape our shoes to our feet so they don’t get sucked off by the mud. I meet my teammates for a group photo. They look tough. I smile in my $95 Lululemon running capris, the Sesame Street ditty, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other One” floating through my head.
Just to get to the starting line, you have to scale a wall. Once there, the race emcee instructs us to take a knee (in the mud) while he reviews race instructions. 90 seconds in, my knee hurts and we haven’t even started yet. A few minutes and a national anthem later, we’re off, charging up the hill in the “Braveheart Challenge,” the first of many aptly named obstacles. I slow to a walk as the hill steepens, but keep pace with the crowd. Up the mountain. Down the mountain. Into the first of the water obstacles, the “Arctic Enema,” a giant dumpster filled with colored ice-water into which you dunk and swim under a barrier before emerging, soaked and freezing on the other side. Adrenaline kicks in and I pull myself out of the far side of the tub with little recollection of ever having been in it. Up the mountain again to warm up in the “Death March.”
In the four hours we are on the course, we belly-crawl through mud (in a painful discovery, I learn the barbed wire is real), climb hill after hill (Oh those quads! Those calves!), inch our way through a tight and dark underground trench not for the claustrophobic and scale 8-foot walls. My body rebels more than once and I have to remind myself of my commitment and how far I’ve come already. “Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever.” Our small crowd of spectators – our kids and friends cheer us on with signs and snap pictures. Remarkably, I am smiling in them, though I don’t remember doing so. The event is much like childbirth. No epidural available but each mile and each obstacle is quickly filed away to the too-painful-to-remember recesses of my mind.
And then I hit my nemesis: Walk the Plank, a rope-climb up to a platform 15 feet off the ground from which we are to jump into a pond of 38-degree water below. My husband insisted this would be the easiest of obstacles. “Don’t look down,” he had advised, knowing of my fear of heights. “Just let gravity take you.” I get to the top and immediately look down. It’s much higher than I had anticipated and for the first time in the race, I panic. “I can’t do this,” I say aloud, to no one in particular, my teammates already in the water. “Yes you can,” says the helpful race worker, on the platform next to me. And then, less helpfully, she reminds me that there is no other way down and that I’m holding up the line.
Everyone is yelling at me to jump. Talk about Tough Mudder peer pressure. I take a deep breath and jump, my stomach launching towards my throat, and plummet into the shockingly cold water below. I emerge, flailing and gasping for breath, somehow make it to the side and pull myself to land. “I did it,” I exclaim, again to no one in particular. “I did it, I did it. I did it!” My husband looks at me oddly. He’s ready to go back for another go at what he would say was his favorite obstacle. I’m ready to dry off my Lululemons and get my free beer at the race’s end.
But we’re not done yet. There’s a glacier of snow to climb that will numb our gloved hands. A series of logs to climb over and under. And a slippery half-pipe called “Everest” where you have to rely on your fellow Mudders, arms outstretched, to pull you up, lest you miss the top and painfully slide to the bottom, your failure to be witnesses by dozens awaiting their turn and spectators lining this obstacle.
Some big dude already atop Everest top points at me. My turn. I don’t know why to trust him, but I do. I run up the pipe as far as my legs will take me and just as it turns vertical, I throw my hands upward. In my mind, I scaled this beast on my own, but the pictures show otherwise. Anonymous big dude grabs my wrist and yanks me to the top as if I weigh nothing at all (Thanks, anonymous big dude!) I am so relieved to have conquered Everest that I’m smiling as I approach the final obstacle. I should have mentioned this… the only way to get to the finish line is to run through a field of live wires, some offering as much as a 10,000 volt shock. But the Mudder gods are smiling on me this day and as I run through the wire field, suddenly large gaps open up to me. I emerge unscathed and cross the finish. For my efforts, I’m given an orange Tough Mudder headband (that refuse to wash and will cherish forever), an energy bar and a beer (the best I’ve ever tasted).
A day later I am still on a high, amazed at what I’ve accomplished, though still Q-tipping mud out of my ears. But then the old familiar doubt sets in. How can they bill it as “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet” if I could finish it? Does it count if I failed on the monkey bars and bailed on the walls? If I had aimed to take off 30 pounds and only shed 20, how much weight does that extra 10 hold? I’m critical of pictures of the event which show that even in my expensive running capris with just the right amount of stretch, when straddling an 8-foot wall, I’m still more beached seal than Navy SEAL.
But there is one picture beyond reproach; my 5 year-old daughter wearing my orange finisher headband (“Do NOT lose this; it was not easy to earn,” I had prematurely scolded). Fists aloft, headband over unkempt hair, she celebrates her own Tough Mudder victory. I want to inspire her. What seemed far-fetched – even laughable – five months earlier was made possible through hard work, sheer determination and a zero-tolerance cheese policy.
The race is over but I still get up at 4:45 am most days, trying to improve my fitness in my 40s. I do the dark chocolate thing, a square a day, and find it satisfies. I’m back to celebrating wine-thirty because I enjoy it (and because, according to my husband’s doctor, it’s good for my cholesterol). I still watch Real Housewives at night (you didn’t think I’d give up the show, did you?) but keep my hands out of the crackers. And I’m not afraid to set new fitness goals because if I can do this, I can do anything. After all, I’m no Soft Mommy. I’m a Tough Mudder.
How about you? Have you ever faced down a physical challenge? How did it make you feel when you beat it? And if you haven’t done it yet, what’s stopping you?
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Valerie Gordon has been navigating the wilds of central Connecticut since relocating to suburbia from New York City four years ago. The 40-year-old mother of two is also a Coordinating Producer at ESPN where she oversees feature production. This means she often has to choose what to watch on evening TV: the big game or anything on Bravo?