My eyes are locked on my gloved fingers grasping the 4 inch plank between my feet.
My focus shifts past the mud on the beam to the rope cargo net and then the ground two stories below.
“No, Jo, you have to stand up. We have to go across.”
I look up into his eyes. His jokers cap long gone but the jovial still framing his face.
“I know but…” my voice reverberates in my head with the echoes of fear and frustration which drown out the wind, “Ben, I can’t feel my feet.”
We spend a beat or two looking at each other. Then he says, “ok” with authority and conviction and reaches out his hand to take mine.
If you rewind about 8 hours to that morning, I first met Ben face-to-face. We had corresponded around the Team GRT Facebook event page for Tough Guy 2013 but this was when I grasped his hand for the first time. A few of “my boys” I had met once before but he and a few others were entirely new faces to me.
I was comfortable with them all almost instantly: sharing rides, food and a roof with little qualm. Then in the grueling hours of Tough Guy, we all became buddies– joined in common purpose to just survive the darn thing.
So there Ben was, this relative stranger, walking backwards over beams with me, our hands locked together as we made it though one of many obstacles of the day.
The funny part is, it is just something we did in the course of the day. It wasn’t really a big deal.
I gave and got hands-up countless times, my rear the recipient of many a push, my hands the push for many more. We held cargo nets for each other, shared drinks, retrieved shoes, cheered and spurred in equal measure, and generally made the terrible, survivable.
Mud, mud, cold and mud
The traces of the mud are still on my Ruck. Did I mention that we not only ran the course but did it weighted? Our team may not have had matching outfits but we were easy to spot for the black-turned-brown GoRuck Packs on our backs. I was easy to find for my bright red jersey, vibrams, and, well, boobs.
About 10% of the 4500 entrants who showed up were women. Approximately .20% of those were carrying weight through the course. Yeah, that would be me. I honestly don’t know if my time would have been all that much better without the 20lbs on my back. I do know I didn’t and don’t care about the time.
My goal was simply to finish and I would have never made it through the course without my GoRuck Buddies by my side.
I have never been so dirty, so cold and so tired as I was crossing the finish line. Ben, the only one who had survived the challenge before, said the incomprehensible “instruction packet” would make slightly more sense after we finished. He was right.
Featured prominently throughout are descriptions of mud. One can see video and descriptions of the maze of hills, tunnels, ropes, logs, electrical wires, tires, fire and water features on youtube and websites. But there was no preparing for the challenge. There was certainly no preparing for the amount and viscosity of the mud.
At times it was just ground cover. Others, it was more like quicksand.
I thought the electrical wires would be the worst part. No, they just gave you a little zap to know you were there.
I was worried about jumping fires. Nope, those were welcome warmth.
I was concerned about the icy water. Na– Well, yeah, as we waited at an early obstacle bottleneck seeing dudes in full waders and wetsuits clear a path through the icy sheets covering the 40 yards moat we would trek through later was a mind psyche. I watched these beefy dudes hoist poster-board sized sheets of ice and chunk them down to break up the floating mass– using ice to break ice. Neat.
One might think that later in the day, after so many had made it through the water, it would be “better.” Maybe it was, but “better” is relative. There were still plenty of ice chunks brushing past our legs, waists and eventually chests as we made our way down and back through the water.
I would say those 80-100 yards were the worst of the day, but no. The soul-and-shoe-sucking beast of the challenge was the mud.
Just after the icy water came a series of log hurdles about waist high amid mud 4-6 inches deep. Waiting for one I yelled out a sparcely joined rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it.” I was, at that point, tired but still rather amused at the whole thing.
Then, the real fun began.
Going over and under the hurdles I got one of my Vibrams sucked right off by the muck. Luckily someone noticed quickly (I honestly couldn’t feel the difference) and I managed to find that shoe. Foot caked in brown, there was no way I was going to get it back on right away so held onto it. One of my comrades lost one of his shoes and kept going sock-footed for a bit.
Then, somewhere around the last hurdle I lost my other shoe. It was never to be found.
I was now barefoot and had to decide If I was going to call it quits or keep on going. I, of course, decided that I would at least try to go it barefoot. I think I had hit a point beyond fatigue and sense. A point, by the way, that Tough Guy touts.
At the base of the next A-Frame climb I had one of the course monitors clip my remaining shoe to my Ruck — finger dexterity was not my strong suit at the time. The kind-faced older gent repeatedly told me I could go around that obstacle as he worked muddy loop onto carabiner. His final “You can go around if you want…” was said to my back as I started to climb. I smiled when I heard him add “oh never mind you’re going for it.”
Not only did I go for it, I did it. I finished the second half of the course barefoot.
Which is why I couldn’t feel my feet up on that beam. But I made it across anyway. Ruck and all, I made it through the remaining pipes, across the remaining ropes, under the barbed wire, through the electrical fields, traversed more icy bogs and trudged through more and more mud.
My boys helped at numerous points for which I am grateful. Yet I know, by their admission too, that I helped them not to quit. If I was going to keep going barefoot there was no way they were going to give up.
So thusly barefoot I made it across the finish line.
I was a shaking, chattering mess for a few hours. I missed my flight and had a mad scramble and night in the airport to get home. I was cleaning mud from behind my ears and from under my nails for a few days. My legs are still black and blue, my various scabs are still healing. The soles of my feet are still a little tingly and numb.
I would do it all again.
But thankfully I don’t have to. I don’t have anything else to prove on this one. Bring on the next challenge, I’ve put this one to bed.
I am a Tough Guy.
Sono un muss
This is the question that many, justifiably, ask me. “Why would you do that to yourself?” The why?! is a question, believe me, I asked myself many, many times throughout the course.
It took Strong, Stubborn and Stupid to a whole new level. It took, yet again, all of those things to finish (plus the “so you never have to again” refrain). Yet, Ruck and all, why did I show up to begin with? Challenge and Community.
Challenge: Funnily enough the local English-printed paper “The Florentine” published this little piece of dialect this week: “essere un muss” – to be a tough guy.
Yes, it feels damn good to say that I am a Tough Guy.
There is a healthy dose of pride in quoting the numbers and stories above. It is great to have some pretty fab pictures of badassery to show around of my adventure. But it isn’t so much about showing others, it is showing myself that I rise to the challenge.
Our heads play games with us all the time. Our inner voices tell us we can’t accomplish things. They try to logic us into shortchanging ourselves and our abilities. It is pretty effective to have this to throw in the maw of the Voice of YouCant. “Screw you, I survived Tough Guy, I can do this.”
I know what I went through. Tough Guy was the hardest thing I have done to date. I love that there is a big unsaid “yet” at the end of that statement. I have said it about a number of things on this blog and hope that I don’t stop. I kinda can’t stop at this point.
Taking on these challenges pushes me physically, mentally and emotionally. I emerge stronger, more capable and more self confident. They are additive and addictive in that way.
Most importantly though, these crazy courses give me community.
I travel long distance, get to see new places, and get to hang out with others who “get it.” These guys “get” why one would choose to spend a Sunday covered in mud, freezing cold, exhausting and exhilarating themselves just for the challenge of doing it. And this understanding binds us together.
Seven of us strangers can show up from around the world to share a two room flat in the English countryside like we’ve been friends for years. We have inherent trust in one another. Like any family we have our various points of view but at the end of the day we have each other’s backs.
We swap stories of carrying bricks through security. We extend hands as they were extended to us. We get though the next obstacle so that we can have an earned swig of ACRT from our stash of liquid-bricks. We commiserate on other times we couldn’t feel our fingers.
We share smiles, hands up, training tips, pats on the back, gallows humor, friendly jibes, and toast our though times together. All that matters is that I show up and give it my all and I get to be a part of this amazingly brave, talented, funny, kind, strong and giving pack of dudes.
I’m accepted for the muddy, “un muss” mess I am. It is a picture I like of myself.
If a Vibram, a glove and a few more battle scars is the price of entry, then so be it. Being a part of this community is priceless to me. Until the next challenge…
You can see all the pics from my GoPro and purchases from the pros here. So begins my shift to Sunday longform posting. Tune in Wednesday for Linkage. Any suggested crazy adventures are welcome in the comments.