Tough Mudder inspires Mom to get fit

Courtesy of Valerie Gordon

Valerie Gordon gets a hand up Everest from Anonymous Big Dude.

November 17, 2011

I celebrated my 40th birthday last year with a return to my favorite city, New York, and a get together with friends. We toasted with champagne and indulged in cake. I'm sure I had seconds.

I've always wished I could be one of those women satiated by one small square of dark chocolate daily, but in reality, I'm more of a king-size Kit Kat kind of gal. For most of my life, I was athletic and thin and my metabolism helped balance my sweet tooth. Then, the decades caught up with me.

Facing 40, I was far from fit. I was, as my 5-year-old daughter pronounced when she poked my stomach, "Soft Mommy."

Three years earlier, we had moved from the city to the far suburbs. I drove everywhere, sat all day at a desk and rarely visited the gym. When I did, I'd loll on the elliptical for a half-hour, lazily flipping through a magazine, and call it exercise. After foot surgery, I gave up the gym altogether.

I put my energy into work and family and dropped my health to last on the list. The scale went up, just a few pounds at first, and then a few more. I took advantage of vanity sizing and insisted the dry cleaner was shrinking my sweaters. It wasn't until my plus-size contractor, who himself looked like he was in his third trimester, inquired when I was due, that reality hit me: I was no longer who I once was and who I wanted to be. I had let myself go.

Around the same time, my marathon-running, triathlon-competing, low-carb eating (and therefore somewhat annoying) husband signed up with his like-minded brothers and a few male friends for a Tough Mudder race. We decided to make a weekend out of the spring event at Mount Snow in Vermont. The families would come and cheer the guys along the 10-mile, 28-obstacle course. On a mountain. In the mud.

For those unfamiliar with the Tough Mudder, this is no fun run. Billed as "Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet," Tough Mudder courses are designed by British military and include freezing water, fire, electroshocks and -- of course -- lots of mud. A Tough Mudder video showed shirtless Marine-like men traversing monkey bars, carrying tree-trunk sized logs up a mountain and army-crawling beneath barbed wire. It looked fierce, impossible and … oddly appealing.

Courtesy of Valerie Gordon

Tough Mudder entrants sprint through a field of live wires -- some carrying as much as 10,000 volts of electric shock.

And that's when my pasta-laden brain did something crazy. It convinced me that I, too, needed to complete a Mudder. I didn't want to be Soft Mommy. I wanted to be a Tough Mudder. I told my husband I wouldn't spectate, I would participate. I plunked down the $135 entry fee and joined their all-male team, determined to either keep up with the group or go at it alone. I had less than six months to prepare, 30 pounds to lose and a pair of trail-running shoes to purchase.

Sure, I could have started simpler. Maybe a series of Zumba classes. Or a 5K for charity. But the more I learned about the Tough Mudder, the more I was convinced it was exactly what I needed … something truly terrifying to jump-start my routine. I wanted -- no, I needed -- to know I was the kind of person who could train for and complete this event.

But to prepare, I'd need some help. I joined a local CrossFit program that offered 5:30 a.m. workouts, the only time I figured I could commit before each day got the best of me. I struggled to get out of bed for my 4:45 a.m. alarm and squeezed into old yoga pants and a T-shirt. At CrossFit, the workouts are short but intense. I scoffed at the 13-minute AMRAP ("as many reps as possible") of push-ups, squats and lunges. Three minutes in, I was keeled over, jelly-legged, sweat-laden. I wanted to go back to bed. Well, no one said this was going to be easy.

One nutritionist visit later, I learned to lose weight I should aim for 1,400 calories per day. I was embarrassed to admit I probably ingested that much each afternoon in M&M's alone. I was encouraged to dump my daily glass of wine in favor drinking one a week. Around the same time, my fit husband visited his primary care physician for a checkup and learned his good cholesterol was low. "What I want you to do," the doctor instructed him, "Is have a glass of wine daily." Well, no one said this was going to be fair.

My new routine could have easily gone by the wayside, to the graveyard of good intentions, except for one thing: I began to see results. I learned how to deadlift and back squat. I discovered I like the rowing machine, mostly because you get to sit down while using it. I cut cheese from my diet and find I don't miss it as much as I thought I would.

After one month my pants no longer left angry marks on my stomach. The scale dropped, then dropped again: five pounds gone, then 10. My stomach flattened and this made my daughter cry because I no longer looked pregnant and she had really wanted a little sister. The workouts never got easier, but I began to lift heavier, run faster and dread the early alarm less. My body began asking me to move it and I obliged. Fifteen pounds gone. I rewarded myself with $95 Lululemon running capris with just the right amount of stretch to show off the results of all those squats.

But all along, the race loomed in the back of my mind. I became obsessed with all things Tough Mudder. I watched YouTube videos of obstacles from water-filled tunnels to the balance beam. I researched the best dry-fit gear. I even Googled "Has anyone died during the Tough Mudder?" and made sure my life insurance was up to date. Some things scared me. Hills. Heights. Hypothermia. Even down 20 pounds from where I began, I don't think I truly believed I could get through the course. But I knew I had to.

May 5, 2012

A man writes my race number on my forehead with a 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 and stuck in the thick mud. I join my teammates for a group photo. They look tough, ripped and ready. 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.

Courtesy of Valerie Gordon

One Tough Mother among the Tough Mudders.

Just to get to the starting line, you have to scale a wall. Once there, the race emcee reviews course instructions and tells us to take a knee (in the mud … I can't believe I'm getting these expensive pants dirty). Ninety 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 a swamp pit (I learn in a painful discovery the barbed wire is real), climb hill after hill (Oh my quads! My calves!), inch our way through a tight and dark underground trench not for the claustrophobic and scale walls. My body rebels more than once and I have to remind myself about my commitment and how far I've come already."Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever." Our small crowd of supporters -- our kids and friends -- cheers us on with signs and snaps pictures. Remarkably, I am smiling in them, though I don't remember doing so. The event is much like childbirth. Each mile and each obstacle is quickly filed away in the too-painful-to-remember recesses of my mind. Still, I wouldn't have minded an epidural around Mile 8.

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. "It's just gravity," he had shrugged, unable to relate to my fear of heights. "Just don't look down." I get to the top and immediately look down. It's much higher than I had pictured 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 informs me 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 leap, plummeting into the shockingly cold water below. I emerge, flailing and gasping for breath, somehow make it to the side and pull myself to dry 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 quizzically. He wants to go back for another round at what he would later 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 to the top. If you miss the platform and painfully slide to the bottom, your failure is witnessed by the dozens awaiting their turn.

Courtesy of Valerie Gordon

Inspiring the next generation of Mudders.

Some big dude already atop Everest motions to me. I don't know why I 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 arms 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 scaled Everest that I forget about the final obstacle. I should have mentioned this … the only way to get to the finishline 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 duck my way through the obstacle, 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 I refuse to wash and will cherish forever), an energy bar and that free beer (the best I've ever tasted).

A day later I am still on a high, amazed at what I've accomplished and 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 which show that even in my expensive running capris with just the right amount of stretch, when straddling an eight-foot wall, I'm still more beached seal than Navy SEAL.

But there is one picture beyond reproach, of my 5-year-old daughter wearing my orange finisher headband ("Do NOT lose this; it was hard to earn," I had prematurely scolded). Fists aloft, headband over unkempt hair, she celebrates her own imaginary Tough Mudder victory. I want to inspire her to set and reach her own goals. 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 a.m. 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 my daily glass of wine because, frankly, I enjoy it (and because, according to my husband's doctor, it's good for my cholesterol). And I'm not afraid to set new fitness goals because if I know I can do this, I can do anything.

After all, I'm no Soft Mommy. I'm a Tough Mudder.

Valerie Gordon is a coordinating producer of features at ESPN and a mother of two.

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