It’s been said that you never forget your first time. I certainly remember mine. It’s as if every part, down to the tiniest detail, is permanently ingrained in my memory, like an indelible mark that cannot be washed away. All I have to do is close my eyes, and I’m back there, back in that instance when what seemed like an eternity of waiting finally ended. It almost seemed like a dream. “Is this really happening? Am I actually, finally going to do this?” A light bead of sweat began to form at the small of my back, the way it always does when the adrenaline begins to course through my veins.
My body trembled with anticipation while every possible scenario of what lay ahead played through my mind like a racy late night movie. Time seemed to grind to a stop during those final moments before we commenced. Finally, as if being shot from a cannon, the world became a blur and I found myself engaged in a physical experience I had thus far only imagined. My vision narrowed, and my heart began to leap from my chest as I tried in vain to control my breathing.
“Careful now, slow down. Keep going like this and you’re never going to last,” I reminded myself. Deep, almost rhythmic breaths. “That’s it. That’s better.”
Through sheer and frantic determination, I managed to settle into a sustainable tempo and discovered that in doing so, I could now quicken and slow my cadence at will. Yet still, regardless of the mastery over my own body, I remained ever aware of the underlying, fantastic building of tension that I knew would eventually culminate in one final, climactic effort. Reaching the point of no return, I closed my eyes, increased my speed, clenched my core muscles and went for it…running straight into that field of exposed wiring, teeming with 10,000 volts of knock-you-on-your-ass electricity! What a rush! If I were a smoker, I might have even enjoyed a cigarette as I basked in the afterglow.
Wait as sec. You did realize I was talking about my first obstacle racing experience, right? Well, anyways…
You all know what I’m talking about. No matter how many headbands, medals, or finisher shirts you collect, if you love this sport, you’ll always remember your first race. But no matter how great it was, I’d be willing to bet that like a few other things in life, the next time out was even better. Like me, I’m sure you approached your second race differently, learning from things you wish you had known the first time around, adjusting your game plan accordingly.
As I look back at my first OCR experience, which was in November of 2011 at the Tough Mudder in Attica, IN, there are certainly things that I really wish I had known prior to that gun going off. I could probably write a book about what learned on that day, but for now how about I stick to the top five?
Assigned start times for an open wave are more of a recommendation than something that’s set in stone (depending on the event organizer). This may have been obvious to some of you, but for me, when I had an email that says I will be in a 10:00am wave, I kind of assumed that meant I had to be in the 10:00am wave. Why do I wish I had known this? In short, it could have saved me some stress on the way to the venue that morning. You see, about half way into the 2 ½ hour drive that morning, it suddenly dawned on me that when I crossed the state line from Illinois to Indiana, I was also entering a different time zone, and would be losing an hour. Rookie mistake. Actually, just a dumb mistake, rookie or not. There was no way I was going to arrive in time, and in my mind, I envisioned a Tough Mudder official checking the armband of every participant as he or she crossed through some sort of manned gate to enter the starting area. Can you imagine?! And of course, we were made even later by the sudden need to find a restroom after the ensuing stress found its way from my brain to my stomach. Lesson learned: you’ve paid to run, so as long as there’s still a heat to go out, they’re going to let you run.
Hubris can be dangerous. I’ll admit it, I thought I was prepared for this. I mean, really prepared. But, I learned very quickly that working out for the mirror doesn’t necessarily translate into real-world, applicable strength. I suppose if there had been an obstacle that precisely replicated a cable fly machine or bicep curls, I would have been awesome. But, as I soon learned, what lies before you on the course requires functional strength, agility, coordination, and endurance. I had very little of any of those things on that day. That’s not to say that I didn’t train or prepare. I did. But, I did it wrong. All sorts of wrong. When did I first realize I wasn’t as prepared as I had imagined? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. It may have been at the top of the first steep ascent, when both of my quadriceps decided to simultaneously seize up, and I suddenly became a very large Lego man. Or, it may have been when I approached the higher of the Berlin walls, and with all of the grace of a drunken hippo, leaped into the air only to smack chest first into the wood, about two feet shy of achieving a handhold on the top. This last part was made worse as I watched some little ninja guy leap and pull himself up onto the wall in one fluid movement, pausing briefly at the top just long enough to give me a sheepish little grin before he disappeared forever on the other side.
At the risk of sounding a little sacrilegious to many of my fellow OCR enthusiasts, the simple truth is that I spent entirely way too much time thinking about gear. That’s right. I obsessed – as we like to do – over the proper footwear, the best gloves, what socks to wear, my shoes (again), whether to bother with a shirt or not. Heck, I even decided that I needed to tape my wrists (please don’t ask why, because frankly, I have no frickin’ clue)! In hindsight, for your normal OCR events, there’s just no need for this amount of contemplation. It’s obvious that trail running shoes are best, due to the tread, but beyond that, there’s really no amount or type of special gear that’s going to make that much of a difference. It’s like golf – my tee shot is still going to turn left like a NASCAR driver, regardless of whether I’m swinging a $25 driver from a garage sale or a $500 Taylormade. Of course, if you really are into gear, you can always follow some of us completely down the rabbit’s hole and sign up for an event like World’s Toughest Mudder, but that’s another story.
I’m not alone. Okay, let me clarify. I’m not alone in my life in any regard. I’m fortunate enough to have an amazing family and great friends, so it’s not like I’ve been careening through life lost, searching for meaning. But, when I first mentioned to people that I was going to do this thing called a Tough Mudder, and then explained what it was, almost everyone thought I was a little nuts. And, certainly, no one seemed to understand why I would want to participate in such an event, much less pay for the ability to do so. But on that morning in Indiana, as I stood at the start line, waiting for the gun to fire, I realized I was surrounded by kindred spirits. We surely had different backgrounds, and were probably there for a variety of reasons, but I could sense a commonality and a feeling of inclusiveness that I had not expected. With the exception of the few people who were likely doped into this by a friend or two, everyone here understood why I was there, because they felt it too. There’s something powerful about knowing that more than a small handful of people “get” you, and at least when it comes to this aspect of my personality, there’s a shit-ton of you out there! I like that.
Proceed with caution, as this stuff can be addictive. I haven’t checked out title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.), section 1308.11 in a while, but if I did, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find that the DEA has labeled OCR as a Schedule I controlled substance. Five minutes before my first race, I “knew” this was going to be a one-time deal, that it would be a super neat experience, but there was no way I’d ever sign up for another one. Of course, that feeling faded less than two minutes after the event started, and was nothing but a distant memory as soon as I crossed the finish line. Like any good drug dealer, the brands that can afford it should just let first-timers run for free; you know, give ‘em a little taste, knowing full well they’ll be back for more. Heck, if you’re reading this article (assuming you’re not related to me – my family probably makes up 80% of the people who actually read my writings), then congratulations because you’re an addict like me!
Well faithful readers (Hi Mom!), there you have it, the top five things I wish I had known before my first OCR. There are certainly more I could list, not the least of which would have been knowing beforehand that the guy ahead of me on the cargo net climb was incredibly authentic when it came to wearing a kilt that day (don’t look up, don’t look up), or that one of the guys I helped up Everest had chosen to wear only a jock strap (I really didn’t notice until I reached over to grab his leg and things got very personal). But in a way, incidents like this are oddly representative of the unpredictability of OCR, and explains why the list of lessons learned is a living thing, constantly growing with every race. So, here’s to being life-long learners – may we all be healthy enough to race and learn until our dying days!
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