Sean Corvelle asks “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” as he fires people up at the starting line of a Tough Mudder. I want to go a little deeper with this: “When was the last time you tackled something so big that it changed your life?”
I can point to a few events in my life that have truly been life-altering; which have resulted in a paradigm shift and a complete change in my point of view. My wedding, the birth of my daughters. More recently, my first Spartan Race, the SISU Iron, completing the OCRWC. Having spoken with some other endurance athletes over the years, I've found this to be fairly common and have listened eagerly to accounts of the Death Race, Fuego y Agua, WTM, and other extreme challenges, and the profound effect that such events have had on participants’ lives.
Some events in this world truly have transformative power; they can change your entire outlook on life, give you new purpose or cause you to dramatically alter your direction. Whether it's your first marathon, first ultra, Ironman triathlon, WTM, Agoge, or GORUCK Selection, the person who signs up for such an event is not the same person who finishes something so profoundly difficult that was well outside their comfort zone. Likewise, they're not the same person as the one who pours their mind and body into such a challenge and comes up short of their goals this time.
Years ago, I trained in karate and one of my classmates, while making his Black Belt speech, struck a chord that resonated; his theme was “Let them change you”. This came back to me strongly after a conversation with Race Sherpa Tim Sinnett, who stated that doing something tough, whether it's earning a black belt or running 100 miles, doesn't make you a better person. Not by default. But they can be very powerful tools for self-discovery and personal evolution, and can certainly aid your efforts to become a better person, whatever that means to you.
Unlike obstacle course racing, martial arts has a much longer history with this concept, with Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi stating outright that “The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants”. The study of karate is superficially about punching and kicking, and these alone will not make you a kinder, more compassionate, or wiser individual. It will not make you more faithful to your partner, or more honorable in how you conduct business. I could call out any number of excellent martial artists who are far from paragons of virtue, in a wide variety of ways, but that's not the point here. The process of learning a martial art does teach many valuable lessons that you can take to heart and apply to your life, and if you do, the experiences and philosophies involved can have a profound impact on your character and your behavior.
Similarly, obstacle racing and endurance events have many lessons contained within them; lessons which are often learned viscerally through discomfort and pain. Whether your takeaway is the discipline of hours of training, pushing past your perceived limits, overcoming obstacles both literal and metaphoric, the reflection and redefining (often while you're in a pretty dark place mentally) of why you're doing this type of thing in the first place, or an increased empathy gained from helping those around you or needing help, in turn, there are many opportunities for self-improvement in the mud. Of course, you have to look for these lessons, and let them impact you. To let them change you for the better.
Endurance events can take you to some of the lowest places you’ve been; sleep deprived, in pain, wet, cold, and miserable. Doing something that might seem pointless at the time. When your civilized veneer and all the masks you wear are stripped away, who are you? Pushing through something profoundly difficult, particularly in an endurance setting, is excellent at revealing your essential character. Are you the one who gets moody and depressed when things aren't going your way? Do you take the opportunity to cheat if it presents itself? Or are you someone willing to sacrifice your performance to help someone else? How important to you is the result, and how much is the adventure of the journey itself? Regardless of the answers, they should provide you with moments of self-reflection and realization.
These events provide countless opportunities to become the person you want to be, and this may, in fact, explain their appeal to many of us.
For these challenges to make you a better person or improve your character, you must first recognize the lessons being imparted, and then you need to figure out a way to apply them to your life outside of the event.
Alternately, some people use these events to feed their egos and impress upon themselves and others how great they are. As with all things, there are choices involved.
It is my firm belief that every single person on the planet should seek out those events and moments that profoundly impact who they are and which have this type of transformational power. Most won't; their comfort zones are too, well… comfortable. Some of us seek them repeatedly, like a drug, and are always looking for our next “fix” that can be used as a vehicle to enact positive changes in our lives.
Bring on the challenges, and let them change you.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Mud Run Guide LLC, or their staff. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.