PART ONE: PRE-RACE TO LAP 6
November 16th – REGISTRATION DAY
My story begins on Friday, November 16th, registration day. I pulled into the giant expanse of the Raceway parking lot in my rented Chrysler 200 around 3pm, an hour before registration was set to begin. The 10-mile WTM course was clearly all around. Flags flickered everywhere in the breeze. The skeletons of wooden structures in the distance suggested Berlin Walls, Funky Monkeys, and the newly released Smoke Chute. There were piles of cinder blocks, half-pipes, and trenches filled with thick mud. Who knew what else was out there beyond the trees?
As I pulled into the end of the lot and got out of my car, I realized lots of people had already arrived, many more than I had expected for 3pm. Apparently, I’m not the first motivated and eager person to register for an ultra-endurance race. People were already lining up in their respective check-in lines, waiting to get their race kits so they could go claim their tent site. There was a nervous energy simmering in the crowd. A collective awareness was unfolding, implicitly, of the long and drawn out battle that would take place over the next two days. We exchanged few words.
At some point during that 1-hour wait to register, a few people got their hands on the course maps they were now handing out. I took a peek. 10 mile laps, 32 obstacles, some of which I had never seen or heard of before. This would be interesting.
As I finally got my race kit and timing chip, I rounded the corner of the Raceway admin building to the drag strip where the finish line and pit area were located. It finally hit me: After all these months of training, this race was actually going to happen. I quickly pitched my tent halfway up the left side of the drag strip, and began loading it with gear from my car. After loading it up with food and equipment, I wandered the strip contemplating the future….
I drove back to the hotel vibrating with energy, cranking Armin van Buuren’s “A State of Trance 2011” on my Chrysler’s rented stock stereo. It had been such a long road to this point. I thought of all the support and encouragement I had received from everyone in these months leading up to the race. I probably welled up three or four times on that drive back. I was revving to go. Not sure there’s much left on those car speakers though.
November 17th – RACE DAY
The next morning, that energy inside me was even more intense. I had slept well. I had eaten a good breakfast. I also had a good session of carb banking the day before. I drove back to Raceway Park into the rising sun. It was an incredibly beautiful day, for every reason I could think of. The sun was out and flickering through the autumn trees zipping by. I blasted M83’s “Intro”, “Outro”, and Wolfgang Gartner’s “Love and War” over and over on the way to the race. Doubtless, the speakers were starting to resent our abusive relationship.
Autumn in New Jersey and me with my pre-race face on.
By the time I arrived at the start line, I was ready. As I made my way into the mass at the start line, I remember WTM’s “Start line Sean” doing his speech to get the other racers pumped up for the race. I chose to remain quiet during this time, using it as an opportunity to focus on and review my personal strategy – to deliver a solid, steady burn over the next 24-28 hours in order to successfully complete as many laps as possible. I had to resist the urge to get overly excited at the beginning. It was tempting, but in my mind, it was an unnecessary squandering of valuable calories.
From the moment I heard the “ping” from my chip passing over the starting line timing mat, I went into autopilot. There were no more thoughts, there were no more worries, and there was no planning. Everything had been done. Everything was in place. For most of this race, I would only focus on my next step and on the obstacle right in front of me. There was nothing else to think about. For me, there was a deep sense of peace in all the chaos. My body felt good. All systems were firing. I fueled and hydrated regularly. I had no doubts that things would continue to go well.
I completed my first lap in just over two hours…much faster than I had planned on. The obstacles were tough but manageable; I would just need to be efficient. Even after just one lap, it was starting to get chilly on the course, so I pitted briefly to put on my full 3mm wetsuit. I went through the first lap without my wetsuit but I thought with the sun going down it best to suit up now so I wouldn’t have to bother with it later. I also lost my grey skullcap on Walk the Plank and so I needed something else to keep my head warm. I went with a thin balaclava and my cherished orange wool Peruvian cap. It was pretty toasty for that second lap – maybe a little too toasty – but as the sun continued to set, I knew it would be an ideal for the laps to come.
The hoard flows over over the first set of Berlin Walls on the easiest lap: Swamp stomping. It smells about as good as it looks; Losing my skullcap on Walk the Plank.
I slowed down intentionally for the second lap and completed it in about 2.5 hours. I even helped this poor girl pull her tires on Drag King for the remaining ¼ mile of the obstacle. I don’t think she was prepared for that at all. (I now realize this was the same girl doing the crazy inverted traverse in the Funky Monkey photo above.) Towards the end of lap 2 I also started struggling with symptoms that suggested my muscles were on the cusp of cramping. To get that under control, I drank a bunch more fluid and avoided exerting myself too much on any given task (e.g., leaping up Everest, Berlin Walls).
Skipping over the skanky Peg Leg soup and popping off the back of Everest.
After completing lap 2, I pitted to eat a full meal (~1000 calories). I chose to alternate between sweet and salty snacks so that I would actually want to eat. I relied on a cold tortellini salad for the heavy carb fueling. I used bottles of mocha-flavoured Ensure to top up the calories I needed. I also downed a Gu Jet Blackberry gel before leaving my tent each time, which helped fire up my engines and spirits at the start of each lap. It was now after 3.30pm and I knew darkness was only two hours away. I strapped on my headlamp, pulled on my neoprene socks and gloves, and gradually exited the pit area allowing the food to settle. Lap 3 was underway.
On this lap, the sun passed below the horizon around 4.40pm as I began running through the forested swamp along the back of the course. There were rings of glow sticks hanging from tree branches lining the trail. They hadn’t been cracked yet as it was only dusk, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before they would be the only things visible without a headlamp. Halfway through this third lap, I had to intentionally remind myself to stop at each aid station to quickly hydrate and top up calories. For whatever reason, I had this growing desire/tendency to bypass the aid stations, which would represent a seriously costly mistake for me as I was still dealing with potential cramping. At these aid stations, they supplied (seriously under-ripe) bananas, water, and Sharkies energy chews. So I would keep my energy levels up by using those.
As it turns out, Sharkies are insanely hard to chew. This makes it almost impossible to run while eating them because you can’t chew them and breath at the same time. In cold temperatures, they get even harder to chew making this problem worse. Thankfully, I’d solved this problem during training by swallowing energy chews whole while using water as a chaser. It worked well this time too…my stomach has tolerated much worse while in training. The same strategy obviously wouldn’t work for those cold, green bananas though. They were getting progressively harder and peeling them was starting to pose a problem. I couldn’t really use my hands to peel them either, because my hands were ridiculously muddy and I didn’t want to ingest the mud (I’m a genius, I know). My solution? I just tore through the peels with my teeth, probably eating a lot of peel in the process. I moved on, completing the remaining obstacles like Island Hopping and Drag King in the dying light.
Quick pops on Island hopping and the slow 1/2 mile burn on Drag King. When it’s really quiet, you can actually hear your quads cursing you.
I completed lap 3 in around 2 hours and 45 minutes. I ate two chocolate chip granola bars, some grape juice, an Ensure and exited the pits once again. At the start of lap 4, around 6.30pm, I noticed the field was starting to thin out considerably and the course was becoming less crowded. Med tents were starting to collect injuries and there were a few cases of hypothermia, but nothing crazy…yet. People seemed to be pulling the plug in the pit area where comforts like sleeping bags, heat packs, warm food, and warm showers were too enticing to escape. My goal was to take a longer pit stop after lap 4 so I didn’t wait around long to get it underway. One thing that became very apparent on lap 4 was that things were starting to ice over. Obstacles became very dangerous because they were so slick with collecting frost.
As I moved deep into the swamp on lap 4 I incurred my first significant injury. As I slipped into one of the chest-deep parts of the swamp and I crushed my left shin on a log couched deep in the mud. The pain was excruciating and my eyes began tearing up. I quickly pulled myself out of the swamp on the other side and lay there for a minute staring at the stars that had begun twinkling through the treetops. I rolled over, slowly stood up, and applied some weight to it to test for a break…nothing obviously broken. I palpated it to see if it was chipped…hmmm, that feels weird, maybe chipped. Better walk for a bit before I run.
The cold-water obstacles that followed helped to numb the pain in my shin and reduce inflammation. When all was said and done, I knocked off lap 4 in around the same time as I did for lap 3 and pitted just before midnight.
After lap 4, my race strategy was to escape into my tent for around 30 minutes, to warm up, get into some dry gear, to get some grub, and to reboot psychologically for the second half of the race. This decision would prove to be my biggest mistake. Cold and covered in mud, I crawled into my cold, icy tent, zipping it up behind me. I then peeled off my outer layers and crawled into my sleeping bag in just my wetsuit. Earlier, I had opened several heat packs and placed them in my sleeping bag in preparation for this. They helped little. I tried to sleep for about 10 minutes but I ended up just vacillating between the cold crappy state that was my reality (i.e., being in a frozen tent pitched on the sleeve of some flood-lit noisy drag strip) and some other bizarre, lucid dreamstate where I was running over the events from previous laps in my mind. During this time, I had my sleeping bag pulled up over my head with the hose from my hydration pack running into this coffin so I could continue to hydrate. The frigid bottom line quickly hit me: The sheer act of slowing down was causing my muscles to start cramping. My back began to tighten, my body to quit. I knew my mind would soon follow.
Over the next 45 minutes or so the window on my race almost slammed shut. Somewhere along the line, and I don’t remember when or how, I came to my senses. I sprang out of my sleeping bag and began to layer up again. It was time to conquer the night. I had already wasted precious time in that tent and I needed to get back out there on the course. But how would I do this? The night was getting much colder. I decided to slip on my second wetsuit over top of my other one to prevent additional heat loss. I then ran to the showers at the start of the pits and filled the suits with warm water. That hot shower was like a rocket ride out of the depths of a frozen hell. I’ll never forget the feeling of that warm water running down my chest and back and then down into my legs. I quickly ran back to my tent to top up with fuel. I took a deep breath and exited the pits into the dark and empty WTM course.
It was on lap 5 that I remember explicitly acknowledging the music out on the course. It was absolutely a-t-r-o-c-i-o-u-s. It was now 2am and we were bordering on 16 hours of non-stop ACDC (e.g., “Back In Black”, “For Those About to Rock”, “She’s Got the Jack”), Metallica (e.g., “Enter Sandman”, “Wherever I May Roam”), Offspring (e.g., “Self-Esteem”), and Wu-Tang Clan (e.g., Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta F%&* Wit”) on a mind raping, neverending loop. For good measure, they even threw in Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” just in case we hadn’t completely lost our minds yet. This all has a funny/disturbing effect when taken in conjunction with exhaustion. “What was the meaning of all this?” I thought, “Are they doing this to test our mental grit or does someone at TM headquarters actually think these are good enough songs to play 55 times in 28 hours?”…“Are there any songs that would warrant playing that many times?”… “Who would do that to us?”…“When will it end?”… “What’s at the edge of the universe?”…“Who am I?”…”Goats are funny looking”….
It was now the middle of the night and the aid stations were packed with things good and bad. On the up side, race organizers had busted out the hot chicken soup stock or “chicken water” as some were calling it. Out on that frozen course, this absolute crap was a godsend. The Sharkies were now frozen solid and so I started dumping them into the soup as a way of softening them up enough to swallow. This worked like a charm and tasted, well, not half bad actually. It was an exotic combo for sure, a wild combination of sweet and savoury. Imagine eating gummy bears and a chicken wing at the same time. Maybe this will be the next flavor of Doritos. I mean, they’ve done a lot worse. Oh yeah, and we also used the soup stock to bathe in, haha! Well, not really, but in moments of desperation, many of us were pouring the hot soup stock onto (or into) our gloves and shoes. The medics were like “No don’t do that, you’ll burn yourself”. Nooooo…leave alone…chicken water good…Ahhhhhhhhh yesssssss….
On the down side, however, the med tents were jammed with WTMers who had bitten the dust. The night claimed its victims in many ways but it was generally the cold that razed the field in a big, bad way. By 3am, there were mounds of racers donning space blankets, huddling around tent heaters in a catatonic, non-shivering stupor. This was not good. One quick glimpse of a scene like that and you gain all the motivation you need to keep moving. Whatever you do, don’t slow down, I repeated to myself again. Don’t slow down. Don’t slow down.
Only the toughest survive the night – Me in the Boa Constrictor at 43 seconds.
Out on that dark, deserted course I actually caught up with Pakman who was probably on lap 6 or 7 at that point. I didn’t want to ask him; I knew he was way ahead of me. We were the only two around when we arrived at Devil’s Beard. In my opinion, this is the absolute worst obstacle to have to attempt on your own. They had that cargo net snapped so tight to the ground it felt like someone was Saran wrapping you to the earth as you were passing underneath. Everything gets caught up on the netting: headlamp, clothing, ears, nose, motivation. And the fact that the netting was frozen really helped matters too. Pak chimed in with his shared love for the task, “I hate this one”. We did it together as best we could, moving backwards and alternating holding the net up for each other. It’s so much easier (or less hellish, I should say) when you work together. We both oozed out the other side of the net like the last bit of toothpaste in the tube, totally gassed. We walked and chatted for a bit as we regained our strength to carry on running. I wouldn’t see him again until my lap 7. That guy is an endurance machine. Yup, envious over here.
On lap 5, between Twinkle Toes and Walk the Plank, I incurred my second injury: a twisted right ankle from getting lazy while running through the mud. Well, it was more of a half twist, half tweak. Those who’ve done something similar know what I’m talking about. You don’t want to stop or slow down after an injury like this. I immediately made a point to continue running on it so that it wouldn’t freeze up. The cold water exposures kept the inflammation from yet another injury under control. The pain was gone within a few minutes. Another disaster averted.
Shortly after, I completed Kiss of Mud 2, the worst of the two Kisses of Mud. For this gem you basically have to log roll your way through the mud for about 100 yards (you can crawl instead but it’s much slower). Sound like fun? Well it is…for a few yards, then you’re on the express train to Vomitville. I tried closing my eyes to prevent myself from getting dizzy as I rolled along, but it only helped a fraction. There’s just no easy way to do that obstacle. Gee, I wonder if they planned it that way.
After my vestibular system slowly righted itself, I ventured deep into the slimy pitch-blackness that was the Bog Log Jog and Swamp Stomp. I felt peaceful once again. The dizziness had subsided, the music that had been repeatedly stabbing my eardrums had faded into the distance, and now all I could hear was my own breathing and footsteps. The floodlights on the course had also disappeared and all I could see now was what was immediately in front of me in the cross hairs of my headlamp. The thin edge of my headlamp was slicing a narrow wedge in the dark and only allowed for split-second decisions to be made for footing. Occasionally, the air would light up from the steam of my breath temporarily blinding me. I realized that this blinding steam was actually a bit of a liability. I quickly learned to exhale out of the side of my mouth so I could see where I was stepping as I ran. Vigilance was critical in that thick vacuum of darkness. A twisted or broken ankle or nasty fall was literally one step away for the entire trek through that forest.
As I finally exited the forest and moved on to the Electric Eel, I would receive my third (but not last) and worst electric shock of the race. I don’t remember how it happened but somehow my right calf made contact with a wire and I received a shock that rode up and down most of my right leg. It caught me off guard because it was so much more powerful than the previous two shocks. I made a clear note to myself as I dragged myself out of the far side of the Eel to be more careful. I was clearly distracted with the pain in my shin and wasn’t keeping tabs on where my body was relative to the wires. Be…more…careful.
The obstacles at night were generally pretty brutal. The water obstacles were bitter cold and the non-water obstacles were almost entirely covered in ice. Most obstacles in the fields were caked in frost and those following water obstacles had completely iced over from all the water that people were dragging onto them. To say the footing on some of these obstacles was kind of treacherous would be akin to saying McDonald’s french fries are kind of oily. Needless to say, I had several very close calls on a couple of them. That being the case, in the middle of the night race organizers eventually decided to close down “Balls to the Wall” entirely as well as the top section of “Ladder to Hell”. They had quickly morphed into frozen death traps. People had clearly been falling off of them. I wondered how they were doing. Poor guys.
My lap 5 ended around 4.30am. I began thinking about how much energy I had left in me and how I would use that energy with the time I had left. I’d do another lap, I knew that for sure…maybe two more, maybe even three. I refueled and hit the warm shower again. Holy mother of Bishop Grandin that shower felt good…too good! Addictive. I had to get out of there before I lost my will to go back into the cold. Okay, just one more minute then I’ll go… Okay, your minute’s up, time to go….MMMMMmmmm, just ten more seconds…..
Dawn breaks on the back end of Mud Mile.
Lap 6 started much the same way as lap 5 did. I slowly left the pit area and began jogging through Cliffhanger, maintaining a steady heart rate as I moved up and down the various inclines and declines. The first set of Berlin Walls was a piece of cake as usual and the first Kiss of Mud was a walk in the park. Climbing obstacles were beginning to pose a bit of problem as the race wore on. I was progressively losing my grip strength and so I was regularly taking penalties on Funky Monkey and Hanging Tough. Other obstacles like Pirate’s Booty, Spider’s Web, and Skidmarked were tricky to climb with numb fingers too. Ironically, some obstacles seemed to get easier as the race progressed, like Walk the Plank, Twinkle Toes, Peg Legs, and Dong Dangler. Jumping into cold water became less of a problem and my balance seemed to improve with fatigue. Strange. As the laps stacked up, I also seemed to develop some immunity to the spiritual bowel movement that was Drag King. Hangin’ Brain had also become a no brainer. I had mastered a technique that got me over every time with virtually zero effort.
It was during lap six that the darkness began to let up. There was initially a dull pink haze along the horizon and it grew in brightness. When I talked with Pak he shared his view that racing through the night is almost purely mental. I now understand what he means and fully agree. As you’re running, swimming, crawling, climbing, clawing your way along all by yourself through that dark, cold night, it forces you to dig deep and find out who you really are, to find that kernel of truth about why you’re really there and why (the hell?!) you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ll save my personal answers to those questions for another time, but what I will say is this: After having been at that depth in my mind for most the night, once that first sliver of sun broke the horizon the next morning it was like crashing through an existential wall. It was a purely transformational experience. I’ll never be the same after that night. Never.
Solid ice. The backside of an Arctic Enema after a long night of freezing.
Underwater Tunnels. This lovely experience came just after Island Hopping and Pirate’s Booty, completing the trifecta for frozen digits.
Shortly after sunrise, I also crossed paths with Amelia Boone, the woman’s leader. I asked her how she was feeling. She said she was feeling pretty good overall, that she was glad to have the night portion over with, and that she doesn’t like running alone. She seemed in really good spirits – better spirits than I was. Knowing that she was likely on lap 8 at that point gave me an additional boost. What an incredible athlete. There are just some amazing, inspiring people out there. I almost immediately thought “If she can keep running, then so can I.” Fascinating how energy and inspiration is contagious like that, flowing from one person to another.
The lap 6 Electric Eel also delivered my first electric-shock-to-the-head experience. Lucky me! Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt at all but I suppose that makes sense since we don’t have a lot of pain receptors in our noggins. As best as I can recall the experience, at one point as I was snaking my way through the wires and then I remember just kind of “waking up” and noticing I was looking in a different direction than I last remembered. Oh man, creepy, “Get me the hell outta here!” I screamed internally…or was is out loud? I actually didn’t panic though. Rule #4582 for successfully completing TM: Never panic around live wires. Breathe. Focus. Stay low.
Toward the end of lap six I realized I had one lap left in me. And I was getting some intestinal cramping from some bog water I’d probably swallowed. I also had a cough and was hacking up mud. Things were catching up with me. This was gonna be one ugly finish….