“This is the fun part,” says Amelia Boone.
Boone, 29, leads the women’s division. A round-faced blonde beauty with broad shoulders and eight-pack abs, she was a schoolgirl softball and soccer star before law school and an alpha career at Skadden, Arps—one of the nation’s top law firms—left her dying for a physical challenge. Now she handles corporate bankruptcies during the week and runs endurance races on weekends. Her office in Skadden’s sleek Chicago branch features several dirt-caked Tough Mudder headbands and a skull she won at a Spartan Death Race.
Boone is the women’s favorite because Juliana Sproles, a personal trainer from Ojai, California, got frostbite on her foot while winning the female division in the first WTM. A year later Sproles is nowhere to be seen, leaving Boone and 77 other women to measure themselves against Pak and more than a thousand other men. Some say women have a better chance in obstacle races than other sports, due to the role of determination over sheer strength or speed, and maybe the insulating power of body fat. (Male athletes average about nine percent body fat, females 17 percent.) Not that this is easy for anybody. According to one woman who’s both a mudder and a mother, “getting through a Tough Mudder is harder than childbirth.”
Nobody expects Boone to stay close to the men’s-division leaders. “I go as hard as I can before nightfall,” she says, jogging into her third lap. “This is the fun part. From here it gets harder.” Boone, who admits she’s a “gearwhore” on her blog, Race Ipsa Loquitur (hydration tip: “Grape Pedialyte is the bomb”), jogs on as night falls. She keeps going by plotting the course in her head, using the same mud tunnels and monkey-bar routes each lap, never slowing down enough to let the cold sap her energy. She stays alert by singing Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” under her breath hour after hour, lap after lap: “I’m just pumped up on some shit from a thrift shop.”
Ten hours into the race she’s still mumbling Macklemore: “That’s a bargain bitch, I’ma take your grandpa’s style——”
The course looks eerie after dark. By midnight most of the field has pitted to eat and sleep or at least rest. Some eat cold soup right out of the can. Some gossip about the tightest sort of Tough Mudder teamwork: loud sex in pit-row tents. Only the toughest keep trudging the course. They wear headlamps that bob like fireflies over the dark, muddy landscape. Follow one to the four-mile mark and you hear labored breathing as a weary mudder approaches. A crunchy tread as he reaches Boa Constrictor, an array of black plastic pipes. A curse as he kneels and chooses a pipe to crawl into. All silent for a minute as he clambers ratlike downhill and then up, emerging with a splash in a pool of freezing mud.
Who wants to spend Saturday night like that? Hundreds of thousands of guys in their 20s and 30s trying to prove they’re not wimps, apparently. One used to wonder if his girlfriend doubted his manliness. “I never punched a guy to protect her. I never built a fire or skinned a rabbit,” he says. After he ran a Tough Mudder, “we both liked me better.” Another weekend warrior told The New York Times that the new sport is “the only chance for a guy like me to feel like King Leonidas.” The paper quoted a sociology professor who called obstacle events “the physical representation of masculinity. By associating themselves with military training, these men are becoming masculine by association.”
Mudder macho turns up everywhere from the bodybuilder in the WTM logo to obstacles emblazoned Ball Shrinker, Dong Dangler and Hold Your Wood. There is no Tough Titty. Still it’s Amelia Boone passing men, not the other way around, as the night wears on. A little before midnight Boone, wearing an orange bib that marks her as the women’s leader, passes a pair of exhausted guys hobbling to the end of their third lap. She’s on her fifth. The founders, monitoring the race, can’t believe Boone’s performance. They never expected a woman to finish in the top 10 percent, much less the top 10.
As Boone laps the cramping, limping men, one of them croaks, “Amelia, marry me.”
Near dawn, it’s 30 degrees out. Scotsman Mark Stirrat reaches Funky Monkey, where contestants negotiate monkey bars over frigid water. Shite, he thinks, a man’s not meant to see his breath when he swims. Stirrat and his ruddy, jolly teammates, the Fuddy Muckers, came all the way from Aberdeen, Scotland for this. Like most mudders they slip off the monkey bars, then splash and wade the rest of the way. Climbing out shivering, Stirrat does jumping jacks to keep his blood going. He then ducks into a heat hut and comes out smiling. “Hot broth and ibuprofen, these are welcome gifts!” He still has six miles to go.
Soon Steve Larson bites the mud. A zookeeper at Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, buzz-cut Larson is one of the toughest mudders in the field, an ultrajock who thinks marathons are for wusses. “Once P. Diddy and Oprah ran marathons, I thought, Anybody can do that,” he says. So Larson, 33, ran an ultramarathon. He tried the competitive eating tour and won $100 for gulping 14 hot dogs in five minutes, then “had a blast” at a regional Tough Mudder event. Larson has the best description of the electric shocks on the course: “They hurt worse than a penguin bite.” But tonight he cracks a rib on one obstacle and spends 45 minutes trying to climb a 20-foot wall a mile from the finish. At last, weeping with frustration, he quits.
“Not my night,” says the onetime contender.
The hour before dawn is the worst. The course is almost empty, with only the leaders and a few dozen sleepless, dripping diehards plodding through subfreezing cold under a moon the color of ice. Now is when the occasional mudder succumbs to hypothermic shock. His eyes glaze. He mumbles. These hypothermic zombies sometimes curl up in the mud and might die there if other mudders didn’t stumble over them and call for help.
Amelia Boone’s still humming along. She conserves cranial heat by keeping her head above water during ice swims and stays alert by talking to the volunteers manning obstacles and medical tents.
“Doing great, Amelia!”
“Pak just went through here half an hour ago.”
Pak had outslogged Wilk. Earlier in the night the park ranger, slowed by the cold, ducked into his tent after six laps. He wound up leaving pit row—and the race he led for more than 12 hours—with help from his mother and fiancée. When a course worker gave Pak the news, he pumped his fist. “I’ve got him now,” he thought. “You don’t take a pit stop with an hour lead. At this point you take a pit stop if you’re broken.”
With Wilk down and out, Pak relaxes. He’s sailing through a record eighth lap, one more than his winning total last year, while the sun and rising temps draw mudders from their tents for one more go-round.
Passing the inflatable arch at the start-finish line, Pak rolls into his ninth lap. Eighty miles and 256 obstacles down, 10 miles and 32 left.
Two hours later, trudging toward Everest, three and a half miles from the finish, he hears a fan call, “You’ve got all the men beat!” This is good news for Pak, who’s suffering. Tendinitis in one knee, frosty feet, cramps—he can barely walk, much less run. It’s good news until the fan adds, “But Amelia is five minutes behind you.”
One of 13 women still in the race, lawyer Boone has been chipping away at Pak’s lead since midnight. Singing under her breath, chatting with other mudders, forcing herself to jog while they walk, she’s pulled within four minutes with three miles left. She’s close enough to see Pak at Electric Eel. He saves time by rolling sideways through the mud, under the live wires, then stands, wiping black goo from his eyes. Visibly gathering what strength he has left, he takes off at a trot.
Mudders, fans, friends, family, videographers and volunteers gather at the finish line, hooting and ringing cowbells, craning to see who’ll round the last corner and enter the stadium first. It’s Pak, stretching his lead over Boone at the end. He waves, bends at the waist, catches his breath as a volunteer with a garden hose pats him on the back, then rinses him off.
Boone jogs in nine minutes later. The two hug and pose for pictures. Pak’s official margin of victory, eight minutes and 56 seconds, represents six tenths of one percent of the race. Boone had him running scared.
As men’s and women’s champions they win $15,000 apiece. But it’s Pak who’s called to the winner’s platform to shake hands with founders Dean and Livingstone, to be presented to the crowd as “the toughest human being on this planet!”
“Maybe next year,” Boone says.
Other mudders are still out there, struggling toward the stadium. At one end of the course Scotland’s Fuddy Muckers trudge toward Electric Eel. Pak rolled through the mud to save time here, but the wheezing Scotsmen are long past technique. When one catches a sparking wire inside a nostril, Stirrat laughs his semicoherent butt off. “We’ve done many a fitness race,” he says, “but nothing beats this for awesomeness.”
Two weeks later a regional Tough Mudder south of Tampa caused a 10-mile traffic jam outside the venue. Dozens of mudders jumped out of their cars and—why not?—jogged the last few miles to the starting line.
Three years in, Tough Mudder was looking less like a sport and more like a community. Less like a brand, more like a cause.
One mudder motorist got stopped for speeding after the Florida event. “I was wearing my orange headband with pride,” Jim Redmond posted on Tough Mudder’s Facebook page. The cop who pulled Redmond over demanded his license and registration, and noticed his Tough Mudder headband. “You run the Tough Mudder?” he asked.
“Sure did,” Redmond said.
The officer returned to his cruiser. When he came back he was wearing an orange headband of his own.
“Slow down, mudder,” he said. He gave Redmond a fist bump and sent him on his way.