I may or may not write a series on my adventures backpacking in Denali National Park, but here is just a taste. Enjoy!
I was minding my own business sometime last week when I got a random text from my friend Ben (after whom my son is named).
“Justin come to AK w me aug 20 through 31”
Off the top of my head I wasn’t sure if AK meant Arkansas or Alaska, so I googled it just to be sure. I didn’t think he was serious, so I told him I thought it was really cool that he got to go to Alaska. He went on to tell me that we would be hiking Denali National Park, that flights are cheaper than they’ve been in a long time, he has an aunt who would house us, that we could probably do the trip for less than $1000, and that I should definitely come.
He also reminded me that “spontaneity is the spice of life.”
I am not a spontaneous person at all. I am a planner, and so taking an impromptu trip to Denali really doesn’t fit my grid. On top of this, I don’t like to be away from my family or ministry for long periods of time, and Melissa and the kids had already planned a trip to Kansas in September – no way was I going to be away from them that much. Finally, even with the low cost of the trip, I felt guilty spending more travel money, especially since I hiked the Incan Trail last summer.
My wife came in the room, and I showed her the text conversation, fully expecting her to say, “Oh, babe. It’s such a good opportunity but it’s probably not a good idea to go right now.” That’s what I was saying to myself, anyway (minus the “babe”).
She read the conversation, looked at me, and then said, “Well you know what I’m going to say… YOU HAVE TO DO IT!” I was stunned. She even called Ben (my friend) and said, “You have to talk him into going.”
And that, my friends, is why my wife is AMAZING.
We had to adjust the dates so that I would only miss a little more than one week of ministry (I take two weeks vacation per year). Then we changed Melissa and the kids’ flights so that our trips would coincide. Then we figured out how to fit the trip within our budget (traveling is a priority for us so we invest money into a travel fund every month). And within 16 hours of the initial text message, I was buying a plane ticket to Alaska (for only $386!).
So here’s the adventure: Ben and I will spend a week backpacking through the 6-million acre Denali National Park. The travel books say that Denali is the closest thing that you can find to a safari in North America. There are no trails, just wilderness. One road stretches around the park, and you can get off and on the buses whenever you see them. They say it’s one of the best places in the world to see The Northern Lights. Encounters with bears and other wildlife are almost guaranteed.
My heart is pounding just thinking about it.
For the record, I am a little intimidated by the bears. I have been doing a lot of reading on backpacking in bear country.
But I have decided that I want to be the kind of a man who lives intentionally, loves well, walks in integrity and has adventures.
And THIS is an adventure.
God is an artist – The Artist. And we get to play in His art. I am thankful and excited. Bring it on!
“Don’t accumulate possessions. Accumulate experiences.” – Mark Batterson
I hope you have enjoyed this series. Here are my final thoughts on the Tough Mudder:
1. Expensive: If you’re going to run the Tough Mudder, register as early as possible or wait for a Groupon. It is an EXPENSIVE race, and on top of the race fee they tend to nickel-and-dime you. Someone is making a lot of money here, though hopefully it’s the Wounded Warrior Project.
2. Worth it: That said, I think it was worth the money I paid. It was so much fun, an unforgettable experience.
3. Heat Time: Registering early will also ensure that you get to pick as early of a start time as possible. This is important for several reasons. First, you get a fresh course. There is still grease on the monkey bars, for example. But more importantly, if you are in the early heats, you don’t have to stand in traffic jams at obstacles. You can breeze through without waiting for stragglers from previous heats. This is especially important if you are hoping to qualify for the World’s Toughest Mudder.
4. Photos: If you want good pictures of yourself, bring someone along. For a spectator fee ($15), they can walk throughout the course, meeting you at key photo ops and taking pictures. Tough Mudder contracts professional photographers to take pictures of participants, but they tend to only focus on certain points in the race and certain heats (the early ones, I think). I had to dig through thousands of pictures online to find the 2 pictures they took of me, both of which were rubbish. And the prices for the prints were pretty outrageous, but I suppose a lot of people are willing to pay.
5. Gear: I wore a pair of North Face hiking shorts, which dried pretty quickly. No shirt. I wore goggles on my forehead, which were indispensable. I carried latex-coated Grease Monkey mechanic gloves ($3) with the fingers cut off in a zipped pocket of my shorts. I don’t think they were necessary, but if you want to wear gloves, these took good care of my hands on the ropes and monkey bars.
6. Training: I was probably overtrained when it came to the obstacles, and undertrained when it came to the distance. Do a lot more running if you are training for this, since it is primarily a race. I think a person could do this course with little training other than long-distance running since you can get help on most of the harder obstacles. No one, however, can help you run.
7. Toughest Event on the Planet? Probably not. The World’s Toughest Mudder might be. But it is great marketing for an unforgettable experience. So get some friends and go for it!
And now we come to the last three miles of the Tough Mudder! The race organizers definitely saved the best obstacles for last, and I have no complaints about any of the final five challenges of the course. Well, maybe one or two. 🙂
Directly after the rope bridge came the dreaded balance beam, Twinkle Toes (#21). Whereas in most cases I felt that the pictures I had seen made the obstacles look harder than they actually were, in this case, the pictures I had seen didn’t even come close to the difficulty of the obstacle. What I had seen was something like this:
What I got was this:
That’s right, a long and high balance beam suspended at least 10 ft. over water. On top of this, you weren’t allowed to walk the beam alone. By the time you got on, there were 1-2 on the obstacle ahead of you, and if they shook, you shook. If they fell, you had a hard time not falling in yourself. I didn’t make it very far, and I’d like to blame it on someone ahead of me shaking the beam, but who knows if I would have made it. I do have to say that of the 50+ people that I watched trying to traverse this obstacle, only one made it across. We cheered for him. This was the only obstacle that we didn’t complete.
We swam across the water, climbed out the other side and then ran for about 400 meters until we came to ANOTHER water obstacle, and the worst one at that. Dry Wood (#22) meant having to pick up a log and carry it into the lake, going a good distance out to the middle of the lake and then back to shore. I think the idea was to keep the log dry, but a lot of people used it as a flotation device. The water was stinky and nasty, filled with algae and various other forms of swamp life that covered your body when you came out. But you couldn’t complain, because it’s Tough Mudder, and they can make you swim in whatever they want. It took at least 15 minutes to complete, and was pretty draining, especially if you picked up a big log.
It was a grueling mile and a half before we got to the Mystery Obstacle (#23), which looked like another simple water obstacle, walking up to your waist. The difference is that they had dug several holes at various points along the way, meaning that every few steps, the bottom would drop out and you would go up to your neck or deeper. A cool idea, and at that point I was just happy not to be running anymore.
My muscles were extremely tired as I neared the Chernobyl Jacuzzi (#24). This was a big pool of multi-colored water. You had to jump in the water, submerge and swim underneath a barrier to get to the other side. They chilled the water, so it was like jumping into a slushy. This was the coldest water I’ve jumped into outside of a lake in Siberia. (Pretty impressive.) Coming out of the water was a visceral experience. It made you feel alive, like getting baptized again. As soon as I emerged from the water, I let out a primal whoop. It was strangely rejuvenating, an ice bath of sorts to my cold muscles. One obstacle to go…
Probably the obstacle that gets the most hype is the last one, Electroshock Therapy (#25). It involves running through an wooden structure with live electric wires suspended from the top. The wires carry as much as 10,000 volts. After watching videos of this on YouTube, I thought that it would mainly be a mental exercise and the electricity wouldn’t hurt that badly. It was just having the guts to run in there.
We stopped to watch a bigger guy and a petite woman run through there. Oddly enough, the big guy got knocked down while the woman made it through unscathed. I thought to myself, if she can do it, so can I! At first, it felt like static electricity, no big deal. But at the end a few wires converged on my chest, delivering an incredible shock. It was an involuntary muscle response – I went down.
This isn’t me, but this is basically what happened to me. I did a somersault in the mud, popped up, high fived Dave and we finished the race!
What was it like to be electrocuted with 10,000 volts? It was epic. It didn’t hurt, it was just… a shock. I know, I know, lame. But they call it a shock for a reason.
Next: Final Thoughts on the Mudder
After the “Walk the Plank” obstacle, in my mind, I was running downhill. I felt little anxiety about the remaining obstacles, and so the greatest challenge would be to keep running until the end.
After taking a short water break and eating(?) some energy gel, we ran for about half a mile before reaching the next obstacle, Spider’s Web (#15). This was basically a 10 foot cargo net built into a hill. This was a ridiculously easy obstacle, since the hill gave the net all kinds of stability that cargo nets don’t always have. Plus, there was no need to climb down the other side.
That led to one of the longest runs of the course, and at this point the distance was really starting to get to me. I was pushing the upper limit of the furthest I had run (6 miles) and with some of the adrenaline gone after the Plank obstacle, it became about grinding it out on the run.
We came to another set of Berlin Walls (#16) which I have written about, then after another short run came to Greased Lightning (#17). This was not so much of an obstacle as a giant slip and slide down a hill. So much fun! This was one of the highlights and a great pick-me-up from the long runs.
After another run, we came to the Firewalker (#18) which was a 25 meter winding run through blazing kerosene soaked hay bales. At first, I thought of it more emblematic of the Tough Mudder than as an obstacle, but it was actually pretty cool. The air was really thick and smoky amidst the flames, meaning that when you came out of the obstacle, the fresh air hit you like, well, a breath of fresh air.
Immediately after the Firewalker came a obstacle called Everest (#19), which was a huge slippery quarter pipe. You had to run up the pipe and grab the top to pull yourself up. If you couldn’t, there were plenty of helping hands at the top to grab you and help you up. My goal was to run straight up the ramp, which I did.
Just around the corner was the 20th obstacle, Ball Shrinker. This was a rope hanging low over the water. You had to hang from the rope and pull yourself along, hand-over-hand. My original goal was to put my feet up rather than letting them rest in the water, but the ropes were burning my ankles. This obstacle was actually long enough to make your grip strength pretty tired by the end, but it was pretty fun to pull yourself across the surface of the water.
As a whole, I remember this section of the race more for how much the runs hurt than how difficult the obstacles were. When we finished the 20th obstacle, we hit the 7 mile marker, meaning the rest of the race would be a 5k…. with some crazy obstacles mixed in.
Next: Electrocution and The End!
As a whole, obstacles 11-14 were on the weak side. But one obstacle was potentially one of the most psychologically difficult of the course.
The eleventh obstacle was called The Log Bog Jog (#11). It is supposed to be a run through the woods while climbing and jumping over fallen logs. It was about as difficult as climbing over hay bales earlier in the course (an unmarked obstacle). On top of this, they were pipes and it wasn’t in the woods. So it should have been called the Pipe Crawl Over and Under. It took very little time and athleticism to pass.
After rounding a corner, we came to The Shake and Bake (#12). The idea behind this is that you go through a muddy pool of water and then crawl through the sand, effectively coating you in bread crumbs to bake in the hot sun. The idea sounded awesome, but the reality fell short of it. There was nothing to force you to crawl through the sand, only a low cargo net that could be easily surpassed like the previous Devil’s Beard Obstacle.
It seems TM intentionally makes some of the obstacles very easy and others more difficult. The more difficult obstacles tend to make for traffic jams, but it feels truly epic to pass them. The easy obstacles are added in to up the obstacle count, and you feel a little annoyed when you pass them because they were so easy.
There was a long run before the 13th Obstacle, Walk the Plank. This was the obstacle that I had been dreading the most. I have a thing about jumping into water that I can’t see through. Part of it is fear of losing my contacts and being blind the rest of the way, part of it is fear of the unknown depth of the water, part of it is fear of drowning (though I’m a decent swimmer). Something about jumping off a high platform into the water just freaked me out.
As we climbed the wooden ramp, I was surprised not to be feeling more apprehensive. The lady in front of me freaked out and tried to go back down, but everyone encouraged her until she jumped in. It was my turn, and I was thinking, “let’s just do it.” It all happened so fast, it’s like I didn’t have time to be afraid. I took a flying leap, went under and quickly resurfaced. Both contacts were safe, though I lost my headband in the process (I would get another one later).
Immediately after the jump, you had to swim across the pond to the other side. Making this more difficult was the next obstacle, Underwater Tunnels (#14), which involved bobbing underneath three rows of plastic barrels that were on the surface of the water. For this I used my goggles and got through it fine, climbing triumphantly out of the water on the other side.
There was a water station when we climbed out, so Dave and I took a break to drink some water and eat our energy gel packets. For us, this was the halfway point of the race. We were feeling great!
(Next: Longer Runs, Mt. Everest and Fire!)
All along the race path there were signs giving us encouraging messages like:
“Remember You Signed a Death Waiver.”
“Beware of Velociraptor Attack.”
“Warrior Dash Finish Line. But you signed up for the Tough Mudder, so you’ve just begun.”
Here’s another good one:
One nice thing about heats being released every 20 minutes was that it gave you a sense of how long you were out on the course. We could hear the cheering and fanfare as the 1:00 and 1:20 heats left the starting line. So we knew that we were at about the 40 minute mark when we found ourselves working through obstacles 6-10. We had only run 3 miles!
The first obstacle that had a significant traffic jam was the Berlin Walls (#6). These were a series of 2 12-foot walls, where probably 100 people were waiting in line and helping each other over. Fortunately, it was a nice rest from the hills and didn’t take as long as you might imagine.
It was during this obstacle that my CrossFit training was most valuable. All of the box jumps, pull-ups and muscle-ups delivered a great sense of confidence as I approached the wall. I jumped, grabbed the top and muscle-upped my way up and over the wall. It felt amazing. (Although, I’m pretty sure that means that the wall wasn’t 12 feet. It was maybe 11 feet, but I shouldn’t have been able to grab the top if it was 12. If I could grab the top of a 12-foot wall, I would be able to dunk Vince Carter style instead of Candace Parker style) Still, I felt like a total beast when I vaulted over both walls unassisted.
After the walls we started to stand in line at a water station, but decided that it was taking too long and ran on ahead to the next obstacle: Devil’s Beard (#7). This was basically a large cargo net that you had to go under by passing the rungs of the net over your head. It was annoying, but not super challenging. My advice would be to treat it like monkey bars. Again, double the length and it would have been a lot harder.
The next obstacle was a very steep (albeit short) ascent called The Cliffhanger (#8). This looked much steeper and more difficult that it actually was. I think that this was because earlier groups had made the mud more compact, making it easier to get a foothold.
Up until this point, Dave and I had been able to stay on our feet. We were pretty clean, although I was sweating more than ever before. But the next obstacle gave us no option other than to get dirty: The Kiss of Mud (#9). Advertised as a mud crawl under barbed wire that was 8′ off the ground, I was a little disappointed to see that the barbed wire was more like 16′ off the ground. But they surprised me by putting jagged rocks under the mud! This made the crawl pretty painful, and it gave me some good scrapes on my knees. It also added about 5 pounds in mud that clung to my shorts after the crawl.
Fortunately, the crawl was followed by a downhill section of the course that ended at the tenth obstacle: Turd’s Nest (#10). This involved climbing out on a cargo net suspended between two platforms. It was pretty fun, but would have been impossible to get out of the net without a helping hand from Mudders who had themselves been pulled to safety.
(Next: two lame obstacles, then a leap of faith…)