This Orange Headband Is My Orange Headband, or Relfections in a Muddy Eye

Tough-Mudder-2013-race-bib-No.-66304-writing

Some poor guy died. Hey, check out my awesome photos from the race!

I’ve waited a few days to write about my experience running the Tough Mudder last Saturday, both because I’ve had a busy week and because I didn’t — don’t — know how to address the fact that someone, a guy substantially younger than me named Avishek Sengupta, drowned during the event. Obviously, that’s a tragedy. I hope his family and friends will find some respite from their grief.

My teammates and I were all Mudder first-timers who regarded the race with intimidation and did our best to prepare for it. We joked with one another about signing the mandatory participant waiver, cheekily referred to as the DEATH WAIVER on the Tough Mudder website. But you don’t think much of it. Walk into any gym and they’ll probably make you sign something before they let you near a treadmill. And anyway you’re more likely to buy it in a car accident on your way to the race than you are while participating in it. Aren’t you?

The arduousness of the race is the Tough Mudder’s main selling point. It’s the Fight Club scenario. There are a lot white-collar shlubs like me, people of some means and privilege (I paid $161 to register) who sit staring at computers all day but would like to think of ourselves as physically hardy. Crossing a Tough Mudder finish line earns you bragging rights, plus a sporty orange headband and a free beer. (“You look like the bad guy in an 80s movie set at a ski resort,” my friend Liz told me when I showed up for a drinking session the day after the race in my hard-won headband. I regret nothing.)

The Walk the Plank obstacle, No. 4 of 22 in the Tough Mudder that took place last weekend on the grounds of Peacemaker National Training Center — a gun range in what I’ve seen variously referred to as Gerrardstown and Glengarry, WV — was closed when my team of four reached it a little after 1 p.m. on Saturday. Race volunteers waved us past, on to Obstacle 5, the Electric Eel. That one would seem to be more hazardous than Walk the Plank, which was simply a climb up a slanted wooden platform and a 13-foot jump into a pool of muddy water. (Video, if you’re curious.) The Electric Eel is an Army-crawl under electrified wires. Raise your head too high, high enough to avoid tasting mud, and you get zapped.

We spoke to a visibly upset fellow racer at the next water station who told us he believed someone had drowned at Walk the Plank.  The guy told us he’d seen a man jump in and not resurface. We were concerned, obviously, but we didn’t linger because no one seemed to have any more credible information at that stage and anyway, we were running the race at the time.

Two days later I would read that Sengupta, a 28-year-old fitness buff from Ellicot City, MD, had been taken off life support Sunday night after being carried off the race course on Saturday. The Virginia medical examiner’s office ruled Sengupta’s death an accidental drowning. None of the news reports I’ve read this week have offered a fuller explanation of how he died. Did he hit his head somehow? Did he pass out from the cold when he hit the water?

Walk the Plank was early in the course. My team didn’t start to have trouble keeping warm until much later. Is it possible that another jumper landed on top of Sengupta and knocked him unconscious? That seems like a detail that would’ve been reported. We just don’t know.

I do know that Obstacle No. 7 — the Arctic Enema — was the first time I’ve ever experienced the frightening sensation of feeling like I might pass out in frigid water. That’s a dumpster full of icy water that you jump into feet-first. You have to dip your head under a wood barrier that extends below the waterline, but you can’t see how deep it goes. That’s scary. What if you hit your head on the barrier?

After the first half of my team, Harley and Leslie, went in, the staffer manning the site made Antonio and me wait while he dumped more ice in, giving us an unwelcome extra moment to contemplate what we were about to do. Then he motioned for us to jump. I felt a terrible pressure in my skull as the water covered my head. Feeling around for the barrier, my flailing right arm swatted Antionio’s leg. He could easily have kicked me in the head by accident.

I surfaced too soon, on the near side of the barrier.

“Are you okay?” the staffer asked me.

“Yeah,” I lied.

“Well, you still have to go under,” he told me.

So I dipped my head a second time, limped through the dumpster and pulled myself out, each muscle in my arms attempting individually to contract itself into a fetal position. I wondered if that guy — who wasn’t wearing a wetsuit or any kind of protective gear — would’ve been capable of pulling my 196-lb. ass out of that icy water if I hadn’t come up.  I doubt it.

Bear in mind we were doing this race on an overcast day with a high temperature in the mid-50s and high wind. I deliberated whether to put a second shirt on from the time I got out of my car and felt how strong the wind was, right up until our heat was released about two hours later. I finally decided to don a longsleeve Under Armour “Heatgear” shirt under my shortsleeve Under Armour “Heatgear” shirt with inspirational Superman sigil. (Several Supermen were among the race’s superhero set, including one with a cape!) Even though everything I’d read from race veterans said fewer layers is better, because you’re going to be cold no matter what and more fibers just means it’ll take you longer to get dry. I saw three guys running the race in just their underwear briefs. Which was hilarious and badass.

I started shivering while we were waiting in a human traffic jam to complete Obstacle 18. That one was called Pirate’s Booty, a short swim followed by a climb up and over a high rope-net, which is a lot scarier when your muscles are all involuntarily shaking and screaming at you than it is when you’re fresh. The brief interval of sunshine we’d enjoyed earlier in the course had gone and would not return. Our clothes were soaked through. There was no cover from the wind, and we were waiting to complete our third consecutive water obstacle. I’d been doing jumping jacks and throwing punches in the air to keep warm, but that trick was no longer working.  I heard what sounded like someone moaning from very far away, and I realized it was me. I wouldn’t stop shaking until 20 minutes after we’d crossed the finish line, and I’d changed into a dry thermal shirt and a hoodie and wrapped myself in two blankets.

I was ravenous after the race. Harley, the all-star on our team who, unlike me, required no assistance scaling the 12-foot-high Berlin Walls (Obstacle 14) — though even he fell off the grease-slicked monkey bars (Funky Monkey, Obstacle 21) — wolfed down a hamburger and a bratwurst from the on-site food vendors. I was shaking too hard to eat, or to hold onto the plastic cup of beer I was handed at the finish line. There was no shelter from the wind anwywhere. I didn’t start to feel okay again until we were sitting on the school bus that would carry us back to the parking area, a 20-minute ride away.

I ate a burger and a plate of fries at the Martinsburg, WV Mall a while later. That mall has seen better days. Lots of its store-cubicles were vacant, and a lobby stand displayed a poster for the movie 21 Jump Street (“The only thing getting blown tonight is their cover”), coming March 2012. It was not the best burger I’ve ever tasted, but I have never appreciated a hamburger more.

Our race time? Three hours, 15 minutes. I’m hearing the toughest Mudders finished in under two, but we didn’t have a time targeted; we just wanted to stick together on the course and finish as a team. We ran the whole way, and we didn’t skip any obstacles (except Walk the Plank, which was closed). We probably lost a cumulative 45 minutes waiting in line at obstacles, which was the worst. We’d all rather be running than walking or standing around. We’re tough. We’re Mudders. We’ve got the headbands to prove it.

Here’re the photos. Click on any of them to see big versions with captions.

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