How To Run An Obstacle Race

I’ve done quite a few obstacle races at this point in time (including a GORUCK Challenge, which is a whole other monstrosity of a challenge).

They’re one of the best ways to break into running, or fitness in general, if you need a good way to get out of the house and have fun with some friends and you’re not quite ready for a marathon (or ultra) yet.

Obstacle Race

However, a couple weeks ago I ran my first Tough Mudder.

It’s billed as “probably the toughest event on the planet”, so, naturally, I had to try it.

I showed up at the race parking area, which I assumed was next door to the race. Not the case. Apparently the race was held in another town, 40 minutes away!

Uh oh.

I thought I had given myself plenty of time by showing up 20 minutes prior to my wave start, but now I was going to be leaving the parking lot right about the same time as my wave would be setting off from the starting line. As a result, I showed up to the race about 30 minutes after the last wave had left.

I was 95% certain that I wasn’t going to be allowed to run, but I decided I had invested enough time getting there (a 1 hour drive and a 40 minute bus ride) that I might as well try, and see who might stop me.

As it turned out, I got my race bib anyways and was told to “take my chance” at the start line.

I hurdled a wall to get into the start area and tried to sprint past the starters before they could catch me. They were pretty cool about it, but yelled that I had a “a while” to catch up with the last group. I later found out that “a while” meant 20-40 minutes. Awesome.

Well, nowhere to go but up.

“Not finishing last” became my rally cry as I ran by myself for the first couple of miles, hoping to catch a glimpse of the people in front of me.

If you’re thinking about running a Tough Mudder, or another obstacle race, in order to knock it off your impossible list, here’s a little bit about what happened during my race, and a few tips that might help you.

How To Run An Obstacle Race

Show Up

I’ve done about a half-dozen mud races at this point. I’ve had DOZENS of people tell me they were either

  • going to train really hard for the race, or

  • going to do it no matter what.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people have no problem SAYING what they want to do, but when it comes to actually doing it, they don’t follow through.

If you want to run an obstacle race, you can’t just say it. Heck, you can’t even just pay the money and pick up the t-shirt.

You have to show up. You have to do it.

Crazy, huh? But this is where 80% of people screw it up.

I wasn’t even 100% sure that I was going to be able to run the race, but I showed up and tried anyways. No one stopped me.

Face The Obstacles

If you stand and hesitate, you’re screwed. Over the course of the race, my motto became momentum.

Rings are way harder if you stop in between in each ring. Monkey bars are way harder if you stop on each bar. Crawling under electric wires is way harder if you try and focus on not getting shocked by each individual one, rather than just going for it and trying to slide under them all and get it over with.

The same goes for the fire walks, the ice baths, the mud pits you have to hurdle and the plank you have to jump.

If you try to inch your way in, it sucks and you’ll probably fail.

If you go for it, it might still suck, but you actually have a small shot at succeeding.

The obstacle is your friend. Don’t be afraid of it.

(This has way more to do with life than you want to admit.)

Accept The Pain

The week prior, I had bruised the entire left side of my leg after crashing my bike during a 100 miler, so climbing up some of the obstacles hurt.

Artic Enema was effing cold (though, luckily, I’ve become somewhat accustomed to the cold by taking cold showers).

There were a few obstacles which electrically shocked you (and it’s not just a baby shock either).

There’s pain in the obstacle races. If you don’t want to experience some sort of discomfort, stop reading and start watching Honey Boo Boo or the Maury show to feel better about your life.

If you want to stretch yourself though, there will be pain.

Lean into it. Expect it. Welcome it.

It’s going to hurt either way. You don’t have to make yourself suffer though. It won’t hurt as bad as you think it will, I promise.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” – Haruki Murakami

Just Run

I saw a lot of people walking in between obstacles. Obviously, you don’t have to sprint the entire thing and not everyone is prepared for it, but some of the obstacles had a mile or more in between them.

That’s not to say that you have to do wind sprints or race the other competitors, but even jogging can get you closer to where you want to go much, much faster.

Fast might not seem like the goal, but when you’re on the back half of the event, the mental difference in someone being 50% of the way done and someone being 75% of the way done is tremendous.

Sometimes, if you start late (like me), there will be no one around. Instead of whining to yourself, make a game of how many people you can catch and who you can meet along the way.

Hint: You won’t catch too many people by walking, so get running!

Forget About Being Ready

I almost didn’t run the race because I had almost convinced myself I wasn’t “ready”. I hadn’t done any training for it and I was a week off of a century ride.

I wasn’t ready.

Then I looked myself in the mirror, took a cold shower and punched myself in the face.

I’m not ready. I’m never ready.

Not being “ready” is a terrible reason not to do something.

Don’t Wait

At the end of Tough Mudder, there’s an obstacle called Electroshock Therapy.

Because I started so late, I almost never ran into lines at the obstacles (this could almost count as a “not-so-pro-tip”). I only ever had to wait for a maximum of one or two people.  However, at this obstacle, there was a line at least 20-25 deep.

And for good reason.

Electroshock Therapy is a space of about 30 yards filled with live wires waiting to shock you and get your face down in the mud, conveniently close to the finish lines so that spectators can gape in awe at your flailing body.

The line was getting deep and no one was going. The more people that waited, the more people became hesitant and the bigger the line grew.

At one point, the finish line announcer just yelled, “I need a runner!” I was ticked (I’d had already had my face put in the mud before, so I knew these things didn’t just tickle), but I wasn’t going to back out at that point, so I ran around around the growing line & hurdled the first hay barrier and began to leap over the second when I found myself in the mud, too shocked (literally) to understand what had happened.

I jumped back up and lunged over the third hay bale, got zapped on the way up, and landed on my hands and knees outside of the Electroshock Therapy area.

It wasn’t pretty, but I was done. I could have sat back and analyzed various routes to plan out which one would have the lowest chance of making me look like an idiot, but, eventually, one way or another, I was going to get shocked.

Everyone gets shocked.

Putting it off just means you have to choose from the leftover finish line beer.

Do It Anyways

There will be obstacles. There will be pain. There will be long distances where no one is around. You won’t feel ready. You’ll want to procrastinate.

Do it anyways. It’s always worth it.

(And yes, this has as much to do with life as it does an obstacle course).

Now go out and sign up for an obstacle race.


Overall Thoughts on Chicago Tough Mudder 2013

Honestly, not that tough. In the Midwest, we suffer from “everything-is-flat-itis”, so the course was a lot of out-and-backs through some fields with a bunch of obstacles put together. The toughest obstacles were the electric shock ones, but those honestly seemed to be trying too hard to be “tough” when everything else wasn’t really that crazy. Just my opinion :).

photo credit: Sherwin Huang

*Random business idea for fledging photographers: I don’t have any good non-proof photos since Tough Mudder charges a hilarious $75 for approximately 5 photos (give or take). Find a upcoming mud run race – charge a flat $20 on top of the entrance fee (at registration) for all inclusive, digital-only photos of you taken during the race, and slowly reshape race photography. It’s hilariously expensive (and honestly relatively poor photos for what you pay).

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  1. says

    I have never even heard of of a Tough Mudder before you started talking about it. You walking your talk has never ceased to amaze me Joel.

    Standing and hesitating reminds me of lifting weights. In the past, whenever I feel tired in the middle of repetitions, I hesitate. And that small moment of hesitation defines whether or not I’m going to be able to finish the set.

    You just gotta gut it out. Because you know you’re gonna do it anyway, so why hesitate?

    Joel, the one thing I noticed about your posts is that you don’t put an “engagement-building question” at the end. You just tell us to go out there and do it. I just really like that. Thanks

  2. says

    Just thought I’d share how one of my best friends, a paraplegic, did the Tough Mudder on June 1st. He got his help when needed but his motto of Determination Over Impossible earned him a headband. Check out this video they captured of him climbing the half pipe with the help of his team: It’s inspiring to say the least. Congrats to you on finishing the race.

  3. says

    Yay! I ran my first Tough Mudder just two weeks ago too (8th June) but over here in London. It was awesome…and thanks to you I took a few cold showers leading up to it too. It’s all mind over matter- and those cold showers really helped mentally set the pace for me!

  4. says

    Good job on the Tough Mudder. I’ve never run one, but some of my marathon and ultra marathon friends have and they had similar feelings that you did – not that tough. Running from obstacle to obstacle isn’t that bad if you run regularly – or even semi-regularly and if you’re in decent shape you can more than handle the obstacles.

    One thing they did say was that it was more fun to do it as a group and not really worry about getting done fast. It was more or less about being out there, getting dirty and having some fun.

  5. Matteo says

    I just ran (walked mostly) the Colorado Tough Mudder last weekend – brutal is the word that comes to mind. If Chicago was flat and easy, then mark your calendar for next year and join me and my buddy’s team. Colorado TM is at Beaver Creek Ski Resort – up and down the mountain, the elevation gain and loss was just incredible, on top of which you are starting around 7,000 feet above sea-level – that would be bad enough for most flatlanders (myself included – I flew in for the race). Open invite to join us next year in Colorado.

  6. says

    I ran my first Tough Mudder in February and the most difficult part of the race was the cold – both outside and in the lake. Next year’s goal? The Spartan Trifecta. Talk is cheap. We’ll see…

  7. says

    We sponsored a team for the April Tough Mudder in Las Vegas. Reading your description of the event brought back many memories.
    Although it is not as you say “the toughest event on the planet”, it is pretty challenging for most people and a good way to break out of the sit on your butt and do nothing this weekend challenge that most people seem satisfied with.
    Our team consisted of young and old, top shape and not so good shape, but I do think what Tough Mudder does best is what you do best. That is open peoples minds to the possibility that they can do more than they think themselves capable of.
    Here’s a link to our team story if it is okay to share it.

    Appreciate your willingness to take on another challenge.

    Adventure Insider

  8. says

    Oh my gosh- A GORUCK would be amazing but you are right – it is SO scary to take that step, make the commitment, and actually do it! I commend you! I hope that when the time comes I have the courage to commit! Great post!

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