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Guest Writer Michael "Doc" Curi on Mud Runs.

POSTED February 06, 2019
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney


Insights From Mud Pits, Electrocution, Sunrises and Ice Baths

My first Obstacle Course Race (OCR) was May of 2011 up at Mount Snow. I somehow unearthed the Tough Mudder website and convinced a couple of my friends and my brother in law to trek up to Vermont to take on 11 miles of mountain, logs, slides, planks and yes, electricity.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Three hours, countless bruises, one (temporarily) lost brother in law and endless stories. I was hooked.  And so the adventure began, proving the Jimmy Buffet theorem that “if we weren’t all crazy we would go insane.”

Eminent MC Sean Corvelle asks at the beginning of each Tough Mudder, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”  This philosophic question made me think that it would be useful to frame my thoughts about OCRs with other (hopefully) penetrating questions.

When was the last time you felt deeply connected to a teammate- or a stranger?

Surprisingly, given the seeming difficulty and sheer absurdity of these kinds of events, the most enduring aspect is the community that is so deeply woven into the fabric of the overall experience.  I’ve always been an insanely and sometimes unhealthily competitive person, but it’s transformative to find yourself hip deep in mud helping total strangers ascend a mud slicked pit.  Why is this?  As adults, as parents, life pulls us far from the physical situations that are so wonderfully pervasive in youth, high school and college sports.  As much as Bruce Springsteen croons appropriately about “Glory Days,” the reasons those experiences mean such are numerous. The teamwork and camaraderie, the management of frustration and egos, the participation in an experience that is so much more than the individual because revisiting and relearning these lessons well beyond the years of youth is invigorating and inspiring.  Watching someone you’ve been training with for 6 months conquer a set of spinning monkey bars and the high five afterwards is worth so much to each of you. There is very tangible metric and experience that you now share with someone else.  Trust, compassion and grit move from the abstract to the real.  How cool is that!

When was the last time you seriously worked on yourself?

One of the major predictors of good mental health is connection to a community and as our understanding of this connectivity blossoms its importance grows.  Standing on the base of a mud-slicked half pipe as the base of a human ladder while peoples feet are climbing your legs, shoulders, arms and noses, that connection solidifies (as do the bruises, but hey, you all got to the top so we’re beyond caring about those).  What you do care about, and greatly, is getting everyone through this.  From high fives on far sides of walls to finish line hugs you share deeply with the other brave souls, the moments, both shared and personal, boost your mental fortitude.

Another major predictor of good mental health is physical activity.  Getting into shape is of course crucial, but this is significantly more than “I’ve got to get a bit more active.” As the goal morphs into something more like “this could actually be a bit dangerous” the focus, the perspective shifts gears.  This feels profound as daunt and trepidation coalesce to orient your body and mind into seeing yourself and the world as a place that you must prepare to withstand and then overcome.  Hence preparation for what is upcoming becomes paramount. (A useful mantra for just about everything else in your life). You may have to crawl, leap, climb, run, hop, balance, dodge, swing, flip, twist, hoist, haul, carry, swim, duck, lift and slide over the course.  Therefore the preparation entails versions of all of these.  This is a healthy variety of movements which keeps you learning and stretches your physical and mental capabilities.  And this is all before you get on the course.

Grip strength, core strength, leg strength and cardiovascular capacity are the four major physiologic parameters that predict longevity.  A lack of any or all four of those portends serious risk of poor health and even death.  They are also the four most useful and influential areas for a young athlete to cultivate. Improving those has a huge effect on making a good athlete much, much better.  And they are also the four major skills that are crucial in navigating an OCR.  Getting good at these four makes you a better human with a healthier are more productive life.  So if life is indeed an obstacle course, you now know exactly where to place your efforts.

When was the last time you intentionally set and accomplished an honest to goodness BIG goal?

Another insight found in OCR is the utility of the sufficiently large enough goal to have real meaning.  This works on both the front and back ends of the experience.  The preparation, when done with sufficient breadth, combines with the experience of crossing a finish line that represents significant accomplishment.

I always love watching the finish line of the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, seeing the faces on all the finishers as they see their dreams and efforts realized.  It’s not about finish line position, it’s about planting and growing and nurturing an idea and reaping the benefits when you harvest what you’ve sown.  It’s looking back on the road you just traveled (and not just on race day) and realizing just how far you came and what courage it took to overcome the challenges along the way.  This is really full of meaning and it’s also cool to do this with a whole host of other people and then go hose dirt out of each other’s ears.

When was the last time you intentionally saw the sunrise?

Two quick tales, extolling Mother Nature.

We had been running for over four hours, having started at midnight.  The forest illuminated only by the headlamps of the competitors, so we hadn’t really seen the course in anything other than ten-foot conical sections.  The silence wasn’t noticeable, at least until the frogs and the birds started their chirping and we realized just how quiet it had been before.  We were tired but were fiercely determined to complete the full eight hours the course was open (the goal was to see how many laps of a five mile course we could do in the allotted time). Chilly but not cold, the cool June night air had been pleasant to race in because we certainly weren’t going to overheat despite the physical exertion.  And the dark was comforting in the way that it kept us focused on the task at hand to just keep moving forward through the shrouded and veiled forest.  It wasn’t sudden, but in calm silence the dawn emerged to push back the darkness and wash over our bodies and our souls.  It wasn’t warm, not physically, but inviting.  As the light bloomed ahead of the sunrise itself, we soldiered forward toward our goal, one more obstacle, the night and the dark, surmounted. My teammate Cory said, “at least we don’t have to run in the $%^#ing dark anymore.”

My sister and I met in Austin to do a Tough Mudder in Texas Hill Country.  We were horseshoeing back and forth over the mesa on a big game ranch, pushing our bodies hard up and down the hard scrabble rocks and through the numerous walls and pits and challenges.  On the back side of the mesa, almost instantaneously exploded a herd of at least 50 antelope bounding across the course.  We were guests on their course, visitors sharing a magnificent playground.

Nature is all around us, parks and trails and forests, moon and stars- we too often exist on a plane separate from it.  It’s quite useful to find a way to reconnect- not just to appreciate, but to participate- the view is so much better.

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to be more than a little bit crazy?

If it is in fact true that a rut is nothing more than a grave with the ends kicked out, avoiding such entanglements is vital for instilling vibrancy in your life.  The boundaries of what we think are possible, doable, risky, and even sane derive mostly from liability lawyers, grandmothers and baby sitters.  Exploring these boundaries a bit often reveals that they are more pliable, stretchable or even surmountable.  (Do be careful though, Jeff Martone says if you are going to be stupid, you better be tough).

I keep in my head a list of the “Big Board of Dumb” workouts that I’ve done in preparation for OCRs.  These were done with a bit of a “here, hold this while I try to…” mentality.  These include a ruck march wearing 70 pound weight vest 6 miles up route 183 from Winsted to Torrington in 95 degree heat, donning wet suits and running and swimming around Highland Lake in early November, jumping in the Bantam River on Super Bowl Sunday and almost on the first day of fishing season (the fishermen definitely did not approve) and a midnight trek around Nepaug forest hauling weights up and down the hills.

Some of what I learned from this is that my friends are willing to go along with quite a bit, cold is only relative, wetness is temporary, and midnight starts are best done in groups. If anything, what separates these is that they are memorable because they were interesting and so far off the regular pattern of exercise (run, lift, etc.) that we were truly exploring ourselves. What we were capable of, how much we can endure, how much we can adapt to and what exactly craziness looks like.  I don’t think that we’re searching for the boundary. I’m not sure that if it exists such a boundary matters.  What does matter is that we are out there searching ourselves and each other and that may be what keeps us sane for all the other parts of our lives.

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