I live in the middle of a concrete jungle. Picture downtown Chicago, and insert me right there. I live on the 15th floor of a 24-story condo building, and I walk a mile to work to my office on the 32nd floor of a 46-story building.
I am, by definition, a city girl.
Which totally and utterly sucks for training for these types of races.
I became painfully aware of this in my preparations to compete at World’s Toughest Mudder. While other racers were sharing their workouts of jumping into local rivers or lakes to test out their wetsuits, or running sprints up the nearby mountain, I tried to figure out how to run through downtown Chicago in a wetsuit without getting mistaken for an escaped mental patient, and how to jump into Lake Michigan in said wetsuit without getting arrested for “Unauthorized Activity in Water” (Chicago Municipal Code 10-36-185 and Chicago Park District Code Ch.VII B.4 B.1-2).
It wasn’t always this way. I’m a born and raised Oregonian (GO DUCKS), and grew up with the mountains an hour away and the beach an hour away. While I’ve been in Chicago for the past year and a half, I spent the previous four years in Seattle. City living, yes. But with stellar hikes and backpacking ventures within an hour or two drive. Weekends consisted of hiking or trail running, and lots and lots of dirt. And the mountains–I love running hills.
I miss the mountains. So I have to improvise. Part of my training and blogging experience is going to be an experiment in urban adventure/obstacle race training, and all the idiosyncrasies that go with it.
Part I: Hills
The closest thing I have to a hill in Chicago is: (a) the incline on a treadmill; (b) overpasses and parking garage ramps; or (c) stairs. Let it be known that I HATE the treadmill. I think the treadmill is the world’s worst torture device (and it seems to aggravate injuries). And overpasses and parking garage ramps can be, well, a death wish given the drivers in Chicago. But I do love stairs.*
I’ve learned that you do get funny looks on the giant stepmill at the gym with a 50lb pack on. Whatever. They just can’t handle my awesomeness. (Yeah, that’s right Mr. “I can’t touch my elbows” arms and chicken legs. I see you over there doing your bicep curls and flexing in the mirror, checking me out. Don’t hate me ’cause your undeveloped legs can’t handle this).
But even the stepmill bores me after awhile. So I’ve taken to running the stairs up to my 15th floor apartment. And carrying my groceries up from the parking garage. And doing sets of the 24-floors with my pack on. Walk to the top. Take the elevator down. Repeat. My doorman thinks I’m certifiably insane. I tell them I’m training for Everest. Next up, assuming I can get past security, the Sears Tower.
Dear Chicago: Can’t you have a hill? Just one hill that doesn’t consist of an overpass or a parking garage. I understand that I voluntarily moved to urban wasteland, but you’re killing me, smalls.
Part II will likely consist of adventures in urban wood chopping. I imagine carrying an axe around downtown Chicago chopping down park trees isn’t going to to go over too well.
*NB: I have been informed by my dear buddy Joel that stairs are not exactly the best substitute for hills because you aren’t working your calves consistently like you would on a hill. That’s why you see me go all ballerina and shit on those stepmills. Adapt and overcome.
While there were many different types of crazy at WTM, it quickly became apparent that many people underestimated the cold. Compression gear, whether CW-X or Under Armour, does wonders, but mostly only when it’s dry. When the 40 degree water hits (as it did in the second obstacle), all of those wetsuit-haters began to realize that they had made a critical tactical error. I was one of them. Given that it was a sunny, mid-40’s day, I didn’t plan to put on my wetsuit until after the first lap. Needless to say, the first lap was perhaps the coldest, and most miserable, that I was during the entire 24 hours. Once I was fully armored in layers of neoprene: socks, hood, wetsuit (and 2 wetsuits in the later laps), my core stayed toasty, even during the full submersions.
Of course everyone asks about chafing. Lube up, people, and you will be fine: Bodyglide, vaseline, buttpaste, diaper rash cream. All work wonders.
(2) Thou shall dry off completely between laps
That’s right. Strip your ass down and get nekkid. I know its cold, and I know you are wet, but as most outdoor survivalists tell you (of which I am not), when you are hypothermic, getting everything wet off is key. Bring towels–lots of towels. I went through about 6 just drying myself off between laps. Once naked, jump in your sleeping bag, conveniently warmed with handwarmers or MRE-heaters shaken and thrown in the bottom. I repeated this routine between every lap (save the last two–no time, which made the last lap miserable). Getting the core temp back to normal saved my sometimes-boney ass.
Yes, your wetsuit is going to be wetsuit (or sometimes, completely frozen solid. WTF?) when you reemerge. But through on some dry compression gear underneath, and get back out there to embrace the suck.
(3) Thou shall know the beauty of aid stations
Yeah yeah yeah. We all run road races where we are “too good” to stop at the aid stations. We learn to drink our water while running (it’s an art, really). But when you are going for 24 hours, pace is the key. And learning how to utilize what is out there on the course is just playing smart. By the final three laps, Joel (my partner-in-crime who will get a full introduction later) and I were stopping at almost every aide station and medical tent for one main reason: the hot water. Not to drink (though it’s helpful if you do that as well), but to warm the frozen phalanges. We figured out the best way to do so: pouring the hot water in cups, and basically dipping the fingers (this is assuming you are wearing neoprene gloves. If not, hello third degree burns…) until they regained feeling. For the feet, pour the hot water down into your neoprene socks.
It may have looked funny, but I came away with all my phalanges with little to no frostnip. Win!
(4) Thou shall learn how to climb tactical ladders
Yup, those dangly nylon bitches are actually quite simple if you know how to climb them: reverse grip (palms facing towards you), stepping up wrapping your legs around and hooking them into the rear of the ladder. Coming into WTM, I heard horror stories of the “Rope a Dope” at Tri-State. People stuck, ass over backwards, trying to get up the ladders.
Come WTM time, once again, I saw the same thing at both sets of tactical ladders. [begin rage] On the first lap, I waited for 15 minutes at the bottom of the Massive Turd waiting for some dickwad to pull himself up the ladder. And he sat, spinning and spinning helplessly. It kinda reminded me of a fly in a spider’s web. Except that this fly was giving me hypothermia from waiting for his ass to die. For the love of god, climb the effin ladder or get down so I can show you how its done [end rage].
(5) Thou shalt not underestimate the power of logrolling
At a certain point, an endurance race comes to choosing the past of least resistance: saving energy, and just getting through. While I have always been adamant about belly crawling through Kiss of Mud, Turd’s Nest, Shake n’ Bake, etc. But by the third lap, energy conservation became key. And my knees and hips were so mottled, belly crawling became an adventure in finding the one non-bruised spot.
Enter the power of the logroll.
You all know you did constantly when you a kid. I used to climb to the top of really steep hills (we had those in Oregon), and logroll down like it was a professional sport. So while it may not look as bad ass, logrolling under those barbed wires or over that turd’s nest is just plain sexy. I mean, smart. Next up: learning how to logroll uphill (damn you Kiss of Mud).
(6) Thou shalt not get wasted the night before
I did not. And I felt great the next day. Others, however, thought shots of everclear limoncello were a perfect carbo-loading opportunity (*cough Joel cough*). Not getting wasted also prevents you from making an ass of yourself in front of 50 of your newest friends and fellow racers. And biting women’s nipples. And dick-punching dudes you just met. Lesson: save the beer, tequila, and everclear shots for after the race. I mean, we are “athletes” after all, right?
(7) Thou shall get your ass into the water
Standing there, staring at it, isn’t going to make it go away or magically get warmer. It’s December. In Jersey. Normal people don’t get into freezing bodies of water at this time of year. And they definitely wouldn’t do so, voluntarily, repeatedly, over the course of 24 hours.
So I have two musings on this point.
First, to you people trying to walk around the outside of “Jesus Walk/Mud Mile?” Grow some balls and get into the water. This is your first obstacle, not your first attempt at Twinkle Toes on the embankment. You signed up for it, you knew it was going to be there, so get your ass into the water.
Second, the anticipation of the water was 10x worse than the water itself. I have to extend a congratulatory bitch-slap to TMHQ for strategically placing (most) of the full submersions at the end of the loop (I assume they did it strategically, but sometimes even the dunce gets an A). Running through those woods after the Massive Turd, knowing that 4 (potentially 5) submersions await you may be the worst mental torture out there. But, assuming you are wearing wetsuit (or two and a half), once you were in there, it really wasn’t THAT bad. Right? Sure, standing up on top of Walk the Plank at 4am when its 20 degrees out is a complete mind fuck, but that’s the lesson: you don’t stand up at the top of Walk the Plank. You get up there and jump like a Pointer Sister. That is, unless you agree to jump simultaneously with your race partner. And you do for the first two times and then he screws you on the last one by jumping without you. Thanks, Joel.
(8) Thou shall smile (and thank your volunteers)
You hate yourself. You’ve been doing this shit for 20 hours, and all you want is a hot shower and a bottle of tequila. Every three steps you are saying out loud “this is so effin retarded.” Every spectator is telling you that you are crazy (but then again, there are no spectators at 4am).
The only thing to do at that point is to realize the ridiculousness of it all, laugh, and smile. As cheesy as it is, smiling totally makes anything bearable. Oh, I have to crawl through water under live wires?? How fun! Oh, you want me to get up this 12 ft wall alone? Not a problem! You mean I get to jump off this 25 ft platform in the middle of the night into a 40-degree lake? HELL YES.
Along the same line, you can never be too grateful for your volunteers. As previously mentioned, at 4am, there are no spectators. There is no one cheering you on except for those volunteers at aid stations and certain obstacles. And if you smile, and thank them a lot, they may do things for you. Like let you eat bananas out of their hands. Or stick energy chews in your frozen mouth. Or tie your shoes when you can’t feel your fingers. Or offer you wine from their tent (did not take that one up). Or talk to you for the entire length of the Mud Mile/Jesus Walk (thanks Fuzz!). Thank you volunteers. I almost felt that you had it worse having to stand around in the cold during the middle of the night. At least we were moving.
(9) Thou shalt not stop for bathroom breaks
Truth: There is nothing better than peeing in a wetsuit. Especially when it’s cold. Before WTM, there was a lot of naysaying about wetsuits: chafing, dehydration, etc. But despite wearing 13mm of neoprene at one point, I never found myself remotely close to dehydration. I attribute this to the fact that I was guzzling water at every chance, not because I was thirsty, but solely so I had more fluid to pee in my wetsuit, warming myself up.
You got that right, I’m the classiest lady that you’ll find around here. Any takers, boys?
(NB: I have heard that you are not a real man until you shit in your wetsuit. I don’t think I want to be a real man)
(10) Thou shalt never travel alone.
Scene: 8pm on Saturday night. My tent. I had just finished my second lap, and was huddling in my sleeping bag with MRE heaters at my feet, trying to get up the courage to get back out there again. It was cold. And miserable. And I was alone. WTM had set up the pit areas in a line about a mile long, and, while I had met dozens of fellow racers the night before, I had no idea where their tents were or if they were even in them. I had ran the first two laps on my own, not sticking with any particular person. While this was tolerable for the first lap due to the number of people out there, the second lap was only bearable thanks to the amazing Tom Keller that followed me, taking pictures, and encouraging me every step of the way.
But I was lonely, cold, and a bit depressed. My wetsuit and my shoes had frozen solid from being outside my tent for a half hour. And I was scared at the prospect of getting back out there for more laps. By myself.
Suddenly, I hear a familiar voice from outside my tent: “Amelia?” The tent unzips and Joel’s head pokes through, wearing his infamous “I’m Joel” hat: “You ready to head back out there?” My body told me to stay snuggled up and warm in my tent, but I knew I was in this to compete. Hell yes, I’m ready to go back out there.*
And so began the journey of Amelia and Joel. Over the course of the next 14 hours, we laughed, cursed, bitched, and probably learned more about each other than any two people (that had just really met the night before) should ever know. I used him as a stepstool over the Berlin Walls, and he let me break through the ice and find the holes in the Jesus Walk/Mud Mile. A reporter interviewed us as we were warming up in the wetsuit tent. Unbeknownest to this poor reporter, we were both peeing in our wetsuits** at the time. Sorry for the smell, bud. And for that odd puddle that formed around my feet.
Together, we took probably the least sexy shower known to mankind both covered in 10+mm of neoprene (see left). The shower was a desperate attempt to dethaw before the final lap, in which I also proceeded to vomit on him (note to self: the orange FRS is not my friend. Note to everyone else: apologies if you used that shower afterwards). And all we could do was laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was a true suck, and one that could only be embraced together.
As we embarked on our final lap at 6:30am, the sun was rising. Throughout the night, volunteers kept saying “things will get so much better once the sun comes up.” We dropped our headlamps and crossed our fingers. What those effers didn’t say, however, was that the wind was going to pick up tenfold. So began the lap of misery. Of me being certain that I was going to lose a few fingers to frostbite. Of us wrapping heat sheets around our gloves to try and block the wind. Of aide stations no longer being manned and out of hot water. Of dizziness and the inability to walk in a straight line. Of Joel picking up heatsheets along the way to wrap around me to attempt to control the uncontrollable shaking. Thanks, bud.
And we crossed the finish line together, holding hands. The asshole still somehow managed to finish 3 seconds ahead of me according to official time. Figures. I can’t describe the feeling at that moment. Did we actually just do that for 24 hours? Did we actually slog through sub-20 degree air temperatures and 40 degree water temps with the prize being…a kettlebell? Do I still have all my fingers and toes? Check, check and check. And I couldn’t have done it without you, Joel.
*Note that I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to go back out there in the dark, in the woods, with the drunk-ass dude that tried to bite my nipples the night before. I should have brought my rape whistle.
**Shout out also goes out to Turtle, Joel’s girlfriend, for letting me borrow her wetsuit which I proceeded to pee in about 20 times. I’ll buy you a new one.
"The timorous may stay at home." ~ Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 483 (N.Y. 1929)