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An obstacle course saved my fitness

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Have you ever thought about why you exercise? I always had half formed thoughts about losing weight and being able to eat whatever I liked because I exercised. Eye roll, slaps myself on forehead in exasperation. Then I did a Tough Mudder obstacle race and gained a new understanding of what I needed from my fitness.

Three years ago I was 20 kilograms heavier and while I exercised regularly, I didn’t pay much attention to what I ate. A group from my gym were doing the Tough Mudder in Sydney and, on a whim, I joined up. It was, hands down, one of the worst experiences of my entire life. And I spent six months living in Afghanistan right after 9/11.

The Tough Mudder was worse than being a young, western woman living in a Muslim country right after a massive western invasion. I’ll say it again. Tough. Mudder. Was. Worse. I struggled through almost every minute. I kept getting left behind by the group so spent the majority of the race on my own. I fell over too many times to count. And I cried during the mud mile because it was just never going to end.

The really weird thing was, whenever I told anyone about my experience, there was always a massive smile on my face. What I remember is that every time I fell over, a stranger helped me up. When I smashed myself on one of the obstacles and winded myself I opened my eyes to see five people crowded around me making sure I was okay. I remember the complete strangers who helped me through obstacles and the strangers I helped through obstacles. I also remember the sense of achievement I had when I actually finished the race because there were a lot of moments when I didn’t think I would. After that first race I vehemently denied any chance that I would ever do another obstacle race of any kind. But when the next one came along all it took was one person inquiring if I was thinking about doing it and I was in.

The thing about obstacle racing is that it’s kind of freeing. You know as soon as you start that you’re going to get wet and muddy. There’s no getting out of it. So you just get messy and it’s fantastic. Obstacle races are hands down the kind of fun you used to have when you were a kid. You get to play in the mud, run around wet and dirty and no one judges or tells you to clean up.

It’s also a good way to really test your fitness. Before my first Tough Mudder I thought I was pretty fit. I trained with a personal trainer once a week; I could smash out heavy weights in a pump class and push myself through an RPM class like a champ. But I discovered that I was actually just gym fit. I couldn’t hoist my own body weight over a wall. I wasn’t flexible enough to climb easily through a bunch of logs. It was a huge shock.

Obstacle races test how functional your fitness is and to my horror I discovered my fitness was seriously lacking. After that first Tough Mudder I realised that all the exercise I was doing wasn’t actually benefitting my body. So because of the Tough Mudder, I started my fitness journey. I learned to train instead of exercise. I worked out how to make the right choices when it came to food. I started losing weight. But most importantly, I kept doing obstacle races.

The Tough Mudder gave me an easy way to set progress goals and then achieve them. The obstacles presented an effective gauge of the progression of my fitness.

Each obstacle race tends to run the same, or similar, obstacles each time it’s put on. So I was able to test myself against obstacles I hadn’t been able to do the first time I attempted the race. With the Tough Mudder, my nemesis was Everest. It’s a quarter pipe covered in mud and grease that you need to sprint towards at full speed and hope that you have enough speed and strength to get you high enough up the pipe for your teammates to grab you and haul you up the rest of the way.

If you’re really special then you can sprint hard enough and get yourself to the top under your own steam. I haven’t gotten to that stage yet. But, I did improve significantly. The first time I attempted Everest I didn’t even get halfway up the pipe. I gave it two attempts and had to walk around. So embarrassing. But I worked on it and I could see the improvement during my third Tough Mudder. I very nearly got to the top under my own steam. I’ll nail it next time.

Every obstacle race has some version of the monkey bars. I used to be the monkey bar queen in primary school and I was pretty disappointed to find I’d completely lost all ability in this area upon achieving adulthood. But, I had a breakthrough a couple of weekends ago. After training for three years on this, targeting my weaknesses and working past a couple of shoulder injuries I competed in the recent Spartan Stadium Sprint. I hit the monkey bars, flirted with the guy in the Spiderman costume monitoring the obstacle, and then clambered across those bars like a (reasonably ungraceful) monkey. But I got across them.


At the end of the Tough Mudder 2013, where I started and too exhausted to do anything but stand there.


Another great thing about obstacle racing is the different styles. The Tough Mudder is a team challenge. There are some obstacles that you just can’t do without the help of others. Unless you are super-human, which I am not. But the camaraderie that you find on the course of a Tough Mudder is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

Every time I’ve done a Tough Mudder race, complete strangers have helped me, usually without my having to ask. You’re in the bottom of a ditch, stuck in mud that is creeping up the middle of your calves looking at the face of the ditch and wondering how on earth you are going to be able to haul yourself up something that is made of pure, slippery, slidey mud. Then a hand appears in front of your face. You grab it and suddenly you’re hauled up and out of the ditch like magic. You smile gratefully and say thank you but the person who helped you is simply helping a fellow member of the Tough Mudder tribe and there is no need for thanks.

It’s a beautiful thing.

The Spartan race, on the other hand, is completely different. This is my current obsession, probably because it is an individual challenge. The emphasis on teamwork is minimal and it’s more about testing yourself and your abilities against the challenges.

Each obstacle is designed to be difficult, but achievable by an individual, minimising the need to have the support of a team around you. It’s great to run with others to get moral support but you don’t need other people in order to complete the obstacles. This makes the race a personal challenge and I’ve found it hugely beneficial in testing and being able to see the achievements and improvements I’ve made in my overall fitness.


Loving the mud at the Tough Mudder in October 2013.


There has been an explosion of these kinds of races recently with the popularity increasing exponentially as they become a mainstream fitness activity. All I can say (keeping in mind my serious addiction that I will one day need to seek professional help for) is find a race you think looks like fun and appeals to you and throw yourself into it unreservedly. It will be the best thing you ever did for your fitness. Grab your friends and run it as a group. Stick together and support each other. Embrace the support you will get from your fellow racers. When you get to the end, no matter what race you choose, you’ve earned bragging rights, because completing any obstacle race is an achievement. Most of all, you’ll have fun and enjoy yourself!

I’ve now completed three Tough Mudders, the Tough Bloke Challenge, two Spartan races (with two to go in the next three months) and the Call of the Beast here in Canberra. After my first Tough Mudder I vowed never again. I did an additional two and am completely open to doing more. After my first Spartan race I vowed never again. I just did my second and am already signed up for two more. I believe it’s called ‘the trifecta’ in Spartan terms. The only obstacle race I have completed and adored the first time was Call of the Beast. Something to think about if you’re local, it’s a wonderful event and a great race to compete in with a little team of friends.

Want to give obstacle racing a go? Operation Blackhawk is coming up in late March and is set to be a fun event for all fitness levels and ages – not only is there a 7km ‘Battlefield Challenge’ with over 40 obstacles for adults, but there’s ‘Australia’s most epic kids obstacle mud run, the HerCanberra KiddyHawk!’

I think I’m well and truly addicted so if you want to give it a try and need someone to run with, give me a call. You know there’s a better than even chance that I’ll be in.

Here’s what you need to know…

The essentials

What: Operation Blackhawk
When: Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 March 2015
Where: Paintball Sports, Pialligo Avenue, Pialligo
How much: $67pp (until 1 March), $20 for kids

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