One Tough Mudder of a challenge

ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. - Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Wall, an aviation maintenance technician at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., slides into a puddle of mud during the mud mile portion of the Tough Mudder event at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J, Nov. 20, 2010. The mud mile is one of 19 obstacles that participants faced on the course. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg.The stoplight switched to green and the sound of screeching tires and the roar of an accelerating monster truck echoed between the grandstands as it raced down the jet-black drag strip filling the air slowly with the smell of rubber and gasoline. Two smoke grenades are rolled down the track pinging against the Jersey barrier as they released a grey cloud into the clear morning sky. Behind the truck are 500 people, outfitted in typical running gear with race numbers pinned to their chests and written on their foreheads, sprinting after it. The silhouettes of the racers go in and out of sight as they pass through the smoke and make their way to the unknown course that awaits them.

This is the start of the Tough Mudder event held at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., on Nov. 20, 2010. In this pack of extreme competitors is Lt. Cmdr. Steve McCullough, a helicopter pilot and assistant facilities engineering department head at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J.

Tough Mudder is an outdoor obstacle course event that is held at venues all over the United States. This particular one is just over 12 miles in length and consists of 19 obstacles. It is their largest one to date.

McCullough heard about the Tough Mudder while preparing for another event.

“I first heard about the event while I was training for a triathlon,” said McCullough.

In June of 2010, McCullough competed in the Assateague Assault Triathlon on Assateague Island State Park in Berlin, Md. It was his first triathlon and the Tough Mudder was only his second endurance event.

He says the two events were structured differently.

“You knew exactly what you were going to get with the triathlon,” said McCullough. “With the Tough Mudder you weren’t really sure what the next obstacle was going to be.”

This change in structure changes the mentality of the competitors.

“During the triathlon I just wanted to beat the person in front of me,” said McCullough. “During the mudder, we were more just keeping each other going rather than racing against anybody.”

The team McCullough ran the Tough Mudder with was named First Light Search. It was comprised of six others, four members of the air station, the brother of one of the members and one member of Sector Field Office Atlantic City.

For some members in the team the Tough Mudder is just one more check on a list of various endurance events and for others it was their first time ever competing in one.

Lt. Russell Merrick, a helicopter pilot and projects officer at the air station, has competed in marathons and biathlons all over the country ranging from New Jersey, Michigan and California.

“I’ve also done a couple of centuries, which are 100-mile bike rides,” said Merrick.

Of those centuries, the one that sticks out in his mind is the Tour of the Unknown Coast, a 100-mile loop course that starts and ends in Humboldt County, Calif. It takes riders over mountains and valleys in one of the world’s most challenging courses.

“I’ve also climbed Mount Shasta twice out in California,” Merrick adds.

With quite an exhaustive list of accomplishments, it was still hard for Merrick to know exactly what he was in for when he signed up for the Tough Mudder.

“It’s hard to prepare yourself to climb up muddy hills and scale monkey bars,” said Merrick. “It’s just something you don’t do every day.”

These unusual obstacles are something new to Merrick and what sets the Tough Mudder apart from other endurance events he has been in.

“Running through the mud and picking up a car tire and running around a racetrack and all the weird things that you would just never expect to do while running made it exciting,” said Merrick.

It also helped to separate the running portions.

“The obstacles broke up the monotony of the run,” said Merrick. “They’re what made it fun as opposed to just running, which can get boring.”

The excitement combined with the strange obstacles made the course unpredictable to the participants.

“Things that you wouldn’t expect to be hard like the monkey bars were,” said Merrick. “It burned when I was done.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Wall, an aviation maintenance technician at the air station, also was a member of team First Light Search. It was the first endurance race he has ever competed in and it challenged him more physically and mentally than he expected.

“It was harder than I assumed,” said Wall. “It wasn’t until I started doing it that I realized how hard it was.”

One of the hardest moments of the event for Wall was the water obstacle. It consisted of a free fall from a platform, a plunge into bone-chilling water and a 50-yard swim to the other side.

“The water felt like the coldest water I’d ever been in,” said Wall. “As soon as I got in I immediately wanted to turn around and go back.”

McCullough recalls the swim during the Tough Mudder and how it compared to the triathlon he was in.

“The water during the triathlon was 50 degrees and I had a wet suit on,” said McCullough. “In the Tough Mudder it was 40 degrees and I didn’t have one on. It was much different and that’s what made the Tough Mudder tough.”

To prepare for such a tough and physically demanding event each person had their own routine that started months in advance for some.

“I started going to the gym in March to prepare for the race in late November,” said Wall. “It didn’t matter if I was on leave, had the day off or if I was sick. I would always make time to go to the gym and I put that ahead of a lot of other things.”

Walls dedication to his workouts helped him improve his cardio which was the most important conditioning to have for the event.

“Above all else it was 12 miles with 19 obstacles so, I knew I needed good cardio,” said Wall. “That’s what I concentrated on first and foremost. Usually when you workout you do your cardio afterwards. I did the opposite and did my cardio first because I wanted to have the most energy for that.”

Walls workout routine consisted of alternating from various exercises.

“I would run for a couple of weeks and once that started to become easy I would do the elliptical,” said Wall. “From there I would move on to the bike and then I rotated it based off of that.”

Merrick added running on different surfaces to his workout to help prepare for the unconventional environment of the Tough Mudder.

“I ran on the beach,” said Merrick. “Normally I would run on the hard packed sand but, getting ready for the mud I would run in the loose sand just to get that extra work on my calves.”

Merrick credits his past experience in races to his ability to complete the Tough Mudder.

“I’ve been running for years,” said Merrick. “My background of running helped to make the event easier.”

McCullough also ran to prepare for the course, which was just shy of being a half marathon in length.

“I was running a lot and put some time in the pool,” said McCullough. “It prepared me for the race endurance wise.”

Other than the obvious physical toughness that is required to complete the course. Mental toughness is also needed.

“Just having the attitude that we are going to finish and let’s just get it done was the key,” said McCullough.

In order to finish the team members relied on each other to help get through some of the more difficult obstacles.

“You need people to get you over that big hill or to get you over that wall or get you across that big trail of monkey bars,” said Wall. “If you don’t have people encouraging you or physically helping you do this I definitely could not have done it.”

The encouragement of the team members to each other set the Tough Mudder apart as a team event as opposed to a triathlon or marathon, which is primarily an individual event.

“It was a good team building experience and an exercise in camaraderie,” McCullough said.

An experience made possible by coming together as a team to accomplish one goal.

“It was fun because the seven of us ran it as a team together,” said Merrick. “Some of the obstacles like the muddy hill there was just no way to do it by yourself.”

Two and a half hours after team First Light Search began the event, the mud-spackled team members crossed the finish line and were rewarded with complimentary protein shakes, bananas and thermal blankets, which resembled aluminum foil.

“There were no prizes for first, second or third place,” said McCullough. “It was just more a badge of honor for completing the race.”

A badge the team members can share with each other along with the bond they developed through this team building experience.

Their only trophies for the day were a pair of muddy sneakers.

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