My Experience At The World’s Toughest MudderNovember 21, 2018
The guy who started this race isn’t the same guy who finished it. Races like this change you.
I went into this race with a bone to pick. Last year I had to drop out due to a case of hypothermia. Determined to get redemption, and completion, I approached the race differently; more prepared, and more determined. I had to get through the night and that meant not stopping, no matter what. I was coming off my best race season yet, with the fewest injuries I’ve ever had this late in the year. Aside from a bad wrist, hip, and shoulder, I was feeling pretty good and my spirits were up. Leading up to the race, so many people sent me encouraging messages, telling me they were cheering for me. It felt good having all these people believe in me. Believing in myself and feeling like I belong is something I’ve struggled with my whole life, so it felt good and was what I really needed going in. I kept those messages and the faces of those friends in my head throughout the race.
The race was in Fairburn, Georgia about 20 minutes from Atlanta. At first I figured it was going to be nice and warm, but the closer we got to the race date, the clearer it became that this was going to be a below zero (Celsius) race. As a Canadian, it isn’t so bad, except for the fact that you’re in and out of water, dealing with the wind, and it’s in the middle of the night. Oh yeah, and you’re out there for 24hrs. The sub-zero temperatures proved to be the biggest game changer, knocking people out of the race by the hundreds.
I travelled down to Georgia with a group from One Army, who also happen to be some of my best friends. There were 4 of us racing and 5 pitting, including: Michael Ma, Katie Hauck, Renee Abrenica, Christine Bennett, and Stacey Schell. My best bros Leo Vitelli, John Bartello and Tomasz Brzozowski were racing with me.
I had Elite contender status after a 3rd place and 50 mile finish from Michigan’s “Toughest”, so I had an orange bib and was able to start off in a sectioned area at the front. This was one of the coolest moments; sitting in the corral with all the athletes, it was so exciting, but I tried to keep a calm mind state. My friend, and Tough Mudder world champion, came by at the start of the race and told me, “you can do this Jesse, you got this”. It meant a lot to me, considering my ambitious goal of a podium finish. I needed and carried their belief in me throughout that race and constantly told myself “you’re doing this, you’re not stopping, you can do this, just never stop moving forward.”.
It was cold to start so I wore my 2mm Orca vest which got real hot real quick, so I ditched it after the first lap. After two laps with no obstacles to spread the field, they started opening up with the dreaded Mud Mile first. There we trudged through multiple mud ditches filled with deep water that seemed to pull you down. Here you definitely needed to help each other out. The water was cold but coming out of it was even colder. The cold air and wind felt like it was piercing my skin and I thought: “oh crap, you’re in trouble already”. I kept moving and got to my pit shivering. There Mike and Renee helped me put my vest and windbreaker on (now I know to start with the windbreaker). I put the pedal to the metal to bring on some warmth, and after about 30 minutes I felt really good and established a nice flow.
All the obstacles had opened up by now, except Funky Monkey, Stacks at Midnight (40’ jump), and the Electroshock Lane. The most challenging grip obstacle was “The Gauntlet” which was a ring swing to rope swing, then you had to scale across hands only, and traverse a piece of wood to pegs and door knobs, then back to a wood traverse, then finish with a steep ninja ramp. To beat the ramp I had to scale across, pushing my hands into one side and feet into other—that’s something my wrist didn’t love. After all that there was the Leap of Faith, a significant gap you had to leap across and catch yourself with your hands on a vertical cargo net. I got both those obstacles every time besides one lap each. Later on, the tape had started to come off the door knobs which made it extremely difficult.
My favourite obstacle was “Twin Peaks”, where you lower yourself down a ramp holding a rope and then attempt to cross the gap and pull yourself up a ramp with a rope on the other side, with water spraying you the whole time. Right now I’m recalling 10 water obstacles, which definitely cause the most concern due to the colder and colder temperatures. The first half of the race I was fueling with my friend Catherine’s special “Warrior banana bread” (@Tailwind). I also had Brix maple syrup gels and baby food packed in my Salomon belt for the halfway lap point. My PB and J sandwich on my smuggled in Wonder Bread didn’t work out and was hard to swallow.
At some point Funky Monkey opened up, which is an inverted monkey bar across to 3 spinning wheels and a long traverse wall over water. I got it the first three times but once it was wet and my hands were cold it became virtually impossible. Midnight was approaching, and this is where I made my biggest mistake. Stacks, the dreaded 40’ jump into cold water, opened at midnight and I calculated that if I could finish the current lap by 11:45pm I could get to Stacks before it opened and skip it one more time. It was funny racing to get there with a lot of people trying to avoid it even just one less time, there was about 20 of us hammering it. I got to it right at 11:59 and passed it before it opened. This was the mistake: I worked too hard and after I passed it I tried to catch my breath by power walking for a while. When I went to run again the pain in my knees and shins was amplified. I told myself “okay power walk then jog, alternating flag to flag”.
It felt like I had a good rhythm going but it was getting really cold. Ice was forming on all the obstacles; the metal was stinging my hands, but I still told myself “you’re never stopping so deal with it”. It was a pretty epic scene in the middle of the night. The steam was coming off all the water which gave it an eerie feeling. The grass was white from frost, the vapour coming off my own breath was so thick that it was actually obstructing my view of the ground. Fewer people are out on the course at this time so you’re alone a lot. It came time to do “Stacks”, and I had the thought to skip it and take the 1km penalty loop, but I was like don’t be a wuss, you have to do it the first time. The climb up to the 40’ jump was harder than expected. I was toasted by the time I got to the top and needed a minute to catch my breath. Now, a 40’ jump would normally not scare me the least bit, but in the middle of the night, in freezing cold, and into what looked like a small man-made hole, it can intimidate you a bit. It was funny, being an elite contender people let you to the front. So when I climbed up they said “Elite” and let me go, but I was so toasted from climbing up and said, ”don’t worry, I need a minute, I need to be able to swim myself out”. I kept my head straight and walked to the end of the plank. I counted down from 3 and looked down to the water and jumped. It was a 3s free fall and I sunk down to what felt pretty deep. The jump wasn’t bad, it’s the swim out and being wet again that sucks. I would use my Golden Carabiner the next lap which allowed me to bypass The Stacks and I would take the penalty lap another time between 4am and 5am when I was trying to limit getting wet as much as possible.
I’m not sure what time it was, but the continuous hours of being up and running was taking a toll on me. The uphills felt like they were getting longer and steeper. The downhills were frying my knees and ankles more and more. I was very cold, my hands were swelled up to twice their normal size, which was freaking me out a bit. I knew my feet were bad but I was blocking it out. What kept me going was knowing my pit crew was there for me. I was thinking about their faces and the warm food and tea standing by.
I have to give a special shout out to my best friends Michael Ma, Katie Hauck, and Renee Abrenica, who were out there the entire 24 hrs waiting for me at the pit, ready every single time. Katie always had my “Time for War Tea” made custom by my friend April Cockshutt (Zen & Tonic), Mikey and Renee were there and knew what I needed and had everything ready, with their freezing cold fingers they helped me with my muddy equipment. During the start of one lap the laces in my Salomons got sawed off so I ran the lap with my shoe falling off and when I came into the pit we had such a hard time getting a different shoe on because my foot was so swollen, that once we got it on we weren’t even going to try the other one. I completed the race wearing two different shoes.
Still sitting in 3rd place, I was just praying for the sun to start coming out, but it was taking forever and I was getting really frustrated. Still, I tried to stay positive. I found cheering people on and saying “hi” helped, so I selfishly tried to keep doing that. It started to get light out, but it was still extremely cold. People didn’t seem to know what place athletes stood. At one point, people told me I was in 2nd, at many points people told me 4th was gaining on me, and the announcer even said “4th place has just overcome 3rd”! I was disappointed, but just said “regardless I’m going to keep moving and keep doing the absolute best I can”. However, Mike came running up the hill beside me, which he often did, and told me it was a mistake and I had a decent lead on 4th. I resorted to a power hike mostly and when I could I would run for a flag or two. My knees and ankles throbbed to the point that I had to go backwards down all the hills. “Never stop fighting, Jesse”, I told myself, thinking about all the One Army Members who come to the gym and fight their hearts out. I kept pushing. I started thinking: I don’t really mind where I place, I just wanted to keep going to the end. I came in from a lap in really rough shape, exhausted, in pain, and my pit was there talking to me and they seemed to be concerned. I made the decision that I had one more lap in me and we’d hope that it was enough to lock in 3rd place. We were trying to do the math and it looked good but not 100%. Surely I had to do this lap, so I sucked it up and made the march up that first hill which seemed a mile long by this point. For a little while I was running with another bro Kris Mendoza, the soon-to-be winner who was a lap ahead of me. It was a good buzz as we exchanged encouragement before he took off. My goal for next year is to still be moving like him at that point of the race.
I worked my way through the course, eventually reaching the last Inverted wall, Berlin Wall, and then through the “Lumberjacks” 7 High log hurdles, which beat you up over and over again. I came up on the last obstacle, “Mudderhorn” (a 40’ high Cargo net), reverse walked down the last hill, and made an attempt to jog the rest of the way. I crossed the finish line of my 18th and final lap at 23:30:14, never stopping for 90 official WTM Miles without penalties (144 kms). I would find out not long after that one of my dreams came true: I sealed a 3rd place podium finish at a World Championship event.
Just like they were for the entire race, Mike, Katie, and Renee were there cheering for me. Aside from them, it was pretty anticlimactic since the organizers didn’t know the contender’s exact standings during the race. I gave it all I had, and it took it all. I think it was an emotional experience for all involved.
I was thinking about how it wasn’t that long ago, 10 or 20 years before this moment, I was an alcoholic, addicted to drugs, in and out of prison, pretty much a disappointment to everyone who cared about me. I had no hope, and spent nearly every day wishing there wasn’t going to be another day. And now I’m here, at a world class event, finishing 90 miles and getting on the podium. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to compete and run with such incredible athletes, and have amazing friends cheering for me at home, and even being right there waiting for me. I’m so happy to be able to make my brothers and Dad proud. I know my Mom is looking down smiling at me (thanks for keeping me warm Mom).
That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the worst physical pain I’ve ever endured, but now I know I can be better. So, I’ll be going back next year in search of that 100 miles and an even higher placing.
Don’t ever think you can’t do something, don’t ever think you can’t become better and better at anything and everything you do, never think you can’t change. You can change anything, from your heart, to your mind, to your body. You can accomplish more than you think you can.
Special shout outs to my bros Tomasz and Johnny B, who came into the race battling injuries and went as far as they could and even after they were done stayed in the frigid cold to cheer their teammates on. Christine Bennett who due to injury deferred her race until next year, but still came and pitted all of us and helped so much. And to my boy Leo who came out for his first WTM, and after suffering from the cold still came back out to cheer us on and be there at the end. Huge shout out to you guys and Michael Ma, Renee Abrenica, Katie Hauck, and Stacey Schell. We’re all brothers and sisters for life now. My family, friends, teammates who were tracking and watching from home thank you so much, I could not have done that without you. To you all, so much freaking love, respect, and appreciation.
Fun Stats and Info
– Coldest known temperature: -3 Celsius
– Obstacles completed: Approx 375
– Water Crossings: Approx 160
– Calories Consumed: Approx 9000
– Krispy Kreme Donuts Eaten – 10
– Vertical Gain: 10,800’
Other things I had in my pit were Pineapple, watermelon, oranges (hydrating fruits). Chewy Chips Ahoy, Pudding, baby food, Chewy Granola Bars, Lara bars, Noodle soup, Broth.
I wore 2XU tights and an O’neal Base Layer to start.
Next, came on my Orca 2mm Heatseeker Vest and a 1.5mm Tight. Next, came on a Under Armour Cold Gear Compression top and my 2mm Orca Swim/run Core Wetsuit. Cap, Hood, windbreaker, and 2mm gloves were all from MEC.
By Jesse Bruce