Nerves turned my stomach inside out as I watched one obvious fitness freak after another fill the breakfast tables around me at the hotel restaurant Sunday morning. The start of the Tough Mudder was just a couple hours off and every time a seriously muscled guy sat down, I sunk deeper into an abyss of self-doubt.
A rapidly wrinkling mother of four on the cusp of 40, why did I ever think I could do this race?
"Give them hell this a.m.," my father wrote in an email that I saw on my iPhone as I tried not to throw up the scrambled eggs I just ate.
"I'm pissing myself with nerves and all the big burly military guys in the hotel lobby are intimidating me," I wrote back.
He replied quickly, simply.
"Just remember Mt. School: one step in front of the other."
It's a saying my Dad has been fond of ever since I can remember, one I've always thought applied to mountain climbing as well as life. It's a mantra I repeat often on desperate days when the children act like beasts and make me want to cower in the closet or run out the front door without looking back.
I slid the phone across the table to show Kent and smiled. It was all I needed: a calm, reassuring word from my father, a reminder to take one obstacle at a time, move doggedly from one moment to the next.
A steady slog up and down a mountain in snow and mud, through tunnels, over walls and rocks, into a frigid pond and through fiery hay bales sounds grim, doesn't it?
About three miles in, after the 15-foot plunge into the ice-cold water, the joints in my knees, hips and hands felt frozen in place. They never warmed until I peeled off my soaked clothes in the back of my father's borrowed Bronco more than four hours after we started the race.
But it was also a fat lot of fun. Take that jump off the tower: it was my favorite part of the day. I can still feel the moment I plummeted below the surface, so strange when you're fully clothed. I can hear the bubbles I blew, see the darkness behind the closed eyes I never opened, feel my feet kicking for the surface once it became clear I didn't touch bottom.
I followed the others swimming out of the water and took short, shallow breaths, my chest constricted by the cold.
"That was awesome!" I said the instant I touched firm ground, the insanity so exhilarating.
We laughed and wrapped space blankets over our shoulders, then ran to the next obstacle where a drill sergeant barked: "OVER HERE! THIS ROPE!" Not one to argue with a man in fatigues, I ran to the edge of the water, rolled to my back, grabbed the rope overhead and pulled myself across the pond.
This is how it went over 11-plus slippery, muddy miles. Three hours 41 minutes, by Kent's watch.
It's hard to describe why something so grueling can be such a ridiculously good time but clearly the level of absurdity encouraged by the event organizers - from the costumes to the obstacles themselves - helps. Teams raced in jailbird jumpsuits, superhero outfits, pink tutus and leisure suits. Two "mystery obstacles" involved eating a Habanero pepper and jumping into a red, ice-filled pit.
Warning signs placed along the course admonished:
"Remember you signed a death waiver."
"I do not whine - kids whine."
Because event organizers emphasize camaraderie over finish times, the spirit of teamwork is overwhelming. I watched my teammate Ernest...
touch his hand to the back of people trudging through muck and snow up black diamond ski runs - a small but profound show of support and encouragement. He and the guys on my team pushed me and others over wood walls, and Kent helped one woman struggling in the pond.
You're only as fast as the slowest person on your team and on Sunday, that was me. But my teammates, God love 'em, never made me feel like a slacker. After one especially long, seemingly endless run (mostly walk in my case) over wooded trails back to the top of the mountain, my teammate Michael...
(who bounded up the hills like a tireless mountain goat) handed me an energy bar.
I was too tired to eat it but the gesture felt like ten thousand blessings. It reminded me of the days after Esme was born, when she was so sick and her prospects uncertain that simple acts of kindness from friends felt like priceless gifts.
Kent tucked the bar in his pants and we took off for the mud pits, underwater tunnels and monkey bars, the last of which remains my greatest disappointment. Like my kids, I love the monkey bars and, of all the obstacles, I was most excited about "Funky Monkey."
Turns out, I sucked! I don't know if it was the cold in my joints or the exhaustion but I could barely clasp the first bar, let alone move to the second. I tried three different times before I finally put my feet over the mud pit, grabbed the bar, reached for the next and dropped like a rock.
On the upside: the pit was filled with straw which made it feel like a slow-motion walk through sludge.
Major props to Ernest who made it all the way across - up the first angled set, down the second. I'm guessing less than 5 percent of the 10,000 people who did the event finished that obstacle.
Sometime after we ran through smoke and flames but before the gauntlet of live electrical wires, I grabbed Kent's hand and thanked him for doing the challenge with me. For sticking by me when he easily could have run ahead. For laughing through it all.
We were climbing the mountain for the umpteenth time when we agreed, we're doing it again. Only six months until Tough Mudder Virginia. Go team!
(The third and fifth photos courtesy Tough Mudder. The others taken my me, Kent & Michael's wife. Hey, Liz! Wanna be on our team for Virginia?)