Taking the First Step Towards a New Obstacle: Tough Mudder 5K East London

‘Charm is a product of the unexpected.’

José Martí

The Tough Mudder 5K was never part of the plan. But, somewhere along the way, it emerged and proceeded to muscle its way into first place.

You know what? It turned out to be a doozy.

My relationship with Tough Mudder doesn’t begin here though. Back in 2014 I’d signed up for the Tough Mudder Half in Kettering but had decided to volunteer the day before. I did this for 2 reasons:

  1. Volunteering for a half-day shift meant that I would save quite a generous amount on the ticket prices. The shift bagged me an 80% saving on the ticket price meaning that rather than pay £120+ to take part, I would have paid <£30. Had I have volunteered to work an entire day, I would have been able to run for free.
  2. Working at the event also meant that I’d get to check out the course before running it, and generally get a good feel for the event. I’d meet fellow Mudders, connect with potential team mates and have a largely risk-free opportunity to evaluate my commitment to the actual run.

However, things didn’t go as planned and despite working the shift and betting thoroughly excited about taking part, a change in my schedule meant that I would not be able to run the course the following day. Damn.

So fast forward 4 years and I finally get round to running an event. Given as one of the aims of the year is to run a number of courses, the 5K proved to be an ideal opportunity to warm up into the season.

The interesting thing about the 5K is that, for Tough Mudder at least, it’s a new event. Whereas the events have, historically, been confined to a variety of 5 and 10 mile Challenge Courses alongside the Race Series (which, if a runner is good enough, can lead all the way to the World’s Toughest Mudder event) and, as the name would suggest, involve an awful lot of mud, the 5K is a little different.

Billed as ‘Tough Mudder’s cousin in the city’, the 5K is designed for city dwellers and, what’s more, there seems to be a real consideration of the what that really means. Public transport and easy access. So getting back across the city, riding the tube/bus and covered in dripping mud just wouldn’t work.

In fact, the first thing the FAQs state is: ‘You won’t be getting muddy though, so no need to worry about bringing spare clothes or towels’. As a bit of a clean freak, I liked this bit very much.

The Course

So, having seen the Half a few years ago I figured the set up would be pretty similar, and it was.

Despite waking up to a very damp London, I arrived at the Mudder Village a few hours later and found everywhere to have dried up considerably and sky a less intimidating shade of grey than it had been upon departure.

After spending an unexpectedly long time following the frustratingly sparse signs to the site, I proceeded through to Check-In where time stamped wrist bands were provided, along with an after-run-beer voucher, a RFID chip and a photography sticker that would allow for easy identification of myself in any official photographs.

The Village was filled with several food/coffee stands, a handful of promo tents, a small picnic area, toilets and a smattering of runners waddling around in the quagmire of churned up mud and turf. At this point I realised I’d taken that note about not getting muddy a bit too literally. But there were many other people dressed very similar to me, and besides, city or not, mud is part and parcel of any Tough Mudder event.

The thing about Tough Mudder, and these kind of fun run/obstacle races in general, is just how inclusive they are. This is not an event that attracts the Fit Elite. The age limit for entry dips as low as 14 years old and looking around it was clear that a fair number of teenagers had signed up. So too had an entire microcosm of the London demographic: young, old, in shape, out of shape, solo runners, team runners, couples, friends, colleagues and everyone in between.

From the Village area it was also possible to see a few of the obstacles, so it was nice to get an idea of them in my mind before heading out. I stretched and moved a little to warm up and headed over to the briefing pen.

Spilling through the gate and into this waiting area I was joined by around 100 other runners and we were led through an odd dance/getting-to-know-each other routine by the DJ, before slipping into a warm-up sequence of star jumps and screaming at each other. Job done, we joined in with the Tough Mudder Pledge and were on our merry way towards Obstacle numero uno.

The Obstacles

In the run up to the event an email is sent that provides various bit of information about event day things: what to do if you want/need to change your start time, how registration works, what to bring, what happens to spectators etc. The other thing that is provided is a course map.

As we can see, there are 11 obstacles dotted around the course and they all have names. Some names seem pretty self-explanatory, like Get Low and Mudder Wheelbarrow, whilst others…not so much. Devil’s Beard? Giant A-Hole? Most of the obstacles are either listed on the website, or are up on YouTube, but a few of them are not. These are the obstacles I’d be going in blind for.

But, what’s the worst that could happen?

Bale Bonds

Looking at the map, the first obstacle seemed a fair distance away from the start line but in fact it turned out to be a little less than 1km. This first little run proved to be an immediate deconstruction of the crowd of runners that had just exploded across the start line. It was also here that my first consideration blossomed: how should I be pacing myself here?

I’m a confident runner, but this was not a race and I wanted to enjoy the experience with no pretension to ‘winning’ or leading the pack. I settled in behind the front 10% and found a rhythm. Also, having signed up as a solo runner, I did not have a team mate(s) to keep in line with.

The obstacle in question was a relatively easy introduction to the course: a selection of hay bails that required traversing. The first two rows could effectively be leapt over and the third simply had an extra level, so required just a smidge more effort.

Nevertheless, by this point my blood was warmed and I was already loving it. Grateful for the lack of rain (this is London we’re talking about, after all) I jogged onwards to…

Skid Marked

Having done my research I was curious to find out how successful I would be with this one. Looking at the pictures and a few videos it seemed as though being the first one up would be a bit more tricky than the bails.

I took a run up at an empty wall and muscled my way up and over. I realised that my muscle up training is actually having some transferrable, functional value! I turned round and offered a hand to a few other runners and by the time I jumped down from the wall myself, I found that they had waited for me. Suddenly part of a foursome, we headed on towards something called a…

Devil’s Beard

Despite an intimidating name, the Devil’s Beard is in fact a large cargo net tied to the ground. All we had to do was shuffle under it and shimmy our way back to freedom. Oddly enough this one proved more challenging than Skid Marked simply because of how awkward it was. Though not heavy, the netting continually caught hold of my heels meaning my rhythm was broken by having to frequently untangle them!

We figured that the best way to deal with the obstacle was to stay close to each other, keep as tall as possible and allow the netting to roll over us. After around 30m we rolled out onto the track and heading onwards towards the…

Giant A-Hole

From the Village, the Giant A-Hole is the most impressive looking given its size and function. The construction ultimately served as two different obstacles and the first meant clambering over it.

Built to resemble the ‘A’ of its name, this first encounter meant picking our way up a couple of levels that increased in gradient, using more cargo netting to do so, walking over the top and descending the other side. The genius of this one is that after a few obstacles and the 2km run, doing so requires a little more core strength than first impressions might initially indicate.

Safely back on squidgy, muddy ground, the four of us hustled on over to the next station: a 100m stretch of grass with absolutely nothing on it…

Mudder Wheelbarrow

Arguably the most basic challenge on the course, this was the first obstacle that would be impossible to do solo. Jumping over the bails, climbing the wall, crawling beneath the net and climbing over the ‘A’ could quite feasibly be done with no input from anyone else. The Mudder Wheelbarrow, however, is a two-person game.

As old school as it was basic, the obstacle required partners taking turns in driving the ‘wheelbarrow’. The first person assumes a press-up position whilst the other grabs their legs and supports their weight as they move towards the check point. Partners swap roles and head to the next point.

Having only recently recovered from a wrist injury I was interested to see how it would hold up and was relieved and grateful that it presented no problem at all. So, after catching our breaths for a collective second, the four of us ploughed on to the…

Hero Walls

‘Berlin Walls’ as described here, although remarkably similar to the Hero Walls

Not too dissimilar to Skid Marked, the biggest difference here was the height and the gradient of the wall. Whereas the Skid Marked walls are maybe 7ft high and angled forwards slightly, the Hero Walls are around 10ft high and perpendicular to the ground. The only way for the whole team to get over was work together.

Planting myself at the bottom of the wall in a crouch, I linked my hands together to provide an elevated platform and one by one the group climbed up and over me which each subsequent climber helping to pull the next up.

As I was tall enough I was able to jump up and catch the top of the wall and was helped up by my new Mudder chums. We were proving to be a very nicely functioning team!

We did this a second time before stepping on the gas and making for…

Get Low

A welcome respite and an opportunity to catch a couple more breaths, Get Low is the quintessential crawling-through-mud exercise. Ducking under a low wooden frame roofed with chicken wire we crawled on hands and knees until a dropped level forced us fully prone and crawling like commandos.

Not much need for teamwork and not much effort required. But if we thought that was relaxed, one of us was in for a treat at the next station.

Clean & Jerk

One of the few obstacles that had alluded me in my research, the Clean & Jerk proved to be another obstacle truly dependent on working as a team. It is, essentially, a stretcher carry: One person hunkers down onto a canvas stretcher whilst the rest of the team carried them round to the finish line.

Our lightest member, Mathilde, put her feet up and we three guys shuffled round the course. Mathilde was able to recover a little bit of energy whilst we all stepped off the throttle somewhat so as to a) keep our passenger safe and free from a bumpy ride and b) to power back up just a little.

In fact, by this point (which was only 4km) the exertion of the course was noticeable. Whereas a 4km is a comfortable distance, the added work makes it feel more like 7 or 8km.

Nevertheless, with less than 1km to go only a few more obstacles awaited us, the first of which was…

Hanging Out

Now, I love suspended rings, ropes and most things that allow me to swing about in the air so this one was one of the more enjoyable challenges of the entire course.

The other challenge connected to the ‘Giant A-Hole’ frame, Hanging Out is a series of 12-15 monkey rings that simply require traversal. This was more relaxing than anything and whilst one of the team needed a little guidance regarding technique, we all glided through this one comfortably.

Everest

Almost immediately after Hanging Out, the next obstacle was laid out. This time there would be no swinging around: Everest is a quarter-pipe obstacle requiring a sprint and jump technique in order to overcome it.

Opting to run third, two teammates made short work of it, running and jumping with grace. I took my run up but hit the pipe with a little too much mud on my shoes and so slipped as I jumped. Fortunately I managed to catch hold of the ledge and both Mudder Buddies managed to grab me and so I clambered up on the first attempt. A relief, as during the wait to start I’d caught a glimpse of several runners having real trouble with this one. Like, crowd-gasping, everyone-is-watching trouble.

Our fourth member followed suit and was up and over in a blink. We stayed back and helped a few other runners up before climbing back down and teeing ourselves up for the final obstacle…

Pyramid Scheme

Let’s be clear about this, Pyramid Scheme is the 5K’s definition of teamwork-obstacle. The Wheelbarrow and the Clean & Jerk aside, here’s an obstacle that is not for the one-man army. In fact, it’s the only obstacle on the course that required simultaneous input from the entire team.

The picture above provides quite a good indication of the challenge but picture this: a 25ft, smooth surfaced wall at a 45 degree incline. Even the world’s great sprint and jump technique isn’t going to help here.

So, two teammates stood at the base of the wall and I clambered up them to the mid-level support beam. With a helping hand from a fifth runner I positioned myself so that the fourth member of the team could climb up the first two and use my legs to pull himself up to the midway point too. I stayed put to provide the same assistance to the next runner and the runner after that. Once everyone was up they moved to the top level and helped to get me up too.

And then, as quickly as it began, we’d finished. Climbing down from Pyramid Scheme we took a 10 step job to the finish line where we were adorned with headbands and invited to collect our finisher’s T-shirts, a bottle of water, a granola bar and a cider.

Having started 40 minutes earlier, it wasn’t the fastest 5km, but having paid little attention to setting personal bests and working together with a lovely little team, the time was not a concern in the slightest.

Sat together in a mild state of runner’s high, we realised that we’d done a good job running together. It seems the next run is only a sprint and jump away.


The Advice

So, having now run the course, the advice for any one thinking about taking part in the Tough Mudder 5K is pretty simple:

  1. Go with a sense of fun: this is not a race
  2. Enjoy the spirit of Tough Mudder and actively help others
  3. If you’re running solo, don’t worry – there’ll be plenty of others around to help out.

That’s it!

Oh, and be prepared to get a little muddy. Probably not head-to-toe caking, but enough to make you question how much you like the trainers you’re wearing…

The Verdict

Difficulty: 2/5. Some technically demanding obstacles, but overall a light 5km run.

Level of fun: 5/5. Even more enjoyable than I had originally expected.

Cost: £35 (with a small discount)/ £60 without

Value for money: Excellent


This post is part of an ongoing account of the final 364 days of being a 20-something. 

2 Replies to “Taking the First Step Towards a New Obstacle: Tough Mudder 5K East London”

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