It has been about 7 months since the birth of my daughter and I think that’s about long enough to let myself sit idle due to child rearing. Certainly as the father, I don’t have that many excuses as to why I can’t become physically active again, and I actually miss running and taking part in the various crazy obstacle races. So, I’ve resolved to get myself back into shape (without being too obsessive about it at least).
In previous years I certainly at times pushed myself too hard and ended up with some minor injuries – I guess that’s what you get in your mid-thirties. I pushed myself to get my running distances up too quickly, and ended up straining some leg muscles and needed physiotherapy for a couple of months. So far, I’ve only run about 5-6km once a week for the last few weeks and that is about all I can manage. I can feel the fitness level slowly returning (although it is also hard to tell due to the heat I’ve been running in) but am resisting running for any longer distances yet.
Since my biggest focus is getting into a state of fitness where I can again tackle an obstacle race that is not “insanely difficult” (to be defined further down), I know that one of my biggest weaknesses (literally) is upper body and core strength. To that end, and to assist with my running recovery, I’ve started a regime of stretches and small upper/core exercises which I repeat twice daily – once in the morning after the kids have woken me up, and again at night before bed. Here’s the general routine:
- Lie on my back and stretch the entire body out
- Pull each knee up to my chest individually and stretch the leg
- Stretch the “glutes”
- Hamstring stretches
- Abductor / groin stretch while sitting
- Front plank for as long as I can hold it
- Side plank for as long as I can hold it, on each side
- Push ups while kneeling (so I can do more repetitions with smaller load)
- Prisoner squats until my legs start burning.
- Lie on my front and stretch the front thigh area of each leg.
Sorry for the lack of accurate terminology! Some of these stretches I learned while I had a personal trainer leading up to my Tough Mudder race in 2014, some I got from my yoga teacher wife and some I just make up myself. Generally each stretch I hold for 30 seconds. I can say that my legs feel better after stretching them twice a day, and the other light exercises are having a very small but noticeable effect. It’s enough to keep those muscles a little bit active but not so much that I dread it and skip exercising them at all.
The intention now is to keep this up, continue raising the limits slowly until I feel like I can take on some of the smaller and less difficult obstacle races (and perhaps shorter regular running races). I figured out last year that a marathon is just not my cup of tea, after attempting to run 30km in one training session and finding it incredibly boring. I can manage a half marathon but I think that’s about the limit.
What do I define as “insanely difficult”? Tough Mudder definitely had at least two aspects which for me are pretty undesirable. I don’t particularly like being electrocuted, and the 12ft walls were almost impossible for me without a lot of assistance – this again comes back to the lack of upper and core strength which I hope to work on. Getting Tough – The Race was probably the hardest event I’ve undertaken so far due to the distance (24km) and extreme cold (being completely submerged for a long period of time in icy water) and sheer number of obstacles. I don’t relish the thought of that icy water again any time soon. No Guts No Glory, despite also being in very icy conditions (well, actual snow for most of it) was very enjoyable although I unfortunately did some injury to my finger which still hasn’t recovered. Bremen Lake Run would again have been more fun if it weren’t for the big walls, and it also had some cold water thrown in for fun.
So I guess my main complaint would be with the walls, which I know I need to work on a lot. I don’t know if the electric shock therapy obstacles will always be in Tough Mudder but if the walls were less of a challenge for me I guess I can work on my psychological toughening to get through being electrocuted. Meanwhile, there are actually a lot of very enjoyable (like, actually enjoyable for normal people) obstacle races coming up in Germany over the next few months which don’t have this level of insane difficulty that I’d like to attempt. Perhaps this year or next I’ll even try one or two in the UK as they tend to have more variety.
As I mentioned in my last post, I did Getting Tough – The Race in Rudolstadt yesterday. Check out that post for a link to a first-person-style video shot at last year’s event. Having watched that video, and obsessively scoured the internet for photos and any other tidbits of information, I expected that I knew what I was getting myself into. I have to say first up, whoever “Iron Mike” (poster of the video) is, he’s quite an athlete! There were a few obstacles in this year’s race that weren’t in last year’s, but still his time of about 02:15 compared with mine of about 03:51 is dramatically faster!
Leading up to the race, I was primarily concerned about two things – the temperature and prospect of complete submersion in ice-cold water, and the fact that this year they snuck in the “electro-shock therapy” obstacle that many would be familiar with from Tough Mudder – basically wires hanging down from a frame that you have to run through, and suffer multiple significant shocks along the way. Ironically even though the longest distance I’ve run this far has been a half-marathon, the fact that Getting Tough is 24km didn’t bother me so much.
First up, my gear selection. Over the last few weeks my training runs were the test ground for combinations of clothing and I arrived at the following:
- Nike dri-fit combat pro underwear
- Nike dri-fit running pants that end just below the knee
- ASICS Gel-FujiRacer 2 Trail shoes and the socks I got from the TrailBerlin race
- Under Armour Cold Gear Compression EVO Mock long-sleeved top as the base layer
- Some Helly-Hansen poly-propylene long-sleeved top I had from maybe 10 years ago over that
- Another synthetic long-sleeved top from O’Neill which I got originally for kayaking, over that
- A short-sleeved synthetic running top from the race itself as the top layer – mostly for blocking the wind and for looks 🙂
- Under Armour ArmourVent Cold Gear running beanie
- Under Armour Core Cold Gear Infrared gloves
I figured with all of the layers I was wearing I would be covered for the cold weather, and for the most part I was (more on that later). I was expecting the temperature to be a few degrees below zero, and some of the pre-race organisers’ photos actually showed snow on the starting grounds, but in the end it might have been hovering around 0ºC and any snow that was there before had melted. In the morning after registering, people started warming up in the “Walk of Fame” area (the final concentrated obstacle field) before the call was made to move to the starting field.
Everyone marched the 1km through town to the starting field where the warm-ups continued and some starting announcements were made. There were fireworks and amazingly a three-plane formation fly-by just before the start! I started at the very left-hand side of the starting field which worked to my advantage as they also had a fire engine spraying everyone with cold water as we crawled under a very long section of barbed wire – my side of the field was too close to the fire engine for them to aim down to, so I escaped the cold water for the moment. After exiting the barbed-wire crawling obstacle there was a short jog across the field until we hit the ditches. These are pretty deep and climbing out is difficult by yourself, but fortunately plenty of people were willing to pull you out on the other side. The water was pretty damn cold, but we were only in it briefly. A quick scramble over a dirt hill, and then another ditch, then out again.
Incidentally I was amazed at the pace at which everyone set off – considering that there were 24km to cover, I thought people would take the start a bit easier (I certainly was) but I guess adrenaline does that to people. After a few events where I used too much energy too early on and ran out of steam towards the end, I’m quite cautious about starting out too fast, and let myself warm up properly in the first 5km, also for the sake of my muscles. I assume the front-runners would have been galloping along at the start, which is no surprise.
If you check out any of the videos of last year’s event taken on drones, you’ll see that the next real obstacle is a river crossing. This is really the first time the coldness of the water hits home. The river is relatively fast-flowing although perhaps only knee-height at that point. Because the crowd hasn’t thinned out significantly at that point, there’s only so fast you can go, and by the time you hit the other side your legs are really starting to hurt. But at this point you aren’t too worried – you made it across and it’s more a refreshing dip in the river than anything significantly problematic.
From there, the first 15-20km was actually pretty uneventful. There were probably just a handful of obstacles along the way, with the large part of the difficulty just coming from running that distance through the mountains. I saw running, but actually when the terrain became very steep most people slowed down to a walk until it flattened out again. Given we still had a long way to go, I don’t think this is unreasonable to keep your energy up for the last couple of brutal kilometres. There were plenty of water and tea stops along the way, some cut-up pieces of banana and I also had a couple of gels with me to keep up energy levels.
I think if the temperature had been a few degrees lower, we would have seen some decent snow coverage, but as it was there were just a few patches of it once we got up into the highest part of the mountains. The scenery was beautiful though and I’d recommend running around these parts just for that sake. There are some parts that go through little villages just outside of Rudolstadt which are quite charming and a lot of the locals turn out to wave, clap and cheer on the runners. I actually found it generally warm enough during the mountain running that I took my beanie off for the whole time.
Where things start to get serious is when you hit the ditches again – this time going along them length-ways. The water is by now up to about waist-height in some parts and you have to wade the whole length of the three-sided ditch that has been excavated. It probably took 2-3 minutes but it felt like an eternity. The water is so cold at this point that it stops feeling cold anymore, leaving just raw pain in your legs. I was about half-way along the first side when I started thinking I wouldn’t make it – the pain was just too great and I was sure my legs would just collapse and leave me sinking into the mud. The second side was marginally shallower which provided some relief for the upper legs, but by the third side I think some of the pain had subsided into throbbing numbness. Crawling out at the end of the ditch was a challenge, and my legs and feet felt like numb concrete stilts extending from my hips. I could jog but not with much dexterity.
That led to the first part of obstacle runs at the end, mostly made up of climbing over obstacles, crawling through or under concrete pipes, monkey bars (which I’m glad to say my training helped me with immensely) and a section where we all had to carry a heavy bag of rocks or something. Naturally there was jumping over fire and a few more ditches – all actually fun and a good chance to loosen up and warm up after the coldness of wading through the extended ditch.
But that warming up was short-lived – after a short run further, we came to the swimming pools. There are two of them – the first one with about seven logs that you have to dive underneath, and the second with a giant scaffolding erected on top of it, providing plenty of opportunities for climbing and potentially falling into the water below if you lose your grip. Being up to chest-height in the freezing water, and fully submerging yourself to get under the logs was definitely one of my fears coming into this race and I have to say it was warranted. The cold was unbelievable. The additional layers I had on did absolutely nothing to keep my body warm; the beanie got completely soaked as did my gloves, and in moments I was chilled to the bone. In this situation you just have to get through it as quickly as possible, which is exactly what I did. Between logs I only came up for air and then dived down again immediately. On getting out of the water I wrung out my gloves and beanie which made some difference, and fortunately my clothing selection did ensure that most of the water drained off.
The second pool’s scaffolding was a new obstacle for this year. Last year they had some kind of balancing-run over shipping pallets that were tied together and floating on top of the water, which actually would have been quite fun. This time around it was two sets of monkey bars, some balancing-beams and some length-ways pipes where you had to move along hand-over-hand. I can’t really describe them very well… basically just a single pipe aligned in the direction you are travelling in that you are suspended from, and have to climb along using only your hands. Again, thanks to all the monkey bar training I’ve been doing recently, I managed to get through this obstacle the whole way without falling off – and I was very glad!
That was followed by a few other simple but enjoyable obstacles – running over discarded car tyres, crawling under fences in sand, but then we hit a road block. There’s a sort of fake house that they build, fill with stage smoke and dance music and some small obstacles, but getting into it involves climbing over a garbage skip filled with water and jumping back down to the ground on the other side. The funnel into the house slowed people down enough that a huge crowd gathered waiting to get in. Since we were all still quite wet and cold, and now not moving, most started shivering – some quite violently. Fortunately there were so many people and the crush of newcomers behind us meant that we were all packed in quite tightly – sharing what body heat there was to go around. I probably lost about 15 minutes just sitting in this traffic jam, which definitely shows that it helps being among the faster runners through the first 20km of the race.
Most of the rest of the obstacles you can watch the videos for, but there was another new addition to this year as I mentioned before – the electric shock run. From the photos the organisers had put up I had assumed there was only going to be one, but there were actually three! I really not sure what their intention was, as the final result from their construction was a bunch of quite widely-spaced wires hanging down. A few runners ahead of me approached slowly and then weaved quite easily between the wires at walking pace – which I did myself – and escaped being shocked at all. The second of these was exactly the same. The third electric shock run, reasonably close to the end of the race, had wires that ended so far off the ground that it was possible to quite comfortably crawl underneath them entirely. So, much to my relief, I was able to avoid being shocked (with electricity at least) at all during this race.
Another obstacle I had not entirely understood from the pre-race photos – there is another brief river crossing of sorts as you approach the Walk of Fame obstacle section. Last year they just had people descend to the river from the bank, walk along the river under the bridge for a bit and then climb the bank again up to the field. This year, they had strung up two rows of tractor tyres that you had to climb over. Quite similar to chest-height wall climbs, but easier due to the knobbly bits on the tyres giving quite ample grip (again, to my relief). After getting out of the river, I was expecting the cold water treatments to be really over – but it was not to be. A scaffolding rigged up so you had to duck under one beam and then climb onto a platform before jumping out the other side had a bunch of fire hoses rigged up at the top shooting out water from the river. It was basically a freezing cold river water showing, while you were also trying to climb onto a chest-height platform – not pleasant, but at least not too difficult to climb.
After this, again you can check the videos for the remaining obstacles as it was practically identical to last year’s layout. The wall climbs still got the better of me and I needed assistance in getting up despite the wall climbing training I’ve been doing. The extended crawling sections on gravel were quite painful on the knees and legs and you soon give up the idea of getting any kind of speed in these sections. All the other obstacles are actually quite fun, but at this point I was really reaching my physical limits which makes them all the more challenging. Around about this time I was thinking “why the hell did I do this” – the last 1km section of obstacles is just relentless and brutal torture after already subjecting yourself to a very active and punishing trail run and obstacles.
There was a minor traffic jam again as people slowed down to climb over the last few concrete barricades and crawl through the (very low) final tunnels, but at this point I doubt anybody was too concerned with speed and more had thoughts on finally finishing. The RFID reader was right after the exit of the last tunnel so I think I got my wrist-tag over it well before I crossed the finish line, but there were only a few seconds in it. After getting my medal and being wrapped up in a space-blanket, I was given a cup of some kind of hot lemon recovery drink and retreated back to the changing tent to collect my bag, towel off and get into some warmer clothes. I was feeling noticeably nauseous (hopefully not because of the recovery drink) and physically and mentally devastated. Even after completely changing into my dry, warm clothes I was also still shivering for about an hour afterwards.
So, there it is. It’s only a day and a bit after finishing but I know it’s too soon to ask myself if I’d like to do it again (and I’ve got other races coming up which I have to focus on instead). However I will say that the vast majority of it was truly enjoyable; it was an immense physical challenge and if you have done plenty of OCR-style events already and feel like you need to push the challenge to the next level then Getting Tough will certainly fit your requirements! I do wonder if next year might be a little colder, and the electro-shock wires a little closer together and if that might make it just that little bit more punishing (which I wouldn’t find that appealing)!
I’ve just created a new category on this blog – Health – and recategorised one of the older articles I wrote a while ago. Being a confirmed computer geek, fitness has never really been very high on my priority list until I got into kayaking when I was about 24 or so. I managed to keep that up for several years and ended up quite fit – completing a 111km kayaking marathon three times in consecutive years and also a 5-day 404km marathon at the end of 2006. Sadly around 2007 I moved and various other factors made it more difficult to keep up kayaking, and I gave it up completely when I moved to Germany in 2009.
Since having a child in 2010 it’s been harder to recover my fitness regime. For a while I was going to the gym, but I tend to get a bit bored doing that. We borrowed a bike trailer and for maybe 6 months I was cycling almost every morning about 20km with my son sitting in the trailer behind me – it was actually a lot of fun and good exercise, picking different routes around Berlin to explore. Another winter came and inevitably I stopped exercising again and really I didn’t find anything suitable to do for a couple of years. I tried running a few times but ended up with very sore knees after no more than 5km.
A couple of years ago I discovered the Berliner Mauerweg – the entire course of the original 160km Berlin Wall built in the early 60s. It is possible to walk and even ride a bike around the whole thing. I had cycled a few 20-30km sections from time to time but last year finally undertook to cycle around the whole thing in one day, and started preparing by cycling 30-50km sections until I had finished the whole thing and had familiarised myself with the entire length. Some sections I rode more than once, so I made sure to try both directions so that I could plan to ride the entire 160km in the most logical way possible. Largely this comes down to which direction is easiest to find your way along, since some parts are not well signposted and it is easy to lose your way. Finally, and fittingly, on Tag der Deutschen Einheit last year I rode around the whole thing. The weather was perfect, I set out in the dark at 6am and finished around 4:30pm, tired but happy. I took about 3-4L of water too much for the journey but had it been hotter I might have used it all up – probably good to have been on the safe side.
I’d like to ride it again but it’s a big undertaking (and that’s not on a road bike either – just a normal “Herrenrad”). Late last year I took a bamboo bike building course, with the intention of racing it in some of the amateur races that seem to be frequently happening around the country. Finally, in August of this year, I did race the bike and had a great time doing so. There are definitely plenty of cycle-nuts at SoundCloud so for fitness I could easily stick with them and make that my primary sport.
For reasons that I still don’t understand, earlier in the year I started getting interested in doing Tough Mudder. I suspect it was a banner ad or a suggested group while I was on Facebook – that shows you how powerful these messages can be without you even realising it! After watching a few videos and immersing myself in the subject I was hopelessly addicted to the idea of doing it, and signed up, not really knowing yet how I’d get to the point of physically achieving that level of fitness required. Right after finishing the Vattenfall Cyclassic race I started doing fitness training classes twice every week, and even managed to convince a couple of co-workers to sign up not only to the training sessions but Tough Mudder itself. Along the way to Tough Mudder I also ran a bunch of amateur 10km “trail run” races in preparation, such as the Volvo Tierparklauf, Potsdamer Herbstlauf and TrailRun Berlin.
Despite training quite a lot before Tough Mudder, I still feel I was unprepared. The 18km distance was not much of a problem, but I did find that any time I went significantly over 12km beforehand that my legs would be extremely sore for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. I actually didn’t run much at all in the two weeks before Tough Mudder because of it – something I am doing or not doing is leading to excessive recovery time between exercises, and if I’m going to further improve my fitness this is something I’ll have to address. Upper body and core strength (really important when climbing high walls I discovered) were also nowhere near what I’d like them to be. I recorded the whole thing on my GoPro and have an fun-size edit available for viewing here:
In the run-up to Tough Mudder I managed to sign up for the Müggelsee Halbmarathon as well, and at 21km is far and away the longest run I’ve ever done uninterrupted. Excluding Tough Mudder I had previously done the Sydney City to Surf a couple of times, which is 14km and I had always had extremely sore knees and legs in general after doing that. Unfortunately the Halbmarathon came only a week after Tough Mudder so I hadn’t fully recovered, and so did the whole thing in a reasonable amount of leg pain. Then I had to take another couple of weeks off running to recover again, which is really unfortunate as I had also signed up for Getting Tough which is on the 6th of December. The last few weeks I’ve been training on my own for this race, which is 23km and in the cold of winter. You should really check it out, it’s amazing:
I’m feeling far more unprepared for this one, mostly because of the extreme cold conditions. I’ve developed a reasonable training regime for it, which consists of a roughly 10-11km run to Volkspark Friedrichshain, a bit of hill running, various upper-body and core strength exercises like bear crawling, climbing walls, climbing nets, monkey bars, dips, pushups etc, with running in-between to recover. I’ve been getting up at least two mornings during Monday to Friday at 6am and doing this routine all in the complete dark before sunrise. Yesterday’s session was the first where the temperature was actually at freezing point and it was nice to know that I was at least clothed well enough to be comfortable at that temperature.
But even when this event is over I have others on the horizon. I’m looking into signing up for No Guts No Glory – both the “chicken run” race which is a 6km night run on the Saturday, and the “No Way Out” race which is a regular day race of 17km on the Sunday. If I manage to complete Getting Tough and keep up my training, I figure that by February I should be able to tackle both of these races given that the first one is relatively short. Not sure what my chances are for convincing anyone to join me though!
On a similar note, I’ve been keeping my eye on various other OCR websites like Mudstacle and Nuclear Races, and other general running event websites that aggregate together information on different race styles. It has exposed the fact that the bulk of these events are in the UK; certainly I can find things to do in Germany but not so much. The USA seems to have a lot more of the “flashier” events like Zombie Runs and Spartan Races (which seem to be much more competitive). I’m considering going over to the UK for a few events next year but haven’t yet identified any that I’d definitely want to do. I’d also like to do as many Tough Mudders as I can next year, and would like to do one Spartan Race at least, to see how they are, but would need to be in much better shape for them.
On the complete opposite side to physical fitness, I’ve also been considering mental fitness. Since I’ve had a large recent shift in my career, more towards engineering management and away from an individual technical contributor role, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and self-reflection on where I want to be going and how I’m performing in my role. The main take-away from this has been that my mind is extremely cluttered at the moment and it is very hard to find my way through the fog. Part of the management training I’ve been doing at work has involved using Headspace – a meditation app designed to help you gain a bit more control over your presence of mind. I’ve had some, but not much progress, with this.
Along similar lines a former co-worker of mine mentioned that he was going to do a Vipassana meditation course. It is 10 days of no talking, frugal eating, and basically just intense meditation and self-reflection. The me of prior to using Headspace would have laughed at the suggestion – I’ve never considered myself a “meditation person” (and I would use those scare-quotes). At this point in my life and career, and having identified that I can’t mentally break through the fog on my own without having had enough self-reflection to identify and answer fundamental questions about myself, I am very tempted to go on a Vipassana course. Finding 10 days to do this would be really the biggest challenge, but perhaps something I can make steps towards in the coming months. There’s nothing stopping me from starting with a single day, or even a whole weekend to meditate. Come to think of it, I should probably find something now and just book it, as has been my habit with OCR events the last few months.
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