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Jodie Farbotnik, left, and Cynthia Johnson
You’d never know it by looking at Erie runner Cynthia Johnson, 44, but she used to be carrying an extra 104 pounds on that tiny frame. While she looks like one of those born-thin women, she’s not! She told me that she’s been on a tough journey to the place she is now.
And, she keeps challenging herself. Most recently with her very first Tough Mudder race, about two weeks ago in South Amherst/Lorain, Ohio (about 2 ½ ours or so away from Erie).
What’s a Tough Mudder? Well, according to the race organizers, ““Tough Mudder is not your average lame-ass mud run or spirit-crushing ‘endurance’ road race.” Here’s what it is according to their web site:
“Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. With the most innovative courses, half a million inspiring participants, and more than $2 million dollars raised for the Wounded Warrior Project, Tough Mudder is the premier adventure challenge series in the world.”
Learn more about it here: http://toughmudder.com/about/.
The Tough Mudder is a team event and, after seeing all of Cynthia’s great photos on Facebook, I asked her to tell me a little more about the experience.
Tough Mudder or bust!
Why did you want to do this?
For me, it was about overcoming fears, having faith, and being OK with asking for and accepting help.
After being overweight for so long, I developed a very self absorbed personality and was afraid of everything. I used to be consumed about what people would think of me. How selfish is that? I have to learn to look outward. Sometimes I still stop when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and have to take a second look because the reflection I see is not the ugly image that is in my head.
I started competing in running races a couple years ago, and moved up to sprint triathlons — all to keep myself motivated.
I had to be rescued in my first attempt at the PI tri the summer of 2010. Believe it or not, I didn’t realize I was afraid of the water, and I had a full-blown panic attack once I got into water above my head. All my work, and financial investment into a road bike and gear was wasted. I was determined, after that, to get over the water fear. I go into panic when the water gets cold, too.
I also panic in closed in spaces.
The Tough Mudder race had a 20/25-foot jump into the quarry lake, a maze dark tunnel, and an Ice Bath as three of the 27 obstacles; And lots and lots of cold water, sludge, muck and mud.
I was OK with that, but I did have two panic attacks in two of the obstacles that I was in deep water, and I skipped one near the end because I had had enough of deep water and panic. I’m super angry now because I feel like I cheated myself.
For the most part, for me, this race was about people coming together for the purpose of camaraderie in a challenge that they were motivated to do. It was about support, leadership, commitment, over coming obstacles and fears, teamwork, and genuine caring and respect.
Who was on your team?
The people I did the course with were JR Fabin, Stacie Pecar, Shelby Harayda and Jodie Farbotnik. JR was the only member who had done a TM previously. I met these fantastic people though Steven Krauza, a local chiropractor, who started Team Adrenaline. Let me explain that just a little, and condense it a bunch!
Steve invited me to do TM. After he shared his pics on Facebook from a TM he did before, I decided I had to accept the offer.
Did you train together?
We all trained on our own. I did my own thing, and then joined a LECOM TM training group where I met a few more people on different teams. Allison Bear Tilves and Kristen Brown headed up the class, and a friend of mine from the tri club, Brook Kramer, took the class and did the event with that class group. LECOM had their own team also.
Cute costumes. Was there any significance to them?
The idea came together when we chose yellow the day before leaving for the event. The team surprised Jodie and I with the antennae the night before the event. The whole thing came out adorable. King bee and his hive of killer bees. We were easily recognized on the course and lots of people buzzed at us in support.
Who was King Bee? JR?
Yes. JR took on the role of supporter of all of us. He vowed to be there to help us overcome obstacles, and to stick with us on the course.
I can’t say enough about the supportive/take charge role he took to support us. There is so much to be said for someone who would sacrifice their own experience and goals in order to help others reach theirs.
With all the hoisting JR had to do, and his refusal to skip ANY obstacles, he worked much harder than the rest of us!
Sure LOOKS like fun, eh?
What was the toughest part?
Believe it or not, post race, the hardest thing for me is knowing there were three obstacles I skipped. There’s only one I feel I can justify having skipped. Other than that, the toughest part was keeping warm while wet for 11 of the 12 miles and 4 hours of the 4 hours 19 minutes it took us to complete the course as a team. Many times we couldn’t feel our legs and feet.
Which obstacles were real challenges?
Besides the deep water, like the 20/25-foot jump into the quarry, the monkey bars were really hard for me. The bars were spread really far apart and my shoulder span didn’t allow me to be successful even though I practiced monkey bars for a few months. Knowing I was going to fall into deep water AGAIN was a mental challenge.
I skipped the slue of mud mountains and valleys full of water. There were about eight of them, and everyone said that was one of the toughest obstacles. I’m super angry I allowed myself to be weak and skip it. I’m sure everyone had his or her own crusher.
Did you have to work together as a team & finish as a team?
There were no rules to that effect, but we chose to work together and made the commitment to stick together. That’s really the whole idea of the event. The entire race was about your team. Everyone helped everyone else. We started in waves of 500 or 600 I think, and everyone worked together.
Was it what you expected? Did anything surprise you?
It wasn’t as difficult as I expected, but that’s kind of hypocritical since I did skip three obstacles. I was actually surprised I was so ready.
We were all surprised at how much water there was. Probably ¾ of the events were water based, whether you were belly crawling through it, trying not to get zapped from hanging electrical wires above, wading in a waist deep swamp, jumping/falling in murky water over your head, or trudging through it, and calf deep mud, carrying a tree trunk.
OK, what was the electrical challenge (above) really like?
The electricity was not so bad. I only got zapped once out of two jolt obstacles. Once it happens, you avoid it happening again!
Did anyone get injured? Any ‘war wounds’ to brag about?
We were very lucky. There were people getting injured on the course, but none of us had any serious injuries beyond scrapes and bruises. I have some super impressive black and blue marks!
Keeping warm was a challenge. Some people in the TM got so cold that they couldn’t control their internal thermostat and had to be pulled from the course. We heard there were lots of broken/sprained limbs, and strained muscles.
How long did it take you?
It took our team 4 hours and 19 minutes. Many teams made it in less. And many took much longer. It’s not a race; it’s an adventure. But, now that I have the ‘bug’ (bee pun intended), I may try beating that time next time.
What was your general opinion of the race?
I heard that this event was the largest race in TM history. Based on that, from my personal viewpoint, I think it was run well. And, the course is laid out with a purpose – some of it is even humane (chuckle).
The only complaint I have is that it took forever to retrieve checked bags at the end. We were all cold, wet, tired and muddy, and it felt like we stood in line forever.
Word to the wise Tough Mudder wannabe: Wear VERY old shoes.
Anything else you want to add?
It’s worth mentioning that 4 out of 5 members of my team came down with a brutal intestinal virus between Sunday and Monday. I’ve asked other teams, and no one else was sick. So we most likely passed it to each other. But on that entire note, if doing an event of this magnitude, please make sure to take care, do not over train, keep your nutrition in check, and fluids. And, be sure to get enough sleep, which we did NOT do the night before because we were so excited.
If your immune system is compromised in any way, it certainly can bring on a bug, not unlike any physical challenge where you really exert yourself to your potential.
I recommend taking at least one day of work after the race to recover, but two is even better. Beware: You may not be able to lift your arms after the race!
Would you recommend a race like this to others?
Would you do another one?
Undoubtedly. I’m little (4’10”), and the traditional run/bike races don’t allow me to really excel because I just can’t be fast enough to keep me happy. But adventure races are an all around challenge of physical body and determination. Much of it is mental grit. I can really feel good about this. And the concept is about teamwork. I love that! I love watching, and being around people who are genuine and real and who sacrifice for other people.
In the days after the race, I’m thinking back on the obstacles with great pride, but more than that I’m humbled. I CHOSE to be cold, and to trudge through miles of freezing sludge and swamp up to my waist. I CHOSE to carry a log down into a ravine in calf deep slippery mud, and back up again, falling, sliding and slipping, and watching people struggle and fall with heavy logs. I CHOSE to crawl on my belly over rocks, water and mud, and under barbed wire chancing being zapped. I CHOSE to be zapped with an electrical charge while soaking wet. I CHOSE to go into a dark tunnel afraid that my fear of small, confined and dark spaces would cause me to freak out. Some people live with a version of these obstacles in their reality every day. I don’t ever have a thing to complain about.
I’m not the only one with a story. Stacy lost a husband to MS this year. JR has lost quite a bit of weight and is still on his journey. He has a bad back and a major shoulder injury.
I’m sure if you looked into adventure racing you would fine a ton of people working to overcome personal fears and roadblocks. Sure, there are people, like many of the Triathlon club competitors, that are looking for bigger and better challenges, but I think if you dug into Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, or Warrior dash (to name a few), you’d find a slue of people who do it to be ‘the me I want to be.’ There’s nothing like a physical challenge to enhance the strength of the mind, body and spirit.