Mostly, I remember the hands. I thought it would be the pain that I remember, but it's the hands.
Two days after my 50th birthday, I took part in a Tough Mudder Challenge. The TMC is a 10 - 11 mile run and obstacle course which features water, ropes, monkey bars, ice, electricity, vertical walls, and lots and lots of mud. This is not the kind of thing I do every day. I’m a skinny-armed, flabby-titted old guy who used to be a mediocre bicycle racer. These days, I'm content to just run or pedal a few miles every week. But, my younger brother invited me to join his Tough Mudder team and it goes against the Big Brother Code to let a challenge just sit there on the table.
24 hours later, I’m very, very sore, but happy. I’ve always relished the beat-up feeling after doing hard things . Today my shoulders and ankles hurt and my knees don’t want to bend at all. But the pain will fade and it’s the hands that will stick with me.
By the time one crosses the Tough Mudder finish line, one will have lost count of how many pools and pits of mud have been waded, swum, run and crawled through, how many different versions of walls have been scaled, and how many things one has simply fallen off of. Some lessons will have been learned, as well: the Hero Carry is easier if your partner does not out-weigh you by 60 pounds ... but if they do, you just suck it up and get on with the job.
One of the 20 or so obstacles was called Everest 2.0: a horizontal floor, which curves up to become a vertical wall. Snowboarders would call it a quarter-pipe. It is 15 feet high. With a running start, you aim to surmount it. There’s no real way to run all the way up, and there are no handholds built into it. Over the course of the day, a few thousand people will have to find their way over it.
There are people who are really passionate about these kinds of hard, physical events, and doing these things becomes a defining element of who they are. They wear the finisher T shirts as a badge of honor and have the stickers on the back windows of their cars. I, too, love doing hard things and getting the T shirts and the stickers because I've earned the right to advertise how tough I think I am. But I’m also interested in the lessons that can come from from tackling a challenge.
Tough Mudder Challenge is a rowdy, active party of physical exertion and teamwork, with plenty of chest-beating and adrenaline and it’s a real rush to be a part of it. One of the best parts of events like this … whether it’s one of the big mountain bike races, marathons, or a TMC … is the start. If they do it right, there will be some emotional manipulation: participants will all be marshaled together, pumped-up music will blare from the speakers, and a Pentecostal emcee will work us all into a frenzy, insisting that what we’re about to do is the BIGGEST CHALLENGE EVER, and we’re the AWESOMEST BUNCH OF PEOPLE to attempt it and and when they finally say “GO!”, I GO - hollering and elbowing and get-the-hell-out-of-my-waying with everyone else because it’s a huge ton of fun.
But, I’m an introvert, and us intros also like to be quiet and think about stuff, and as I reflect on my TMC experience I find this cool metaphor for life-well-lived, community-well-formed, and it’s all in the hands.
You see, the thing that’s different about TMC is that it isn’t a race - it’s a challenge. It’s long and hard, and while some people keep a stopwatch running from start to finish and try to quantify the experience, there’s no official event clock. There’s no point system to determine who did it best. In fact, there’s nothing except your own honor to keep you from bypassing the challenges completely, or taking shortcuts on the course. Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but I see parallels to the journey of life itself.
Approaching the gate to Everest 2.0, I wondered what to do. My brother, behind me, said “just keep running”. Another guy said “go” and so I ran straight to the wall, up the slope and just as I started to slip and slide backwards I gave one last surge, stretching my hands outward … upward … and my hands were caught by another set of hands, reaching down from above. I kept my legs running against the vertical wall while those hands pulled mightily to haul me up. If you want to turn this spiritual, it’s not too hard to insert your own faith-based metaphor here: hands from above pulling a person up.
And so it went, obstacle after obstacle. Standing chest-deep in mud, someone would show me their hands, fingers laced together, say “put your foot here” and they’d boost me up. Another set of hands would give my ass a shove, while from above, still other hands would reach down to pull. And, once on top, it was my job to turn around and offer my own hands down to the ones reaching up behind me. There were fat hands, skinny hands, girl hands, guy hands, soft hands and hard hands. The race and ethnicity of the hands wasn’t really an issue - we were all the same shade of mud-gray. There was no way to judge the economic or social status of any of the hands. The gender preference of the hands was indistinguishable. There were probably straight hands and gay hands, but I don’t know, I never thought to ask. The usual categories we sort ourselves into really aren’t important when the task at hand is simply to lift each other up.
I know that’s a soft and sentimental take on an event that’s messy, physical, and in-your-face tough. But isn’t this just like life? There are times when you’re running free and times when you’re faced with obstacles and muck. And even though we’re each a little different, no one of us is so unique that when we reach an obstacle, there isn’t someone else ahead of us who has already faced the same challenge … someone from whom we can draw strength, courage, knowledge, and actual physical assistance … someone who can give us a hand, if they’re willing, and if we’ll let them. And behind us is someone else working their way into the same challenge, who can benefit from the same help that we just got.
This is what I like the most about the Tough Mudder Challenge. They tell you right up front that this is hard. You will run a long way and you will do a lot of heavy lifting. While it is certainly a person’s goal to cross the finish line in decent shape, we’re all in this together. All of us who are out on the course at the same time are in this together. There is an expectation that each will help and be helped. The only way to get past many of the obstacles is to reach a hand out for help, and the only right thing to do is to offer a hand to the next person behind, and there’s actually a certain beauty in the collective overcoming. The more reflective among us may even begin to rethink which is more satisfying: being pulled up, or pulling someone else. When we think together and work together, accept the hands that are offered, and offer the hands that we’re able, there are very few obstacles that we cannot overcome.