Last weekend I completed the Tough Mudder challenge: a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol, which takes place mostly in – you guessed it – mud. I blindly signed up for the race after a friend’s recommendation, much like I decide to pick up broccoli at the grocery store because a friend forwarded a broccoli and cheese soup recipe to me. “Sure – I’ll do it”. The recipe never made it from my inbox onto my dining table. Tough Mudder on the other hand, left bruises and scratches.
There are multiple analogies I can draw between an obstacle course and graduate school or my work as a clinical psychologist (in training), and I will explore them through a trilogy of posts.
The first analogy is obvious. I was well aware that graduate school and Tough Mudder would be challenging (read: exhausting) and scary (read: terrifying). Despite the blood (don’t underestimate paper cuts), sweat, and tears that I expected from graduate school and Tough Mudder, I signed up for both.
sure, I’ll do it
The Path of Ignorance
Arrive in Barrie Ontario – check-in at the hotel.
There were five us: Rob, the Tough Mudder veteran, who spoke about the endless hills, treacherous roads, and painful obstacles the way university professors discuss their research: confidently disregarding the audience’s angst and ignorance of the topic.
There were Rachel and Brooke, two sisters who had done similar races and athletic training in the past. I did not know what to expect from them, but knew one thing: neither would be wearing hearing aids during the race, meaning that they could not hear anything. No cheering, no booing, no “get out of the way because this 200 pound man is about to fall on top of you”. Communication with them would be with eye or tactile contact.
Finally, there was Megan, the back-to-back-group-exercise-classes-at-the-gym friend who gently coerced me into signing up for Tough Mudder. Megan spent hours – nay days – researching the Tough Mudder obstacles and learning how to mentally and physically prepare for the event. She was the equivalent of the person who compulsively examines the statistics regarding funding applications for graduate students, and who constantly reminds you the odds and timelines. From time to time, a video illustrating a Tough Mudder challenge found its way into my email inbox. I reluctantly clicked on the link, watched the first five seconds where a camera lens is splattered with mud with rock music in the background, then stopped it. I chose ignorance.
In fact, I steered clear from any sort of information before the race. Conversely from my “day job” as a graduate student and clinical psychologist, where I am required to understand my clients and their mental illness from every angle, I chose not to delve into the ins and outs of the Tough Mudder challenges. I chose ignorance over the knowledge of how and when I will be injured or terrified (read: die). I rather prance through the event blindly and cope with its challenges as they arose. After all, the focus of my doctoral research is the treatment of anxiety– what is a better place to put my “expert” knowledge to good use than an event where my mental stamina will be tested?
This is as good a time as any for me to tell you that I am not a dare-devil. I am a nervous wreck who is susceptible to peer pressure. That is a dangerous combination. I was not the child who jumped from the rooftop into the pool or who tried to do a cart-wheel on a balance beam. Roller coasters were the highest ranking item on my “extreme activity” list, until I somehow agreed to skydive five years ago. I am the child who wore a helmet and who ducked down every time the ball steered into her direction at dodge ball. Lifeguards never warned me about running on the side of the pool: I was age-inappropriately alert about the possibility of slipping and breaking my front teeth. The fear of losing my front teeth is also the reason why I do not know how to ice skate. Shameful for a Canadian, I know.
At dinner on the night before the Tough Mudder race, my teammates further dissected the obstacles. Every other sentence began with some variation of “I’m really worried about _______”. The blank was filled in with terms such as “Arctic Enema”, a challenge where contestants jump shoulder deep into freezing water and swim under a barricade, or “Everest”, where contestants run up a quarter-pipe and pull themselves to the other side. My chest was pounding and I was short of breath. I felt as if I accidentally walked into a seminar about structural equation modeling: embarrassingly confused and terrified.
As I gorged down my pasta meal, in the midst of nearby conversations and the hockey game playing the back ground, I heard the following combination of words:
I looked up at Rachel and my eyes requested that she repeat her statement. What Rachel was describing was the “Electric Eel”, a challenge where contestants crawl in water, with electrical wires hanging overhead. In short: you crawl in water while being shocked. I paid to do this. I paid to squirm through water while being electrocuted. I held back tears while Rob attempted to minimize the potential damage of the event, much like my supervisor would try to convince me that presenting at a conference is no big deal. Megan attempted to mitigate my anxiety by reminding me that Arctic Enema would be much worse. Thanks Megan.
My teammates’ general response to my panicked state was “relaaaaaxxxx, you’ll be fiiiinnneee”. Telling an anxious person to “relax” is as effective as trying to explain to undergraduate students that the required readings for a course can be found in the course syllabus. Then trying to tell them where to find the syllabus…..and telling them what the “syllabus” is.
The same way I teach my anxious clients to relax, I took deep breaths and reminded myself that the likelihood of dying while crawling in water under electrical wires is slim. I took deep breaths and reminded myself that no amount of research could have prepared me for these challenges. I took more deep breaths and reminded myself that I paid for the event, drove over 5 hours to the site, and publicly announced my participation. I took deep breath and gobbled down more pasta.
Anxiety is the overestimation of danger and underestimation of coping abilities. In preparation for Tough Mudder, I chose ignorance to prevent exaggeration of threat. I chose ignorance so I wouldn’t be reminded of what I cannot do. However, 12 hours before the race, I was flooded with information I did not want. Most of that information was threatening and my brain refused to process any evidence of safety or ability to cope.
I wonder if the path of ignorance was the correct one to take. Would I have been less anxious if I knew what was coming?
Would you rather know or be ignorant before an event like Tough Mudder?
Are you typically under-prepared or over-prepared?