The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Second instalment
Obstacles and Challenges
It’s race day.
We make it to the off-site parking lot, where contestants are piled onto yellow school buses. With an apprehensive cheer, someone passes along yellow and black face paint that we smother across our cheeks without thinking twice about the bacteria we are sharing. The camaraderie has begun.
Registration – check.
Meet up with the rest of our team, “99 problems and Tough Mudder ain’t one” – check.
The area between registration/bag check and the start line is a unique sight. Muscular men wearing tutus or suspenders – or both – are gulping down sports drinks; women in brightly coloured tights and wigs are hugging each other as if its last call on prom night. Nervous smiles and arrogant rants are plenty. It was a tornado of excitement and anxiety, mostly the latter.
The main topic of conversations I eavesdropped on was the cold weather. At approximately 8 degrees (46 degrees for you Americans), no one could imagine running through icy cold waters, running up a mountain, or climbing mud piles. Having hoped for a sunny day, I wore short and a tank top but the sun was being lazy, and my rain coat felt very cozy in the misty weather. My teammates’ hugs and attempts to convince me that “I’ll warm up anyway” simply did not register.
At the start line the four of us were kneeling in mud along with 60 other “mudders” while an obnoxious MC reminded us of the 78-page waiver we signed and made us repeat the mudder pledge. I scream “BOYAAAH” while the rest of the crowd screams “HORAAAY” because for some reason I am racing in 1995. We remind Rachel and Brooke to be silent during the National Anthem….eye and tactile contact only remember?
I am excited and I fearless; I can do this.
After the first few obstacles that included the Glory Blades, where 10 foot wooden walls are tilted to a 20 degree angle, the infamous Arctic Enema, which left us invigorated instead of as walking popsicles, I realized that Tough Mudder is composed of obstacles and challenges.
Obstacles are occupational hazards we subjectively agree to when accepting a contract. They may be time-consuming, annoying, and mildly painful, but in the end obstacles are “check marks” before the Finish Line. In Tough Mudder, I considered the Dirty Ballerina and the Boa Constrictor as obstacles because jumping over mud piles or squirming through watery tubes is uncomfortable and tiring, but not life threatening.
Obstacles in Tough Mudder are comparable to the research ethics application in graduate school, where I had to explain that a treatment group for parents of anxious children will not have a detrimental impact on any fetuses. For many, the weekly lab meeting, where articles are discussed and the annual Easter egg hunt is organized, is an occupation hazard. A dark spot in the weekly schedule that is inherent in the graduate school curriculum.
You know you’ve hit a challenge when your brain freezes, heart sinks into your stomach, and your diaphragm forgets to expand and allow air to flow from my lungs. A challenge is a sudden, not-so-subtle reminder of your mortality and the fact that you did not send your mother flowers on Mother’s day. From an evolutionary perspective, your body’s response to a challenge is a reminder that you should not be doing this.
I should not crawl in water while being electrocuted.
I should not jump over a mountain of burning logs.
A challenge is the possibility of failing my comprehensive exams and being kicked out of the program (or gently asked not to return). A challenge is having my dissertation committee tell me that I have to rework my project (i.e., two years of work) and submit a new proposal in two weeks.
The tricky thing about obstacles and challenges is that when you skip one, it becomes easier to skip another. Avoiding fear gives you a free pass to continuously sidestep other uncomfortable situations. For instance, delegating a public speaking opportunity or continuously communicating over email as opposed to setting up a meeting with your supervisor. Avoidance yields more anxiety, it increases the threat. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided to skip the Firewalker challenge, where contestants jump over a pile of burning logs into cold water. After skipping one challenge, the “by pass challenge line” became more tempting every time. I had to push myself not to skip subsequent events – take a deep breath and remind myself of the commitment I made by accepting the Tough Mudder challenge. On a less philosophical and more coercive note, Megan regularly reminded us that “if you skip a challenge you didn’t do Tough Mudder”.
Overcoming a challenge brings about an anticlimactic sense of exhilaration. After allowing myself to drop through the Smoke Chute, a 15 foot “slide” similar to an air conduct, I emerged from the muddy waters thinking “that’s it?” Similar to when I walked out of (successfully!) completing my oral comprehensive exam. I was happy but could not ignore how lack luster the achievement was.
Perhaps writing about my Tough Mudder experience, or graduate school in general, is a way to stretch my “achievement” as much as possible. Milking as much satisfaction I can from events in order to justify the effort.
What are your graduate school obstacles? Challenges?
Did you manage to skip any?
Where any achievements anticlimactic?