The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Blankie ever after

Logo2

On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the third and final post about the experience and how it compares to my graduate school studies in clinical psychology.

You can check out the first and second instalment of the Tough Mudder Trilogy here and here.

 TM logo

Blankie ever after

It was cold. After the Hold Your Wood and Dirty Ballerina, my hands were freezing so badly that Saturday Night Live’s Mary Katherine Gallagher could not have warmed them up. I ran with my arms tucked under my armpits, occasionally dropping a knee into a lunge and screaming “SUPERSTAR!”.

MKG superstar

Superstar!

Before the Trench War-fare obstacle, I asked a first aid volunteer if she had any towels that I could warm my hands with: she offered me a garbage bag. When I told her that all I wanted was to wrap my hands in cloth, she looked through her red box and offered me a triangular bandage.

Meet Blankie.

Safety behaviours are strategies, such a repetitive behaviours or objects that serve to cope with a threat or reduce anxiety. For instance, you might refuse to write an exam without your “special eraser” or feel safer giving a presentation while holding cue-cards just “in case” you forget something. I felt safer completing a ridiculous obstacle course with a triangular bandage.

Once my fingers were wrapped in the warmth and love of Blankie, there was no getting away from her. She became my race-mate. I wrapped Blankie around my neck to cut off the wind, used her to wipe mud off my face and keep the hair out of my eyes. My sole purpose was to keep Blankie dry (keeping her clean was impossible given the circumstances) and she would keep me warm and safe in return. Blankie was my security blanket, my safety behaviour.

You might think I was in a mud-induced delusional state. That is highly likely.

Blankie and I’s first separation occurred at the Walk the Plank challenge. I didn’t want to her to be drenched in muddy, cold, water as I jumped from a 15 foot cliff. I seriously considered bypassing the obstacle. However, water is my element: I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor for almost 10 years; I could not allow myself to skip a water challenge. So I asked a spectator to hold Blankie. He gave me an odd look, similar to those I get when I ask for the time while holding my cell phone or when I tell people that finishing my graduate degree will take seven years in total. He did not further question the sanity of someone who was doing the Tough Mudder challenge and held my Blankie. I was grateful.  I got the same look over and over again when I asked spectators and participants to hold Blankie or to leave her on the ground at the other end of a challenge.

Blankie supported me through the “I’m not happy” portion of the race, which took place between the 5th and 12th kilometer of the 16 kilometer course. During this period, running did not warm me up and my vision was playing tricks on me. I think I had hypothermia. Megan, who seemed to have been injected with happy hormones (I obviously missed that station) tried her best to cheer me up. I saw mirages of a warm blanket and hot coco. I held onto Blankie until the sun made its first appearance of the day and I found hope again.

After the Wounded Warrior Carry, I realized two things.

First, having a security blanket (i.e., Safety Behaviour) is not as bad as one would think. According to some research, Blankie might have encouraged me to do more in the initial portion of the race! She helped me face challenges that I would otherwise skip. I tucked her into my shirt as we ran through the electroshock therapy challenge – one that I had promised myself I would bypass. Yes, I could have completed the race without Blankie, and if for some reason I had to leave her behind, I would have finished the race in her honour. Having her with me gave me a reason to finish – Blankie had to make it to the finish line as much as I did.

Meet Blankie after the race.

Blankie after the race.

Second, as cliché as it sounds: shit gets better. No matter how cold, muddy, or tired as I was, a water station and snack were always nearby, my teammates gave me a pat on the back, and I managed to complete an obstacle and run between different stations. Our bodies and mind can endure incredible circumstances. Just like in graduate school, when our supervisors are unhappy, our results are not significant, when participants and clients don’t show up or clients don’t get better…eventually, things turn up. We find a solution and a reason to keep going. Someone, or something, no matter how faint or muddy is cheering us on.

And if things don’t get better, they will eventually end.

After 16 kilometers, 14 obstacles, 8 challenges, and 4 hours, Blankie and I (and my teammates!) made it to the Finish Line. Someone put a headband on my head, a bracelet on my wrist; I grabbed a protein bar for someone and headed towards the person giving away shirts. I graduated. The next half hour is a blur. My teammates and I were so cold, injured (all of us hurt our knees on the Everest challenge). We cleaned up under the freezing cold showers. It was awful.

WestonWalker_Toronto_Sat2013-38

When I ran into my other teammate Rob, who finished the race 2.5 hours earlier, he said “You did it! How did it go?!” I couldn’t think of anything positive to say…. “I don’t want to talk about it”.

People asked me the same question for days after the race. “How was it???” I wish I said that it was a fantastic experience where I pushed my body and mind to its limits, where I discovered how strong I can be, where I met interesting people, and faced my fears. What typically came out was some variation of “It was painfully cold, awful really…but I’m glad I did it”. As our minds like to do, I had to justify the agony I put my body and mind through, so I elaborated “If it wasn’t for the cold, it would have been better….it was hard….we had a great time…the team was awesome…check out my bruises and battle wounds!” and typically ended withyeah….I would do it again”.

That is strangely similar to the answer I give when someone asks “how is that PhD coming along?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Obstacles and Challenges

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Second instalment

Obstacles and Challenges

On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the second of three posts about the experience.

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.

TM Pre-race picture Megan Rana Chanel

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.

TM pre-race group picture

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?

TM pledge

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?

Averagely yours,

the candidate

Logo2

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: The Path of Ignorance

Logo2

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?

awkward silence

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:

Electric.

Shock.

Water.

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? 

Averagely yours,

the candidate