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One tough mudder: Unique course challenges competitors


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Mud-caked competitors wallowed in the boggy water, keeping their bodies as submerged as possible.

Live electrical wires hung above them. On a rotating circuit, the wires could deliver a shock of 10,000 volts to an unlucky competitor who touched them.

The challenge was called the Electric Eel, and it was part of the fun of the Tough Mudder races.

“It gets your attention. It won’t knock you out, but you’ll notice that you got shocked,” said Joe Villanueva, a local Tough Mudder competitor.

Electric shocks, ice-filled abysses and barbed wire are just part of the game for participants in Tough Mudder. The competitions are conducted in wilderness areas throughout the U.S., where people run 11 miles while conquering walls, mud pits and other obstacles.

Villanueva, a Bargersville resident, completed his first Tough Mudder in September. He plans to organize teams to participate in at least two more events next summer.

“Adrenaline takes you a pretty long way,” he said. “It’s crazy, but I got it in my head that the only way they’re taking me off this course is in a body bag.”

Tough Mudder is a hard-core obstacle course series designed by the British Special Forces. The purpose was to test physical prowess, stamina and mental toughness, while forcing teams to work together so everyone finishes.

The challenges have been adapted slightly for the general public but retain much of the characteristics of the military version, said Ashley Fallick, a spokeswoman for Tough Mudder.

People crawl through plastic tunnels into the mud, avoiding the barbed wire on the other side in an obstacle called the Boa Constrictor. They move hand-over-hand on a series of monkey bars over a watery pit in the Funky Monkey.

The whole point is to challenge a person physically and psychologically, Fallick said.

Races are conducted throughout the world. More than 25 were scheduled in the U.S. this year, in locations such as the desert outside of Las Vegas, Colorado mountains and Attica, Ind.

Proceeds from each race go to the Wounded Warrior Project, with more than $3 million being donated since 2010, Fallick said.

Villanueva said helping the Wounded Warrior Project was part of his motivation to train for a race.

He became aware of Tough Mudder last winter after a friend suggested they try it.

Villanueva, chief deputy prosecutor for Johnson County, had always run a few miles and lifted weights. But to get ready for the physical exertion the Tough Mugger series would entail, he stepped up his regimen.

Five days a week, he was in the gym, doing chest presses, bicep curls, squats and working other large-muscle groups. He worked his way up to running five miles to build endurance.

“It didn’t matter if I was running at 11 p.m., after I got the kids down and the house straightened up, as long as I got going,” he said. “Even this summer, when it was 104 degrees, I kept pushing myself.”

Villanueva had purchased the Insanity workout program years before and dug it out of storage to try it again. The hard-core interval training strengthened his core abdominal muscles and prepared his body for strenuous work.

The Insanity program was balanced with weightlifting to work his cardiovascular system while adding strength.

To get ready for the obstacles, Villanueva also practiced hanging from monkey bars, running up and down hills and pulling himself up walls.

“I’d go to the park on my lunch hour, as long as there weren’t kids there, and go back and forth on the monkey bars,” he said. “I’d go back and forth just to get the feeling.”

Originally, the plan was to compete in June at the Indiana event hosted. But Villanueva didn’t think he would have enough time to train for it. He and his friends decided instead to drive to Wisconsin and do a competition at the Lake Michigan coastal area near Cascade.

The second weekend of September, Villanueva and his wife, Carrie, drove up to stay with friends and head north to the race.

More than 15,000 people ran it on Saturday, so the race was divided into heats. Villanueva was scheduled for the middle of the day, so he had 60-degree temperatures and sunny skies to deal with.

“The biggest difference was after going through a water obstacle. You’re going through cold water, and the sun goes behind a cloud, and the wind blows. It’s chilly until you dry off,” he said. “But you just keep chugging away.”

The course is published ahead of time, so Villanueva was prepared for what he would encounter. But even knowing that the next obstacle is a 12-foot-high wall doesn’t get you ready to actually climb it, he said.

The Arctic Enema is a 30-foot-long trash bin filled with ice and water. Competitors had to wade chest-deep through 35-degree water before emerging out the other side.

The Electric Eel asked people to crawl on their stomachs under electrified wires. Another, Electroshock Therapy, had them run through a field of wires.

Rather than avoid these obstacles, Villanueva embraced them. After going through the electrical wires without getting shocked, he went back through to ensure he experienced all the course had to offer.

He was shocked twice the second time through.

“It made me mad that I didn’t get one,” he said.

To help counter the potential danger of the race, safety precautions were taken throughout the course. Rescue crews in scuba suits patrolled the swimming areas, and “drill sergeants” kept people from getting tangled in barbed wire.

Water and bananas were available at tables throughout the race to fight dehydration and cramping.

But plenty of opportunity existed for cuts, bruises and scrapes. Competitors scrambled over jagged rocks and fell 15 feet into muddy pits. Still, Villanueva made it over all 20 obstacles.

For everyone who finishes, organizers give out a T-shirt, an energy bar and a complimentary beer. But the real prize is a bright orange headband.

Emblazoned with “Tough Mudder,” it’s given only to those who finish the race.

“You can go out and buy a T-shirt or something like this. But these are closely guarded and coveted. Anyone who actually has one did the course,” he said.

Next year’s closest race will be in the Chicago area; Indiana isn’t hosting one in 2013. Villanueva plans to do at least two events, possibly traveling to Las Vegas or the Appalachian Mountains.

“It’s different than a race. You can run 11 miles on a flat track. But to run 11 miles and go through things that are designed to hurt you, it’s a whole different thing,” he said.

“You set a goal, and you go for it,” he said. “Put things in a small series of steps, and you can reach them.”

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