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Tough Mudder Chicago - Fun in the Mud

Post-race and post-hose down.
Two years ago, after reading about the growing popularity of mud runs, I signed up for the Warrior Dash. And while I ended up being disappointed at the relative easiness of the course, I also ended up having a great time and getting a clearer understanding of why these races are so popular: they're so much fun.

This weekend I headed out to Richmond, Illinois for the Tough Mudder Chicago (no, it's not in Chicago... or even Chicagoland). I was joined by my friend Logan, who decided to take a break from doing easy sports all the time to try a sport that actually requires some intense training and skill: running.*

*Immediate follow-up to anyone who does jiu jitsu: I am joking. Please don't hurt me.

Anyway, we met up with our other team members in a Super 8 parking lot and made all kinds of pre-race plans, including how we were going to get to the race, meet each other and check in and whatnot... did a team circle hand-raise thing and then drove to Country Thunder to park.

And there we immediately lost the entire group in the gigantic field of parked cars. Logan and I took a shuttle (and by "shuttle" I mean old school yellow school bus) over to the race basecamp and, after checking in, wandered around looking at all the spectators, muddy people who had already finished the race and pristine participants like us who hadn't gotten started yet. The whole basecamp area is like one big party, with food, drinks and merchandise for sale and a giant stage.

The gear check was called bag drop and cost $10, but that was meant to be a donation for the Wounded Warrior Project so it seemed less like a money grab and more like a way to raise charity money - still a bit annoying to pay ten extra dollars to check a bag. The system was one of my favorite I've seen - place and pick up your own bag with a person on-hand to make sure that your bib matches the tag on the bag... not the most secure system but easily the quickest.

There was also a tattoo tent just in case you want to commemorate this race in a permanent way:

So we wandered over to the starting area around 10:20 (we were in the 10:40 wave) and waited at the very front of the wave. For any future mudders, I really can't recommend this strategy enough (unless you plan to walk the whole thing, in which case you should go to the back). By positioning ourselves in the front we were able to avoid lines at any of the obstacles until a little over halfway through the race when we started catching up to the backs of previous waves and waiting in their lines. The course and the obstacles are fun but waiting in line is not. And if you plan to run, you don't want to be weaving between teams of people as there are a lot of walkers on the course.

After the wave "started" we ran about 100 feet, climbed a relatively short wall and then gathered in a secondary holding area for another twenty minutes while an announcer got us motivated for the race. And as cynical as I am, this guy did a good job with the motivation, reminding us that we're there to do our best and support each other (Tough Mudders are not timed so "it's about the experience and not your time" he let us know). He also told a few inspiring stories, did a few "get pumped" call-and-responses and reminded us that we could skip any obstacle that was outside our comfort zone: "There's no shame in that game!"

Once the race started, Logan and I took off at a relatively easy pace, just working to stay towards the front of our pack - which was relatively easy considering there wasn't a lot of running going on. The first mile is easily the longest stretch of un-obstacled running distance, so we were able to put some distance between us and the rest of the group and enjoy a pretty open course, before hitting the first few obstacles.

My full review of the race is up at and I'll just sum it up here: this race is super fun. 

So you don't have to stop and ask directions.
Logan accidentally kept a map of the course in his pocket the entire time and we were impressed that it somehow survived all 20 obstacles (including a number of full submersions.

Every single obstacle is fun (in different ways) but for the sake of brevity (my strong suit, obviously) I'll just list out some of the most memorable ones:

Arctic Enema: For this one (which happened early on) you jump into a big pool of dirty, freezing water (supposedly 34 degrees) and you have to go all the way under because you have to pass under a wooden wall that extends down into the water. No matter how prepared you are for the cold it's still shocking and left me resurfacing almost immediately after hitting the water, before ducking under again to pass under the wall. Logan somehow jumped in and swam straight under. It took a good two minutes for the bone chill to wear off from this one. This is the second most extreme obstacle on the course. And if the weather had been cold, this one would have been insane.

Mud Mile: This one consists of about eight consecutive mounds of mud that you have to crawl over, each time falling back into a valley of muddy water before trudging on. This website gives you a visual of what it looks like in real life (vs. press photos from the site). Also, it is not a mile long. It's probably about fifty yards. This one was the most fun.

Walk the Plank: This is essentially a high dive (around fifteen feet). We waited in the longest line of our race for this one (still only about five minutes). Part of the fun is climbing up to the platform and being able to look out across the course and see all the other runners going in different directions. And the jump is exhilarating (this water is also pretty cold).

Everest: This one is like something you might see in a skate park. It's a big quarter-pipe that you get a running start for and charge at. It's probably the most impressive to look at because you've got runners lined up about fifty feet out who then charge the base of it and try to make it as far up it as they can before a series of runners across the top reach down and pull them the rest of the way. The thing is, though it is pretty steep, if you get going you can make it all the way up this on your own, but the wall of people at the top makes it  harder to do that. I had to slow down to not run over the helpful runner holding out his arm to me, and in turn, Logan had to do the same to me when I held my arm out to him, going past me and to my side. The guy after him did the same (in a show of solidarity you're supposed to stick around and help a few people up after you've been helped up so I did that, but mostly felt in the way). This one is fun but not as hard as it looks.

Electroshock Therapy: If you've heard anything about Tough Mudder, this is probably the obstacle you've heard about. It's a series of dangling, live electrical wires. And they are definitely not a joke. Seeing people fall to the ground in the middle of this one while trying to make their way carefully through, I thought the best option was just to try to run straight through it and hope for the best. I got shocked three times. The first two hit my arms in quick succession and while they knocked me sideways I was able to keep going, but the third one got me in the side and threw me forward. Luckily, I was almost at the end of the tunnel so it threw me halfway to safety and I was able to roll out the other end. This is easily the most challenging of the obstacles and also the most painful. That's probably why it's about thirty feet from the finish line.

Right after you finish, you get an orange headband (there are different colors for people who have done multiple Tough Mudders). And then you get a beer and an energy bar.

At the basecamp, there was some kind of strongman competition that I did not even consider attempting. It involved flipping this giant tire six times, jumping onto that little platform fifteen times and then doing five pull-ups. One of Logan's friends ended up winning it (AFTER he had already completed the course). I think he did it in 29 seconds.

To sum the experience up, I would say that if you're looking to have a good time and you're in shape: don't hesitate. The Tough Mudder is pretty close to the most fun I've ever had at a race. It's the adult version of spending all day on a playground or in the woods getting dirty, with a little bit of running mixed in for good measure. And if you're worried that you're not in good enough shape for it, go with a big group and just have fun - there were plenty of people walking the course and helping each other over the obstacles. As announcers said a number of times: "No shame in that game." This event is more about team work and having a good time than it is about competitiveness and out-doing other participants.

While I enjoyed the Warrior Dash, the Tough Mudder is definitely a step above that one in terms of the complexity and amount of the obstacles (and in terms of sheer distance if nothing else). Still, it's more Fun than Tough, and, to reiterate the sentiment in my Newcity review, I think calling it the Fun Mudder would be more apt.

This is a race that puts a smile on your face. I promise.


  1. The underwater swim sounds like the worst "obstacle". I wonder how many ecoli bacteria are swimming around in that "lake"? :)


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