Dateline: Story: He’s done the Death Race three times and last year teamed up with a few of his fellow Death Race competitors to win the Spartan Ultra Beast. But none of those events prepared Whistler’s Don Schwartz for the World’s Toughest Mudder — an enduro-style competition where solos and teams see how many laps they can make in 24 hours of a five-mile (8km) course with 22 tough obstacles from start to finish.
Schwartz again teamed up with Ken Lubin and PJ Rakoski for last weekend’s suffer-fest in rural New Jersey, with Ben Abruzzo joining the group. They managed 15 laps, a total of 75 miles (120km) and 308 obstacles (there were no obstacles on the first lap to spread out the field) before the clock ran out, which was good enough for third place against teams that were far younger, and less than a lap ahead.
This is how Schwartz describes the physical and mental toll of the World’s Toughest Mudder:
“In the Death Race, you were always going on an adventure,” he said. “You may not know what the adventure was going to be but you were always excited about it… because it was something new,” he said. “You’d do a 22-mile trek through a forest, but in the end you’d get somewhere. And the whole way you were in beautiful mountains and you were crossing creeks and rivers, and the scenery was phenomenal.
“The Toughest Mudder was in the middle of nowhere New Jersey, you were on a race track with no hills or beautiful scenery to look at, and after three laps you had to steel yourself to the fact that you’d be doing the exact same thing for 12 more laps.
“You had to deal with the monotony of going over the same course over and over, which was one of the toughest mental challenges I’ve had — especially knowing coming into it that you’ll be doing the electroshock obstacle 15 times.”
The obstacles themselves were described as the toughest from the Tough Mudder series, ranging from walls and halfpipes to climb over, to monkey bars and rings suspended over frigid water. There was also an electrical shock section, an infamous Tough Mudder staple, plus sections that required you to crawl through mud and cold water.
Some of the features were physically tough, but the toughest obstacle for Schwartz was the Leap of Faith — climbing a 20-foot tower, walking out on a gangplank and jumping about 10 feet out and 10 feet down to land on a crash mat suspended on a cargo net. If you missed, you’d tumble another 10 feet into frigid water.
“In the dark, wearing a headlamp, it got very difficult,” he said. “Just one look at it and you knew that failure was not an option, you didn’t want to miss this one. I saw a few miss, and it wasn’t pretty. And it was just abusive to your body, 15 times of doing that jump and landing like a sack of hammers onto the crash pad.”
Despite the physical and mental challenge, Schwartz said the group kept their spirits up by not taking things too seriously.
“They were just amazing people that I was running with,” said Schwartz. “They had the ability to laugh at any situation.”
One example was Ken Lubin — he dislocated his shoulder six times on the second lap (the first lap with obstacles), requiring his teammates to help pop it back in. It came out another three times on the next lap before he figured out how to get over all of the obstacles with his shoulder in place.
“Not once did (Lubin) ever complain about a sore shoulder or about his shoulder popping out. Not once,” said Schwartz.
In addition to the gruelling mental and physical challenge, they also had an issue staying warm. Water and wet mud was more or less mandatory and the temperature at night dropped to three degrees, while the water itself was maybe five degrees. They wore wetsuits for the bulk of the race to try and stay warm, but the only way to stay warm was to keep moving.
“If we stopped and sat down for even a second, that would have been it. The beer would have come out and we would have stopped,” said Schwartz.
A lot of the other teams set up tents, chairs, beds and other comforts at the pit stop, but they knew the best way to keep moving was to avoid that. Instead, they dropped a tarp on the ground and put their gear on top.
The team paced the event perfectly. They got slower as they raced, all of the teams did, but they managed to keep a higher pace overall. For example, after the second lap they were sitting 174th overall, including solo racers. By the halfway point, eight laps in, they were sitting 83rd overall, and by the end of the 14th lap they were 40th. They slowed down again on the last lap when it was clear they missed the cutoff, but still placed 44th out of 1,000 solos and teams.
Schwartz said he’s probably going to take a break from competing for a while, but is already looking forward to racing CrossFit Whistler in June with a team from CrossFit Burnaby, where he’s a co-owner.