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Completing a Tough Mudder & Some Dating Lessons I Learned Along the Climb

By Ted StalcupJune 21, 2018Health
dating lessons

There have been a lot of articles written about obstacle races and “tough mudder” events. Most of those articles tend to gravitate towards a discussion about facing down personal challenges, digging deep within yourself to discover previously untapped wells of strength, and learning something new about yourself.

There is not a thing wrong with any of those articles; that is all true. However, this is a dating advice site and there ought to be some nexus between dating, relationships, and trying to cover ten miles of high-altitude trails that have been liberally sprinkled with obstacles from the trivial to the terrifying.

Read on below to hear about my first experience completing a Tough Mudder and some important dating lessons I learned.

EmLovz Does Tough Mudder

Recently, the EmLovz team signed up for the Tough Mudder race at the Northstar at Tahoe resort. Emyli, her boyfriend, and noted raconteur and author of this and other articles, yours truly, all agreed to try the event. Tom and Emyli had done the event several times before, but for me it was something new and a bit frightening.

Although I have generally been in good shape, and have tried to keep myself fit enough for dating, a change in work schedules over the past year had me working at home. Let me tell you something about working from home: its great. Unfortunately, when you work from home, what starts with a couple of diet cokes from your seductively nearby refrigerator rapidly becomes scooping up peanut butter with tortilla chips (and putting way too few calories into the tracker because hey man, tortilla chips are made out of corn!). After a year of working from home, I was about 20 pounds too heavy.

Emyli, as is her wont, suggested that either I “get abs” or give up my pursuit of women. Since I was not about to do that, having put in all the time working on dating skills, I went back to the gym and cut the 20 pounds back off using a combination of stubborn consistency and the cheap boxes of mixed greens they have at the supermarket (broil chicken, put on top, eat, repeat tomorrow).

Because Emyli will always push you one step further than you pictured yourself going she then, in March, said to sign up for the Tough Mudder. Being uninformed, I said “fine.” I then realized that I had about three months to go from decent, just-cut-20-pounds, shape to Mudder shape. Believe it or not, this was difficult. However, because it began to immediately pay dividends in appreciation from women and renewed confidence, it was not actually that bad. Guys, if you lack motivation at the gym, let me give you a one-word boost to your commitment: women. It has been said before, by me, that the entire “dad bod” thing is a lie and I stick by that. Do you see any male dancers in Vegas with dad bods? No; end of argument, put down the candy and go run.

In addition to women there was also the motivation of not humiliating myself in front of friends. I think that there is a difference between letting yourself down, which is bad, and letting your friends down, which may be worse. There was a third motivation in that I lost my mother to an accident in 2010 and the Mudder fell on the weekend of her birthday, and just a couple days after the anniversary of her accident; it had become my habit to gradually descend into a dark well of grief during this week every year. Before we ever ran the Mudder, it was providing me with challenges.

The Event Begins

The three of us rented a place in Tahoe and drove up there the Friday before the event. I think to a certain degree we were all somewhat nervous. I was nervous because I had no idea what to expect. Nervous because I suspected that I was not in nearly good enough shape to tackle the running and the altitude. Strangely I did not feel particularly anxious about the Mudder obstacles. I suspect Tom and Emyli were nervous precisely because they had done the event before and because they actually did know what to expect. A lot has been written about Mudders but a description will be useful.

Essentially you run a 10 mile mixed road and trail course and every so often, you encounter one of about twenty different obstacles. The obstacles range from simple things like vaulting successively taller logs, or climbing a 20 foot ladder made from large boards, to more difficult things like climbing in and out of three feet of ice cold water and scaling six foot clay berms, just to fall into more water.

Some obstacles are not that physically difficult but challenge you mentally; clawing your way through a cage submerged in cold water with just enough room for your face for example. Personally, while a lot of these obstacles were miserable, my initial fears were well-founded. The environment itself was the most difficult thing to overcome.

Weather Struggles

The court started at 6300 feet of elevation which is over a mile for those of you who slept through that day in school. At that altitude there is about 20 percent less oxygen in the air and even though you do not feel it when you’re just walking around, you sure feel it when someone yells Go! and you’re supposed to run up a gravel-covered ski slope. The weather also did not cooperate with our endeavor. The temperature was about 60F at the base of the mountain and it sure felt colder at the top. The weather also provided repeated and sustained blasts of wind. None of this would have been particularly bad except that after the first few obstacles, the expectation is that you will crawl through mud and you know, it turns out a big component of mud is water; so there you are, tired, out of breath, covered in dirt and soaking wet with a cold wind blasting in your face.

There are not sufficient adjectives in the English language to express with any accuracy just how cold we were. I could say that Emyli’s arms were corpse-blue to above the wrists. I could say that the wind was like being punched in the chest and almost dropped me to my knees in despair. I could say I fell off several obstacles because I could not make a fist after about mile six. These are expressions of tropical warmth compared to how cold it actually felt.

Digging Deep

This is the part of the article where I am supposed to write about reaching deep into myself and finding a previously unknown well of strength. The thing is, I knew the strength was there and that if I could just keep putting one foot down in front of the other, sometimes at that speed, that eventually it would be over.

I did not know how fast I would be able to complete the course, or how much being in my mid-40s would take out of me (less than I thought, there goes that excuse). On the other hand, I think there is something to be said for putting your feet down over and over and not stopping. The thing about a Mudder is that there is not much to prevent you from stopping, or avoiding every obstacle, and just walking down off the mountain. That is the real challenge.

Because you can always stop, because you can just walk around any obstacle, you are constantly forced to question why you are doing it and whether you can do this next obstacle. I did not, in the moment, think that this behavior had any great parallels in life or in dating specifically. In the moment I was just really cold and in a lot of pain and wishing I could get a lungful of real honest, sea-level air.

What The Mudder Meant to Me

It took me three hours to stop shaking and two days before my knees would bend without having to bite off a scream. So what did I learn other than that I could do it? I do not think that events like the Mudder so much teach us as reveal to us the things we already know but cannot, or will not face directly. The Mudder is about nothing else if it is not about facing things directly and deciding whether or not you will do them or walk around the side; neither decision is wrong by the way because the only arbiter is you.

One strange thing, I seem to have left a lot of grief on the mountain. I did not expressly think of my mother when I was doing the course but thinking back on it, I know its something she would have been proud of and for me, that relieves a lot of pain.

I do not know if the dead are with us or watching us. I do know that we can make some peace with their presence in our minds though and for me that requires the performance of tasks I feel would have earned my mother’s approval. The Mudder is one of those things. It made me think, what else should I be doing? Am I doing everything I can to be the person my mother wanted me to be? Am I living a life that she would have wanted for me? I am not saying that running around jumping in mud taught me these lessons. I am saying that the experience focuses other aspects of life like a lens.


Another thing I knew but that was revealed to me anew is that Tom and Emyli are really quality people. There was a moment up to my chest in cold mud, with a berm of wet clay in front of me, just like the six others behind me, and I could not muster the strength to get up one more. Emyli, who is probably fifty pounds lighter than I am, reached out an arm and pulled me up.

Both of them were a lot faster than me, a couple orthopedic surgeries younger (hey kids! If you do martial arts like I did you will probably limp a bit in your 40s, just saying). They never left me, for the whole ten miles. Even if they ran ahead, eventually I, with my little-engine-that-could technique, would eventually come up to where they were waiting. I think that has some parallels in dating and life in general.

In the Mudder, your friends, your teammates, cannot take your pain from you. They cannot breath for you or lift your legs and put them down for you. What your friends can do is reach out an arm and help you climb. They can wait for you so you aren’t running alone. When your fears speak to you, don’t get in that cage full of cold water, don’t climb that wall, don’t keep sending messages to women on dating sites when they never reply, then your friends can encourage you; do those things, don’t stop, we believe in you and we know you can do it.

If you are few weeks or months into dating and you haven’t gotten any results, if you are having trouble putting one foot in front of the other then go talk to your friends; recharge yourself in their encouragement and affirmation. They cannot do it for you but your real friends will be there to help and in dating, like in crawling through mud, its a lot better with a team.

A Little Reflection

Something I did not learn on my own was shown to me by a runner passing next to me as we went up the second nightmarish climb. I was watching the trail in front of me, seeing where I put my feet, and occasionally looking up the hill with a mix of equal parts resignation and despair. As I worked to pick my feet up and put them down and climb, I heard a woman say “is anyone looking at where we are?” I lifted my head and looked in her direction and I realized that we were climbing the side of a mountain and to our left was nothing but space.

What space though, the trail was thousands of feet above the valley floor and stretched away into a ring of the snow-topped Sierras. If you want to know your place in the Universe, stand on the side of a mountain and look; you’re a tiny flicker in an immense forever. While I would have liked to stop and marvel, that was not practical. I am glad I looked though and the next time I realize I haven’t done anything but look at my feet for an hour, I will lift my head and look at where I am.

The Dating Lessons

I thought too about all the other hundreds of people doing the Mudder and I thought, these people are experiencing what I am experiencing. It made me, when I got home, question certain aspects of dating.

It seems a lot of dating sites and apps have gone to a swipe right or left format. After the Mudder, and seeing thin people, fat people, beautiful, plain, old, and young, all struggling over the same course as I was, I felt that maybe we shouldn’t dismiss people on the basis of a picture anymore.

Maybe we should try and see the individual struggle behind every face and maybe, even if we do not date them, respect them as something more than a momentary and ephemeral face. Everyone you swipe right or left on is a person. Be respectful of other people’s efforts and struggles and maybe that will be a better path to walk in your quest for a relationship than just wiping away faces.

Ultimately, the best part of the experience is the challenge itself. I think a lot of the time we go through our lives unchallenged and when we face something difficult, the temptation is to do things the easy way. If dating is too difficult, then give up. If work allows you to cut corners, then cut them. Even if it is over in a few hours, and we needed a bit more than four hours, then there is a value in being forced to repeatedly decide whether or not you will take the easy way out.

Over and over, will I get down in the mud, will I climb one more wall. This is no different than will I send one more message, will I go on one more first date. I think the same is probably true when you are dating; am I ready to fail in front of this person, am I ready for this person to know I am not fast, that I hurt, and that I have moments of fear? I am in turn ready hug this person when they fall into mud and pull them out, am I ready to wait for them when they are slow?

One thing you can take away with you, besides the T-shirt and headband you get for finishing a Tough Mudder, is real life material for dating. If you are putting together your online profiles and you think your life in pictures is boring: it probably is.

There is so much puffery that goes into dating profiles. At EmLovz we talk sometimes about the “Machu Picchu” photo. Sometimes when you scroll through dating profiles it seems like every fourth woman has not only been to Machu Picchu but has taken the same picture from the same angle overlooking the ruins.

When you go out on dates though, you come to realize that you are not surrounded by world travelers and adventurers of every stripe. The reality of life and dating especially is that you are surrounded by people who really tend to not do much at all.

You can be a lot more real and doing a Mudder is a tangible “something” to do. Instead of talking about what you wish you were doing or had done, sign up and do something that, while it is going to hurt, you can talk about on dates, can put into your profile, and might even give you a couple cool scars.

I commend the experience to everyone willing to try it. I have signed up for next year and I hope that next time Team EmLovz will spend slightly less time waiting for me.