Joshua, of Healing Tree Yoga and long time New England Spahten, hit 60 miles of Worlds Toughest Mudder, good enough for 5th in his age group, and 60th overall. What you may not know is the journey from one year ago, where he lay in a hospital bed (and I gave him this silly hat), to this accomplishment. It’s quite a story …
A year ago I was ready for World’s Toughest Mudder, in my opinion the hardest challenge in the sport of obstacle racing. But lightning strikes sometimes, the unexpected happens, you can win the lottery, or almost die. We are faced with a natural environment that remains utterly indifferent to our fate and the foibles of our lives. From high above we look like ants. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the weight of our two collected species is identical. I was fighting a lingering fever and a recent string of colds. I was suddenly struck with a debilitating internal pain upon waking, just 4 days before the event. The doctor recommended an ultrasound, but wasn’t overly concerned. However, during the three days that passed before my scan, the pain almost totally immobilized me. I rationalized this at the time, as I lay nearly motionless on the chaise. In retrospect it was very foolish.
This year I also felt ready, though I had sprained my wrist fairly badly two weeks prior, the rest of me was injury free. The Lake Las Vegas course was in a desert of rock and dust, the only vegetation hardy little shrubs bristling with thorns and cacti that were equally inviting. Because I’d run more than 100 miles in past years of WTM, I was allowed to register and set up my pit area early. This area is essential for every serious racer. You must have people to help you. After hours and hours of brutal effort, even removing your own gloves is a challenge. The human spirit is lifted by kindness, it gives us strength that is difficult to equal elsewhere. Returning to the faces of friends in the stark reality of pain and dementia at these events is uplifting in a way difficult to explain.
Just a few minutes into the ultrasound, I was informed that I needed to go the ER immediately, that I had numerous large abscesses on my liver. These had not been a considered explanation for my pain. I knew they could be very serious or fatal. They had to take me in a wheelchair as the pain no longer allowed me to walk. This is the moment I was most frightened. I know many of you have experienced serious medical issues, or lost someone important to an unexpected sickness. For me, I remember that hallway, the smells, the tiny cracks in the floor so vividly. Perhaps we’ve all had the moment when we try to determine whether we have a headache or a brain tumor. Or in that turbulent moment on a flight when even the flight attendant looks nervous. What if this is it?
1200 of us started out on the 5 mile course, that had 839 feet of elevation and 21 obstacles, nearly all of which involved water. The idea is to run as many 5 mile laps as you can in 24 hours. This race is unique in that you are only limited by your determination to continue moving, as fast as you can, for the duration. How much pain and suffering are you willing to accept? Will you risk injury? Go 30 more miles on a broken ankle like Jesse? Another 20 miles wearing three discarded wetsuits and trimmed legs and arms from others like Pak?
I moved from the ER to ICU quickly. I was told I had 15 abscesses on my liver, of which 5 very dangerously large. I am placed on a total of 4 antibiotics. They warn me that if one of the abscesses ruptures, I’m unlikely to survive. Abscesses larger than 3.5cm are considered to be at risk for rupture. Three of mine are over 6cm. They watch you to see how you will react. Then they leave and you sit there with that thought. Perhaps your wife is standing there and doing her best to remain strong and downplay their words. You are safe now, in the hospital, the maze of antiseptic white light from above, gurneys lining the walls, machines of every kind cacophonous all around you. Safe.
Though we are in Nevada, we are cold. The first lap was run in 65 degree weather, but the water is numbing. By lap 2, the temperature has dropped ten degrees and I am shivering and already dreading water obstacles. One of the obstacles, Gut Buster, a very creative obstacle with an angled wall you must put your feet on while reaching far out to grasp a series of rigid pipes hanging from above, you must traverse them. If you fail you fall in neck deep water. This obstacle puts undue stress on my sprained wrist and I’m forced to complete penalty laps throughout the race as a result. The remaining obstacles I manage either one-handed, or by adjusting my grip. Everyone on the course will have body parts give out at some point, so my struggle is shared.
A second scan is done, and I’m told the antibiotics have had no effect. They tell me they will aspirate one of the abscesses, the largest, to relieve pressure and to draw fluid to grow a culture, thus enabling the doctors to identify the bacteria responsible. A doctor from India, who I am told was unrivaled in such procedures, arrives to drain the abscess. He is accompanied by 4 team members who will assist him. They alert me to the fact that if the aspiration causes a leak, I will get sepsis and likely die. I sign the paper. The doctor rolls in a portable ultrasound and I notice there are many doctors in the room looking on. He inserts a 30 gauge syringe through my rib cage after apologizing that he can’t give me a pain reliever. Using the ultrasound he aligns the syringe with the abscess. He first must penetrate the capsule of my liver, which is supposed to keep bacteria out, but also is hard for antibiotics to get through. I feel the pop as he gets through. The doctors applaud. I realize this is not something they see often. He fills three syringes with a truly revolting green infected fluid. He got 10oz from the one abscess.
I start my third lap in a wetsuit, expertly installed on my body by my pit crew. They took care of five of us who were racing. We had the best pit encampment that I’ve seen. Ehsan knows everything about this job, having run the event three times himself. The wetsuit stays on until the end of the race, another 22.5 hours. It is essential to know exactly how to prevent blisters and chafing. These may seem like minor concerns, but they will destroy anyone over time and force you to drop out. The suits limit your mobility, especially the thicker, warmer ones. My suit is 3mm. In general this isn’t thick enough for the type of cold at this race. I am lucky to have a high tolerance for cold. Each of us have some gift like this. If you find it, you will have success. I had to spend a few hours in a river in February in Vermont this one time to discover mine.
I lie in the hospital bed, still in the ICU. The abscesses continue to grow, as does the pain. It becomes so bad, that as my dose of pain killers wears down, I lose the ability to function. It was very frustrating to be so weak. I was given a device for testing my oxygen saturation. You breathe in through a tube attempting to raise the meter. I can’t reach the lowest level. I can only take the shallowest of breaths, I need help standing, and walking the few feet to the bathroom requires me to rest. The doctors are very concerned about the growing abscesses and the unusual nature of my ailment. More than 50 doctors visited me at least once, though this finally settled to a group of about 6.
It is already dark on the course. I am chilly in my wetsuit, but not cold. This is perfect. I will not overheat or get hypothermic. The course is brilliant with many obstacles debuting and others nearly impossible to do solo. Tough Mudder has always emphasized teamwork, camaraderie, and community. This culminating event is the perfect demonstration of how seriously we all take this philosophy. You are not alone in the course, even when you are on a lonely stretch along a ridge line, the scattered red rocks reminiscent of Mars, the isolation seemingly identical as you look ahead at the trail that is nearly as dark as the cloudless sky and its strikingly bright stars. But when you look behind you, there is a long line of bright headlamps climbing behind you, all moving slowly and steadily. It reminds me of the line of lanterns you see above and below while climbing Mt Fuji in Japan at night, you will reach the summit as the sun rises.
4 days pass and they’ve yet to identify the bacteria. They are considering surgery. This is exceedingly dangerous, with yet another 50% chance of death. One gets used to this declaration. I did not believe I would die. I’m told that they will wait another day before this surgery happens. They are certain we will be able to identify the culprit by then. I am allowed only limited visitors in the ICU, but someone is always there. They tell me I made no sense, that I was convinced that I was supposed to be an officiant at a wedding and had to leave, that the nurses were building a fallout shelter behind a refrigerator, and that they must clean under the floor tiles at my studio. I routinely fall asleep in the middle of sentences, only to emerge later in the middle of a different conversation of my own imagination. People are very patient with me. The nurses are so good that I believe I’ve stumbled into to apex of human kindness.
There are six swims. One was short, the others 25-50 meters. Some ended in obstacles, others you completed in the water like Statue of Liberty, where you must hold a flame above the water as you swim across. It is mesmerizing to watch, our faces just above the surface, lit by orange flame as we slowly swim. Another ends in a steeply angled wall, called Hump Chuck, and is nearly impossible to do alone. It is not so bad with the help of other mudders emerging, our wetsuits slick and black like sea creatures, stepping on one another’s knees and shoulders, our hands as familiar as family. A third obstacle, Hydroplane, has us attempting to run across thin floating mats that stretch across the river. It reminds me of the classic film the 36th Chamber. See it, if you haven’t.
On the 5th day they identify the bacteria. Fuso. They have determined that I am the 5th person to ever have this infection. However, the bacteria itself is known. They scrap the numerous other antibiotics and put me on penicillin, the original. It begins to work very quickly. The mold that grew on discarded petri dishes in 1928 was going to save my life. By that night they decide to aspirate the 5 largest abscesses. This is a big deal. I’d been asking for it every day. I knew it would be painful and risky, but I wanted as much of that stuff out of me as possible. No crowd in the room. A doctor and two nurses. At 10 pm they do it. This time they take me to the basement. It is the most painful experience of my life as they vacuum another 30 ounces of infected fluid from my liver. When they finish and leave the room for a few minutes, I can’t breathe. By this I mean I literally could not intake any oxygen because even the minute expansion of my lungs was excruciating. I am grateful for the many decades of martial arts training I’ve had. I couldn’t speak, and there’s nothing anyone could have done anyway. I slowly took control of the pain and then my breathing as my body responded to the sudden empty space left by the abscesses. I take the shallowest of breaths. Little by little I breathe more deeply. After 15 minutes, it fades. From this point on the pain began to subside slowly. The worst of that was over.
The Gamble is a series of six walls built together in a line, of varying difficulty. We must roll a die to determine which wall we must ascend. It is a spirit crusher. Two of the walls were just about impossible to ascend alone. Luckily there were a thousand team members behind you. Even worse was another new obstacle, named Operation, a truly nasty creation where you must thread a metal pole through a small metal lined hole to hook and extract a small ring on a second wall 6 feet back. If the metal pole touches the metal lined hole, you are electrocuted, every time. This wasn’t fun in the least. There was a great deal of cursing from racers and laughter from onlookers. Only Tough Mudder. As the night wore on, many opted to take the penalty of a sandbag drag and carry. The obstacle named Vertigo required us to climb a twenty foot ladder and then walk across a two inch balance beam, a cargo net below in case we fell. Tough Mudder excels at getting you to face and conquer your fears.
I wasn’t eating much in the hospital. I had been 207lbs upon entry. I was afraid to eat anything and not making any sense, and no one really wanted to fight with me about it. I was moved to a regular room from ICU. This was a major change. It mean I was no longer in danger of instant death, and it meant that it would be harder to get the things I needed. I had to argue with doctors and nurses that first day on the floor to be certain things were going to go as ordered. I don’t remember being mean, but my dad said a couple doctors didn’t want to spar with me verbally and passed me off. I wanted to be certain that we followed the plan of the Head Fellow from Infectious Disease. Since Boston Medical Center is the premiere hospital for this area, I was going to make sure we followed it to the letter. I was losing a great deal of weight. People were concerned.
Pipes. Everywhere. The course had awful pipes. Climb a rope out of the water into a pipe and roll through barb wire after, Upper Decker. Very Hard. Get into water climb up an angled pipe with a hose spraying water in your face from above, Royal Flush. Climb monkey bars up, slip into a pipe and shimmy down, Grease Monkey. All very innovative, challenging, awful. There was another pipe in the middle of a penalty sandbag carry as well. And speaking of innovative, Roll the Dice was awesome. Watch this video, words don’t do it justice.
At this point I could take visitors. I’ve thought often about how to express my gratitude and amazement at how many of my friends and family came to visit, bring me things, comfort, companionship. Taking care of my roommate who had few visitors. Being the incredible people that I look up to and aspire to be. Some cried, some made me, laugh. My close friends told me I looked like shit. Some were scared. I reached out to many of you. I don’t remember many who came. You know. I just want to say that this was perhaps the single most important time of my life. Everything changed for me at this point. Everyone who reached out to me in any way was part of it. Whether in person or otherwise. I am eternally, incalculably grateful. It was a gift I will never forget.
The laps kept coming and my desire to quit increased. The other obstacles out there were tough. Every one of them. Rappelling down a rock wall in Abseil, scrambling under the impossibly tangled web-like ropes of Tight Fit, or the fun new one, Tramp Stamp, a jump from a trampoline to a T-Bar, quick zip line over water and you’re off. There were old favorites as well. King of the Swingers remains epic. They add up. That is what sets this race apart from all others, the endless attrition, the continual onslaught of miles and obstacles extending forever in from of you like those paintings with the line of doorways extending infinitely far away. How long can you go, and how far? Will someone make 100? 125? Will a team win the $100,000 prize? Perhaps you can only do 5 miles. If that is your limit, it is there in front of you waiting to be reached. 10, 20, 30. Whatever it is. Sandy, Paul, I’m talking to you. Go.
I was in the hospital another week before they sent me home. When they did it was with a PICC line, a portable IV that delivered antibiotics into my heart for 6 more weeks. Then I was on a pill form for two more months before I was finally cleared. My liver was clean. It was March. I weighed 179lbs when I came out of the hospital, a loss of 28 lbs. I took a selfie of that, as much as I hate them, to ensure that I would never, ever forget. The impact on my family, my wife, my son. My father and mother who’d already lost a son, and had to watch another standing on the edge of….
The Cliff. 35 feet above the water. Opened at midnight. Last obstacle before the finish line. Maximum fear, speed, height, uncertainty, pain. Everything rolled into one. If you skipped this obstacle, you HAD to complete and extra .65 miles, Electroshock Therapy, and Mud Mile. They wanted you to step off that cliff. Face your fears. Fear of dying. Fear of wasting away in the hospital, leaving your family alone, never putting one foot in front the other again. Never hugging your son again. Fear of not stepping off the Cliff, of not entering every single day like the ephemeral, unique, and often trying gifts they are. Again, they come to us from the indifference of Nature, it is frighteningly easy to lose them forever, but they are OURS. It is a big world, filled with other sons and fathers, with new life and old death, the void we will all cross into, It is a blackness we all try to decipher, staring deeply into an abyss we can never perceive. It will cover you with a fog that hides the thousand beauties in every moment, or awaken you into this vibrant existence, even in the days that crush you with the weight of human folly, the misery that allows you to appreciate the warm sun when it returns, the moonlight illuminating the scars you can’t decide whether to show off or hide, the song that makes you cry hard and the stupid things that make you laugh. Our journeys are certain, but their lengths are assured by nothing but the fickle twists in our time streams, until the whisker of death finally brushes your cheek.
You find your own meaning in things, as I have in this last year. Sometimes you know which Cliff to jump from. Sometimes you just have to leap.