As I trekked around the sprawling snow free, mud streaked landscape of Vermont’s Mount Snow last Sunday, I asked myself: what would the early New Englanders think of the spectacle in front of them? You know, the pioneering souls who scraped the earth bare of boulders each year, only to find more the next. They hauled the stones in wagons and built the walls, and fed their families from the wild and from what they could coax from the thin scratchy soil. They trudged through waist deep snow in early spring to empty sap buckets and felled and split at least 10 cords of wood a year to keep warm. Their bodies grew hard, but often were felled by maladies that did not care if your body was hard. The New Englanders who in droves pushed west to find what they knew not, except they hoped it would offer a softer, maybe more bountiful life. I wish I could bring some of them back for a day to gaze upon this mountain crawling with some 4000 men and women, each of whom paid roughly $100-$150 (it depended on how early they signed on) for the privilege of pushing their bodies and minds to some sort of absolute limit. Their own personal reality show: can I finish what I started.
Picture this: you start running down a mountain, then run (or walk if you must) up. Then part way down. Then up. One man had a mountaineering GPS system attached to his body and said at the end of the ten mile course he had climbed the equivalent of over 7000 feet, and had punished his body through over 13,000 feet of elevation change. And, this was the easy part. Along the way you faced daunting obstacles (to put it mildly). A leap into a 35 degree snow melt pond. A sprint through a tunnel flanked by flaming hay bales, the acrid smoke stinging eyes and yet you could not close them lest you veer into a bale. A series of 12 foot high wooden walls that to climb over required every bit of fading strength, only to get over one to find yet another, and another. Long narrow galvanized tubes filled with mud soaked slime so you emerged more salamander than human. Those sorts of obstacles.
The event (which will be returning to Mount Snow next July) is called Tough Mudder. It is certainly tough, and there was surely mud. The notion of creating a day to test your mental and physical endurance, began not in the wild but in the civilized halls of Harvard Business School. In 2009, an MBA student named Will Dean, submitted his Tough Mudder idea as part of a business school competition. He did not win, and skeptical professors questioned who on earth would pay to suffer?
But the young Englishman was onto something. His event would get away from winners and trophies and the pursuit of personal bests times. The world was filled with such races. Instead, he wanted a way for people to reach out to fellow competitors, to help each other over and under and through obstacles; to create an event where “keep going” was what you heard on the course, not “passing on the right.” He promoted his first event in 2010 with $8000 of Facebook ads. The event was a smash and he hasn’t looked back. This year there are 16 Tough Mudders around the country and next year it moves overseas.
The impact and allure of Tough Mudder hit home when I found that Andy Freeman, Dublin General Store co-owner with his wife Michelle, and a local landmark here just a down the hill from Yankee, was entering. Andy is well into his 40s and mostly we see him behind the counter serving up the best food around. Not as someone who is jumping into snow melt ponds. But he wanted to test his limits.
As did my son Josh. He just finished a winter as a ski patrolman at Okemo and each week he posted here about his first year on the mountain. He is 23, more fit than I ever dreamed of being, and yet he too wanted to see where his limit might be. To my amazement as I tried to follow his progress here and there along the rugged terrain, he always smiled as he finished one obstacle after another, as if he were a child again exploring how dirty he could get. Only at the end when he trembled from the cold (nearly 80% of the 4000 entrants finished and nearly all whom I saw were shivering visibly from the cold and drain of the event) did I see how far he had pushed himself. A week earlier Tough Mudder had been in Pennsylvania and one woman finisher was quoted in the local paper:”There is no word to describe the muscle aches I had for two days. My bruises looked like a connect-the-dots all over my body.”
So that’s why I wonder what the early sturdy stock of New Englanders would have thought about all this. How many days of their lives did they come home covered in mud, soaked from snow, bruised by rocks, harassed by biting flies? They endured the elements to stay alive and to build a life. I think they would be amused, but at the same time I think they would have admired the tenacity on display. Modern life has certainly grown softer and gentler, but for one day, at least, life was reduced to just getting through, with no reward except from what’s inside your heart.
Slide Show: 2011 Tough Mudder Race at Mt. Snow