Coming into World’s Toughest Mudder 2018, people often asked me if I was nervous. Second time in a row, trying to defend my title, and knowing what’s coming. I was nervous and scared, but that was months before the race. When my foot still hurt and I couldn’t run more than 2 hours at a time. When I’d finish a Toughest Mudder, and everything hurt after 8 hours of running – it seemed impossible to go on for another 16. But then the week before the race, everything seem to be falling into place; I felt good, I felt fast, and while 24 hours of running still felt fairly impossible, I became a lot less scared. I knew that doing this race would be harder the second time around, but a new venue almost made it feel like doing it again for the first time. And there were so many things to look forward into the race – high voltage route that opened at 8pm, The Stacks at midnight, and those Golden Carabiners through the night. 

I wasn’t nervous, I was excited coming into the race. With everything I’ve been through this year, I was just glad to be able to run. Just like last year, the outcome didn’t matter as much as the fact that I was strong and healthy enough to show up. And while I had dreams (that elusive orange jacket, mileage record), the goal was a lot less terrifying: to keep moving for 24 hours.

Race Day

I woke up to a cloudless sky on race day. My luck this year had many of my races on a rainy day surrounded by sunshine. I couldn’t believe that this weekend was exactly reversed – sunny, cloudless skies amidst the days of rain. That made the weekend cold – it was a chilly morning, and I knew that the night was going to get much colder. The ground was muddy soup, but I didn’t care – as long as there was sunshine, I was happy. 

Everything was smoother this year: being an elite contender, my pit was next to the race center and I was able to enter the start line 30 minutes before the start, not having to work for the spot near the front of the crowd. As we were waiting to start, I was chatting with Allison Tai, and I mentioned my Moxie gaiters didn’t arrive in time for this race. A few minutes later her husband John was handing me her spare pair, and I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky I am. Not for having the gaiters, but for being surrounded by people with such kind hearts. 

Rea Kolbl Wins WTM 2 Years Straight

Sprint Lap

None of the obstacles are open during the first lap of the race – the so-called Sprint lap. This year the trail followed the first Golden Carabiner route: a 1.6 mile detour, bypassing 8 of the obstacles. It was so beautiful out there! There was fall everywhere, and the route really felt golden. While last year I won the sprint lap accidentally – I was a bit further back at the start, and didn’t realize there was no women ahead of me – this year, I was secretly trying to do it again. I wasn’t pushing the pace too hard, but at sub 7 min/miles it felt dangerously fast for the beginning of a 24 hour race. I heard Allison close behind me, so I decided to keep pushing and slow down later – I might as well try to bypass as many obstacles as possible before they open, and there will be many hours left to go slow.  I won the sprint lap, but only by a matter of yards, with Allison closing the gap on the next lap.

Being cold sucks

Mud mile was the first obstacle to open, soaking us up completely on the second lap. Shortly before that I was considering taking off my windbreaker – wearing more than ever before on a sunny day, I was sweating buckets. But the warmth was fleeting – coming out of the water, it took me no time to start shivering. 

Two weeks ago I got pulled off course at the New Jersey Spartan race for hypothermia. After two hours of shivering my body decided it was done, and I finished my race hooked up to an IV in an ambulance. Those memories were still fresh in my mind, and as the shivers got worse and running did nothing to make me feel warmer, I wanted to quit. I simply had no more mental strength left to deal with the cold. All I could think about was how I don’t want to do this again. 

Sometimes I feel like these races are ran by two different Rea’s – and the stubborn one didn’t let the cold one give up. Back in the pit, I put on my shorty wetsuit, another neoprene vest, neoprene cap, and a thick (no longer waterproof) jacket. This was concerning – it was not even 2pm yet, and I was already running in a wetsuit. Running gets slower with neoprene on, your hip flexors have to work harder, and you are likely going to chafe at some point in the future. But all that mattered to me was that after the first hill, I was warm again.

I was so miserable when I was cold – I couldn’t even run properly, let alone greet others and smile. After being warmed up by the neoprene I was happy again, and the thought of quitting seemed like a distant, silly thought.

Little victories

As the race went on more and more obstacles opened – and I loved them! Most of the new obstacles were really fun. My favorite was the Black Widow – a net of slack lines over water, with more slack lines to hold on to. I was worried about Twin Peaks and Leap of Faith, but they turned out to be fun. Probably one of the things I’m most proud of in this race is making it across The Gauntlet three times (at 8pm, the alternative High Voltage route opened and I choose to get shocked from then on instead – it feels a lot like someone punched you, but hit every single muscle in your body). 

The Gauntlet was a long obstacle, starting with a balance beam, followed by monkey rings, leading into Just the Tip, ending with a traverse over water of shimming along in a stretched plank position called Gut Buster. Last year I could only dream about clearing an obstacle like that once, let alone doing it lap after lap again. It made me so happy and proud of myself for all the upper body work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. I was grateful for the guidance from Yancy Culp who got me ready for the 24 hours of obstacles. The goal this year was to run a lot less penalty miles, and I achieved that – although it didn’t quite help my 100-mile goal, it made me proud. 

I think it’s important to pay attention to these small victories along the course. The race is long and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and to feel disappointed when your pace isn’t what you planned it to be. But even if the conditions prevent you from hitting your mileage goal, celebrating the little victories along the way can help you make it through the dark hours of the night. 

Don’t let your shorts bunch inside the wetsuit

My shorty kept me happy enough that I was hesitant to change into the full suit before the sunset lap. I already spent more time than I’d liked in the pit, changing in and out of neoprene on the first few laps when the initial plan was staying in my running gear. But my crew insisted I do it, and I’m glad I listened.

I had two options – 3/2 Orca open water suit, or a 4/3 Roxy wetsuit with an inner layer made of thermally insulated fleece. I wore the latter in Vegas, and I was severely overheating; it got so warm I asked Yancy to cut it at calves while I was wearing it. But I really didn’t want to have to change again later in the night when the temperatures dropped (I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to put on a wetsuit wet and covered in mud, but it takes at least three people – one to hold a chair you’re sitting on, one to hold you, and one to stuff your limbs into the neoprene), so I opted for the warmer option. After all, there are worse things than being warm. 

Once Bun, Cindy, and Paulina (my crew) managed to stuff me into the wetsuit, we realized my shorts had bunched up. The last thing I wanted to do was to take it off and repeat the process, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad to just let them be. That, along with forgetting my anti chafing lotion was probably one of the bigger mistakes I made during the race, and 15 hours later I really wished I took the time to fix it. 

The dark of the night

Just like last year, nighttime running was again my favorite. There’s something about the dark that makes it easy for me to zone out. To just put one foot in front of the other, get over obstacles, say hello to other strobe lights and headlamps, and move along. There’s little variation at night – with temperature much more steady than during the day, there’s less decision making regarding gear. I was wearing my warmest gear and I was comfortable, so all I had to worry about was eating and moving forward. 

Occasionally, the course got lonely. There were stretches in the woods when I was completely alone. Coming into the race I was afraid of being alone in the woods, especially knowing how dark it would be in Atlanta. But the loneliness wasn’t scary – it was beautiful. It was strangely peaceful and I loved the quiet of the woods. 

Some of my favorite moments from the race are from the night hours. The steam rising from the water reminded me just how cold it was outside. The lights from the Mudder Village were casting shadows through the trees. White headlamps and colorful strobe lights were illuminating the paths through the forest. Nighttime running has challenges, of course, but it’s also so overwhelmingly beautiful.

Rea Kolbl Wins WTM 2 Years Straight

The Frost

As the night went on, the temperatures dropped and ice started covering obstacles. It was so bizarre, seeing ice sheets forming on obstacles while at the same time I was staying warm, going in and out of water. It got so cold that whenever I grabbed a metal rod or a wooden plank, my gloves stuck to the ice. It was almost unreal; the dichotomy of being warm while everything else around you is frozen.

It got so cold that some of the obstacles closed due to ice. They were the ones I really disliked, a trifecta of suffering – T-boned (overhanging wall), Lumberjacked (a series of giant logs to go over that were too tall to be able to do alone), and Skidmarked (an inverted wall). It took so much energy to get over those, even with help, and my right shoulder was starting to hurt pretty badly from pulling my upper body over those. In that moment I was so grateful for the cold, for the frost. I was lucky enough to have gear to keep me warm, so the frost made the course just a bit easier. 

The Sunrise

I heard the stories of how amazing the sunrise is before my first WTM in 2017. But in Vegas, that moment was so underwhelming – it was overcast, I was freezing, and the sunrise didn’t make me any warmer. This year I didn’t expect much from the break of dawn either – but its beauty surprised me.

As the sun came up, the colors were beautiful. With all the lakes and autumn trees, the views were gorgeous. But what really blew my mind was seeing all of the frozen land – the grass was no longer green, there was white everywhere. I knew it was cold, but I didn’t really feel it while being snuggled inside all that neoprene. With the light of the day, I could see it, and probably for the first time in the race I realized just how big of an achievement making it through the night was.

When the wheels fall off

As the sun was rising I went out for my 15th lap. By then I knew my 100-mile dream was pretty far out of reach. But I did think I had at least 2 to 3 laps left in me. My race strategy was similar to last year’s – go out hard, so that when the wheels come off I’d have enough lead to place well in the race. Last year, the wheels never came off; this year I crashed full speed into the ditch.

On my 14th lap I used my one Golden Carabiner, which let me bypass most of the obstacles. On the 15th lap I decided to take penalties on many of those – Twin Peaks no longer felt safe with the ropes completely frozen over, and I didn’t feel like my body control was sufficient to make the 35 foot drop from the Stacks into the water without getting injured. Up to that point, I was running almost the entire time, walking only on the steepest hills. But on the 15th lap, I resorted to a walk more and more often. And at about half way point, every time I tried to jog I only made it a couple of strides before everything simply hurt too much to continue. 

With a lead of over one lap, I decided to stop trying to run, and simply walk the rest of the lap (thank you Jon Vinas and Carl Eldred for keeping me company all the way to the finish line). But soon that got me cold, as moving slower generated a lot less body heat. By the time I was nearing the finish line, even walking hurt. I was also pretty badly chafed from those bunched up shorts I should have fixed 20 hours ago – every time I peed it felt like someone poured acid on my private areas and inner thighs. Every time I had to lower myself down to cross a stream, or climb up an obstacle, every part of my body screamed at me that we were done. After Mud Mile I saw Bun and asked him if I could please just be done.

For the rest of the course all I could think about was whether or not I could be done. With 3 hours of race left and a roughly a 6 mile lead, I decided that it was okay to stop. And as soon as my brain made that decision, my body completely gave in. I barely made it to the top of the hill, across the last obstacle, and down to the finish line. Suddenly everything that felt fine up to that point started to hurt.

One of the race directors came towards me and handed me my leader bib; my pit crew was waving at me, ready with cups of oatmeal and energy gels for the next lap. But I was done. I hobbled over to the finish line at 9am; so excited I somehow managed to win for the second year in a row, but perhaps even more grateful it was all over. On me was probably the cleanest leader bib I’ll ever own.

We all need help

One thing I really love about these races is the ability to make you feel so strong yet so helpless at the same time. I felt invincible getting across The Gauntlet, but I needed two people to haul me up Everest – to Darth Vader, Jason Harley, Joe Herman, and Francis Lackner on top of the Everest, I love you forever. I stepped on so many knees and so many shoulders to make it over logs and walls. I felt strong on the Twin Peaks obstacle, but I needed someone to boost me up the first step to be able to even attempt it. 

But perhaps the moment I felt the most helpless was when I needed to poop. I was terrified of that moment the entire race, wearing quite a bit of neoprene that I dreaded having to take off. I managed to make it to the porta-potties in time but I knew that without help there’s no way I could strip off fast enough. Luckily, Anne Clifford was there and I asked her for help. While I was in there doing my business she recruited two other guys to help me put the wetsuit back on.  In the World’s Toughest Mudder, you can get through all of the obstacles, run for 24 hours, but you can’t even poop properly on your own. I think this humility that we so rarely experience in our daily lives makes us all a bit better human beings. 

I’ll keep coming back

I think the reason I do so well at these events is my ability to zone out. Looking back, I don’t remember struggling – I know it hurt because I know how badly I wanted to be done, but I don’t remember the feeling. It’s like someone else was running the race and I was just taking notes. I know it was hard, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because I remember crying in pain in the tent when it was all over, unable to walk half a mile to the car. But I no longer feel the struggle the same way as I remember feeling happy and grateful. If I close my eyes I can still feel how good it felt making it across obstacles I didn’t think I could do, jumping off Stacks, crossing that finish line for the last time. Perhaps that’s the beauty of the human mind – we forget the pain but the joy lasts forever.

Nutrition

On course:

  • Spring energy gels
  • Honey Stinger Waffles
  • Cliff bars
  • Kill cliff at the water station

In the pit:

  • PB&J sandwiches
  • Chicken broth
  • Wheatberry salad
  • Oatmeal with almond milk, cinnamon, sugar, and salt
  • EndurElite PerformElite every 4 hours
  • Salt tablets
Gear
  • First two laps: shorts, windbreaker, UD Race Vesta 4.0 vest, BleggMitts
  • Third & Fourth lap: Orca Swimrun shorty, waterproof jacket, bandana & a neoprene cap, running vest, BleggMitts
  • 4pm until the finish: 4/3 Roxy Syncro thermally insulated fullsuit, 1.5mm neoprene sleeveless vest, neoprene hoodie, waterproof jacket, running vest, BleggMitts
Rea Kolbl WTM Champion
Rea Kolbl WTM Champion

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