This Is What WTM 2017 Was Like, According to Ryan Atkins

By RyanAtkins | December 5, 2017

 

Blackness consumed everything. My headlamp had given up on me a few miles back. But there was no time to waste. I was 70 miles into World’s Toughest Mudder 2017 and the race to 110 was only just beginning.

Rewind. How did I find myself here? Swimming through green, back-lit water? It started 5 years ago. I love testing myself. The harder, the better, and this seemed like the “Holy Grail” of hard. I saw a little internet advert claiming what was “probably the toughest event on earth”. Intrigued. Hooked. I was sitting at my desk at work. My pulse quickened and my palms began to sweat. The monotony of daily life had become crushing. I told myself that I would sign up. I would run through mud and obstacles for 24 hours. And MAYBE, if my beliefs about myself were correct, I’d come out the other side with a new perspective. I had never imagined that this decision would lead to a series of life-altering events. I went on to win that year, beating the undefeated WTM champion and completing 100 miles. Orange seemed to look good on me.

The next 3 years of racing led me to make hundreds of friendships, carve a new career path, and log many, many miles. In 2017, TMHQ announced a bonus “incentive” to competitors. The Bonus prize would be awarded in the individual category, not the team category. I had been lusting after coming back to the individual category since 2014 so the decision was simple. I organized my entire race season around winning WTM and running 110 miles. Every other race was secondary. I pushed aside “tapers” and “peaking” for everything else and just kept telling myself that it was all for WTM 2017.

Taking to the start line this year and hearing Sean Corvelle speak to us Legionaires about the most committed Mudders is always inspiring. But I have to consciously try not get too excited because I like to think of my potential for performance as a finite bathtub of motivation, stoke, energy, willpower, adrenaline and concentration. Sean is so great at getting fired up, that I need to temper my fire and try not to let it all burn out on the first lap.

 

Lap 1 was great. No obstacles were open yet, so the pace is high, as we rushed to get in some “free mileage”. On lap 2, near the end, I was chatting with a competitor, and unbeknownst to me, we just followed the arrows for the penalty loop of “funky monkey”. It turned out to be an extra kilometer of running. Jon Albon was right with us, and about 7-8 people all made that mistake, too. On the next lap, I looked at the markings and realized it that it was an honest mistake. But at before that point, the race leader, Robert Killian was about 1 minute ahead of me, and the mistake grew the gap to about 8 minutes.

This was one of the most defining moments of the race for me. Panic set it. I had just given the leader big gap. I knew that I needed to run a perfect race in order to hit my goal of 110 miles. So I needed to make the conscious decision to not let it stress me out. So I just focused on running consistent lap times for the next 20 laps. 

As night time began to fall, I took a pit stop and switched into a wetsuit, and changed my shoes. My pit crew was awesome and made the switchover quick and seamless. I think it was around this time, that Robert failed “funky monkey- The revolution” in two consecutive laps. I knew that running a clean, race without any penalties would go a long way to winning the race.

As I came through the pit on lap 7, the race director told me that they had decided that my misdirection on lap 2 was a marking error on their part, and that they had come up with a solution. They wanted me to cut the course to take off slightly less than the time I had lost in that lap. The race director met me at a determined location, and walked me through the cut. It saved about 6 minutes on that lap and I was very grateful for the correction, which leveled out the playing field. 

After this, I just put my head down and tried to hit some intermediate goals.

With a race like WTM, one of my strategies is to celebrate all the littlest successes and benchmarks and to ignore/get over any mistakes or hardships as quickly as possible. This makes it easy to keep a positive mindset for the duration of the event. Examples of this are sunset, 50 miles, 100km, 8 hours, 12 hours, 75 miles, 16 hours, sunrise, 100 miles, etc.  So at this stage I was just rolling through all the intermediate goals and trying to keep my pace as steady as possible.

At midnight, the course switched over. And my position in the lap was basically as as bad as it could have been. I came to the “big hill” that they added just a few minutes after midnight. It had been my intention to get there at 11:59, and to avoid one climb of the hill. But this didn’t quite work out, so I just had to keep plugging along.

It was moments like this, walking up the long uphills, where the strength and animosity of the Tough Mudder community comes through. Almost every person I would pass would cheer me on, tell me I was doing a good job and congratulate me. I don’t believe that I would have achieved my goal if it hadn’t been for the community’s generosity and positivity. We are all out there, suffering and toughing it out together. I think the community is its strongest between 2am and 5am, when the course is the darkest, coldest and can be the loneliest.

 

Once I made it to the sunrise, I knew I was almost there. The additional obstacles, cliff jump and big hill that came with the midnight course made my lap times jump from around 60 minutes to about 75-80 minutes. The relentless mental math checks and my current (now-excellent) mental state told me that I could certainly hit my goal of 110 miles. 

After crossing the finish line for 100 miles I headed out on my 21st lap at around 9:05am. I knew that I had over a 2 hour lead on second place. It was this lap that was my slowest and HARDEST lap. I had been pushing myself and holding myself to such a high standard of perfection on the course that it felt as though I had run out of will power. My body was sore, and my mind was complete mush. I had to dig really deep to keep the pace up on that lap. I knew that once I got to my last lap, I would have no issues with completing it, but boy, was that second-to-last-lap was a struggle.

I left for my final lap at 10:35. I just had to suffer through every obstacle, every hill, every mud crawl ONE MORE TIME. You can do this, I told myself. About 1 mile into the lap, I ran into my friend Jon Albon, who was out pacing his sister, Beth. She was going for her 75th mile. Running with Jon for about ½ a mile felt like “coming home”. We chatted, laughed, made car noises, and just goofed around together. Then I told him I was going to go finish this thing and took off.  I got to the Cliff for what would probably be my last cliff jump ever, because due to the change in location of WTM  next year, there might not be a Cliff. 109.9 miles in, .1 miles left. I stood at the top the platform, and raised my hands for the crowds to make some noise. They cheered. I jumped. I came up from the darkness and with complete elation and I ran the last few steps to the finish line. 

It was 11:57. I felt extra special for finishing the challenge set out for me. The race was always a “24 hour” race for me. The additional 1.5 hours that they leave us to complete our last lap seemed like a formality. I had legitimately done 110 miles in exactly 24 hours. I raised my hands and crossed the finish line. Mission accomplished. I did a few interviews at the finish line, then I went and saw my wife, Lindsay Webster, to ask about her race. I hugged all my pit crew members, who were complete ROCK STARS. (You guys were amazing.) My pregnant sister was even able to stay up for most of the race to help me out. 

Thank you to my pit team. And big thanks to Tough Mudder, for having the insight and confidence to pull off this event for the 7th year. Thanks to HumanN for supporting me and making the best nutritional products available. And thanks to GoatTough, the whole team for being my behind me, every step of the way.

But most of all, thanks to all the Mudders out there who shared the course with me. I believe that everyone within the community shares a bond, a sick sort of yearning to challenging your fear, shake hands with the impossible, and to step so far outside of comfort that you might not come back the same person.