Death, Undeath, and Rebirth: The Origin of the Monk of the Mud

I have had a few questions about my back story and why this blog has the name that it does, and decided that now is as good a time as any to answer.

I usually just say “I came out of a rough time” a few years ago, but that is sugar-coating it severely. This story starts with what every proper story of a fall from grace should: I fell in love. She was a deeply troubled woman, but some of my past experiences put me in a position to help her, and she was the most loving, caring, nurturing woman you could imagine. When she was lucid. Which came to be less and less over time.

I can’t go through the full story of what happened, at least not until the statute of limitations expires on some of the low points. I think it may be best to sum this up into what I learned and what I lost.

What I learned: How few people you can trust. How corrupt this world really is. How many people who say that they will have your back through everything, won’t. How to survive on things that were never intended to be eaten by humans. How the processes of foreclosure, repossession, and wage garnishment work. That having a place to stay is useless if you don’t have the gas to get there. What it is like to step in front of a coke head with a knife. That being the only person in the room that is not stoned and paranoid-delusional really does make you question your own sanity.

What I lost: At least $80,000. My house. My car. The respect of, well, pretty much everybody. But worst of all I lost my faith in mankind and my ability to care. About anything. I honestly started considering myself to be dead in all the ways that matter. I kept going to work, getting things done, not because I gave a damn but simply because having it done was slightly less annoying than not doing it. I think at some point during this I referred to humans as a mongrel race that deserved no f***ing pity.

I had lost everything, and started thinking about what I wanted back. Beyond the basics (stable shelter, a steady supply of food and a car that will not regularly leave me stranded) the one thing I knew I wanted back was the physical conditioning I had lost. Two years of high stress, little food and no sleep had taken their toll. I joined a gym, focused a lot more on my Budo training, and started working on my weaknesses.

I soon found that every disadvantage has a built-in advantage. When you have absolutely nothing, you have nothing that you need to take care of. It makes life very easy, but completely hollow. I started making jokes about being undead- It looks like a man, moves like a man, but the spark just isn’t there. I knew there had to be some way out of this, but I had no idea how.

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I knew that my path could easily lead to some ugly places, places I had seen from the outside and had no desire to EVER see from the inside. I had seen too many people seek out drugs and alcohol at times like this, and resolved that that would never even be a possibility for me.

I also knew that I needed to take some serious time off from relationships. Never had one that didn’t end ugly and having no ability to give a damn about anything really doesn’t make you the most charming suitor anyway.

The one good thing to come out of all of this is that I had somehow, by the skin of my teeth, managed to keep my job through this, and I had learned to live on almost nothing, so I could easily save for whatever I wanted to make happen. Whenever I sorted out what that was.

During this time, I also randomly came across information on the lifestyles of the Knights Templar and the Shaolin, orders of military monks. Somehow their way of living just made sense in a way I cannot articulate.

So, no dating, no drinking, living cheaply, hoping to find some good in mankind… I’m going to be living a monk’s life anyway, what would it take to make that official?

As it turned out, not much. I put in the paperwork for my ordination on Christmas morning and started taking it seriously at new years. (I also gained the legal ability to perform marriages, baptisms and funerals, so if any of those are needed on a race course, let me know.)

My goal for my physical abilities has always been to be as strong and as capable as a good soldier. So when I came across a Facebook add for the Indiana Spartan Race, I hooked onto the idea instantly.

I expected just an individual challenge, a lot of cocky jocks boasting over their abilities, and I just wanted the challenge for me, didn’t care about the rest. Then along the race course I saw something entirely different: Teamless teamwork. Everyone helping everyone. Five of us working together to get a weaker athlete over an obstacle.

Over the next few months, stories and experiences cropped up from the OCR ranks. The story of a man carrying a 60-pound plaque through the race course in honor of a departed friend. Being tackle-hugged by a woman that I helped through an obstacle at Warrior Dash. Athletes that could freaking own all of us crossing the finish line last, to make certain that even the weakest team member made it.

Sunrise at GRC 388. Everyone there hurt just as bad as I did, but still they checked in on me. “Do you need me to take your ruck?” “Are you OK, can you make it?” “Come on, you got it, DIG DEEP!” Their lives would have been easier without me on the team, but no one was upset, everyone did all they could to help me get through it.

These were a different breed of humans than the ones I had spent the previous years dealing with. These ones were worthy of the name. And I knew I wanted to be more like them.

I don’t remember exactly when I joined the CFS group, sometime between that first Spartan Race and my first GORUCK. Their positivity, advice, and encouragement helped push me into tougher challenges, which I’ve found is where the spark of humanity shines the brightest. It also helped to share my advice and encouragement with newer or under-confident teammates. Several members of the group write blogs to track their achievements and encourage each other. After reading about the Western States 100, and finding that some local 50-milers were qualifying runs, I made a decision that I will run all four Dances With Dirt 50-milers, and to write a blog to track my progress.

So, that is how I came to be here. Happy to report that the darkness I used to live in is now a fading memory, and every day I find new evidence of what we can become.

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Don’t Think, Just Do: Tough Mudder Chicago 2013

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This was another event that I was exited and a little worried of, and it was a great time partly because of the event and partly because of the awesome CFS crew running it with me.

Getting to the event was an obstacle course in itself (off-site parking, bad Googlemaps info, shuttle driver got lost, etc.). I finally got there, got my bib number, checked my bag and found the rest of the team. Some new faces, some people that I had met online but never in person, and the Cornfed group that I have run with and honestly consider my family.

There was a minor pep rally before the send-off, then we started off, went over a 7′ wall, and found ourselves in the actual starting corral. I will say that the MC’s speech to get everyone revved up is something that everyone should experience firsthand, I cannot even attempt to do it justice here. I will note, however, that when he made the point that Midwesterners really get the sense of teamwork and camaraderie, cheers of “CORNFED!!!” drowned out the TM “Hoorah.”

We were given the go-ahead and started out, high-fiving the MC as we passed. I stayed a little closer to the group on this one than I habitually do, both to offer and receive help on the obstacles.

First obstacle was the “Arctic Enema” ice bath. I went through it as quickly as I could and it was not as bad as feared. With all the cold water my past few races I doubted this one would be much different.

I had always been told to make certain I had a team for this event, but as usual, team lines were blurred quickly. I helped and was helped by more people than I can count, maybe a quarter of whom were my official teammates.

The electrified obstacles were a new experience for me, but not all that tough if you keep pushing through it. The first, called “Electric Eel” is a barbed-wire crawl with electrified wires dangling about 8″ apart. As my Sensei used to say, “Always move. When it hurts, move MORE.”

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Toward the end, I got tagged in the left ribs and left calf at the same time, causing that side of my body to lock up, but I was able to crawl the rest of the way with my right side. We regrouped the team just after this obstacle (which ended in some seriously sloppy mud) for a group picture.

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It was about this time that I realized that, while we were still hardcore about completing the obstacles and the course, none of us were in any mood to take ourselves or our finish time at all seriously. I high-fived a friend with both of our hands coated in mud, splattering it everywhere. One of the team who was wearing a backpack opened it, distributed cans of beer, and ran on drinking one (and still outrunning me).

We got to the one obstacle on which I had doubts about my ability (Walk the Plank, where you dive off a platform into water) only to find that it had a half-hour wait, so the entire team muttered a collective “screw that” and went on to the next.

There was a banner at the 5k mark, noting that this is where Warrior Dash would end. Myself and the two battle buddies I was keeping pace with were amused enough to stop for a photo-op.

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I was a bit ahead of the team when we hit the buddy-carry obstacle, so I teamed up with a group that was there. It is rather amusing to have a pretty young lady on your back and exchange names along the way. She tried and failed to carry me the second half, so we switched out teammates with another group that was having trouble.

I accidentally faced my doubts of jumping into water a few obstacles later. The intention was to swing between gymnastic rings over a pool of water. I am still nursing a shoulder injury, so I stood a moment looking at the rings, then said screw it and jumped into the water, expecting it to be chest-deep. Not sure how deep it was, because I didn’t touch bottom, but did bob back up and dog-paddle across.

A special moment for me was receiving a team nickname, or at least what I am claiming as one. I again found myself using Bujinkan rolls to clear certain obstacles, being met with shouts of “Style points!” and “Yeah Parkour!”. After seeing this a few times, one of the team called out, “Okay, Ninja.” Ninja is going on my next jersey.

One of my battle buddies and another member of the team started having trouble with their knees and had to walk the remainder of the course. I and several others slowed our pace to stay with them. No one gets left behind.

“Everest” was a really cool obstacle, running UP a halfpipe roughly 15′ high. I got in the staring pen, sprinted as fast as I could, touched the hand of the person on top to pull me over… and promptly slid back down. Next course. I’m training at the skate park and I will be back.

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The inverted V monkey bars were an obstacle that I had been intrigued by, but I knew I could not do it now without further damaging my shoulder. Again, next course. It was cool to see one of my injured teammates complete it.

The last obstacle was where I learned likely my greatest lesson from this event. You have to run through several curtains of electrified wires, with earth berms in your way that you have to go over. While I was waiting for the runner in front of me to make it so I would have a clear path, my brain started saying, “This is stupid. This is STUPID stupid. Why in the hell are we doing this?” Then the path was clear, I engaged GAME ON mode and charged through.

It wasn’t until I was walking from the showers to the changing area that it hit me. I heard the MC at the finish line saying, “We are backing up too much. If you are just thinking about how much this is going to hurt, step aside and let some runners through!”

I can realize that this is going to suck, but caring about that is optional. If you think about the pain, the cold, the heat, the failures, it is all to easy to frighten yourself into giving up. If you focus on the task at hand, and just do what needs done, damn the cost, then soon the accomplishment will be yours and the pain will be a fading memory.

A Series of Snarky Comments:Battlegrounds Mud Run

I was excited to try this mud run, as they are advertised as having bigger and tougher obstacles than anything else in the Midwest. I was expecting an epic Darby Queen type of setup, something that you step into the starting corral and have this reaction:

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I would end up being a little disappointed with the obstacles, but the humor among the other racers made up for it, and it turned out to be a very fun, if not all that challenging, experience.

When I got to the starting corral, only a few of the obstacles were visible. Most of the crowd were  locals (I was among the top 10 furthest from home at this run) and about half were at their first-ever mud run. Most were complaining about the cold (it was about 40 degrees F, but I guess that is cold for the Kansas City area). There had been 2″ of rain the night before, so the entire course was waterlogged. The emcee alerted us to stay near other runners as some creek banks could not be cleared by a single person. (In point of fact they all could be, easily.) We went through the starting ceremony, which involved rubbing mud on our faces to get in the spirit and reciting, “I will be cold. I will be wet. I will be pissed off that I came here.” He yelled ready, set, go and we were off… and immediately came to a bottleneck as the leading starters had difficulty running in the mud. We soon increased to a trot, and almost immediately started trading banter with those next to us.

Woman next to me:”Oh, I got splashed with cold water, and we are going to have to go through that!”

Me: “Don’t worry. There are lots of people ahead of us. The water will be warm by the time we get there.”

Woman: “EEEW!!!…Wait, warmth…I’m OK with that.”

Course official at cargo net climb: “Hey, this is a no-hands obstacle!”

Me: “Oh. okay!” I start wrapping my forearms through the net to climb without my hands.

Course official: Laughs. “Well played!”

Most of the obstacles were built-up hills of thick mud, trenches filled with waist-deep water, and going up and down creek bottoms. There were also 7′ walls to go over, a cargo net, weavers, but none of them very tough. For example, the bottom of the rope traverse was a steel cable kept very taut, so it was very stable and much easier than that sort of obstacle should be. My favorite part of obstacle racing, the universal teamwork among people who don’t even know each other’s names, was less pronounced here, mainly because it was less necessary. I helped those around me when needed, but it usually wasn’t called for.

There were three obstacles that deserve mention. The first is a series of telephone poles in a water pit that you have the choice of going over or under.

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The common high-knee tire path is not noteworthy in itself, but the fact that they had 200 yards of it non-stop was cool.

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The last obstacle is known as “the Gauntlet”. There are 5 paths that you must choose between, ranging from slightly difficult to OMG WTF gnarly evil. The easiest is a balance beam that has various items along it that you have to go over or through. the more difficult ones have different items that must be crossed wall-traverse or monkey-bar style, including steel I-beams, a section of chain-link fence, and tires suspended by ropes. I ended up in the easiest line, may try the others later.

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I skipped 2 obstacles for safety reasons, where you have to go down a slide or jump off a platform into 12′ deep water. I am a weak swimmer, and not being in control of entering the water is a problem that I have not yet corrected.

The cool thing that I noticed this race is that the two sides of my training (OCR racing and martial arts) are coming together, and I find myself using Bujinkan movements on the course. At one of the creek banks there was a rope to help us climb up, and the last step over the top often causes peoples’ balance to go wonky. I dove forward into a front roll and kept enough momentum to send me off running. (I also realized that if a muddy section is just a touch too far to jump over, rolling across it causes you to sink less than walking across it, and you can come out of it easier.) Later, helping someone out of one of the water pits, I sat down, grabbed his hand, and laid back to use my core to pull him up, then went into a back roll.

I was disappointed with a few things about this race. (Using a race bib that won’t survive the course as a timing chip and beer ticket is a dumb idea.) But it also had some very nice points (warm showers and really nice race shirts). If you go into it expecting a glorified Warrior Dash, you will have a good time.

Things that I will learn from this:

Always ink your bib number on your forehead, even at races that don’t do that. It will make things easier at the gear check. We had to locate my bag by calling the cell phone that was in it.

Enjoy the race for what it is and don’t fret about what it is not.

Back to the Beginning: Indiana Spartan Sprint 2013

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This was my one-year anniversary as a racer, or as a serious athlete of any sort. Going back to the site that had made me an obstacle racer was a big event for me, and it came with several firsts that made it even better. I had just gotten my Cornfed jersey. Although I had previously worked with other people to get things done, I had never been at home enough with any team to mark myself as a member. This was the first time I had a goal other than beating myself. Our team was in a position to set a new record for number of finishers, so assisting the rest of the team became even more important. Lastly, this was the first time I brought someone new into the crazy world of obstacle racing.

Tammi works in my office, does 5k road races, and is in the midst of her own transformational journey. She had seen some of my photos from Spartan and GAC races and decided to join me.

We drove down from Fort Wayne Saturday morning, checked in with the rest of the team and said hello to those I had met in person and those who I recognized from chatting online. We made our way to the starting pen, embraced the usual adrenaline-accentuating Spartan race speech, and we were off.

On a flat course, Tammi could probably outrun me, but with the rough terrain and the obstacles she started to fall behind. I did my best to take the role of guide, staying within line of sight ahead and demonstrating the easiest way I knew to clear the obstacle.

To date I have not completed the monkey bars on any course, but I got more than twice as far as I have at any other race. A few more weeks of training and I will have it.

The wall clearing obstacles on this course were tougher than any that I have seen, and the teams that sprung up around them were great. It was common to have two people assisting someone up, one boosting the foot to hip height and the climber stepping on the other man’s shoulder.

Many of us took note of a course official who was a little too intense about the proper form of a burpee. While most of us stayed silent, one competitor actually asked, “Dude, are you OK? Need a hug?”

When we came to the Monk’s Walk/ Stump jump obstacle, I really thought I couldn’t do it but thought I would see how far I could get, and to my surprise was able to complete it.

The mud crawl they came up with was EPIC. Roughly 100 yards of slick, sticky clay mud, and all of it uphill. This and the mud trenches brought up a new way of thinking for me, as I had to find ways to help my battle buddy out of the mud without being pulled back in myself.

The last series of obstacles were the greased incline rope climb followed by the fire jump and the gladiators. As I got to the top of the incline, I heard a friendly shout of encouragement and realized the volunteer on top was a fellow Cornfed. I got myself over the peak and waited for Tammi to catch up in case she needed assistance. She got to the peak before loosing her footing. Myself and the CFS volunteer (it bothers me that I never sorted out who that was) were able to catch her before she slid back down and assist her over.

I learned in Florida that the gladiators tend to take it easy on runners that they can see don’t have much fight left in them, and I wanted the challenge, so as soon as I was clear of the incline I sprinted for them for all I was worth, clearing the fire on the way.

Cornfed did indeed set the new team record with 203 finishers, and we also came off with the top team time. And for once my after-race celebration photo was not just me.

Tammi