Why you should care

Because sometimes it feels good to push yourself. Even when it hurts.

The boy who trembled when he reached the top of the high dive at his local pool in Gilroy, California, was now a grown man standing on a wooden platform 35 feet above Lake Las Vegas called “The Cliff.” And he was kind of freaking out.

Exactly what was I trying to prove? I spent more than a thousand dollars (on gear, travel, entry fees), trained 12 months and shed 10 pounds to get down to a nimble 165, for this? I didn’t have much time to think. You’re given only a few seconds to jump, before you get penalized for stalling, ushered off the platform and made to do a half-mile run and 250-yard swim instead — so, I jumped.

The Cliff was the signature feat of the World’s Toughest Mudder, an annual 24-hour race that takes place in Lake Las Vegas, Nevada, in November. The competition puts 1,100 participants through 23 obstacles scattered over five miles of land (and water) with a 700-foot elevation gain. The goal is to complete as many of the five-mile laps as you can during those 24 hours.

Which made the Tough Mudder — a single 10-mile obstacle race —look like one of those 5K turkey trots. I’d run a few Tough Mudders in my time, the first in April 2013, when I was a writer for Fox Sports. I told everyone I was just doing it for the story, but really, I wanted to show myself that I could conquer it. Apparently, dyslexia, debilitating lung issues and a severe stutter as a kid, along with borderline obesity as an adult, weren’t enough obstacles to hurdle.

“I’m trying not to drop out of the race with frostbite, ass,” I thumbed.

This Toughest Mudder, though, the fourth annual, was way more intense; the most challenging obstacle race to date. But the biggest obstacle this time wasn’t man-made. It sidelined three-quarters of the competitors who’d come from all corners of the globe: an unforeseen desert sandstorm with winds that reached 50 mph and blasted us all night long, until well past sunrise — and a wind chill that made it feel near freezing and caused frostbite and hypothermia in many. Me? I somehow made out better than most; the wet suit I’d wriggled into at dusk, with the help of my dad, kept my core temperature just warm enough to keep me going.

My original game plan was to run through the night, aided by my headlamp. I had a tent, but I thought it would just serve as a place to store my Pop-Tarts and extra socks and water. But then the freezing-cold sandstorm hit.

Around 2 a.m., I retreated into my tent with numb feet and hands. As I tried to thaw out, I reached for my phone, to see an encouraging text from my wife, and another from one of my hockey buddies who was following my progress back home in northern Virginia. He asked if I was sleeping. “I’m trying not to drop out of the race with frostbite, ass,” I thumbed.

I was 14 and a half hours, seven laps and 35 miles in, a mere 15 from my 50-mile goal. I couldn’t quit now. As a child, I had overcome asthma that nearly killed me — a couple of times. A little loss of feeling in my extremities wasn’t going to stop me.

I lost my contact lenses — but found a buddy in misery, a lawyer from D.C. who kept me talking, kept me alive.

My last three laps weren’t pretty, especially when I reached the obstacle called “Grabbin’ Shaft,” a combination of monkey bars and trapeze. I couldn’t swing it, so to speak. My hands had become about as useless as my appendix. I had to take the penalty, which meant walking a quarter-mile with a cinder block on one shoulder. On my final lap, after completing 200 or so obstacles and a mile-plus of swimming solo, I lost my contact lenses — but found a buddy in misery: Dan Shaivitz, a lawyer from D.C. who kept me talking, kept me alive.

He told me he’d been opting for the run-and-swim penalty instead of jumping off the Cliff. “OK, let’s skip it,” I relented.

“Wait,” he said. “I can’t let you do that.” And he walked me up to the top of the platform. One more leap. Actually, it was more of a belly flop, but who cares? I did it. Then I swam to shore and wobbled the final few yards to the finish line — with Shaivitz, my savior, jogging by my side.

I broke down as I grabbed my reward for such self-inflicted torture: a 50-mile bib, a “finisher” headband, an event T-shirt and one of those sliver emergency blankets for warmth. This is the Toughest Mudder, I thought, through my tears. What’s with the crying?

I got it together before I found my dad. He didn’t recognize me limping toward him, wrapped in silver, even as I shouted his name. Strange. I was in the same wet suit he’d helped me get into several hours before. Maybe I looked different as a tough guy.

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