Interview with UK’s Toughest Mudder Athlete Ben Kirkup

Thanks for doing this interview Ben, with Tough Mudder hitting the UK this year, I thought it would be good to hear from someone who has competed in a few Tough Mudder races as well as the Toughest Mudder Race, which took place just recently. You can hopefully give people an insight in what to expect. So lets get to it

1. For people who don’t know you, talk a little about who you are?

Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a 33 year old recently married construction manager living in Chorlton, Manchester. I’m no elite athlete but I enjoy challenges that test me physically and mentally and I’m constantly looking for new and unusual events to take part in. I like to play team sports, I play cricket for Didsbury and rugby for Wilmslow but will happily enter events as a solo in the hope of making a friend somewhere around the course.

2. Tough Mudder is hitting the UK this year, when did you first hear about it and where was your first event?

My wife Melissa is American and use to live in New York, so before we were married we spent a couple of years regularly crossing the pond to see each other. I also have a close friend Jon that lives in Pennsylvania and during one visit we were all together and the subject of Tough Mudder came up. At that point only a couple of events had been run but there was already a buzz about it so Jon and I picked the New England Tough Mudder in Vermont and entered it.

The event took place at the start of May last year. It was held at a ski resort in the off season so you can imagine what the course was like!! 10 miles, 28 obstacles, 13,000 ft of elevation change, freezing cold water and a small section of it was climbing up a glacier (in reality it was a massive mound of snow but it was still cold!!).

Got to get wrapped up!!

3. You have recently competed in the World’s Toughest Mudder; talk us through what it was like?

It was amazing!! The toughest, most miserable, most fun, most inspiring 24 hrs of my life. To take part in the first Toughest Mudder was an honour in itself. 140,000 took part in the qualifiers and I was one of just over 800 that made it to the Worlds. To line up with Joe Decker, the worlds fittest man and winner of two Death Races, Ray Upshaw and Joel Gat, Tough Mudder legends that have done every Tough Mudder event, serving Marines, soldiers and special forces veterans was something else. Margaret Schlachter one of the competitors started a FB page just for Toughest Mudder entrants so we could discuss the event and compare notes on equipment and tactics.  There were about 275 of us on the page by the time the event took place and so we could find each other on course we all wore a reflective armband. We called ourselves Team WTF and are unofficially the biggest team to enter a Tough Mudder, no matter what happened that day we were all there for each other to offer help and encouragement. Just to be part of that team is fantastic.

4. Do you think you have to be both mentally strong as well a physically to compete in an event like this?

Yes. They’re not a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. The courses are designed to test your all round strengths and weaknesses but never let that put you off. Toughest Mudder hit me mentally. We made the fatal mistake of stopping to dry off and warm up. By the time we’d done that our wet kit had frozen solid and the thought of going out in the gear I had left was too much. We risked it for a final lap in the morning when the sun had come up and the gear turned out to be fine. I’m now kicking myself we didn’t get out there sooner. It’s a lesson we’ve learned for next time, it was our first 24hr event so it was always an unknown. Making mistakes is fine, just as long as you don’t make them again!

5. How did you train for Tough Mudder? And did you enjoy it?

If I remember right you tortured me for about 8 weeks, and no I didn’t enjoy any of it!! Seriously though you trained me hard. We went through all the obstacles from the event and you tailored my training around that. We incorporated everything from standard strength training to crazy circuits using different pieces of equipment including barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, medicine balls, sleds, ropes, prowlers and of course bodyweight. Before every training session I was filled nervous excitement knowing I was going to need to go harder and faster than I had the previous session. I have to admit while I was doing some of the training there was a voice in the back of my head saying ‘why is he making me do this’?? Then come race day it all became clear. I was physically ready for everything, well almost everything!!

Just like in the race, team work is everything!

6. How much does team work play in these events?

Teamwork is what these events are about. You make a pledge before you start. You pledge that,

As a Tough Mudder I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge, I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time, I do not whine – kids whine, I help my fellow Mudders complete the course, I overcome all fears.

Now I have to say that when I stood on the start line in Vermont I thought this was a bit cheesy and I felt a bit silly making this pledge. But before I was halfway round I got it. If you want to go racing off the front at the start of the race so you finish first then go ahead, no ones going to stop you, but there’ll be no fanfare for you at the finish and you won’t find your name at the top of any online results page. The pledge is there to make you understand that you’re not out there on your own you’re all in it together. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if you fall close to me I’m going to help you up, if you can’t make it over the wall I’ll give you a boost, if that barbed wire’s snagged your t shirt I’ll free it up for you. As hard as I train I cannot complete a Tough Mudder course on my own, fact. The Berlin Walls are too high for me to scale, I need help to get over them. Usually when I get there I’ll find a group of people in the same boat as me and we’ll work together till every ones over. Generally we’ll thank each other at the foot of the last wall and move on at our own pace. Sometimes that’s the last you’ll see of them but other times they’ll find you at the after party and share a beer with you, after all you’ve made a bond and often a friend. Even at the Toughest Mudder with a $10,000 1st prize the camaraderie was alive and well, even more so. I made more friends at that event than any other. It seems the more extreme the conditions and harder the event the deeper and stronger the bonds are.

I’ll tell you a story from the Worlds. Roxanne Meeker had qualified at Vermont like us and was signed up for the Worlds and training hard. Before the event she had some health issues and had to pull out. She is part of the WTF team and couldn’t face not being at the event so turned up with the sole intention of helping out anyone that needed it. She soon became known as ‘Momma Meeker’ and we all looked to her at some point throughout the day for either help or inspiration. Even with her health issue she was at the start line, she wanted to give the course a shot even just to do one lap; after all she had the biggest team behind her!! She got about half way through the first lap when she had to pull out suffering from hypothermia. She rode an ambulance back to her tent where she dried off, warmed up and got ready for everyone to return. She tirelessly ran around feeding people, making drinks, running to find friends and relatives of those that had pulled out and encouraging everyone still in the race to get back out there. At about the 25 ½ hour mark the guys I was with and I ran in with a guy called Matt Michaud. He was a part of the WTF team and only a few obstacles from completing his 6th lap (he was one of only 10 people to finish the race) and he was struggling. He was hypothermic and he couldn’t bend his legs but with the promise from us of a hot tub and Playboy Bunnies serving him cocktails at the finish line he made it to the end. Pretty quickly they got him into the medical tent where they started to warm him up. Fearing for his health the medical team admitted him to hospital where he would stay until he was discharged two days later. Roxanne had never met Matt before she turned up on race day but she went with him to the hospital. She stayed with Matt and his wife until he was discharged from hospital. Then she put them in her car and she drove them both 9 hours home. Then she went home herself.

Its people like her that make Tough Mudder. The story’s an extreme but the message is clear, Tough Mudders look after each other.

Team work is everything!

7. You have to be a bit crazy to enjoy these events and the training that goes with it, so what drives you?

It’s hard to say. I didn’t set out looking for these types of events they just kind of came along. I never pegged myself as one that goes out to challenge myself but I guess I must be. The events I’m looking for are definitely becoming more extreme, I guess I just want to know how far I can go. I’m not a thrill seeker or an adrenalin junkie but the events that make people question your sanity are the ones that really get my attention. The Death Race in Vermont, the Barkley Marathons, the Badwater 135 and the GoRuck Challenges, they’re all things I’d like to have a shot at. They’re challenges with a story and they’re unusual. My wife can’t stand it, she thinks I’m obsessed!! Maybe she’s right. I’d just like to point out that I don’t find these events appealing because they’re dangerous, they’re not. Not for someone like me anyway 😉

Be prepared to get a little wet!

8. How do you think Tough Mudder differs from the other races that are out there?

It differs because it’s not a race. If you think it is you’ve missed the point.

9. Do you think Tough Mudder will be a success the UK?

I pray to God it is. If it’s not I’m going to have to move to the US!! Seriously though, Tough Mudder was the brain child of an English guy Will Dean who came up with the concept for a Harvard Business school competition where it came second. His professors said it was a quirky idea but it wouldn’t attract more than a few hundred people, so with the help of another fellow Brit Guy Livingstone they put the 1st event together in May 2010 and it attracted thousands. It’s now a multimillion dollar business. It was thought up by Brits, I’m a Brit and I love it, so on that basis I’d say it’s going to be a roaring success!! There are definitely elements of it that really appeal to the American psyche that the British may find a little cheesy at first but go in with an open mind and embrace the concept and you’ll love it.

10. So what advice do you have to people who want to try an event this year?

Don’t be scared. These events aren’t designed to kill or hurt people. Yes they’re made to be challenging but no one gets a kick out of seeing people being carted off in the back of an ambulance. They’re not just for the guys either. If you want to see some ladies that love to play in the mud look no further than Margaret Schlachter (www.dirtinyourskirt.com), Amelia Boone (www.raceipsa.blogspot.com) and Katy McCabe (www.katymccabe.com), these women are unreal and all the inspiration any female should need to get involved.   Don’t feel like you’re on your own or feel that ‘people like you’ don’t do these events. Find the closest one to you and go have a look. You’ll be surprised at the kind of people that these things attract. I can almost guarantee you’ll find someone that’s ‘just like you’. Then you’ll wish you had a number pinned to your chest instead of watching from the sidelines. Also don’t feel you can’t enter these things as a solo. Yes it’s more comforting if you enter with a friend but don’t rely on it. I often turn up alone on the day and try to make a friend before kickoff. Should this blog inspire you to enter something and you get to the start line alone, have a good look around. If there’s a big guy in a Union Jack tutu and wig, come and say hello, I’ll run with you, if I can keep up!!

Always hungry for more during training!!

11. Plus what next for you, how can you top a 24hr race?

Well, I didn’t officially finish Toughest Mudder. We were still there at the end but we didn’t do enough laps to be considered finishers, and that’s keeping me awake at night!! World’s Toughest and I have some unfinished business so qualifying and finishing that are definitely on the cards. The Death Race is something I’d like a crack at, that’s a very mental and physical one held in Vermont and I love the idea of the Barkley Marathons, a 100 mile trail run that was born out of a failed prison break. This year in the UK though I’ll be doing both days of all the Tough Mudders, of course! I’m looking at the Adidas Thunder Run, that’s a 24hr race, laps of a 10k trail run. Hellrider, loops of an 8k mountain bike course and 5k trail run, as many as you can in 8hrs. There’s also a 24hr race from London to Cardiff that my wife found, for that we need a team of 12 so if anyone likes the sound of that please let me know.

Pushed to the limits!

Thanks very much for doing this interview and I hope people who read this are not a little more prepared for Tough Mudder UK. If you want to ask Ben anything else then you can contact him on Facebook or email S&P at info@strengthandperformance.co.uk

Until Next Time

Lift Big Get Strong

Sean

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