World's Toughest Mudder: Fitness Vs Toughness
Would You Rather Be Fast or Tough?
It’s been just over a week since the last athlete crossed the finish line at this year’s World’s Toughest Mudder. This year’s event boasts some of the lowest mileage ever completed by finishers, despite an ever increasing field of competitive athletes. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to rank the 2018 WTM as the most challenging to date. With such brutal conditions and (relatively) low mileage completed by many of the top athletes, there have been many claims that success (or lack thereof) in this year’s event had little to do with running fitness but a lot more to do with your mental resolve, ability to endure cold, and all-around toughness. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that general running ability plays a huge role in overall performance along with substantial contributions from race strategy, cold tolerance, gear, tenacity, and grit. That brings up a really interesting question though - just how important is your running ability in an event like this? Do you need to run a blistering fast 5k if you want hope to put up 50+ miles in WTM, or is toughness all you need?
I set out to answer this question by analyzing self-reported running times from a sampling of WTM athletes. I polled athletes to investigate the correlation between running ability at various distances and WTM performance. Effort was made to get accurate and recent race results or honest best-effort estimations based on recent training sessions. If you’re interested in the computations or how I acquired the data, see the “about the data” section at the end of the analysis.
Just punching in the numbers, there were some pretty interesting correlations. 0.68 for WTM mileage vs marathon time, 0.61 for mileage vs 13.1 time, and 0.57 for mileage vs 5k. It’s no surprise that marathon times were a stronger predictor of WTM performance than 5k times. Interestingly though, these correlations didn’t really hold up when I looked at smaller groups at a time instead of the entire field, and they weakened further as I looked at the lower mileage groups. For example, the correlation between marathon time and mileage for the <50 mile group drops to 0.37, and drops to nearly 0 when looking at 5k time. In other words, if you’re comparing yourself to other athletes that finished less than 50 miles, your 5k time is completely irrelevant. Anecdotally, this makes a lot of sense. Most of the athletes I talked to in the ~50 mile range were adamant about explaining to me that running speed doesn’t matter; they performed as well as they did because they were tough. Plain and simple. Okay, I can go with that. But things definitely change as we move up the ranks into the 60+ range, and especially when we get into the 75+ mile finishers. You can’t simply “tough” your way to 100 miles. You HAVE to be fast (and really tough too). This makes sense too if you think about it, but I like to overcomplicate things with graphs, so let’s check it out together.
Something really important to note here is the variance. Among high mileage groups, the variance among running fitness was relatively low. For example, the difference between the fastest marathon and slowest marathon among all finishers with 80+ miles was only 12 minutes. Put all the 80+ mile finishers in a marathon distance road race together, and they’ll all finish pretty dang close together. This couldn’t be further from the truth in the low and mid mileage groups. Even just dropping down to athletes finishing with mileage in the 70’s, we see differences in marathon times of up to a whole hour in a few isolated cases, though most of the athletes in this range were pretty close to that 3:16:15 average marathon time. The variance gets larger and larger as we work our way down into the <50 mile group (the variance in 5k time for <50 milers is astronomical).
Wouldn’t it be cool if we could see all of this data at on a single graph, without losing perspective? I calculated some estimated threshold paces based on 5k time (lactate threshold) and marathon time (aerobic threshold), and plotted those workout paces against WTM mileage. Although LT and AT are not equal to 5k/marathon pace, they can be approximated by them well, so this is essentially just a different way of looking at the same data, not new data on its own. This may be more useful as a training parameter too - you can work on getting that aerobic threshold up to the “standard” for your mileage bracket if it seems like a weak point, for instance, or you might notice you can already crush the paces set for your mileage bracket and realize you just need to toughen up if you want to put up bigger mileage. Or perhaps your weak link lies elsewhere, like in strength or obstacle proficiency (more on that later)!
Looking at the slopes of the lines, you can tell where “fitness” mattered more and where it was less of a factor. The graph gets pretty flat between the 50’s and 60’s, which is where minor differences in running fitness mattered the least. In other words, the athletes getting 60 and 65 miles were, on average, BARELY fitter (in terms of running speed) than the athletes getting 50 and 55 miles. The graph gets steepest between the <50 and the 50’s. Basically, there is a substantial amount of general fitness that’s required if you’re going to put up 50 miles in an event without breaking down; it may not be the kind of fitness that makes you blazing fast, but the general endurance required to get you to 50 miles is going to at least get you into 22-23min 5k range, which is something that most of the sub-50 mile finishers simply didn’t have. Beyond that, running ability wasn’t a huge factor until you want to make the jump from finishing in the 60’s to finishing in the 70’s. Realistically, if you power walk and don’t stop moving, you can get close to 60 miles, but the actual need to run for a significant portion of the event jumps dramatically when you want to start getting into the 70’s.
Okay okay okay. I know there’s probably a lot of you outliers reading this going, “Hey! I only run a 25 minute 5k and I still got 70 miles!!! This is BS!” I get it. This is all of the average data, and you’re an outlier. That’s what makes you special. So special, actually, that I reached out to a lot of the outliers to figure out how the managed to do so well when their surrounding competitors were comfortable with much faster paces.
If you trust the data, Erin Rost should have only been able to finish 50 miles at this year’s WTM, but she blew it out of the water with a 2nd place female finish and 75 miles. She finished right behind (and in front of) other athletes that can run over 1min/mile faster than her over any distance. How did she do it? She just didn’t stop. No pit stops, no resting, always moving forward. At the pit, it was in and out, no breaks. Think about it - even if her competition could put a minute per mile on her between obstacles, that’s only a couple minutes per lap in the pit that Erin had to skip to make up lost time. Sounds easy enough, but if it was, there would have been a lot more 75 mile finishers. Surprised to find out she was doing so well late into the race, she made a hard push during the last several hours when almost everyone else had abandoned the course. Erin also had a mantra to help her get through tough times during the race: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Javier Escobar walked away from this year’s race with a 7th place finish and 80 miles under his belt. But the road to get here wasn’t easy for him. 2 years ago, he competed in his first WTM, ending with 25 miles. He knew he wanted to do better, so he sought out a coach for the sole purpose of preparing for World’s Toughest Mudder… me! When Javier came to me for coaching, he seemed just like your average athlete - no earth shattering PR’s, nothing to set him apart from the dozens of other athletes I’ve prepared for Spartan Race and Tough Mudder events. It didn’t take long for me to realize he was the toughest dude I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I’ve given him the most brutal training schedule imaginable and he completes every workout with a smile. I don’t remember him missing a single workout in two years. In 2017, he improved from 25 miles to 65 miles. On the toughest course yet in 2018, he cracked the top 10 with insane milage. After the race, I caught up with Javier to talk a bit about his training and how he managed to exceed expectations yet again.
Q: What advice would you give to someone that wants to put up big mileage at WTM?
J: “Absolutely nothing else matters from when the horn sounds and until the clock stops, but forward momentum. There was no point during the race where I actually “stopped” I was running, walking, eating, gearing up, or something, anything but stopping completely. “
“Focus on other people aside from yourself. I spent a lot of time on the course encouraging others, and distracting myself from my own pain… I train alone 100% of the time, so the time I did spend alone, which was a lot, I knew how to distract myself from being isolated by constantly performing self-evaluation checks in my head, how’s your pace, what are you going to need, what hurts, what’s going right/wrong, how can you improve, strategizing my next lap. My mileage goals were anchored to things that had impacted my life greatly, miles 1-50 hurricane relief efforts in Florida, miles 50-75 my mother, and 75-80 for Mathew Lister (he made that last lap possible). I couldn’t feel my hands/feet for 95% of the race, my hands swelled up, my head lamp died, I went out for a .25 mile before realizing I didn’t have my bib on and running backwards on the course to get it, so many things went wrong but when people were finding excuses to quit I had my anchors to keep me going.”
Q: How did you handle the cold?
J: “Pee yourself strategically. There were certain sections of the course with no trees that it got brutally cold. I'd hold off peeing myself until then and I'd place my hand on my inner thighs to let the warmth run through my hands.”
Q: What were some of the toughest workouts you did while training for WTM 2018?
J: “That was the toughest strength workout. When I saw this I cried a little, I knew my quads would burn and heart rate were going to be high. The worst endurance workout was the 6 hour long run with 5 miles at sprint race pace. It wasn't so much the workout but the weather. We had a nor-eastern come through that night and I was running in the woods, at night, with the only visibility being my headlamp and sideways, upside down, type rain.”
Corinne Kohlen is another amazing example of an athlete who eats nails for breakfast. Based on her typical training and racing paces, you wouldn’t expect Corinne to make it past 50 miles in event like this, but anyone who knows Corinne knows she is as tough as they get. Plus, she has experience on her side. This was her 7th WTM and she as tons of experience with other extreme OCRs, so she knew exactly what she was in for and prepared accordingly. With experience and unparalleled mental toughness, Corinne made it 65 miles this year.
Clearly, a lot more goes into a great WTM performance than running fitness alone, but the importance of a strong running foundation in a 24 hour endurance event is undeniable. What you lack in speed, you can make up for in strength, skill, and perseverance. On the other hand, some of fastest athletes in the field fizzled out early, unable to cope with the extreme rigors of the 24 hour event. If you look at the charts above and think “Wow, I am really fast compared to a lot those guys. How come I only got X amount of miles?” then you probably need to spend a lot more time working on strength and structural endurance / durability. Change your training accordingly. If you are one of those people that relied on toughness, experience, or strategy to rack up miles, simple imagine what you’d be capable of next year with a stronger running foundation under your belt - especially those of you hoping to make the jump from the 50’s into the 60’s and 70’s. Don’t expect to be able to tough out an extra 15-20 miles at your current running fitness.
The Value of Coaching
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About the data:
Data was acquired in a private Facebook group and through direct contact with individuals. Effort was made to acquire recent race results, known personal bests, and/or honest best-effort estimations for running ability at the 5k, half-marathon, and marathon. In a few cases, I accepted a result for a non-standard distance and extrapolated to the nearest standard distance.
Data was available for 8% of WTM finishers, 22% of 50+ mile finishers, 90% of 75+ mile finishers, and 100% of 100 mile finishers. As such, we can assume that the reliability of the data for the higher mileage athletes is quite good, though there may be substantial differences between actual and recorded averages for athletes finishing with less than 50 miles, since the sample of those athletes was comparatively small.
For some athletes, I was only given one data point. For others, I was given two data points. Others had data for all three events. When data was available for all three events, the raw data was used without modification. When data was available for two events, I applied a personalized exponential fit to determine the missing distance [see equation 1]. When only one data point was given, I applied the same exponential fit used by many other online pace charts to compute race pace [see equation 2]. With this method, I had a reasonable approximation of 5k, 13.1, and 26.2 time trial performance for every athlete that was surveyed. Every statistic presented above uses this complete set of approximated performances, not the raw data. There were not any cases where this decision made a significant impact.
equation 1: T3 = T1*(D3/D1)^(LN(T1/T2)/LN(D1/D2))
equation 2: T2 = T1*(D2/D1)^1.075
Interested in how tough this year’s WTM was compared to others?
I compiled results from past years and graphed how the percentage of athlete’s that made it to each distance. I wasn’t able to sort through 2017 results yet but hope to get those included soon.