Tough Mountain Challenge is a different kind of challenge

Deb Gunn of Holden clears an obstacle and prepares to head down a hill during the Tough Mountain Challenge at Sunday River on Saturday.

Ryan McLaughlin dives through the Slip and Slide obstacle and into a pit of mud during the Tough Mountain Challenge at Sunday River on Saturday.

Tough Mountain Challenge competitors crawl through a muddy pit under barbed wire during Saturday’s race at Sunday River.

NEWRY, Maine — There are challenges, and then there is the Tough Mountain Challenge.

From half-marathons to cross country races in freezing temperatures and numerous BodyPump group fitness trainings, I’ve pushed my body to the limit on numerous occasions over the years.

But the Tough Mountain Challenge, which celebrated it’s third birthday at Sunday River on Saturday, is a different type of challenge.

It is 3.1 miles long – a welcoming distance for anyone new to running – but this event, which attracted 2,500 participants and spectators, features 16 obstacles, mud, arduous climbs, mud, free beer, and live music.

Did I mention there’s mud? Well, there is plenty of it.

Saturday’s event marked the second consecutive year I’ve participated, and I knew going in it was going to be a lot tougher this time around. New obstacles, including a climb known as WTF and a beer shotgunning challenge, awaited us.

This year, I was fortunate to procure a number from an old gym friend who unfortunately couldn’t compete due to an injury. I set my alarm for a time that I normally wouldn’t set it for on the first Saturday of my vacation, and made the three-hour trek from Bangor to the Western mountains to meet up with my friends, most of which were running the 11 a.m. heat, while I was set to head up the mountain at 2:00.

With thousands of competitors heading out on one course that gets narrow in the woods, race organizers breaked up the field into heats of 100, with each wave heading up every 15 minutes.

I scouted some of the obstacles for much of the morning while watching my friends compete, and the organizers weren’t lying when they mentioned that we’d have a tougher challenge this year. Right at the start, you’re running uphill, down into a pit of mud and back uphill with snow-making machines blasting your face with water. I warned my friends, if you sprint up that first hill, your race is over before it starts!

After hours of waiting, waiting and watching my fellow competitors head to the finish line exhausted and muddy, it was finally my turn!

Thankfully, the temperatures weren’t as hot as they were in 2011 – they peaked into the low 80’s by the time my heat was getting ready to start. We stared at that first hill with no fear in our eyes, thinking, the faster we do this, the faster we get that free beer at the finish!

Finally, 2:00 came, and they gave us the cue to go! Right when I hit that first mud pit, I knew it was going to be tough! Thankfully, I didn’t wear a pair of shoes I’m really attached to!

The first uphill wasn’t that bad, but the worst was yet to come. We had to run over snow-making pipes, crawl through mud under barbed wire, and ascend a quarter-mile long hill.

But after coming out of the woods, we turned a corner, and my first thought was what the heck were these guys thinking – in a good way, of course! That’s right, WTF! Straight up, up and up a ski trail for two-tenths of a mile. The good news was, it was all downhill after that, but one bad decision nearly cost me!

One obstacle near the end had us crossing Barker Pond via “lily pads.” With some slowpokes in front of me and me losing my patience, I tried to swim across to a shorter string of pads at the far end of the pond.

My quads, however, didn’t agree with that decision, and they seized up. Big time. Major cramps. Somehow, I managed to swim across, get over a rope-and-wall obstacle and sprint downhill to the finish!

I was muddy, my shoes were ruined, and I was exhausted and sore, but the feeling of accomplishment far outweighs the pain. All my friends conquered the course as well, and you can bet we’ll be back next year!

Ryan McLaughlin

About Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports reporter Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. In "The Boston Blitz" he'll be sharing his perspective with BDN readers about what's happening on the Boston professional sports scene.