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Yes, it does indeed.

On Sunday, I took part in a 10-mile adventure race/obstacle course known as the Tough Mudder. That’s what this is about.

The day started at 5:30, when I woke up. Actually, that’s a lie. It started at 1:30, when I woke up and wondered if I’d slept through my alarm. Then it continued at 3:30, when I woke up and wondered if I’d slept through my alarm. Then I woke up to my alarm, “The Cave,” by Mumford and Sons. I gathered my things:

  • towel
  • running shorts
  • running shoes
  • normal shoes
  • 2x small elastic gauze bandages
  • medium elastic gauze bandage
  • hockey tape
  • phone
  • wallet
  • keys
  • banana

I ate a bagel with peanut butter, and at about 6:15 set out with my travelling companion/S.O. on our way to Oro county, about an hour north of Toronto, where the “Toronto Race” was being held.

We made the trip in good time, arriving at Burl’s Creek Family Event Park around 8:45. We collected our things from the car and made our way to the line up of school buses shuttling people off to the actual course (Burl’s Creek was just the parking area). The bus ride took about 15 minutes, getting us to Mount St. Louis Moonstone Ski Resort for 9:00. My heat ran at 9:30, so the pressure was getting on a little bit to get ready.

Self + S.O. smiling shuttle selvesie

I made my way to the registration line, and after sorting out that and my waiver, it was 9:15, and I hadn’t seen my teammates. I decided the best course of action was to get ready and then find them. So I went over behind a tent, quickly changed into my running shorts, wrapped both feet using the smaller gauzes and hockey tape, and wrapped my left hand in the larger gauze and hockey tape.

(Note: I neglected to replace the shoes I ruined doing the Spartan Sprint until last Friday. Expecting terrible blisters from using these non-broken-in, cheap, Payless Shoe Source-purchased shoes, I used the gauze to tape the blister-prone areas of my feet. Having gone over the handlebars of my bike last Monday, my left palm was scraped up nicely, and to help avoid an infection and/or bleeding on people, I wrapped that hand in gauze as well).

Tough Mudder WRECKS shoes

By the time all of this was sorted out, it was 9:28, and I could hear them pumping up the first heat. I checked my phone for messages from my teammates, or S.O., since I was still holding all of my other stuff, not having had time to check it. I saw that they had been on a hill just in front of the start area, so I went up there, did not see them, and left my stuff there (what a trusting fellow I am).

I figured my teammates had already gone into the start area, so I went in to check. This involved passing a 6 or 7 foot wall right off the bat. I didn’t see them anywhere, but I was right at the back and the pen was pretty full. When the race started I kept looking around for them, hoping I wouldn’t have to hop back out to find them. To my utter relief they both hopped over the wall at that point, before the pen had even cleared. We had a brief (but emotionally intense, I assure you) reunion and started off after the pack. They had been looking for me outside and I had been looking for them inside. But it didn’t matter; the Mudder was on.

So on

So we run for a little while, and then we come to the first obstacle: Kiss of Mud. Barbed wire is stretched across some shallow trenches, and you have to crawl through on your stomach. I, being worried about my cardio mainly, and not wanting to weigh myself down, went shirtless for this. The muddy trenches also contained a good number of rocks. This was unpleasant.

Those ants are people… mildly masochistic people.

The next obstacle is a little ways away, and is appropriately called Arctic Enema. You know those days that are just so hot, and you want to fall into a freezing pool of water immediately, and you think this would feel very good? Well, this was the case, and it actually kind of did. But then it didn’t. And then you have to go right under the ice filled water to duck under a low wall so you can get out the other side. It was probably about 15 seconds of this ice bath, but it was also not very pleasant (but actually not as cold as I was expecting). My teammate had been taking cold showers exclusively to prepare for this obstacle, and he said it wasn’t quite as cold as his showers.

Hills

After this was more running, but up a ski hill. We managed to run for parts of this hill, but it was also necessary to do some walking to make it up. The next obstacle we encountered was the Berlin Walls #1: a pair of 8 foot walls with a slight toe hold at about 2 feet to help people get up and over. We all cleared these without much trouble. Next were the underwater tunnels. These consisted of floating barrels in a small lake. You have to swim under each barrel to get through. This was the first potentially serious difficulty I had. Swimming to the other side after the barrels, my left knee (which has a habit of being rather messed up) tracked (read: kneecap pulled to the side). This was somewhat painful, but more just worrying for the rest of the course. It’s not a big deal if it happens when I’m not bearing weight, but I can do some decent damage when I am. Fortunately, when I came out of the water it had mostly sorted itself out. After a climb up some mud (Cliffhanger), we came to Hangin’ Tough: a series of rings suspended over water. I knew I’d be having some difficulty with things that required hands, thanks to my antics on Monday, but did not anticipate that my bandage would reduce my grip so that I fell on the second ring. Oh well. I swam across and reminded myself to come back next year and get that one.

Hills

After this was the Mud Mile (clambering over trenches), Spider’s Web (climbing up and over a cargo net), and Trench Warfare (crawling through covered, small trenches). Trench Warfare brought out a little bit of claustrophobia in me, but I just focused on moving forward, and before I knew it I was out.

Boa Constrictor – Halfway

Boa Constrictor – Conquered… now just to get out

Next up was Walk the Plank (a jump into water), Boa Constrictor (crawling through plastic pipes that were just narrow enough I couldn’t get my knees under me), and Log Jammin’ (going over and under approximately waist-height log walls). Through these, there was some very nasty hill work, and eventually going up, my calves started to cramp. I had to adjust my gait so that I wasn’t using the muscle so much, and consciously focus on relaxing my legs. Then came Greased Lightning which was basically an improvised water slide down part of a hill.

Down-Hills

We then came to one that I had been dreading: Funky Monkey (monkey bars, going up and then down). Knowing the state of my hands, and now anticipating the difficulties of my bandage, I was understandably concerned about making it across this one. I pulled the bandage as far down as I could so I could use the top half of my palm on the bars. I found that so long as I went slow, and made sure I had a good grip with my left hand, I was able to make it just fine.

Some more unpleasant hills brought us to the Electric Eel: the same as the first obstacle, except there are electric wires (lots) hanging down from the barbed wire. Every now and then (probably between ten and fifteen times) you get a painful electric shock of 10 000 volts (but low enough amperage for it to be safe). For this one I just kept my head down and kept moving. Some people try to avoid the wires, but I didn’t want to take the time, and I figured the shocks would feel worse if I tried to avoid them. Getting out the other side was a welcome relief.

We now met Berlin Walls #2, which were 12 feet high. One of my teammates was having trouble with his knee, so I helped him get a grip on the top of the wall and he was able to pull himself over. Next was my turn, and it was fine, except my calf cramped as I grabbed the wall. I let myself hang there until it relaxed (just a few seconds), scrambled over, and then went to the second one. This time I went straight to hanging to try and avoid the cramp, which worked.

Next the whole team grabbed a ten foot log, and carried it up a hill and back down (Hold Your Wood).

On the way down the rest of the hill, my hamstring started cramping as well. This was not a good sign, especially with the last two obstacles being difficult ones. The first up was Everest (a greased 12 foot high quarter pipe that you run up and have to grab the top of). My first teammate makes it up no problem. My second teammate (with the bad knee) makes it up no problem. All the while I’m kneading my hamstring to try and work out the cramp enough to make it up. It’s my turn, and I start running towards it, legs okay so far. I start running faster and the leg still hasn’t cramped. I’m at the pipe now, and I go for it. One step, two steps, three steps, and I’m eyelevel with the ledge. I grab it and manage to pull myself up: no problem.

…people with strange ideas of how to spend a Sunday

A little jog later and we’re at the very last obstacle: Electroshock Therapy. It’s a bunch of shallow trenches with electric wires hanging down. Most people either try to sprint through or try to dodge the wires. I convinced my team to do neither. We were going to look more badass than any three guys holding hands ever have: we would hold hands and walk through slowly, as a team, so that everybody took every shock.

I don’t know why they listen to me.

Anyways, we do this, it’s awesome, and we cross that finish line 2 hours and 42 minutes after we started, a time that we were all more than happy with, wearing our orange headbands.

Correction: Awesome Orange Headbands

Getting clean afterwards (except you’ll never be clean again)

I would like to note that after twenty or so electric shocks at the last obstacle, my toes wouldn’t uncurl until I sat down. I don’t know how to feel about that.

Also, my stuff was on the hill where I left it. Mudders are awesome people.

All in all: awesome day.

Tough Muse

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What Karate Means to Me

Jared Windover

Karate, literally translated means empty hand, and is thus a way of defending oneself when one’s hands are empty; a means of unarmed combat. Karate is a lone Okinawan defending his home and family, standing tall against a Samurai horde. Karate is a man striking a makiwara late at night while his family sleeps, with the threat of death hanging over his head if he is found out. Karate is the softness of yin and the hardness of yang. Karate is all of these things and much more, however, this is not what Karate means to me. To me, the meaning of Karate can be found in three things; a staff, a belt, and a pair of shoes. These are what Karate means to me.

The staff is often the first weapon a student learns, and it was the first weapon I learned. However, I was never attracted to it for its potential as a weapon. I was attracted to it for the way it moved. It combined power and grace, speed and control, and it allowed the person using it to transcend the confines of their body and become more than they were. I would sit there and watch while my Sempai practiced, hoping that one day I’d have the chance to use it. The class in which I first used the staff was the most exciting I’d ever had. I learned to strike forward, and to perform the four corner strikes. At home I started practicing those strikes on the street in front of my house, and I would practice for hours. I practiced until it was too dark to see what I was doing and I had blisters on my hands. Then one day, after a demo team practice, I was asked if I’d like to learn the more advanced staff techniques under my Sempai; an apprenticeship of sorts. Ecstatic doesn’t begin to describe how I felt at that moment. I learned everything I could about how to use the staff while I had the chance. The fervour that I had for the staff, I believe, is the spirit of Karate. It is practice and practice and practice, not because an instructor is telling you to, but simply to improve at your art.

Another symbol of Karate for me is the belt. Not just any belt, but the Karate belt. The first time I wore it I had no idea of the significance it would one day hold for me. In fact, when I first began Karate I intended to quit at black belt. At the tender age of 9, I did not realize the irony in that. Regardless, it is now something very important to me. I know very little about the origin of the belt, but one thing I do know is that when the belt went on I was a different person. I was focused, and I was there to train. When I’m wearing my belt, I’m not only representing myself, but I’m representing my dojo. Not only am I representing my dojo, but I’m representing an entire history of martial artists leading up to me; others who have worn the gi and the belt and have called themselves Karate-ka; others who have lived and died by their art, and those who have passed it on to the next generation. When I wear my belt, there is a certain protocol with which I’m supposed to act, and a certain role which I’m supposed to fill, and it must honour all of those who have gone before me. Eventually, as is the way for many things in life, the belt ceases to be the reason you act the way you do, and you take that action into the rest of your life. Similarly, I have heard mastery described as the point at which you forget all you’ve been taught. It is not forgetting in the sense that you no longer know; it is forgetting in the sense that it is no longer conscious, but subconscious; no longer what you do, but what you are. For me, this is embodied in the belt. I am a Karate-ka when I wear it, and I am a Karate-ka when I don’t, and for this reason it symbolizes all that I am as a Karate-ka.

Lastly, a pair of shoes; two shoes put side by side, evenly, against the wall, with a bunched up sock in each. This is the last thing I saw before entering the dojo on more days than I can count. It is a practical step, as training in bare feet develops strength in the feet and begins to condition them. As well it helps keep the dojo tidy, as you’re not tracking dirt and mud in. When students first begin, they remove their shoes hastily and rush into the dojo to begin their training. Sometimes students are reprimanded to tidy their shoes so that there’s room for everybody else. It takes time for this to develop independently, but it does, and it did in me. I now take a small amount of pride in making sure my shoes are put neatly in their place before beginning my training. I spent a particularly long time, however, rushing to remove my shoes and begin training, and this was evident in other parts of my life as well. I was reluctant to make my bed, do chores, or tidy my things. It all seemed like time that should be spent more effectively on other things. Eventually, however, and I feel this was due to my training, I began to examine these habits, and realized that they were not in the spirit of Karate. My previous Sensei had a saying, which I’m sure others have said before: “It is not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice.” By being haphazard with the things in my life, I was reducing the value of my life. By rushing from one thing to the next, I was losing the lessons that could be learned from those things. It is this, more than anything, which now characterizes my training. My goal is no longer to learn something new, it is, rather, to gain as much value from what I am doing as I can extract; whether it be a kata, or simply putting my shoes away.

Karate is an art, a philosophy, and a way of life. As such, its meaning to me cannot be adequately summed up in an essay, nor a book, nor an entire library. It is something that has penetrated to my core, and will be a part of me so long as I live. It has realized fervour in me, taught me responsibility, given me a sense of community and history, and taught me to look for value in all that I do. It has changed who I am, and for that I am forever indebted to my Sensei, my previous Sensei, my Sempais, all of my classmates, and an entire lineage of martial artists. To make it perfectly clear, it has made me who I am today, and I can no more define what it means to me than I can define myself. The three items are images that, for me, are indelibly linked to Karate, and while Karate is much more than the sum of those parts, Karate can also be seen in the slightest of things; a punch, a breath, or the eyes of a master. Or a pair of shoes, side by side, with a bunched up sock in each.