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Making the distinction between sport and survival

Local ultra-athlete challenges the Mudder
By: Amanda Calzada Placer Herald Correspondent
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Seeing a light at the end of the tunnel fortified Eric Johnson’s mental stamina during the Tough Mudder World Championships last month – literally. “I just kept telling myself, ‘Keep going; it’s not as bad as you think,’” said the ultra runner of Lincoln, who finished 36th out of the 1,000 qualified individuals in a weekend race in Englishtown, NJ. Designed by British Special Forces, the inaugural championships sought to find the world’s toughest man or woman. For a continuous 24 hours, competitors ran 10-mile laps that featured 40 of the world’s most strenuous obstacles. Tough Mudder predicted an estimated 10 percent of the crowd would finish; exactly 1 percent were eventually considered “official finishers.” Johnson remembers completing obstacles with the mental approach of one obstacle at a time while constantly wondering if he was injured or inducing any permanent damage to his body. Johnson said his goal was to “come back with all fingers and toes and not come back in a casket.” No official standard had been set when the race began. Rather, the athlete to complete the greatest number of laps the soonest would set the official distance, which worked out to six laps. All who finished accordingly were considered “official finishers.” Those who completed six laps earned official finishers status. Johnson completed four, covering between 40-44 miles. The remaining participants who were not official finishers were given the choice of an additional four hours to try to reach six laps. Johnson said he wanted to do a fifth lap but his fingers were too numb. The feeling of numbness “lasted for quite a while,” he said with a laugh. Before the race, Johnson set the goal of not contracting hypothermia. He remembered seeing some people who did suffer from hypothermia, and one man broke three ribs on the first lap. Johnson said, roughly half of the competitors dropped out of the race during the first lap, which greatly impacted the race for those remaining. “Even though it was a competition, people were all willing to stop and give you an extra hand,” he said, remembering a particular obstacle called the Berlin Walls, which stood 12 feet high and required outside assistance to climb completely. Teamwork was an integral part of all obstacles. As fewer and fewer runners remained in the race the assistance became scarcer. After the first lap, Johnson remembers seeing all the cots in the medical tent full of people “shaking like crazy.” Several times during the event he exchanged his wet clothes for dry ones. He also napped in a sleeping bag for 45 minutes. In one obstacle, called the “electric eel,” participants tried to avoid contact with electrical-conducting components. However, if one participant got shocked, all felt the jolt because the obstacle was in water. Around 90 percent of the obstacles on the course involved swimming. One obstacle included 40 yards of monkey bars, half inclined and half declined. The monkey bars stood 15 yards above “freezing cold” water. This obstacle, like another 13, was considered a “penalty obstacle;” that meant if a participant failed, or fell in the water, he or she was required to sit out of the competition for five minutes under the supervision of an official. Johnson experienced two 5-minute sit outs during his four laps. The chance of failure when trying to complete a penalty obstacle was especially high since the monkey bars, ladders, and other parts of the obstacle were often greased to enhance difficulty. The race began with a ¼-mile sprint, in which runners tried to avoid a moving wall, the first penalty obstacle. The sprint was followed by the “Jesus Walk,” where individuals had to walk through muddy water and avoid falling in holes 6 feet deep. Johnson said the easiest obstacle was the “log bog jog,” basically a swampy, muddy trail run often found in ultra running. In a separate mud obstacle, participants had to dive “head first” into muddy water and army crawl strategically to avoid contact with potentially harmful wires. The only injuries Johnson reported included a possible sprained finger and mild case of trench foot. The temperature during the day was 39 degrees Fahrenheit with steady winds reaching 12-15 miles per hour. The Sunday morning after the race, Johnson celebrated by taking a drive to the New Jersey shore where he spent some time watching the ocean. Johnson said he was happy he met his fundraising goal of $1,500 (and still counting) for the Wounded Warrior Project. Anyone interested in donating to this worthy cause can visit his blog at www.ericwjohnson.blogspot.com and click the large orange square button in the upper right-hand side. Johnson is thankful for all of the support he received. He said training for the event was not only demanding on him, but also required sacrifice and understanding from other people, like his wife. Regarding 2012, Johnson has no official plans, but would like to do a few ultra running events. The financial statement auditor of Ernst & Young also wants to sharpen his focus on his career in the coming year. Outside of training, the ultra runner enjoys hiking, biking, kayaking, rock climbing, travel, and photography. He also likes volunteering at his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Lincoln 4th Spanish branch, and through Boy Scouts. Johnson is the son of Major General Scott Johnson in the California Army National Guard. For those interested in training for Tough Mudder and running events, Johnson said to be smart when doing so. “The body is capable of great things if the proper training and preparation, mental and physical, is done. Our bodies will communicate to us and it is important to heed what it tells us to be successful.”