The Hardest Obstacle on the Tough Mudder

G. Scott Graham
8 min readSep 14, 2022

On June 5 2022 I participated in my fifth Tough Mudder.

I hadn’t planned on it but friends who were running invited me to go along with them.

It was tough. But not in the way you might assume.

A Tough Mudder is an endurance event where people traverse obstacles along a 10-to-12-mile-long course. The first Tough Mudder was organized in 2010. I did my first Tough Mudder in 2012.

Over the years, a number of competing “races” started and ended. All designed to make a 5K (or longer) more fun. There were races with a firefighting theme, there were races where you ran through foam, and there were races where you got covered with colored powder. There were even “races” that included brain-teaser puzzles, scavenger hunts, and the occasional zombie who would chase you through the woods.

Brian Stephens — A Closet Tough Mudder

Brian Stephens and I did a number of these races. From the Tough Mudders to Warrior Dashes to the Expedition Everest Challenge (an obstacle treasure hunt through Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park in the middle of the night).

I remember the first time Brian joined me in one of these events. I told him beforehand what I have told other friends who joined me (and eventually us): the most important measure of success is completing the course (and the day) without any injuries, followed by having fun.

My most vivid memories of Brian are cemented in these kinds of races: from Brian doing a race just days after surgery on his right hand, to Brian spending time at the top of a challenging element helping others who were struggling, to Brian laughing like a little boy on the playground while going down a two-story water slide into mud.

Brian came to exemplify the spirit of a Tough Mudder as embodied in the Tough Mudder pledge that is said before every event at the starting line:

· 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

Relationship Glue

Over the years, these races became an important activity in our relationship. I think because they incorporated the core pillars that we held to in our relationship: commitment, support, determination, and fun.

There have been very few opportunities to participate in obstacle races like these since Brian died thirty months ago. Shortly after Brian’s death I reached out to friends and family to invite them to do an obstacle race — any obstacle race — to honor Brian. Most of these were cancelled or postponed because of the efforts to contain COVID pandemic. This included the Tough Mudder.

Invited to Join a Tough Mudder Team

Six months ago, a friend of mine, Sophia, reached out to me to ask me to do the Tough Mudder with her family. She knew that I had done a number of Tough Mudders (as had she) and she was helping her husband build a team that included his brother and their kids. Sophia didn’t register to do the Tough Mudder herself. It was her plan was to tag along to take photos of her family during the event.

I was clear that I wouldn’t run and I had to walk instead— my two titanium-cobalt and plastic knees preclude engaging in high-impact joint-pounding activities like running or jumping, as well as joint-twisting or joint-jerking activities.

Our entire conversation was about physical ability and not emotional ability.

Nowhere in our conversation did Brian come up. Nowhere in my mind’s eye did Brian come up. It never occurred to me to consider the obstacle we were building — I was building — that I would need to traverse.

The Event

This Tough Mudder began like any other I could remember. We arrived early and were able to start before our registered start time because of low attendance.

Typically, spectators are restricted to only specific parts of the course — usually a couple of areas with easy access where multiple obstacles are bunched together. But the low participation appeared to bring a relaxed attitude from those managing the course. I told Sophia she could probably go along with our team through the entire course and not just stay in the designated spectator areas.

We gathered at the starting line for the preliminaries one hour before our start time. Sophia joined us. When the start was announced everyone took off running except for me and Sophia (who was carrying a daypack of water, food, camera equipment, and everyone’s phones. Everyone on our team waited at the first obstacle for us to arrive then took off running right after we completed the obstacle. Sophia and I continued to walk.

It is not a good feeling to have people running ahead of you and then waiting for you to catch up at the next element. It simultaneously feels like you are holding them back and pressures you to go faster or zip through an obstacle. I recall getting to the third obstacle and wanting to get some photos but by the time I was ready for the photo opp everyone had run off to the next obstacle.

The Hardest Obstacle

Having done a number of Tough Mudders I know that they cram obstacles together. Obstacle locations on a Tough Mudder are put up for ease of deployment and removal, management, and emergency response. At the same time, there are distance requirements so you might find yourself traversing terrain for miles and miles without a single obstacle to overcome. This Tough Mudder was no different. We came to a junction where a bunch of obstacles were grouped together and then the route basically made a loop back to the junction where there were more obstacles to traverse. A person could easily bypass the circle, do the other obstacles, and move on. Sophia and I decided to bypass the loop figuring the group would catch up to us after completing their circle.

This set me up for the toughest obstacle.

The loop turned out to be long and our teammates did not return at the speed we had anticipated.

Time fueled the obstacle. Memories of Brian flooded my brain. You could see the pain in my face.

Sophia, in fact, noticed this at some point and asked me (you guessed it), “How are your knees?”

My motivation dissolved. All I wanted to do was leave.

Which each tick of the clock I could feel the pain in my chest grow. Tears welled up in my eyes and I walked away to be alone.

It was one of the darkest times I could recall since Brian died. Even though I was in a crowd of people — people who knew me — I never felt more alone and unsupported.

Months later, as I write this, I find it curious how people tend toward expecting those who are struggling to be forthright with their struggle. People somehow expect those who are grieving to reach out just like people expect those who are contemplating suicide to reach out. Know what? Isolating emotions tend to not work that way. People who are depressed withdraw. People who grieve pull away. People who are suicidal retreat.

It’s like handing a person who is mute some sheet music and then blaming them when they don’t sing.

Months later, as I write this, I find it curious how people don’t ask and then blame those grappling in the darkness for not reaching out. The issue is not that those grappling in the darkness don’t reach out. The issue is that those nearer the light don’t ask.






I recall rejoining the team near the last three elements. I felt excited about the Mudderhorn. Supposedly it is the tallest obstacle to ever be built on Tough Mudders.

The Mudderhorn is exactly the type of obstacle Brian and I would have done together. Everyone on the team hit the element and started climbing. I turned to Sophia and said, “Let’s do it!” She declined. I pressed her again. She declined. I just walked away.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it on my own.

After everyone made it through, they asked me to come along and celebrate.

How could I?

I failed myself.

I failed Brian.

The Moral of the Story

My intent in sharing this tumultuous experience is to inform and provoke. My intent is not to blame or admonish. If someone close to me can be so oblivious to my pain, what does that say about everyone else?

People are around you all the time. Hidden. Sad. Grieving. Isolating. Suicidal.

Do you see them?

Do you support them?

Or do you go on about your life oblivious to their darkness?

The only people who have read me consistently and responded with support exactly when I needed it most are my canine companions. I would have ended my life many months ago if it weren’t for them.

Why can’t people be more like dogs?

These articles, as well as my book, “Come As You Are: Meditation & Grief,” expose the truth about grief. I am blunt. I don’t sugar-coat what I have discovered about grief and how we deal (and don’t deal) with it. Grief is too important of a topic for me to beat around the bush.

I want you to know that until Brian died and I directly experienced powerful personal grief and loss on a level that completely rocked my world, I had my head up my ass just like some of you reading this article probably do. And I was a therapist. I hurt a lot of people because I didn’t have enough self-awareness and I didn’t have enough empathy. I thoughtlessly bought into the lie that we are told about grieving.

When I wrote the book “Come As You Are: Meditation & Grief,” I thought that my understanding was complete. I was wrong. That is why I continue to share my insights in these articles. Thank you for reading this, and I invite you to learn more about what grief truly is. You can read other posts right here on Medium, and you can get my book in digital, audio, and print versions.



G. Scott Graham

G. Scott Graham is an author, a career coach, a business coach, and a psychedelic support coach in Boston, Massachusetts. http://BostonBusiness.Coach