Starkey endures mud, sweat and tears

Tough Mudder is a recent addition to the world of extreme sports. Competitions are held over military-style obstacle courses and test mental and physical strength as well as promoting teamwork and camaraderie. Mud, as the name suggests, is a prerequisite. Water is similarly ubiquitous. Nevertheless, the sport appealed to PE teacher Natalie Starkey, and last November she crossed the Atlantic to compete in the World’s Toughest Mudder. She tells The Mixed Zone’s Alys Bowen about her experience

Natalie Starkey is down and out in Las Vegas, and not at the glitzy end of town. She is tired, dirty and up in her neck in water. And her arm hurts like hell after a fall from the balance beam at an inappropriately-named obstacle known as Twinkle Toes. She cannot accept the help offered from the attendant lifeguards, otherwise her team, The Assault Course Mafia, will be disqualified from the World’s Toughest Mudder competition.

Determined not to let down her team-mates, Starkey manages to clamber out of the water and examine her aching arm. It has swollen up like a balloon and is covered in bruises and grazes.

Three months on, the PE teacher, kayaker, running-club captain and fitness-class guru from Burton upon Trent recalls the desperate scene. “I had to go and take a penalty because I failed the obstacle,” she says. “So I started crying my eyes out.

“I got to the end of the obstacle and a woman said, ‘Honey, do you need a hug?’ and I burst into tears again and said, ‘Yes’. That got me through that lap. You don’t get that in any other competition.”

Not that any other competition is like the World’s Toughest Mudder. This is hardcore in a sport that markets itself on being the toughest event on the planet. The ‘World’ event in November was a 24-hour race on a five-mile circuit with obstacles given fantastical names: in addition to Twinkle Toes, there was Kong and Augustus Gloop. On the latter, the competitor dives under water and pops up in a tube containing a ladder that must be climbed to the top while gallons of water is poured on their head.

In Las Vegas, entrants had to contend with temperatures that ranged from 28 degrees Centigrade in the day to 11 degrees at night. Some years it has plummeted to minus 11. In addition, the dust and sand from the surrounding desert kick up storms that provide further hazards.

Starkey says: “It was probably the best and worst feeling of my life put into one. It’s exhilarating, but no matter how much training you do will never really prepare you for what’s involved. Physically I was ready, and on training weekends I had run up to 33 miles on one day, so I knew I could do the distance. But mentally, nothing can really prepare you for the first time.”

Swimming and running after nightfall raised a whole new range of adversities. Everything started to blur into one for Starkey as she made her way around the lap multiple times having equipped herself now with wetsuit and headlight. At midnight, they started cliff-jumping. So when the tiredness has really kicked in, she found herself at the top of the cliff looking down and knowing she had to go through with it.

“The most emotional part was at about six o’clock in the morning and I was climbing over one of the obstacles, and my partner [Paul, who she met at an event in Ireland] said to me, ‘Look at that in the distance: that light over there is sunrise’. I started crying because I knew we had made it through the night and from then on we only had about six hours left until the end of the race.”

Rejuvenated by the hug from a stranger, Starkey and The Assault Course Mafia achieved their 55-mile target in the allotted 24 hours. Starkey, who was introduced to the world of Tough Mudder in 2013, finished 26th-placed female overall with the highest mileage of any British woman competitor.

She won’t, however, be attempting to surpass her achievement at the 2017 event. “I want to cherish what I’ve got,” she says. “We were blessed with the weather conditions, so if I did it this year, knowing that I had such a high mileage, I couldn’t go out there and settle for 55 miles. I would want to push myself and try to get 60, and if the weather changed I would be disappointed with myself.”

Sky Sports Mix will be repeating coverage of the World’s Toughest Mudder over the next three nights – at 5pm tonight and at 6pm tomorrow and Friday. Sky Sports will also be showing further Tough Mudder events during 2017


Alys Bowen is currently studying a Masters in Sports Journalism at St Mary’s University. She is also in charge of overseeing The Mixed Zone’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. She follows and takes part in sports as wide ranging as hockey, swimming, tennis and rugby.

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