Bluebirds, Butterflies and Mud: What Tough Mudder Taught Me About Camaraderie and Fear

Helen Keller said it best “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” After participating in my first Tough Mudder event last October, I can attest to the truth in Helen’s words.

For those of you who unfamiliar with Tough Mudder, wikipedia describes it as this: Tough Mudder is an endurance event in which participants attempt 10–12-mile-long (16–19 km) military-style obstacle courses. Designed by British Special Forces to test mental as well as physical strength, obstacles often play on common human fears, such as fire, water, electricity and heights. The organizers encourage teamwork, and many obstacles are designed to be very difficult to complete alone.

At first I wondered why anyone in their right mind would ever voluntarily sign up for an event like this. I mean, one of the many obstacles on the course involved barbed wire and ice water while another boasted 10,000 volts of electricity and mud. The course terrified me and yet that fear is exactly why I wanted to participate. Now, it should be noted that before Tough Mudder I had never even attempted a 5k. Thats not to say that I wasn’t already relatively fit and working out regularly, but I’d never tested my endurance to this extent and I knew I was entering uncharted territory. The idea made me feel incredibly vulnerable.

With my sights set on overcoming my Tough Mudder fears, I compiled a team of 4 like minded comrades, enrolled in an event, signed a death waiver and trained for a year. The idea was that I would take on Tough Mudder right before I made the move to Nashville so that when I encountered the musical equivalent of barbed wire and ice water, I would remember that there is no obstacle too tough to overcome. Which brings us to The Bluebird Cafe.

Well respected by musicians and music lovers alike, the Bluebird Cafe is famous for its intimate setting dedicated to showcasing songwriters. They opened their doors in Nashville in 1982 and have since established a reputation as songwriter mecca. So when I snagged an audition to play the coveted Sunday writers night you can imagine the butterflies that showed up for the party. I was nervous. Excited, but nervous. Since you audition in the order you arrived, I auditioned third. When you take the stage you’re given the opportunity to introduce yourself and then you’re asked to play a verse and a chorus of an original song. The thought behind this audition process is that a verse and a chorus is all it takes to win someone over with your song, or conversely, for them to switch the radio station.

I don’t often experience stage freight, but standing on that hallowed stage in front of a panel of judges and room full of amazingly talented songwriters seemed like as good a time as any to embrace the butterflies. As I stood on that stage singing my song, I started to recognize the parallels between Tough Mudder and the vulnerability of an audition. What impacted me most of all about Tough Mudder wasn’t the radical overcoming of fear (although that was admittedly quite liberating). What stood out the most to me was the camaraderie I experienced. When I was covered in mud, physically and mentally pushed to my limits, I’d hear a cheer of encouragement from a fellow mudder or see a muddy hand extended out to help lift me up. We were all in it together and our “common human fears” as wikipedia described, were so much easier to conquer together.

I find the same to be true for the audition process. Auditions have a tendency to become like a petri dish for ego and competitive nature to grow. I’ve seen it time and time again, otherwise well rounded confident people falling prey to the cutthroat mentality that so often makes its way into the audition process. That being said, I’ve also come to know that when you put competitiveness and ego aside you realize that you have so much more in common with people than what seems to separate you. Each and every one of us sitting in the Bluebird that afternoon knowingly signed up to take the stage of vulnerability and I’m willing to bet that I wasn’t the only one with butterflies.

As I sat in the presence of the common human fear we all faced, I found I was surrounded by lovely people, who just like me were there to pour their hearts out one verse at a time. I walked into the audition nervous and alone and walked out inspired and connected. Perhaps by offering a helping hand or an encouraging word instead of comparisons and criticism, these seemingly intimidating situations lose their fear factor. After all, on the course of a dream we all have obstacles to tackle and much like Tough Mudder, obstacles can be very difficult to complete alone.

Thanks for reading! I’ll see ya at the Opry!