It’s 3 a.m. and I’m on the Toughest Mudder course in Vegas, quietly jogging through the darkness up the hill towards Ladder to Hell, shivering while watching head lamps sparkle on the horizon. Just two weeks prior, I was peering up at a very similar scene while slowly hiking towards Uhuru Peak, the beastly summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and tallest point in Africa, standing at 19,341 ft.
This is my story on how I tackled chronic illness and used my Mudder grit to summon the mental and physical strength to make it to the summit. It’s this grit that helped me push out creeping thoughts of self-doubt, quietly whispering “what business does a Crohn’s patient have doing stuff like this? Am I enough? Do I have a headache? Is this altitude sickness?”. The doubts are always there, but the voice driving me, my own voice, was always louder.
My partner and I are legionnaires. We’ve completed ten Tough Mudders and one Toughest together. When we met four and a half years ago, I was striving unsuccessfully to control my Crohn’s disease flare ups. I’ve spent the last four years adjusting medications, understanding my dietary restrictions, and becoming active again. After my first Tough Mudder, I was hooked and since then I’ve utilized Tough Mudder as motivation to keep me moving despite the occasional flare ups, which are becoming fewer and farther in between. Tough Mudder pushed me to my limits, broke me down, and built me up into a new person. It’s shown me what I’m really made of and gave me the confidence to start reaching for my dreams of hiking the tallest summits in the world, starting with Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We opted for the longer 7-day trek up the Lemosho route to take advantage of experiencing multiple African landscapes, starting in the jungle where we watched monkeys swing from the trees and learned that bees are really into swarming pit toilets. We progressed through the foothills and into the eerily barren alpine desert. In Africa, the approach to Mt. Kilimanjaro can be summed up in the Swahili phrase “pole pole” which means “slow slow”. The goal is not a race to the top. Rather, the goal is to hike at a slow pace in order to control your heart rate.
It’s a challenge, not a race.
Sound familiar? A big part of our training to summit the tallest peak in Africa was preparing for and running Tough Mudders throughout the United States, providing us with the endurance and mindset to “embrace the suck”…giving us the physical and mental fortitude necessary to push ourselves outside of our limits and step out of our comfort zone.
I’ll never forget reaching the summit and celebrating, then basically skipping our way back to base camp elated with our accomplishment, hugging and dancing with our porters and guides, rocking (naturally) our Tough Mudder finisher t-shirts. As we left Barafu Base Camp someone randomly called out to us “Hey, Mudders!!”. We turned around to someone we’ve never met before, also donning his Tough Mudder finisher shirt. It was a fantastic moment, trading stories, talking about Tough Mudder. He was getting ready to start the trek to the summit that night. We shared stories about all the Tough Mudders we had ran the year prior, boasted a little bit about running multiple laps to train. He laughs and says to us “Sheesh, this must have been EASY for you!”. Definitely not, but thanks to our training and experience we certainly had the strength and mental grit to make it happen!
Our next big mountain will be Aconcagua in February 2021 and our next big mudder challenge will be Worlds Toughest in 2021. I’m excited to show the world that this little Crohn’s patient from Colorado is capable of big things. Hope to see you guys on the course or in the mountains – Kat.
Katherine Nicholas is a professional geologist who lives with her family in Denver, Colorado. She has been running Tough Mudder since 2016 and has 11 under her belt through traveling the US and Canada. On the weekends you can find her hiking the mountains in Colorado with her fellow Mudder partner and six-year-old kiddo. You can find her on Instagram @geologistkat.