It seems impossible for Bloomington’s Greg Kawanishi to think about the Tough Mudder events without it bringing a smile to his face.
Ah, the memories: 10 miles of running and jumping into tubs filled with ice water, slithering through claustrophobically narrow tubes, wading through thick mud, carrying heavy logs up a mountainside, climbing 12-foot walls, sliding on a sheet of ice water while getting zapped with electricity—just some of the 20 or so obstacles he had to navigate.
But the 41-year-old’s will could not be broken, neither in his first Tough Mudder in Attica, Ind., in June with workout partner Perry Griffith, nor his second one during a July vacation on Vermont’s Mt. Snow, where he finished so quickly, he qualified for the second annual World’s Toughest Mudder competition in New Jersey this November.
Not bad for a fellow who could not run a quarter-mile back in January without stopping to walk.
“It felt so good because there were so many unknowns,” Kawanishi said of finishing his first Tough Mudder. “I thought I’d bonk out and crash at seven miles. I had no idea what to expect. I had pre-race jitters even though it’s not a race. Perry and I stuck together to the end.
“I trained for four months, and I couldn’t believe I just did that. It was so much fun.”
And yes, his three grade-school children had fun watching daddy play in the mud in Vermont.
“Our kids think it’s hilarious,” Greg’s wife Tammy said. “But the first (Mudder) was a little bit scary since we didn’t know what to expect.”
Dr. Kawanishi spent his active teenage years on Long Island playing tennis and biking. Ironically, he tried out for track and gave up because it was “too hard.” But then college and medical school led to a decade doing “not much of anything.”
Coming to Bloomington eight years ago, Kawanishi established his nephrology practice as a kidney and hypertension specialist. One message he’s had for his patients is to keep up with exercise because it gets harder and harder with age.
Kawanishi started working out with Dr. Griffith, a Bloomington psychiatrist and a staple of local road races, at age 52. He suggested Kawanishi take a look at the Tough Mudder series as a training challenge. The videos of an intense event piqued his interest, and both men entered the event in Attica.
“I liked that it was different, and that it was a fundraiser for the Wounded Warriors Project,” Kawanishi said. “But I didn’t think I could make it a third of a way through it. So I was motivated to work out.”
The regular Tough Mudders are not races and all the athletes actually take a pledge at the beginning to help each other make it through. Even so, his wife at first wondered if her husband was crazy for attempting such a rigorous event.
“Then I saw how dedicated he was to his training, especially with his schedule,” said Tammy, who has gotten more active as well, with several knee surgeries limiting her to biking along with him on some of his workouts. “He really put the time in. But when my husband puts his mind to something, there’s no stopping him.”
Kawanishi had to squeeze his training in around family and work, often taking off on long runs in the early morning and late evening into night three, maybe four times a week. By June, he was up to 12 miles and adding frequent stops on his usual route around Bryan Park to do hundreds of pull-ups, push ups, sit-ups, planks, up-downs and burpees.
“I really wanted to do it,” Greg said. “I’ve never gotten to the point of anything in my life where I said I just can’t do it.”
But anything involving cold brings him close to that point. Even on a hot day. The obstacle involving ice water, pleasantly referred to as an arctic enema, also forces the athletes to dive under a wall in the tub.
“I hate the cold,” he said. “That experience, it takes your breath away. You’re in there for only 10 seconds, but it feels like forever. Your muscles don’t move.”
But then again, all he has to do is look around him and realize his pain is fleeting.
“You see veterans out there who have lost their legs getting though it,” Kawanishi said. “It’s so inspiring. And here you are complaining.”
Unlike the regular Mudders, the World’s Toughest Mudder is a race, with Kawanishi entered based on being in the top five percent of times turned in from the Vermont event.
The site in Englishtown, N.J., near Kawanishi’s alma mater of Rutgers, will be an 8-mile loop with 40 or so obstacles, covering a 24-hour period.
Among the recommended gear is a wetsuit with gloves and hood such as the kind a diver would use, so Kawanishi has had to learn how to run in it, making for a lot of strange looks from the neighbors and perhaps a lot fewer trick-or-treaters this fall.
But that’s OK for Tammy, who only sees how well Greg is filling out that suit these days.
“I met him when I was 17,” she said. “To see him in the best shape of his life is wonderful.”