Thien-than C su-Chet’s (aka “TNT”) favorite Tough Mudder course is Raceway Park, home to Tough Mudder Tri-State. Ask him why, and he’ll tell you that it’s storied, gritty, rugged and demands absolute respect.
Having gotten to know TNT over the past few months, I find that in describing Tough Mudder’s most storied venue, he’s inadvertently describing himself.
A 25-time Tough Mudder finisher, TNT has conquered over 500 Tough Mudder obstacles in just three years. However, running through a Tough Mudder course, his most menacing obstacles lie within. The 42-year-old Canandaigua, New York native and former Marine has been living with leukemia for 12 years, and for nearly twice that long, he’s been walking (and running) around on an ankle on the brink of amputation.
As if his physical ailments weren’t enough of a burden, TNT runs Tough Mudders wearing a gas mask and wrapped in 90 pounds of chains.
Fresh off his 25th finish, in which he received a surprise startline honor and was presented with an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas to contend in World’s Toughest Mudder 2014, I caught up with TNT to talk about his Mudder journey, a story as explosive and powerful as his nickname.
Tell us about your surprise ceremony at the Tough Mudder Tri-State startline.
I had a cameraman following me over the past few events, and I did a pre-event interview with him. I went to the startline, and I was surprised to see some fellow Mudders that I didn’t expect to be there-- ones like Joe Perry and Mike Bever, who had said they couldn’t make it to Tri-State. That threw me off. Then [startline emcee] Sean [Corvelle] brought me to the center of the start wave. Alex Patterson of TMHQ came out and presented me with a plaque stating that I am an embodiment of the Tough Mudder Pledge and that TMHQ would cover my flight, hotel and World’s Toughest Mudder 2014 (WTM) event ticket.
So you were notified that you’d be participating in an extreme 24-hour endurance race on one month’s notice?
Yes. I was actually all signed up to run the Virginia Marathon the same weekend as WTM, so I’ve been training for that. There’s obviously no comparison between Tough Mudder and a marathon, but luckily I’ve been running anywhere from three to 18 miles a day, five days a week.
How will you adjust your training now that you have WTM on November 15 and not a marathon?
I own a cross-training gym, so I’m working out five days a week regardless-- pushing tires, carrying sandbags and that kind of stuff. Now, I just have to pace it out more carefully. In preparation for WTM, I pick one day a week to run one to two miles every hour for 24 consecutive hours. The next week, I pick one day to sledgehammer and tire flip while wearing a weight vest and gas mask for fifteen minutes every hour for 24 hours.
You do all this with a very serious ankle injury, right?
Nineteen years ago, I fractured my ankle playing baseball. I had my seventh surgery [on my ankle] last December. Running any event, whether it’s a 5k or a Tough Mudder, my ankle is my biggest physical obstacle to overcome. I have four military-prototype braces, and I have to wear them when I run. I have no cartilage on my ankle. It’s hard to walk sometimes, but during events, I run through the pain.
And you got a surprise diagnosis after one of your ankle surgeries?
I had a follow-up bloodwork from surgery, and the doctor said there were irregular counts and that I had leukemia. My first reaction was that this was just another thing that I was going to have to take care of. I didn’t feel any difference in my body, and the shock went away within seconds. I didn’t feel sorry for myself for one second. When I counsel other people with leukemia, I tell them that they have two choices. They could be depressed and feel sorry for themselves or they can be a problem solver and attack the problem as quickly as possible.
Helping others on the course is like watching your kid open up a Christmas present.
Battling a barely functioning ankle and leukemia, many people would give up physical activity. What keeps you active?
Once I stop, I know that I will begin to mentally and physically deteriorate, so I need to keep going. I don’t have a choice about what happened to me, but I do have a choice in how I handle it. Tough Mudder gives me something to train for. It gives me a sense of purpose. I don’t want to train for the sake of training. It’s all about that sense of accomplishment.
Do you expect these two health issues to be lifelong ailments?
I know that leukemia will eventually take my life. I’m also consulting surgeons about having my leg amputated. My ankle has been through too much. I’ve been living in pain with this injury for nearly 20 years. I understand the side effects, but I would really enjoy being pain-free. I’d have to learn how to walk again, but eventually I would start running 5ks and get back up to Tough Mudders again.
How can you so calmly talk about dying of leukemia and having your leg amputated?
[Laughs.] Great question. These are my crosses to bear. They’re challenges, and I love challenges. I’ve plateaued physically because of my pain limitations. For example, I look at an amputation as losing dead weight that will help me have a breakthrough. Sometimes you have to go back in order to move forward. To be knocked down and have to learn how to walk again? I relish in that. I’m excited.
It seems your physical limitations are enough of an obstacle. Why run in chains and a gasmask?
I did a triathlon a few years ago, and I got grouped up with professionals. There was no way I was going to beat them, so I took 100 pounds of weights with me to carry during the bike and run. I may not win, but no one is going to outwork me. I wear the gasmask to deplete my oxygen intake. I’m not trying to make a spectacle of myself, I’m just working hard and being myself. I have to compensate for the fact that I don’t run well.
You once told me that Tough Mudder means more to you than anything you’ve ever experienced. Can you elaborate?
Tough Mudder embodies the camaraderie and selflessness that I’ve never seen at any race or event. It reminds me of how life is supposed to be. It’s not about just receiving help but giving it as well. It’s that balance of give and take. Just like in life, you have to run on your own, but if you need help, it’s there. Nothing motivates me more than helping someone through an obstacle that they can’t complete on their own. Helping others on the course is like watching your kid open up a Christmas present. It’s all about the joy of helping others and witnessing their inner glow.
Your fellow Mudders have come together to raise $10,000 to help you with expenses while you travel for a bone marrow transplant. How does that make you feel?
It means everything, and I thank every person who has donated personally and individually. I’ve been running Tough Mudders for three years, and in the brief time you spend with these people on course, they become your friends. The relationships start on course, but they’re quickly taken off course. These people are so selfless and giving. Some of them I hardly know. It’s so humbling.
With WTM 2014 just weeks away, what’s the one feeling washing over you?
Excitement. But I want to add, that it’s mostly because of the people I’ll be reconnecting with.
With our partner Crowdrise, we have set up a fund in honor of TNT benefiting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society -- click here to donate: https://www.crowdrise.com/darthvaderforlls
To hear more about TNT's story, watch this: http://mud.tf/NPAjzK