Toeing the start line of Tough Mudder Chicago 2014, Gaby Martinez stands beside her long-term companion, (let's call him "Dave"), blending into the sea of Mudders at the 10am start wave. Start line emcee Sean Corvelle encourages all Mudders to take a knee. Gaby takes Dave’s hand as Sean lightens his tone. "Look around you," he says, pausing to scan the crowd. “Every single one of us has one thing in common. We’re all going through personal hardships, but we’re all in this together.” Dave squeezes Gaby’s hand, and simultaneously, the two begin to cry.
Prior to the event, Gaby and Dave mutually decided that Tough Mudder Chicago would be their final date as a couple. After five years of dating and helping one another overcome seemingly insurmountable life obstacles, Tough Mudder, an event full of thrills and spills; hair-raising electricity and ice cold plunges, all while knowing the comfort of a reaching hand is never far away, seemed fitting for one last, rather literal, hoorah.
For Gaby, like many Mudders before her, the finish line of Tough Mudder was paradoxically more beginning than ending; the start line more ending than beginning. For regardless of how daunting the course’s obstacles turned out to be, they would undoubtedly pale in comparison to what needed to be overcome to step up to the startline.
As far back as she can remember, Gaby’s weight has encumbered her mind as much as her body. At a young age, her mother grew worried by the rate at which she had to buy her daughter new clothes to keep up with her growing size. “I’ve always been insecure,” recalls the 31-year-old Lasik eye surgery coordinator from Aurora, Illinois. “My very first life memory is feeling insecure and chubby.”
Gaby’s weight increased so steadily throughout childhood that by the time she was a junior in high school she weighed 150 pounds. Seeing no alternative to stop her lifelong trend of gradual weight gain, Gaby took to extreme measures—she stopped eating. As a result, she dropped 60 pounds in three months. The emotional and physical toll taken on her body, however, only lowered her self worth. “Insecure really isn’t the word,” says Gaby. “I felt like I was less than a person.”
A few months later, during her senior year in high school, Gaby began receiving something she’d never experienced before—the attention of a man. Having lived her previous years in lonely isolation, any sign of affection was welcomed with open arms and, at the age of 18, Gaby had her first boyfriend. Three years later, they married and in 2005, at the age of 22, she gave birth to a son, MJ.
Any perceived happiness was short lived, however, as Gaby discovered her husband was having an affair before her son’s first birthday. “I felt so alone, but I was too scared to get a divorce,” she recalls. “I really wanted to try to work things out.”
Throughout her marital turmoil, Gaby reverted back to her most menacing habit—overeating. Over the next two years she binged on food, projecting her internal woes onto those closest to her. “I was mean to everyone, including my own son,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be a mother. All I wanted to do was eat.” To numb the pain, she did just that and her weight rose to unthinkable numbers. “I remember stepping on the scale one day and it read 332,” Gaby says. “I convinced myself the scale was wrong and vowed to never weigh myself again.”
Then after a few of the most tumultuous months of her life, rock bottom came in May of 2008. Her husband confessed that he’d been carrying on his cheating ways and notified her that he’d be moving in with his new girlfriend. “I was so alone and depressed,” she recalls. “I had to drop my son off to spend Thanksgiving with my husband and his new girlfriend and spend the holiday alone.”
Unbeknownst to Gaby at the time, however, this rock bottom would serve as the foundation on which she would eventually build the new her.
On Thanksgiving Day 2008, Gaby’s family staged an impromptu yet loving intervention. “Everyone was so worried about me,” she recalls. “I remember my aunt telling me that if I didn’t change my ways I was going to die.” Surrounded by the support of her family, Gaby realized that no defensiveness or denial could combat the truth of their words. She had a son, and it was time to be his mother.
The very next day, Gaby woke up early and vowed to stop feeling sorry for herself. “I said enough’s enough,” she says. “I put on my headphones and walked for an hour.” For the next five days, she continued her hour-long walks and, without even realizing it, established her life’s first workout routine. Adhering to some basic dieting tips like cutting out soda and fast food, Gaby shed 22 pounds, going from 332 to 310 pounds, in just a month. “After that month, I was hooked,” she says.
I made it my mission to be fit and nothing was going to stop me.
In the month that followed, Gaby made her boldest New Year’s resolution yet—she signed up for a gym membership. Continuously motivated by the gradual results of her simple workout routine, by the end of 2009, she had lost 130 pounds. “I made it my mission to be fit and nothing was going to stop me,” she says.
As the workouts continued, the mission to lose weight evolved into a mission to become wholistically healthy, and one day, Gaby’s friend Jenny boldly suggested she enter the Chicago Marathon. “At first, I didn’t even know what a marathon was,” she laughs. “But I thought that if I could lose 130 pounds, I could cover 26.2 miles.”
Setting her 2010 New Year’s resolution sights even higher, Gaby’s 2010 goal was to complete the Chicago Marathon. After yet another year of continuous training and losing 30 more pounds in the process, she finished the Chicago Marathon in six hours. “It wasn’t the best time, but I was so proud of myself,” she says. “I was on top of the world.”
A few days later, fresh off her marathon high, a Facebook banner ad featuring a man covered in mud wearing an orange headband caught her eye. “I clicked on the ad and it brought me to the Tough Mudder Youtube Channel,” she says. “I started watching event highlight videos and I got chills.” Although Gaby proved that 26.2 miles was a manageable distance for her, she knew that the strength and stamina required to complete a 10-mile military obstacle course would require an entirely new level of training.
“[That first time on the website] I knew that I was going to do [a Tough Mudder] one day,” Gaby says. “I didn’t know when or where, but I knew it was in my future.”
For the next two years, in between distance races ranging from 5Ks to marathons, Gaby periodically returned to the Tough Mudder page to watch post-event videos and remind herself of her promise. “It got to a point where I was thinking about Tough Mudder all the time,” she says.
Then on October 8, 2012, soon after her second marathon, Gaby mustered the courage to register for her first Tough Mudder. “I was so afraid, but after all my marathon training, I knew I could do it,” she says.
Months of higher-intensity training later, with the emotional support of her boyfriend, Dave, and physical support of her friend and teammate, Vince, Gaby stepped up to the Tough Mudder Chicago 2013 start chute, donning a T-shirt with a message to all, not excluding herself, on the back: “I used to weigh 330 pounds.”
“I had major anxiety at the start line,” says Gaby. “I didn’t sleep well the night before, but I was ready.”
At the start horn, adrenaline carried Gaby to the first obstacle, Arctic Enema. “That bitch kicked my ass,” Gaby laughs. “I did not expect ice water to hurt that much.” Stunned and in shock, a Mudder in front of her noticed her panic, turned around and boosted her out of the zero-degree dumpster of daze, giving a much needed lift to her self-esteem in the process.
With growing faith that she wasn’t in this alone, Gaby approached another obstacle, Berlin Walls. Intimidated by the 10-foot high wooden walls, Gaby opted to skip the obstacle but was again encouraged by motivating Mudders. “These two burly guys yelled, ‘Hey, where are you going?’” she remembers. “I told them that I couldn’t do it, but they told me that they’d help.” With yet another emotional and physical boost, Gaby was over the walls, basking in another jolt of adrenaline. “I was amazed that two strangers would just help me out of nowhere like that,” she says. “They truly helped me get over a fear.”
Through a combination of grit, determination and an ego-free knowledge of her limits, Gaby tackled the next 20 obstacles much like she did the first few, and hours later, after over two years of planning and preparation, Gaby Martinez became a Tough Mudder. “I was super exhausted, but I was so proud of myself,” she says. “I had accomplished one of my life goals.”
Tough Mudder made me realize that I’m someone who matters.
The 2013 finish line was only the beginning of Gaby’s Mudder journey, however. Inspired by Gaby’s transformation, Dave signed up for Tough Mudder Chicago 2014. Gaby drove him to train and, in preparation for Tough Mudder, Dave dropped 50 pounds. Having already earned her orange headband, Gaby saw herself more of a motivator than a potential repeater, but Dave had other plans. “He kept asking and pushing for me to [run Tough Mudder Chicago 2014] with him,” Gaby says. “Finally two weeks before the event I realized that it was a good idea.”
Accepting the fact that their relationship had run its course, before the event, Gaby, this time sporting an “I used to weigh 330 pounds and now I’m passing you” shirt, and Dave made their pact that the finish line would symbolize the end of their relationship and the beginning of a new friendship. The emotions of the day, as varied and trying as the obstacles themselves, helped Gaby realize just how far she’d come. “At Tough Mudder and in life, people just don’t let you give up on yourself,” she recalls. “You want to give up on yourself but people just don’t let you.”
Near the end of the course atop Pyramid Scheme, an obstacle she assumed she’d have to skip, Gaby looked down on the display of camaraderie below her and experienced her Tough Mudder moment. “I got to the top and just cried,” she says. “Never did I think I’d ever be able to do something like this. Tough Mudder made me realize that I’m someone who matters.”
As agreed upon, the celebratory finish line beer was both a physical and metaphorical toast to a course well run for Gaby and Dave. “The finish line was bittersweet,” says Gaby. “Our goodbye was sad, but we will always have Tough Mudder to look back upon.”
But it’s much more than just Tough Mudder or her relationship with Dave that Gaby could reflect upon with a learning spirit and bittersweet nostalgia. After all, in spite of all her weight loss, her greatest strength and transformation has arguably come from within. “A few years ago I was suicidal, but I can’t change that,” she says. “If you dwell on things, you’re going to be miserable.”
And just a few months into recovering from yet another long-term relationship’s ending, it’s obvious that dwelling truly is one of Gaby’s dropped habits. “Life goes on,” she says matter-of-factly. “Today I feel awesome.”