• Mortar blasts set in motion mother’s effort to field a Tough Mudder team at the ‘Y’
by Jim Boyle
The first time Karen Sharpe was challenged to assemble a team from the Elk River YMCA for a Tough Mudder run, she brushed it off as pure craziness.
The grueling 10-12 mile obstacle course – designed to test the strength, stamina, teamwork and mental grit of any group courageous enough to take it on – seemed like something other people do when it was first posed to her in October 2011.
But when the Elk River woman learned a mortar blast killed a soldier on the same convoy her son had volunteered for while deployed in Bagram, Afghanistan, she had to do something.
That something became the Tough Mudder, which has raised $6.5 million for the Wounded Warrior Project, an outreach for wounded men and women in the military and their families.
Tough Mudder challenges have attracted 1.3 million participants worldwide, with events taking place across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.
Through programs focused on engagement, mind, body and economic empowerment of wounded service members and their families, the Wounded Warrior Project aims to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in America’s history.
Change of heart
The need for such a program hit home a few months after her son Daniel, one of two sons she has in the military, shipped off to Afghanistan. The senior airman for the Air Force – whose job is to unload and load bombs for use on land, in the air and in water – was stationed at Bagram, Afghanistan, August 2011 to March 2012.
Sharpe was able to Skype with him while he was on base, but there were long stints of silence, too.
Her son told her on one Skype session he had put his name in for a convoy mission, but not to worry. His name was not drawn.
“He was disappointed,” Karen Sharpe recalled. “I was relieved.”
The following Saturday after their conversation, Sharpe heard on the news about a convoy that had been hit.
“My first thought was, ‘Thank God my son was on base,’” she said. “Then a great sadness fell upon me that someone else lost their son.”
Her son confirmed on the following Wednesday that the convoy on the news was indeed the same one his company led and he had put in for.
“It really hit home,” Sharpe said.
Pulling together a team from the Elk River YMCA
The suggestion of pulling a team together from the Elk River YMCA where she works as an instructor and personal trainer didn’t seem like such a wild idea anymore. She announced the Tough Mudder in her morning classes that she teaches at the Elk River YMCA.
Three people joined her for that first trip to St. Joseph, Wisconsin, (near Hudson) for the Twin Cities Tough Mudder. Last year the group blossomed to 15. This year it more than doubled and 34 individuals boarded a charter bus on July 19 to make their way to the event.
“That has been rewarding,” Sharpe said of seeing the group grow. “I have been amazed at people’s willingness to do this. They care.”
Lisa Nelson, of Elk River, is one of them who decided to make the trip again.
“It’s not a race,” she said. “It’s about teamwork and getting through the obstacle course.”
She said you reach a point where you don’t think you’re going to make it any farther, but your teammates are their to help you through it.
“Everybody has their own fear,” Nelson said, noting it might be water, heights or something else. “But you overcome your fears. It’s such an adrenaline rush.”
This year brothers Matt and Zach Petz committed to raising $1,000 or more and pledged to have their heads shaved and to sport mohawks at the challenge if they did. They did.
Jason Mosher, of Elk River, an active duty member of the Army National Guard went this year for the first time.
The 2002 Elk River High School graduate is not one of Sharpe’s students, but rather a friend of one her sons.
Being a member of the Guard for nearly eight years, he has conquered his share of obstacle courses. When Sharpe challenged him, he decided to go for it.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I wasn’t out there trying to win races or nothing. I had a good time helping the team throughout the obstacle course and getting dirty.”
He has already signed up for next year’s event.
Sharpe thought this would be her last year. The former owner of a successful battery store in Elk River turned fitness instructor injured her ankle and couldn’t finish on a high note. She wants to give it another whirl and see if she can complete the course in two hours or less.
When she hangs up her muddy sneakers, she hopes others from Elk River will continue on.
“I hope so,” she said.
Nelson said she would not be surprised if they did.
“I think others have the bug,” she said.