By Jean DePlacido
---- — Junyong Pak proved that winning the World’s Toughest Mudder championship last year was no fluke by going out and doing in again. The 34-year-old Beverly resident won the 24-hour nonstop endurance event last month at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J.
Any tough mudder competition is not for the faint of heart. It requires mental and physical toughness along with stamina, strength and fitness under extremely challenging conditions. The 100-mile course over 30 military-style obstacles at Englishtown was designed by British Special Forces to test even the most superbly conditioned athlete.
When he won the inaugural event a year ago, Pak took home $10,000, but this time the prize money was increased to $15,000.
“If you’re in it just to win the money, I can assure you it is not worth it,” said Pak, who is a mechanical engineer. “There are a lot more easy ways to make that money. The first time I did World’s, it was all about the unknown. I really didn’t know what to expect even though I had done a couple of shorter Tough Mudder events.
“The temperature dropped to 22 degrees, and the obstacles froze over, which made things even more difficult. This year, it was more about the competition because of the increased awareness of the sport.”
Pak said there were around 800 people starting in 2011, and the number grew to more than 1,100 this time. Because he had won the previous championship, he had a target on his back.
“Everybody was gunning for me,” Pak said. “There were some really tough, fast competitors, but nobody was really able to put it all together. It turned into a war of attrition, and I managed to survive. There were three of us in the front pack, and right from the start, it was a foot race. I knew that pace couldn’t last. That’s not the way you want to start such a long journey, and my strategy was to put the competition behind me.”
Out of the three front runners, Pak was the only one to finish. Pak lost the lead briefly, but around the 50-mile mark, the other man was so tired he had to make a pit stop to rest.
“I continued to press the pace, and while he was resting, I transitioned to the longer haul and shifted my energy,” said Pak, who completed the most laps in the event, which began at 10 a.m. Saturday morning and ended Sunday morning. He did nine laps (90 miles) with 270 obstacles in 25 hours and 21 minutes. Once a lap is started, it must be finished even if the 24 hours is up.
“I broke down at the end, and had some injuries I never had to deal with before. All I could do was limp home the last couple of miles. The first time I trained for this event, I put in more solid hours, but this year I had a lot of distractions, so I went shorter distances. I averaged about 50 miles a week, but I did have a small window to clear my schedule and increased it to 132 miles for each of the last two weeks. That put an exclamation mark on my training, and I went in with confidence.”
Pak, who has lived in Beverly the past six years, runs all hours of the day and night, often taking his little dog Georgia along for company. She is his running partner and has put in 18 miles at a time with her owner. Pak ran cross country and track in high school in New Jersey before going to Tulane University, where he concentrated on his studies. He missed the competitive aspect of the sport, so he felt the need to get back into running.
The Tough Mudder competitions have become very popular in a short time. Tough Mudder Events LLC was founded in 2010 by Will Dean and Guy Livingstone. Courses feature rugged terrain with steep inclines and lots of water hazards, which require participants to wear wet suits. The number of events is steadily growing.
Pak quit his job to join a company called Epic Racing to start a new professional obstacle racing series. Their first event will be held in Las Vegas next December.
“I was recruited by some guys looking to make this a pro sport. It has exploded in popularity worldwide, and we’re going to flip the cards with a spectator-driven event,” Pak said. “We intend to bring the audience to the sport and get people excited. We’re planning a four-day festival with a casual obstacle race for the audience, and a championship event for the fittest guys in the world by invitation only. That racing circuit will be much more challenging.
“We need to create stars, build icons and heroes to emulate. That’s how you build up a sport. It would be a conflict of interest for me to compete because I’m building the course, but there will be a $10,000 challenge offered to anybody that can beat me. In all, there will be about $250,000 in prize money.”
Pak had to take a couple of weeks off after winning the World’s because of tendinitis, but he is back running and getting ready for what will be his most challenging event to date in Nicaragua in February. It’s a 70K Fuego de Agua (Fire and Water) in the jungle.
“There will be a lot more natural obstacles like climbing vines instead of man-made ones,” Pak said. “The race director offered me an all-expense-paid invitation, and I hope the trend continues because I love to travel. This is my first one outside the United States, and it sounds like it’s exactly my thing. And it sure makes for good water-cooler talk.”