Tre Norman lounges in the back of the bus as it journeys down I-15 toward the day's battle. Feet kicked up, book in lap, headphones on, toes tapping, relaxed -- he's got this.
Across the aisle, Louisa Heske thumbs through playlists, while a small group passes the time playing a spirited game of Contact. They are confident athletes, ready for the 10-plus-mile, military-style obstacle course before them. They are also UNLV Honors College students.
The team strides into the competition village as a man on a loudspeaker announces the UNLV Honors Rebellion's arrival to Tough Mudder Los Angeles. Team leader Daniel Coyle calls out Tough Mudder! The students shout back, Hoo-rah!
"It was a little weird," senior Natalie Schibrowsky thought when Coyle first proposed participating in a Tough Mudder. "I thought, Nerds and exercise? Hmm, this is going to be interesting."
What Schibrowsky and the others found was a community of driven students ready for a new challenge and happy to break down the stereotypes in the process. "It's amazing what kind of camaraderie this has built into the Honors College," she said.
Tough Mudder is a torturous event, featuring obstacles with scary names -- Arctic Enema, Devil's Beard, and Electroshock Therapy -- and scarier realities. But it is not about who crosses the finish line first. Winners are those who complete what they can, when they can. The Mudder pledge is to put "teamwork and camaraderie before individual time." If you need help to reach the top of a wall, grab a hand. If you're on top of the wall, lend a hand to the next. Hoo-rah!
"This team represents what we do in the Honors College," says Coyle, director of development and an academic advisor in the college. "We're not just here to get you a degree or a career, but to help you become the person you want to be."
Coyle first assembled a team for a Las Vegas event in April 2014. He hoped for 10 volunteer students and ended up putting 35 on the course. As an extracurricular activity, that event was a success, but Coyle saw the need for a more formalized training program. He turned to Trisha Cain, UNLV's fitness and health education coordinator, to help create a one-credit Obstacle Course Training class. It's taught at Camp Rhino near Sunset Park under the instruction of William Swoop, an Elite Tough Mudder participant, and fitness specialist Cliff Abner.
With an enrollment of 40 Honors College students, the course exceeded expectations, Cain said. "I saw them come in on the first day, and they were all like, 'Where are we?'" she said. "As the semester went on, they took the place (the Camp Rhino warehouse) as their own. It took (their experience) to the next level."
Back on the Tough Mudder course, Norman still looks confident, but his running partner Shiloh Johnston is flagging. Johnston tells him to go ahead; Norman refuses.
"When you sign up for something like this, it's not about the individual," Norman would later say of why he didn't leave his sidekick. "The Tough Mudder was great, but having (Shiloh) there kind of just humbled me. It just reinforces a belief I have that life is a team sport.
"You will never reach your ultimate potential without other individuals in your life who help you get there. So if it weren't for Shiloh, I would have run this Tough Mudder and had a great time. But I would have never been able to have this experience that will ultimately make me a better person. Our friendship has grown tremendously."
And so did his academic career. Norman, a second-year student, said the Honors College wasn't a perfect match at first. It wasn't until the Obstacle Course Training class and this Tough Mudder that he felt at home.
"I felt like an outsider," Norman said. "I didn't feel like I could fit in the Honors College because of my own assumptions. You rarely saw me in the Honors College (before the class). But now I'm in there every day, just doing work."
Norman's story bolsters Honors College Dean Marta Meana's belief in the unorthodox approach to confidence building in her participating students.
"The Honors College is not just about getting A's and getting into grad school," she said. "It's about empowering students to further develop as fully rounded, open, and generous individuals. That involves 'getting out of yourself,' leaving your comfort zone, and connecting with others.
"The whole (Mudder) thing fits beautifully into that picture. I have not heard one student say they were happy they got involved because they became more physically fit -- not one. They all talk about it as a personally and communally transformative experience. How cool is that?"
Second-year Mudder Anna Gingrich backs up the dean's perception.
"It's really easy to get caught up, especially as an Honors student, in academics... for us to put all of our energy and focus into that aspect," she said. "When I exercise... it positively affects all aspects of life. It's enriching to have these experiences with these people, and then the conversations that come from those experiences, and then the relationships that come from those conversations. It's just great a ripple effect."
Pressures faced by honors students can be intense as family, friends, and society expect more from them, said freshman and first-time Mudder Isabel Guerra.
"We're expected to go to these very far places. So there's that constant fear of 'what if....'" she said. What if we don't get good enough grades? If we don't get into a graduate program? Or med school? "Doing Tough Mudder (helps us understand) you don't know how far you can actually go and how much you can actually succeed unless you do it -- unless you just face that fear head on, apply for those schools, do a Tough Mudder."
On the course, Guerra, and her running mates Danielle Scarff and Heske are standing atop one of the many hills the course was built into at the Glen Helen Raceway. Scarff's long-held fear of heights kicks in, her hand nervously gripping Heske's. As the trio descends the hill, sliding in the dirt and holding back tears, Scarff's mind takes a philosophical left turn.
"I started thinking, where else in my life am I freaking out about the little things?" she said. "What's the worse that can happen here? I end up at the bottom of the hill? Well, what's the goal? To get to the bottom of the hill."
As the day wears on, different parts of the team cross the finish line. Mud and dirt cling to every inch of them and read like a storyboard of each journey. Exuberance overcomes as they cannot control pride in their accomplishments. They hug. They dance. They clean up.
"There's a family here, there really is. And that's great because it's bigger than just a class; it's bigger than just some event," Norman said. "People's lives are changing. The bonds that are being formed are amazing."
First-time Mudder Mike McGrady puts it this way, "For seven years, I played on a competitive lacrosse team consisting of young men who grew to be my wingmen," he says. "In all those years, I never experienced the sense of camaraderie that is present within the Honors Rebellion. The students that make up the Rebellion have come together to create an environment that not only supports fellow teammates, but pushes them to reach greater heights. The Honors Rebellion is more than just a team, we are a family."
The last group approaches Everest, one of the more difficult-to-cross obstacles. A group of team members who were already finished and ready to go home, jumps to the top and reaches down to pull the them over. And with the final Mudder, Sotodeh Ebrahimi, right, atop Everest, the group roars as she raises her arms in victory.
"It sounds crazy, but somehow a 10-mile beast of an obstacle course helps you get closer to that optimal self -- healthier, more confident, more connected to others, more alive," Coyle says.