'Wipeout' harder, much harder, than it looks on TV

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – A row of mechanized, doughnut-shaped hurdles took turns punching my jaw, chest and – oh yeah – my groin.

This was supposed to be an amusing diversion, but I wanted nothing more than to curse like I had never cursed before.

I kept my profanities in check, though, because I wasn't alone: 20 video cameras leered at me like a thousand eyes while I tackled the grueling "Wipeout" obstacle course.

There was nothing I could do but let the foam-padded rings toss me around as I attempted to crawl through to the other side of the gauntlet. I was exhausted – finishing the course seemed physically impossible. I just wanted it to be over, but I wasn't going to give up. After all, I had already been banged up by a big red ball and punished by a wall to get to this point.

And the hurdles weren't the end of my challenge that day. There would be more pain to endure.

The producers of the breakout ABC hit game show had invited me to the outdoor set located on a sprawling ranch 40 miles outside Los Angeles to have a go at the infamous obstacle course on a chilly spring morning. In each episode, 24 contestants engage The Qualifier in hopes of moving forward in the contest and winning the $50,000 grand prize.

Me? I just agreed to do it for fun.

"The advice that I give to all contestants is speed and momentum," executive producer Matt Kunitz told me beforehand. "You really need to use your body's momentum to take you across the course. A lot of people come out here and think they're going to go fast, and then they get to that first obstacle and just look down, think about it and take one step."

Participants of all shapes and sizes who partake in "Wipeout," which begans its second season last week, are insured by the production and usually sequestered in a compound of trailers behind the course, unaware of their competitors' progress before taking on The Qualifier themselves. Luckily, I was permitted to roam free around the set and observe every one else.

The day I visited "Wipeout," the course was populated with silly food-themed barriers. There were essentially five impasses to overcome: A series of banana-shaped platforms swinging above a vat of mud; a wall of punching boxing gloves; the show's hallmark inflated floating balls; those torturous doughnut hurdles; and a swing from a platform onto a giant hot dog.

From the vantage point of my sofa, the "Wipeout" obstacle course always seemed akin to a Disneyland attraction or a giant Slip 'n Slide. In person, my perspective completely changed as I witnessed The Qualifier spit out beaten, bruised and – in one instance – vomiting contestants.

It's nothing like a theme park ride. Oh no. It's a brightly colored nightmare! Think Freddy Kruger with a box of Crayolas.

The only safety equipment I was outfitted with was a lifejacket festooned with the splashy "Wipeout" logo and some lace-up ankle covers. That's it. No helmet. No pads. No cup. Once it was my turn at the starting line atop a hill overlooking the course, I could only focus on two things: Keeping breakfast down and finishing. After an air horn sounded, I was off.

I shimmed down the hill, across a series of floating platforms to the bananas. Without hesitating, I flew over the first one – success! – then slipped from the second into the mud. This was not like any mud I had ever felt in my life. It was cold and watery, not warm and gooey. It was also, as I learned after leaping with my mouth gaping open, very gritty.

Next was The Sucker Punch, which is basically a sadistic human-sized version of Whack-a-Mole. Caked in mud, I clung to the wall as a series of boxing gloves affixed to hissing air pistons jabbed at my body. I was already so drained that I didn't really feel the beatings, yet I only made it half way down the wall before dropping into the frigid drink below.

After a quick dip, I was up and over to the show's infamous Big Balls, four inflatable red spheres affixed to steel supports above more frigid water. For the second season, Kunitz and his crew have added The Motivator, a giant pendulum designed to whack contestants in the rear if they don't immediately lunge from the platform onto the floating Big Balls.

Keeping Kunitz's advice in mind, I propelled myself forward before The Motivator could have its way with me. It's all a rubbery blur in my mind, but I think I firmly planted my face into the second red ball. What followed was the longest, coldest swim of my life – made more embarrassing because dozens of steely eyed crew members were silently gazing at me.

Another new addition this season is a second mechanical obstacle. During my visit, it was that series of bobbing foam-padded doughnut-shaped hurdles that are controlled at a table about 50 feet away by an evil human operator who grinds his teeth as he mashes the controls. They were formidable indeed, but I didn't let the doughnuts stop me from moving ahead.

Following the hurdles, I faced the last obstacle: A tire swing over another vat of water onto a swaying platform that would then require a final vault ending on top of a piece of foam shaped like a giant hog dog that was covered in ketchup and mustard. I tried but didn't make it, dropping into the chilly water one last time before wading to the finish line.

"Spectacular," co-host Jill Wagner mockingly proclaimed of my performance as I limped over. She's the field correspondent who watches each contestant make his or her way through the show's courses.

"It's like I've never seen a man go through the course like you did," she said. "It was like a gazelle elegantly moving through the course. It deserved $50,000."

Wagner revealed my time was a respectable 5 minutes and 32 seconds. Kunitz later told me if I was actually participating in the show, my time would have qualified me for the next round.

Uh, no thanks. The excruciating experience – and glob of mud I blew out of my nose on the car ride home – was enough for me.

I haven't looked at a doughnut the same way since.

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