by Drew Williams
The following is Part 1 of a three-part short story about one man getting really dirty . . .
Pausing in her game of Trivia Crack, Sheila looked up from her laptop. “You’re doing what?” she asked me.
“A mud run,” I replied. “The Muddy Mayhem. It’s an obstacle course out at some farm in Kittanning at the end of the month. I’m going to do it it with some guys from work.” I could tell from the look on Sheila’s face that she was not as enthused about the prospect of me running through some muddy field as I was. “It’s for charity,” I added sheepishly when she didn’t respond.
She pursed her lips slightly and shook her head, a gesture I knew she reserved for judgment of what she liked to call my brain-dead ideas. “Muddy Mayhem,” she said as her fingers slid across the keyboard. “And how exactly did you come up with this?”
“Some of the guys at work do this every year,” I began. “And they have these four man teams that raise money for charity.” I paused, hoping that the charity angle might soften Sheila’s attitude, but she didn’t even look at me as her fingers kept plucking away at the keyboard. “Well, one of the guys on Tom Kreiger’s team broke his leg last week, and Tom asked if I wanted to take his place.”
“And you said yes,” Sheila said, finally looking up at me.
I shrugged. ‘What was I supposed to say? They need four guys to compete as a team, and today was the last day they could make a substitution so Tom asked me if I wanted to do it. What’s the big deal?” I said. “It’s for charity, after all.”
Sheila allowed herself a slight chuckle. “So you’ve said. And how long is this mud run thing?”
I confessed that I didn’t know. “I forgot to ask,” I said, quickly adding, “I don’t think it’s too far.”
“Right,” she said, shaking her head. “And the obstacles? What are they like, or did you forget to ask Tom Kreiger about that too?”
From my silence she correctly concluded I had forgotten that too.
“Come here.” She patted the cushion next to her and motioned for me to sit. Once on the couch Sheila turned her computer toward me. “Muddy Mayhem 2015,” she read from the screen. “Get ready for the wildest day of your life! Twenty grueling obstacles over five miles of mud, muck and mayhem!”
She pushed the computer toward me. “Did you even think of what you were getting yourself into, David? Twenty obstacles, five miles. And look at the list of obstacles.” She scrolled down the page and began to read. “The barbed-wire crawl. That sounds like fun. And how about this? The flaming pit of pain. Oh, and here’s a good one. The wall of death.” She rolled her eyes and laughed. “I love you,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “But there is no way you’re going to do this. You are 48 years old and weigh about 230 pounds.”
I wanted to correct her and tell her I weighed 225, but I didn’t. I just sat in silence.
“You have to be in pretty good shape to do something like this. Tom Kreiger runs marathons and the closest you come to exercising is playing Texas Hold-em on dollar draft nights at O’Mally’s pub. And now,” she said, squeezing my hand for emphasis, “you want to run through the ‘flaming pit of pain’ and climb the ‘wall of death.’ I don’t think so.”
Sheila was right, of course. Now that I saw what the mud run entailed, I had no desire to crawl under barbed-wire or run through flaming barbecue pits. As I scanned through the Muddy Mayhem website looking at the pictures of the grinning and toned men and women navigating the various obstacles, I knew I was in nowhere near the kind of shape I needed to be in to do something like that. It had been over twenty years since I had jogged or done anything remotely athletic. Though every New Year’s Day I vowed this was the year I was going to lose weight and get in shape, by the end of the second week of January I was back to my couch potato ways. I had become a happy, middle-aged non-athlete and was perfectly content with things remaining that way.
I handed Sheila her computer and stood up. “We’ll see.”
“What do you mean by that?” she said as I was walking away.
“It means that I might want to try climbing the wall of death,” I said. “Did you ever think of that? This might be something I actually want to try.” I don’t know why, but at that moment running the Muddy Mayhem seemed like the most important thing in the world to me. Maybe it was because for the first time in my adult life someone had asked me to be on a team. Or maybe it was because my wife didn’t think I could do it, and I wanted to prove her wrong. Or maybe I was going through a mid-life crisis, and since I couldn’t afford a new sports car, I would try my hand at some crazy endurance race. Whatever the reason, I was going to do it. “It might be fun getting all muddy and acting like a kid again. Besides,” I added. “I already told Tom I would do it. He’s counting on me.”
Sheila gave me a puzzled look and sighed. “You’re serious,” she said. “You’re really going to go through with this.” When I nodded she turned her attention back to her computer and her game. “Your funeral,” she said.
* * * * *
The next morning my enthusiasm for doing the run had already diminished. The ramifications of running five miles in the mud for an out of shape guy like me were beginning to sink in. All night I kept imagining the varieties of injuries I was exposing myself to. I could get caught in the barbed-wire pit and have to get stitches; or accidentally hang myself on the cargo net climb. I just knew that somewhere on the five mile course I was going to twist an ankle or break an arm. Or worse, I could have a heart attack half way up the Wall of Death, and then it really would be my funeral. No matter what, I just knew it was going to hurt.
But despite my worries, I slipped into my old sweat pants and laced up my sneakers. I had three weeks to whip myself into shape, so there was no time to lose. I finished dressing and went to the kitchen where Sheila was sitting in her bathrobe reading the paper.
“Morning,” she said. “You want some coffee?”
“Maybe later. I’m going out for a run.”
“Ah, that explains it.” She took a sip from her coffee mug while eyeing my make-shift athletic apparel. “Very sporty. So how far are you planning on running this morning?”
I told her my plan to run three miles a day for the first week and then add a mile each week until the day of the race. “And I’m finally going to use that free 30-day pass to the gym I won at music bingo last fall.”
“I’d forgotten about that. Good idea,” she said, returning her attention back to the newspaper. “Have fun.”
“I will,” I promised and headed out the front door.
It was a little cool for the first Saturday in May, but perfect weather to start preparing for the Muddy Mayhem. I did a few stretches on the porch, a few deep knee bends and flapped my arms around like I had seen Michael Phelps do in the Olympics. As I bent and twisted to loosen up, I started to hum a medley of songs from inspirational sports movies. I started with the theme from Rocky which quickly morphed into “Eye of the Tiger,” and then the theme from Star Wars. Not really a sports movie, but it seemed appropriate. By the time I got to the music from Chariots of Fire I was ready to run.
I really didn’t have a plan for that first run. I thought I would just start off with a pace that was somewhere between a jog and a run and just keep going as long as I could. When I got tired I would slow down for a few seconds to catch my breath and then pick my pace back up again. Confident that I would be able to complete the three-mile loop around my neighborhood I had scouted out the night before, I stepped off my porch and began running.
The first thirty seconds were relatively pain free, but after a minute or so of what could only be described as a shuffling waddle, it felt as if my calves were on fire. Obviously I had started off too fast, so I slowed to a more manageable crawl – but that did nothing to alleviate the pain. Only now the soles of my feet were aching and my left knee was making a funny clicking sound. I tried to ignore the pain by replaying the theme from Rocky in my head, but that didn’t work as the agony of my feet moved up my shins and into my thighs.
But I kept pushing on, passing my neighbors’ houses in a slow deliberate shuffle. Finally, when I could hardly breathe, and the burning cramps in my calves became too much to bear, I stopped and glanced at my watch. I had been running for three minutes and had yet to even get out of my block. I groaned and glanced over my shoul-der. My house was still clearly visible at the end of the street, as was Sheila watching me from the front porch. I quickly straightened up a bit and gave her a brisk wave. When she waved back I pointed downward toward my feet, then bent over and pantomimed tying my right shoe. Just for added effect, I acted as if the left one needed tying too. Once done, I waved again and then turned and hurried to the end of the block as fast as my screaming legs could take me. I don’t know how long Sheila watched me, but I made sure that I turned the corner at the end of the road so that the house was out of sight before I stopped.
On my first run I was barely able to shuffle along for four minutes before my body gave out on me. Judging from where I stopped, I estimated that I had gone less than a quarter of a mile. I looked down the road to where the flat portion begins a gradual, twisting incline. When I had mapped out the three-mile course in my car the night before, I thought it might make for a pleasant run through the tree-lined lanes of our suburban neighborhood. Now I imagined the next two-plus miles as a minefield of pot holes and endless hills that I was going to have to force my aching body to cover.
Or I could turn around and go back; admit to Sheila that she was right and spare myself the torture of trying to push my body to its limits just to run in some muddy field with a bunch of strangers. It wasn’t worth it, I thought. Even if it was for charity. After all, there was no shame in being a couch potato, I just had to admit it to myself. I would simply tell Tom that I wasn’t going to do it, and he would have to find someone else to be on his team.
It would be easy.
But even as my brain was coming up with excuses why I should give up and quit this lunacy before I ended up in the back of some ambulance, the pain in my leg started to subside, and I was able to catch my breath. I took a few tentative steps forward and then a few more. By the time I reached the point where the road started to incline I was shuffling along in a slow half-walk, half-waddling gait that I am sure would have looked ridiculous to anyone who happened to pass by. But I was moving forward again, and that’s all that mattered.
It took me fifty-five minutes to cover the entire three miles with my odd walk and foot-shuffle method. When I staggered through my front door my knees were shaking, and my legs felt like rubber. I plopped myself on the couch more exhausted than I had been in a long, long time.
Hearing me come in, Shelia called from the upstairs bedroom. “How did it go?”
“A little tougher than I expected,” I answered. “But I made it.”
To be continued …(Part 2 coming in the June 2015 issue)
Originally from McKeesport, and a graduate of both Slippery Rock (BS and MS) and IUP (PhD), Drew Williams is a Professor of English Literature at North Carolina Central University in Durham. He lives in Fuquay-Varina, NC with his wife, Laura, and their growing collection of dachshunds.