by Drew Williams
“I think this is definitely the place,” Sheila said as we pulled off a gravel lane into an enormous field that doubled as the Muddy Mayhem parking lot. Hundreds of cars were neatly lined up in the converted cornfield with scores of mud covered people walking about.
“Is that lady wearing a tutu?” Sheila asked as I pulled our minivan into the first available space. I glanced to where she was pointing, and sure enough, there was a short red headed woman walking down the lane wearing a purple tutu with pink frilling. “Why aren’t you wearing a tutu?”
“Very funny,” I said. Following the advice of Carl, my over enthusiastic trainer, I wore an ensemble of old gym shorts, a tee shirt, and a pair of shoes I wouldn’t have a problem parting with. Carl had given me lots of good advice: take garbage bags to sit on after the run because mud gets everywhere, take two changes of clothes, makes sure to go to the bathroom before the run, and take some Motrin before I start because, as he put it, I’m going to need it. At no time did he advise me to dress as a ballerina.
Sheila chuckled and pushed open the passenger side door. “I think you would rock the tutu look. Especially with those hairy legs of yours.”
I laughed and grabbed my bag with my change of clothes. “Maybe next time,” I said, exiting the car.
In the previous three weeks since Sheila’s pep talk, I had managed to stick to my training. I ran nearly every day and hit the gym at least three times a week. I had reached a point where I could run a little over a mile without stopping to walk, and on the last trip to the gym I successfully bench pressed the 150 pounds that had stumped me on my first workout.
Carl had been pleased. “Alright,” he said after my successful lift. “There might be some hope for you yet.”
I think Carl was being complimentary, at least that’s the way I took it.
At work Tom Krieger had also offered a slight compliment after I had told him a few days before the run that I was certain I would finish it. “No doubts now,” he said offhandedly. “We’re going to be just fine.”
I decided to let that remark pass.
I also decided to remain silent the day before the race after I weighed myself. “221,” I said proudly.
“You’ve dropped almost ten pounds,” Sheila said. “Way to go!”
The actual loss was closer to four pounds, but since Sheila had overestimated my original weight I saw no reason to correct her, and gladly took credit for shedding a few extra pounds.
“It looks like you’re ready,” she said. I told her I thought she was right.
“Hey, over here.” I turned to see Tom Kreiger and my other two teammates, Neil Drossman and Arthur Ghent waiting for us at the entrance. None of them were wearing tutus. “We got your number,” Tom said, waving a large manila envelope in the air.
Sheila and I went over to the trio, and Tom gave me the packet containing my official race number, 2903, and a tightly folded tee shirt that boasted the Muddy Mayhem logo.
“So where’s your wife?” Sheila asked Tom as I struggled to pin the number to my shirt.
“She didn’t feel like coming,” Tom replied. Neil and Arthur also nodded. Apparently their wives didn’t feel like coming either.
“Yeah,” Neil piped in. “They’ve been here before and think it’s kind of silly.”
Sheila laughed and looked about the crowd. “Well, there’s a bunch of guys over there dressed like nurses covered in mud and drinking beer. Nothing silly about that.”
Arthur just shrugged his shoulders.
“Our wave goes off at 10:30 so that just gives us about 20 minutes,” Tom said, glancing at his watch. “So we should probably start heading toward the starting line.” In agreement, Neil and Arthur turned to follow Tom. I made a step in their direction but Sheila stopped me
“Go ahead,” she said to the others. “I’ve got to fix David’s number.”
I didn’t think I had done too bad a job pinning the bib onto my shirt but Sheila definitely didn’t like the way it was hanging.
“So,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Wives didn’t have to come today.”
“I didn’t know. . .” I began, but she raised her finger and shushed me.
“It’s okay, I want to be here. I just think it’s kind of sad that their wives aren’t here to cheer them on.”
“It’s probably because they’ve done this before,” I said.
Sheila frowned slightly as she continued to repin my bib. “Well, that’s up to them,” she said. “But I know I’m not going to miss my husband facing the Flaming Wall of Death.”
“It’s just a Wall of Death,” I corrected her. “It’s not flaming.”
Sheila patted my chest as she finished with my number. “Too bad,” she said. “That would really be something to see.”
The starting line was about a hundred yards from where we were. A few hundred runners were already milling about the starting chute while several hundred more people stood behind a long rope separating the participants from the spectators. As we neared the line, Sheila pointed to a small clearing about thirty yards away where a few people had set up lawn chairs and picnic blankets.
“I think I’ll set up over there,” she said patting the camp chair slung over her shoulder. “That should give me a good view of the start and finish.” She leaned toward me and kissed me. “Just do me a favor and don’t have a heart attack out there.”
I promised Sheila I wouldn’t die during the mud run and headed toward where my teammates were milling about, waiting for the race to begin.
“You all set?” Tom asked me, obviously checking my race bib to see if it was straight. I told him I was good to go and he offered me a high five which Neil and Arthur joined. A few people around us also gave us a few high fives and fist bumps and wished us all good luck. We did a little stretching and socializing as the minutes ticked down to our start time. With about two minutes to go, Tom put his arm around my shoulder and thanked me again for filling in at the last minute.
“We couldn’t have done this without you,” he said, but couldn’t help adding, “Just make sure you finish it.”
I thanked him for asking me and told him I’d see him at the finish. We both turned toward the starting line when a few seconds later the wail of an air raid siren filled the air signaling the start of our wave.
Because there were so many people in the starting chute, the run began with the mass shuffling of feet and very little momentum. The starting pace was a tad slower than my usual waddle, and for a moment I thought that this would be ideal for me. But as we neared the opening of the chute the runners started to pick up speed and disperse.
“See ya at the end,” Tom called out before bolting across the open field. For a few seconds I tried to match his speed but was quickly panting and needed to slow down before I had even gone two hundred yards. I could see the first obstacle, the Clump Dump about a quarter mile ahead, a series of industrial sized dumpsters I had to climb in and out of. I slowed my pace to a comfortable jog and headed for the first dumpster. Seeing how easily the runners flipped over the dumpster’s side, I was pretty confident this obstacle wasn’t going to give me any problems. When I reached it, I grabbed the top of the dumpster and swung my leg up and vaulted over the side…
Right into a foot of mud.
A man about my age looked at me and laughed. “Easier getting in than out,” he said.
I agreed and pushed my legs through the thick goo and climbed out of the dumpster to find three more waiting for me.
When I finished the Clump Dump, my shoes felt like they were made of brick and I was starting to pant. People were jogging past me laughing and joking, but a few out of shape athletes like me were taking a moment to catch our breath. At least I wasn’t the only one. About a minute later when my breathing returned to almost normal I started jogging again, trying not to remind myself that I still had nineteen obstacles left to go.
The next three obstacles weren’t so bad, just a muddy ditch to traverse and a few hay bales to jump over. If the rest of the obstacles were like this and I didn’t try to go too fast, I was pretty confident I could finish. But no sooner had my confidence risen, I came upon the Barb’s Wire Crawl. The obstacle was fairly simple, I had to crawl twenty yards under a bunch of barbed wired. But this was the first time I had to go face first into the mud. I fell onto my belly at the start of the obstacle and pushed myself forward with my elbows. About a third of the way through another competitor’s foot came down close to my face sending a glob of mud right into my eye. Instinctively I reached out to brush it aside but my arm got tangled in the wire and sliced through my shirt.
For a few seconds I contemplated the absurdity of my situation. I was an over-weight, middle-aged accountant snagged in barbed wire in the middle of a muddy field who had paid $65 for the privilege. Normal people did not do these types of things, I thought. At that moment I wanted to call time out and just get up and go home. But that wasn’t an option; the only way I was going to get myself out of the barbed wire was to crawl through the mud to the other side. I blinked away as much mud as I could and started crawling. I’m sure my arm was bleeding from where the wire caught it, and I’m sure there were about a gazillion parasites living in the mud just waiting to infect me with some flesh eating bacteria.
But I crawled on and reached the other side, and when I stepped away from the wire I saw a sign to my right that read, MILE 2.
Mile 2 wasn’t much different from Mile 1. I jogged, then walked, and then climbed over some barricades and then under some obstacles. There was no barbed wire to contend with, but at one point I did have to slide down a fireman’s pole which skinned my forearms. I was one of the last runners in my wave so there weren’t many people going over the obstacles when I reached them for which I was grateful.
At some point during Mile 2 I heard the air raid siren wailing overhead signaling the start of the next wave. When I heard it I started to pick up my pace; I didn’t want people from the next wave passing me before I’d even completed half of the course. When I reached the sign reading MILE 3 I was pretty much in my own little world. I had lost sight of the rest of the guys on the team long ago and the course was mainly filled with slow moving stragglers like myself who were too tired for chit chat and attaboys. However, every once in a while I would meet one of their eyes and we would share a knowing glance, a look that said we understood each other’s pain and feelings of foolishness for subjecting ourselves to this.
After a while I stopped thinking about how hot it was outside or how hard the obstacles were. I just jumped or climbed, crawled and swung depending on the challenge in front of me. All the while as my legs grew tired and my arms hurt more a strange feeling of satisfaction came over me. I couldn’t honestly say I was enjoying myself, but I was no longer intimidated by the mud and the mayhem. As the minutes passed and Mile 3 became Mile 4 I found my pace going from waddle to slow jog, and on a few flat stretches of land, I actually did something that looked like running. I realized that for the first time in over 25 years I was playing in the mud and wasn’t going to get in trouble for it.
As I hit the fifth mile a swarm of runners from the wave after mine sped by me. Most went by without noticing me, but a few patted me on the back and told me “good job.” One man who couldn’t have been a day under 70 gave me a thumbs up and said, “You can do it.” I waved and plodded on, knowing that I was going to do it.
And I was having fun.
Then came the Wall of Death.
It was the next to last obstacle, a 20-foot vertical wall with thin wooden slats screwed into the face acting as hand grips. If it would have been at the beginning of the course I would have considered it imposing but not impossible. But after nearly five miles of trudging through mud with legs and arms that felt as if they had come down with a case of rigor mortis, I didn’t know how I was going to be able to haul my 221 pound body over the top. With about 100 yards to go before I hit the wall I started jogging a little faster to pick up a head of steam. A man wearing a red cape ran past me.
“Isn’t this great,” he yelled. “It’s like when I was in the Army.”
“I’m an accountant, I don’t run over walls,” I managed to say between breaths, but I don’t think he heard me.
He hit the wall running, his red cape flapping up and over. I arrived a few seconds later with much less speed and energy. I jumped up and was able to grab one of the hand holds and hoist myself upward. My left foot swung out and made contact with another wooden slat and I was able to stand up. I’m going to do this. Gripping a slat with both hands I pressed myself upwards, my right foot finding a hold. I was about three feet from being able to grab the top of the Wall of Death.
I pushed off with my left hand and swung my right toward the top edge of the wall. My fingers brushed the lip but just as I was about to hook them on the edge, my foot slipped, throwing off my balance. My right hand missed its perch and all my weight seemed to be resting on my left hand. Not good, I thought, realizing that I was about to take a tumble off the Wall of Death when I felt a hand clasp around my right wrist and yank me upward.
“Gotcha,” I heard a voice say.
I raised myself up and straddled the wall 20 feet above ground. The woman in the purple tutu Sheila had noticed when we first arrived had one hand on the wall and another on a rope which was there for the descent. “You almost took a tumble,” she said.
“Yes I did,” I said, glancing down at the ground. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She gave me a quick salute and shimmied down the rope. When she was on the ground I took the rope and followed.
Once on the ground I could see the finish line about fifty yards ahead. One more obstacle stood in my way, a ten yard puddle of waist deep mud. At this point in the race the spectators were lined up on the left side cheering on the finishers. I started for the puddle hoping to catch a glimpse of Sheila, but I didn’t see her. I waved in the direction I thought she might be right before plowing into the last bit of muddy mayhem. It took about two minutes to push my exhausted frame through the thick ooze, but I did grinning the whole way.
When I got out of the pit I half stumbled across the finish line, bumping into the high school aged girl who was handing out the finisher’s medals. From the amount of mud on her it was obvious I wasn’t the only one who had nearly collapsed in her arms.
“Congratulations,” she said, slipping the faux silver medal over my head. From the way she smiled I think she really meant it. I tried to say thank you but I was panting too hard. Another exhausted finisher was crossing the line so I moved on, forcing my wobbly legs toward the far end of the finisher’s chute where there was a table lined with bananas and bagel halves. It was the traditional post-race snack, and I took full advantage of it.
After a second banana and some Gatorade, my knees were no longer shaking though my legs still felt like they were encased in concrete. I made my way to the far end of the chute where I saw Sheila standing just inside the spectator’s section. She was grinning and clapping for me, a one woman cheering section.
“You did it!” she called out. “You did it!”
I gave her a small wave and ducked under the rope separating the spectators from the race area.
“I survived,” I said laughing. I reached out to hug her but she thrust her hands out to stop me.
“I love you, babe, but you are way too muddy to be hugging on me now.” When I put my hands to my side Sheila stepped in closer and gave me a soft kiss on my muddy cheek. “I’m proud of you,” she whispered in my ear. “Now let’s go find those hoses and get you cleaned up.”
We found a half dozen race workers with industrial grade water hoses happily spraying water into the crowd. Laughing, Sheila pushed me in their direction. I got pelted with ice cold water but it felt great. Some people were dancing and flapping their arms like chickens. Everyone was dripping in mud and freezing water, and loving it.
When I got as much mud off as I possibly could, I walked back over to Sheila who gave me a towel. As I wiped my face she told me that the rest of the team was at the results tent waiting on my time to be official.
“You finished in an hour and 37 minutes,” she said. “Tom told me that you guys came in the top ten, it just isn’t official until your time posts.”
I was glad we took a top ten position; it would be something cool to brag about at work. But at that moment I really wasn’t thinking about the team or the pain in my legs or the mud that was oozing into just about every crevice on my body. Nor was I thinking about the weeks leading up to the run where I forced my body to waddle around my neighborhood. What came to my mind was something Carl had said to me during one of our training sessions. He told me that when I crossed the finish line I should stop and remind myself that I just accomplished something I hadn’t thought myself capable of doing.
“And how often do you get a chance to do that?” he had asked.
I looked around at the hundreds of runners. Most covered in mud, some yet to start. They were all laughing and hugging each other. How many, I wondered, had just done something they didn’t think was possible? How many had pushed themselves a little bit further and ran a little bit faster than anyone thought they could? I looked down at the silly little silver medal that read Muddy Finisher 2015. How many, I wondered, were feeling as wonderful as I did at that moment?
I felt Sheila take my hand and tug me. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go get your official time.”
“Probably record breaking,” I laughed.
“Blistering,” Sheila quickly replied. “But good enough for me to buy you a beer.”
Our walk toward the results tent took us near the start line where the next wave of several hundred runners was about to take off. Sheila paused, pointing toward the line.
“So, are you going to want to do this again?”
I didn’t hesitate to answer. “Not a chance.”
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.