Mud runs and similar trail running obstacle courses have become very popular over the past 10 years.
On June 16, I participated in my first ‘mud run’. Specifically, the ‘RunAMuck Mud and Music Fest’. At 5k (approximately 3.1 miles) the Runamuck is one of the shorter events, and a great place to start if your a first timer.
I awoke early that Saturday morning with a sense of anticipation that was new for me. I was going to do something new today. Something that would challenge me, help detoxify me and hopefully break up my ho-hum fitness routine.
Now I’ve had similar, ‘first time’ mornings before. I’ve done the New York City – 5 Borough Bike Tour. I’ve run 5ks and 10ks, and dabbled in mountain biking with the Buddha Belly Mountain Biking Click.. In my 20′s I started hiking and backpacking, which in recent years has morphed into a love for trail running. But that Saturday’s activity produced an anticipation that was very foreign to me.
I was gleefully looking forward to getting down-right dirty from head to toe.
Caution: if you’re not familiar with the back country, don’t equate running 3 miles on a wilderness trail with running 3 miles on a city street. There is no comparison. Granted, you don’t have to dodge auto traffic and dog poop, but running on a wilderness trail will quickly bring to your attention any weak spots in your anatomy and physiology.
The best and the rest of us
The race took place at Anthony Wayne State Park in Orange, NY, and was divided into several heats. The first group left at 9:30 AM. I and my friend Damani (the only one who responded to the rallying call I made to my over 50 crew) arrived later. Therefore we were able to witness the first winners in that race. The first place ‘runamucker’ (pardon my french) crossed the finish line in about thirty minutes according to the race clock.
That’s good time considering the steep hill climbs, stream crosses and obstacles placed along the course.
I could tell these guys were not weekend warriors. They were committed athletes. When they exited the woods and charged for the finish line, they looked like they had a few more trail runs left in them.
More people trickled in after the first place runner. Then they started to arrive in small clusters. The first woman in that 9:30 heat crossed the finish at about 40 minutes. About five minutes later, a young man that looked like he was in his early teens, crossed the finish.
The 10 o’clock group, which was pretty big left next. I watched them disappear into the woods and then it was time for my group to assemble at the starting line. The emcee on the stage at the starting line took the group through a warm up routine with the assistance of a few participants from our heat. It was finally count down time.
I was pretty relaxed. First because I’m accustomed to trail running. Second, because it wasn’t a race for me. It was an adventure, an opportunity to de-stress and break up my weekend homebody routine, all in one shot. Or so I thought.
4 .. 3 .. 2 .. 1
The horn blows and we’re off. The beginning of these races can be a bit intense. You’re in a crowd of people, some running fast, others running slow and then there are the moderates like myself. So you’re jockeying for position, trying to get around people, not simply to pass them, but just to get in stride, get into a rhythm.
Within about 5 minutes I broke into a space of my own, a gap in the crowd that gave me about a 15 ft. radius of free space.
Finding a comfortable rhythm is essential for me when I’m running a moderate to long distance. Once my body gets into a stride that feels right, I can ride it like a wave. It’s pretty much effortless from that point on. But whenever something breaks that rhythm, it forces me to speed up, stop abruptly or make a movement that is not fluid and in sync with the rhythm. That breaks my energy flow and distracts my focus. It then takes about a minute to get back in flow.
In my mind, I’m running solo and can settle into a motion – breath – mind connection. Now the journey begins.
When running on a trail you have to stay alert. There are stones, branches, slippery leaves, and other debris occupying the trail.
They’ve been there long before you and are not impressed by your social status. Get distracted too long, or fail to lift your feet higher than you would in the city, and you are an accident waiting to happen.
I reached the first steep hill and powered up for the climb. Running up hill on a wooded trail requires you to step up your energy level a bit more than the usual steep paved road.
Hills have bigger exposed rocks, boulders and tree roots. The erosion of the soil that occurs during heavy downpours and the foot traffic of hikers, exposes major obstacles once beneath the soil. Making a rapid ascent becomes somewhat challenging. This is when you call upon your bodies large thigh and butt muscles to rise to the occasion .
Of primo importance on the up hill is good foot placement. An intimate dance is going on in your brain, between your rational and intuitive mind. When you are calm, they can work together to effortlessly guide your steps. Once my soles found sure footing, I dug into the ground with force, and every step propelled me straight upward and onward until I crested the first hill.
We run by faith and not by sight.
We level off for about 2 minutes and another steep hill approached. I haven’t been running at all this spring. In fact, I’m not very big on running in the city. But I’ve only been on a trail twice this spring and only one of those was solo. Solo hiking is when I get my trail run on. Even though my body has not been trained for this specific event, I was confident in my ability to take this next hill and I did it!.
As I was climbing, I noticed that many of the people that zipped past me in those first 5 minutes, were falling behind. Some had come to a full stop and propped themselves up against a tree. I suspected that they were first time trail runners. They are used to running on the street or the park and just got a serious wake up call from mother nature. This ain’t yo mama’s 5K!
There are also cats zipping past me on the up hill. Every now and then I hear, “on your left”, or “on your right”. Then, some dude or dudette with cinder blocks for thighs gingerly bounces up and away, never to be seen again.
Time to fall back
We start to go semi-flat (as flat as you’re going to get on a trail run) once again and I was able to to step down my power. But not for long. That’s right, another steep hill. When I say steep, I’m talking a range of 45-55 degrees. I took a quick look at the distance to the top, gage my energy, how far into the run I was, and made a quick decision. I’m choose to walk this one.
I reduced my speed and took the climb step by step. That allowed my breathing and heart rates to recalibrate and adjust. Not too many runners passed me on the climb. The hard-bodies in our heat, including my kindred Damani, had all moved far ahead of the pack by then.
After reaching the summit of hill three, we level out again. There were a few 10 to 15 foot dips and climbs and the usual zig zagging, but this is par for the course. At that point I saw a gradual hill in front of me. That one was no more than 20 degrees. It wasn’t steep but appeared to be about the length of 3 city blocks to the top. I’m felt fine and continue at my pace.
Slightly faster than a jog, I kept climbing. It felt good too. We were deep in the woods, so there was lots of shade. A very subtle breeze moved through the trees. My rhythm was locked in. The trail must be an old woods road, as it became wide at this point. There was plenty of room to pass and be passed without any interruption of flow.
When I got to the point ‘I thought’ was the summit, I realized my estimate was off. Way off. The gradual climb continued for what looked like another 3 city blocks. No sweat, I still felt good. I continued with no consideration of stopping.
So I climbed, and climbed, aaannnd climbed. I approached the summit again. But to my disappointment (yeah, I was looking forward to some flat ground for a bit) there was no end in sight. I realized it was just an optical illusion.
Who do you believe, me or my lying eyes?
This happens to me a lot on steep mountain hikes (quite sure I’m not the only one). I look up and see an area that looks like everything is flattening out. I even see sky beyond the trees, a sure sign that the path is about to flatten out. But once I arrive at that point, it’s just my brain having a good laugh at my ego’s expense. It was time once again for me to fall back. I shifted into second gear. You would think by now I’d just add a half mile or more to any estimate I make. More on this later. ; )
Because the path was wide and pretty clear of large obstacles, I was able to get into speed walking mode. I moved into a rhythm using long power strides with arms swinging forcefully with each step. I was covering good ground without zapping the energy I might need for the finish.
It was close to 15 minutes before I reached the true summit of this long slow climb.
Note to self: Purchase the trail maps that cover Anthony Wayne State Park. Me and that hill are going to become intimate friends in the near future.
Just as I reached the top, I could see a table about 40 feet ahead. It was attended by a solo volunteer and had cups of water spread out for anyone to grab and gulp on the way by. I grabbed, gulped and began running again.
Someone behind me asked the volunteer how far we were. He replied, “one point four”. In my head, I was like “WHAT”. We were not even halfway through the course. I didn’t need to hear that.
The “more on this later”-
One of the services I offer is as a trail guide for folk who are new to hiking and backpacking. I often give slightly ‘fudged’ information when they ask- ‘how much further’. I will usually reduce the amount of time or distance that is ahead of us.
In my experience, endurance activities are 50% conditioning and 50% ‘head game.’ The closer you perceive the end of the task to be, the more energy and focus you have to get there. In my book ‘believing is seeing’ . . . . the finish line.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “How I Ran-A-Muck”.
Photo Credits by