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Mud Sluggin'

Sarah Caldwell

As I raced down the dirt path then up the first hill of red Georgia clay, my feet stuck, then slipped. My ears were filled with the screams of the crowd around us and my heart was beating in my chest. I plunged into the first mud pool, up to my hips in dirty red water, then up onto the second hill.

Then came the water hoses, blasting us with a shock wave of icy cold spray. My breaths became gasps, my eyes were blinded. And in my head, just one thought: Get. Through. This. Because there was no way that I wasn’t going to finish.

One Month Before

Several of my friends had run Fort Gordon’s annual Marine Mud Challenge. I was at first horrified, then intrigued, then jealous upon seeing photos of them plunging through, over and under muddy obstacles, to finish with big white grins on dirty faces. So we signed on—Sean and I, who had run a couple of local 5Ks and 10Ks; my brother Craig, who has been active in intramural Ultimate Frisbee since college; and our friend Brett, who had recently taken to running like a fish to water.

We’d signed up months earlier—but I started training a little late. I was still hyped though—confident that I could run the four-mile race, no problem—especially if it was broken up by 20 different obstacles. “That’s when I can take a break,” I joked.

My training consisted of aerobic kickboxing classes and “running” on the elliptical. Over the next month, Sean and I added running on a mile track at a local park, plus strength training and pullups at the gym to help us get over the walls. “Pullups?” asked my friend Connie, wrinkling her nose. “I can’t even do a pullup!”

Connie is one of the most fit people I know and had just completed a half-marathon. “Well, assisted pullups,” I said. I was still pretty confident.

Run On

By the week before the run, we’d added another team member, my friend Cinthy. “I don’t run,” Cinthy protested. But like me, she was intrigued enough to want to say she’d done a mud run.

At this point I was also beginning to feel a little more nervous about the race. Our goal was still the same: to just have fun. But although we weren’t expecting ribbons, I was secretly glad that, with Cinthy and me running together, I wouldn’t be the last person on our team to finish.

Having selected a team name, the Mud Sluggers, we were also flexing our design muscles to put together a T-shirt. It would be simple, but direct—a punching fist, with 2013 Marine Mud Run and the date. The mud would come on the day of the run.

I’d also taken to obsessively looking at photos and watching videos of last year’s race, studying the obstacles. There would be mud hills, pits filled with muddy water, log bridges (over mud pits), mud we’d have to crawl through on our bellies, walls, rope walls, double walls, jumps and much more. The scariest, according to my friend Catherine, was an eight-foot obstacle with two slender horizontal bars, one about a couple feet higher than the other. The video showed a slim girl jumping up, walking her legs up one of the side poles, getting her legs up on the bottom bar and her belly on the top bar, then performing a neat flip over and dropping to the ground.
Like Connie, Catherine is a runner and one of the most fearless people I know. So if that obstacle scared her, I knew it couldn’t be that easy.

Race Time

The night before the race, we took a break from our training and carbed up with a pasta dinner. Our full bellies should have put us both to sleep, but while Sean slumbered, I tossed and turned, my dreams filled with 100-foot-high walls and double walls set apart by several feet of gaping chasm that I had to jump across.

There would be mud hills, jumps, log bridges, rope walls...

But by the time we met up that morning at my brother Mark’s house (Mark was going to watch and take photos), adrenaline made me both awake and alert. “Mudsluggers!” we chanted, as we posed for photos at the run, our arms flexed. We also made sure to take a shot of our shoes, pre-mud. Then it was time to get into the chute. “Mudsluggers, you’re next,” said the timekeeper.

The nerves were making my belly clench when the timekeeper said, “Go!” and we were off. Up the first hill, then the second, where a malevolent Marine kept the ice cold firehose on us as Sean dragged me, gasping, through and out of the pit. As we crawled through huge drainage pipes then started running to the next obstacle, Sean was asking, “Are you okay?” I was still breathless from the cold water, but I could gasp, “Yes, I’m okay.”

Over the next hour and a half, it turned out that my joking prediction was correct: The hilly course made the running the toughest part. Even though the obstacles were challenging and my stomach often clenched as I approached them, I could actually do them. I crossed a bridge made out of a single rope, with only a rope above to hold onto, leaning forward and holding my body stiff as I shuffled across. I flopped through several yards of mud on my belly, then washed off when we meandered down a flowing stream stinking of god-knows-what. The walls, which had figured so largely in my nightmares the night before, turned out to be my favorite obstacles: There were no gaping chasms, just a feeling of satisfaction every time I got to the top, then clambered over to the other side.

As a team, we fell into a rhythm. Brett and Craig ran ahead, together; Sean was in the middle, often doubling back to check on us; and Cinthy and I followed. Once we got to an obstacle, we worked together to conquer it. “You can do it, Cinthy!” called Brett as she hesitated near the top of the first wall. “Come on!” At the rope wall, which swayed and threatened to toss us off, we took turns pulling it taut. When Craig and I both had to take time to work up the courage to jump off a platform onto a pad seemingly miles below, our team waited patiently, calling out encouragement. I took a breath, closed my eyes and jumped. “That hurt!” I said, landing awkwardly on my leg, but I was laughing too. Another fear conquered.

Mark caught up with us soon afterward. “You’re almost to the end!” he said. But there were still two of the toughest obstacles to get past. First was a mud pit that you had to cross on an unsecured log, which meant that it could roll freely, dropping you into the water below. Each of us took turns gripping the log to help one another cross. Craig fell into the knee-deep water a couple of times, but each time gamely got back up until he made it over. This turned out to be the only obstacle I didn’t complete as successfully as I wanted to: Halfway across, my entire body shaking, I dropped down and scooted the rest of the way. But I felt better about it when I spotted a few other guys doing the same.

Next came the two horizontal bars, known as the Chickenwing for the shape your arms and legs have to take to get over it. Sean and Brett boosted me up so I could grab the bottom bar and get my legs on it, then it was a matter of following the necessary steps: a hand here on the pole, throw one leg over, then the other, then drop down. It wasn’t at all like the graceful flip on the video, but it was still an incredible rush. The rest, as they say, was gravy. A few more mud pits, a few more hills, then the final wall with the Marine logo and we were running toward the finish line. According to the official time, it took us 1:33:20 to complete the run, and we ended in 332nd place overall (out of 429) and 233rd among the non-competitive teams (out of 325).
As we made it to the finish, we cheered, we screamed, we hugged and high-fived. “I wish we could do it all over again!” gasped Sean. Then it was time for one more photo. Dirty faces, white grins and pride—plenty of it.

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