My thirty-something friend, Luke, warned me that he has a weak ankle but I managed to get him to agree to run a challenge course with me last Saturday, anyway. He’d also had a severe bout with a viral infection at the end of June but he didn’t mention that. As we were doing our finally prep for the start of Conquer the Gauntlet at Grain Valley (MO) on Saturday morning, I realized I had not taken his warning about the gimpy joint as seriously as was warranted. Instead of wearing running shoes, Luke started pulling on hiking boots to give some support and protection to his ankles. That’s when I saw the heavy black leather brace on his left ankle. “Man, you were serious about that ankle problem,” I confessed, “I didn’t realize it was that bad.” Then I realized something else. “You’re going to start out carrying an extra five pounds with those boots… and after the first mud pit it’ll be an extra fifteen!”
Fortunately for both of us, the only hills in the four-mile course laid out at Valley Speedway were small man-made ones in the motocross segment and a few other random lumps. There were the steep slippery banks of the two creek crossings that were so steep we used ropes for going down and coming up out of the creek. Those were challenging but they were not the biggest challenges for us.
I’ve run seven or eight Warrior Dashes as well as a Rugged Maniacs, Ruckus and a couple of other non-series events. In all of those races, I’ve never encountered an obstacle I couldn’t complete. I found several Saturday that I couldn’t have done without help and a couple that I just couldn’t do.
The first mud pit required a combination of help at the bottom and at the top for all of the twenty-five or so runners in our group, including the young super-athletic ones. The walls were too slick and too tall. The bell ringer, requiring a ten-foot pull up a vertical rope was too much for all but the elite. I am not elite. But then, I’m not always proud, either. I made it up with a little help.
But there were two for which I didn’t have nearly enough grip and upper body strength. The first was the ring swing, a series of ring grips on the end of short rope sections, suspended above a twenty-foot-long pool of water. Thanks to the folks in front of us, the rings were smeared with mud and water. Well, at least the first one was; that was the only one I touched. I gripped it for a few seconds with my entire body weight hanging from one slippery hand. I waded out of the pool shortly thereafter.
Luke is a lot stronger than I am. He made it to the fourth ring on his first and second efforts. He chose the water route after his third effort. Only one person out of our group made it all the way. He looked like the kind of guy who could hang on to a muddy ring. All day long, if necessary. He was built like a cross between Bruce Lee and Rocky Stallone. I’m more like a mix of Jimmy Stewart and Betty White.
By climbing over Luke and whomever else was willing to help, I made it over the series of five ten-foot high vertical walls. Somehow, I managed to swing my way across the gabled monkey bars mounted over the forty-foot long pool of water. It didn’t help that the bars could spin in place.
The only easy obstacle was the first one, a two-foot high bar. After that, nothing was easy. They all were challenging, whether because of the strength needed, the agility necessary or the complete lack of friction available. The last of the twenty-five was the toughest.
Imagine a stepladder twenty-two feet tall with flat two-by-eights for steps. Imagine this ladder set up so that it spans a pool of water six feet deep and ten feet wide. Now imagine that you have to climb this ladder, from the inside. Without using your feet. You have to grip the broad flat surface of the steps and pull yourself up from one to the other, then turn a hundred-and-eighty degrees, grip the top step on the opposite side and work your way back down. It was already getting hot by nine-thirty Saturday morning. The water felt great.
I love doing these mud run challenge courses. I like that it’s not something you expect a sixty-year-old to even try, much less accomplish. There is satisfaction in succeeding at something difficult. But I also feel young again, like a kid playing in the outdoors, climbing, running, jumping, doing things I did fifty years ago, or things I would have loved to do if I’d had the opportunity. I like the camaraderie of strangers in the mud, helping one another do what none of them can do alone. I also like, strangely, facing the fact that there are things I cannot do but trying to do them anyway. And I love the inspiration of a friend who will go out on a hot July morning and stay the course in spite of a bad ankle and being severely sick less than a month earlier.
I’d love to take my whole church on a mud run. I actually think that would be a lot closer to being what a church is supposed to be than most of the things churches usually do. Not being afraid of the mess or the muck. Dipping down and helping one another through the tough stretches. Helping each other face our fears and overcome them. Recognizing that no matter how nicely we dress, life’s going to be messy at some point or another. Knowing that none of us are good at everything and all of us are good at something. Using each others’ strengths to overcome our own weaknesses. Loving each other through all of it and at the end, never being too muddy or messy for a big ole celebration hug.