Out of My Comfort Zone: Lessons Learnt

Earlier in the year I attended a birthday party for one of my running cohorts where not surprisingly I met a slew of other runners. The host introduced me to Caroline, another veteran runner in the adjacent neighborhood as well as several other runners in her crew. At the time of the party, little did I know at the time that just two months later, I would not only become her neighbor but then also be running many more miles (and hanging out more) with her and more of her crew. Ironic how things play out.

Recently, we’d traded running schedules as my formal training for MCM got underway. It was then she brought up and asked me if I wanted to sign up with her for a mud run.

“A what?!?!?” I exclaimed.

She gave me more information and while hesitant, I looked it up.

I’d never done trail running, and especially never a mud run. I hated getting dirty but for some reason, I decided to try something different. The heat of July, I’d go for the 10k, which appeared (at least compared to the 5k) a better bang for my buck.

The mud run featured a 5k and 10k trail runs with obstacle courses. A high wall, hay bales, a few other things…and mud pits. On one hand, it sounds badass to be getting all muddy. On the other hand, I’d heard trail running was a rude awakening for road runners, as it requires more upper body strength from runners, and the obstacles would only serve to stress the point.

I looked at the entry fee – a bit high at $64 or so with processing, but I’m thinking to myself, alright, this is a novelty, a bit of a challenge, but something to keep you in line. Plus, you’re doing it with friends. What’s not to like?

I hunkered down and signed up.

Morning of the race, we pooled a cab from Rittenhouse Square and made off on the Schuylkill Expressway towards Fairmount Park, the race site.

Walking towards the start, 17 July 2011.

Once we hopped off, in the misty sunrise, we trudged towards the expo area. Fairmount was huge, but I was not used to seeing the trail areas at all. So this was new.

Still I was intrigued by the tents on site that made up the expo. The National Mud Run Series was headlined by Subaru and there was a BBQ pit where the burgers were all getting cooked. My friends were all pumped up for the event although me, doubting my upper body strength and especially my ability to clear some of the military obstacles had me on guard. Even more so was the possibility I could injure my knee on a freak occurrence. Trail running isn’t the same as road running I would learn. There are so many branches and objects and tree stumps one can trip up on. Poison ivy was an issue and for the oddest of reasons it had not occurred to me to bring bug spray.

We queued up in our corrals as loud country music boomed in the background. The course’s distribution of obstacle courses was weighed more heavily towards the end.

Headed with my crew to the expo area, 17July 2011.

We corralled by speed, and the lot of us bunched up into the 9 minute/mile pace group. The organizers were to start the 10k group first at 7am or so, and the 5k group would start in waves at 8:15am. The event itself had sold out with close to 6000 participants.

Closeup shot of the finish, 17 July 2011.

Pretty soon we were off. The 10k path, one that we had signed up for, started off with a punishing hill. Within 30 seconds, I had already fallen behind my comrades. That’s okay I told myself. Run your own race, no worries.

After reaching the top, we rounded the first turn and came upon our first obstacle, a net under which we had to crawl on our bellies and knees.

Alright, I told myself, take it easy, don’t hurt your knee. I wasn’t injured, only scared of being injured. MCM was my big fish, and even 3 months out, I was still paranoid about injury that could even set my training back big time.

We continued running and circling the open field past the concourse and back by the start and expo area. We could hear the gun going off for subsequent waves of runners.

More running. Then the second obstacle, likely the one I would hate most – the high hurdles or high beams. I had NOWHERE NEAR the arm strength needed to jump these darned things. After six attempts of trying and failing, a volunteer gave me a lift by allowing me to boost off his knee. Much thanks to him, as I know I couldn’t have completed the obstacle – or the course – without his help.

The next few miles tested my patience and resolve. The mugginess had not fully set in and temperatures even in the thick of the woods were beginning to rise. The 10k path was marked and diverged from the 5k path. I dodged tree stumps, twigs of poison ivy clipped my ankles. There were narrow paths where runners followed each other single file. I high-fived members of the military standing guard along the race path. A mountain of hay, blue tunnels under which we had to crawl. My sensitive knees.

I probably shouldn’t have thought about it too much.

And then…that mud pit.

My strategy to get through that darned pit was to crawl and use my legs to maneuver VERY slowly underneath the ropes. On the first stroke, that backfired, as my knee knocked a bit of mud RIGHT in my right eye. Oh lord. I got through the pit, but seeing the water station right after, I tried – and failed to get the mud out.

I normally shouldn’t have been put off by the mud in my eyes, but having contacts in my eyes as well – and gas permeable (hard) ones at that – made me a little paranoid. Eventually, the mud dried off, and I pushed myself along the hills.

And another thing, the mud stuck in my sneakers made it damn near impossible to walk – let alone run – in.

More running. I wondered when it was going to end. Had I bitten off more than I could chew with this race? Trail running, a mud pit, extremely difficult obstacle courses which clearly exposed my physical weaknesses. And paranoia about injuring my perennially – or should I say – perpetually fragile knees.

I started to question myself on how fun this was. If I stopped finding something fun, my morale – and I – were in serious trouble.

Wide shot of the finish, 17 July 2011.

As we trotted through the edges of the woods, I saw an encouraging sign, runners of later 5k waves crossing the opposite sides of us (runners had to stay to the right of the path). The 5kers screamed with joy seeing us in mud and knowing what would await them. And then, there it was, the music playing the crowds screaming. Additional obstacle courses, all saved for last.

Oh it was over. Oh wait. Not quite.

First was the rock climbing. My fear? Slipping and falling. How to solve that one? Suck it up and take my time. I didn’t care about my time anymore. Just take it slowly and don’t get injured. I told myself. Up and over, done.

Next? The shampoo incline. WOW. This one was embarrassing. I had no problem getting up. But getting over the top? Near impossible. I hung onto the very top and struggled to no avail to hurl myself over. All of a sudden, I felt a force slam my rear end – I had NO idea what it was – but pretty soon, I saw that a 40-year-old (more or less) guy was helping me through. It felt bigger than a hand, did he use his head? I had no problem being pushed literally from behind, but suffice to say, I’m not sure how else it would have happened. After I was virtually taken over, I shook off my knees and continued.

Next up was the water pit. Easy and refreshing. Felt good to see the mud fall off. Finally, the GRAND mud pit. I went right in cautiously, and to my dismay, felt the pit was deeper. I felt the pain in my knees from the gravel, so I did the unthinkable. I turned on my back and did the backstroke in the mud pit. At that point I didn’t care. It got me through to the chagrin of spectators, and though I nearly slipped and fell into a group of spectators getting out, I managed to continue.

Another loop around and then…

Crossing the finish line. 17 July 2011.

DONE. Over. I had finished WAY behind my group, but it didn’t matter. Get yourself to the showers, and get yourself dusted off.

And that was that. I rejoined my group, somewhat exasperated. But it didn’t matter. Overall, while physically tiring, I was glad to have challenged myself and pushed my boundaries.

What did I learn? I learnt a lot from this. No, admittedly, trail running is not my thing. I work enough for the distance run; the added stress and hazards of stones, uneven/different surfaces, branches, made me work harder to the point the run actually stopped being fun. That was a huge red flag.

I learnt to continue pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and made more friends in the process. I learnt where to pull the strength out of my body where I didn’t think I had it. In the case of my less than 100-percent knees, I learnt you can’t be too paranoid about things.

Finisher's dogtag for the Down and Dirty Mud Run, 17 July 2011

Would I do a trail run again? Yes, but probably a pure trail run. Here I think the obstacles gave me trouble, and having to dispose of some of my clothes with the mud (thankfully I didn’t wear too many “good” clothes) don’t think I could shed too many of them with more mud runs hah! The distance was appropriate, but the obstacles admittedly were not my style. Doing it once for the thrill factor was cool, but with injury a concern at times, not something I could do more often.

Kudos to my friends in Center City for letting me in on this one. I enjoyed the time spent with friends, and with more races in the fall, there will be many more to come.

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