We stood looking at the course before the start of the race, wondering why no one was running up the long steep hill just out of the gate. The sponsors of this 5K obstacle course in the bluffs of the Missouri River had cranked up the snow machine the night before, laying out a patch of ice just up from the base of the half-mile slope. From bottom to top, we could see runners walking their way up but none of them were running; they weren’t even jogging.
Like many things in life, a closer look from a participant perspective gave greater understanding.
Two men just over half my age joined me and over two thousand other entrants for this bit of masochistic challenge on the last Saturday of October. The first wave of runners started in sub-freezing temperatures at nine in the morning. By the time of our slot, it was a balmy forty-four degrees, yet still cloudy. Here at Snow Creek Ski Area near Weston, Missouri, we’d earned the second part of the Rugged Maniacs description just by showing up on a day like this. We were about to see if we could earn the first part.
In the chute for the start at one o’clock, we figured out that the race didn’t start out up that big hill but headed around the valley in the opposite direction. We hit the first mud-and-water challenge in less than two minutes. With Brett leading the way, we charged into and through the mess. I fell down at least half-a-dozen times. One step would find the bottom at knee depth and the next it would be waist deep. Slickened by hundreds of other shoes, the muddy knobs beneath the surface made no good place for footing. Brett and Luke beat me out the other end but waited for me. We would run the next three miles soaked and plastered.
Up the northern slope, over mats of leaves on a steep trail, over bales, back down the hill, through tunnels, into the mud under low-hanging barbed wire, across ditches to the halfway water station. A twenty-second break there and then over the fire jump. And then, that long slope up with the snow patch near the bottom.
We continued our jog up to the snow and then slowed to a fast walk. By the time we’d gone another hundred yards, it was just a walk. About halfway up, in a dip hidden from view at the bottom, we slid down culvert tubes into another pool of mud and water underneath more barbed wire. Then, had to pull ourselves up by ropes through tubes going up the other side. And then, continue up the now steeper slope.
On the steepest section, just beneath the top, I dropped to all fours in a bear crawl. There was no longer any mystery at all about why no one was running up this slope. Not this steep, this slick, and after already running nearly two miles. Long before we crossed the finish line back down at the bottom, I was reminded again of the empathy gained by walking in someone else’s shoes.
Especially when they’re full of mud and the race is barely half over.