It is nearly noon on the fourth Saturday in March, mid-seventies and humid. Miles of grass, low-growing trees and clusters of cactus pass by as Sam drives us toward Smithville, between Austin and Houston. Ben and Sara are driving from Houston and arrive at Rocky Hills Ranch a few minutes before we get there.
Sam and I walk the half-mile from the parking lot to meet up with the other two at the Warrior Dash registration area. It is my seventh run in just less than two years, their first. Well, as long as we don’t count all the similar things Captain Samuel Arnett did during his basic training, it’s their first.
After registering, we have someone take a cell phone picture of the four of us, race bibs pinned in place, standing in front of the welcoming banner. Then, we all walk back to the low end of the parking lot, avoiding dry and not-so-dry clumps of cow manure along the way. We visit, finish final preparations and last bites of fresh fruit and I drain my blue Gatorade. By the time we walk back up to the race area and take advantage of the last chance port-a-potties, the PA announcer is calling us to line up for the two o’clock start.
Most of my other runs have been on relatively flat ground. Here, the flat ends after a quarter-mile. I manage a decent pace for an old man and the others are considerate enough to hold back for me. Heading up this first low grade of gravelly run, I tweak my left ankle as it slips off a rock. Nothing big or bad, keep running. The next hill is steeper with more gravel.
Not having trained the last two weeks before the race, using the excuse of sinus and ear infection, which drained my energy and stamina, I end up walking up most of the hills and running down them. In the first two miles of the three-point-seven mile course, there are only one or two obstacles. Most of them are located within the last mile of the run and especially during the last half mile. I prefer them more spaced out to break up the running a bit.
Around the two-mile point, I roll my ankle over pretty hard. This time it does hurt but I don’t tell anyone; we keep going. Run downhill, walk uphill. Jog the flats, as much as I can. I know my sons and Sara could easily complete this thing in ten minutes less time but we have agreed to stay together.
We help each other up the slick barriers of the mud pits: one to offer a step up at the bottom and another to help pull from the top. We charge together up the steep wooden inclines, grab the ropes and work our way up and over. We work our way across the vertical cargo net and climb together up over the slatted A-frames. At the largest obstacle, we start off together across the slats. Moving across the wet, muddy planks above the pit, I sense that the others have moved ahead. I work my way up the next incline, grab the overhead grip and slide down the tube into the muddy pool at the bottom.
I stand up to catch my breath and look around for the others. Turning back, I see them all together at the top of the tubes, waving at me. I watch, laughing as they come shooting out of the tubes. Sam is stretched out completely horizontal and disappears into the muck.
At this point, there is only a quarter-mile left. We jog toward the finish and jump over the burning line of the fire strips. “Hey,” Sam says, “Let’s go back and jump together.” My ankle is hurting, my legs are hurting and I feel worn out. “Are you serious?” I ask and know immediately, yes, he’s serious. So we go back thirty yards past the fire jump and line up. Just before we get to the fire, another runner comes past us on the left. We abort the jump and go back for another try.
Then, it’s through the shallow muddy pond and I claw my way up the sloggy, slippery bank. After this, it’s the final dash to the mud pit covered with low barbed wire. As we crawl our way toward the finish, Sam flips over and starts doing a backstroke. Covered with mud from neck to toe, we pose for the finish line picture and then head to the drink tent.
For over an hour then, we stand at a table, sharing memories of the race and our drinks and listening to the music. Hundreds of other people walk around us, many of them as muddy as we are. It seems that everyone is laughing. Some fad dance song comes on that most of them seem to know and Sam teaches me the steps. It’s a very easy dance and so I catch on pretty quickly. We dance and laugh together, covered with drying mud, bound together by the experience, by years of love, by bonds that still strengthen through the years.
This is not heaven but it is one of earth’s better moments.