Word came into the newsroom a few weeks ago of a tough, dirty event that would have me out of bed by 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday.
Against my better judgment, I said I’d do it.
It was the third annual Muddy Maul and Crawl held at Jessie’s Grove Winery in Lodi.
I should have said no, based solely on my aching muscles in the hours following the race. But in the early morning light of a vineyard, running two miles in sandy soil dotted with Army style obstacles seemed like a great idea.
On race day, I showed up early to get my number, stretch and scope out the competition. I can safely say everyone in my age group was more fit than I am. But there were some soccer moms whose times I could probably beat.
The race was split into waves. The men took off at 8:40 a.m., sending a cloud of dust into the air on their heels. I watched them to get an idea of the course, but the track wound through the grove. Aside from three obstacles, I couldn’t see much of anything.
Two runners from the Tokay High School cross country team had scoped out the course and offered me some advice.
“Keep your mouth closed in the mud,” said Annabelle Rankin, 15. Duly noted.
A group of about 50 women, a couple of kids and a few husbands and boyfriends queued at the starting line 45 minutes later. I took a spot near the back, knowing the real runners would trample me.
Winery owner Greg Burns aimed a firehose at us, an announcer counter down, and we were off.
The first obstacle was an Army crawl through the dirt. I fell to my hands and knees and clambered underneath a ten foot stretch of netting. I followed the ankles and feet of the woman ahead of me to avoid the metal poles.
I didn’t hit any poles, and I didn’t get any dirt in my mouth. Five minute into the run, I wasn’t regretting anything.
That would come later.
Next up: a double row of stacked haybales. I sat down, swung my legs over, and got back on the trail.
Up ahead, I saw a line forming in front of the next obstacle. Three rows of monkey bars rose into a peak at about 15 feet off the ground. My arm and shoulder muscles said “No, thank you.” But I was committed.
I climbed up to the first bar. Suddenly, an eight-year-old boy with a mop of curly hair fell from his handhold and snapped a supporting beam on the structure.
“Get off! Go around!” yelled the red haired woman monitoring the obstacle. She radioed for help to fix the bars. The boy was uninjured.
My muscles said, “Awesome!” and I ran off to the next stage.
I’m using the term run very loosely. It was more of a determined jog. But I kept at it in intervals for at least half of the race. When I did tire and walked instead, it was brisk. I swear.
The course was grueling. Sandy soil slipped under my feet, like running on the beach. Tractors and runners’ pounding feet left the trail uneven. As soon as I got into a decent pace, it was time to stop for the next challenge.
I climbed up and over an eight-foot tower of heavy netting. I pretended I was on a pirate ship scaling the ropes to the crow’s nest. Too bad I had to get off the tower and run some more.
Two rows of tractor tires were partly buried in the ground on either side of the track.
“What do I do with this?” I asked.
“Go over and under,” said the helpful volunteer. Climb. Crawl. Climb. Crawl. And I was clear.
I dove under a pile of loose netting held up by two poles. Before I could crawl two inches, one of my braids was snagged in a knot. I couldn’t go forward, and I couldn’t back up. I grabbed the netting, tore it out of my hair, and scrambled on. That hurt. But I was busy. There was more running to do. There was always more running.
Looming in the shade in the back corner of the property were two walls with handholds cut out of them. One was six feet tall and covered in a pink camouflage pattern. The other was ten feet tall and coated in green and black paint. This was the boy’s wall. This is what I climbed.
Left leg up. Right leg up. Boost body all the way up to reach the top. Left leg step up. Right leg over the wall. Sit and contemplate my immediate future: a pile of hay waiting seven feet below. I had to jump.
“Oh, my God!” I yelled on the way down, landing in the pile. “That was high. That was so high.”
A child dropped down onto the hay next to me. I chose to ignore him.
Soon, my least favorite obstacle came into view. It was a swing, but without everything that makes swings wonderful. Like a seat. And solid ground.
A volunteer handed me a dirty, knotted rope hung from an A-frame. I grabbed it and swung out over a muddy pond like lady Tarzan. I landed in three feet of chilly, dirty water. Score.
I hauled my soaked self out of the pit and tried to jog away. But I could barely lift my feet. My giant running shoes were bogged down with water. Back to brisk walking.
The course was a one mile out and back loop. I was one quarter of the way through.
I circled back through the wall, the loose netting, the tires and the monkey bars. The bars had been repaired. I had three tries to make it across. I didn’t. I fell. Whatever.
Over the haybales. Under the netting tunnel.
I jogged the final stretch in squishy shoes to face down the mud pit. Forty feet of dank mud waited under a field of netting. I dove in. The mud was so deep and watery I was basically swimming, propelling myself forward with my elbows. I came out the other end, sopping wet, my T-shirt heavy with filthy water. I staggered to the top of a dirt heap and enjoyed the refreshing spray of a firehose to rinse off some dirt and cool my angry muscles.
That was one loop. I had to do everything over again.
To persuade my legs to keep moving, I convinced myself the only part of the race in existence was the distance to the next obstacle.
That’s how I made it through the second round. From there, I just got dirtier, sweatier and more tired.
Morning walks and a few neighborhood runs with friends had not prepared me for this.
But I didn’t stop on the course. Or give up. If men and women in the armed forces can pace themselves through every day in training or on the front lines on a foreign war, I can finish this race. That was the thought driving me through the final steps and one last swim through the mud pit.
My time was around 45 minutes. I wasn’t last. There were at least three women behind me. Event staff handed me a water bottle and a dog tag necklace.
Photographer Ian Jonsson was waiting for me at the end. I offered him a hug, but he said no.
I have scraped knees and elbows. All of my muscles are tired. It took 20 minutes to get the dirt, twigs and nastiness out of my hair and off my skin. My truck has a puddle of sludge on the floorboards.
I’ve got to stop agreeing to these things.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.