So today was the long awaited Merrell Down & Dirty Mud run, sponsored by Subaru. Usually when a company sponsors an event, at least in my experience, you just get their logo on your shirt. I have to say though, Subaru stepped up at this event. I didn’t even realize it, but when I drove up at 6 oh too early this morning, the parking attendants steered me away from the normal parking. Since I had a Sub, I got VIP parking. SWEET. Then when I went down to their booth to thank them for the cool treatment, I got another surprise. They asked to see my key, which I showed them, and then they pummeled me with swag. It was nuts. Yeah it was little stuff but all super useful and it really made me feel like Subaru was stepping up saying “We’re sponsoring this, if you’re our customer already we want to show you we love you”. Merrell also hooked people up and they were extremely excited to see that I would be barefoot running the race in a pair of their street gloves (I was one of only 30 finishers out of a total of 990 racers today, and one of only 17 men.) . They took a shot of me and asked if I would mind if they used my picture. So I might end up on their site. Neat.
But on to the more important stuff, the race itself. I invited a ton of people to join me in doing this race and basically no one made it. Some had other things going on, a couple ended up injured but the majority basically did not think they could do it. And I will say, when I stood there at the start I was nervous. Sure, I spent my youth dodging cops and security guards by hopping fences but that was several decades ago. Could I still boost over things, especially while in the middle of running a 10K through the hills of Folsom? We’ll see.
I started back in the 11 minutes per mile area, primarily because I figured that would be my pace. I can actually do much closer to 10 minutes, but I figured since it was hilly, and dirt/rocks, I should under rather than over estimate. This was my first mistake. If I learned one lesson it is this: people are going to want to start early, even if their pace is slower. I spent about 3/4 of the race passing people in the 3 or 4 heats ahead of me. Only at about the 5 mile mark did I seem to really be running at about the same pace as all the people around me. On road courses passing isn’t terrible, but on the narrow trails it was tough, especially when 2 or 3 people decided they would walk abreast and just block the trail. Annoying and it burned energy to hop up on the embankments to get around them.
The gun went off and I immediately saw I’d made a mistake being in this heat. It wasn’t until after the first obstacle that the beach really opened up and I was able to get ahead. The nice part was that with the other heat 4 minutes ahead I could run without a ton of people around me for a while. The first obstacle was a crawl under some netting. A bit silly, but thank you kneepads.
I got up ahead of most of my group and got into a nice pace with a young lanky kid who was curious about barefoot, so we had a good conversation for a few minutes until the next obstacle, which was pushups. I had been worried they would have us do 30 or 50 or 100 or something like that, but it was a nice easy 10. I did 11 for school spirit and high fived the drill instructor who had been standing over me yelling ALL THE WAY DOWN, STRAIGHT BACK, EYES DOWN, LET’S GO. When I got up he nodded, knowing I’d gone 1 more than needed and said “Good job son”. Such a little thing but man it fired me up and I picked my pace way up, reeling in the group in front of me, who got held up in the tunnels, which was less of an obstacle and more of a “gate” to slow people down. A quick crawl through and I was off again.
The hills began and I realized immediately my mistake in not training on any kind of terrain. Running circles in the neighborhood is fine, but hills are something else altogether. I slowed my pace to make sure I had enough for all of them and definitely went way outside my threshold, but pushed through. A quick sandbag carry was actually something of a rest before another big hill and the first couple actually nasty obstacles.
The first “real” obstacle was a rope net wall. It was a good 10 to 12 feet tall. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, but with 2 or 3 other people on it, the grip was tenuous and a slip meant a lot of pain. I very carefully got over and ran to the mud pit. I saw people walking through, hunched over, with a Marine screaming in their ear to “GET THE HELL DOWN ON THE GROUND, ON YOUR BELLY, GET DOWN GET DOWN GET DOWN” and when I walked up I looked right at him and essentially belly flopped right in and started commando crawling. He seemed to approve, though he chuckled that I was wearing sunglasses. They’d be useless from here on in until I hit the water crossing. The muddy water was a shock, so cold, and I made the mistake of opening my mouth. Yuck. I sputtered and stumbled out, nearly blinded and totally chilled from the crawl. Someone thrust a cup of water in my hand and I immediately, without thought, doused my face with it, clearing my nose and eyes of the muck. That got a cheer and a hearty laugh out of the crew as I politely asked for another cup of water.
I needed warmth so at this point I picked up the pace on the open hard sand of the beach. I pushed and in a minute or two was feeling much warmer. And then I saw the next ob. WHOA. OK, this was scary. It looked 20 feet tall, an inflated vertical wall with rope netting on it, and a steep slide on the other side. That climb was sketchy. The inflateable material kept wanting to push the feet out off the rope, and although there was something of an airbag, I was sure if I fell I would collapse that and probably break something. I figured the only way over was through so I just looked up and climbed until I hit the top, which was when I looked down the slide. Holy… are you kidding. F it, I just hucked myself off and slid, taking a bit of skin off my hamstrings. Youch.
That was the last of the real obstacles for a while, other than a water crossing which honestly was refreshing and gave me a chance to clean off my sunglasses and cool off a little.
We passed the 5k point then and headed back into the hills. It seemed like, at this point, the obstacles became more physical and actually dangerous (rather than just scary). A pair of low walls required some vaulting skills. A balance beam took a lot of concentration, especially with shaky legs, and apparently someone had ended their race a bit before me by slipping one foot off of each side for a field goal of the painful kind. Then the hurdles, tall 2X6 beams that required you to really use that upper body strength to get over them.
Now we were into the hills, and if I thought the first set was tough, these really showed me. My legs were getting pretty worn from all the obstacles, and the hills kept coming, steeper and longer. Finally on what they call “heartbreak hill” the legs gave out. Or at least they threatened to. It was walk or we quit so for the first time in the entire race I slowed to a walk and pushed myself over that infernal hill. I was mad but I knew this was a failure of training and planning. I should have known I’d be running hills, and didn’t prepare. Next time gadget, next time.
The hills finally gave out and I came to the one obstacle that I’d actually been dreading a lot since seeing it. It consisted of slacklines run across like beams, with ropes above to hold. I’d never tried to walk a slackline before but I’d heard that newbies often shook like chihuahuas in a snowstorm on them. I found out quickly that my worries were all for naught. This one was actually fairly easy. You mostly had to time yourself with the people to the side of you, as all the slacklines were attached and a heavy guy could easily send you flying if he stepped hard on your line when you weren’t paying attention. As we passed out of this ob a group of volunteers started screaming and cheering for us, letting us know we had a mile left and extolling me in particular to “get your feet moving”. A quick run through a set of tires brought us to 1/3 of a mile away from the end. We could hear the live band, the cheers, the announcer. We could smell the burgers (more on THAT later).
There were 3 obs left. The first was a fairly tall wall with climbing holds on it. The legs were a bit shot so I mostly just pulled myself up with the arms, which is normally not recommended but hey you do what works.
The next ob was a “slick ramp” which was a 45 degree ramp covered in dish soap with a rope you could pull yourself up with. All the pullups SFF has had me doing really helped here.
Finally came the last mud pit. Really it was a shallow, cold, muddy pool. Very cold. I scooted down the hill at the start and dove in, thinking it would be similar to the first mud pit I’d gone through. It wasn’t. This one was deeper and colder. I noted I was one of the only people actually doing the mud pit the way you’re supposed to, others were walking hunched over or crawling on all fours while I belly crawled it. About halfway something weird happened. My legs basically decided they were done. A little voice said “this mud is so warm, so soft. You should hang out here for a while.” All the while the band was playing at max volume and the announcer was yelling about how I was squirming like a snake through the pit, or some such thing. It was odd, and I knew I had to push through. I honestly didn’t realize how close I was to the finish, I thought maybe there was another 300 or 400 yards to run. But I just switched to using only my arms and got to the end, barely able to get standing and stumbled out of the pit. A few steps later I saw I was under the finish line and a volunteer congratulated me and handed me my finisher’s badge.
Finally out of the mud, I actually felt quite good, considering. Yes there was mud in every place mud could be and number where it shouldn’t be, but the aches and pains I thought I’d have just weren’t there. My wife ran up telling me I’d finished so fast she almost hadn’t been ready to take pictures, and had actually missed getting a picture of me stumbling across the finish (instead she got me in the mud, which was much better!)
I have to say, the experience of the run was great, and I encourage anyone with curiosity to train well and hard and enter this event next time it is in town. The people doing the race were generally quite nice, the people volunteering were, to a person, awesome and helpful. It benefits a great cause, and if you have a Subaru they treat you like a king or queen. Everything was awesome. Well, almost.
The burgers. I shouldn’t even mention them, but I must. The burgers were… awful. Terrible. Absolutely not worth the BTUs utilized to “cook” them. At one point I had to double check that I’d grabbed a meat based burger and not a veggie based one. Not that all veggie burgers are bad, but some are awful and this burger was right there. I honestly would have preferred nothing. The pattie was mealy and tasteless, the bun was soaked through with mayo. Yuck yuck yuck. They seriously need to either do pasta or get a “burger sponsor”. Seriously. Please. I beg of you. Maybe get In-And-Out as a sponsor? Or The Habit? Or… frankly, almost anyone? Or just don’t do burgers. Sorry. 🙁
But enough of that. Don’t do this for the burgers. Do it to have the time of your life. Just make sure you bring a change of clothes.