It was all JoAnna's idea. Since we did the Warrior Dash three years ago, we've been chased by zombies, trudged through Sin City, and covered in colored corn starch all in the name of good, clean fun. On April 13th, JoAnna and I were going to get Down & Dirty together at the 3-mile Merrell Obstacle Race at Castaic Lake. Unfortunately, JoAnna wound up injured and unable to go. I didn't want to do the event without her but the race was paid for and I decided I would do it for both of us.
So what exactly is the Merrell Down & Dirty Obstacle Race? It's 3 or 6 miles of mud and military-style obstacles meant to test your strength and endurance. And oh yeah, it's supposed to be fun! You can get an idea of what the obstacles are like here. There were a few I didn't encounter because I did the 3 mile course. I wasn't crazy enough to do the 6!
If you've never been to an event like this, it's a lot like a festival. There's music, vendors, food and drink, and a general convivial mood equal parts competitive testosterone and jovial camaraderie. The great thing about these events is unless you're planning on finishing first, second, or third overall, time doesn't mean a thing. Neither does place, really. The point is to participate and have fun. Hell, I didn't even wear a watch.
It used to be that I took racing very seriously. It was a byproduct of being super competitive in college track and cross country. Even after I graduated and went on to do fun runs of various lengths, I always took my place and time seriously. Until the Warrior Dash, it never even occurred to me you could participate in a race without a care about time or place. It was a whole new world for me - one I've embraced with gusto and joy.
So on Sunday morning, April 13th, my parents were kind enough to keep me company and cheer me on. It was a truly gorgeous day, not too hot, not too cold. No wind. After we arrived and parked, school buses took participants and spectators up to the Start/Finish area. The event started in waves and earlier waves were already under way and working their way back to the finish. I made my way to the start and waited for my turn to go. There was upbeat music and an energetic MC helping pass the time as we all inched closer to the start. A nifty little disposable timer tied to our shoes would be activated as we crossed the start, automatically keeping track of our time and place.
It was finally time for my wave to start and we were off!
I decided to jog as much as possible because A: I happen to like jogging and B: I had the utterly arbitrary goal of completing the course in under an hour. Nearly immediately after the start of my wave, I came to the first obstacle - a mud pit. I lost count but I think there were at least three of them with one at the start, one at the finish and at least one in the middle somewhere.
As I made my way through, I tried to notice everything around me rather than getting tunnel vision seeing just the course. The hillsides were green and there were purple wildflowers everywhere. The occasional white butterfly fluttered serenely by. I also tried to cheer on everyone who passed me and say something encouraging to everyone I passed. It's basic cross country/road race etiquette but I noticed not all the participants were accustomed to it. However, everyone seemed to appreciate it and whenever I encouraged someone, I felt like I was encouraging myself as well.
Not long after that first mud pit, I encountered the first climbing obstacle, the "Monster Climb." This was a multi-stage cargo net on steroids. It was near the top that it hit me I could actually get seriously hurt if I wasn't careful. With that cheerful thought, I carefully finished negotiating the obstacle and grabbed some water from the waiting hands of race volunteers. My arms already felt like spaghetti and we were just getting started. I was a wee bit worried how I would hold out the rest of the race.
I'm happy to say that most of the rest of the course was not so bad. The dirt trail and accompanying obstacles worked their way toward the top of the ridge. The view was incredible and well worth the effort to get there. You could see the reservoir and the mountains on one side, and out toward Stevenson Ranch (Valencia) on the other.
It was also fun to see mini-dramas play out on the course. Almost everyone there was part of a group of two or more - usually more. As I was jogging along the top of the ridge there was a guy with a fistful of mud advancing toward a girl. She was backing away and giggling saying, "No! I've been nice to you all day because you've been nice to everyone else!" She screamed playfully and tried to dodge but the guy nailed her with mud. As it hit she said, "I hate you!" I couldn't help but laugh and say under my breath, "No you don't."
On the way down the hill everyone had to do push ups. I asked no one in particular if they could be girl push ups and a guy next to me said, "That's what I'm doing!"
One of the great things about events like these is that everyone is helpful. I was at the "Ladder Walls" but the first rung was pretty high. I was trying to figure out how I would get up it when a girl on the other side of the wall suggested I get my knee up on the first rung and pull myself up from there. It worked like a charm and I thanked her profusely.
Little did I know that about twenty minutes later I would need the help of a stranger again.
Actually, everything went quite well until right near the end of the course. I was feeling tired but pretty good about myself. Then I hit the "Slippery Mountain." (Photo below taken from Merrell Down & Dirty website.)
So imagine someone at the top of this wall pouring soapy water down it. Now you've got a slippery, gritty, muddy, flat surface.The ropes were thinner than they look in this photo and the knots just as tiny. The ropes were also extremely short - too short for me to get my feet on below me. When I hit this obstacle, I was tired. My arms were dead. I tried to get up a couple of times and fell back down. I was seriously daunted. I noticed my dad on the sidelines, cheering me on and encouraging me. The guy at the top of the obstacle was yelling at everyone to pull themselves up on their stomachs - no kneeling or walking up. I tried again. This time I managed to make some headway but about halfway there I lost it. I hung there, arms beyond dead, strength gone. I'd never wanted to quit something more in my life. But there was an angel at the top and she wouldn't let me quit. A lady in a neon pink tank top with angel's wings printed on the back was at the top and she held out her hand to me. I tried and she pulled but we couldn't make headway. She saw it in my eyes how close to letting go I was. She had me wrap the rope around my wrist to I wouldn't slide down. I looked at her and couldn't believe how strong she was. She was probably half my weight but so, so strong. I managed to get my arm over the top but I still had to pull my body. I joked that giving birth was easier. With everything we had, we somehow got me over the top. I was screaming with the effort of it. But made it over I did. I was shell shocked. I couldn't have done it alone. I knew both my parents were sending me energy, willing me over. I asked the lady her name. It was Diane. I thanked Diane from the bottom of my heart, trying to convey how deeply grateful I was for her help. Then I gingerly made my way down and on to the last two obstacles.
I wanted to cry.
I soldiered on to the rock wall. There was a difficult, easy, and medium wall. I chose the "easy" wall because damn it, I had nothing to prove. I'd already proven it.
From there it was one more mud pit before the final stretch. The coarse sand underneath the muddy water felt like broken glass as I pulled myself across. Finally I was out and there was only a short jog to the finish.
The finish chute was lined with muddy kiddos who had done the kids' adventure race earlier. They were holding out their hands for high fives as everyone approached the finish. I happily slapped hands with them and yelled, "You guys are awesome!" From behind me I heard, "Thank you!"
And then I was across the finish line.
I blinked back tears as the shock of the whole thing set in. My elbows and knees stung like a mother. I was bleeding and covered in mud.
I did it.
I made it through the toughest race course of my life. I never could have done it alone.
My parents found me, stumbling around like the walking dead. Thank God my dad had ibuprofen on him. I somehow managed to get rinsed off, pick up my post race snack (apple, tangerine, trail mix and water) and make it back to the car. I had to have my dad drive as I was certainly in no shape to.
The crazy thing is, I just might do one of these things again.
Below are photos courtesy of course photographers.