My legs nearly gave out before I reached the smoldering lines of fire, but I hurdled the first, then the second, with every ounce of strength I had remaining. That done, I plunged into the muddy, sour-smelling pond and made for the barbed wire that was all that stood between me and the finish line.
Let’s be clear here: Under normal circumstances I can run a 5K without my legs giving out, my lungs exploding, or my entire body aching for the next two days.
But as I learned while I readied for the start of this race early this month, the Warrior Dash is no ordinary 5K.
Perhaps it was the people running in old bridesmaids’ dresses that tipped me off, or perhaps it was the view of the our route that I could glance before it twisted out of sight: several hundred feet of precipitously steep, rocky trail that, in the colder months, serves as the end of a black diamond ski trail on Windham Mountain in central New York state.
Whatever it was, all I knew was that about 200 yards past the starting line, I began to regret eating a large lunch five hours before. And 300 past that, I surrendered to my screaming muscles and began walking.
So much for being in shape.
For the next half-mile I speed-walked straight uphill, huffing and puffing, while regret coursed through my mind and every muscle of my body. Why had I willingly paid $55 for this, then (adding insult to injury) paid another $10 to park my car? Where was the adrenaline rush that usually greeted me at the starting line of a race? Why, oh, why, had I bulldozed my way through a huge lunch? And why had I and nearly 18,000 others (I was in the last heat of a two-day event) fallen victim to the idea that this sort of thing would be fun?
With the first plateau came the first obstacle: a waist-high hurdle, then low barbed wire, then another hurdle, then more barbed wire. The vertically gifted jumped straight over the hurdles, but I joined the ranks of the short, improvising a range of contortions to edge myself across the tops of the wooden barriers, then dropping to my hands and knees to crawl under the barbed wire.
Then came the next obstacle: a field of interconnected tires intersected with closely parked, battered cars. I climbed across the back of a pickup truck and jumped down through the maze of tires.
It wasn’t at that moment, exactly, that the adrenaline caught up with me. There wasn’t a single moment where I got my second wind, but by the time I reached the “Deadweight Drifter” obstacle, I plunged, smiling, straight into the muddy water and over the floating logs. (On a side note, the “waist deep” pond advertised only fits the description if you are six and a half feet tall. Lies, Warrior Dash! Lies!)
My legs were burning from the uphill portion of the course and my soaking wet clothes were now weighing me down, but all of a sudden I was flying through one obstacle after another — balancing across wooden boards, climbing ropes, galloping down muddy hills, easing my way across taut nets.
And, OK, I know what an exercise high feels like — I’ve done running races and a sprint triathlon, and in high school I was a competitive swimmer.
But this was different. Outside I was sweating, covered in mud, pushing my body faster and faster along the course and over the obstacles. On the inside I was exhilarated. All of a sudden, I understood adventure racing.
It’s not just the camaraderie, the collective struggle, the silly costumes, the team names. And it’s not just the cup of beer that awaits at the end of the course.
It’s about the thrill of doing (and getting permission to do) crazy things.
Any other day, I’d probably think anyone who suggested I jump into a mud puddle was insane. I’d throw up the standard objections to it: My clothes will get muddy, my phone can’t go in the water, my sneakers will take forever to dry, I’ll get my car all dirty after I get out.
That day, objections weren’t an option. So you haven’t splashed in a puddle since you were eight? Tough luck. Jump in. So obstacle courses are for children? This one isn’t. Get your butt up that wall.
As (theoretically) responsible adults, we’re not supposed to do things like scaling walls or jumping on top of cars. There are just some desires that age and upbringing are supposed to have bred out of us.
But let’s be honest: Who doesn’t secretly want to go back to Chuck-E-Cheese’s and play in the ball pit?
So as I threw my body onto a soaking wet plastic Slip ‘n’ Slide obstacle and flew down the hill, the finish line in sight, I had to stifle a laugh to avoid inhaling water. I’d forgotten how much fun this was, just as I’d forgotten how cathartic jumping in mud puddles could be, and just as I’d forgotten what it was like to take a plunge without worrying or second-guessing my decision.
As I slid down the mountain, I felt unbelievably free.
I crossed the finish line with a time of 48 minutes and seven seconds, in 3,165th place out of 8,658 racers that day. In the end, though, my time didn’t really matter. The Viking hat medals and the cup of beer that rewarded each finisher was great, but it wasn’t that important.
Mostly, it was the thrill of looking back on those moments of freedom: those minutes spent bounding through the course and over the obstacles and not thinking, just doing.
For better or worse, I knew I was an adventure racing convert the minute I’d crossed the finish line. Soon after, I was Googling in search of my next race and my new training plan.
So come May 5, you won’t find me indoors watching Netflix or reading a book. You’ll find me at the 10-mile Tough Mudder race at Mount Snow, cursing the uphills and loving every moment.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.