My parking spot near the start of the Mud Mash in San Luis Obispo offered a perfect, stomach-churning view of the finish: two knee-deep, sloppy pits of muddy water with slippery hills on either side.
I had a nervous flutter in my stomach, but it was far too late to back out — especially since I had talked (actually, begged) my co-worker, Stephanie Finucane, to sign up, too.
I recall over-confidently saying something like, “We’ve run half-marathons. This is only four miles. We’ve totally got this.”
I had done one mud run before in 2010 — the now-discontinued Big Sur Mud Run, a 5-mile course with several mud pits. But since then, obstacle races such as Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash have exploded in popularity.
In fact, according to Running USA, more people participated in non-traditional races in 2013 — about 4 million — than the estimated 2.5 million who finished marathons and half-marathons.
Since 2009, the number of participants in themed races, such as The Color Run, and obstacle races has nearly doubled each year.
Those numbers come as no surprise to race organizer Kristin Horowitz. She and her husband Yishai Horowitz own All Out Events, which produces San Luis Obispo’s Mud Mash and other adventure races in the region, including Sunday's Morro Bay Triathlon.
“There’s a sweet spot in my opinion of weekend warriors who sit around and wonder what it’s like to be a bad ass,” she said. “It’s a way to have a sanctioned safe adventure without dying or getting lost.”
This year’s fifth Mud Mash drew more than 900 people, ages 5 to 88 years, to Laguna Lake Park on Oct. 25 to run in waves starting 20 minutes apart. Many ran in costume; Stephanie and I were surrounded by a bunch of blue Smurfs for a time.
The website promised “more epic obstacles than ever before,” including “trench foot,” “culvert crawl,” the “wringer” and the daunting-sounding “death march.” Stephanie and I started running about 9:40 a.m. I told my babysitter that I should be done about 11 a.m. Wrong!
We started off at a comfortable pace, and tackled the first obstacle — a set of walls to climb over and under— without a problem.
Then we hit a hill and started walking, as a guy with a fire hose tried to soak us and make the course slick and muddy. (All of the water, more than 8,000 gallons, used to fill the pits and soak participants was non-potable treated wastewater from San Luis Obispo’s well near the treatment facility off Prado Road, Horowitz said.)
We started what the course map described as “sky running,” steep trails completely exposed. I started to wish that I’d brought some water. Or a hat.
I was almost relieved as I followed Stephanie down the other side of the hill and three mud pits came into view. But first, we had to carry a heavy water jug around a small hill, which Stephanie managed without a problem. (Note to self: invest in some weights).
Then we got to slide and slosh our way through three gloppy pits of mud. Ah — cool and refreshing.
As we continued on our way, I quickly realized that my obstacle-racing abilities are pretty sub-par; I need to work on my rope-climbing and wall-scaling skills so that I, too, can climb up a rope and hop across shipping containers in a single bound.
Later, when I told Kristin Horowitz that I had to rely on other participants, including the Smurfs, to help me scale a few obstacles, she sounded pleased.
“We want you to do that,” she said. “We want teamwork within the community. We actually designed the obstacles so that you needed people to help you.”
After the death march — a tall, rocky hill that we had to scale — I was ready for another dip in the mud.
But first, Stephanie and I climbed one cargo net and then rolled across another that was tied between two shipping containers, got lost in a maze of reeds and crawled under endless strings of barbed-wire fencing.
Then, finally: the final mud pit, just steps away from my car. I gingerly stepped through the pit and managed to climb out without face-planting into the mud.
Then, in short order, I got socked in the stomach by a female “Viking” wielding a pugil stick (a heavily padded training weapon used by military personnel for bayonet exercises), tripped over the finish line and gratefully accepted my prize: a pint glass and a free beer. (For those wondering, we finished in 2 hours, 2 minutes.)
Stephanie and I then made our way to the beer garden, which offered a front-row view of the mud pits, and watched other participants volley mud at each other and the emcee, and slide face-first into the water.
We reflected on the race and whether we would do it again. Stephanie said “yes,” but with reservations.
“I won’t go through the wringer again,” she said. “And you have to be on my team.”
The wringer, by the way, is exactly what it sounds like: a contraption with two sets of big cylinders like an old-fashioned washing machine. Only in this case, the clothes — and the people wearing them — come out dirty, instead of clean. We both went through the wringer — and have the bruises to prove it.
For now, I think I’ll stick to “traditional” running — maybe some 5- and 10-kilometer races. But I would do the Mud Mash again one day, maybe with a larger team so I could get a little extra help on those rope climbs. Interested?