Running is, for me, like having an uncle who’s a psychopathic alcoholic but no one in the family is rude enough to discuss it in polite company. I KNOW runners, but I’m not one. I’m DATING a runner but that doesn’t make me one either. I’m involved in a CrossFit Running Group in the sense that they’ve included me in their Facebook discussions. So I don’t really discuss, much less THINK about runners in polite company, either. I think I COULD run if enough cops and rabid dogs were chasing me furiously. And outside of a 5k or two under my belt, I’ve never been able to label myself a runner. Real, actual RUNNERS go long distances, look like starving refugees, wear short shorts and tend to keep something of a superior look on their faces, as though they and they alone are privy to physical pain and future knee surgeries. Frankly their smugness can be a bit intimidating, since those who inflict self-harm on asphalt roads have probably actually earned it. I’ve always felt both incapable of surviving the training it takes to become a distance runner and frankly, too lazy to follow through with effort.
The only running that I’ve felt mildly competent doing is on the trail. I think it’s because my short-attention span is constantly being stimulated by the topographical distraction; I won’t be forced to just look at a sidewalk or an oval loop and go mildly insane at the monotony. It’s the same reason I refuse to set foot on a treadmill. I can’t achieve an alleged high while thundering on a rotating rubber band like a hamster. So, without even the discipline of a bored hamster nor the desire to drink gooey-paste and have raw nipples in the name of long-distance “fun”, I was surprised by my own willingness to sign up for, and fork over a significant chunk of change, the 2012 Missouri Tough Mudder held in Poplar Bluff this past weekend. In a nutshell, it’s 11.2 miles over hills, trails, cow-paths and the like with 25 military-style obstacles scattered throughout with catchy names like “Arctic Enema” (described as “eating ice cream and getting punched in the balls, all at the same time), “Electroshock Therapy“, and “Everest” . It’s a suffer-fest of Biblical proportions (not exaggerated…okay maybe a little; there’s no famine) and the only real award you win for completing the damn thing is an orange headband and survival-bragging rights. It’s brutal, I recommend you follow the links and watch the video clips.
They start the race with your heat having crawled over a wooden wall to separate spectators and begin your descent into physical madness. To add to the insanity, one couple at the start of our group was actually married by a local preacher at the starting line, which of course lead to rampant speculation at the end if it had been annulled. There are no clocks, there are no fancy shoe-timers, no goo-belt wearing exoskeletons to intimidate you with their apparent ability to survive without solid food for 26 miles. You are there to gut out an endurance test with teammates, relying on incapacity for rational thought, ability to tolerate stupid amounts of pain and sheer force of will. The strongest aren’t favored, the fastest gain no glory and it is only those with the stubborn resolve of a mule that will truly enjoy this event. In other words, it’s perfect for a stubborn jackass such as myself. Firefighters working on ladder truck companies are already built for this kind of work, as we are the plow oxen of the fire service, “lift this, swing that, no questions, you’re just big, dumb animals” kind of thinking. As the miles began to rack up and the knees began to swell and the taste of mud was wearing the enamel off my teeth, I felt as though I’d stumbled into my kind of heaven.
So there we were, four firemen and a friend, slogging/jogging/walking/crawling through a monster-truck-style park with woods, creeks and near-vertical hillsides, mud entering all orifices, plunging into ice and getting shocked in the face by 10,000 volts. And somewhere around mile 7 or 8 it hit me: “I’m going to actually finish 11.2 miles.” I’ve never run more than 9 miles in my life. As well, I’ve never been smacked in the face with electric fence, so it was a crazy day of firsts all around. Never before have I been able to embrace the whole “mind-over-matter” thing, always believing that my own body would give out LONG before my ADD-riddled mind. As we rounded another corner and stumbled into yet another long track of submerged-in-mud, ankle-snapping pits and holes, it really got driven home. We WERE going to finish. We weren’t there to encourage someone else racing, content to put medals around our friend’s necks, no we were IN this thing. An orange head band and two free beers is a slight thing to anticipate with such crazy joy; outside of becoming a father and becoming a full-time fireman, this was likely the single coolest, toughest thing in which I’d ever participated. My mind would finally, for one of the rare times in my life, allow my body to be pushed that much further. It gave me permission to succeed. To enter a formidable challenge without failure as an acceptable option. Stumbling through those last few obstacles, only to push through the last round of legal electrocution with a mouth full of sweet, nasty mud I saw the Dos Equis people at the finish line with orange headbands and beer waiting to greet me; they had no way of knowing that under all that dirt, blood and twitchy, bruised muscles was a runner who had finally, at last, won the brutal and lonely race taking place in his own head.