MCCLEARY, Wash. — Spider-Man had seen better days.
He’d lost his mask, revealing himself to be a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper mustache. His red and blue suit with sewn-in abs was covered with filth. And somehow his spidey senses failed to alert him that two boys were stuck in a nearby pond.
But what concerned me most as I careened down an inflatable chute known as the Slop ‘n’ Slide was that I was seconds away from crashing face first into the superhero’s muddy backside.
“Spider-Man!” I screamed. “Look out!”
Just when all seemed lost, the web slinger rolled to his side with the agility of a turtle and I zipped past, landing safely in a pile of hay.
We were a league of more than 5,200 superheroes, women in prom dresses, men in hot pants and even a few people in regular workout clothes — all participating in the Dirty Dash near McCleary on June 23.
We’d be hard-pressed to call this racing. But that’s kind of the point behind the booming fad of mud and obstacle adventure racing. No clock. No trophies. Just fun, beer and an excuse to play in the mud like you’re 3 again.
“It is the best way to introduce people to the running community,” said Dirty Dash promoter Trudy Schug, of Kent. “It’s totally unintimidating and unthreatening. And once people realize running is about going out there and having fun and being healthy and that nobody is judging them for what they look like, how fast they are or what they’re wearing, they’re more likely to try running.”
But not necessarily. Marie Landon, of Puyallup, and her family will do at least three mud runs this summer but they have no interest in trying a traditional 5K. “Just straight running?” she said, “No. Thank. You.”
Mud runs might be the best known of these adventure races, but they come in many forms. Foam runs. Color runs. Electric runs on courses adorned with neon lights. And even races requiring you to avoid brain-eating zombies.
“It is so much fun,” said Schug, an avid runner who logged 40 miles on her birthday. “And what’s best about it that anybody and everybody, no matter their age and fitness level, can have a great time being active, outside and challenging themselves.”
When I decided to try to the Dirty Dash, I also decided I wasn’t going to do it alone.
There’s a fine line between fun and crazy, and best as I could tell it lies somewhere between a grown man wallowing in the mud by himself and doing it with friends.
“But people definitely do it by themselves,” Schug said. “They want to challenge themselves or just can’t find somebody to run with. There are plenty of people there to run with, but, yes, 99 percent of people are there with somebody else.”
Landon and her family were on a team of 18. And Shug says some teams are as large as 100.
So, I called fellow rookie mudder Brian Devereux and we formed a team of two and headed to the Straddline ORV Park.
There was never really any fear we wouldn’t be physically capable of completing the course.
Participants ranged from sculpted from granite to molded from Jell-O. We heard more talking about cigarettes and fried foods than we did about negative splits and personal records. And with all day to cover the 5K course, not finishing is rare.
“It’s all-inclusive, but I was kinda scared at first,” said John Dobra, of Maple Valley. “I thought people were going to go all in and be racing. But I stopped worrying after a couple 100 yards when I realized most people were walking.”
The most common fear, Schug said, is that of the unknown. What will the obstacles be like (many mud runs keep them secret)? And just how gross will it feel to be that dirty?
Participants are welcome to skip any obstacle they don’t want to do. The fear of getting dirty, on the other hand, is something you’re likely to overcome in a matter of minutes.
Devereux and I watched racers for a while before the start of our heat and I admit I was little wary.
Then Devereux started reminiscing about the days before society brainwashed us into believing mud was bad. When he was a kid, like most kids, Devereux loved splashing in puddles and playing in mud.
“I don’t think of it as a mud run,” said Clark Barton, of Puyallup. “I think of it as a mud mask, both face and body. It’s more therapeutic than the spa. You get your frustration out and you get nice smooth skin. It’s beautiful.”
Somewhere past the ironically soapy first obstacle and the two sternum-deep ponds, Devereux and I rediscovered the joy of mud.
As I slipped my way up a hill, I felt something gooey on the back of my neck. Devereux had launched a grimy attack that would last the rest of the race.
The mud-flinging stopped briefly when we came across a man stuck in shin-deep mud.
“Help!” he said. “I can’t move my feet.”
Where’s Spider-Man when you really needed him?
The man put his right arm across my shoulders and I had to grab each leg by the knee to help him pull free.
Later, at a series of two 10-foot walls that required climbing over using a rope and whatever upper-body strength you can muster, participants were quick to help push and pull each other up and over.
“That’s one of the fun things you see,” Schug said. “People always stop to help.”
The only injury I sustained during the run came about 30 feet from the finish. We decided to race through the final two mud pits and when Devereux emerged from the second with a slight lead, I attempted to pull him back into the mud.
Instead, I slipped and scuffed up my right shin.
That’s typically as bad as injuries get, Schug said.
“Maybe a cut on a branch or twisted ankles,” she said. “But it’s rare. When you take the competitive piece out, people do a better job of taking care of themselves.”
Injury is still possible and participants are required to sign waivers. In December, three women sued organizers of a Silverdale mud run, claiming they sustained foot and ankle injuries that required surgery.
Not all mud runs are created equal. While some are short 5K affairs with obstacles that are moderately demanding, others are longer than 10 miles and include monkey bars, electrical shock and flaming hurdles. Some of these are timed races with prizes for the winners.
But even the most challenging races often have mild-mannered options for those looking for something a little less intense. Before plunking down $40-$125, check the race website to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Coed outdoor showers
The last obstacle to any mud run is figuring out how to get clean.
Some races offer to collect, clean and donate your dirty sneakers. Soiled clothes can be seen stuffed into trash cans. Some people just pack their filthy clothes into plastic bags.
Regardless, there is no avoiding the coed outdoor showers.
While that probably sounds horrifying to anybody who ever took a high school P.E. class, really, it’s just hilarious.
While some mud runs offer massive his and hers cleaning tents, the McCleary dash set up a structure with about 100 hanging garden hoses.
Filthy men, women and children stood side by side hosing each other down, trying to get clean without removing their mud-soaked clothes. Even with the multitude jokingly passing around a tiny bar of soap, this is no easy task.
A mud puddle formed in the shower area and, inevitability, you’ll have to make several trips back into the showers before your friends deem you clean enough to ride home in their car.
I made three trips into the shower before Devereux stopped laughing at me. And even after two more showers at home, when we attended a party that evening people still asked why we had dirt in our ears.
This, I figure, is why parents eventually start telling their kids not to play in the mud. They figure it couldn’t possibly be fun enough to warrant all the cleanup and they’re certain the boys will forget to wash behind their ears.
They’re wrong, of course. At least about the first part.