Monday, March 30, 2009
Race Report: Mudders and Grunters, March 29, 2009
March 29, 2009: Mudders and Grunters 5 mile trail race
Following some late-week rain, there was the promise of mud (glorious, stinky, swamp mud!) on race day for this year’s Mudders and Grunters race in Westchester County. The organizing Taconic Road Runners Club does a great job maximizing the use of the relatively small footprint of Franklin Roosevelt State Park, snaking runners through fire roads, single-track, swampy back lots, and even a couple sections of bush-whacking. The popularity of this race seems to grow every year, and runners come from farther and farther away to be a part of the fun.
I decided to run the race this year as ‘part one’ of an epic day of trail running, which would include an additional 17 miles of tough trails in Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park post-race … but that story is for another blog entry (coming soon).
Because Mudders and Grunters gives out not just the usual overall and age-group awards, but also recognizes top teams, most-muddy, bloodiest, etc. the race gets it share of nutty costumes and fringe lunatics. I love it. While warming up, I saw three women in bunny costumes replete with puffy tails and floppy ears, as well as a young couple dressed as French maids (yes, one woman and one man). There was a smattering of chattering high schoolers, nervous but keen on grabbing attention, along with the more-typical: the gazelles, the grizzly vets, the happy mid-packers, the hungover … you get the picture. And there was a large contingent of my friends running from the Reservoir Dogs, another NYC-based running team with a great subset of enthusiastic and adventurous trail runners. From my team, the New York Harriers, only myself and the ageless Bobby Hutton showed up. Too bad, the rest of you just don’t know what fun you are missing. According to the race results, there were over 400 finishers this year, which must be a record.
At the starting line, I bumped into old friends and rivals, including George “Cannonball” Buchanan (one of the toughest guys to race because he never holds back), Steve “Stats” Marsalese (who knows my running history, well everyone’s running history, better than we do), and Kevin Shelton-Smith (who is capable of flying across the Atlantic, missing the start of an ultra by 4 hours due to airport delays, and still placing in the race). Because this race is so short, I knew I’d have to run hard and fast to finish ahead of any of these familiar faces (some of whom I’ve been racing for over 20 years), much less to keep up with the dozen or so very-fit young guys limbering up nearby.
The start seemed to come suddenly, and we were off. The young lions loped to the front, the rest of us battled for early position in anticipation of the single-track and mud to come. I felt a slight twinge in my right hamstring from the beginning, not a good sign for an old fogey like me and something I’ll have to keep an eye on over the next few days. Back to the race: The first section of wading through deep, odiferous muck begins less than a mile in, and starts with a sharp left turn downhill after crossing a park road. I could see arms flailing in front of me, a sure sign of poor footing. I made it through the turn unscathed, but immediately ran into (literally) some young dude in front of me who was clearly in over his head. He actually apologized to me (well, we apologized to each other simultaneously, funny). Slurping through the slimy shin-deep black bog, I could see Cannonball already at least 30 seconds up on me. This is the way we race each other time and again: he gets out fast; I try to reel him in.
Over hill and dale we rambled, criss-crossing the park in search of mud wallows and thorns. With each technical section, I’d pull some time back, but with each fire road those ahead would pull away again … we were yo-yoing around the course. We came to another nasty swampy section, and I heard someone splashing through behind me, a quick glance confirmed that it was Stats and he was gaining on me. Luckily for me, there was a large tree that had fallen right in front of us. Me being the sneaky rabbit, I ducked under it and continued my assault. Behind me, I heard Stats groan a large "OOF!" at the tree (later I learned that he tried to go over it, but had thumped his belly on the trunk; and in fact the same technique had resulted in a moment of feeling stuck for Cannonball).
With half a mile to go, there is a stream crossing that never looks so bad … until you jump in and it’s twice as deep as you expected, muddy, weedy, and cold. I managed to struggle out of the water as quickly as I could, still chasing Cannonball who was now within range. But he still has such quick feet for a recently-turned-50 year old, and he just kept dancing along there in front of me, tantalizingly close. I gave it all I had, but just could not catch him. I would wager that he ran the first half of the race about 45 seconds faster than I did, and then I ran the second half of the race about 35 seconds faster than he did … so do the math (more-or-less) and he got me by 7 seconds at the uphill finish, with Stats just behind me by 8 seconds. We’d finished in 13th-14th-15th places overall, not bad for a threesome of old dudes. Oh, and Kevin was right there too, finishing in 17th. Of course, some barely 40 year old speedster from the Albany area had traveled down to the race and smacked us all convincingly by finishing over 2 minutes faster. Ah, well, that’s running: the strongest runner wins, period. I love that. No whining, no bad calls by the ref, no coach playing favorites. Just you and the course.
My prize for finishing second in my age group was one of the coveted, pink-frosted piggy cookies, which I consumed gleefully on my way back to the car before heading off on my second trail adventure of the day.
I’ve run this race a number of times, once even finishing 2nd overall. I often find myself a bit ambivalent in telling others about it. On the one hand, it is so much fun and challenging and hilarious, I feel like every runner should get a chance to experience it. On the other hand, part of what makes these cold, wet, sloppy trail races so much fun is that they are the polar opposite of mainstream: with small fields, crazy characters, joking race directors, familiar faces, and the camaraderie that comes from sharing something relatively obscure and zany and hard. I don’t want races like this to get too popular or crowded, but I clearly understand why more and more runners seek them out. May we always find the happy medium!
Great job, Taconic Road Runners Club, keep up the good work. And congrats to all of my fellow competitors, you earned it on that course. By "it", of course, I mean a long hot shower. With lots of soap. Please.