(Originally written Oct, 2013)

I’m not a joiner – never have been. You could say I’m more of the lone-wolf type. In school, I didn’t go to football games, homecomings or proms. I’ve never been a big fan of group activities like organized religion, social media or, heaven forbid, mommy’s groups. But even I must admit that venturing outside your comfort zone is always a worthwhile experience, which is exactly what I did recently as a stand in for an injured friend at the 2013 Del Mar Mud Run.

This 5K event is an annual celebration of “running dirty.” The web site touts photos of generally fit, mostly young people all smiles dressed in witty or matching costumes posing for the camera as if they have tons of adoring friends and are having the time of their lives. You can perceive this level of enthusiasm for running 3.1 miles through mud and military-style obstacles in one of two ways, 1) Gee, that looks like so much fun! I want to do that! Or 2) Seriously?

I consider myself a runner, meaning I like to run, not meaning I run marathons. I don’t, and probably won’t, run marathons, or even enter 5K races in the future. I run for the freedom of moving my body, getting my blood pumping, breaking away from the pack and challenging my physical limitations. I like to leave my front door and just run – to free my mind, to get in touch with myself, to be outdoors. I have gotten off my running path for quite some time, lately, so getting muddy seemed like a good way to get back on track.

Despite my general disdain for all things contrived, I did what I thought was expected in participating in this run. I wore my 5-year-old daughter’s black and red tutu over my all black cellulite concealing running wear. I dug out a black rocker headband-wristband combo and punked it out with an old Dwarves tank top and ponytail braid. My picture poses included the stereotypical strong arm and devil horns. I was going for the tough girl look, but in reality, I looked like a butch bully from down the street you avoided as a child, compared to the majority of women striking “look-how-sexy-I-am-all-fit-and-muddy” poses. If you are going to do a mud run to feel better about yourself, be open to the possibility that the opposite may happen.

My running partners, five women and one man I just met that morning – friends of my friend I was running for – were jazzed about being there. They were all extremely welcoming, but participating in their conversations reflecting on past runs they’ve done as a running group and discussing plans for future runs to come was a bit of a challenge for me. Personally, I don’t know how people find the time or afford the registration fees for that many runs a year. This run took five hours from the time we arrived to the time we left and ranged from $44.00 to $70.00, depending on when you registered. But I suppose if I can afford my wine consumption habits, they can do what they wish with their hard earned cash.

Upon arrival to the event parking lot, my experienced comrades took a lot of care attaching their numbers to their shirts, their timing tags to their shoes, and duct tape to their knees and feet. I watched, critically analyzing the need to duct tape my shoes to my ankles, or protect my bending knees with tape that was going to render itself useless in watery mud pits like a band-aid in a bath, but did as the group suggested. Also of great priority and concern was picture taking and making sure they were all tagged on Facebook, a venue for which we all know as a great place to show off what awesome lives we are all living.

Since my injured friend couldn’t do the run, she had suggested I bring my daughter along to keep her company at the finish line and cheer us on. I figured that would be something fun for my girl to do and serve as setting a good example for an active lifestyle, but then thought twice of it once we got there.

Inside, the event was more crowded and rowdy than I expected, with throngs of proud joiners taking advantage of healthy snack and drink giveaways, enjoying the DJ infused dance beats of the group foam bath “experience”, and getting their free post race beers. There were liquor booths and over-zealous young people in groups swearing loudly and soaking up the party atmosphere. This is great for a general grown up good time. I can swear and drink with the best of them. But my mom instincts felt it was not so appropriate for my kindergartener, who still thinks Curious George and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are life’s great joys.

Our start time for the run was 10:00am, but instead, we stood in a sweaty sun-drenched mass for what seemed like several beat-tastic club mix hours. Small groups were released onto the course one at a time by an energetic emcee shouting amplified countdowns dressed as Sy from Duck Dynasty, complete with the Sy signature plastic cup prop – another red-neck-pop-culture phenom we Americans can be proud of.

Finally waiting in a fenced off cue as the next group like herds of cattle, I noticed a heavy-set woman next to me wearing an oversized T-shirt with a slight look of fear on her face. We chatted briefly about how it was each of our first times doing this, how we didn’t know what to expect, and how her brother flew in from Arizona just to do this run. I must be missing something about the mud run draw, I thought to myself. The truth is, I was nervous, too. What if I make a fool of myself plunging to defeat from some rope-climb, rope-swing, monkey bars challenge? Just then, Sy’s megaphone nearly inside my ear shouted, “Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Go!”

All right. Let’s do this.

While I could do without the fanfare, once on the track, I finally felt in my element. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing, my heart was beating and my body was warming up. I was grateful to have legs, to be able to run, especially as I ran by a double amputee successfully taking on the uneven surfaces of the mud trenched course with prosthetic legs – I mean what the hell am I complaining about? I later saw that same man after the race being held up in celebration by his friends. If you are like me and wonder what the hell the point of these runs is, this is it. It is this level of inner strength and perseverance that serve as inspiration and unity. Teammates and friends motivate each other, prop each other up, push each other on. There is a communal sense of living life to the fullest, of seizing the day.

On my lone wolf mud run, I approached each obstacle on the course with fully immersed self-resolve. There were volunteers positioned all along the course with the sole task of cheering mud-runners on, which I found to be more of a distraction than motivational. As I conquered each obstacle with courage, I began to feel energized, despite how much heavier my mud soaked feet and legs felt. Each passing obstacle became not a source of intimidation, but achievable. I dove with vigor into the muddy water crawling beneath low nets. I hurdled cement barriers with limber strength. I pulled myself over mud mountains with steadfast will. I swung on ropes across watery pits with determination. I fell into a pool of mud when I failed on the monkey bars, and I didn’t care.

Every open space between obstacles compelled me to keep running. It wasn’t about finishing, it was about feeling strong, feeling alive, taking one challenge at a time knowing I could. As I passed the last rope swing obstacle and ran out the last open space approaching the finish line, I realized I could keep running.

And there it is. The great organized run metaphor. No matter what life throws at you, keep running. There will be challenges and obstacles, but if you face them, conquer them at your own pace, achieve in your own time, then you can keep running. If you stop comparing yourself to others, stop doubting your capabilities, stop focusing on what you lack, stop thinking one failure means you can’t do it, then you can be fearless.

What I discovered on this mud run is that I don’t need a mud run. While it is nice to have people in your corner, cheering you on, telling you that you can do it, pushing you further than you think you can go, none of that means a damn thing if you don’t believe in yourself.

As a freelancer struggling to get enough work to stay sane, and as a mother and wife struggling to put myself first – ever, I seem to spend more time than I should feeling depleted and lacking in value. It turns out, though, that I believe in myself enough to keep running.

So would I recommend doing a mud run? Sure, why the hell not. But not because it is “so fun,” or because doing it means you’re tough, or sexy, or popular, or living a healthy lifestyle. What I recommend is doing anything that steps you out of your comfort zone. That is what reminds you that you are alive, and what inspires you to believe.