More than three and a half years had passed since my last road race, but with a healthier back and stronger knees I made my return to the starting line Aug. 8 for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure at Union Station in Kansas City, Mo.
I put the competitive juices aside and signed up with simple goals of participating, finishing and not getting hurt. A friendly former co-worker ran with me, helping set a leisurely, conversational pace. Still, the mostly uphill, all-road 5K jarred my back and knees and gave a quick reminder why I abandoned the roads — and running as a whole — all those years ago.
Five months of training for Kilimanjaro helped rebuild my legs, though. The patellar tendonitis that made walking, let alone running, a painful experience was gone.
It was time to give running another shot.
Shortly after returning from Tanzania, I began running two to three times per week. The plan was to ease back into it.
I recalled a feature article I wrote two years ago about a local trail running group in Kansas City, and I remembered some of the runners telling me why they chose trails over roads. The scenery was better. The camaraderie was more uplifting. The softer surfaces helped reduce aches and pains and injuries as a whole.
When possible, my runs have been on grassy surfaces rather than roads or sidewalks. The pace has been slow and steady. The fatigue has been noticeable, but the recovery time more rapid.
I chose Race for the Cure as my first race back for personal reasons — it’s a massive fundraiser for breast cancer research — but race number two had to be on a trail.
I checked out the Kansas City Trail Nerds’ Web site and found my target: the Mud and Muck 5K on Saturday, Aug. 28, in Lee’s Summit, Mo. Billed as Kansas City’s dirtiest 5K, the race covered mostly gravel trail and included a massive pit of thigh-deep mud about a half-mile from the finish line.
About 300 runners showed up for the event yesterday at Unity Village, many of them decked out in all white to accentuate the mud pit’s magic. Others wore costumes. I rocked my Cobra Kai T-shirt and a ratty old pair of Solomon trail runners.
Unlike the Race for the Cure, I approached this one ready to dig in and go. The first 200 meters were downhill before arriving at two large gravel mounds that had to be cleared. A low-crawl obstacle course lingered a few minutes farther up the trail, followed by two steep uphill climbs.
Exhausted, I chugged along a gravel road a few minutes back of the leaders but well ahead of most of the pack. The gradual downhill wound through a forest and around a bend. That’s when the mud pit came into view.
There was no avoiding it. I cruised down the hill and through a pool of water, hopped up on a ledge and down into the pit. Instantly I found myself knee-deep in mud.
My body sank deeper with each step, the suction on my shoes growing stronger with each struggling step forward. Soon I was thigh-deep and losing my balance. My right leg somehow twisted behind my left, and I almost fell sideways while wiggling the leg free. I almost lost a shoe in the process.
Eventually I reached the end of the approximately 40-foot long pit and dragged my body onto dry land.
From there, it was about a half-mile uphill to the finish.
Each step was a struggle. The fatigue from the mud pit had sapped most of my energy and I was gasping for oxygen. Plus, about 10 pounds of mud coated my legs. Mud splattered everywhere with every step I took.
Finally the finish came into sight. I dug deeper, pushed harder and charged across the line in 26:10.5, good for 28th place. It was more than five minutes faster than my race just three weeks earlier and every bit as rewarding.
Mud coated my legs and spotted my face, my lungs screamed with exhaustion and my sneakers were ruined, but it was an absolute blast.
It was my first trail run, and it certainly won’t be my last.