A couple months ago, a friend mentioned the Cross Country Challenge, held in Gilberts the first weekend of December. She said, “It sounds crazy, and you get cold, and muddy and gross, but it’s so much fun.” I thought about it, but decided she was nuts. And besides, the date didn’t work.
When I woke up on race day, thankful for a 10 AM start, the windchill was just 7 degrees. I called my DailyMile friend to confirm our carpooling, mused whether we were crazy, and layered up. On top, I had a long sleeve UnderArmour, my high school gym shirt and an old windbreaker. On the bottom, I wore nylon pants and SmartWool socks. A hat and gloves were essential, too. I had been told to wear clothes that could be thrown out.
We set out for the Indian Hills Training Center, where everyone gathered in a big horse arena to wait until the start. Seasoned veterans showed us the proper method for duct-taping our shoes to our feet. At the last minute, I remembered the YakTrax I had stashed in my car and strapped them on.
The start line was about a mile from the arena, and by the time we got there, the race had already started. Due to chip timing, it didn’t really matter that we were 3 minutes behind. Plus, as I came to realize, this race is not about speed.
Beautiful race. As we set off, the pack thinned out considerably, leaving me alone to run through the snow-covered fields. I was far enough back that everything was well trampled, and the fresh snow provided a convenient canvas for the spray painted pink directional arrows.
We swung through a broken gate and up the first of several very steep hills. I’ve trained on hills, but these were entirely different beasts. Covered with snow and trampled by hundreds of feet before me, they were slick. The YakTrax helped, but at times, it was a hands-and-knees affair. At the top, I stopped and marveled for a moment before trying to descend, only to drop to my butt and slide down, arms up in the air, squealing like a kid. (I repeated this several times throughout the race.)
After a few hills, a junkyard (!), and another open field, we entered a wooded section where the path narrowed to single file. We were packed relatively close to each other, and when someone stumbled over a tree root or uneven ground, we all slowed.
I had been warned about the course’s water features. And indeed, there were two creeks to cross. The first one was very narrow, maybe three feet wide. I was able to leap across it and land with just a bit of mud splatter. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought, unzipping my jacket a bit. I never ran more than five or six minutes at a time, slowing frequently for obstacles and such, so I never overheated.
Ahead, I heard shrieks. Suddenly we were at the top of a steep bank, looking down at the second creek. This one was much wider, probably 4 or 5 feet. People were crossing in several places, so the pack I was with surveyed the situation and chose what looked like a slightly narrower section. We carefully stepped down the bank to the edge of the muck – you could tell there had recently been a sheet of ice over the top – and sized it up. A tall girl easily cleared it, then another did the same. I took my turn and didn’t quite make it. My feet landed in the muck, which brought me down with a sucking sound. I nearly faceplanted into the bank but caught myself with my hands. Then I tried to get out, but my legs were mired in the goo, like a dinosaur in a tar pit. One of the girls ahead grabbed my hands and helped pull me out. (I love runners.) I was coated with muck from the chest on down, and my shoes squished as I walked. The duct tape had kept me from losing a shoe, though, which is more than I can say for some who ran the last half of the race in stocking feet.
As I continued, the muck began to freeze onto me, making crunching noises as I moved and weighing me down so every time I tried to run, my pants threatened to fall down. I struggled to reach under all my layers to tighten the drawstring on my pants, but couldn’t get it drawn tight enough. My legs were burning with cold, while my hamstrings were on fire from the hills. I walked and slowly slogged the rest of the way to the finish, holding my pants up so they wouldn’t fall.
But near the end, something magical happened. As I shuffled through an open field, I saw a doe, gracefully leaping through the snow, making it look easy. A few seconds later, a buck – complete with antlers – appeared, bounding after her. Graceful, gentle, and powerful, I realized what this race was about, and I felt alive.
The end was rather anti-climatic, as I was pretty far back in the pack, finishing in 1:21:27. (The winners, running in nothing but shorts, bow ties and shoes, finished the 8k distance in 32 minutes.) As I finished, I grabbed a cup of (ice) water and began the mile walk back to the lukewarm arena, where a truck of coffee awaited, along with pasta and fried chicken. On a friend’s advice, I had brought a change of clothes, and was thankful to duck into an empty horse stall and change into dry jeans, socks, and boots, stashing the muddy stuff in plastic bags.
And while I was cold and somewhat miserable by the end – and had to scrub in the shower to differentiate the bruises from the mud – I’m glad I did it. It felt very badass to wake up on a Sunday morning, just a day after the first snowfall, and go play among nature. And 900 other similarly crazy runners. Next year, I’m bringing a sled.
A fellow runner posted a great video that captures some of the essence of the Challenge. Enjoy!
Notes for next year:
1) Wear something under the nylon pants. If I had shorts on, I could have ditched the muck-soaked nylon pants. If I’d worn long underwear or running tights, at least my legs wouldn’t have been so numb by the end.
2) Bring a water bottle. Since you’re out in the middle of nowhere, there are no water stations. In the dry, cold air, I was dying for a sip of something wet by mile 3. Though maybe a flask would be more appropriate.
3) Bring a (disposable?) camera. Since this race isn’t about time, there were several moments I wish I could have stopped to take pictures of the scenery and fellow runner shenanigans, like runners sliding downhill on their butts or the dirtiest Santa I’ve seen.
4) Bring friends! This would have been a blast with a team, since so much of it was about helping each other laugh through the obstacles.