By Fred Johnson
“The Ultimate Challenge Team Mud Run is a 4 mile race run by teams of four on a mud and guts, obstacle filled, cross country course through the training areas of Fort Jackson. The course requires running, jumping, climbing, slogging, sloshing, crawling and determination. Teams must finish together! Military style pants and footwear are highly recommended. This is not a nylon shorts and running shoes race.”
– Entry form description of the USMC Mud Run
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
– Winston Churchill
– CPT Neil MacLeod
The Ultimate Challenge Team Mud Run epitomizes a “no boundaries” event because, even with the short duration, the route presented challenges that rival even the toughest trail runs. Its’ design is of an insidious nature only Dana Stetson could conjure.
The race brought back memories of my cross country days because it was a team event, but even as a harrier I could run my own race and contribute by moving as fast as my legs could carry me. The Mud Run was different. You had to start and finish as a team — ultimately, your team was only as strong as the weakest link. Having said that, the biggest challenge I faced was choosing the members of my squad. After much deliberation, I decided to ask (read – order) four of my company commanders, along with a couple other officers and senior enlisted Soldiers to join me in the fun. Of course, I offered the enticement of a case of Yuengling Beer after the race to persuade their decision to face court martial, or run! While there are faster, even more fit, athletes in my battalion, I wanted my fellow officers to share hardship and experience a team building event. All told, my battalion had three teams in the competition: one all male, one all female, and a mixed squad. Yes, it is true indeed, that I opted for the possibility of not winning in order to have most of my officers and enlisted participate in an event that would inculcate what we call the “Warrior Ethos.” The tenets of the ethos are: Always place the mission first, never accept defeat, never quit, and never leave a fallen comrade. Every one of those beliefs was tested during the race.
I found this ethos prevalent even for civilians as over 280 teams from all over the US signed up to endure a four mile course that was more under water than on dry land. Teams left the start point at one minute intervals starting at 0800. We were team #192 and started accordingly at 0932. The first 3/4 of a mile was an enjoyable single track and I began to wonder if the Marines had gone soft … then all hell let loose. The first obstacles were a dozen three feet high cement culverts we had to vault, followed by a series of 12 foot ladders we were required to climb and then we entered a 20 meter ditch filled with water and we were required to crawl over and under ten or so logs and then we had to pull each other from the murky depths up a six foot wall too slick to climb out.
The fun was just beginning, but one of my team members was starting to feel the combined effects of a 6:30 pace, the obstacles, and probably one too many beers the night before. I understood his frustration because right when you started to feel the burn in your legs from the hills, mud and vaults, you had to use your upper body to pull yourself through the vertical climbs, causing a bipolar effect confusing your body whether to send blood to your chest and arms or your thighs and calves. God love him, but the young Captain was starting to fall behind and my patience was beginning to wear because frankly, the course was no lark for me either. Regardless, I was reminded of Warrior tenet #4: “Never leave a fallen comrade” and rather than pick him up physically and carry him, I chose simply to spew obscenities and insults at him until he submitted to my haranguing. I also slowed the pace so we moved as a unit instead of individuals. As an example of selfless service, I decided to sacrifice my workout to continue the race as a team!
Now moving together, we faced the toughest part of the course around the half-way point. First, we negotiated a ravine by swinging on a rope over the eight foot water filled depression and then we were required to cross a stream by sliding hand over hand on a two rope bridge. At one point I slipped off the bottom rope and hung helplessly praying that my grip would hold until I could regain my footing. At the moment I was certain of my fall into the muddy abyss, the Captain I just called a “sissy-boy” grabbed me with one arm while holding himself steady, lifting me back to safety. Sufficiently humbled, I thanked him and promised I would not call him debasing names anymore — at least not to his face.
Having now fully bonded, we collectively vowed to push through the last two miles and pass as many teams as possible. While crawling (swimming) under a portable bridge, I found myself literally pushing the participants in front of me to open a path for our attack. As I blindly stiffed armed the person in front of me to motivate them to move faster I heard a soft giggle and realized I had planted my hand firmly in the rear end of a sublimely mature female college student. Once out of the tunnel of muck, I smiled, apologized and promptly pushed her to the side to make way for my teammates. Mission first.
In the final stretch we were passing teams like they were fence posts. I sped up and momentarily left my team to scout out the obstacles ahead. I caught up with a threesome of young Marines and ran a step behind them. In a language only a military person can comprehend, I said, “Hooah.” They responded, “Hooah.” (Hooah is military jargon with an infinite number of meanings, which range from an enthusiastic “hey, what’s up” to “eat crap and die.”) I then asked where the other member of their team was located. The leanest of the Marines said, “He’s an officer and we dropped him a mile back. Officers can’t hang.” As my three Captains caught up, I said “Really? We’re officers — Army officers. By the way, I’m a Lieutenant Colonel. See you Marines at the finish.”
I ensured my teammates heard the exchange, which gave them sufficient motivation to let it all hang out for the last ¾ mile. In our final assault we reached the last obstacle well ahead of the Marines, one of which had to stop to puke up some mud he swallowed. The last challenge of the Mud Run was a 200 meter littler carry. My lightest officer jumped on the litter face down, my strongest (and most hung over) officer lifted the front of the litter, myself and the other Captain picked up the end. Two other teams reached the litter carry at about the same time. It was a race to the very end. Each team took turns leading, but in the last 50 meters the promise of beer and a day off propelled my squad members as we literally threw the stretcher with its’ occupant across the finish line sliding him and our group mere feet ahead of the other two teams both of which slipped and fell in their attempt to overcome us.
Muddied, and each of us bloodied on some part of our body, we embraced one another in the celebration of an all-out effort that left the team collectively exhausted and victorious over 262 of the other participants. The Marine team crossed the finish line intact several minutes later. I waved giving them a “thumbs up” and the three enlisted Marines saluted, giving me an immense sense of pride in my profession. However, that emotional moment was short-lived as my three teammates approached me from the back and poured a bucket of beer mixed with mud over my head. They then handed me a Yuengling and we toasted the glorious day.