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Unclean Fun

by Colleen Patrice Clark
Mud runs are doing more than getting participants dirty; they’re building up confidence and pride, no matter the age.

The idea might leave some scratching their heads. Whether the race is two, five or 10 miles, why would someone want to maneuver through boot camp-style rope courses, make their way through obstacles with names like Balls to the Wall and Cliffhanger, or just simply run and crawl through pools of thick, slopping mud?

Mud runs have been growing in popularity across the country, and our region is no exception, where some people will drive miles and across states to participate in as many as possible through the year.

But for all of them, it’s about tackling more than physical obstacles. While some may look at them—dripping and covered from head to toe in mud—and not understand their motivation, they’re doing it for the sense of accomplishment and pride, the right to say they did it, and the realization that if they can conquer a mud run, they just might be able to conquer anything.

For the Camaraderie
Dolores Veigel had always been a fitness-conscious woman—running 5Ks, 10Ks and then triathlons and marathons since high school—but in 2009, she got the urge just to do something “different.”

“I wanted to put something new in the mix,” says the 41-year-old single mother from Sicklerville. “When I was looking around online, I saw a charity event for MS and it was a mud run, and I thought, ‘Well, OK, let’s give it a try.’ Ever since then, I just love them.”

Veigel completed her sixth mud run at the end of April, the Tough Mudder in Pocono Manor, Pa. Tough Mudder events, dubbed “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet,” are conducted throughout the world, and when it comes to their name, they mean it—think 10-12 miles of obstacles, including running through a field of electrocuting wires.

Designed by British Special Forces, the events have raised more than $2 million for the Wounded Warrior Project.

But fear not. There are several different levels of mud runs depending on skill level, and there’s always the option to skip obstacles if you aren’t up to it. When she did her first one, Veigel admits, she was scared and wondered what on Earth she got herself into, but one of the big draws of mud runs is that it’s not an individual event. All of the participants, whether stranger or friend, are there to lend a hand and help you through each barrier. There’s a real “no man left behind” mentality.

That unique aspect is what attracts a lot of participants, as it tends to take on a symbolic nature for many.

“I see a challenge, and because I like challenges, I’m going for it,” Veigel says. “Plus, I love the team atmosphere. There’s always someone there to help you and I’m there to help them.”

The same goes for Colleen Fossett, a 42-year-old mother who has done several marathons and even Olympic-distance triathlons, but says there’s just something about mud runs that makes them incomparable.

“You can’t imagine how many eyes light up when I say, ‘Do you want to do a mud race with me?’” says Fossett, of Mullica Hill. “There is always a sense of accomplishment when crossing the finish line of something new.”

Fossett serves as the president of the Mullica Hill Women’s Triathlon Club, 450-plus members strong, and recently convinced 22 “Tough Mudder newbies” to join her for the Pocono Manor event.

She describes how teams will help you over the 10-foot walls, grab you at the top of the slippery halfpipe, and talk you through walking across a 30-foot plank—balanced above the muddy, wretched cold water—and all the while smiling. “We will all be nervous,” she says, “but I know we will get through it.”

Like Fossett, Veigel too has convinced quite a few friends to tag along with her, and says by the next day, they’re thanking her for getting them involved, “when I should be thanking them because we’re doing it together.”

Perhaps the best part of all for Veigel is the look on her 8-year-old son’s eyes when she comes home, with dry mud plastered in her hair and splattered on her face. “It’s a good story for dinner time,” she says.

For Those Who Can’t
It was the sudden heart attack and death of Chuck McCue’s 37-year-old cousin in 2008 that inspired him to do his first mud run, and now he’s done four—including two Tough Mudders. “Me and his three brothers and my brother, we were just really upset and shocked. He had three daughters, one just a newborn. [The mud run] was just one of those things, if we can get through this, the Tough Mudder, we can get through anything.”

It was a struggle for some in the group who he says weren’t in the best of shape, but just three months after his cousin’s death, they crossed that finish line. The 29-year-old Washington Township resident says it was a bonding experience—and a healing one—like no other.

A year later, his cousin’s wife and sister did their own mud run, making it a family tradition. “It really motivated me to stay in shape. There’s a lot of people out there who can’t do this and aren’t around to run,” McCue says, adding that’s exactly what motivates him to continue.

While the tragedy inspired him to take on other challenges, such as 5Ks and half marathons, it’s the mud runs he feels he gets the most out of because, with the average race, the “only obstacle is you have to keep going.” But with mud runs, your time doesn’t matter; it’s all about helping everyone get through it.

Plus, he adds, if you can run 12 miles and do 25 obstacles, get shocked by electricity and swim through freezing cold water, “the rest of your problems in the world don’t seem so tough.”

For the Challenge
The most recent mud run in South Jersey brought in 3,500 people to the New Jersey Motorsports Park for Ultimate Mud Run: Night Ops, the first-ever nighttime mud run in the country. Held April 22, the course was designed by Phil Pirollo, a well-known fitness expert who owns Pinnacle Parkour Academy in Sicklerville.

As someone involved in personal training for local Marines and police officers, he began designing obstacle courses, and the progression to mud runs came naturally.

But he’s quick to point out that the runs aren’t just for those who might literally be on their way to boot camp. He sees all ages and all backgrounds out there on the course. The older crowd, they’re the larger population; they’re looking to get into shape, and they’re always looking for new and different ways to get back into fitness,” Pirollo says. “This is giving them something different to train for, a goal to shoot for.”

It’s all part of how the fitness industry has been changing during the last decade. There has been an evolution from traditional workouts to what he calls “functional fitness;” an exercise where you’re getting down to the ground and getting back up, for example—while it sounds basic—is a lot better than squatting on a machine or a bench press, he asserts.

“I think once people are doing 5K and 10K races, it’s very straightforward. It’s just a run. When you add obstacles, it gets more interesting. You get a snapshot for that brief moment of what it would be like in the military. The thing is that it’s a great sense of achievement. When you’re going through the race, you’re overcoming all these obstacles. It’s competing against yourself, against the course, and it’s about having fun.”

For Starting the Next Chapter
Competing against herself in an effort to overcome the past is exactly why Haddonfield’s Paula Thomason is preparing to tackle her first mud run, an Ultimate Mud Run event at Sno Mountain in Scranton, Pa., this September.

“For me, I look it as a pilgrimage,” says the 51-year-old, “my breakthrough moment of being free from my former marital nightmare. It’s about getting my life back on track.”

And while she hasn’t always considered herself athletic—in fact, she says her least favorite class in high school was gym because she was always the last one picked for volleyball—she has always loved obstacle courses. She also misses the yearly trips her family used to take to the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in New York, which involved a 12-mile hike along the Mohawk River.

This now-single mother of six and grandmother of two was ready for something new. “Just because you don’t look like everyone else who’s doing it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You never know until you try and you have nothing to lose,” she says. “You’re not competing against anyone but yourself. That’s what kept me drawn to it and didn’t make me feel like I couldn’t do it.”

The anticipation of the September event is her motivation right now to “keep moving forward and not let the roadblocks that are constantly getting in my face stop me from accomplishing what I want to achieve.”

Sure, it’ll be messy. But as Thomason alludes to, that’s life—and she’s ready for it.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3 (June, 2012).
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