Dirty Girl

I'm 20 feet in the air, straddling a plank a few inches wide, with no idea how I'm going to get down.

To my left hangs the rappelling rope that got me here. To my right is a sheer drop with only tiny footholds. My mud-covered competitors vault up and over the barricade I'm sitting on, tossing out lame encouragement clichés -- "You can do it!" and "Come on, you got this!" They climb down the wall and sprint off to the rickety elevated balance beam.

My mind spins a roulette wheel of possible outcomes. I go first to worst-case. Balance lost. Body falls. Bone breaks. Trampled by dozens of muddy feet. Ambulance scrambled. Cast affixed. Please, God, don't make it a leg.

Truth is, I'm here by choice. I agreed to this months in advance, when the reality was still off in the fuzzy distance.

"Have you heard about this thing called the Warrior Dash?" asked my husband Jesse one night, scanning through emails in bed. "I think I'm going to do it."

He ran down the details. A 3 1/2-mile race punctuated by a dozen potentially life-threatening obstacles. The course description read like a Wheel of Fortune booby prize: Heeeere's your chance to jump over fire! Army-crawl through mud with barbed wire overhead! Climb over junked cars! Scale a 20-foot-high barricade with no hope of coming down!

"Sounds fun," I said. "Let's do it."

That's how I find myself in the woods of Logan, Ohio, one of a few hundred bodies pressing toward the Warrior Dash starting line. This weekend, thousands will run in staggered heats, many crazily clad in prom dresses, kilts and Halloween costumes. In my heat, there's a bunch of dudes running in tighty-whities, and a shirtless, 6-foot-5 African-American guy, all lean muscle and gleaming shaved head, wearing a pink tutu.

The Warrior Dash, the 3-year-old creation of Chicago-based marketer Red Frog Events, is among the many "obstacle mud run" events springing up across the country, inspired in part by reality shows such as The Amazing Race. Its brothers-in-grime include Muddy Buddy and The Original Mud Run, plus more grueling events such as The Spartan Death Race. About 700,000 participated in Warrior Dashes last year, and this year's lineup includes 50-plus races, including two in Ohio, in June and August.

We sign a waiver and agree to rules ranging from the obvious ("I assume all risks associated with competing in Warrior Dash") to the gross ("urinating or defecating on or anywhere near the course is strictly prohibited") to the wait, what? ("I assume risk of wild animals and insects that may be present on the course").

Adrenaline-fueled college guys are running, anticipating the turkey legs, beer and free faux-fur Viking helmet at the open-field concert afterward. But women like me also drive the race's popularity — mid-30s, couple of kids, straight out of the suburbs. Like them, I'll choose the elliptical in an air-conditioned gym over a road race most any day.

I pick up milk at Heinen's on the way home. I take my boys to baseball practice. I live a safe and sterile suburban existence.

Too safe. Too sterile.

I say I am a seeker of adventure, but my definition of adventure has withered. I was the kid rules couldn't confine, whose eye could never resist something shiny. Domesticity has left that girl sorely neglected. Suburban life has a way of gluing my feet to defined paths. I do what's right. What's expected. What's normal. What's safe.

Not today. The whoosh! of monster-truck-style flames signals the start, and I take off feeling like an escaped veal calf. I trudge through a pond booby-trapped with submerged logs. I crawl alongside packs of bodies through a wooden tunnel lined in blackout tarp. I leap over automotive carcasses.

But atop that 20-foot Great Warrior Wall, the craziness of what I'm doing smacks me upside the head. Fear glues me there. I become the 13th obstacle everyone must avoid.

Then, among the racers leaping past, I notice women just like me, also here to burst their suburban safety bubbles. They inspire me.

I start with tiny movements. One foot over for a toehold on the wall's first notch. Firm handgrip to shift my weight — slowly, carefully — to get that other leg up and around.

I'm headed down. I'm on the ground. I did it.

Dissolved fear becomes fuel. I take the balancing beams at a near-sprint. I jump over fire without hesitation. I dive enthusiastically under the barbed wire and pull myself by the forearms through the mud pit. I cross the finish line, the cameras pop, and I'm smiling, my face the only part of me not coated in mud.

I know it's just a silly race, not a climb up K2. The trash-talking folks behind Tough Mudder (10 to 12 miles, with 25 obstacles designed by British Special Forces) have even called the Warrior Dash "a lame-ass mud run."

Not to me. Today, I climbed a 20-foot wall and lived to tell. I stepped out of the subdivision and into the mud. I got myself dirty, and that's exactly what I was hoping for.

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