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The first rule of the RunAmuck 5K: Everybody plays dirty

On May 1, thousand of runners gathered in Rockville for the RunAmuck 5k race. Obstacles included running through a muddy lake in hip-deep water and two man-made mud pits.
By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, May 6, 2010

There's no middle ground with the RunAmuck 5K. Either you're seized by the idea of getting so filthy that you have to throw out your running shoes and clothing, or you aren't.

"There are some people I'll tell about this race and they're completely disgusted by it," says RunAmuck head muck-a-muck Scott Johnsson. " . . . And then there's a contingent of people who will say, 'Oh, my God, I have to do this." One look at the e-mail from a friend, and I knew I was part of the second group. Which is how I came to be at Lake Needwood in Rockville early last Saturday with a couple thousand other runners -- most of them in their 20s or early 30s, many of them in outlandish costumes -- duct-taping my running shoes to my ankles. (Yet another use for duct tape. Is that a great product, or what?)

There are so many 5K runs on the summer schedule that you probably could do one each weekend without venturing too far. RunAmuck is a good, hard 5K trail run with a difference: three crossings of the muddy lake in hip-deep water and shoe-sucking muck, two man-made mud pits, a few wooden barriers to climb and a couple of those agility grids that football players run through during training camp.

Throw in blaring music, the usual pre- and post-race goodies and the mild eccentrics who populate the running community, and you have a nice break from the typical weekend recreational run.

The RunAmuck Mud and Music Fest attracts people like "Runaway Brides" Jamie Gietz and Sarah McIntire, who ran in wedding gowns that were of purest white until they hit the lake. And George Shardlow, John Bernet, Ari Witkin, Jocelyn Durkay and Katie McNeely, a contingent from the Greater Homewood Community Corp. in Baltimore, who goaded one another into running in skin-tight unitards, Shardlow's a shimmering gold number.

Will Martin, 23, and Kim Anderson, 20, came outfitted as vikings. Martin is a University of Maryland graduate in mathematics who is headed to the Air Force and wants to work for the National Security Agency. Anderson is studying microbiology at Maryland. So, of course, their shields were decorated with Fermat's last theorem -- postulated in the 1600s but not proven for another 350 years -- and the chemical structure of penguinone. Yes, that's the nickname of a real chemical compound.

I'm not the costume type, but I did put on one of those T-shirts My Wife Won't Let Me Wear in Public Anymore, my least-comfortable pair of running shorts and a pair of castoffs from my pile of ancient running shoes.

Johnsson believes that mud runs started in Southern California with a huge annual festival at Camp Pendleton near San Diego. They have since spread across the United States under names such as Muddy Buddy. If you missed the one in Rockville, there are other RunAmucks scheduled for the Philadelphia area and New Jersey (May 15), New York (June 19) and Chicago (Sept. 18), and Johnsson says he may add a few more.

Sunday's event was divided into six races -- individuals, couples and teams, each with and without costumes -- and was no walk in the park. I was in the first wave, which began at 9:30 a.m., so it was still relatively cool. After some hard running on the hilly first half of the course, I was ready for a plunge into the lake.

It wasn't too cold, but I quickly sank ankle deep in the slime and slowed to a halting walk. There's no question I would have left a shoe, maybe both, on the lake bottom if I hadn't decided at the last moment to tape them to my ankles, as the RunAmuck Web site recommends.

I badly lost my balance only once, on the last lake crossing, nearly becoming one of those scenes from an Animal Planet show ("Notice how the great beast wallows in the chilly water") before I found my footing and plunged ahead.

The largest wooden barrier was outfitted with climbing pegs and proved to be no problem. The two man-made mud pits, one just before the finish line, also could have been worse. I thought we were going to have to crawl on our bellies military-style to get under the bungee cords strung across the pits. But most of us made it on hands and knees. I crossed the line to high-fives and cheers from spectators and other mud-caked competitors.

The well-organized site included food, water and outdoor showers. There were men's and women's tents where we could change into clean clothes. After that, I unceremoniously dumped my shoes and clothes in a trash can.

Johnsson says a charity used to collect the old shoes and try to recycle them. But RunAmuck leaves them too moldy and gross even for people in developing nations who need footwear. Perhaps next year we can each bring a clean pair of shoes to donate.

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