I stood at the back end of Heat 3 of the Mogollon Monster Mudder, trying to look calm, but feeling like Tom Dooley awaiting his morning hanging.
The last time I did anything this dumb was on a trampoline with my then-13-year-old nephew. Turns out, trampolines are for kids and knees only bend one way. The discovery cost me a never-promising jogging career. I passed up the knee surgery in favor of not doing anything too strenuous — like jogging three miles, climbing 30 obstacles and jumping into deep puddles of mud while trying to keep up with good-looking people half my age.
Like for instance, reporter Alexis Bechman who got me into this mess — and her rock-climbing, physics teacher boyfriend, Andrew. They both stood cheerfully beside me as we waited for the launch of our heat into the maw of the Monster Mudder, along with 400 other fools.
Alexis proposed a Roundup team months ago. I figured I’d either get in shape or die at my desk before the distant day ever rolled around. So I said yes in a moment of denial and delusion.
Alas, I not only didn’t die at the desk, but made no progress at getting in shape at all.
So here I stood, caught between the humiliation for backing out and dread of the monkey bars — awaiting in the Stadium of Terror at the end of the three-mile run. I figured I could crawl over most of the obstacles, but my bulk-to-bicep ratio has changed over the years in a way not favorable to monkey barring.
Still, everyone else seemed excited. They milled about, some in tutus, looking confident and relaxed, laughing and joking. Gallows humor, I figured.
“Don’t leave me behind,” Alexis said to Andrew. “I know how competitive you are.”
He looked at her innocently. “I’m not competitive,” he said.
“Yeah,” she sniffed, “when you’re sleeping.”
“I won’t leave you behind,” he said, understanding a relationship imperative when he heard it.
I said nothing, secretly relieved. I knew I’d never keep up with Andrew — but maybe I could keep up with Alexis. She did this last year — and it took her like an hour and 15 minutes. I could do that: Couldn’t I? Assuming I didn’t do a Tom Dooley and hang myself on one of the rope course obstacles.
Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Cameron Davis told us to have fun, help one another over the obstacles and wipe the mud off our little wrist bands at the end so the counter could read our times.
And off we went, me trotting along at the back end of the heat, watching the teams with color coordinated T-shirts and hard young bodies dash off to glory.
“Just finish,” I muttered.
We hit a couple of agility-type obstacles right off the bat, jumping logs, scrambling over rock piles, climbing a log wall, not too bad. I like to fish. I’m used to boulder hopping. My confidence started to build.
Then we hit a six-foot plywood wall, over which you had to jump and scramble. Alexis got hung up, halfway up. I gave her a boost. I prepared myself for the jump, the thud, the long, futile hang. Andrew gave me a look that mingled pity and sympathy.
“OK,” I said. “I think I need a boost.”
He offered a bent knee. I scrambled up and over.
On we went.
Andrew and Alexis jogged on easily. I clumped along like a Jeep on three tires and one bent rim. The bag of sand, assorted mud-filled puddles, and hay-bale-hills didn’t help. Andrew and Alexis drew ahead. Ah. He’d promised not to leave her: No one promised not to leave me.
Soon the run turned into a simple test of will power and breath control. I walked, crawled, splashed, climbed, stumbled, staggered. I only actually enjoyed one obstacle: the long slide down into a mud puddle that produced a very satisfactory splash at the end.
The physics of mass and gravity and momentum asserted themselves: I did very well when mass offered an advantage, not so much when gravity turned against me.
But at long last, I rounded the corner on a long, painful jog to a water station just before the Stadium of Terror and the waiting Monkey Bars.
“You’re doing good,” said the water volunteer, “halfway.”
“Halfway!?” I gasped.
The trail took a sharp turn for a long jog through the juniper before looping back around and delivering us back finally to the stadium.
As I entered the stadium, the paramedic firefighters brought a nice lady out on a gurney. Turns out, she fell off the Monkey Bars — maybe broke her leg or ankle.
On I went, doomed but game: Up stadium steps, down stadium steps, in mud, out of mud, over logs, under logs.
Then, suddenly, I came to the bright orange monkey bars, built with great expertise by the folks at Home Depot, whose mascot cavorted nearby to the blaring hard rock from the loudspeaker.
I wiped my wet, muddy hands on my shirt — which was, well, wet and muddy.
I climbed atop the hay bales. I jumped for the monkey bars, not looking down. One rung. Two rungs. Reaching for three.
Then I’m falling. Big splash. I mean BIG splash. But I land on my side, not my knee, bruising my elbow, but bouncing up quickly, hoping no one had noticed the size of the splash. But this is the one advantage of having little natural dignity: Hard to lose it.
I just walked under the second set of Monkey Bars. When I was a young man, I thought I could accomplish anything. I’m older now. It is enough to just get through anything, without weeping — at least, without audible sobs.
And get through it I did. Alexis and Andrew waited at the finish line to high-five me. I finished in just barely under an hour, about twice as long as the top finishers.
No matter. I have my Mogollon Monster Mudder T-shirt and my Monster Mudder participation medal. In the beer garden tent with the other grinning, bedraggled, variously bruised runners I felt good — alive, not so old as I had that morning.
I did not beat the Monkey Bars in the Stadium of Terror and I don’t look impressive in any of the photos, but I did jog — or at least shuffle — all three miles. And like they say: It’s not whether you fall, it’s the getting back up.
Besides, I ain’t been that covered in mud in more than half a century.
High time, I think. High time.