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Do you know that muddy trail runs can be lots of fun? Over time, I’ve learned to embrace the challenge of running on muddy trails. We’re uncomfortable at times, we lose our balance, the unpredictable obstacle or bump in the road appears. But if we train ourselves and adapt, we can respond to each of these twists and turns and squeeze some fun and enjoyment from them.

Last Saturday, I ran the Empyrean Trail 5k race near Ashland, Nebraska. I ran this race last year on snow and ice with Yaktrax. This year the terrain was different: soft and muddy (with one tiny snow patch). And it seemed that would lend itself easily to faster times. But the wind was fierce. And the mud was plentiful (although not constant). Hills are present (up and down) and so that adds some unpredictability. Sometimes it’s tougher to notice trail obstacles going downhill (especially fast) but I’ve learned to very carefully watch where other runners step (especially watching their shoes to see if they are slipping in mud on any of the course).

How can we run carefully in mud? First we must have good trail running shoes. I prefer Topo Athletic MT-2 (I raced in these on Saturday, ran in the first generation Topos last year with Yaktrax) or the Mizuno Wave Kazan (ran my first 50k, the Market to Market 50k in these which was a trail 50k). Second, when you reach a muddy section of the course, slow down and shorten your stride. If we are overstriding, we are more likely to fall in mud. Third, if you run with a dog a lot like I do, make sure you have acute awareness of where that mud is located because if your dog pulls hard suddenly on the leash, you might be bowling into the mud pit with your dog.

You may not be able to see the mud in the beginning but you may feel it before you see it. That makes it tougher to react. And if you are going too fast for muddy conditions, you’re more likely to slip and fall in it. Fortunately, mud washes off. (Make sure you wear a headlamp if running in the dark and you suspect there may be mud.)

If you do fall in mud, I prefer to just laugh it off. What can we really do to change the situation then? Laugh and move on! Life is too short to worry about how much mud we have on our running clothes. Falling in mud is not failing (although while we extricate ourselves from the mud our limbs may be flailing). Don’t forget dogs paws get muddy too and unless you want paw prints everywhere, clean the dog’s paws.

The race this year had about 30 fewer runners competing than last year but tougher competition at the top and in my age group (41-50).

We had decent temperatures for the race (mid-30s) but the windchill was in the teens. Very strong north wind. Cass County near the Mahoney State Park is notoriously windy. Lots of open areas without trees to block the wind.

My goal for this race was simply to beat last year’s time. I’ve learned it’s very difficult to set extremely precise trail running goal targets (unless that is your only focus in running) so I try to give myself a comfortable range. I was hoping to pass more people later in the race but the cold and the wind made that more difficult than expected.

I knew it would be muddy. I just knew it. But I embraced the challenge and fun that this would present. We had fairly fresh snow that had just melted. And I didn’t have an opportunity to run briefly on the course like I did last year. I decided that was unwise with the cold, strong wind, and slightly brutal windchill.

The race starts near a mock old-western storefront downtown-looking area with old buildings and brick cobblestone. Gives it an old-town feel, reminds my of the Lincoln Haymarket area surface or Omaha’s Old Market. We had some fun supporters there such as the Omaha storm chasers mascot, Stormy, Miss Nebraska (no I’m not kidding), and an inflatable Sumo warrior (still don’t understand this one but it was very entertaining and funny).

The course is generally uphill for at least a mile and I remember circling near an area with a cross near the one mile mark. Very windy there. My first split was good: 7:32, close to 7:30 target. Mile 2 was 8:14 (ok but I was trying to stay sub-8) and mile 3 was 8:30 (slower still but acceptable). I flew to a 6:30 pace for the last .41.

Did I take any walk breaks? Yes at 1.6 miles. But I shortened it to :15. That’s all I needed. Just enough to catch my breath and drop the heart rate a little bit.

There is a very funny confusing point in the race I had forgotten about: you are presented with a sign saying turn left with a bridge or right with no bridge (stairs instead). I think the stairs part is more challenging, it’s steeper. And I realized I took the stairs last year. I wanted to be able to compare apples to apples time-wise since they said the other route was a different distance (both 5k or more though). But I lost time doubling back to ask them about it. Then laughed and climbed the stairs.

I’m very grateful to the female challenger who passed me late in the race. She surged past 2 of us men so fast that we were surprised and maybe even a little disheartened. And I decided to chase her and try to catch her if I could. Not enough time to make it a fartlek finish but close enough. Drafting off her blocking the wind for me (THANK YOU!), I was able to surge late in the race to a much faster pace. No, I couldn’t catch her. But she’s 40 and I’m 48.

I did have to exercise caution especially downhill on the course this year because of the mud and there were some mounds of earth that were a little irregular. But with trail running we know most surfaces are going to be bumpy in spots with rocks, branches, and muddy mounds of earth.

Final time: 26:52.5 (faster than 27:27 last year). 7th place in my age group (5th last year), 25th overall (20th last year). Do I care that I slipped a little bit in place? No because my time was faster, it was a muddy trail race, and I walked away with a $20 Fireworks restaurant gift certificate from the raffle (I spent $20 in raffle tickets so I broke even. Even Steven.). Technically this was 3.41 miles (.3 more than a 5k or 3.11 miles) according to Garmin. Will check at what point I reached 3.11 miles.

After the race, I stayed outside as long as I could handle the cold and ventured inside for a delicious hot lunch and 2 microbrew beers from Empyrean. Fringe benefits. Earned the rewards by running to the best of my ability on a cold, windy day with hilly mud challenges.

Give yourself an opportunity to embrace the trails, embrace the challenges (like mud), squeeze some fun out of them and enjoy the experience. Having a positive attitude and perspective about trail running and mud running is very healthy and helpful. It makes running so much easier if we focus on the positive aspects we can control. Remember even if things go wrong in a trail race or mud run (or other race), it’s not a failure. It’s always just lessons to be learned and incorporated for your running and racing future. Look ahead to a brighter running day. A sunny day with warmer temperatures…

Mixing fitness and family fun, trail running is number 1! (The word “road” is peeling off my Road Runner gloves, can you tell?)

Happy healthy trails to you and your kin! Enjoy your running and don’t forget to add trail runs to your routine. It will make you a much more versatile, stronger runner better prepared for runs of all types.