A question of survival

A question of survival

I headed south two weekends ago, away from the forecasted snow, for my first trail race in a couple of years -- the Swamp Stomper 50K/25K in Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in Millington, Tenn., just outside Memphis.

I’ve run the 25K event at this race twice before in relatively warm and dry conditions. This year, though, the snow forecasted for Illinois showed up as rain in Tennessee. On race weekend, thunderstorms hit Friday night, it poured rain midday Saturday and Saturday night brought a light snowfall.

I was concerned about the hills in the Sunday race being slippery. They were fine. It was the low-lying flat sections of the trail that were the challenge.

Blog PhotoSo. Much. Mud. Long sections of sloppy, ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud.

The dry sections of the trail were beautiful. It was cold and sunny, with a dusting of snow in the woods.

But, oh my, the mud.

For me, it was a challenge to stay on my feet and not lose a shoe. For Sarka Petrickova of Urbana, it was a playground.

“The messier the weather, the better. There is a level of surprise (with unpredictable weather). I like the hard elements you have to overcome,” Petrickova said. “I feel like a kid -- rain, snow, sleet, all this is good. It feels more like a survival run. That element is my favorite part of a race, if there is a question whether I’m going to survive it or not.”

A large group of local trail runners goes to the Swamp Stomper race every year.

“Typically you get away from the cold weather and can run in shorts down there. It’s a good road trip. You get out of town, eat some good food in Memphis, hear some good music,” said Tony Suttle of Champaign, who has run the race 10 years in a row.

Blog PhotoThe first year Suttle ran the race, it was even muddier than this year.

Don Frichtl of Paxton, who has run the Swamp Stomper for the last 11 years, said he has run in difficult conditions three of those years. In 2010 (Suttle’s first year at the race), “The Mississippi River was up. The low area (along the trail) is in the floodplain, and there was standing water as far as you can see. There were long stretches that were 6 inches deep. The stretches that were muddy this time were completely underwater that time,” Frichtl said, adding that several runners ended up with poison ivy that year because the oil from the ivy plant was in the water.

Last year, one-quarter inch of ice covered the trail, making the downhill sections treacherous. Frichtl fell on the final hill before the finish and grabbed a small tree to try to break his fall. He dislocated his shoulder and bruised several ribs and went straight from the finish line to the emergency room.

But he and Suttle keep coming back, and they enjoy the race, no matter the weather or trail conditions. They like to spend time with friends and reconnect with people they’ve met at the race over the years.

Petrickova, who has run the race four times, likes that Swamp Stomper is a small, local race, and all the race proceeds go to the state park and to Friends of the Forest, an organization that funds projects in the park.

She was the female winner of the 50K and the second finisher overall in that event. She’s been female champion three times now, and she was the second female finisher last year.

I was impressed with how she and many of the faster and more experienced trail runners stomped right through the mud as I skirted my way around the worst of it, trying to find more solid footing. But bushwacking alongside the trail wasn’t easy -- not to mention that it can damage plants and contribute to erosion -- and skirting the edge of the muddy sections meant I was often slipping down the sloped side of the trail. I eventually gave up and went straight through the middle of the ankle-deep mud and found it was easier and took less energy.

“Once you accept it -- there is mud, and I will run through it -- it’s much easier,” Petrickova said. “A lot of it is about expectations and your willingness to just go with it.”

Embrace the muck.

 

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/

 Photos: The Swamp Stomper 50K/25K near Memphis, Tenn., earlier this month was a muddy mess. Top photo by Chris Delis. Bottom photo by Brandon Jones.  

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