Get Outside: Muddy fun at Finn McCool
Photos by www.tomburnsphotography.com
The trick is to not hesitate. Don’t think, don’t consider, don’t waiver—just follow the person right in front of you. When the college-aged girl I was trailing landed facedown in bottom-churned Cazenovia Creek with a loud wet smack, I never even slowed down. She misjudged the water depth, lost her footing, and sprawled. I jumped higher to avoid her, put my ankles and knees together perfectly, just like they teach at Army Airborne school, and rolled forward through the waist-high water toward the center of the creek, barely losing my stride. A high stepping splash through the knee-deep rocky channel, past the Buffalo Dive Team rescuers on stand-by, up the bank, and I was off to the next obstacle.
Last September, two teammates and I completed the inaugural Finn McCool 4 Mile Odyssey in thirty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds, a decent time considering our eight-minute miles were punctuated with obstacle-induced delays. None of us are star athletes, and that’s exactly the point. This isn’t a competition as much as an experience.
The mud race phenomenon is sweeping the country, with a variety of outfits putting on events that emphasize teamwork, endurance, and getting dirty over traditional race standards like time and standings. Buffalo’s homegrown version is the brainchild of Dan and Anne Moran, co-owners of Eclipse Multisport and veteran organizers of local footraces and triathlons. Dan Moran is a certified race director, and when the big national names passed on a Western New York race, he decided to create his own.
“I used to be the cross country coach at Bishop Timon [high school],” he says, “and I knew there were great trails all throughout Cazenovia Park. I’m of Irish heritage, and both of my parents are from Ireland. The name of the race was my father’s idea, and we brainstormed the odyssey events. Our goal always was to have fun.”
Mud racers at Buffalo's Finn McCool.
Photos by www.tomburnsphotography.com
And fun it was. The Finn McCool of legend slayed fire-breathing fairies and sucked his magic salmon-laced thumb for wisdom. In our mud race, we had it comparatively easy; faced with a choice between sticking my own spear in my forehead (McCool’s method for staying awake when a sleeping spell was cast on him) and braving a slip-and-slide, I’ll take the latter. We also climbed rope walls, scaled cargo netting, dove through pipes, endured the creek twice, and leapt over hurdles. We laughed and joked with our “competitors,” who nearly universally were more interested in having a good time than beating the clock. We took finishing as a team seriously, but breezed over the rest, drinking beer and celebrating our victory. We forsook costumes, but we were in the minority—an impressive number of kilts and shamrock socks made appearances.
Almost 1,100 runners participated in the first-ever event, 380 registering the morning before the race, a number Moran called “unprecedented” in the field. Naming the race after a traditional Irish hero not only helped lure the adventurous, but it also tied the event into the larger South Buffalo Irish Festival; music started that same Saturday afternoon in Cazenovia Park just as the race wound down.
“We thought it was a wonderful success,” Moran says. “The Buffalo Parks Department was a wonderful partner. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy helped make sure we didn’t do anything disruptive. And next year will be even better.”
There are a number of improvements and changes in store. Each obstacle is doubling in size, to allow more racers to climb, crawl, or swim at the same time. A “Lil Finn” race has been added for children four to eleven years old; it’s just over half a mile, and contains only eight kid-friendly obstacle. And to increase the charitable fundraising aspect of the race, Moran has teamed up with Special Olympics: one “wave” of the race will have only participants from law enforcement and other first-responder communities, carrying the Special Olympic torch and raising money for local athletes.
But on one very important detail, Moran is sworn to secrecy.
“So, do you have any new obstacles for this coming year?” I ask off-handedly.
“Three, but I can’t tell you what they are,” he hedges.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re a mystery. Our board is finalizing our plans for the race in three days, and we’ll vote on them then, but I promised I wouldn’t say what they are,” Moran says.
But don’t worry—you’ll still get plenty dirty. The landmark obstacle, the one that draws the crowds, the moment of truth for every runner, will certainly be present again. Finn McCool is a mud race, so you know an infested pit of muck lies in wait. But where? Does it come first or last? And is it a low crawl under barbed wire? A waist-deep wading pool? Last year’s mud pit lurked out of sight the entire race, a final enigma, until we turned the last bend and it suddenly lay before us in all its sloppy glory. Camera-toting fans and recent race finishers lined either side of the muddy bog, a cheer going up when they saw a new willing victim approach. I searched for the best route through the … watery soup? Chunky clumps? Not a shred of firm ground remained in the stew.
My foot hit the edge of the swampy pool and a spray of hot muck shot into the air. The four-year-old in me squealed with delight. Someone to the left of me yelled, “Dive!” I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t waiver. You can guess the rest.
Learn more about the Finn McCool 4 Mile Odyssey, and sign up your team, at finnmccool4mile.com.
Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk, available in bookstores now. Follow him on Twitter at @Brian_Castner.