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With brutal hills, ruts, fallen trees and low-hanging branches, it was one of the most challenging cross-country courses I'd seen.

And that's without the 11 man-made obstacles with names like Assassin's Escape and Satan's Steps.

Runners, for example, had to crawl on all fours through mud under barbed wire.

As Butch Cassidy said to the Sundance Kid before they dove off the cliff: Don't worry that you can't swim, the fall will kill you.

In this case: Why worry about scaling a 20-foot wall when the course will kill you?

Some 8,000 runners and another 10,000 spectators descended Saturday on rural Lincoln County, specifically the Blackhawk Valley Hunt Club in Old Monroe. The company putting on the race, Red Frog Events, in Chicago, described it as "3.17 hellish miles."

If that doesn't scare you, the waiver-and-release form should. Participants were informed that 'some of the obstacles may go through water, which has not been tested for chemicals or disease."

Runners also agreed they would not dive into the mud pit head first and they assumed the "risk of wild animals, insects and plants that may be present on the course."

Despite all that, the day had a festive atmosphere. There was music, hearty warrior food like turkey legs and $5 beers. There was dancing. Footballs arced through the blue sky.

Greg Palmer, whose family owns the property, said the site was recommended to Red Frog by someone who had hunted at the club and also had competed in a prior Warrior Dash.

Palmer said that when someone from Red Frog first described the race and its obstacles he thought he was being pranked.

The event will be held again next year on Sept. 29, he said. He would not disclose how much Red Frog paid to rent the property.

On Saturday, every half hour from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. another 500 runners set off on what they considered not torture but a grand adventure.

Some were incredibly fit. The leader of the second wave effortlessly bounded up four steps, each set 3 feet higher, and grabbed a fireman's pole.

"Whee!" he said as he twisted down.

Some, well, were not so incredibly fit.

The man-made obstacles were placed over the second half of the course. Many of the runners were walking 15 minutes into the contest, having already had their fill of hills and ruts. One man spied my note pad and asked if I was a race official jotting down his number because he was walking around the obstacles.

St. Charles County participants

It wasn't a question of fitness for Jayme Chilcutt, 30, of Lake Saint Louis, a regular runner of 5Ks.

"Nothing could have prepared us for this," she said at one of the wall obstacles.

"I am taking a pass on this. I'm afraid of heights."

The appeal for Jason Murray, 36, of St. Charles, was simple.

"I wanted to crawl through the mud — the dirtier the better," he said. "I wish there was more mud."

The good news for friends Erin Grieshaber, 31, and Michelle Mahoney, 40, both of St. Charles, is not only did they have fun but they suffered no injuries. They have been training to run Sunday's Rock 'n' Roll half marathon (13.1 miles) in St. Louis sponsored by Solutia.

Regarding the Dash, Grieshaber said, "It's a challenge and it's something you don't do every day — like diving in a mud puddle."

"It was a lot tougher than I expected," Mahoney said. "But hey, I made it through and I didn't hurt anything. It was a blast."

Len Wolfenden, 39, of Wentzville, was happy that he completed the Dash. The bad news is that he finished behind his 60-year-old father, Ken, of Springfield, Mo.

"I'll be hearing about it for a year," the son lamented.

Illinois participants

After finishing, Jamie Hess, 26, of Red Bud, said next time she just might train.

"I like competition," said the former Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville student. "I also like getting muddy and drinking beer."

According to Shane O'Brien, 22, of Edwardsville, anyone could have finished the course if they simply had set their mind to it. O'Brien teaches an extreme fitness class at the Edwardsville YMCA.

"When you are having that much fun you don't even think about it," he said. "You just go."

The final obstacle, just before the finish, was crawling Army style under barbed wire through mud.

A course official stationed at the pit urged the crawlers on: "Stay low, stay low, stay low."

Once out of the pit, many chose to slide down a short muddy hill on their bottoms. Others lost their footing and slid involuntarily with far less grace.

Like all finishers, Amelia Jones, 23, of Granite City, was draped in mud.

"It was fantastic. It was awesome," Jones said.

Former Marine Kelly McClure, 40, of Edwardsville, twisted his ankle five minutes into the run. Still, he finished.

He ran with a water-proof video camera strapped to his forehead.

"The mud was probably the worst shock," he said. "It was cold, deep and sticky."

St. Louis County participants

Gabe Farmer, 25, of St. Louis, figured that as long as he was going to crawl through mud he might as well look "distinguished." That's why he went to a thrift store the day before and shelled out $15 for a three-piece corduroy suit for the occasion.

His ensemble included a white shirt — or formerly white shirt — and tie.

Now that it was over, he said, "It feels like I'm wearing a 50-pound sack of mud."

While Farmer prepared by buying a suit, Michael Gross, 25, of St. Louis, took a different tack.

"Truth be told, I have been preparing more for the beer," said Gross, who was about to embark in the inaugural 8 a.m. flight.

"It was a blast. I got completely soaked," said Craig Luciano, 38, of Valley Park. He said he was able to slow down and catch his breath at each obstacle.

Patrick Wilson, 26, of St. Louis, is a high school assistant wrestling coach. Saturday's Dash was a good excuse to get together with buddies from Mizzou, he said.

"I figured it would be kind of fun," he said. "And it was a chance to test your strength against these obstacles."

Was it challenging?

"The obstacles, not so much, but the run was tough," he said.

For Michelle Oliva, 34, of Fenton, her upper body was exhausted from scaling walls. This was not only her first Dash, but her first 5K.

"It was fun," she said. "I just set my own pace."

She did have one complaint about the mud pit.

"It was fine until someone splashed me in the face," she said.

Barbed-wire nightmares

Emma Rush, a race director, said Monday that next year's event in Old Monroe, hopefully, will be two days instead of one.

There have been 41 Warrior Dashes across the nation. The first was three years ago. The largest drew 26,000 participants in Ohio. The only other one in Missouri was in Kansas City in July. It drew 15,000 people over two days.

The Warrior Dash series, and other endurance challenge events including mud runs, are the latest twist to distance running.

Saturday's event cost entrants $40 to $60, depending on how late you registered.

"It's not the typical 5K race where you run and you leave," said Kara Coraci, a Red Frog spokeswoman.

Rescue personnel from the Lincoln County Ambulance District were at each obstacle and sheriff's deputies directed traffic on nearby roads. Rush said Red Frog paid for the extra personnel. She said no one was seriously hurt Saturday.

The rescue people at times had to coach, coax or physically assist fatigued and fearful participants. Particularly scary was "Satan's Steps," where runners had to bound up a series of ever-higher, and then descending, wobbly platforms.

"I don't like this at all," said one woman, frozen on a platform.

"It gets better," someone shouted to her.

"After it gets worse?" she asked.

For Brittany Neunuebel, 24, of Hazelwood, the event was not as traumatic as she had imagined it would be.

"I have had nightmares for months about crawling through the mud pit," she said before her noon start. "And I get the barbed wire stuck in my neck and I bleed to death. This could be interesting."

Fortunately, Neunuebel did, in fact, survive.

Steve Pokin is a columnist for the Suburban Journals. He can be reached at spokin@yourjournal.com or by phone at 314-744-5704 or at 618-344-0264, ext 126. His column is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PokinAround.