A Muddy Race at Mount Hamilton

October 21, 2011

On October 9, 805 teams of two, 100 individuals, and 220 children, along with hundreds of volunteers from local civic organizations, a crack team of event organizers, and thousands of cheering fans gathered at Joseph D. Grant County Park in the Mount Hamilton area of San Jose. They came to run. They came to bike. They came to get dirty.

This is a Muddy Buddy race–a combination of obstacle course, team relay, and slog through a mud pit. And, say participants, it’s one way to get in closer touch with the natural world.

Just 40 minutes after the starting horn sounded, John Christopher of San Jose and David Caroll of Mountain View, competing as Team JCDC, crawled under a cargo net commando-style through 50 feet of mud, earning first place in the 2011 San Jose Muddy Buddy race. The nearly 2,000 people who followed discovered a new way to experience the oak and riparian woodlands, grasslands, and historic farm landscapes of Grant Park. More than “hands-on” learning about nature, these athletes–including me and my sister–participated in a “hands-in,” even “bodies-in,” exploration of the local waterscape and soilscapes.

Grant Park lies on clay soil with some traces of serpentine. Mixed with the proper amount of water, this would be fine mud to complete a mud race. However, explains Park Ranger Lisa Pappanastos, Muddy Buddy organizers built a permanent, unlined mud pit for the annual race and now bring in their own mud, highly specialized “quarter-inch sifted topsoil” that gets put through an industrial sieve, so no particle exceeds one quarter inch; and it is devoid of seeds that might bring invasive species of plants into the parks. The small soil particles are for the benefit of the race participants, who might get hurt by sharp rocks. The absence of seeds is crucial for the park, ensuring that no invasive species will threaten the park’s diverse spring wildflowers. (Check out some photos of those here.)

Muddy Buddy participants alternate riding a mountain bike and running. At the starting horn, the mountain bikers set out. Two minutes later, the runners follow. The bikers continue to an obstacle, where they drop their bikes, complete the necessary challenge, and continue on foot. Shortly thereafter, the runners arrive, complete the challenge, and retrieve the bike. As the newly minted bikers proceed along the course, they pass their now-running partners and thus the two racers “leap-frog” one another through the course.

Oak tree and hiker
Valley oak at Joseph Grant County Park. Creative commons photo by Miguel Vieira.

Muddy Buddy participants I talked to report an enhanced connection with nature. “I never knew hills could be so punishing,” David Burk commented. “I learned to appreciate that dry dirt and dry grass combination smell when it gets deep into your lungs. . . . Muddy Buddy pushes the body to extremes and forces extended breathing. Nature is breathing all around us. Inhaling nature is a wonderful way to get connected.”

Pappanastos, the park ranger, concurs. “It is good exposure to the park. Lots of people don’t know about this park. The road getting up here keeps people away… But then people do come back to explore more. We have 10,000 acres of land and trails, a huge wildflower season, and we still operate a ranch.”

Julie Atkinson, who participated in Muddy Buddy three years ago when the race happened in June, remarked, “Although I had been to the park before, I had never been into the interior. It was really beautiful and I loved seeing it in a different way. Oddly, I remember thinking about the soil! There was a sharp contrast between the chalky dusty trail and the mud at the end. The dusty chalk appealed to me because it was a true California environment. I was proud to live here.”

Although some Muddy Buddy participants are hard-core mountain bikers, most are casual enthusiasts. “The outdoors is a big factor,” Jamie Monroe, national series manager of Muddy Buddy, explains, “Most people don’t get a chance to use their mountain bikes very often. The bikes sit in a garage. These guys have a lot of toys, but spend very little time with them outside.” The length and format of Muddy Buddy encourage casual bikers to come out to the park for a day.

And for some, the connection with the earth and the environment runs more deeply. One team participated this year under the moniker Belligerent Heathons, demonstrating both a sense of whimsy and earth-based spirituality. For me, one possible interpretation of Muddy Buddy is that of chthonic ritual. If pagans equate the earth with the archetypal mother, and with a deity, then diving into mud is a profoundly symbolic act. There are other mythological overtones. Although most participants are grouped into divisions based on the aggregate age of the team (for example, this 44 year old writer and his slightly younger teammate raced in the “co-ed 76-85” division), teams whose combined weight exceeds four hundred pounds are designated “Beasts”. After the National Anthem is sung and the air horn is sounded, it is the beasts who first escape into the wild.

Muddy Buddy returns to San Jose once a year. It also takes place at 15 other venues around the United States. To learn more, visit Or learn more about Joseph D. Grant County Park.

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