Running the Muddy Sneaker Race

Most runners who make the leap from race participant to race organizer feel fortunate to survive their first event without any major disasters. Six months after the 2000 Muddy Sneaker 20k, held in the Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area near Naples, New York, first-time race directors Mort Nace and Tim Ratowski found their event featured in Runner’s World magazine as one of the five best trail races in America.

In 1999, Mort and Tim ran the Michigan Trail Marathon together. To pass the time and stay awake during the long drive home, they talked about what they thought would make the best trail race possible. The distance, terrain, location, on-course support, post-race festivities; every aspect was considered. The idea for the Muddy Sneaker 20k was born.

In December they started to pull the scheme together. After poring over maps looking for suitable terrain, they found the High Tor Wildlife Manage­ment Area, a rugged region of steep hills, gullies and gorges carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. Heavily forested and criss-crossed by mountain streams, it’s undeniably beautiful country, but it’s the kind of place where you expect to see backpackers in heavy hiking boots rather than runners in lightweight trail shoes. It was exactly what they were looking for.

The next job was convincing the Department of Environmental Conservation to grant them a permit for the event. The rangers responsible for the High Tor area were wary at first, but Mort and Tim’s advance preparation and clear plan were enough for the DEC to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Other bureaucratic hurdles followed, like getting insurance, cajoling sponsors and promoting the event. All of this was done on a shoestring budget; publicity was by word of mouth, Internet message boards and race calendars in trail running magazines. Mort says he found the setbacks and hard work of making this race happen similar to running the Pike’s Peak Marathon: “Everyone says you can’t do it,” he says “which just makes you more determined to do it.”

Somehow it all came together. The first Muddy Sneaker attracted 67 runners and got rave reviews from both the participants and the rangers of the DEC, this despite three runners getting lost and spending several hours running through the woods before being found.

For the second running in 2001, Mort and Tim set a limit of 125 runners, to minimize environmental impact to the trails and the Wildlife Management Area in general (adequate parking was a big concern). They gave advance notice in December to anyone who had run in the first event, and opened registration to the general public in January. It was sold out by mid-February and attracted runners from eight states.

The participants include runners of all abilities. Scott Bagley, who ran in the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in 2000, won the race in 2001, and there were several other 2:30-2:40 marathoners in the field. Most participants are of more modest abilities and some even end up walking much of the distance, but the race appeals to all of them. It offers beautiful scenery, one of the most challenging courses anywhere and the camaraderie of people who share the same spirit, love of the outdoors and sense of humor. Molly Huff, despite being one of the runners who got lost in 2000, has become a convert to trail running. “No cars, no artificial noise, no pollution, just beautiful bliss,” she says.

Others are attracted by the contagious sense of fun at the Muddy Sneaker. Stacy Vandenburgh, co-founder of a running group called the Slug Goddesses (motto: “speed kills”), recalls passing one of the water stations and being told, “Go straight and turn left at the chicken!” Sure enough, a few hundred yards ahead was a 6-foot-tall guy in a chicken costume directing runners down the right path. No one got lost that year!

The sense of humor shows a diabolical streak when it comes to the layout of the course, though. “When Tim showed me the route he’d picked out I just laughed and laughed,” recalls Mort, “Especially the last mile and a half, which is all uphill. There must be a 600-foot elevation gain in the first quarter mile!” They call this hill “The Demoralizer” because of the effect it can have on runners who have already covered more than 10 miles of tough terrain when they reach it. It’s not uncommon to see even the faster ones walking the steepest stretches with hands on knees for support.

“This race isn’t about running a personal record,” says Mort, “It’s for people looking for something different.” Not that the Muddy Sneaker isn’t competitive, it’s just that the competition is more about conquering the course and beating the clock than beating your fellow runners. The post-race party, with a generous assortment of awards and prizes and an ample supply of food and drink, helps too.

This formula has been successful beyond their wildest expectations. Their Web page at http://www.geocities.com/goutnow/ has drawn so much traffic that it’s often exceeded the monthly limit Geocities allows. (They’ll be setting up a new Web site this year.) A runner who skipped the 2001 event to run the Boston Marathon announced afterwards he’d made a big mistake and would henceforward pass on Boston to run the Muddy Sneaker instead. And in an age in which most races are scrounging for any support they can get, a major running shoe company recently contacted them and offered help.

If all of this makes you want to try running the trails on April 20 with the rest of the Muddy Sneaker crew, you’re out of luck; the 2002 Muddy Sneaker sold out in two weeks. Mort and Tim may expand the field to 150 next year, but they’re pretty sure that’s the limit. Their expansion effort will go into creating other unusual events, rather than making this one too big for its own good (in January 2002 they put on the first “Frozen Assets” 5k showshoe race).

But if you want to run one of America’s five best trail races in 2003, you can start training now and get ready to mail in your entry on January 1, plenty of time to prepare yourself for 12.4 miles of hills, mud and fun. Just remember to turn left at the chicken.


by Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a photographer and writer who lives in Fairport, New York. His web page is at www.robertstech.com