Watch for Puking Mules: The Winter Switchbacks 5K

SO IMAGINE YOU’RE PERUSING A RUNNING WEBSITE, and you come across the following race promo:
Winter Switchbacks - Part of the PromoNo pre-race registration, no bathroom facilities, no food or water, and the only award you might get is frostbite. And when you get there, you hear this from the race organizer:

Up the Final Hill - Others 2“The race ends at the top of the hill. So you get to go uphill four times, – and you only have to go downhill three times.”

Sound like fun?

Somehow, some way, it was.

I’d gotten a flyer for this race a few years ago, but had other commitments and let it pass. But last week, while looking over the website for the new Ann Arbor Running Company store, I came across the 2015 flyer. Yep, same race: the only text that had changed was the date. So I blew off my assigned 12-miler on Saturday morning and drove to the Waterloo Recreation Area in search of adventure.

Methinks someone didn't like the sign.
Methinks someone don’t like being told when he can and can’t shoot.

With only the flyer as my source, I was half anticipating a group of bearded, fur-clad survivalists. And just a few hundred yards from the gathering place, I spotted three orange-clad guys with rifles heading into the woods. Their eyes were on me as I went past. Hmm..., I could hear them thinking, I wonder if he’s good eatin’.

This was as close to fur as anyone got. Yes, I could make the obvious joke, but I'll let it go.
This was as close to fur as anyone got. I will save the obvious “fox” jokes for another time.

So imagine my surprise to find that the majority of the runners were Chelsea and Grass Lake high schoolers in track clothes and sweatshirts. Turns out the race is run by the Chelsea High School cross-country coach. There were even kids as young as 4 there. They all seemed remarkably unconcerned about running 3.5 loops on trails covered in snow and lined with fallen branches, and a monster climb times four. Ah, the innocent nonchalance of youth! But I wasn’t too fazed; I’ve climbed worse hills, and run through deeper snow. Just not both at the same time before.

Winter Switchbacks - Start

At 10:00 a.m. sharp, after a briefing about the course (“Just keep turning right”) we were off. Each loop climbed up the switchbacks, with the steepest part just before the top of the hill. Fortunately right after that there was a steep downhill, so there was a chance to catch my breath, and I finished the 5K in a respectable 28 minutes and change, even managing a reasonable charge up to the finish line.

Just in case you were wondering what "switchbacks" were...
Just in case you were wondering what “switchbacks” were…
Funny, that wasn't there the first time. (We'd been warned about "surprises".)
Funny, that wasn’t there the first time. (We’d been warned about “surprises”.)
Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.
Finish line ahead! Please pass the oxygen, Sir Edmund.
And the winner is...the guy in shorts. (I was only 8 minutes behind him.)
Me with Tom, the winner, who ran this race about as fast as I can run a 5K on a flat road. With a tailwind.

While the race was tough as promised, it wasn’t really so bad. With temps around 30 degrees I stayed quite warm, and the promised mush and horse poop never materialized. And I saw no puking, mules or otherwise. The race organizers seemed disappointed.

“Last year,” they told me, nostalgia misting in their eyes, “the snow was twice as deep and we ran this thing in a blizzard.” Better luck next time, guys.

Finish - Wiped OutPredictably, many of the high schoolers kicked my butt, but I still managed to finish in 10th place, and that with taking pictures along the way. That four-year-old never knew what hit him. Just wait till next year, when I take all those pre-teens to school. Yeah.

Oh, and I have at least two more snow races coming up – the Super 5K this Sunday, and the No Frills All Thrills 8K in March. Can’t wait!


2 thoughts on “Watch for Puking Mules: The Winter Switchbacks 5K

  1. Oh yeah! I was just thinking that this sounded familiar. I ran those once (in a lovely summer breeze) with the cross country team when I was in high school. Is Swager still coaching?

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