For a time—about a minute—I led Tupper Lake’s second annual Warrior Run, held at the Big Tupper Ski Area. A lanky guy danced past at the ﬁrst obstacle, then a man with “RENEGADE” tattooed across his solar plexus. By that time, though, blood roared through my ears and I breathed in curt little hiccups. Grit, I realized, was my only hope.
Because the course was supposed to be surprising (ever practiced shooting a paper Viking with a paintball gun?), versatility and doggedness seemed to trump training. Plenty of racers had little or no preparation. “Anybody in decent shape can run this course,” said Adam Boudreau, who helped build obstacles. “This isn’t like the Ironman.”
At 3.5 miles, the Warrior Run is far shorter than its syndicated predecessors such as Tough Mudder (billed as “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet”) and Spartan Race. These can top 10 miles and feature obstacles like the Fire Jump and Electroshock Therapy. Since 2011 at least three participants have died in big races around the country. The masochism and bragging rights sell for top dollar, with registration fees more than $100.
Entering the Warrior Run costs half as much, and the event had none of that self-importance. The obstacles were inventive, not sadistic. No live voltage, barbed wires or ice water, just punishing climbs and North Country mud in every known consistency and flavor. The course included knotted ropes, tires and tunnels, a spider web and an American flag at the penalty loop. All the emphatic, hand-drawn arrows seemed to point uphill. It was certainly one of the hardest things I’d done in a long time.
The Warrior Run made the most of Big Tupper’s 1,100 vertical feet. We climbed the headwall on the Widow Maker and flew down Lachute, both black diamonds. While most of the running was either steeply up or down, we also jogged the gradual rock corridor of the Palisades, looking across the blue sweep of Raquette Pond.
There was a charming selflessness to the race. While it was fodder for some epic Facebook posts (pictures of you mudcaked and grimacing are Internet gold), the event ran on community service. “There’s a feel and a spirit around Big Tupper you can’t ﬁnd anywhere else,” said the race director, Michelle Clement. “You hold any event up there, and that magic is part of it.”
Big Tupper Ski Area opened in 1961 and introduced generations of locals to skiing. The resort went bankrupt in 2000, but after 10 years, volunteers from ARISE (Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy) reopened the slopes for limited skiing on natural snow. Clement worked with that group and others for the run, using materials and machinery donated by local companies. One of those volunteers, Rob “Dobber” Drayse, seemed to be everywhere at once on race day. He resupplied stations with water and beer, and accepted a stream of well-wishes for his upcoming birthday.
“He went up as soon as the snow melted on the service road,” Clement said. “The trench crawl was through the old snowmaking pipe. The skywalk and the tire climb were both built around nonfunctioning chairlifts.” Drayse told me that the wet summer had made it difﬁcult to get materials and equipment up the mountain, but we had a beautiful day to run. An early fog burned off the lake for a clear August day in the low 60s. Ladies from the volunteer ambulance sold shirts, and I got free pulled pork from a home-built barbecue. A few parents (and my grandmother) waited at the bottom of the hill. But mud-running on a ski hill isn’t really a spectator sport. It’s more obscure even than a ski race, which you might imagine it resembles. Everyone is out of sight for the balance of the race and they all look like melted Fudgsicles.
There were 189 runners, with zip codes from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Virginia, Vermont and New York City. A young Israeli said the course was a lot like his military training. But most contestants were local. A high-school team from Lake Placid,“The Classy Crew,” wore white T-shirts painted like tuxedos. While many racers were in their 20s and 30s, several 14-year-olds ran, as well as one tough 63-year-old. A few guys showed up from Fort Drum, dog tags jangling over sculpted pecs. They stretched and eyed some long-legged young women in rainbow socks.
A harried technician came from Pennsylvania with an inflatable FINISH balloon and radio wristbands. Some of the chips didn’t work, including mine, and the poor man penciled times on an overflowing clipboard.
Joe Merrihew, a Tupper Lake native who transplanted to Bloomingdale, won the race in 45 minutes, ﬁnishing half a step ahead of Steve Kemp, from Malone. I wheezed in 30 seconds later, followed in less than a minute by Keith Kogut, of Tupper Lake.
After the race I caught my breath with Boudreau and Clement. Even in August the ski lodge was drizzled with Christmas lights. We stood under a twiggy birch accent and watched the last runners coming in. Most times were about an hour and a half, and even the slowest runners were back in three hours.
“How many communities could run this just on volunteers?” Clement asked. “Find people who are passionate, and you can make it work. Next year we’re going to have a full-day festival at the mountain with bands and ﬁreworks.” “Just to see [Big Tupper’s] parking lot full gives me a lump in my throat,” Boudreau said, gulping reﬂectively from a plastic beer cup. “Just to know we’re using it again.”