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The Big Muddy


When I began running in my 20s, I discovered a frustrating trait I’d inherited from my mother: no sense of direction. Country roads, city streets in London or Berlin, suburban lanes in Rosemont and Phoenixville (my hometown)—the route didn’t matter. If I could run it, I usually found some way to get lost. Alarmingly lost.

After a while, my wife suspected botched runs were secret preparations for a marathon. I quickly learned to carry both a sports drink and a map of the intended route. Higher-tech gadgets like a cell phone or GPS, on the other hand, I rejected as either too intrusive or expensive.

Then, one September afternoon in 2006, while running a 5-mile trail race in Mont Clare, I learned the true danger of muddled navigation. I parked my car near the Schuylkill Canal and jogged along train tracks that marked the official start. The course veered into a forest, followed the shore, then looped back to historic Lock 60, according to the map.

Loping along the tracks, I scanned the tree line for a path. “Where should I start into the woods?” I wondered to myself and kept going.

As I passed, two teenaged boys stopped joyriding on a four-wheeler and exchanged puzzled looks.

“Where’s he going?” one asked.

The other shrugged.

Five minutes later, the railroad tracks disappeared into a dark tunnel, confirming I’d already gone astray. I groaned and scoured the tree line. No path, not even a glimpse of the canal. I bounded through foliage, only to get mired in prickly plants and no-see-ums. Fresh rashes speckled my legs. I pushed on. Finally, just beyond a flooded clearing, I spotted the trail.

Still watching the shore, I found what looked like solid dirt. My running shoes disappeared into the mud. Then I sank to my hips. Brackish muck trapped my legs like I’d landed in peanut butter.

Floundering in slop, I recalled high school biology classes where we watched videos of the worms and leeches that might call this mud home.

I wiggled and squirmed, suction pulling off my running shoes as I freed a foot at a time. Then I yanked out the shoes before the sludge could swallow them. Alas, the bottle and map didn’t survive.

Black slime covered me from hips to feet and elbows to hands. It stank like a puree of cat urine and rotten shellfish. I washed off pounds of gunk, revealing reddened skin, and dunked my shoes in the river until stained mesh emerged. The acrid reek remained despite vigorous scrubbing and cursing and still more scrubbing.

Back at the start of the course, I finally found where the trail entered the woods. More curses. Crestfallen, I hobbled back to my car and spread out a beach towel, slumped in the driver’s seat and rolled down the windows, allowing the stench to dissipate some.

On the way home, I noticed the same teens loading the four-wheeler into a truck. One wrinkled his nose and asked, “Dude, do you smell a dead skunk?”

I had to laugh. Scratched, stung and sweaty, I looked like a hobo and probably smelled 10 times worse.

No doubt, this area has beautiful places to run, and neither rain nor sleet, nor white-tailed bucks keep me from my appointment with the trail.

That afternoon certainly won’t count as one of my favorite runs. But I decided right then to finish the course the next day—or get lost trying.

Shawn Proctor is a local freelance writer and a star-crossed runner.

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