How to be a Viking.

My life has taken some unusual turns right now. I’m writing this on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where I will see my dad’s entire family for the first time, ever – the last time we had a complete family reunion, my cousin Pablo wasn’t even born yet. Despite the joy that it will bring me to see my family, some of whom I am ashamed to admit I haven’t seen in years, it’s not a happy occasion. But more on that later.

Despite the turmoil over my grandmother’s illness that seemed to make me permanently melancholy over the last ten days, some thing don’t change. I have great friends here and I like to get out and do things. Last week my friend Reto, who is doing an exchange semester from Switzerland where he is working on his bachelor’s degree in Bern, gathered us on the roof of our dorm for grilled sausages and beer. It was a lovely evening.

“There’s a reason why I invited all of you here tonight,” said Reto, or at least something like that.

We were surprised: we thought this was just a party on the roof, not an occasion.

“I saw a poster for something called the Extreme Viking Challenge, and I thought maybe you would want to make a team for it.”

Before he even described what the event was, I knew I was in. Some of my other classmates were less sure. But after he described the six-kilometer course through the woods that included obstacles and climbing walls, and told us that if we could complete it we would become true Vikings and earn a place in Valhalla, everyone said that they would at least come watch those of us who were foolhardy enough to attempt the race.

I checked the weather no Friday night: rain in the forecast for race day. Given that organizers had already promised plenty of mud, I tried to psych myself up and think about what I could wear that would be the least miserable in the conditions. The next morning we took a bus to a random stop in the middle of some farm fields and walked down a dirt road in search of the race, following intermittent signs scattered among the barns, tractors, and a sawmill.

By the time we got to the venue – actually a paintball range, complete with mazes of bunkers, towers, and a gutted schoolbus – we were already wet and cold. The organizers offered us camoflage onesies in case we didn’t want to get our clothes muddy, but I couldn’t imagine being weighed down by a full-body cotton suit, so I turned it down.

When race start rolled around we walked into the woods, slipping even without trying to run. I was cautious as we finally took off down the road, but still somehow was in the lead even though I was jogging; I guess everyone else was even more worried than I was about both the mud and the upcoming obstacles. In short order we hung a sharp left over a ditch into the woods, and the fun began. First, crawling up a web of tires hung over a huge boulder face.

A man in a bright pink shirt scrambled up them faster than I did, and as we set off into the woods I tried to match his pace. He was nimble jumping over downed limbs and avoiding branches that seemed to conveniently hang just at face-level; it was easier for me to follow him. The course was marked by one or two lines of surveyor’s tape strung along between trees and stakes in the ground, which sometimes stopped or changed direction abruptly. While the man in pink had to follow the route, I could just follow his very bright shirt.

After mucking around in the woods we came out in a large cornfield, where I was able to catch up but we were weighed down by the mud that stuck to our shoes in larger and larger clumps – it was like wearing snowshoes. On the other side we tried to kock the mud off, only semi-successfully. After some more fun in the woods we were again in a field, and this time we had to sling a log over our shoulders and run out around a rock in the middle and back again.

I wasn’t cold anymore: I was having a blast.

The rest of the course was just as advertised. One section was a real swamp, with water that came up to my knees. Somehow, the man in pink manage to power through and keep running. The grass was so knotted that it tripped me up, and there was a lot of deadfall that I had to climb over – I was afraid I wasn’t nimble enough to jump without knowing how deep the water was on the other side. In a few places, I was worried that my shoes would be sucked off by the mud.

The obstacles were much more fun. Besides a few walls, there were also large barricades made of logs stacked one on top of another; fun to climb over. At one point we came back into one of the original fields and snaked back and forth over a series of obstacles. Logs one after another as a long line of balance beams running the length of a ditch; nets to crawl under, ensuring that we get intimate with the mud; running through tires; throwing ourselves up, onto, and over a collection of concrete retaining walls. One was high enough that I didn’t make it on my last attempt.

When we re-entered the woods there was more. Nets to climb up and over, wires to traverse, monkey pars (slippery in the rain!) to swing across, more pathfinding through the forest, and finally, a rope swing across a small “pond” (or really more like a giant, muddy, intentional puddle). The rope was so slippery that I fell off halfway across. And then: I popped out back on the road and slid my way to the finish. I had never caught the man in pink, later revealed to be a serious mountain biker, after he left me in the swamp, but I was the second person to finish and I was quite happy.

That gave me the chance to go back and watch a few of my friends as they made their way through the zig-zag field. I cheered especially hard for Katie, who is a tiny, tiny English girl and was at a distinct disadvantage for all of the height-related obstacles. I actually helped her over a couple of the taller concrete walls.

The sense of accomplishment we felt was very real: Katie and Daniel, in particular, I don’t think had ever done anything like this. It wasn’t just something that was fun for me to do, the crazy girl who goes running and rollerskiing and exercises more than the other masters students think is comprehensible, but it was fun for all of us. And it was fun to do together. I think it brought us together.

Reto, whose idea this was in the first place, enjoyed the course so much that he went out and did it a second time. After we changed into dry clothes, we sat around waiting for him, eating snacks. The organizers also ran the paintball range and offered us the chance to play, but we decided to take a rain check (literally) and come back on a sunny day – the longer I sat waiting for Reto, the colder I became. The warmth I felt while I was racing was replaced by all-consuming daydreams about a hot shower.

Just before we left, I was offered my prize for being the first woman across the line: a swig of fine Viking cognac. Contrary to belief, the bottle was already half-empty when I poured myself a glass! Not bad for a rainy Saturday, and it sure beat sitting in my room being glum about the weather.

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