DEANSBORO, N.Y. — The Daniel Barden Highland Mudfest takes place this year on April 5, at MJK Farms in Deansboro, N.Y. The 5K obstacle race is organized and run by volunteers, with support from business and corporate sponsors, and incorporates a half-mile Half Pint Kids’ Fun Run for ages 5 to 12, as well as an additional 5-mile timed Mud Run for 250 elite entrants.
The Mudfest honors the memory of first grader Daniel Barden, one of 20 children who perished at Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHS), December 14, 2012. Organizer Daniel Williams of Deansboro is a personal friend of Mark and Jackie Barden, and their surviving children, James and Natalie, and came up with the idea for a mud run last year, as he sought a means of supporting the Bardens financially and emotionally.
“My sister Karin Labanca and her husband, Frank, live next door to the Bardens, so the Barden children were always around when we would visit,” said Mr Williams, who has two sons, ages 9 and 11. “We got to know them quite well. Daniel was a very special little boy, and really stood out,” he recalled. His own niece, then a third grade student at SHS, escaped 12/14 unharmed, but the Williams family was devastated to hear that Daniel had not come home.
“I had always wanted to organize a running race,” said Mr Williams, who is a marathon runner, as well as owner of Williams Fence Company and a grass-fed-beef farmer, “and this idea popped into my head. There is this big farm near mine, with great terrain, and I knew it would be a good way to honor Daniel’s memory. Daniel loved to run. We added the Celtic theme, because the Bardens are Irish, and Mudfest just seemed like a cool name.”
Within just a few weeks, the Daniel Barden Highland Mudfest was arranged, and by the time April 13, 2013, rolled around, more than 1,000 people had registered to wallow in the course. This year, Mr Williams hopes to attract 3,000 participants.
“We’re already about three times ahead of where we are last year, so far as registrations go,” he said.
Among the teams returning to the Mudfest this year are two from Newtown. One is the Newtown Cannonballs, a diverse group of Newtown athletes and nonathletes of all ages, and James Barden’s Newtown soccer travel team, the Titans.
“It’s a rare group of families that get along together as well as we do,” said Mark Barden of the Titans team members’ extended families. “It is an extremely supportive group, and all of them were close to our Daniel. He used to come with us, of course, and watch the games and was always on the sidelines,” said Mr Barden. For the team and families to band together to take part in the Mudfest, he said, “is above and beyond what most do.”
The Newtown Cannonballs team is made up of members of the Eggleston/Mayer family from Newtown, four other Newtown families, and other out-of-town friends, said team captain Brad Eggleston.
“We would do anything for [the Barden] family,” Mr Eggleston said. He coached James’s soccer team for two years, and his son played on that same team, he explained. His daughter, Zoe, coached Natalie on the Newtown Torpedoes swim team, “and Daniel himself had a huge crush on [our daughter] Eliza,” said Mr Eggleston. “The Bardens would come to watch my girls swim at the high school swim meets,” said Mr Eggleston.
It is the swimming connection the families share that led the team to come up with the name Newtown Cannonballs.
Mr Eggleston sees the Mudfest as a means of creating change while having a good time.
“The initial interest in this event was overwhelming, “ he said. “The more we have events like this, not just in Connecticut, you are spreading the word that people can come together and raise money to make this a safer and a better country to live in,” Mr Eggleston said.
Sandy Hook Promise staff, families and members will be in attendance, as well, said Mr Barden, who is a spokesperson for the local organization.
“There will be a lot of folks from Newtown there,” he said.
Last year, Mr Williams was looking for a way to help the Barden family get back on its feet. The $82,000 raised has been put into college savings plans for Daniel’s siblings, Natalie and James.
‘A Life-Changing Deal’
This year, Mr Williams is looking not only to increase the number of participants, but to shift the focus of the fundraising somewhat. “My goal — I never try to do anything real small — is to make this an annual marquee event; a destination, and a life-changing deal.”
He is talking not only about the satisfaction runners have in completing the challenging course, but that the event can serve as a seed for cultural change.
“It’s a fun event, first of all, even keeping in mind the reason this race exists,” Mr Williams said. “We are trying to get like-minded, responsible people together to have fun. I want to create a platform to have this discussion about how we rear our kids and how we can do a better job. If we’re going to be the greatest country in the world, [violence such as occurred at SHS] shouldn’t happen,” he said.
The funds raised at the 2014 Daniel Barden Highland Mudfest will be split between the Compeer mentoring program based in Rochester, N.Y., and Sandy Hook Promise in Newtown. Compeer provides mentoring for children with mental issues and family instability. With the help of the Mudfest, Mr Williams would like to see an Outward Bound-type program presented through Compeer, one day.
With the money donated to Sandy Hook Promise, he is hoping to craft an outdoor program, as well.
“I think we can use [the Mudfest] to connect people with nature again. One of the biggest issues facing us today, I think, is that kids need to get reconnected to nature,” Mr Williams said. “We need a paradigm shift in the way we think, and I realize that won’t happen right away, but I like to think that we can see talk happening among people [at the Mudfest] in a positive way. That’s why we’re supporting Sandy Hook Promise,” he said.
The course, designed by Mr Williams, takes runners through a variety of terrain, including mud pits, cliffs, a wall, a log cross, and a 35-degree slippery downhill pitch that send runners straight back up again, known as the “gravity cavity.”
It is a challenging course, agreed Mr Eggleston. The focus of the Cannonballs, though, was to look out for each other, he said.
“It was really cold. The hills of upstate New York are very steep and really muddy,” he said. Last year’s challenge was wriggling through a drainage pipe three-quarters full of muddy water.
A series of walls, ranging from four to ten feet high, required the help of team members or others to make it over.
“I loved seeing everyone help each other,” Mr Eggleston said.
Set into the course every half-mile are 26 chimney trees, Mr Williams’ tribute to each of the victims of 12/14. The huge, hollowed out tree trunks burn from the inside out throughout the day’s event.
“People said they were ‘born again’ when they got to the finish last year. But [the people who lost loved ones 12/14] are going through pain every day; I’m only asking runners to suffer for an hour,” Mr Williams said.
Last year, Mark and Jackie Barden chose to walk the course. This year, Mark Barden said, he may try to run it.
“Dan Williams put this thing together that honored Daniel’s spirit — it’s outside, exercise, and play. And, it’s about helping other people,” Mr Barden said. It is that compassionate component of the Mudfest that particularly resonates with the Barden family. Time and again, Mark and Jackie Barden have been told how Daniel consistently showed empathy and caring for others, in ways that seemed far beyond his years. It was a personality trait they had long recognized in their youngest son.
“A lot of the obstacles [on the Mudfest course], you can’t do by yourself. Dan wasn’t told to make this happen, it just happened organically that way. You need to rely on others to get through some of them,” Mr Barden said.
The Daniel Barden Highland Festival is a festival for all, he said, with thousands of nonrunners supporting the participants. “It is a festival atmosphere, with six bands this year, and lots of food. If you’re on the fence as whether to go or not, go. You’ll be glad you did. You’ll be changed and moved and touched in a beautiful way,” said Mr Barden.
“We do want people to remember why they are there; for us, there is no other way, of course. But we don’t want it to be a somber affair. We know this is achieving a great service to community. We want it to be as impactful as it can be and maximize the goal of creating community and compassion.
“Dan wants this to grow and be the event for people to take part in each year. The philosophy of community and compassion can grow and spread as participants return to their own communities. It’s a beautiful and appropriate way,” he said, “to honor our sweet little Daniel.”
Cost for the 5K Mud Run (individual or teams) is $60 in advance, or $70 the day of the race; $75 for the five-mile timed Mud Run (individuals or teams), or $85 the day of the race (teams); and $15 for the Half Pint (kids’) Run. Registration information and details for the 2014 Daniel Barden Highland Mudfest can be found at www.danielbardenhighlandmudfest.org.