The 2014 Daniel Barden Highland Mudfest was held last weekend, and more than 1,100 people paid to run, walk, and romp in the mud for a few hours in New York. They also got to crawl through a pipe partially filled with muddy water, crawl through mud under rope netting, try to walk or just slide down a plastic-covered hillside, or just walk through part of a field — at times, in rain or snow. Another two to three thousand people attended the April 5 event just to cheer participants along the course.
A large percentage of that number were people from Newtown, including the immediate family of the event’s namesake.
The Daniel Barden Mudfest was created last year to honor and celebrate the life of Daniel Barden, one of the children killed on 12/14. The event was launched by Dan Williams, a family friend of the Bardens who lives in New York near the property where the event is held. He came up with the event in 2013 while seeking a way to support the Bardens, who are neighbors and friends of his sister and her family. The Daniel Barden Mudfest not only forces athletes to run, walk, crawl and climb, it also makes people work together while they contend with a log cross, mud pits, and even a 35-degree downhill-uphill pitch known as “the gravity cavity.”
The 5K obstacle race also offers a half-mile Half Pint Kids’ Fun Run for ages 5-12, as well as an additional five-mile timed Mud Run for 250 elite entrants.
Mark Barden said the idea of helping others, especially strangers, through the course was part of the plan.
“Dan Williams designed this so that it’s pretty much impossible to do this alone,” he said Tuesday morning. “This idea of helping hands was designed right into the course. And that goes right into our little Daniel’s spirit of being a little helper, and looking out for the people around him.
“I’ve heard so many folks who said they were so proud that they did the whole course. A lot of people didn’t think they would make it, and they just powered though,” he said. “It’s such a sense of accomplishment, I can tell you.”
Mark and his wife, Jackie Barden, both did the full course this year, as did their son James and daughter Natalie.
The Bardens had a good day, Mr Barden said, but not without mixed feelings.
“It’s an interesting combination of emotions and thoughts,” he said. “It’s challenging, overwhelming for Jackie and me, because we can’t separate ourselves from why this is happening.
“It’s also uplifting and beautiful to see all these folks there, to see people engaging in community spirit. Folks, perfect strangers, helping each other through the course. Just like everyone else, I enjoyed helping people over some of the obstacles, and receiving help of others.”
This year’s participants came not only from New York and Connecticut, but from as far west as Washington and as far south as Florida. One couple from Georgia celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary on the course, according to Mr Barden.
The first race of the day, the timed event for elite athletes, was at 8 am. The first heat of 5K runners started at 9, and continued every 15 minutes, according to Mr Williams. The Kids Fun Run was at 11.
Tom Bittman and his family were among the many Newtown residents who made the trip to Deansboro on Saturday. He described the event as “so inspiring, uplifting, happy,” permeated with “the sense of community and family.”
He described watching the start of each race, when a local high school principal would go up on a tree stand that had been erected by Mr Williams near the starting line.
“He would have everyone in that heat go down to their knees and make this promise: ‘Do you promise to live life to its fullest? Do you promise to cherish family and friends? Do you promise to love, laugh, and enjoy this moment?’
“Then he had them wipe mud on their neighbors,” said Mr Bittman.
Many of the athletes started the day in bright colors. A lot of pink and lime green was seen on team T-shirts, along with plenty of blues, reds and greens. Hundreds responded to the request by organizers to wear kilts, although some opted to wear fluffy tutus. By the end of the event everyone who went over the course was covered in shades of brown. And smiling.
There was plenty of live music to keep everyone entertained before, during, and after the races (and well after… Mr Williams said some of the final revelers left around 9 pm Saturday). A pair of large fire pits helped keep everyone warm during the day, including through rain and show showers.
“I didn’t order wind and snow like that,” Mr Williams said April 8. “It worked out fine, though. Some better weather would have been helpful, but it may have made things more authentic this way.”
To run the course, athletes paid from $60 to $85, depending on which race they ran and when they registered; while parents paid $15 for each child registered in the Fun Run.
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, Mr Williams told The Newtown Bee in March. 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.
For Sandy Hook Promise, Mr Williams is hoping to craft an outdoor program as well, he also said in March.
As of early this week he didn’t know how much the 2014 Daniel Barden Mudfest raised, but did say he felt the numbers are “up there pretty good.
“We’re still receiving donations, and still paying some bills, so I’m not even starting to think about the final figure yet,” he said Tuesday afternoon.
For most involved, however, the day was not about raising funds. It was finding strength and beauty, even in the mud, which Mr Barden experienced.
“The overall sentiment I heard from the folks was ‘You can’t describe this, you just have to be here to experience the truly beautiful spirit of the day,’” said Mr Barden. “The pictures don’t tell the whole story. There’s such a positive vibe going on. Team spirit and community building was very evident.
“We’re making new friends, in the spirit of Daniel reaching out,” he continued. “People are reaching out to each other now, in more ways than one.”
Mr Barden said he has heard only positive feedback from people who were at Mudfest last weekend, including comments from many people who are already looking forward to next year. There is good news on that latter note. Dan Williams has already announced that the 2015 Daniel Barden Mudfest will be on April 25.
“I think he gave in a little by pushing the date out for next year,” Mr Barden said. “He’s hoping for better weather, but I think a lot of folks enjoyed the extra rugged feature of the snow this year. Besides, in upper New York state, all bets are off when it comes to the weather.”