Get Dirty at The Hagg Lake 50k

Ultrarunner Marilyn Bailey, 61, knows something about running in the mud

Michael Lebowitz / LongRun Pictures

Marilyn Bailey, 61, is a proud member of an elite club called the Hall of Mud—an honorific she earned by completing the Hagg Lake 50K no fewer than ten times. The notoriously muddy ultra marathon is a challenging, even dangerous, undertaking. Suprisingly, Bailey has only been running seriously since her forties. We caught up with her to see what makes her go.

What keeps you coming back year after year?
Well, every year I swear I’m not going to do it again.

Why not?
Because it’s so crappy! It’s so hard to keep your footing. There are a lot of stretches where your choices are to run in a muddy trench or a really bumpy, muddy grassy hillock that from a distance look really inviting, but to try to run in—it’s almost impossible. But I’ve got to say that I hardly ever fall down, and that’s one of the reasons I’m slow (7:08:29 in 2011). You have to adjust your speed to accommodate your decision-making process, so I go at a pace where I can figure out what I’m doing and hang with it.

How do you train for that?
I just like to go out and run; I’m not really much of a trainer. I usually run about 30 miles a week; more if I’m preparing for a race. But I really try to keep up with going to the gym two or three times a week. A few years ago, I started working with one of those balance cushions that are impossible to keep your balance on, and I think that has helped a lot. I stand on it and do about ten minutes’ worth of waving my arms around with weights.

So have you always run long?
I was always pretty active, but didn’t start running until I was about 40. My weight was creeping up and my back had started hurting, and I thought, you know, I need to do something here to get in shape. I tried running and for some reason, it stuck. I wasn’t fast, but I liked to go long. After my first marathon, a friend talked me into doing a 40-mile run he’d put together with friends on the Rogue River Trail. I thought it was about the coolest thing I’d ever done in my life.

It’s so great because…?
It’s like a great big mental vacation for me. No matter if I’m upset or obsessed about something, I go out the door and I can’t focus on that. I always feel really refreshed, in a tired sort of way.

Even when you’re racing?
This year at Hagg, it wasn’t a mental vacation. It hailed on us and it was super duper wet and muddy, and I thought, I paid money to do this? Fortunately, the mud isn’t terrifically sticky. There are some places around Ashlandwhere you can build up five pounds of mud on your feet in no time. But [around Henry Hagg Lake], it was really wet, and the good news is that the more it rains, the less the mud sticks to your feet.

Any tips for running in the mud? What if you start to slide?
I scream and yell and wave my arms! Really, you just grab whatever you can grab. A few years ago, some skiing friends told me that I needed to stop leaning back, suck in my gut, and engage my quads. They told me I needed to have my weight over my feet and quit trying to back off, and it really does help.

Do your friends think you’re crazy for running ultras?
Yes. And I say to them: Think of your very favorite thing to do. Maybe that’s painting or sewing. Imagine you get to do that for a whole day in a beautiful place, and maybe with a group of great friends. I think about hunkering over a sewing machine and it makes my neck hurt. Running is relaxing and enriching to me. I’m not a person who trains to try to acquire or hang onto any speed. I just like being out there.

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