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Metro Parks’ Mud Run pops up annually at Swan Creek Park

February 6, 2018

Like a traveling circus without the tent, it comes and goes in a day

What does it take to orchestrate a one-day competition for hundreds of obstacle course enthusiasts without leaving paraphernalia behind?

Just ask Ralph Thomas, Metro Parks recreation supervisor, who since 2015 has coordinated the 2-mile Mud Run at Swan Creek Park.

Like a pop-up shop or a traveling circus, this is once-a-year event is ephemeral. That is, on the day of the competition Thomas and his team both erect and remove virtually everything that distinguishes the park as a race site. “That’s the tough part,” Thomas said. “We have to make everything portable. It’s the biggest challenge.”

Metro Parks’ Swan Creek Mud Run attracts participants from all over Western Washington. The course is studded with challenging barriers through which to slosh, slither, slide, scoot, leap or lunge. It features fire pits, climbing walls, muddy ditches, tire mazes and giant mounds of dirt.

Thomas oversees a platoon of volunteers and Metro Parks personnel, most of whom converge on the site only on race day. They install as many as 20 prefabricated obstacles, hand out hundreds of runner numbers and oversee waves of racers who rush through during a period of about three hours. At the end of the race, team members distribute hundreds of pre-printed, souvenir towels. Many also stay on to tear down and clean up.


Soon after the last contestant crosses the finish line, evidence of its existence begins to disappear.

The next race takes place March 24. Thomas began planning in December. That meant mapping out the course and deciding whether to add obstacles or revise the layout. Of the features of last year’s race, only vestiges of seven mud pits and three huge mounds remain.

Remnants of a street grid mark the site of the race. It takes place in a portion of the original Salishan neighborhood on Tacoma’s East Side. During World War II, the federal government built houses there for temporary war workers. The buildings have since been demolished.


In January, Thomas sent feelers out to organizations or entities that might want to loan obstacles for use on the course. This month, he’ll initiate marketing efforts to get the word out to potential racers.

In March, “it starts getting crazy,” Thomas said. A collection of portable obstacles that Thomas built for past races is warehoused at Metro Parks’ South End Recreation & Adventure (SERA) campus. Thomas will inspect them, determine whether repairs are needed and perhaps construct new ones. He’ll delegate race team members to purchase and deliver necessary lumber and hardware to SERA, where prefabrication takes place.

Also in March, Thomas arranges:

  • Purchase and screen printing of the souvenir towels given to competitors
  • Hiring of a private ambulance and crew to stand by during the race
  • Rental and delivery of portable toilets
  • Rental of two 500-gallon, trailer-mounted water tanks and pumps
  • Purchase and delivery of 50 yards of fresh dirt, or about five dump truck loads.

Thomas leaves it up to recreation technician Zoe Pinkerton to recruit and assign Metro Parks staff and volunteers for race day.

The pace of work intensifies about a week before the event. That’s when James Cooper, a Metro Parks heavy equipment operator, hauls a big backhoe to the race site. He’ll restore sites of previously excavated mud pits and perhaps build new ones. Huge mounds of dirt are also refreshed.

Each of the mud pits is lined with plastic to reduce drainage on race day. The site is gravelly; it doesn’t retain surface water. So Thomas typically orders several 100-foot rolls of plastic sheeting, each 20 or 30 feet wide. The plastic lines the bottom of each pit. A cushion of about five bales of hay provides a foundation for each liner.

Extra pit dirt is scheduled for delivery two days before the race. One day prior, Thomas and crew make the mud, with water drawn from those two 500-gallon water tanks. In all, Thomas calculates that Metro Parks uses about 5,000 gallons of water for the Mud Run, including the amount distributed at three water stations set up for competitors.


Also on that day, team members load all the obstacles, related equipment and gear in trailers hitched up to three Metro Parks vehicles for delivery to Swan Creek early on race day.

It’s important to note that the Mud Run is one of a dozen races and walks that Thomas coordinates for Metro Parks throughout the year. One of the ways he organizes equipment used at each race is by storing it in a 7-by-14-foot box trailer. The trailer’s contents includes race timing and sound systems, signs, a first aid kit, traffic cones, baseball line chalk, race numbers or bibs, souvenirs, and yards and yards of surveyor’s ribbon, which is hung around each course.

On the day of the Mud Run, Thomas arrives on site at 3:30 a.m. driving one of the three trucks and trailers prepared previously. He wears a headlamp, as do other team members who arrive before dawn. There are no street lights at the race site.

In one of the trailers is a Gator utility vehicle carrying two generators. They’re needed to quickly recharge three cordless electric drills. Crew members use the drills to assemble and secure the obstacles – most are climbing walls – with 8- or 10-inch bolts.

About a dozen people help set up the race, typically divided into two teams. “Some walls are big and heavy and it takes two or three people to get them out of the trailer,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ initial experience as a race organizer came more than a dozen years ago when he took charge of a 5K run in the small Seattle suburb of Des Moines. That race taught him a critical lesson: Don’t assume runners will recognize route markers.

“If there is a chance for them to go right instead of left, somebody will do it,” he said, chuckling.


In Des Moines, he didn’t have the luxury of road closures, so at a busy intersection, where the route took a 90-degree turn, he didn’t just mark it with traffic cones and flags. He hired a licensed road flagger whose job was to point the way. That worked, until the flagger took a brief break. Sure enough, one runner shot straight through the intersection and got so far off course he made a phone call to find his way back. “It added about 1 ½ miles to his race,” Thomas said.

From the start of Thomas’ career at Metro Parks, race organizing has been a big part of the job. At the close of 2017, he had orchestrated 42 runs and walks. To prevent runners from going astray at the Mud Run, he highlights the route with chalk arrows on the ground and strings surveyor’s tape along the sides. Last, he stations volunteer guides at all key transition points.

As elaborate as Mud Run preparations are, one might assume that Thomas keeps track with a list or a spreadsheet, or gets help from an assistant. But no. Thomas tapped his forehead. “Most of it is in my head, so if I ever get hit in the head, Metro Parks is in trouble,” he joked.


Metro Parks Mud Run at Swan Creek Park

  • What: Family-friendly, 2-mile, obstacle-course race
  • When: 10 a.m. or 11:30 a.m., Saturday, March 24, 2018
  • Where: Swan Creek Park, East 42nd Street and East Roosevelt Avenue, Tacoma WA 98404
  • Cost: $30-$40 depending upon registration date
  • Sign Up Online >

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