LeBlanc: Permanent obstacle course in Manor features war-themed challenges

The Crucible’s 3.3-mile route has hills, trenches, tunnels and more

From the woods behind the ShadowGlen golf course, I can’t see what awaits. But in the next 3.3 miles, I’ll scamper over wooden walls, crawl through a 60-foot tunnel and slosh through muddy creeks at a new permanent obstacle course in Manor.

“This is not a course that is built for speed; it’s built for endurance,” says James Russell, who works with A Veteran’s Voice, the nonprofit veteran’s advocacy organization that built the facility. “So don’t tear out of here when we start.”

We dash off, and an undulating grassy path immediately swallows us up. Ten minutes down the hilly, winding trail, our group of 10 arrives at the first challenge, The Sands of Iwo Jima. We scrape our way up the short, steep hill, which, Russell tells us, will eventually be covered with a thick layer of sand.

The Crucible, woven into the greenbelt behind the Manor golf course, features 16 military-themed obstacles, each modeled after a historic battle in American military history. From the Civil War through Afghanistan, every major conflict is represented.

Athletes who tackle the course will scramble over a series of wooden barriers designed to replicate what soldiers encountered in Baghdad. They’ll creep over a creek on a towering log structure reminiscent of a booby-trapped bridge in World War II. They’ll drop in and out of trenches, then belly crawl under barbed wire. They’ll wade 100 feet through a creek in a reminder of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Then, if they make it through all that and more, they’ll run through a faux Higgins boat into a pond, then wade ashore at Manor’s version of Normandy Beach.

Frank Hutchenson, owner of ShadowGlen Golf Course and founder of A Veteran’s Voice, says he conceived of the course as a way to honor the country’s military history. He says he spent about $150,000 to build it and hopes people who run it will get more than a good workout.

“I wanted to create an environment that was fun, but also educational,” Hutchenson says.

Hutchenson didn’t serve in the military, but his father spent 21 years in the U.S. Marines and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. On Memorial Day in 2009, Hutchenson carried two leather-bound books filled with the names of soldiers who served or died in service in Iraq and Afghanistan to the top of Mount Everest.

Informational panels at the beginning of the course and signs along the route will explain the military significance of each obstacle.

“It’s almost like a history lesson,” says Rhona Moore, a staff member at A Veteran’s Voice.

As I make my way through the course, feet weighed down by brick-sized cakes of mud, I alternately sweat, curse, laugh and feel like Superwoman leaping over tall buildings. Our little band doesn’t get to try every obstacle — course builders aren’t quite finished. But I especially like racing up a curved, 15-foot wooden ramp. The hard part is getting back down. Cargo nets that will be used to escape the imposing wall haven’t been installed yet, and someone has to hoist me up a ladder.

“It breaks up some of the monotony of running on road,” says Russell, our guide through the course. “Plus, there’s the psychological benefit of being out in nature instead of in the concrete jungle.”

When we’ve navigated the course, or the parts that are finished, we line up so someone can use a power washer to clean the mud off our shoes.

“It’s so much fun. I’m running 9 or 10 miles now and that 3 miles was really hard,” says Lauren Benshoof, 22, an events manager at Cadence, which helps put on local running and cycling events and is checking out the course for possible future races.

She thinks obstacle courses like these are the wave of the future. “It’s a good way to get non-runners interested. There are added elements rather than just running miles,” she says.

Josh Garcia, 27, who also works at Cadence, has some advice for anyone attempting the Crucible: “Pace yourself.” Start out too fast and you’ll burn out.

The Crucible will open in June, and will be available by reservation for boot camps, running groups and exercise groups that want to use it. Participants must sign a waiver before running the course, which Hutchenson says has been inspected by insurance providers. Several emergency response teams already are planning to use it for training.

A Veteran’s Voice is planning an event of its own later this summer. No date has been set yet.

Proceeds from the course will be used by A Veteran’s Voice to implement rehabilitation and reintegration programs for local veterans, Hutchenson says.

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