Two years ago, Lisa Kennedy’s health was failing, and the Maynard resident knew she had to make serious lifestyle changes.
“I have multiple sclerosis, and had been very overweight and very sick from the MS, so sick that in May of 2013 I ended up in a rehab that was equivalent to a nursing home,” said . “I was unable to walk without a walker. They had put an alarm on my bed and chair. I realized that I needed to get my act together and get healthy. I vowed, never again.”
According to the National MS Society, multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system with symptoms that range “from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis.”
Intent on fighting back, Kennedy, a 47-year-old married mother of three who was first diagnosed with MS in 1999, started attending fitness classes — walker and all — and was soon shedding weight.
“Since then, I’ve lost over 120 pounds,” she said. “And I try to set new goals to keep me motivated.”
Kennedy immersed herself in activities such as the National MS Society’s fund-raising walks. And last spring, she rallied a team of friends to compete in the MuckFest MS Boston, the local edition of a nationwide series of 5K adventure races. It features more than 18 obstacles, including mud pits, zip lines, and rope bridges, set up on a course in Devens.
Obstacle-course events are growing in popularity as a way to raise money for charities.
Sue Hines signed up for MuckFest without hesitation. “I hadn’t done any of the other adventure-type races before this one,” the 47-year-old physical therapist from Maynard said. “But as there was a personal connection to MS, it gave me the push I needed.”
Kennedy’s teammates — Lisa’s Lassies and Lads — were among more than 5,000 MuckFest participants.
Liz Strawn, director of development for the MS Society’s Greater New England chapter, said the Boston event started as a single-day race in 2013 with roughly 1,500 contestants, and quickly grew into a two-day event. (Competitors can race both days, but must register separately.) Held at the Willard Athletic Complex in Devens, the MuckFest, she said, is designed in part to expand the society’s reach.
“During our traditional events, with walking, biking, and running, we don’t necessarily grab the whole community. With this event, we have a whole new demographic that we’re reaching out to,” said Strawn. “For the majority of these people who are coming, it’s their first experience with the National MS Society.”
Unlike many MS Society events, fund-raising by participants isn’t required (though it’s encouraged, Strawn said). Instead, part of the MuckFest registration fees go to the society.
“Last year we raised over half a million dollars,” Strawn said of the Devens event. The society reported that more than 40,000 MuckFest MS participants nationwide raised more than $2.5 million last year.
This year’s MuckFest MS Boston will be held April 25 and 26 , and kicks off the society’s 11-event coast-to-coast circuit . A Chicago-based company, Event 360, creates the obstacle-laden course at Devens. With this winter’s record snowfalls, there will be plenty of mud for contestants to frolic in.
“The one thing that stands out the most about last year was how absolutely cold and wet it was,” said Hines. “Our team had one of the earlier morning time slots, and it was raining steadily. I have to admit I was absolutely dreading getting out of a heated car to do this race.
“But once we started, it was truly a lot of fun,” she said. “Right out of the gate you had to slosh through a mud pit, so you got over being muddy and wet pretty fast.”
Most participants acknowledge that adventure races such as MuckFest might seem intimidating initially, but they also agree that no prior experience is necessary.
“My first Muckfest was a bit out of my comfort zone, but I did it because of the cause,” said Alicia Gallo, 45. She is a member of Pam’s Fans, in honor of an aunt, Pam Boucher, who has MS. “This is something we do as a family to show her our support, raising awareness about MS, and raising important funds for the discovery of new treatments and a cure,” Gallo said.
“The obstacles were challenging, but doable,” said the 45-year-old Westford native now living in Maynard. “And everyone, including all of the amazing volunteers, is very supportive and encouraging. I went back the second year for all of those reasons, as well as the fact that it was so much fun. I loved challenging myself, conquering the obstacles and having fun with my family.”
The key to having a good time, said Hines, is having good teammates.
“The team aspect is super important,” she said. “I can’t quite imagine crawling through mud tunnels and climbing over walls by myself. Having teammates around made it easier to laugh at yourself and the things you’re doing.”
Needham resident Susan Howell, 52, is a member of Pat’s Muckers, named for Patricia Waters Fagone, who battled MS for 46 years before passing away from melanoma about five years ago. Howell said her team has “stayed together despite the differences in athletic abilities. It was more important to help and encourage each other through the obstacles than to run fast on our own.”
Likewise, Kennedy said her squad focuses on making sure everyone finished.
“The event is a great way to build friendships and team spirit,” Kennedy said. “Everyone stops to help everyone else. It’s an amazing experience that I firmly believe everyone needs to experience at least once in their lifetime.”
However, once isn’t enough for everyone. Kennedy and her teammates will be going back for an encore next month.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.