On a cool rainy morning on the first day of October, Brian McClain plowed his 42-year-old legs through mud inches deep and underbrush that snapped against the black compression sleeves wrapped tight around his calves.

He was midway through a 9-mile odyssey, a jog with a 4-foot-long rain-soaked log hoisted on his shoulder behind him, miles of running and paddling in the shadow of a famed dam still up ahead.

“Your legs are burning, your shoulders are burning, but I tell you what, it’s great to be outdoors and to push your body physically and mentally,” said McClain, Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial’s director of clinical diagnostic services and a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s fun to run a course like this with a whole bunch of people who, at the end of the day, are having a great time.”

McClain joined more than 150 people from all walks of life across West Michigan—from nurses to office managers and teachers—who slogged through a downpour at 2DamTuff, an unusual endurance challenge that made participants run, bike, paddle and navigate 11 obstacle courses staggered over 9 miles of rugged terrain, rutted trails and Croton Pond.

Of those 151 participants who gave up a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast so they could spend two hours pushing the far limits of their physical envelope, more than 50 were employees at Gerber Memorial.

Harmony Willett, RN, signed up for the event with the support of her colleagues and had fun training for the challenge. And as someone who works to improve the health of others, Willett also saw the challenge as a way to show by example the benefits of taking part in a challenging physical activity.

In many ways, Willett and her colleagues signed up for 2DamTuff because they saw the grueling obstacle race as a way to help break barriers to physical activity and, ultimately, improve people’s health.

“It helped me realize that I can do more than I realized I could—and that we could all potentially achieve our physical goals,” she said. “Running through the woods was an awesome experience—so much more fun than the treadmill! Even though the day had a rainy start, seeing everyone else show up, made me feel like, ‘I can do this.’ Every time I felt like stopping, I just looked ahead to another point and made that my goal. I think we all enjoyed the fact that we could celebrate being outdoors and take part in a communitywide recreational activity.”

Participants tackled the course in heats. Some raced in groups, pushing each other on, with friends and relatives on the margins cheering. Time melted away in the damp, brisk air. The only thing that mattered was conquering the course, which snaked from the starting point just north of the Hardy Dam in White Cloud through wooded trails and hills, a stretch of Croton Pond, past the Croton Dam and ending at M.K. Conklin Park more than 9 miles away in the city of Newaygo.

At around the 3-mile mark, wiping rivulets of rain and sweat from his eyes, McClain dove into the mud to crawl under a lattice of logs barely a foot above earth. A few miles later, he pulled himself along a taut line of rope 6 feet up in the air, watching upside down as the treetops danced in the light rain. McClain felt the strain in his arms, toughened by near-daily workouts on his farm that sometimes involve, among other things, hauling a 50-pound maple stump around his backyard.

At the zigzag of monkey bars, he swung his arms to build momentum, which can be a double-edged sword. In dry weather, momentum can hurtle the body forward. With rain, momentum instead caused McClain’s fingers to hydroplane, slipping off metal five bars into the obstacle. He felt the brief lurch in his gut as he landed, feet first in the ground below. He wasn’t the only one to slip from the monkey bars.

Like everyone else, McClain kept going.

John Barkel shared that sense of motion, mission and camaraderie. The euphoria of physical exertion kicked in around the time of the first woodsman challenge: running with a log about as wide as an oil drum. By the time Barkel reached Hardy Dam, the race reinforced for him the importance of being outdoors and physically active.

“There are few greater things than getting outside and moving, whether that be for a run, walk, hike, playing with your kids, and the list goes on,” said Barkel, principal at Fremont Christian School and father of three young children. “There is newness to it. We get to see leaves change color and flowers bloom on a hike, go swimming in a lake, or set a personal best on our favorite running route. There’s always something to look forward to when getting out and moving.”

For some participants, 2DamTuff was a benchmark, a personal fitness yardstick to gauge growth.

Jessica DeKryger, 31, of Fremont, said she likely would never have signed up for an endurance race in the past. But for a year now, she’s been exercising regularly at Tamarac with a group of women—and 2DamTuff was a way for her and her exercise group to push the envelope of their physical limits.

“This challenge was a great way to continue working toward our fitness goals, and for me it was a great opportunity to see how my overall strength and endurance has increased during the past year,” DeKryger said. “I really liked that 2DamTuff covers multiple endurance disciplines and has something for every type of athlete. This challenge isn’t something I would have considered signing up for in the past, and I’m happy that I have a great group of women running alongside of me.”

The course took participants an average of 1 hour and 55 minutes to complete. The race also burned calories, with organizers reporting that participants consumed 460 pounds of turkey legs.

When Gerber Memorial decided to sponsor the event, the goal was to support and encourage physical activity, to pave the way for more opportunities for recreational challenges that would get people in the rural county moving. Newaygo County’s obesity rate is higher than the Michigan average, according to the most recent county rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and access to exercise opportunities is 10 percentage points lower than the state rate.

“Gerber Memorial is thrilled to support a major community event that celebrates the outdoors, physical activity and sportsmanship, which is what 2DamTuff is all about,” said Shelly Johnson, Gerber Memorial’s chief community health officer, when the hospital announced its sponsorship in early September. “Events like 2DamTuff showcase what Newaygo County has to offer to people who enjoy being outdoors and active. Gerber Memorial is proud to support events that encourage healthy lifestyles and fitness—in sponsorship and in staff. Together, we can improve the health and wellness of our community.”

As she pushed her muscles through each discipline and obstacle course, DeKryger saw 2DamTuff through the eyes of a nature lover.

“Events like this are very important because they help showcase what an incredible county we live in,” she said. “We truly take for granted the bountiful resources that we have here and the abundance of outdoor recreational activities that surround us.”