I could hear the sound of my breath, rushing in and out between my clenched teeth. In through the nose, out through the mouth, I reminded myself. I had lost my shoes fifteen minutes before to the mud, but I kept running. Each step brought the seconds-long worry that I would find my foot impaled by a stick or scratched by a rock. And each step was followed by a quick sigh of relief or a twitch of pain.
There was no telling how far behind us they were. We had no way of defense, just retreat into the woods. We couldn’t stop, couldn’t change our course. Forward was the only option.
Checkpoints were set up along the path. We had to complete each or the guards would not let us pass. Most were simple, wading through mud and muck, jumping over barrels. It was like we were in basic training, yet it was our lives at stake. Others contained the element of fear, claustrophobia. I thought we were going to die at one point. But then he grabbed my hand and pulled me through. I probably wouldn’t have made it without him.
And then we were running again. The trail was longer than it looked, and we found ourselves cursing the checkpoints and guards. But again, there was no other option.
When we finally emerged from the woods we found we were not alone. Dozens of others like us, numbers pinned to their chests like animals being led to slaughter, were running the same route.
I looked back, but still saw no one. A pit of muddy water lay before us, blocking our path. I grabbed the rope above my head and swung my legs up to wrap around it. I pulled myself along, allowing my leg to burn. I wanted to call out, but the ones chasing us could sense weakness.
My leg was red when I descended. I shook my head and kept running. There would be time to think of that later, when I was standing on the other side of enemy territory, washing down my weariness with a cold beer.
We passed more ropes, and more ropes, and more ropes. Swinging from them, climbing over them like an escaping prisoner, we began to slow down. My feet were cramping. The ropes were thick, and my bare feet had already pounded pavement and hard forest floor. My breath shortened, and I continued. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
We were almost there. Slide through the mud on our backs. Check. Swing into a giant muddy water pit. Check. The water flooded my nose and ears, but I didn’t stop.
People watched the game in pleasure. We were mice in a maze, forced to do the scientists bidding. They took pictures from the sidelines. Jeering and whistling at us to keep going, keep moving, don’t stop. The cat was somewhere behind us, and if we didn’t want to be eaten, we had to finish.
The last checkpoint loomed before us. We stood at the top of the cliff, looking down into what could potentially become our grave. A pit of muddy water welcomed us below. We held hands. We jumped.
Our feet hit the soft ground and we came up from the water, sucking in the cold air. We had to get out before the others jumped on top of us in their desperation to get to the end.
We crawled from the pit and through the final tubes, forced to inch our way through the mud. By the time we crossed the finish line, we were unrecognizable. But all that mattered was that we survived. And that someone, somewhere, was waiting to give me a cold beer.