CAMDEN — It’s fitting that my first running race in 20 years had hurdles. And that the volunteers on the Ragged Mountain Scuttle course told me to clear these barriers with one leg out, in true track form.

It’s fitting because 30 years ago I was an All-American high school hurdler, the New York state champion in the 400 hurdles and the state record-holder. And because I came to Camden to overcome a few personal hurdles.

Entering the race that ran 3.1 miles up and down the Snow Bowl hill and included 22 man-made obstacles wasn’t about glory days. Maine’s mini-version of the Tough Mudder was about finishing the race and enjoying that feat. The question was: Could I do either?

Back in the day I was one of the nation’s top high school 400-meter hurdlers in a field so competitive my rival, Kim Batten, went on to set the world record in the event.

In the 1980s I probably was the only high school girl who decorated her bedroom walls simply with a poster of Edwin Moses racing in the Olympics.

I mean, other than Kim.

I went on to run for Georgetown and was a three-time All-American. And because that wasn’t enough, I went to live in Ireland with the goal of making the Irish national track team, which I did in 1999.

Back then I told people my quest was undertaken to learn more about my Irish grandparents. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to win on the track.

Which brings me to the Camden race, which was to be my return to racing after years of trying. Turns out when you sprain your ankles repeatedly while hurdling, they become like rubber bands. And when you try to run on rubber bands, your calves have to work overtime. So through my 40s my calves protested, and cramped. I’ve entered the Beach to Beacon twice and dropped out twice.

Then weeks before the Camden race my right calf tightened while running, and the race was uncertain.

But two days before the race a coworker asked three key questions: Was this about a midlife crisis? Would I drop out if I couldn’t run? And did I train at the playground?

The answer to the first two was a resounding, No. And to the third, not exactly. But I started to consider why it was so important to run up a mountain to pull tires uphill, climb over walls and (my personal favorite) swing on monkey bars.

I wasn’t sure. So I did what I do. I went to Ragged Mountain hours before my heat and asked other people why they were there.

And 35-year-old Zach Watson from Rockland, like a voice from the wilderness, gave the answer I needed.

“You’re the only real obstacle on that mountain,” he said. “You’re competing against yourself. I go as fast as I can go and get up that mountain as fast as I can.”

Watson has done the race three times. His company, Horch Roofing, is one of the charity’s sponsors. And pushing himself with his coworkers is a unifying experience. He also said he does the race because his wife believes in the cause. So I talked to Mary Watson.

“One Community, the charity the race raises money for, gives people a hand up, not a handout. It removes obstacles,” said Mary Watson, 37. “I like helping my community. And this is a fun way to do that.”

And just before my heat, Becky Doehla, a Tough Mudder veteran, added the final recalibration of my competitive mindset.

“If you were in my heat, I would help you over a wall,” said Doehla, 47. “That’s what it’s all about.”

When I stepped to the line, I thought about what Doehla, and Zach and Mary Watson said.

I went out with Justin Korenkiewicz, who runs 7-minute miles, but after a big uphill I let him go.

After two miles both calves tightened, so I down-shifted. But as I caught my breath, I finally caught the spirit.

I noticed the volunteers, heard them cheering and thanked them. I noticed the disco music below.

And as I ran alongside happy humans climbing and bounding over wooden obstacles like wild apes, for the first time I didn’t care about my place in the pack.

I ended up 20th out of 280 in a time of 27 minutes, 16 seconds. But my greatest achievement?

Riding gravity down Ragged Mountain, enjoying the momentum and the moment. And the fact I could.

Frankly, at a time when people are so angry and divided, it felt good to find inspiration in strangers.

The truth is in six months I turn 50. But this wasn’t about a midlife crisis. It was a celebration of it.

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

[email protected]

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