Running down the staircase, yes, the one we just built not even a few hours earlier was absolutely exhilarating. Seeing the variety of boulders we’d placed and dug into the mountainside to create this new pathway leading us from the bottom to the top was a thing of beauty. In my head, I could already see how beautiful it would be a few months from now when I would return to Vermont for the Spartan Race World Championships Beast and Ultra Beast. As I hastily glided down the mountain, I fully embraced this boost in my energy levels; I started to think about how everyone gathered from all around the country and about how some people even travelled internationally to be here. For this race. This crazy insane race requiring us to build a staircase up the side of a mountain as we seeded the ground around what we had built. Then, it clicked. With people coming from all parts of the world, it surely meant the likelihood we were planting a wide array of grass seed from these very geographic locations was high—really high. This realization lost me in thoughts of how magical this place would soon become; something truly remarkable and uniquely special was being created before our very eyes. With shear man power, will and determination we had finally built a mile long staircase. We planted all kinds of grass seed and we’d created something that will outlast even my future grandchildren’s lifetime. All I could think about was what an absolutely breathtaking scene this mountainside will be once Mother Nature has her way.

pittsfield vermont stone stairs death racer built staircase

Regaining my focus on the task at hand, I arrived at the location where Andy directed us to unload our seed and hay. I opened my compression sack took out my grass seed, hurriedly spread it all about and laid my damp hay a top the seedlings. And before I knew it, I was sprinting my way up the mountain. Having the capability to travel without the ruck is so incredibly liberating—all that weight off my shoulders. I literally moved like the wind. Approaching the mountaintop and passing Shrek’s Cabin, I could hear Joe instructing Junyoung Pak, “See if you can beat the racers we already sent down and back up,” but just as Joe presented this challenge I was returning from the task. I announced my arrival to Joe and he looked to Pak and said, “Too late.” I remember Don being shocked at the blistering speed of my arrival. I was noticing quite a difference in my performance from the previous year when I was wandering the mountain just trying to get by with my torn labrum. Things were different this year. My power was back. I wasn’t supposed to be back to 100% and, at the time, I was probably only at about 80% of my strength, but it felt like 110%. That’s the difference between compensating and competing for an entire year on an injury. I felt like I could actually destroy this race and possibly even find myself in the top three spots if I kept moving with such ferocity. Going into the race my goal was simple, finish. It’s funny, how quickly that goal was evolving.

After this section, Joe took the first group of us down the mountain where we had quite a bit of bushwhacking to do before the next task. There we were required to move a few bucket loads worth of gravel to various spots on the mountain to assist in repairing sections of the trail. These are the typical “chores” that many racers have been known to complain about, but as a person who’d come to love this mountain and understand what it means to contribute to the preservation of its usability, I was happy to oblige. As we all finished our portion of the trail-grooming chores, we were told to grab a rock, which Joe had to approve, before he’d lead us through some gnarly terrain. Some of the spots were a bit sketchy and dangerous at times. With all the weight on my back and the big rock in my hands, I took extreme caution, but the terrain wasn’t enough to stop anyone, myself included. I remember one particular spot where a few people had clearly been recently. I must’ve been with the second group of people that Joe was showing the correct path to take, I thought.  I recall trying to follow these vaguely marked “trails” and at some point he said the magic words I’d been waiting to hear for well over 24 hours, “The race starts now.” BOOM! I took off trying to bushwhack, duck, dip, dodge, and climb over all the branches and rocks in my way while trying to pass people without endangering them or myself. The fire within my ribcage raged! Swelling with determination as my guide and Amee Farm as my destination. Once I found myself on the open, well-groomed trail I kicked it up a few notches.  Still carrying my rock in hand, I flew down the mountain. It was a rush passing everyone and soon enough, I found myself leading the way. I lead the entire pack to the next challenge. 

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My frontrunning didn’t last too long, however, one of my good and very inspiring friends, Isaiah Vidal, saw my speed as I flew past and I saw him launch himself into a full-out run. The two of us glided down the mountain, twisting and turning, jumping over rocks, crushing the switchbacks, doing whatever it took to be the first to Amee Farm. Isaiah took the lead as I started to fall back ever so slightly. I looked back, no one was anywhere in sight. To me, it seemed that we were the only ones pushing ourselves to race. As the clearing approached I could see Amee Farm in sight. Arriving less than a minute behind Isaiah, I was ecstatic to find out I was in second place. Our reward for being the first two to arrive at the wood chopping challenge? The largest damn stumps I had ever seen! These were not meant to be split with an axe or even a maul. I looked at mine in a defeating disbelief. Lesson learned, don’t be among the first to arrive to a challenge, you’ll only be rewarded, no, punished, for being a top contender.

As the other racers poured in I realized how everyone else was greeted with normal-sized stumps, which they only had to split into six pieces each, requiring a total of 30 logs split. Isaiah and I, however, were to split these enormous stumps into 25 pieces of fire wood. Starving, I remember eating some food and chugging down some Gatorade. I was half eating a PB&J while trying to split this monstrosity. Whack. Whack. Whack. With each swing I couldn’t help but laugh; this was ridiculous! No matter how hard I tried I was making ZERO progress. Each strike just reaffirmed that this was an impossible task. I focused on trying to slam my Fiskars X27 into the edges of the stump to start splitting it up but in reality I was just mulching little tiny pieces away—I couldn’t chop one clean splice. I had no clue what to do. I checked on Isaiah and he was having similar luck—or lack thereof. Nothing was giving on these stumps.

The other racers were trickling in one by one. I felt a suffocating sense of claustrophobia by all the ax swinging that  surrounding me. Unlike everyone else, who could easily grab and move their stumps wherever they wanted, I was unable to re-position mine because of the weight. I even had to ask a few racers to relocate because I simply could no longer bear the proximity of everything. All of it began to stress me out. I think I even felt just a bit concerned for my life. I didn’t know how skilled some of these guys were in the art of chopping wood and I didn’t want become the victim to a stray piece of wood or worse, an ax courtesy of Mr. Butterfingers. Once I put things in perspective for a few of the racers surrounding and boxing me in, they finally moved.

Isaiah and I working hard at our burpees.
Isaiah and I working hard at our burpees.

Shortly thereafter, after a few of us veterans, maybe 10, were pulled away from our splitting logs and informed we had to complete some ridiculous amount of Burpees, something like 500!. I can’t even remember why or what the whole deal was, but what I do remember during this whole Burpee Fest, that no one took it seriously and our counting went a little something like…1, 2, 3, 10, 15, 20, 50, 100… our counting may have been a bit….off, but we were all doing them in unison. If I were to guess, I’d say we easily did anywhere between 150 and 200 Burpees. but I can’t “confirm” that number with any certainty. Once the torture was complete, we were allowed to go back to splitting wood, but I was no longer forced to hack away at that enormous log. So, what I did here was collect all the logs required and I positioned myself on the other side of Route 100 where they stored all the firewood at the top of the parking lot near the lodge. My strategy allowed me to split everything on location so I could go straight to stacking everything as soon as I finished.

Switching from that monstrosity to the normal-sized logs was the greatest blessing. That was the trigger I needed. That was it, now focused all my fury on my pile of logs. I remember Chad Weberg checked in on me and was shooting some photos. It was good to see a friend and fellow Corn Fed Spartan. The logs were splitting like a dream, I was just slicing through them like a hot knife (or ax) through butter. As soon as I finished splitting and without even skipping a beat, I stacked them and carried them over immediately. I was a machine—mechanical in my movements and output. I spent a little time adjusting the existing pile and I just knew I had to be one of the first to be finished splitting. After stacking all the wood and fixing the pile, I tried to see if I could move on, but I was told to continue stacking. I felt it begin to set in. Panic. I began to worry that I would get stuck in the wood-splitting vortex. Unable to continue on to the next task. Trapped. I wanted to see if I could get moving. I was already done with this challenge. I remember, Missy Morris came over to me at one point and informed me they’d started sending people on to the next task. I was livid. She could see it in my face and told me she wanted to make sure I knew what was happening. I was thankful but pissed not to be with that first group. I felt like I somehow got screwed out of being the first to leave even though I was the among the first two to: arrive, crank out a bunch of Burpees when I should have been splitting wood, and was one of the first to finish splitting all my logs. Needless to say, I was not happy, but this was the Death Race. I knew this type of thing could happen, which was why I was so concerned about moving to the next challenge in the first place.

Furious, I made my way back across Route 100 and went to the gear tent where I was stopped by Candie Bobick, another good friend and teammate from the Corn Fed Spartans.  Apparently my frantic rush to get my stuff together in an effort to catch up with the others (the ones already on their way to the next challenge) set off an alarm to Candie that I was not in the right state of mind. She asked me when the last time I had eaten and, unable to answer her, my mind raced around trying to think of what I needed to bring. The worst part is you are always unaware of how long it’ll be until the next time you’ll have access to your drop bin. My mind continued to race. Did I need shoes? Socks? How much food should I bring? I could barely think and Candie could tell. She stopped me and forced me to drink some chocolate milk; it was so damn delicious.  I’m pretty sure she fed me something else, pretzels for the salt content. Definitely pretzels. Within a few minutes I was feeling more self-aware again and back on track. Nutrition is probably one of the most important things at the Death Race, I’m usually very self-aware of my food intake, but in this moment my priorities were a mess. 

Before leaving Amee Farm I finished packing my gear and gave it all one more mental checklist read off.  I was primarily concerned with resupplying my food and water supplies and I was off to the top of Tweed River Drive where the barbed wire task awaited. I was told I could get there any way I wanted. I couldn’t find any alternative transport so I just started running along Route 100 towards Riverside Farm. I figured taking the direct route might be my best bet right now, in hopes of possibly catching a ride. Any means possible, right? That’s when I saw fellow Death Race competitor, Anthony fly past me on a bicycle. I yelled,  “How the hell did you get a bike?” Feeling defeated, I continued moving along the road. This sucks, I thought to myself. There goes my huge lead. For some reason I was letting my high hopes of staying in the top positions get me down. This wasn’t like me, I wasn’t here to win, ever. I was here to finish. Coming into the wood chopping challenge second was inflating my head. It didn’t take long for me to stop caring about where I ranked as I hiked my way up the long road to the top of Tweed River Drive. I had a race to finish.

 

To Be Continued…

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