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Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 9 – Comin’ in Hot

This is it; this is where the fun began.

For the next 7-8 hours or so we would be tasked with doing laps up and down Joe’s mountain from the White Barn to Shrek’s Cabin, and back again. Just as the racers did at previous Winter Death Races, but I was on the other side of the fence –organizing and photographing the event. I remember how incredibly epic it was standing inside Shrek’s Cabin, with the fire ablaze, checking participants in as they did laps in the snow, up and down Joe’s Mountain after having spent the better part of the morning dancing to Bruno Mars’s hit song, ‘Uptown Funk’.

The thought of this being the last task of the event crept in my head. At that last Winter Death Race, the event ended with running laps up and down the mountain. Could it be that this would be how they’d end this Death Race, too?

Could it be? A new quasi-level of standardization for the Death Race? Having worked for Spartan in a more official capacity for about a year at that time afforded me more insight into the direction the team wanted the Death Race to go. One thing I kept hearing all year was the desire to make the Death Race more of a race – to get back to the core values, make it more performance-based, meaning less time out in the woods. After all, even the race directors didn’t want a repeat of the 70+ hour Death Race finish in 2013. That race put the whole crew into panic mode. Participants didn’t believe the event was over, they were willing to do damn near anything to end their suffering. After a year like that, maybe this would be a shorter Summer Death Race, perhaps 48 maybe 50 hours, tops? Or so I began to hope.

In hindsight, this specific moment gives me goosebumps. To this day, it’s my favorite personal moment from all the Death Races in which I participated.

With the next task being a time trial of sorts we were, of course, given some parameters. I took this as another hint at what could possibly be the finish of the 2014 Death Race, Year of the Explorer. The rules for this specified that we had until 0700 to run as many laps up and down Joe’s Mountain possible making sure we checked in at Shrek’s Cabin and at the White Barn each time. Furthermore, a minimum of five laps were required to pass this challenge, extra laps would be “rewarded” to decrease the actual laps run, and we did not have to carry our packs.

Sweet baby Jesus. This was so much like Winter Death Race, I couldn’t help but think, this is it, this is the time to push it! The time arrived to put in a maximum effort. It was time for me to do the last thing necessary to earn my skull.

How wishful am I? I thought to myself.

As I came in, people were already beginning to ascend the mountain for their first summit. I was still a bit behind compared to where I thought I’d be having taken a ride. I realized how badly held up I got with the bag fiasco. No worries, I knew I could catch up. It wasn’t even a question, it would happen. With my bag stripped off my back and my legs itching to do some time trials up and down this mountain, I was stoked.

How many laps can I do? I wondered.

The next thing I knew I was sprinting up the mountain heading for Shrek’s cabin. As I made the climb up the stone stairs I noticed some people were carrying their rucks. I was confused by this as I remembered confirming whether we needed our rucks for this segment of the race. We didn’t.

Sometimes, it pays to confirm the rules of the challenge. In this case, I was at an advantage because I took the time to make sure I understood what was required of me, and that was to do as many laps up and down the mountain as possible – without a ruck. That first ascent took me about 25 minutes from the bottom to the top. I checked in at the cabin and immediately turned around and began my descent. On the way, down there was a huge line of people trying to make their ascent. I immediately started shouting out, “On your left, comin’ in hot!”

I repeated this like a broken record throughout the dark night. That first descent took me right around ten minutes to complete. I checked in hastily at the white barn where I made a quick stop for some water and Skittles at the SISU team tent.

Up and down I’d go each lap checking in at the top and bottom as quickly as the volunteers could get me in and out. I’d only stop at the team tent for a few minutes at a time, I didn’t want to waste any time. I wanted to see just how far I could push myself. I wanted to see how many laps could I do in this small amount of time.

By the fifth lap I was all hopped up on Skittles and Mountain Dew when Kristine forced me to eat a protein bar since it had been hours since I’d eaten anything other than sugar and corn syrup. At first, I resisted, I wanted nothing but Skittles and Mountain Dew. The fact was, she was right, I did need something else. To this day,  I’m thankful for her support. I probably would have bonked had she not shoved that Mint Chocolate Chip Builder’s Bar down my mouth.

At this point my ascents had slowed drastically, that first ascent was without question my fastest but from that point on each ascent after took me anywhere from five to ten minutes longer, which was to be expected. My descents, however, were a whole different story. Each lap I got more precise, more calculated with how I was attacking the downhill.

Peak Death Race, 2014 Peak Death Race, Death Race, Running Laps, Mountain Laps, Mountain running, death race running laps, death race mountain laps

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Spicer

I began to know exactly what trees I could grab to maximize my speed, which stone stairs I could bounce from to control what was essentially me falling down the mountain. I was letting gravity completely take over. Each descent I got faster and faster, and as the sun began to rise, I memorized the fastest route to get from Shrek’s to the White Barn and my body glided almost effortlessly down the mountain.

When I arrived at the White Barn on my eighth lap up and down Joe’s mountain, I discovered I currently held the position for the most laps and my friends Mark Webb and Mark Jones both were heading out for another lap to tie me. Before this knowledge was made known to me, I had planned on calling my eight laps a ‘job well done’, but the competitive side of me wanted more.

I checked how much time I had and how long each lap had been taking me. On average, I was taking about 45 minutes on my ascents and anywhere from 8-10 minutes for the descents. There was just over an hour left for the challenge, if I went out for another lap I’d be cutting it close and not knowing what was next, if anything, could be risky business.

I was determined to dominate this challenge and without much thought, I took off for another lap. I’d already far surpassed the five-lap minimum, and for all, I knew I was just wasting my energy on another lap. Maybe I was being foolish but I really wanted to clinch this challenge. As I began yet another ascent, it was clear there weren’t too many people left on the mountain.

A large majority of the racers stopped after they had finished five laps, they were comfortable with doing the minimum requirement. Others who hadn’t yet hit the threshold continued to push to get there and here I was chasing after Mark Jones and Mark Webb who were both a lap behind me because something inside me told me, to keep hammering.

That final descent is one of my most fond memories of this event. With the light of the sun glistening through the trees and showing me the path previously been lit only by headlamps now fully visible, my line was even easier to see. I hopped and jumped and practically flung myself from one tree to the next as I barreled down the mountain side. I could almost sense that I was moving faster than the previous laps.

Suddenly, I could hear someone coming up behind me. It was Mark Jones, and although I had him by a full lap, I couldn’t help but crank up the heat. The battle was on. Mark Jones is a dominating force in the world of adventure and endurance racing. He’s unbelievably fast and strong and the patter of his feet on my tail drove me to push harder than ever.

Every lap I did I took the exact same route. On the way up, I took the stairs and on the way down I took this snowmobile trail, which was an extremely steep slope. As I neared the turn-off, I wondered if I was the only person who had been taking this route for the descents. I soon found out as I peeled off and took my “shortcut” to the bottom that all of a sudden, the sound of Mark’s feet pounding the trail dissipated. I lost him.

It wasn’t until this moment that it occurred to me that I was, in fact, the only person taking this path to the bottom. I could feel my toes absolutely destroyed. It felt as though the toenails on my big toes were disintegrating. I feared what I would find when I got back to the SISU tent. I pushed through the pain determined to make it back in time.

As I entered the White Barn there were only mere minutes left before we had to get ready for the next challenge. Completely wrecked from completing nine laps I could only hope that the next challenge was nothing more than the ending ceremony. When I found out how fast I finished that last descent I was in shock, from the top of Shrek’s Cabin to the White Barn I managed to do it in six minutes. SIX MINUTES! Holy shit.

Additionally, to my surprise my feet were fine, my toenails were still intact. The pain was immense, I couldn’t believe my toes were OK, it really felt like I had just absolutely destroyed them. My crew instructed me to that we had to be in our white Tyvek suits and diapers ready to go within the next five minutes. I quickly rinsed my body with the hose and without even thinking twice I stripped naked right then in there in front of everyone (something I feared ever doing in front of anyone other than a significant other) and threw my diaper and my Tyvek suit on, I grabbed my ruck and I began to sob uncontrollably.

I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t over. I had just wrecked myself for nothing. I let my pride get the best of me, and now the race would go on and I had to wonder. Did I have enough energy left in the tank to finish this?

To be continued…

Photographers – Please contact me if these are your photos, I forgot to write down your name when I downloaded late one night and I want to give you proper credit. Email me at anthony@legendofthedeathrace.com and I’ll get that sorted right away. Thank you in advance or in some cases I’m sure again, for letting me use your photos to tell the story. 🙂 

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 8 – Endless Yoga

Having made up a lot of time with our strategy we found ourselves beating the 4PM cut-off by four hours. As I recall, we were somewhere in the middle of teams who finished. After a quick refresh at basecamp it was right back to it with the next challenge.

Next up, we found ourselves back on our own again and the task was to get to the top of Joe’s mountain all the way to Shrek’s Cabin where we would have to “start a fire”. I say that in quotes because before taking off for the summit, I caught wind that all we needed to do was make a fire by using a bow drill.

In typical Death Race fashion, it wasn’t explicitly stated that you had to use a stick and a bow drill to make the fire, so some people who arrived earlier had discovered that you could have a match attached to the end of your bow drill and still receive a passing grade. With this knowledge, I made a sprint to the top with only the things I needed. As I made my way up, I received confirmation from a few others who had already made fire and were headed back. Knowing the secret to completing this task set me up make up some time if I could get it done quick enough.

When I arrived at Shrek’s Cabin, I checked in with Peter Borden and went off to the side of Shrek’s to gather some hay, I quickly fashioned myself a bow drill, recalling my experiences at the Survival Run in Texas, this felt like cheating know I was using a match to make my fire. One of the strange things about Death Race is the lack of direct rules and instructions, with such an open box and the freedom to do anything in, around, our outside the box, it’s sometimes hard to determine what was within reasonable compromise and what wasn’t. I often look back on this decision and my rationale is that it was allowed which means it was an acceptable strategy, whether it was the right strategy, is up to the person who used it. In my opinion, I feel I cheated myself by not actually making my fire, but on the other hand, my conscious tells me that I played the “game” of Death Race. By playing the “game,” I found myself propelling forward, way ahead of the rest of the participants by doing whatever it takes.

You can decide what you think, but here is how it went down. I got that bow drill, I attached a stormproof match to the end of my drill, placed the strike pad on the wood notch that I was going to grind and eventually cause enough friction to create fire with. I set up my bow drill and like magic, I had fire quickly. Technically speaking, I used a bow drill to create fire. My drill just happened to be a bit, modified.

When I think back to past experiences at Death Races, I recall the time that another Tony rode a bike more than half way up Joe’s mountain while everyone, literally, everyone else ran to the top. Or the time I heard some guys caught a ride to the next challenge just because they were that much more resourceful and willing to take that chance. Could they have been ejected from the event? Certainly. Were they? Nope. It was with this prior knowledge and the wisdom of past Death Racers, that I could quickly justify my doing this task in this manner. It was all a part of the game, and I was hacking it, one challenge at a time. At survival run, the rules were very specific, something like this would never fly, and I would never have tried it, but the Death Race things were, different. Everything was open to interpretation.

By playing the game and hacking this challenge, I was in and out of Shrek’s Cabin within eight minutes of arriving. Running downhill is one of my strong suits, I navigated back to the White Barn at Riverside Farm in a flash.

After returning to the White Barn we were directed to grab a log and carry it up along Tweed River Drive, this part kind of blurred past and brings me to the next challenge which we had to endure for oh, somewhere between six and eight hours, at this point in the race, who’s counting? The next challenge was probably one of the most brutal, it was a test of how bad you want it, how much mental fuckery can you endure. That’s what this next challenge was all about.

Navigating up Tweed River Drive with a log was easy compared to what came next. It was in this challenge that some of the hardest, strongest, athletes would suddenly break. Unbelievably so. The challenge was quite simple, a test, administered by none other than the mastermind who had tortured me with a mile and a half of log rolling through other people’s puke back at the 2012 Death Race during the Year of Betrayal, the infamous, Jack Carry.

The test contains 26 questions with 26 matching answers, you were to match the answer to the question using letters. Simple enough right? There were a few stipulations, for one thing, if you turned in your test and had one, just one wrong answer, you’d be sent home. Think that’s bad? It’s worse, you were not allowed to speak to anyone during the entire test. No cheating. No sharing answers. No talking. Silence. One hundred percent silence from the participants. Think that’s it? Ha, I’m just getting started, after all this is the maniacal, Jack, who orchestrated this challenge from hell. For questions, you didn’t know you could wait in line and check if an answer was correct. The more questions you knew the easier this would be to do the process of elimination until all the answers were correct, however, after you asked a question you could do one of two things. First, you could elect to stand on the hillside and work on your test, trying to figure out answers. Then to get back in line you would have to hold a Yoga stance for eight minutes at a time. One pose, hold for 8 minutes. Jack would give you options you could select for your pose. There were a few poses in his collection, standing on one leg, or laying on your back with your feet over your head, or laying on your stomach and holding on to your bent legs by the feet, I almost always alternated between laying on my back with my feet overhead and laying on my stomach with my legs bent. Those two were great, stretched my back and my hamstrings like crazy. I rather enjoyed the long holds. They were, meditative the more we did them. At least, they were for me.

This madness went on for hours and hours and hours, as the night wore on the cold began to set in. One of the first things we did upon our arrival was drop our rucks in a pile. We weren’t allowed to access them. Oh, how I had wished I’d grabbed an extra layer. I had arrived with one of the first groups initially, so the line we waited in to ask Jack a question grew longer and longer after each cycle. Since we couldn’t access our rucks I did what any sensible person would do after being up for more than 30 hours or so, I started acting a fool. I was dancing, and bouncing around and doing all kinds of silly things to keep my body heat up. Remember that whole silence thing, yeah, that sucked every so often someone would slip, the race directors or volunteers might have asked a question and instead of staying silent, a participant would acknowledge the question, and boom, that was it, race over. For some, this was devastating, to put so much effort and training and to travel to this event is everything, and to get kicked out all for opening their mouth and uttering a single word. I found this to be quite brutal and every time a fellow racer was dropped for this I genuinely felt for them. What a shitty way to get dropped from this race, but it’s a mental challenge, a very, very, effective, and difficult challenge.

As the night wore on, all I could think was when would this be over? It seemed like this could go on and on and on. As we did more questions I started to realize that some of the questions and answers were bullshit. How did I come to this conclusion? I purposefully asked a question regarding the same answer twice and received two different answers, evidence that this entire event was another mindfuck, possibly one that couldn’t be won. I lost trust in Jack and figured he was just trying to drop people. At that point I stopped caring about the test, now it was just about enduring. Eventually, I thought to myself, they’ll just shut this thing down. At least, that’s what I had hoped.

Not long after my revelation, which I couldn’t share with anyone due to the whole silence game, another racer lost it. I don’t recall the exact circumstances but some of the race directors, in an effort to get participants to break their silence I am sure, started dumping out everyone’s rucks. Mind you we were initially told to empty our rucks, many of us used separate dry bags within our rucks to keep things organized so even though we had to empty those bags out it would have been relatively easy to find most of our things. But they started dumping the individual bags and mixing everything up. This was a pretty messed up and a shitty move, one that should probably never have happened. Nonetheless, it did, and a racer completely lost it. Sleep deprivation, fucking with gear, and the fact that everyone’s stuff was now mixed together in this massive pile including medications was the shitstorm we needed for them finally bring this challenge to an end. After the racer went wild and sacrificed his bib to the raging campfire, the race directors decided to let everyone collect their things and we were told to meet at the White Barn back at Riverside Farm with no mention of how to get there.

It was now midnight and tt took my quite a while to collect my things, I tried to be strategic by stringing my things together with a carabiner, yet I couldn’t find half my things. After what felt eternal, but was really only a good five to ten minutes of scrambling around, I finally found everything and started on my way. By this point I had fallen behind, I was probably sitting somewhere in the back half of the pack as I set out toward the White Barn. On the way out I saw my girlfriend, Kristine, she had parked her rental car up there and was just hanging out watching all of this insanity play out.

Over the past two years, I have struggled to come to terms with my decision to “game the system” at this point of the race. It has been an internal struggle for me and a large part of why it’s taken me so long to finish my “Death Race story”.

Recently, I had a revelation and was able to talk through this with a close friend. In that moment of the race I panicked, I wanted to finish this so bad and didn’t want something stupid like this dumping of bags thing to be my demise, I wanted to get back to the front of the pack, where I had been the majority of the event. I began to think back to past Death Races I had been a part of and recalled some tactics utilized by racers who not only finished but ranked in the top three.

You see, after the Year of Betrayal in 2012, the Death Race morphed into this sort of, do whatever it takes and use a “figure it out” mentality to finish. For instance, if the instructions are, “get to the White Barn as fast as possible” with no indication of HOW to get there, what’s to stop you from riding a bike or hitching a ride? Hell, if I had a jet pack, I could have used that. The rules were arbitrary. You have to kind of figure out what is and isn’t acceptable through trial and error. Sometimes you can get away with gaming the system, sometimes you are punished severely. In previous Death Races, I witnessed top finishers carpooling to a challenge, and one time I got passed up by a finisher who was lucky enough to find a bicycle to ride up Tweed River Drive to whatever the next challenge was at the 2013 Death Race. With this knowledge, I made a decision.

Resourcefulness, in this event, was considered a necessity and given that prior knowledge, that wisdom, I decided this was my moment to play the game the way others had in the past. Let me be clear, this is something I would only do at a Death Race, were it any other race, I prefer to play by the rules. But this was the Death Race, and the Death Race was about “figuring it out”. In many cases, at any given moment during the race, what rules existed and what rules didn’t could be up for debate. For two years I have struggled with writing about this part of the event. Given the circumstances surrounding how the Death Race worked, I still don’t really feel good about what this specific segment but, live and learn, right? One thing the Death Race showed me was that I was willing to take a huge risk even though there could have been consequences. You see, I had already played the risk analysis out in my head, in the Death Race, this was [possibly] an acceptable strategy, worth the risk and were it any other event, an Ultra Marathon, a Hurricane Heat, or hell even one of the 12-Hour Hurricane Heats that I brought to life under the Spartan Endurance umbrella, it wouldn’t even be on the table as an option. My prior knowledge of the Death Race gave me the confidence that this risk was worth taking.

It took me two years to come to terms with the, rather ballsy decision I made back then. The fact remains, I was just willing to take that chance. That chance could have gotten me a DNF, but it didn’t. The fact is, had I been “caught” and told what I did was unacceptable I would have accepted my fate and walked away.

You could say, lady luck, was on my side.

After catching a quick car ride half way down from the top of Tweed River Drive, I jumped out of the car and ran the last quarter of a mile back to the White Barn, likely saving myself a solid 10-15 minutes of rucking and providing me with the recharge needed to prepare for the next evolution in this race.

To be continued…

Author’s Note: It’s been three years since this event occurred. This article has taken about a year to write. Some events may be missing information, out of order, or misremembered. I’d be happy to hear of any corrections I need to make to the timeline if needed.

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 7 – A Ravine and a Cemetery

Back at Riverside, we were briefed on the next task, which could be completed in teams. I opted to wait for my friends to make their way back to the White Barn before embarking on this next challenge. Everyone was given until 1600 hours to complete this task. The biggest relief was that we did not need to carry our full rucks for this segment of the event. It was entirely our decision what we would carry along with us and the rest of our gear could be safely left back at our tent in basecamp. Naturally, I opted to drop my ruck and suddenly what felt like thousands of pounds came off my shoulders.

At long last we had finally entered the orienteering challenge, one that everyone knew we would inevitably face during the “Year of the Explorer”. With items such as a compass on our gear list, many participants worried how involved the actual orienteering of the event would be.

When we approached the White Barn we received our instructions for the orienteering challenge, participants were to collect a four points to move on to the next challenge, should you fail, you were done with the race. There was a firm cut-off at 4:00pm. At the White Barn, we were shown a map of Pittsfield, VT. On the map, there were points plotted with descriptors such as the Hayes Brook, the cemetery, Iron Mine, and the ravine. Some of these locations were a great distance to travel after all we had done, while others were much closer. Picking a solid strategy was vital if you wanted to be successful at completing this challenge in the time allotted.

Each participant was given a punch card, so essentially we would be looking for an orienteering hole punch at each of the locations. From looking at the card I could tell that each hole punch had a different shape, star, moon, circle, etc. Looking at the map, there were a few spots that I knew the exact location of straight away, the cemetery which we had just passed on our way back from Gilke’s, and the ravine where I had spent plenty of time during the week I stayed in Pittsfield helping my good friend, Miguel Medina to build the foundation for what was meant to become a cozy cabin in the woods. Knowing the general location of the cemetery and the ravine convinced me that we had an edge. These two destinations on the map would give us enough points to move onto the next challenge and they shouldn’t be too hard to find. 

Death Race Land NavThere was still plenty of time to do this challenge so I took a brief moment to collect myself. When a few of my friends showed up I decided to team up for this and I reached out to Chris Rayne, Chris Accord, and Brain Edwards to tackle this challenge with. The plan was to break up into two separate teams. One team, those who felt the freshest on their feet, would make the longer trek to the cemetery. Those two would take all of the punch cards and have them punched with the Silver Circle hole punch and then make the trek as quick as possible. While the two who went out to the cemetery were on their journey, the other two would climb up the ravine and locate the Green Clover hole punch wherever it was hiding. Given that the location was so close to the White Barn, where we would be checking in, the assumption was it might require more time to find, possibly hidden in a tree or somewhere out of sight.

Once the strategy was understood, the question remained, who had the freshest feet? Rayne and Edwards both offered to go to the distance back to the cemetery. The four of us decided on a spot just past an intersection on the Green Mountain Trails that led back to the stables at Riverside Farm. We declared this our meeting spot, this is where Accord and I would wait after we had located the hole punch at the ravine.

Our two teams split and sought out the hole punches that would maximize our points with the least likelihood of becoming lost in the rolling mountains of Vermont. Having spent so much time over the years on these trails, I had become somewhat of an expert at navigating them. I knew the fastest routes to the ravine and in my gut, I had a feeling I knew exactly where this hole punch was hiding.

As we crossed over the rushing water that was flowing down the ravine we came across the unfinished cabin in the woods, I knew it was time for us to start looking high and low, that hole punch had to be somewhere in that general area. I was feeling a little better now that I was moving again, so I quickly headed up the steep slope to the rear of the cabin. It felt steep, but I was determined to find the green clover hole punch. Everywhere you looked there were leaves that covered the forest floor and when you looked up it was just a sea of green leaves, ten shades of green, with a sprinkle of orange and yellow making it very difficult to identify the green hole punch that we were looking for. The directions we were given back at the White Barn were intentionally vague, if you were a master at finding Waldo, you were playing the right game.

While searching up, down, left, and right, I found myself ascending higher and higher up the trail past Miguel’s cabin. I carried on and continued to navigate the steep trail. After going a fair shot up the hillside, I turned around and shouted back to Chris to see how he had been doing. Right as my head came full 180 back in his direction is when I suddenly spotted it, the green hole punch! It was down a little ways, dangling from a low hanging branch. I alerted Chris that we had found it and the two of us quickly began our descent back to the meeting spot our team had designated earlier.

While Chris Accord and I waited for Brian and Chris Rayne to return, feelings of guilt began to set in. As the sun moved across the sky, and time went on, a feeling of remorse developed inside me. Did we let them down? Was it bad of us to handle the closer less challenging checkpoint while they went on another long hike? Why did we let them do the harder part? How was that fair? I started to question the logic, it still seemed sound, but I remembered I knew the area around the ravine better than anyone, I knew the most direct route there, the hope was that we would save time finding hole punch at the ravine because of this knowledge I had. They knew exactly where the cemetery hole punch was, they remembered seeing something purple in the distance on the way back from Norm’s task at Gilke’s.

In my head, I justified the strategy, when they returned they would be able to go sit and relax while we went out and captured the final hole punch. No matter how I tried to frame it in my head Chris Accord and I definitely got a better deal and in acknowledging that I cannot thank Rayne and Edwards enough for going the extra mile or 10. Your selflessness certainly helped improve our chances of finishing, especially mine, so thank you, again.

Whether or not the strategy we utilized was fair or not, one thing was certain, it was efficient. When Chris and Brian returned, I grabbed their cards from them and took off, all the rest we had while they went to the cemetery gave me a huge boost of energy. The whole process of running there and back was quick and painless, for the most part. I returned with the holes punched and we checked in as one of the first few teams to finish. We had an entire two hours to spare until we had anything else to do. Two truths were proven, knowledge is power, and it pays to win, we finished quickly and as such we earned rest. It was welcomed and feared…for if you rest too long, your whole body could lock up.

To be continued…

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 6 – Charred Axes and A Bucket Full of Lies

Adorning my freshly-made “buckskin”garb I gathered my gear, and after meticulously crafting the aforementioned buckskin outfit with 108 stitches and completing the tedious task of sliding a porcupine quill through my log, my load was lightened considerably. I no longer needed the log, so I was allowed to toss it in the fire near the teepee, which was a relief from all the weight I struggled with during the hike up and down Bloodroot Mountain. Our next task was to follow a sparsely-marked trail along a snowmobile route out to what was referenced as General Gilke’s. The hike had some serious ascents and descents as it followed alongside the mountain. 

Late into the night, I found myself hiking alongside groups of racers, but I never attached myself to any particular group. Back at Riverside Brian was still making his buckskin outfit when I took off and I hoped that he would catch back up at some point. The darkness was intensified by the surrounding trees and tall brush, and who knew what animals could be lurking around the surrounding forest. I was also much further behind than I had wanted to be at this point in the race, so all I could focus on was pushing myself as hard as possible to catch up to the leaders. 

Surprisingly, someone was besting Mark Jones and was already returning from whatever challenge that awaited them. Not to succumb to defeat so easily, I saw Mark Jones in hot pursuit of this unknown leader. At the time, I had no idea who this mysterious racer was, but one thing was certain, he was giving Mark Jones one hell of a competition. It was exciting to see and motivated me to push myself in hopes of catching up to those guys. Seeing that they were already returning from a challenge I hadn’t reached to yet I hoped I was nearing it myself. How wrong I was. 

I was probably only about halfway out to General Gilke’s when I approached a group of racers that were seemingly confused about where to go. There was a gate that was closed and no markers in the immediate vicinity to assure you to cross over. This moment served me well and provided me with a chance to overtake this large group of racers. Confident in the path I was taking, even with the limited markers I had been following, I urged everyone that this was the path we had to take. I began crawling around the gate through a gap to the right of the fence where it appeared others had crossed as well. The rest followed. Continuing along the trail, I eventually saw another marking and was reassured this path would lead me to my next destination. 

Not too much further along, the snowmobile trail came to an end. It was time to make a right turn onto a road that continued to add more ascents to this arduous hike. I began to wonder whether we were going to the same summit that the past Winter Death Racers had to conquer during the latter half of their race. I knew how far that was and this hike was far longer than the five miles we were lead to believe was the actual distance. 

As I climbed up the road, dawn was beginning to break. Dan Grodinsky was arriving from where I was going and he stopped to take it all in. Seeing him stop snapped me out of my focused state and ushered me to say to Brian “hold on, we’ve gotta soak this all in,” followed by turning around and doing just that. It was at that moment when I saw it. One of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was breathtaking. Fog, mountains, and gradients of pink, orange, red, blue, and purple. The word, “majestic” doesn’t do justice to that view. That sunrise is forever forged into my memory as a reminder of how gorgeous the world is. The experience reaffirmed why I enjoy tackling these incredibly challenging events, they combine an unbelievable journey with extraordinary scenery.   

After taking a moment to enjoy my surroundings it was time to snap back to reality. I was in a race, the Death Race. If I wanted to remain competitive this year I needed to hustle. I hurried down a road which seemed to go up and down with no end in sight until I could finally hear the sound of people working. As I arrived at the location of the next challenge, I was warned by some racers that the next challenge required a bucket. Go figure. I didn’t bring a bucket. I decided not to bring one because for the first time in what seemed like forever a bucket wasn’t on the list. I assumed (unwisely) there would be buckets available if we needed them especially since there were so many that have been left behind over the years. I should have known better! This is the Death Race, nothing is ever going to be handed to you that easily. 

Because I didn’t have a bucket I slowed my pace and began strategizing on how I could convince a fellow racer to lend me their bucket. As I approached, I saw that there was a group of people doing burpees. As it turned out, 1,500 burpees was the penalty for not bringing a bucket. Having done that kind of quantity of burpees over the years I knew how long such a task would take. There was no way I could risk falling as far behind as that penalty would set me. 

I dropped my pack off to the side of the road and walked the remaining couple hundred feet over to the most devious man in all of obstacle racing, the ever sadistic mountain man who challenges all who enter his realm to leave their comfort zone far behind, none other than Spartan Course Designer, Norm Koch. He’s known well in the obstacle racing world, and he, too, started as a Death Racer. Norm was now focused more on creating the ultimate trials of human ability, and he sat here with our next array of tasks. 

First up, we were required to grab a branch from a nearby tree. I had my hunting knife secured underneath my handmade garb and it came in handy. Then, Norm instructed us to make an ax out of a rock, paracord, and a stick, like one he showed us. From the looks of it, the quality of the craftsmanship wasn’t too important so I quickly fashioned any old rock to a stick, showed it to Norm and was given the nod. Finally, Norm asked me if I had a bucket, knowing the penalty I pretended I had one and told him it was by my bag. At this point I had to join in the rest of the people who had made it this far and were also “playing the game” of pretending to have a bucket. There was literally a line of people rotating the use of just a few buckets that were brought along by other racers and left behind to prevent us all from failing this task. It was there, in that moment, that everyone was working together–us  against them. We all told the same lie so we could avoid a penalty that none of us wanted to face. Our rationale? The bucket was never on the gear list, so why should we be penalized?

After waiting patiently, it was finally my turn to grab a bucket, head down this trail and find a stream powerful enough to fill my bucket sometime before the race was over. Everywhere I searched I was finding barely a trickle of water. I finally found something that looked like it might work, so I started filling. It took a while. I remember thinking to myself, there is no way this is the stream he was referring to, but I didn’t want to look any further. Once my bucket was finally full enough I started heading back up. It was then that I saw another racer further up the hill that I just went down to find water, coming back with a very full bucket, and realized where the good stream was. I had passed it. Nevertheless, I carried on and went back to show Norm my bucket full of fresh water. I passed the test. 

As I gathered my gear, it appeared that a large group of people showed up and must have missed the memo about the buckets, but what they were doing did not look like the 1,500 burpee penalty we all feared. It appeared that Norm wasn’t actually paying attention to those serving the penalty, and even when he did look over, so long as they weren’t just standing around he let whatever sorry excuse for a burpee they were doing pass. Literally, half the group would stand and perform only the jump portion of a burpee while the other half laid on the ground and pretended to do push-ups but they weren’t even that, it looked more like a bunch of people lying on the ground humping and flopping around for some sort of strange ritual. I laughed at the sight, finished packing my gear, and took off back down the long trail to the White Barn at Riverside Farm.  

On the way back, I got word that we would need our axes for the next task when we reached the White Barn. Of course I wasn’t thinking and had already ditched mine, so I busted out everything needed to quickly fashion another ax. Returning to Riverside Farm, I was instructed that I would need to have my axe checked by Peter Borden to determine how many forward rolls I would be performing.

Death Race, Vermont, Pittsfield, TeePee, Mountains, Riverside Farm, Peak Races, Upon initial inspection Peter was a bit worried about performing the first test he had lined up which was seeing if the ax, when swung, could actually do what it was intended, and cut wood. Since the construction of my “ax” was flimsy at best he opted to perform a durability test instead. Peter took my axe and placed it in a fire pit. Since the ax was made out of a stick and a rock, the chances of it catching fire were huge. I was worried. At this point, I thought there was absolutely no way I’d pass this test without having some huge penalty. After a few minutes my ax proved to be more resilient than any of us expected and still had not caught flame. It passed the test! 

Now all I had to do was grab all my gear, pack it up and head up to the top of Joe’s mountain to Shrek’s cabin for a quick time trial. The rules were simple: get to the top, check in, and get back to the bottom, as fast as possible. Not knowing what we would need to do at the top, I made sure I had all my required gear, but packed a little lighter on the food this time just to lighten my load. That last trek all the way out to Norm took a huge toll on my feet. 

Returning to the White Barn in under an hour and a half was helpful to my mood and spirit. I had made up a great deal of time on that challenge—especially given the weight of the pack. I felt happy that it was mid-morning and the sun was shining brightly. I made my way over to the volunteers who were administering the next challenge. I could see that they were handing out what appeared to be a topographical map for the next challenge. Orienteering…being the “Year of the Explorer” I expected a navigational skills challenge to eventually present itself. The time had finally come. 

To be continued…

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 5 – Pocahontas and Porcupine Quills

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Don Devaney at the water cup in a log challenge.

The time had come to depart from the top of Bloodroot Mountain Trail. After a long and tedious process thanks in part to Don’s desire to break me by angering my soul, I successfully finished crafting my cup of water in a log holder project. With the remains of my creation packed tightly away, I took off down the mountain trail. With the radiance of the sun gone and replaced by the starry skies of central Vermont, the first night of the Death Race had finally begun.

Darkness engulfed the sky and these moments are a test of willpower and determination. Naturally, when the sun fades, the body and more importantly, the mind will naturally find itself desiring sleep, rest, and comfort. During these long, dark hours are a test of perseverance. Enduring the darkness and doubt brings its own reward — like the rising sun’s power  to bring a spiritual resurgence  and provide the kick in the ass necessary to carry on. 

Unaware of what lie ahead during this first evening and now alone in the mountains, I knew I had to maintain my focus. Knowing that  Kristine had finally arrived I knew it would be tough when I finally saw her to not want to stop the race and spend all my time in the majestic wilderness alone with her. It’s true, internally my emotions within were all over the place, as much as I’d probably want to suspend time and stop racing to be with her, I was equally giddy with excitement at the prospect of having her see what I was made of. I wanted her to see that I had the gusto to finish the Peak Death Race.

My trek down Bloodroot Mountain Trail was far better than my ascent. No longer feeling any foot pain, I had almost completely forgotten about the episode. Determined to return the the White Barn at Riverside Farm to catch my lady, a fire inside began to rage. I barreled my way down the treacherous trails. With my headlamp lighting the tree lines up with the power of 200 lumens, I swear that Black Diamond Icon headlamp is like having your own personal sun, and because of its brilliant light  I was able to leap over every puddle, creek, and stream that lay in my path. Utilizing my trekking poles, I managed to navigate the dark path without hitting any water by propelling myself over each water source in my way. 

The further down the trail I made it the more I felt the weight of my pack taking its toll on my shoulders. In an effort to quell the discomfort, I messed around with my straps loosening them and tightening them, sometimes unclipping the chest strap and allowing the shoulder straps to fall off, putting a majority of the weight into my waist belt. I was resolute to keep my pace and not have to stop. I had made it down the more treacherous parts of the trails, but no matter how much I shifted and adjusted the pack, the nearly 70 pounds was too much. I eventually caved, and dropped my pack to the ground. I had to rest, if only for a minute. Fellow Death Racers passed by and I felt a sense of defeat, I was unhappy with my inability to bear the weight. It was my own fault; even with all my knowledge from previous races, I made a mistake and over-packed. The truth of the matter was I feared Bloodroot. In my experience, going to Bloodroot typically meant a trek to Chittenden Reservoir. A journey to those parts meant long distance swims in frigid waters. Swimming, I can do. In frigid, open waters? That’s when I get a little shaky. Thankfully, it seemed we avoided that water hole of misery, at least for now, I thought to myself.

Continuing to make the long hike back, I relished in the fact that at least with the downhill gravity was doing some of the work. Just a little further and I’ll be back, I told myself. It seemed like a never-ending hike. As I made my way off the trails and onto the road that leads to Upper Michigan and towards the path that leads past Jason’s home, I paused to soak in my surroundings. Here I was, still in the beginning stages of another Death Race adventure,and yet, if only for a moment, it was a chance to acknowledge the vastness of the universe. I gazed up at the blackening abyss over the clear Vermont sky speckled with blinking beams of light that traveled light years just to reach my eyes in this very moment. The experience was transcendent. Staring out gave me this assurance that as difficult as anything I might face ahead may be, that there are far greater challenges being faced everywhere. For a moment, my mind expanded beyond my conceivable conscious. I returned my mind and myself back to this planet after sitting for a brief moment on a roadside guardrail, lost in the stars above. I redirected my enlightenment to getting through this Death Race as a finisher. This was it, everything I’ve done over these past few years has led to this defining race. You’d be mistaken if you thought it was only about racing others, the truth is the Death Race is you against you. Can you overcome whatever demons might reveal themselves in the face of the adversity crafted to disrupt you? I believed I not only could, but would. 

Not too long after my short meditation, I gained a bit of pep in my step and finally could see the lights of Riverside Farm in my sights; all I had to do was safely cross Route 100 and run up the driveway. As I approached the farm, excitement filled me, having already been going for well over 12 hours; I finally got to see the beaming smile of my lady, Kristine. As I ran up she greeted me already prepared to help me as my crew in any way possible. 

I was informed I had to speak to the woman by the teepee tent that was there in the back corner of the corral where a large amount of Death Racers were already hard at work on the next task. 

The next task to be completed was to take the log that I had just carried back from Bloodroot and I needed to make a hole in the center. It was required to show this woman, who resembled Pocahontas in the garb she adorned, through this hole that the mandatory porcupine quill I had brought with me could be slid all the way through it. Sounded like a simple enough task. Before I was allowed to do that, however, I had to change my clothes. It was time to take the four yards of buckskin, or in my case vinyl that looked the color of buckskin but felt like a “pleather”, and create a top and bottom that mimicked her look. Specifically, I would need to use 108 stitches to do so. Those were the instructions. 

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Amie Booth adorning her amazing survival garbs.

Immediately I ran back to where I dropped my pack by Kristine and my attitude changed. The temperatures were dropping and I was not in the mood to sew a stupid outfit that I would have to wear for what at worst could be the rest of the damn race. All I could think was, this was going to be miserable!. Negativity overwhelmed me. It engulfed my soul so quickly, I was actually thinking about quitting. Why the f*ck do I have to do this bullshit? I could just go back to the hotel with Kristine and enjoy Vermont for once, why am I putting up with stupid shit like this. It’s incredible how fast the negativity can exasperate into an uncontrollable fury. Kristine tried to encourage me. This was only the first night; I had to snap out of it. This is what the Race Directors wanted, they wanted to get a rise out of us, and they wanted to break those of us who lacked patience. It’s not always the physical tasks that will get you in the Death Race; it’s the ones that require mental solitude, perseverance, patience, more often than anything else it’s these challenges that force a Death Racer to quit. 

This would be my greatest challenge — overcoming the mind-numbing task of sewing, which I’m pretty awful at, my own hunter/gatherer style outfit. I decided to essentially slice the fabric in half, one part to make a skirt of sorts, a kilt, if you will. For the top I would fold it in half and using my Ka-Bar I turned it into a tunic, making a hole that may have been a bit larger than necessary for my head to go through. I sealed up the sides a bit to fulfill the requirements of having stitches and made sure to count each stitch one by one, an impressive test of focus. Stitch, count, stitch, count. It was a repetitive task that had to be done precisely for fear of penalty. By the time I had my tunic and skirt all stitched up I had regained my composure and desire to race. I  decided if I was going to deal with wearing this I might as well have a little fun with it, so I took my knife and sliced some stylish cuts into the skirt to give it a more “Gladiator” style, at least that’s what I pictured in my mind . It looked far from the garb of a gladiator, but it certainly gave me and everyone else a laugh, including Pocahontas.

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Death Racer working on porcupine quill through the center of a log challenge.

Next up, I had to get to work on my log. While the task seemed like it would be easy at first, I quickly realized how difficult this could be. Strategizing with my crew, Patrick Mies, a fellow Death Racer with whom I had raced with the previous summer, suggested first to begin splitting the wood with my hatchet without breaking it in half. Then I could shove screwdriver or something similar down the middle. While I loved his suggestion, there was one problem I didn’t have a screwdriver or anything like that. Not even two minutes later, I found one on the ground by my side. It’s strange how items just appear right when you need them at a Death Race. 

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Ella Kociuba working on her log.

Working hastily, I jammed the screwdriver into my already half split log and started pounding it down with the back of the hatchet I borrowed from fellow Death Racer, Rob Barger. Once it was through I went to pull it back out of the log. It was stuck! Shit?! What do I do? I could feel my heart rate accelerating. I’m screwed. I started throwing my log on the ground, pulling, pushing, twisting, and doing whatever I could to try to wiggle it free. After tirelessly working on it for a good 10 minutes I finally succeeded. Now to make sure I can get the porcupine quill through. It was important to me that I could do it before I went and showed them. My first attempt I lost my quill in the wood shavings and debris. I had to make it smoother. Round two with the screwdriver went a little smoother than the first. After losing another quill, and I only had 2 more left, I finally succeeded. Excited, I ran over to the teepee tent and fire that was burning in front of it and presented my project to Pocahontas. Success came only after my log almost fell apart, only a sliver of bark held it together. Ecstatic to finally be done with this tedious task, I ran over to Kristine and Patrick and began gathering my things so I could prepare for what lie ahead. 

To be continued…

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 4 – Bloodroot Water Giver

At approximately eight hours into the Year of the Explorer we left the comfort zone of Riverside Farm to head toward a destination known by many to be a zone of danger, a climb that has broken  many a person: the notorious Bloodroot Mountain. Bloodroot came early at this Death Race, seeking to claim as many victims early on. Maybe the race directors  wanted the length of the Death Race to be something more manageable,as the imposed cut-offs demanded racers to perform at a high level to earn a skull. Uncertain what lie ahead, one thought that occurred to me was that a hike through Bloodroot Mountain this early on could mean a night swim or submersion at Chittenden Reservoir in my future —a sure fire way to get people to drop like flies. That swim crushed and destroyed the strongest of racers last year. It was my biggest fear, but no matter what I would face it head first. If it came. 

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The logs we had to carry up Bloodroot. X’s and O’s and a few E’s. What could they mean? Anything?

As I walked down Upper Michigan and started the unforgiving climb that is Bloodroot Mountain, I began to feel a twinge in the arch of my right foot. “What could that be?” I thought to myself. Disappointed in feeling any type of pain this early on I did everything I could to ignore it. “One foot in front of the other,” I told myself. There were a few stretches of flat before the real climb , which is where this pain began. It was not completely unexpected as my feet had been mildly sore the week leading up to the Death Race, but nothing to worry over. In light of the newly felt pain, perhaps I should have taken more notice to what was going on with my foot. It was hard to believe but even with all the mental preparedness, leading up to the hardest race on the planet I was still clueless how I would handle myself should I sustain a foot injury. For that past year and a half my shoulder was receiving all my attention. I couldn’t really be thinking about quitting already could I? 

This was my internal struggle only nine or so hours into my third attempt at the Peak Death Race. Already something was in my head telling me this task might not be accomplishable. As I hobbled on, I thought about possibly needing nutrition. I decided to stop near a few friends, Christopher Acord, Christopher Rayne, and Brian Edwards. I ate some food, trail mix, half of a peanut butter sandwich, that sort of thing. Still trying to keep my head in the game I ignored the pain and just tried to catch up with my friends while enjoying some trail side snacks. The moment of relief was quite brief, lasting only a short while before it was back to the hike. 

Bloodroot BridgeAfter replenishing some much needed nutrients, I began my climb once again. One foot in front of the other. Trying not to notice the sharp pain crawling up my shin sending triggers to my brain telling me, “Tony, stop doing what you are doing at once.” I refused. My inner monologue would not win this battle. I control my mind and I control what I feel. And this, this was nothing. Every step I was reminded that it was something but still, I refuted it. There was just no way I would let anything stop me this early on. I was too damn stubborn to. 

Bloodroot Mountain is always one of the more challenging parts of any Death Race. It was best not to look up or too far ahead, keep your eyes in front of you. Monitor the terrain, and slope. Watch out for creeks and water puddles. It’s best to keep your feet as dry as possible for as long as possible in the early stages of a race of this length. Dry feet are happy feet. Focusing on maintaining a steady pace I marched up the endlessly grueling ascent. My pack felt heavy. Along with the added weight of the log, I would never admit it at the time but I was struggling. I overpacked in a worried state, fearing how long we might be away from basecamp. With all the extra weight each step had to be calculated. I need to expend only as much energy as necessary to make the climb without exerting too much to be ready for whatever it was that came next. It was a see-saw trying to balance how hard I climbed,wanting to keep myself within reach of the top placement spots at any given moment. My strategy that I learned over the years was to keep yourself out of the top positions without falling too far back. It’s best to be in the middle of the pack. Never last, and definitely not first. Way too much attention for those in first and it usually just results in added FUNishment. But with that bit of a break and the human feeling of being vulnerable to an unexpected injury I slipped further back in that middle I was shooting for. I needed to pick it up and finish this next challenge that lie in wait with unprecedented haste. 

Hiking BloodrootWhen I neared the point where I had climbed an estimated three quarters of the full ascent, I began to see the leaders making their returning descent. I figured, or should I say, hoped this meant the task was quick and more importantly that meant we weren’t headed to Chittenden Reservoir…yet, at least. This little bit of light that showed me an end was near gave me a kick in the ass to keep myself moving. All the while I had completely forgotten about my foot aching, and as far as I remember the pain never came back. Later I would find that this was most likely the result of a pinched nerve. Continuing to climb Bloodroot I was able to pick up some intelligence that I would need fresh water from a nearby stream. It had to be clean, that meant a nice flowing stream. It was important to retrieve it near the top of the ascent to ensure that the water collected remained a nice cold temperature, signifying it’s fresh level. 

never ending hike up bloodrootI emptied out my Nalgene bottle and filled it in the next flowing stream that I spotted slightly off the trailside. With my more than half full bottle of fresh, pure, mountain stream water I was prepared for whatever it was that needed to be done at the top of Bloodroot. When I finally made it to the top of the climb I recognized this from the past two years, the difference was a matter of daylight. This was the first time I had seen this spot on Bloodroot in the daylight. It’s interesting, I’ve seen parts of this mountain at all times of the day. It is infinitely full of life. There’s always something new to discover. A hidden creek, a fallen tree, the colors and the landscape ever changing. It’s something special to behold. 

To my surprise there were a lot of bodies at the top already. I started questioning myself internally on how I’d fallen so far behind. It seemed impossible that this many people were here before me. Then I remembered, everyone’s Death Race is unique and each their own. Instead of letting it bother me, I proceeded to move forward with determination to finish whatever it was that Task Master, Don Devaney had in store for me. I could see everyone around me making containers out of their logs to hold what appeared to be a cup worth of water. Some were carving into the log to create a hole while others built theirs up using twigs and duct tape to make a bowl. I wondered if that was part of the reason you need to get instructions from Don. Perhaps he was telling people which way to make the container. I waited in line patiently to see Don for my instructions. With the sun beginning to set and being in a dense forest area the bugs were relentless. I was getting attacked on my face and my arms. I pulled my Team SISU buff over my face. Blocking everything possible and jokingly hiding my identity from Don. 

After a few minutes passed Don called all the new arrivals up to the front to hear their instructions. As I walked up, he looked directly at me and told me to go to the back of the line. He waited for me to leave before telling that group the instructions. I ran back to the end of the line and began the process again. I had a feeling Don was going to be out to get me every chance he could get. I was ready for whatever he had to dish. As I made my way closer and closer to my second attempt at receiving the instructions, I had a feeling in my gut I might get stuck here longer than I’d like to be. The sun was setting. This task would become increasingly more difficult if the daylight vanished. As I walked up to Don, once again I was promptly greeted with dismissal from the group and sentenced to a return to the back of the line. I knew Don was trying to get under my skin, so I refused to let him. It irked me to keep playing this game, and wasting time but this was no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Just remain calm I told myself. Don’t show him how you feel. The next time I returned to him he told me to reveal myself if I wish to hear his instructions. “Ah ha.” He was “offended” by my face mask. So once again I returned to the back of the line. Only this time I would return without the Buff hiding my face. At long last, Don looked to me and presented me with my next task, I must bring him the freshest water in a cup sized vessel made from my log. 

log building water holderI quickly headed back to where I set my bag down next to Brian and sat myself down on the ground determined to get this over with quickly. At first I focused on attempting to actually carve a cup into the log. Utilizing my KaBar knife, the hatchet Rob Barger lent me, and a utility knife, I quickly realized how silly it was to be working this hard to create a cup when plenty of people were succeeding with making the pathetic looking twigs and duct tape walls to increase the “height” of the logs “walls.” If it worked for them then certainly I’ll have a shot at it working for me. The sun was really starting to set and I wanted to be on my way back already. I asked for help to hold the sticks in place while I wrapped my humorous mustache duct tape around the twigs I attached to my log. I poured a small amount of water into a plastic Ziploc baggy and set it inside the crafty log holder. I presented my creation to Don, he drank the cold stream water and I was free to go. I packaged my log into my ruck, repacked all my tools. Wished Brian good luck and assured him that we’d meet up again. By now my girlfriend, Kristine, would have made it to the race site. I turned on my headlamp and took off down the mountain. 

To be continued…

Photo Credits: Obstacle Racing Media (ORM), Doug Kline, and BIG AP Photography

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 3 – Return of the Stone Stairs

In the middle of the Death Race, I was pulled from the action to give a quick interview for the new Spartan podcast that they were recording. They asked me simple questions with complex answers, “Why was I out there? Why return to the Death Race?” Those answers are not the easiest to answer on the spot. I was out there racing for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, I was out for redemption from the previous year. Next, I had a burning desire to at last earn the coveted “official” finish. I wanted to gain an understanding that with each Death Race I learn something new about myself. I cannot remember exactly what I said on that podcast, but I’m thankful it was early on in the race, because who knows want kind of ramble and fumble on my words I might have had were it 36, 48 or even 60 hours into the race?

After finishing the short interview, Chris urged me with, “Hurry up, Mr. Celebrity,”or something to that effect. I jumped right back in with Chris and Brian and we worked our way up the mountainside staircase. We lugged and struggled to move what would become new stone stairs to their new home on the mountain. The year before when these stairs were built there were sections where racers took the utmost care in making sure the boulders were properly set; with other sections, not so much. There were a few sections where very large, nearly immovable boulders were careful placed and others where smaller stones, able to be carried by a single person, were simply placed with little effort in securing and setting them into the earth. The key to building a solid stone staircase along a mountain is making the stairs appear to be one with the earth. The objective was for it to appear as though these stone had been there for thousands of years. This year, we were rebuilding the sections that fell apart from careless placement. Because of the lack of effort in properly placing these sections, the weather and snow, and their overuse caused the stones to become a danger to those who used them on a regular basis. 

Unlike the prior year, this task would not and should not have taken the same 24 hours to complete because only a few sections near the mid-mountain and upwards towards the top that were in need of repair. Some people look at these tasks as simply doing Joe’s landscaping. What many fail to understand is we are doing so much more than that. We’re working together as a team to build something that will forever be a part of this mountain. These stairs will be here for generations. A man-made structure so great that we all can own our accomplishment and one day return to say, “Along with my comrades, I built this.”That’s something so unbelievably awesome, it brings joyous tears to my eyes every time I think about what a group of 200 fellow Death Racers and I are able to achieve. 

pittsfield vermont death race stair case rebuild It was a lot of working lugging these enormous stones up and down the mountain, but with teamwork and camaraderie anything is possible, even when it doesn’t seem that way. All around me, I could see Death Racers working together, making the impossible, possible. The ingenuity of the racers is something to admire. Some racers utilized rope and webbing and such to fashion together different dragging systems. Others found sizable tree limbs and created a basket of sorts from their buckskin to carry the boulders in. After Chris, Brian and I brought our rocks up to their place we were sent back to the top of Tweed River Drive to ensure that all the stones had made their way back. 

On our way back down the trail we saw a collection of abandoned stones by those who gave up on moving the oversized monstrosities. As we passed one we had the unfortunate luck of being in the vicinity of the man known as the Task Master, Don Devaney. As usual he was in his angry, yelling Death Race character, which I now find to be more humorous than anything else. My inability to take him seriously anymore tends to get me in to some less than desirable situations. That held true here. Don saw us and immediately directed us to pick up the nearest stone. It was an obnoxiously large one. One that quite frankly looked a bit phallic. As soon as Don carried on we did attempt to move the stone only to quickly discover why it had been abandoned. Though in size it shouldn’t have been too much for the three of us, it was. The density of this stone was surprising. Once Don was completely out of sight we ditched the rock in the woods, in truth it wouldn’t have made a very good step, I mean it looked like a penis for crying out loud. It was clear to us why this stone was abandoned, and I’m not talking about its shape, if three strong men had difficulty moving it, how much effort was it worth? There were still plenty of other abandoned stones along the path that we could move and so we found another and carried on. 

We found a couple who was working on moving a stone though they were not moving very far. Instead of grabbing our own stone we jumped in with them and decided to lend a much needed hand. Together, we worked to move the stone they appeared to be struggling on for some time. It was awkwardly shaped forcing us to carry it in most particular way. Some edges were round making the ability to have a good grip difficult. We heaved and hoed, taking breaks every 20-30 steps as needed. The breaks were short, mostly to readjust grip and give the forearms a bit of relief. 

stone staircase death race rebuildArriving back at the staircase, we brought the stone we carried to the nearest spot it was needed. All the while we had dropped our bags in what we had hoped to be a safe location. Once the stone was dropped for other racers to secure, we quickly made our way back to the tree that Brian, Chris and I had dropped our bags. Having exerted a significant amount of energy over the past couple hours, we made sure to hydrate and fuel ourselves a bit before moving our bags up the mountainside. From there, the three of us continued to find others who needed assistance in transferring the substantially large boulders up the mountain. Our preferred method of moving them was via a rope system. It [the rope] would be secured to the stone, then six or more handles were attached to distribute the weight. From there it was simply a system of pulling as far as we could then repositioning ourselves and doing it all again. As often as possible we would utilize the leverage we could generate from wrapping some of the rope around the nearby trees. This helped speed up the process and we would just zig-zag bouncing from one tree to the next for added leverage. Science, gotta love it. 

As we move the stones up and set them in place one by one, you could see this incredible amount of team work happening all around you. It reminded me of the Hurricane Heat I had been leading for Spartan Race. A bunch of strangers and friends coming together to do incredible feats. What makes the Death Race so much more incredible is the notion that we’re actually building something that will be here for centuries; I cannot help but come back to this thought over and over. As the final rocks were being set in place in one section we were sent further up to help. When Chris, Brian and myself arrived at the highest point of the staircase build we were informed there was no need to go any further. It was clear there was no need for more bodies up here, as the path was narrow and already a cluster of Death Racers working tirelessly to secure the final few stones into place. The volunteer didn’t know what to tell us other than to look busy, so we started moving any spare stones out of the way and headed back. 

Shortly after chucking a few stones off the beaten path and into the brush, the racers were informed the task had come to an end and we were rounded up by Johnny Waite. He made an announcement that the following names he would be calling off had done an exceptional job thus far in the race. This earned the opportunity to get a small head-start to the next challenge. There was an opportunity for the racers to nominate a few additional people that may have been missed by the race directors. After that those few lucky individuals earned a good three to five minute lead on the rest of us. 

vermont pittsfield death race stone stair build rope draggingOur mission, was to run back down the mountain to Riverside Farm. To my advantage I knew this mountain very well from all my visits over the course of three years and I was able to take a few shortcuts that easily took minutes off my time getting back down. With a full ruck, I was running as fast as my legs allowed me to run. As I approached Riverside Farm I saw that there were some water bottles lined up as well as other items. It turned out my suspicions were correct, the volunteers and race directors did snag some of our items from our rucks when they had piled them all on top of each other. The blue Nalgene water bottle I borrowed from Mark Webb, included. As we ran up they explained that you must complete fifty burpees to retrieve your item, unless it was a water bottle in which case you could simply pick it up. I ran up without hesitation scooped up the water bottle and headed towards the area where we picked up our bibs earlier that morning. 

All along the tree line there were small log stumps all in a line, enough for over 200 participants. Some had X’s spray painted in black on them, others had O’s and a few even had what appeared to be a capital letter E painted into the grain. Our objective was simple enough, grab the log and head over to Bloodroot Mountain Trail. Bloodroot has become one of the constants of the Death Race. You know you’ll face this mighty mountainous trail at one point or another during the Death Race. The only question is when. In my first year it was one of the very first tasks, in my second is came later in the game and involved a night hike, this time it was early enough to ascend in the daylight but how far we were going and what lay ahead remained a mystery. With my log in my hands I began hustling my way across Route 100 up the drive way that led to my co-worker, Jason Jaksetic’s house which led to the road to Bloodroot. 

To be continued…

Photography Credit: Marion Abrams and Doug Kline

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 2 – Another Beginning

In what was the most race-like start of all my experiences at the Peak Races Death Race, we were off in an instant. What remained the same is not knowing when it starts (officially, it’s seriously complicated), and you don’t know when it will end. Andy and Joe had just finished telling us the race would start in seven minutes and there we were starting three minutes early. Well done Joe and Andy, well done. I was the first one out the gate after strategically placing myself next to Joe and catching an earful of the quick change of plans for a slightly earlier start. Though I was the first one to the stone stairs, I quickly slowed my pace and reeled myself back in. If there was one thing I learned from last year’s experience is that more often than not it pays to fall somewhere in the middle of the pack versus blasting ahead and taking the lead. 

Climb Up Stone Staircase Pittsfield Vermont Death Race Start Peak RaceThis year, all the wisdom I’d gathered from my previous Death Race experiences would be relied upon greatly in making all my decisions. I’ve seen the Death Race from every angle, as a racer in the summer, as a photographer and assistant to the Race Directors in the Winter and Team, and as a reporter in Mexico. Combining all the wisdom along with my courage to continue to return to this race, and all the strength and power I’ve developed since recovering from shoulder surgery a year and a half ago, I hoped and prayed by the end of this race I would  land the fabled official finish, leaving me to take a skull and bib home. Knowing full well that those would just be symbols for my achievement and what it really means to finish the Death Race. 

As I began my climb up the staircase that was built the year prior I couldn’t help but reminisce. At this time last year at the start of the race, myself and the veterans  moved these rocks I stepped upon into place. The stairs we built at the Year of the Gambler go one mile up the side of Joe’s mountain. A lot of racers were already making moves to push to the front. My friend and fellow Spartan Race competitor, David Magida came up next to me saying something along the lines of, “I think I can be first to the top.” I reminded him of our phone conversation a week ago and assured him (and his ego), that I was certain he could be first to the top. I reminded him, “remember Magida, stay in the middle of the pack.” He decided to hang back, and thanked me. He immediately changed his plan deciding it best to stay near me for at least the start of the event. 

Death Race Shrek's Cabin Pittsfield VT 100 BurpeesRunning up these stone steps has become one of my favorite past times every time I come out to Vermont. Just a month before the race I had the pleasure of showing my mother, sister, and Kristine, the pride and beauty of what we built the year prior. It’s a wonder to imagine that these stairs will be here for what is likely to be the rest of time. The most glorious thing of all is to say I helped build them, not with machines, but with my hands and the hands of my fellow Death Racers, my brothers and sisters in arms. 

Death Race Rucksack Pile Peak RacesWhen we reached the top I was somewhere in the first ten to fifteen racers to arrive. At the top we were required to check in and knock out 100 burpees before heading back down the stairs  back to Riverside Farm. On the way down caution had to be taken as there were still a swarm of racers were still ascending to the top. As I reached the bottom of the mountain and began an all out sprint toward the white barn I could see in the distance all of our packs and rucks stacked up into a mound. As I entered the corral, I was instructed to find my pack. I could hear Don Devaney in the distance yelling, “if you don’t have all your gear you will be disqualified.” As soon as I found my bag I realized the Nalgene bottle I borrowed from Mark Webb was missing and it became clear that they were messing with everyone and some gear was purposefully taken away from a few of us. I shrugged it off and moved on to the next task. 

Death Race Story Notes Peak Races

Yes, That’s me typing notes for the story in my phone. | Photo Credit: Big AP Photography

We were once again instructed to hike to the top of Joe’s mountain to Shrek’s cabin. When we arrived there was no one actually checking people in but the instructions were to continue on to Tweed River Drive. On the descent toward Tweed, I became a little uncertain of the path we were taking. It wasn’t the same path I had taken in previous treks up and down the surrounding areas. I had a feeling that we would make it to our destination regardless. At the time I was traveling with a group of veteran Death Racers and some newbies which included Ella Kociuba, David Mick, and Magida. On the way down we had to do a little bushwhacking which added to my uncertainty. Knowing the general area and direction we were headed I still had faith we would wind up at the trail that leads to the top of Tweed River Drive soon enough. 

Not even five minutes later, I recognized our whereabouts and led everyone across the trail toward the tiny cabin at the top of Tweed. There awaited a mound of stones and rocks and my predictions became true. We would be rebuilding the sections of the stone staircase that were not up to standard. When we all arrived there were already quite a few Death Racers having their pick at the stones. I overheard Peter Borden making claims that, “if you don’t grab a large enough rock they will send you back for another.” I took this to heart, knowing that Joe and Andy will often challenge racers to exceed their perceived limitations. If I didn’t grab a large enough boulder, and they’d definitely expect a lot of me given what they’ve seen me lift while helping Miguel Medina build his cabin this past Winter, I’d be sent back without a second thought. In all actuality, my fear was that having become so close to the masterminds of the Death Race over the past couple years might work against me. Typically at this race, being well known can work against you and I had a huge red target painted on my back. 

I quickly began looking for my rock, it concerned me how quickly so many people made it over here and I soon realized that most of these racers didn’t get sent to Shrek’s Cabin first. I shrugged it off knowing full well that everyone will have their own unique Death Race. No two racers have the exact same race. They’ll be similar, but often muddled with slight differences. Once I found what I thought was a solid looking stone that I could manage to drag with my rope, as I had seen everyone else doing, I looked to Borden for confirmation of it’s adequacy. He laughed at me and said, “Matesi are you kidding me? You should know you need a bigger one than that!” I was genuinely perplexed. That rock seemed like a decent size, not too big but not small like some that I saw people dragging. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to show up with something inadequate to their standards. Instead of searching for a large one – I had already strapped mine in with my rope – I found some smaller stones to attach that would bring the weight up to par. So I hoped. 

Death Race Stone Staircase Repairs Vermont Pittsfield My good friend, Amie Meyer was right next to me working on securing her rock as well, she gave me a quick hand in adjusting and fixing my rope to my pack and I began to attempt dragging the rocks behind me. While using my trekking poles for leverage I found myself absolutely grounded. I could barely move it. It became quickly apparent that once I began moving it would bode me well to keep the momentum going. An object in motion stays in motion, as I recalled from my days in physics. While that may be true in theory, it most certainly is not in practice. Even with the assistance of a slight down hill, the amount of friction these rocks and the rope had being dragged across a rocky road did nothing but make this one hell of a struggle. 

I looked around at my fellow competitors and for the most part everyone in the surrounding area had the same difficulty. These rocks were massive. As we all made our way down Tweed River Drive, navigating in and out of racers who were moving slower than others became an obstacle itself. Sometimes I would find myself having a burst of energy and I would cruise down the road with ease, only to stop and became a roadblock to a fellow racer following behind me. A little ways down the drive, before reaching the U-turn where the gravel road becomes a paved road again we reached a turn off into the woods. Thus began the real challenge of this task. Sections of up and downhill areas. Some muddy, some dry, all sucked. No matter which way you went, or how you moved this challenge was a bitch. I wished I could just pick my rock up and carry it but that was part of the judgement for whether your rock was large enough or not. If you could carry it, “not big enough.” 

Joe De Sena Death Race Spartan Race Founder Peak RacesNot too far down the trail I had met up with one of my finishers from the first Hurricane Heat Twelve Hour, a twelve hour Death Race simulation camp I began leading under the Spartan Race banner earlier in 2014. Brian Edwards finished the one I held in Vegas, and I was excited to see him competing. We decided to stick together and work on pulling our rocks through this wicked tough section. After a few issues with my rope starting to burn my hands, and not working the way I had hoped, I decided to start working smarter instead of harder. There are times in the Death Race where you have to make decisions for yourself and many times that involves teaming up with a fellow racer. This was definitely one of those moments. I looked over to Brian and said, “let’s just start carrying our rocks, we’ll move mine then come back and move yours until we get there.” He was hesitant at first, not knowing what the exact rules were and being new to this all. I assured him that we’d be alright and this was a much simpler way to accomplish our task. 

We continued moving our rocks along the path, dropping them, then going back to get the other. It put a lot less strain on my body doing it this way, and it saved my hands from facing anymore torture. I took a look at my hands after taking the gloves off once, and already I had a few blisters and torn skin on my fingers and palms. Not a good way to start a race that would last up to three days. I think Brian was torn about the new strategy considering his system of dragging was working much better than mine had. Either way once we reached the staircase where the rope climbs and hercules hoists had been installed I think he realized that carrying up the steep slope of the mountain would be the only way up. 

Death Race Podcast for Spartan Race Ella Kociuba Spartan Pro

Ella being interviewed for the podcast.

As we approached the area I could see a bunch of microphones and recording devices set up. It turned out that Marion Abrams, the videographer and Peak Races Social Media Manager, was working on the new Spartan Race podcast that would be hosted on the new Spartan blog my content team was developing. By that point we had met up with another finisher of the first HH12HR (Hurricane Heat Twelve Hour), Christopher Rayne. Chris was an animal, he’s a military guy who is simply a genuinely great person to be around. I requested his assistance in getting both mine and Brian’s rocks up to wherever it was on the mountain that they needed to go. Before we could begin the climb, Marion spotted me and requested a quick interview for the podcast. Of course I had to oblige. 

To be continued… 

Photography Credit: Marion Abrams, Doug Kline and Big AP Photography

Legend of the Death Race Year 3: Part 1 – Here We Go Again

As the end of June approached it became ever apparent that my favorite kind of painful pleasure was coming into focus, The Peak Death Race. It loomed over my head like a dark cloud following a cartoon character around, just waiting to blast them with lightning. In the weeks leading up to the race I could sense it, the experience and all it encompassed was inevitable. The Death Race was, “In the air,”as they say. I couldn’t log into Facebook without seeing some 50 or so notifications related to the Death Race, mostly stemming from the specific Death Race Facebook group. Every once and a while, I received a phone call or an instant message from friends entering the race for the first time; each of them asked for advice. I told everyone the same thing, focus on your nutrition, stay in the middle of the pack, and just keep smiling. Of course, there was more to some conversations than others, but these were the most important tips I could universally dispose.

100 Mile, Ultra, Peak Races, Peak Ultra, MarathonIn the few weeks leading up to the race, I slowed my training down dramatically after unsuccessfully attempting the Peak Ultra 100 Miler and focused only on recovery. At the Ultra, I managed to complete a solid 70 miles climbing up and down the very same mountain where the Peak Death Race takes place. I only stopped myself at after my 7th ten-mile loop for the sake of saving my body for the Death Race. I sacrificed finishing that race for the sake of giving myself the opportunity to attempt to finish this one. During that last lap what felt like a potential injury in the ligaments that connect my shin and ankle began to flare up, making every step excruciating. The pain lasted almost three weeks and only went away completely just a week and two days before I arrived in Pittsfield, VT. 

Once again, like last year, and in what seems to become the norm for me, I found myself traveling all across the country the week before the race. The weekend before the race I joined my girlfriend, Kristine, for a wedding in San Francisco. The Sunday before the race I flew from San Francisco to Boston to spend some time working at the Spartan HQ. And then on Wednesday, I took a bus up to Manchester, NH to meet my good friend, I suppose I could even call him my Death Race “bestie”at this point, Mark Webb. He graciously welcomed me into his home once again and we kept an ongoing tradition of hanging out, having a beer, and sipping whiskey before the Death Race. On Thursday morning, the day we would head up to Vermont to prepare for the race. We spent most of the day packing. Before heading up, we came to realize our combined eight yards of buckskin, one of the mandatory gear list items, would not be delivered as quickly as Amazon.com had promised — a problem we’d have to resolve before our drive up to Vermont. 

Strangely enough, as we readied our gear bins and secured our rucks with the essentials to start the race, we both felt less excited about the race than normal. Both Mark and I kind of shrugged off the unusual notion and went over our checklists before heading to the store to purchase the remaining essentials and the majority of our nutrition for the weekend. Our first stop was a JoAnn Fabrics store that apparently already had other Death Racers frequenting it. The employees responded with a quick, “No, someone else asked for that yesterday,”when I questioned if they had any buckskin. Thankfully, Mark thought of one other place, a locally owned fabric store ran by the sweetest elderly lady. When I asked of buckskin, she didn’t have it, but was quick to help me figure out an alternative that could pass for buckskin. I happily and thankfully scooped up the two large rolls of tan vinyl four yards each, and it was off to Target. There, Mark and I went a little overboard on making sure we had a plethora of food that wouldn’t spoil over the next few days in a storage container, which included: trail mix, peanut butter, bread, bananas, beef jerky, fruit snacks, Chex Mix and all kinds of delicious treats that I’d normally stray away from. When it comes to the Death Race, any and all food is good food. Unlike last year, I wanted to make sure to maximize my calorie intake and eliminate the possibility of coming home looking like I had lost close to fifteen pounds. 

1487790_785666184798642_20223758704835755_oAfter gathering our food and putting the final touches on our prep and packing, it was time to load up the Land Rover and embark on our journey to Vermont with our mutual friends James Vreeland and his wife, Amanda. Once we were in the quaint little town of Pittsfield, VT, it was like one big reunion. Just one step into the Original General Store and I was bombarded with hugs and smiles from some of my favorite people on the planet. After a quick bite to eat it was time to head back to the Team SISU house and find myself a place to sleep. It was already getting late, and I would need as much sleep as I could muster. My bed of choice would be a futon at the top of staircase in the middle of the hallway that led to the two bedrooms. Not the ideal last night’s sleep but it would have to suffice. It took longer to fall asleep than I anticipated. I wanted to knock out as early as 2100 but wasn’t able to fall asleep completely until closer to midnight. That left me with a mere seven hours of tossing and turning as I couldn’t help but anticipate the challenges I would face over the course of the next 70 hours or so in my dreams. 

Predictably, the next morning came very, very quickly. Before heading out to registration Mark, James and Amanda picked me up and we headed over to the Original General Store for the most delicious breakfast,. I opted for the French toast with bacon and bananas. It’s so damn good. Registration was open from 0600 to 0900. Trying to avoid having to do any “extra”work, we decided we would wait until around 0830 to enter the registration line. 

10491352_780069098691684_2656279399505580564_oWhen we arrived at Riverside Farm, we unloaded all our gear, and gear bins and set up shop at the Team SISU tent area. This would be our home base where all of our crew would hang out and be located whenever we came in for any help we might need throughout the race. Between all the athletes racing under the Team SISU banner, we had a LOT of support, more than I’ve ever had at any race. In years past, I didn’t have any dedicated support but this year that was different, I had my girlfriend Kristine Iotte arriving sometime Friday afternoon there for me and I had everyone who was there for Team SISU including friends from the Corn Fed Spartans to assist me in my efforts to conquer the Death Race. Their support, whether it was a high five handing off a burger, or re-filling my water would be vital to my success. After participating in multiple Death Races over the years, one thing I gained was the wisdom from those past experiences  that assured me that the participants who had an outstanding crew were that much more likely to succeed. This year, I had that crew. 

Once Mark, James, Amanda and I moved all our gear over to the drop area we headed over to registration. Finally the excitement I had been lacking for this event began to sink in. It was about time! I felt some sort of emotion toward participating in the Death Race this year, for a while it felt as though I were just going through the motions. Finally, I was feeling something. I felt excited, nervous, and anxious all at once. It took me almost by surprise. I even mentioned it to Mark, “Oh there it is, there’s the nerves and excitement…right on time.” 

Legend of the Death Race Year 3 Wisdom Peak Death Race Spartan Pittsfield Vermont

Andy Weinberg Announces Death Race Rules and Safety

While waiting in line for registration, I started seeing more and more friends, including some Spartan Race co-workers who were volunteering to help with the race. It’s truly amazing how many people are willing to sacrifice their time to help us experience this remarkable journey. Without all the volunteers, friends, and family that come and lend a hand in the execution of this race, the adventure of it all would be nowhere near as fun, nor would it be possible. When I finally made it to my turn to turn over my ID and receive my bib I was struck with realizing I didn’t bring anything else to turn in for registration. The race admins required two belongings to be turned in whether it be your driver’s license and a credit card, car keys, or something else of high value. I left my entire wallet at the SISU house and there was certainly no time for me to go back. I tried to play it off and simply told them, “This is all I have.”They wouldn’t budge. I had to turn in two items or I couldn’t participate. I looked around to Mark and James for assistance here and at first they didn’t have anything they could part with, until Mark remembered he had his concealed carry license in his car. He ran back and snatched it up for me. I couldn’t be more thankful for him remembering he had that and allowing my use of it for my second “personal”item. Finally I received my bib, number 351. It was time to head over to the white barn where everyone else was gathering for the pre-race briefing. 

Legend of the Death Race Year 3 Wisdom Peak Death Race Spartan Pittsfield VermontOnce everyone had arrived in what became known as the “corral,”an area that was gated off for horses near the white barn at Riverside Farm. We all took a seat with only fifteen minutes left until the official race start would supposedly begin. I say “supposedly” because with the Death Race, one never really knows when the race starts or ends. Last year, it took over 24 hours of hard work, mostly building the stone staircase until it was completed before Joe and Andy switched the gear into race mode. This year, I had no idea what I was in for. I never really do. Racers just show up, and do what is asked of them and always remember to smile through it all— the good and the bad. There in the corral, Andy and Joe gave us a quick briefing on the race, the importance of safety, the understanding that medical could pull us if we were not looking coherent enough to move forward, and an explanation that the race would be a traveling race where we would be gone for sixteen hours. They also made it a point to clarify that this is a race. There would be strict cut-offs. The idea of pushing on when you haven’t made a cut-off and continuing on was a thing of the past. Andy and Joe only wanted those who pushed hard enough to continue on. If you missed a time cut-off, you are out of the race. Plain and simple. This would make for a much more interesting race, and it would be interesting to see how this plays out when stubborn people like me just keep going. 

With only seven or eight minutes left I took this opportunity to approach Joe and talk to him quickly. After exchanging a few words about this very story, I overheard Andy asking him if they should just kick things off shortly. During the briefing we were informed that the first task would be to leave our packs and run the staircase we built last year to the top of Joe’s mountain and check in at Shrek’s Cabin. By positioning myself by Joe and talking with him, I had already set myself up with an advantageous start. I was right next to the closest exit point. Not even 30 seconds after Andy asked Joe if they should start the race, I heard them say it, “GO!”

Legend of the Death Race Year 3 Wisdom Peak Death Race Spartan Pittsfield VermontTo be continued…

Photo Credits: Marion Abrams and Doug Kline

Legend of the Death Race Year 2: Part 10 – Swim to Death

There I was just standing there, at the water’s edge, second guessing whether or not I could complete the swim challenge when a fellow racer entered the water behind me. It was Death Race veteran, Keith Glass. He walked up next to me and said, “Come on, Tony you can do this.” I looked to him shivering, and told him I was scared that I couldn’t make the three mile swim. We were on the clock to remain in the race as official racers, and we only had a couple hours left to complete this challenge. Even though time was of the essence, Keith was in no hurry. He convinced me to follow him into the water and assured me he would stay by my side the entire time. After a little hesitation to take one more step forward I followed Keith into the water.

Photo Credit: Marion Abrams - Madmotion

Photo Credit: Marion Abrams – Madmotion

We began swimming out into the open waters. The turnaround buoy was just a half mile out. As we got closer and closer Keith continued to assure me that we could do this, “It’s just a little further,” he would say to me. “Just keep swimming and we’ll be on our way back.” As we swam, the oversized life vest began to rise up on my body. It was not necessarily choking me, but the discomfort it caused with my head just barely poking out of it forced a panic to rise inside me. I was freezing cold, like the beginning signs of hypothermic cold, and this life vest was did not feel like it would be able to save me. I’m not gonna make it, I thought. “I can’t do this,” I said to him. I shouted out to the rescue boat that was circling the waters in the event of an emergency. I tried to ask the support/volunteer if there was anything I could do to get a different life vest. No help. He informed me that if I got on that boat I was out of the race. I tried to continue just a bit further, but I couldn’t contain my unexpected fear and the senseless shivering that took over my body. Between the cold, feeling ill and this life vest situation, I lost it. I lost my composure and lost my will to continue. I asked to be taken back to shore. Keith tried to convince me to keep going. It was too late, I was on the boat. As soon as the boat started toward the shore, tears began pouring down my face. My race was over. I was no longer “officially” in the race and I knew it. I never even had the chance to spin the Wheel of Death.

Defeated

Defeated

When we reached the shore I was a mess. No longer was I the tough, Death Racer. In the place of that warrior was an emotional disaster of a man. I wanted so badly to finish this Death Race, officially. This outcome was destroying me. Joe De Sena was standing in his barn where he had been performing burpees and push-ups all morning. There he stood with his collection of all the Death Race bibs of every DNF at this challenge. This was breaking everyone. A number of the toughest Death Racers bowed out at this challenge. There at the pool shed the bibs hung on the door like trophies for Joe representing all those who couldn’t hack it.

Now, I would become one of those racers as well. I started bawling my eyes out in front of the man that I looked up to. Joe looked to me and said, “What are you crying about you know how this works.” I looked up and replied, “I want my skull, and I want to finish officially.” He smiled, “Just go buy a skull on eBay.”

“That’s not what I want Joe!” I barked back at him. “I want to EARN my skull. I’ve come so far.”

Joe looked at me and said, “You know that you can continue unofficially, you’ve done it before. Hand me your bib and if you want to continue, go for it. But you won’t receive a skull.”

I couldn’t believe it. I could continue on but this year it wouldn’t be like last year. If I did go on to finish I would be leaving with nothing to show I was capable of beating the game that is the Death Race. I gathered my things, my shoes, my clothes, and packed my bag. After a short period of collecting myself, I told them I would continue despite feeling physically and emotionally miserable.

Photo Credit: Marion Abrams  - Madmotion

Photo Credit: Marion Abrams – Madmotion

My next stop was the challenge at Peter Borden’s house. I set out on the trails that we came from and started to head back in that direction. Not too far out, I decided to stop and pull out my cell phone to see if I had service. I called Corinne. I was a mess. Surprisingly, I had just enough service for the call to go through. She answered and I went on to tell her what just happened and by the end of the conversation I was telling her I quit and I didn’t want to finish unofficially. This game had me so upset and I was feeling worse by the minute.

Whatever I had contracted was bringing out the worst in me. Perhaps it was the embodiment of doubt. Perhaps it was a purely physical ailment. Whatever it was, I felt like death. Funny, the Death Race was making me feel like I could just keel over and die right there. My throat had been swelling up, I could feel the soreness in the glands. After hanging up I went back and forth within my mind and eventually decided I would try to continue. I couldn’t quit. It just wasn’t in me.

About a mile further down the trail my body started to give up on me once again. My head began to hang lower and lower by the minute. Bugs began to nip at my skin and it felt as though I was being targeted. Every split second I was slapping at my arms trying to stop the attack. It was an onslaught. I dropped my bag. In it was a can of bug spray, unfortunately my generosity the first night got the best of me, and it was empty. Trying to find a solution I continued to search my bag for something to protect me, it was fairly hot out but within the bag I found a long sleeve compression shirt along with a roll-on stick of Icy Hot. Assuming the smell would be enough to combat the onslaught of bug bites, I rubbed it all over every piece of exposed skin before switching into the long sleeve compression shirt. I had hoped this would do the trick. Minutes later the bugs seemed to stop. No more biting. Success, I thought to myself.

Clearly delirious, I hadn’t thought of what it would feel like to have a majority of my body covered in Icy Hot. Everything began to tingle and my body felt somewhere between frozen and scolding hot. Yes, this stuff does exactly what the name says. It was the strangest feeling, on top of feeling as sick as I did. It was very unwelcome. Still, I pressed on.

Coming in and out of reality, I came to the realization that I was finding it extraordinarily difficult to maintain the course. I was drifting off into la-la land. Barely able to keep my eyes open, I nearly went off the trail and collapsed. Immediately, I stopped. I took my phone out once again, the battery nearly drained, and called my friend Matt Davis to see if he was still in the surrounding area. Desperate for a ride back, I explained to him I was done. The sickness that was filling my body became too much to bear. This was it, this was the end of the road, I had to pull the plug, no longer because I simply wanted to quit but because I was becoming a danger to myself. I could barely walk. Staying awake was becoming more and more of a challenge and a risk. Almost falling asleep a few times mid-hike was not my idea of smart or safe. Matt said he would try to find me.

Over an hour passed and still no sign of Matt. My phone died. I was stranded. While waiting I dropped my bag and headed back down the trail to see if I could spot any other racers or someone with a cell phone. Just when I was ready to pass out right there on the ground, a biker emerged from the trails. He stopped for me where I waited next to a pick-up truck hoping the owner would show up. This biker’s kindness was beyond welcomed. He allowed me to use his cell phone, even though I looked like some bearded homeless man wandering around the mountains of Vermont, no longer wearing a Death Race bib and with my bag up the trail I did not look like much of a racer. I thanked him immensely for helping me.

There I laid on the trail hoping other racers would begin to show up. And they did just as it began to rain. There was a collection of us now and none of us knew the way back. I had explained my situation to them and in the immense downpour we all tried to take cover. Much of what happened next is quite a blur to me as I lost the ability to stay coherent.

With what transpired I cannot thank those who were there for me enough in these moments of darkness. A large conversion van arrived and allowed a group of us racers to toss all our gear in and drove us around. The second I sat myself down in the back row I lost consciousness. Drifting in and out it of consciousness, I was in that van for what seemed like hours. The lady shuttled the group of Death Racers around making multiple stops, I just recall waking up every so often checking to see if we had made it to the Amee Farm, yet. When we finally arrived, I was the last one to be let out. My situation was explained to a medic as I gathered my things in the bag drop area. After a quick assessment the medic informed me that I was not doing well and should most definitely cease participation in this race. I already knew that was the outcome and had accepted my fate.

Mark Webb who had dropped at the swim due to severe foot issues was informed that I was done. He gathered our gear and that was it. The race was over. This was my first DNF. I did not finish what I started. It didn’t feel as bad as I had thought it would. Sure it sucked, but many lessons could be drawn from it.

Upon arriving back in Manchester, NH where Mark resides I went straight the guest bedroom and passed out for nearly 24 hours. Going into the race I weighed in at approximately 160 pounds. By the time we arrived back at Mark’s place my weight had dropped significantly over the 57 hours that I had made it through the race. I weighed in at 147 pounds—a  weight I hadn’t seen since my sophomore year of High School.

Mark showed a lot of concern for me, saying, “I’ve never seen you this down, are you going to be okay?” I was certain I would. I just kept taking down the NyQuil and tried my best to rest it off until it was time to fly back to Chicago. Mark provided me some of the best hospitality I have ever received. He took me for soup, made sure I was hydrating, and took concern with my well-being. For that, I am beyond thankful.

When I returned to Chicago on Tuesday I was still quite the mess. Still feeling sick on Wednesday I immediately went to my primary care physician to see what was going on. It didn’t take long for the doctor to conclude that I had contracted a bacterial infection. Could it have been from the water? Could it have been from all the traveling I was doing? This is something I will never know, but going forward I plan to take extra precautions to prevent such a thing from happening again. The Doc prescribed a heavy dose of penicillin and within a few days I was back to myself. The Death Race got me this time, but that didn’t stop me from signing up for another go just days after my defeat.

I’ll be back with all the wisdom gained from these past two years. This isn’t over, Joe and Andy. I’m coming back for my skull.

To be continued at the 2015 Death Race, the Year of the Explorer.