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Peak Death Race

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 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. 

logs for bloodroot

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 2: Part 7 – Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bloodroot

Photo Credit: Chad Weberg

Photo Credit: Chad Weberg

Now that the race had officially started, we were informed that the next leg of the race would take place on the notorious Blood Root Mountain Trail.  At last it was finally upon us, one of the most demanding segments of last year’s race took place here, but even when my team was forced to drag a tire for nearly 20 miles through Blood Root we refused to quit even after falling more than six hours behind the rest of the racers. With prior knowledge of how ridiculously technical Blood Root could be and how well we conquered it as a team the previous year, I felt a sense of excitement—this  would be the place where many would break. The scary part about this trail is it’s the point of no return. There is no compromising, no turning back, no cutting corners and the hike is designed to decimate the brave souls traversing the path.

Anthony Matesi

To keep things interesting we were instructed to go search the surrounding land for a large rock, which we would be required to carry in front of us for the entire hike. That’s right, they did not want us putting it in our pack, over our head, or anywhere else, but rather right out in front of you. That was the rule. . Before I even began looking for my rock my mind raced through a checklist of all the gear I had on me that could possibly lend me a “hand” in completing this objective. Bungee cord. Rope. 550 Cord. I had a lot of ideas in my mind as to how I would hack this challenge. To be a successful Death Racer one must  be a hacker and must excel at thinking beyond the box’s walls; and sometimes requiring a racer to go even further to reach a solution to aid in beating the game that Joe and Andy devised. As I searched for my rock, I saw Joe giving Junyong Pak a hard time about the size of the rock he brought over. Before anyone was allowed to take off, every rock was inspected and a volunteer was snapping photos of each racer with their rock. Supposedly, they’d be using the photos to make sure we kept the same rock the entire length of the hike. I highly doubted they were actually going to perform a photo review at the end of the challenge, but then again, this is the Death Race, so anything is possible.

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Photo Credit: Chad Weberg

Joe had it out for me for this challenge. He knew how strong I was performing so he wasn’t going to let me get away with anything. I brought him my first rock. He laughed, I honestly had thought it would be adequate, but alas, I was sent back to find another. When I returned, Joe told me that I’d have to go find an even bigger rock because again, the one I brought over was nowhere near big enough. I was stunned. This one was actually a pretty solid piece of slate, it had size, weight, but didn’t satisfy Joe’s sadistic expectation. Off to find another rock. Joe was starting to get to me. My impatience to race was creeping up on me. I thought to myself, I’m just going to have to find a large slab and suck it up. This next section is going to push me. Joe is making sure of that. But, it made me feel good inside that Joe thought I could haul a larger slab. When I returned, I presented my rather large, flat, slab of slate it was a rugged piece, jagged edges, almost the entire width of my body. I knew this was a keeper. Quoting Full Metal Jacket, I thought of the mantra: This was my rock. There were many like it but this one. This one would be mine. And most importantly, Joe approved. At last after having my photo snapped, I strategically positioned the slab so it wouldn’t be very identifiable in the photo in the event they actually did review these photos at the next checkpoint. I had a distinct feeling people would be swapping out their rocks along the way. I had an even stronger feeling that I would not be keeping this ridiculously large rock for very long.

anthony matesi bloodroot death race

Photo Credit: Chad Weberg

At last, I was on my way across Route 100 heading toward the legendary Blood Root Mountain Trail. The race really felt like it had finally begun the sun was setting. Then, just like that, while we were heading down the road that led to the Blood Root, I felt the air change. It was already getting dark from the sun setting, the clouds dimmed the sky, and I felt a rain drop hit one of my fingers. Then another. Then it came a full-on downpour. There is a running joke in the community that Joe and Andy have a direct line to the weather gods. Too often the weather has come in and changed the game whether (pardon the pun) it be at a Spartan Race or the Death Race. Somehow the weather always seems to play out in the Race Director’s favor. Giving them that little extra bit of suck to dish out without having to do anything other than let Mother Nature take over the mind fuckery. It was just another way to make this task a wee bit more challenging. That was the mindset I had to maintain. This is just another obstacle. I was certain the combination of this unexpected rain storm, and the treacherous hike, which forced us to carry a heavy rock would be THE tipping point for this race. I was certain this would thin the heard.

Not even a half hour after leaving Riverside Farm, I was already growing irritated with my rock. The one I choose was less than ideal, but at the time my only concern was making sure Joe wouldn’t delay my departure, so I grabbed one of the most gnarly rocks I could find. His plan was working, it was aggravating me. The stone slab I chose had some nasty edges and already pierced through the skin on my hands in a few places. There was no way I was carrying this exact same rock for the entirety of this challenge, I thought to myself. I’ll never make it. There it was…that self-doubt. That uncertainty that tries to overcome you right at the moment when things start getting rough. That’s when I said NO. I will not let my thoughts defeat me. I will not let this rock defeat me…not yet at least. As we made our way down the road I began to strategize a way to secure the rock to the straps of my ruck. Before busting out the supply of 550 cord, bungee cords, and whatever other rope I brought along for the race I tried to just secure the rock by using my chest and waist belts as holders for the rock. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this method was going to leave my pelvis severely bruised. I fashioned the ropes and bungees to my chest straps and waist belt, securing the rock to my body so I could avoid slicing my hands up any more than I already had.

Trying to stay with a pack for once and especially with those who had taken a bit of a lead I found myself having a bunch of difficulties getting my headlamp situated for the impending darkness that was beginning to engulf the skies above. I finally decided to stop and take a moment to fix the straps on my headlamp. Once fixed, I had to gather myself and figure out which direction to continue. I followed a few racers, and was soon united with some of my friends including Daren De Heras, Pete Coleman, Junyong Pak, among many other Death Race veterans. We all continued on through the pouring rain toward Blood Root. Eventually we approached a fork in the road where everyone’s opinion was divided 50/50 on which way to go. We spent a fair amount of time here trying to figure out which direction was the correct path. I recalled the directions we were presented and knew that the left path was the shorter route, there was no way in hell that was the correct path to take. This is where things became a bit interesting. Half the group followed Junyong up the path to the left. I decided to hang tight for a bit before making any rash decisions. I wanted to be certain I wasn’t going the wrong way, I did not want to risk being penalized for taking the wrong route, miss a challenge, or the worst case scenario, wind up lost with no idea where to go.

After what seemed like a significant amount of time a group of us finally headed down the path to the right. Not too far along we eventually ran into another group of Death Racers who were being led by Andy, Norm Koch and Jack Cary. This turnaround point led to a lot of chaos and confusion. People who were behind us didn’t know whether they should keep going or turn around and join this group. Seeing all the Race Directors together was all I needed to see, I would let them lead the way. Where the Race Directors go, I’ll follow. I knew I had taken the right path but they were going back in the direction from which we had just been. By turning around I was among the leaders of the pack. That’s how fast things can change in the Death Race. Just like that, you can go from being somewhere in the middle, yet in almost the blink of an eye you can be back in the “top” position.

Now knowing we had taken the correct path I realized the other guys went the wrong way. I didn’t want to get too excited so I kept this thought to myself and just tried to keep pace focusing on staying with the taskmasters. The further back we traveled the more spread out the group became. I was running with a couple people two guys were in front of me and another pair behind. My bungee cords were flopping around quite a bit and as the rock slowly made its way out I finally brought myself to a halt deciding it was best to take the time to readjust my rock holster. When I looked back up I was alone. No one was in sight. I ran ahead a bit more. Still no one. I turned off my headlamp to see if I could spot anyone else’s beam of light through the darkness.  Nothing… I was alone.

To be continued…