Legend of the Death Race
Year 2: Power
Chapter 1: Jet-setter
Just a week prior to the 2013 Spartan Death Race – Year of the Gambler, I was being trained to be a Spartan Group X Trainer, had the trip of a life time to California – my first time ever (I was there once before but only for a day trip to Magic Mountain) traveling up and down the coast from San Diego to San Luis Obispo and back. To top it all off I finally had a shot at a purely obstacles only race at the Alpha Warrior course in San Diego where at long last I stood on my first OCR podium. Coming off the trip I was beyond ecstatic but as I flew back from San Diego the Monday night before the Death Race the nerves began to trigger a slight bit of anxiety within. Before leaving on my trip I had already packed most of the necessities for the Death Race, when I returned I would only have a few things to gather, or so I thought. My flight from San Diego to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport arrived at 11:59PM on Monday, I was to fly out to Manchester, NH Wednesday at 6:00AM from O’Hare arriving 1:34PM, Cleveland layover = nap-time! Talk about cutting things close. Packing was a nightmare.
To my luck, my pops – the dude who has always been there for me in everything I do – found someone to give my beloved Fiskars x27 Ave a very nice sharpening. just days before I returned from San Diego. Gathering my gear and some of the shopping frenzy that took place on Tuesday was extremely chaotic but made the race feel like it had already begun, enjoyment and happy smiles were in full effect even though my mind was traveling faster than Ferrari on the Autobahn and at times I felt like I was going to forget all the essentials in my haste. I kept reminding myself that 90% of what I needed was packed and that this last 10% was always going to happen the days leading up to the Death Race, it’s just the nature of it. After Mark Webb picked me up from the airport we did even more shopping for food and other items we needed for the race such as grass seed, food and hydration, hand shovel, compression sack, Colgate Wisps (such a key item to have after being out there over 24 hours getting all kinds of nasty mouth), you know important stuff that’s best bought once you are on the way to the Pittsfield, VT area to minimize travel weight.
Once again Mark and I would be heading to the Death Race together. My favorite part about this race is seeing, being and racing with all the incredible people I have become friends with over the past couple of years. Truly inspiring individuals to be with, it brings tremendous happiness to my life. We checked into the Hill Side Inn located in Killington, VT Thursday evening just before the race. That evening we ventured close to Pittsfield for what has become the traditional “Last Supper” hosted by Team SISU. The last time I was at the “Last Supper” at the Winter Death Race earlier in the year, I wasn’t even in post surgery physical therapy yet. This time was much more enjoyable, I didn’t have to protect my shoulder constantly. It was great catching up with everyone that was there including my teammates from the Corn Fed Spartans.
After dinner Mark and I headed back for an early night at the hotel. We were to be at registration by 9:00AM at the latest Friday morning. We discussed it back and fourth and eventually concluded that we would head out try to drop our gear at Amee Farm and then head to the Original General Store, grab some breakfast. What happened instead is we pulled up and were not allowed into Amee Farm for our gear drop. I could see in the distance Amelie Boone doing exactly what Mark and I had requested to so this mildly irked me during our breakfast. I kept breakfast simple and stuck to granola, yogurt and fruit.
After we finished and had time to connect with other friends and racers Mark and I gave our attempt to gear drop at Amee another go around and this time we succeeded. We showed the “parking security” volunteer the email pointing out that we could indeed drop our gear anytime after 5:00AM at Amee and he agreed to allow us. As we unpacked a Staff member appeared and the mind games began. He kept trying to go on and on that we were incredibly late for registration and that we’d never make it in time to begin. Both Mark and I kept doing what we needed to unload his vehicle and secure our location in the gear tent not letting his incessant “you’ll never make it” talk disturb us. It always cracks me up how hard the staff and volunteers try to make someone drop. Then it was off to the Riverside Farm to park Mark’s vehicle, drop off our identification and another valuable item (I used my old DePaul Student ID and Driver’s License).
When we pulled up we were next to the Corn Fed Spartans, my teammates and support. Jonathan Nolan and TJ Nomeland looked ready to go, uncertainty about when to start showed in their eyes. We waited until almost 8:30PM to register, knowing from the email that it was from 6:00AM until 9:00AM. It’s one of those things many of the veterans now know that the first timers usually don’t, the sooner you show up the sooner you go to work and it doesn’t stop until the Race Directors say you finished or you pull yourself from the course. The more you do the sooner and more likely you are to overwork yourself and DNF. It’s just the facts. That’s Death Race. There is a balance to find in playing the game. After all this year we were Gambling. Up until the race I was uncertain how gambling would play into the race, but it was all starting to make sense. Everything you do in the race, the choices you make, the food you eat, the shoes you wear, it’s all a gamble. Completing a challenge, knowing you completed it, that’s a gamble. We were gambling with when to register and when we would choose to begin the race.
We started at 9:00AM and the first place we were sent to was Andy’s new home. On the way we had a checkpoint that involved taking out our hand snips and trimming some foliage. Typical Death Race landscaping right off the bat. Hilarious if you ask me. When I tried to get my snips out I must have turned or something while I pulled them out and dropped them. For about 5 minutes I was tweaking out trying to find them and suddenly everyone was being sent onward to Andy’s just as I clipped my first branch. Time to pack my stuff up and move back on. Being aware of everything happening within my bubble was all that mattered. Within a few more minutes we’d really be kicking off this dangerous, twisted, challenging race. Was I ready? Absolutely. No thoughts, no worries, just doing whatever task they ask, and moving on to the next challenge one after the other. Like a robot. The Year of the Gambler had finally begun.
Chapter 2: Stairway to Heaven
As I made my way over toward Andy’s place I was noticing how muddy the terrain was beneath the grip of my Inov-8 Roclite 285’s. The path that led to Andy’s was pretty short and simple as we arrived we instantly came to a halt and it was time for a gear check by none other than the children of the race directors. I find it hysterical and humorous that they involve their kids in playing the games with the racers, and they’re pretty damn good at it too. I jumped the line and went off to the side and was accused of trying to “cut” when in actuality my intentions were to open my Gunslinger II and locate my index card of what gear I brought with me and so I could have access to whichever items would be needed. I’m always trying to be a few steps ahead to speed things up when I know what to expect. I quickly showed my three items and zipped my gear back up.
Andy was wandering around the group of people saying hi to all the veterans and greeting many of the new prospects. Most of the group arriving was comprised of veterans since we all waited while a majority of the newcomers started things off early and had already been at Andy’s house breaking up rocks and stones. Many of them were using the butt of their axes, and so once I knew that was what we had to do and Andy confirmed, I went to work but within a brief moment all the veterans were called over to the front lawn of the house. We were directed to do some obnoxious number of burpees, I think it was something like 300. When Todd made his, now expected, late appearance he was directed to do 1000 burpees and the rest of us were to count for him. That lasted a good five to ten minutes before the race directors became bored with the shenanigans of messing with Todd. After that we were further broken up into Veteran Finishers and Veteran Non-Finishers. Those of who had finished – officially and unofficially – were directed to make their way back toward Riverside Farm.
Once we returned to the Riverside Farm area we discovered what we would be doing for the next few hours. As it turned out during some of the camps that Peak Races hosts the race directors already had participants set some rather large stones into the earth, building a staircase up the side of the mountain. Sections of this stone staircase would be used for the weddings that are hosted here, the rest of it would create a new easily navigable trail to the top of the mountain. What better way to improve the scenery than to have a group of Death Racers build a beautiful staircase up the side of Joe’s mountain. These guys are brilliant, you really have to hand it to them. Not only do they get free labor but they actually get us to pay them to bust our asses. It still boggles my mind but being a part of something this historic….you can’t put a price on that. I was ecstatic to be part of this.
This first section was pretty much complete but there were some stones that needed to be replaced, moved, or re-set since the staircase wasn’t up to Joe’s standards. Understandably so. Some of these stones that were already in place moved to much and others just were not large enough to make the pieces of this puzzle fit together. That’s what the task became the more we built. A very heavy puzzle made of a collection of miscellaneous pieces that all somehow would fit together to become a work of art. This staircase would one day become the masterpiece of those who signed up to take on the madness that Joe and Andy subject us to every time we come out to the wonderful foothills of Vermont.
We were provided with very little tools in order to succeed. Like the Egyptians who built the pyramids we had to use primitive tools to get the job done. This was our pyramid. We had a collection of iron poles handed to us and the rest was up to the racers to figure out. Just as we were about to start new directions came and ordered us back to Andy’s. Not even half way there we were turned around again, we quickly made our way through the single track trail that leads straight from Riverside to Andy’s, extremely convenient. Andy and Joe are only going to have that much more time to come up with torturous Death Race task. When we arrived back at the staircase Joe had us sort ourselves into teams of 5, each team had a captain and Olof, the reigning champion of Death Race was made into main leader. Our team was solid we had Amelia, Mark, Bryan, Isaiah and myself with Mark taking the lead as our captain.
We set to work on the staircase immediately. Within minutes you could tell we weren’t exactly sure how to organize and structure our staircase assembly line. Everyone was kind of getting themselves into a little of everything and instead of digging into the earth to make suitable resting spots for each stone step the group was mainly trying to just piece a puzzle together. It didn’t work very well and when Jeff Foster made his way over he was assigned to take over for Olof in commanding the group of previous Death Racers to assemble this stone staircase. Since Jeff does this sort of thing for a living he was able to get our asses in gear and no longer were we just a bunch of Death Racers moving stones through sloppy mud and hacking away at branches, but we were a cohesive unit building a solid stone staircase that would actually be suitable for Joe to take wedding parties on. Together we were making history.
Chapter 3: Mile High Staircase
The first night we were on Joe’s mountain we didn’t finish working on the staircase until something like 3AM. The entire time, we worked tirelessly building those stairs. It was evident that some teams were clearly expending more energy and putting forth more effort in making a respectable staircase compared to other teams. My team, Team 1, was absolutely killing it. Our staircase was among the best with each step perfectly placed, filled in, and properly fitted with the chosen stone.In terms of weight, we moved anywhere from 300 to 3000-pound stones, each one requiring precise lifting and positioning before sliding it into place. The most impressive of stone steps that we placed had to be the one that Don Devaney claimed to be comparable to the weight of a Ford F-150 — in other words, It was enormous! To make this happen, we needed ti recruit help from other teams, coordinating how to lift the stone, and make that stone slide into place in addition to stopping it without endangering anyone’s life. Accomplishing such a feat required us to lay out multiple pipes that ended right where the stone needed to be set in place. Then, three or more people began prying the stone up from the ground with more pipes and a second group that had more pipes angled at the bottom as fail-safe, to stop a slipping rock just incase it locked into place further than we wanted. Naturally, there were naysayers, a lot of them, when we tried to coordinate this. I took the lead and directed everyone to successfully maintain sense of direction and order. Since we had already moved many stones of similar, we had a working system to accomplish this task. As soon as a stone was lifted and placed on the pipes, it started sliding fast and the second it hit the soil it came to an abrupt stop. What seemed like a disaster waiting to happen (especially for those watching) became the most successful and amazing moment of the staircase construction process. Success — it felt so good, especially after having so many other racers tell us we were nuts and that this would never work. We succeeded and with that, we connected one of the last sections of the staircase that needed to be filled in.
All this time there was only a few things on my mind:
1. Keep going.
2. This is the easy part.
3. Don’t push yourself to hard.
4. Keep your nutrition and hydration solid while it’s still manageable.
5. I wish Corinne was here.
During this whole process, while we busted our asses on those stairs, I started hearing from people that we might be getting food for doing so well. This struck me as very concerning and shocking at first. Why would they give us food?Is this a gamble? Are we being tricked? And what was up with them providing everyone with ZICO. I thought this race was self-supported. Something was fishy; it just didn’t add up. They were helping us and being nice to us. Then it hit me. We were going to be on that mountain until those stairs were finished. How can they make sure these stairs get finished as fast as they want them done…provide the racers with unconventional comfort that will motivate them. Very interesting tactic, Joe and Andy, well-played. The chicken coleslaw and bread was delicious. I feasted, then went back to work. Feeding the racers worked very well, very few people dropped those first 18-24 hours and the stairs…they look magnificent (you should really get to Pittsfield, VT and check them out). Those stairs will only get better with age.
Once we had done as much as we could on the staircase one team at a time we were sent to the top of Joe’s Mountain. Atop the mountain the directive called for headlamps off and to find a place to sit or lay down. I sat there with Michelle Lomelino and Lee Biga, impatient and aching for this race to begin already. There we were, laying under one of the largest moons you could ever see — shining through some clouds with an ominous hue. The view of the nighttime sky at the top of Joe’s mountain is incredible. It’s one thing I stare at in awe every chance I get when I’m in these mountains. Joe’s Mountain top has come a long way since last time I was up there. The cabin is now covered with the most amazing stones that have been laid by the athletes training and living in the cabin. There is an incredible stone fire pit that was made earlier this summer by my friend, Michael Aspinall, whom I stayed with for the Indiana Spartan Race. He did a damn fine job of constructing this fire pit. Given that there was no seating, I knew at least one thing we’d be doing after nap time.
All at once everyone instructed to get up, headlamps on, and begin doing some good old fashioned landscaping. We had to bust out our snips and saws and whatever other useful tools we brought for cutting down some brush and such. Some racers were instructed to move logs and stones to create a seating area for that badass hand-built stone fire pit. Seriously though, it’s what I envision when I think of building one, but with probably a much different outcome. I was instructed to do some hedging, so I used my saw and began tearing through all the tall grass, weeds, and whatever else we were gutting through. Joe kept reminding us that there was a wedding later in the day and that was why he needed the stairs and landscaping completed ASAP. I never saw a wedding.
Finally, there was one particularly large stone at the top of the mountain that everyone was trying to move. Literally almost everyone was on it. I could tell from the distance (and basic physics) that the ropes might snap any minute. That stone just wasn’t moving. As I began to walk up, they summoned all hands on deck. Snap. The rope snapped just as I approached. Back to cutting down brush and staying away from the race directors to avoid risking being caught doing nothing. It’s better to do something than nothing. As I hacked away, Don called me over and told me to take my hay and seed and bring it down the mountain to Andy. He told me how long it took him to get from the top the bottom and I was sent on my way trying to go as fast as possible. I grabbed my compression sack filled with wet hay, the easiest way to get 5 pounds without requiring an extra large garbage bag to carry all the hay stalks it would take to make 5 pounds dry. I was one of the first few sent off on this task, and I took off at full speed.
Determination. Power. Confidence.
I had it all at that moment. I wanted to push myself to compete with everything I had. No limits. No torn shoulders. No excuses. I felt great and with that newly-risen sun, I was feeling alive. This was it, this was my time! I had been training for this since last year. Even when I was stuck in my parent’s house with one arm stuck to my side, I was preparing for the Death Race. My mind knew what it had to do. The rest was just systematic. My body is programmed to do what my mind tells it to do. Whoosh. Full speed down the mountain. I knew, this race is about to begin.
Chapter 4: Ready, Get Set…
Running down the staircase, yes, the one we just built not even a few hours earlier was absolutely exhilarating. Seeing the variety of boulders we’d placed and dug into the mountainside to create this new pathway leading us from the bottom to the top was a thing of beauty. In my head, I could already see how beautiful it would be a few months from now when I would return to Vermont for the Spartan Race World Championships Beast and Ultra Beast. As I hastily glided down the mountain, I fully embraced this boost in my energy levels; I started to think about how everyone gathered from all around the country and about how some people even travelled internationally to be here. For this race. This crazy insane race requiring us to build a staircase up the side of a mountain as we seeded the ground around what we had built. Then, it clicked. With people coming from all parts of the world, it surely meant the likelihood we were planting a wide array of grass seed from these very geographic locations was high—really high. This realization lost me in thoughts of how magical this place would soon become; something truly remarkable and uniquely special was being created before our very eyes. With shear man power, will and determination we had finally built a mile long staircase. We planted all kinds of grass seed and we’d created something that will outlast even my future grandchildren’s lifetime. All I could think about was what an absolutely breathtaking scene this mountainside will be once Mother Nature has her way.
Regaining my focus on the task at hand, I arrived at the location where Andy directed us to unload our seed and hay. I opened my compression sack took out my grass seed, hurriedly spread it all about and laid my damp hay a top the seedlings. And before I knew it, I was sprinting my way up the mountain. Having the capability to travel without the ruck is so incredibly liberating—all that weight off my shoulders. I literally moved like the wind. Approaching the mountaintop and passing Shrek’s Cabin, I could hear Joe instructing Junyoung Pak, “See if you can beat the racers we already sent down and back up,” but just as Joe presented this challenge I was returning from the task. I announced my arrival to Joe and he looked to Pak and said, “Too late.” I remember Don being shocked at the blistering speed of my arrival. I was noticing quite a difference in my performance from the previous year when I was wandering the mountain just trying to get by with my torn labrum. Things were different this year. My power was back. I wasn’t supposed to be back to 100% and, at the time, I was probably only at about 80% of my strength, but it felt like 110%. That’s the difference between compensating and competing for an entire year on an injury. I felt like I could actually destroy this race and possibly even find myself in the top three spots if I kept moving with such ferocity. Going into the race my goal was simple, finish. It’s funny, how quickly that goal was evolving.
After this section, Joe took the first group of us down the mountain where we had quite a bit of bushwhacking to do before the next task. There we were required to move a few bucket loads worth of gravel to various spots on the mountain to assist in repairing sections of the trail. These are the typical “chores” that many racers have been known to complain about, but as a person who’d come to love this mountain and understand what it means to contribute to the preservation of its usability, I was happy to oblige. As we all finished our portion of the trail-grooming chores, we were told to grab a rock, which Joe had to approve, before he’d lead us through some gnarly terrain. Some of the spots were a bit sketchy and dangerous at times. With all the weight on my back and the big rock in my hands, I took extreme caution, but the terrain wasn’t enough to stop anyone, myself included. I remember one particular spot where a few people had clearly been recently. I must’ve been with the second group of people that Joe was showing the correct path to take, I thought. I recall trying to follow these vaguely marked “trails” and at some point he said the magic words I’d been waiting to hear for well over 24 hours, “The race starts now.” BOOM! I took off trying to bushwhack, duck, dip, dodge, and climb over all the branches and rocks in my way while trying to pass people without endangering them or myself. The fire within my ribcage raged! Swelling with determination as my guide and Amee Farm as my destination. Once I found myself on the open, well-groomed trail I kicked it up a few notches. Still carrying my rock in hand, I flew down the mountain. It was a rush passing everyone and soon enough, I found myself leading the way. I lead the entire pack to the next challenge.
My frontrunning didn’t last too long, however, one of my good and very inspiring friends, Isaiah Vidal, saw my speed as I flew past and I saw him launch himself into a full-out run. The two of us glided down the mountain, twisting and turning, jumping over rocks, crushing the switchbacks, doing whatever it took to be the first to Amee Farm. Isaiah took the lead as I started to fall back ever so slightly. I looked back, no one was anywhere in sight. To me, it seemed that we were the only ones pushing ourselves to race. As the clearing approached I could see Amee Farm in sight. Arriving less than a minute behind Isaiah, I was ecstatic to find out I was in second place. Our reward for being the first two to arrive at the wood chopping challenge? The largest damn stumps I had ever seen! These were not meant to be split with an axe or even a maul. I looked at mine in a defeating disbelief. Lesson learned, don’t be among the first to arrive to a challenge, you’ll only be rewarded, no, punished, for being a top contender.
As the other racers poured in I realized how everyone else was greeted with normal-sized stumps, which they only had to split into six pieces each, requiring a total of 30 logs split. Isaiah and I, however, were to split these enormous stumps into 25 pieces of fire wood. Starving, I remember eating some food and chugging down some Gatorade. I was half eating a PB&J while trying to split this monstrosity. Whack. Whack. Whack. With each swing I couldn’t help but laugh; this was ridiculous! No matter how hard I tried I was making ZERO progress. Each strike just reaffirmed that this was an impossible task. I focused on trying to slam my Fiskars X27 into the edges of the stump to start splitting it up but in reality I was just mulching little tiny pieces away—I couldn’t chop one clean splice. I had no clue what to do. I checked on Isaiah and he was having similar luck—or lack thereof. Nothing was giving on these stumps.
The other racers were trickling in one by one. I felt a suffocating sense of claustrophobia by all the ax swinging that surrounding me. Unlike everyone else, who could easily grab and move their stumps wherever they wanted, I was unable to re-position mine because of the weight. I even had to ask a few racers to relocate because I simply could no longer bear the proximity of everything. All of it began to stress me out. I think I even felt just a bit concerned for my life. I didn’t know how skilled some of these guys were in the art of chopping wood and I didn’t want become the victim to a stray piece of wood or worse, an ax courtesy of Mr. Butterfingers. Once I put things in perspective for a few of the racers surrounding and boxing me in, they finally moved.
Shortly thereafter, after a few of us veterans, maybe 10, were pulled away from our splitting logs and informed we had to complete some ridiculous amount of Burpees, something like 500!. I can’t even remember why or what the whole deal was, but what I do remember during this whole Burpee Fest, that no one took it seriously and our counting went a little something like…1, 2, 3, 10, 15, 20, 50, 100… our counting may have been a bit….off, but we were all doing them in unison. If I were to guess, I’d say we easily did anywhere between 150 and 200 Burpees. but I can’t “confirm” that number with any certainty. Once the torture was complete, we were allowed to go back to splitting wood, but I was no longer forced to hack away at that enormous log. So, what I did here was collect all the logs required and I positioned myself on the other side of Route 100 where they stored all the firewood at the top of the parking lot near the lodge. My strategy allowed me to split everything on location so I could go straight to stacking everything as soon as I finished.
Switching from that monstrosity to the normal-sized logs was the greatest blessing. That was the trigger I needed. That was it, now focused all my fury on my pile of logs. I remember Chad Weberg checked in on me and was shooting some photos. It was good to see a friend and fellow Corn Fed Spartan. The logs were splitting like a dream, I was just slicing through them like a hot knife (or ax) through butter. As soon as I finished splitting and without even skipping a beat, I stacked them and carried them over immediately. I was a machine—mechanical in my movements and output. I spent a little time adjusting the existing pile and I just knew I had to be one of the first to be finished splitting. After stacking all the wood and fixing the pile, I tried to see if I could move on, but I was told to continue stacking. I felt it begin to set in. Panic. I began to worry that I would get stuck in the wood-splitting vortex. Unable to continue on to the next task. Trapped. I wanted to see if I could get moving. I was already done with this challenge. I remember, Missy Morris came over to me at one point and informed me they’d started sending people on to the next task. I was livid. She could see it in my face and told me she wanted to make sure I knew what was happening. I was thankful but pissed not to be with that first group. I felt like I somehow got screwed out of being the first to leave even though I was the among the first two to: arrive, crank out a bunch of Burpees when I should have been splitting wood, and was one of the first to finish splitting all my logs. Needless to say, I was not happy, but this was the Death Race. I knew this type of thing could happen, which was why I was so concerned about moving to the next challenge in the first place.
Furious, I made my way back across Route 100 and went to the gear tent where I was stopped by Candie Bobick, another good friend and teammate from the Corn Fed Spartans. Apparently my frantic rush to get my stuff together in an effort to catch up with the others (the ones already on their way to the next challenge) set off an alarm to Candie that I was not in the right state of mind. She asked me when the last time I had eaten and, unable to answer her, my mind raced around trying to think of what I needed to bring. The worst part is you are always unaware of how long it’ll be until the next time you’ll have access to your drop bin. My mind continued to race. Did I need shoes? Socks? How much food should I bring? I could barely think and Candie could tell. She stopped me and forced me to drink some chocolate milk; it was so damn delicious. I’m pretty sure she fed me something else, pretzels for the salt content. Definitely pretzels. Within a few minutes I was feeling more self-aware again and back on track. Nutrition is probably one of the most important things at the Death Race, I’m usually very self-aware of my food intake, but in this moment my priorities were a mess.
Before leaving Amee Farm I finished packing my gear and gave it all one more mental checklist read off. I was primarily concerned with resupplying my food and water supplies and I was off to the top of Tweed River Drive where the barbed wire task awaited. I was told I could get there any way I wanted. I couldn’t find any alternative transport so I just started running along Route 100 towards Riverside Farm. I figured taking the direct route might be my best bet right now, in hopes of possibly catching a ride. Any means possible, right? That’s when I saw fellow Death Race competitor, Anthony fly past me on a bicycle. I yelled, “How the hell did you get a bike?” Feeling defeated, I continued moving along the road. This sucks, I thought to myself. There goes my huge lead. For some reason I was letting my high hopes of staying in the top positions get me down. This wasn’t like me, I wasn’t here to win, ever. I was here to finish. Coming into the wood chopping challenge second was inflating my head. It didn’t take long for me to stop caring about where I ranked as I hiked my way up the long road to the top of Tweed River Drive. I had a race to finish.
Chapter 5: A Dance with Barbed Wire”
Making my way up to the top of Tweed River Drive, I was surprised not to see anyone ahead of me and looking back, no one behind me. I was all alone. The solitude felt strange. The sun beat down hard as I charged up the same path I remembered taking the year before, when Morgan and I headed toward one of the last challenges. Just like that time, I felt the sun’s punishing rays rapidly increasing my body temperature.
The reality of being alone and still wandering up the road after Anthony passed by on the bike left me feeling a bit edgy. By now, I expected at least one person to catch me. Uphill climbing isn’t exactly my specialty. I continued to climb until finally I reached the last stretch just before the cabin where Chris Davis had once stayed came into sight. I could see a table where Peter Borden sat waiting for his next victims. This was the year of the Gambler and I was about to play my first real hand at his sadistic card game, literally.
Finally, I saw some racers already playing the game, so I took a minute to observe how everything was playing out; all the while being greeted by some of my Corn Fed Spartan family members. They came here to observe this particular obstacle since it was one that everyone had been murmuring about since people started arriving in Pittsfield. Admittedly, it was a pretty gnarly obstacle designed to physically and mentally break a person. At the top, was a ravine and a drain culvert was constantly dumping water into the ravine. The ravine itself was wonderfully decorated with strands of barbed wire hanging loosely from the roots and a few stakes here and there. At a typical obstacle or Spartan Race you’ll see a saggy barbed wire section every now and then, but this…this was unlike any barbed wire section imaginable.
Some sections required making a choice between crawling over or under a log—the key factor being how easily one might navigate their pack across the obstacle. At the top of this crazy barbed wire section was a fold-out card table. There, Peter Borden, another Death Race mastermind and race director, was challenging each racer returning from their dance with the barbed wire to a little card battle. High or low? Choosing a low card meant you went back for another round of barbed wire navigation. Choosing a high card resulted in moving on to the next card. But let’s be real here, who’s kidding who? This is the Death Race. Much like life, it’s not designed to be fair and I could see that was the case at the present. From what I could tell, you retrieved your card from the bottom of the crawl and played it at the top.
Observing this obstacle, I took my time to get myself “comfortable” for the first time I took off the tactical pants I wore and stripped down to my compression shorts. The heat was a major factor and I knew this obstacle would leave me soaking wet. We were to take our bags with us through the challenge so I unloaded most of my contents in the safest location I could find behind the little shack. Closing my pack, I took a gamble.—leaving my gear unattended. In addition to unloading my gear, I took advantage and refueled with some Gatorade and snacks. Once I was ready, I notified Peter Borden that I was ready to gamble. He sent me to the barbed wire section with my recently-lightened pack, to the bottom of the ravine where I was greeted by volunteers before receiving a card. Once I received my card, I was to return to the top of the ravine to play my card against Peter’s. Let the gamble begin.
I grabbed my pack and began my dance with the barbed wire. This barbed wire crawl was unlike anything I had ever experienced, which had nothing to do with slinging my ruck along with me. I was no stranger to bringing a ruck through a crawl, I’ve simulated this at many obstacle course races by dragging my ruck along for the ride. What made this barbed wire crawl so dire was the very element of its design. It snaked through a treacherous ravine that most wouldn’t even consider trying to navigate without the manmade string of thorns. But I couldn’t help but think,here, climb up and down this slippery slope of death…and wait, let us throw in a bunch of loose, low hanging barbed wire in the mix to give it that added touch of “you may die” that sounds like a great obstacle. And the sick part is, I really enjoyed this challenge, a lot.
As I started crawling my way down I realized how advantageous my natural flexibility would be a factor in this obstacle. On the descent, I started to get an idea of how many of us were already here. There were only maybe six or seven of us when I started. Crawling down the ravine really brought out all the natural movements I have come to perform naturally (thanks to the many years of martial arts, to my years in gymnastics and my collegiate cheerleading continued to strengthen and maintain my flexibility).. I moved through the barbed wire with incredible ease, like one of those spies sneaking into a heavily laser-guarded museum, moving under each wire and even picking them up when need be with zero hesitation. My speed to the bottom proved to be noteworthy. At the bottom, I was surprised to see the volunteers were two young children. They gave me the opportunity to select a card and as I turned it around to view it I was not happy to see it was the two of hearts. Knowing that the high card wins, I was ready for my punishment before I even began my climb. Figuring there was no point wasting time, I hurried myself back to the top trying not to catch my ruck or my body on any of the wire. From that point forward, I was on a mission to regain my leading position in the race. I couldn’t turn off my competitive edge.
Approaching the card table, I sarcastically threw my card down and told Peter Borden, “beat that” and laughed almost maniacally. He laughed and said, “Looks like you have another lap” as he pulled out an Ace from his deck. If, for some reason, you got lucky and did win you’d instantaneously move to the next challenge. Since that was a very unlikely outcome the other option to move on to the next challenge was to complete five laps of this barbed wire crawl challenge. There was a least some sign of relief though, after three laps with the ruck you were allowed to finish the last two laps without it.
Knowing that this was the Death Race and with almost 100% certainty that the game was completely skewed in the House’s favor, much like a casino except with even worse odds, my strategy was to barrel through the barbed wire crawl with as much speed as possible. Finishing this obstacle with the fastest, that was my goal. As soon as I could drop the bag I knew I could fly through this course. I knew that was how I’d catch up and pass my competition. My energy levels surged through the roof at this stage. I can’t really explain it other than feeling empowered. Maybe it was the young boy cheering me on, or the support of my fellow Corn Fed Spartans, or Andy telling me during one of my laps that I could win this thing, or the fact I was actually gaining on the leaders and was ahead of previous winner Olof Dallner and female winner Amelia Boone but I felt powerful.
This race seemed ruthless, yet in a sick and twisted way, it also felt ridiculously easy to me. Up until now, nothing really demanded too much of me and we had to be a good 30 or so hours into the event. The moment I was free from having to lug that bag up and down was the moment that obstacle was over. I knew I wasn’t going to win a single one of these rounds of cards so I just moved as swiftly and quickly as possible. Sliding my body over an enormous tree root while staying low enough to avoid getting snagged, aping my way down the rocks, and bear crawling with unbelievable ease I completed those last two laps so vivaciously.
When I finished I even celebrated with a Burpee backflip or two for the camera. That’s right, after nearly 30 something hours moving up and down that mountain, chopping wood, moving rocks, running, and hiking and navigating this perilous barbwire course I was still able to show-off with my favorite variation of the Burpee. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what would happen when I went to throw that backflip but I had so much power, stamina, and vigor that I wasn’t worried. I knew my muscles would activate and I let them take over. It was with great surprise I landed, but of course I didn’t show it; no, I nailed that Burpee backflip. Pure ownage!. This was my race. Get off the tracks or be destroyed by the freight train because I am unstoppable!
Chapter 6: The Unexpected
After finishing the barbed wire challenge I had the opportunity to gather my gear before proceeding to the next challenge; or lack thereof. My mission required that I head back to the Riverside Farm and wait. That’s right, myself and the other four racers who finished were so far ahead that we had to wait for over four hours. After everyone was together, we once again gathered for instructions about the next challenge. In the meantime, we were practically given a free pass to do anything we wanted. The only instruction was to be back at Riverside Farm ready to go by 4:00 pm. I made my way to the bottom of Tweed River Drive back to the large field outside the White Barn at Riverside Farm. This area was also used as the parking lot for most of the racers and it just so happened that Mark had also parked his car here.
Finally arriving at Riverside Farm after hiking back down, I went straight to Mark’s Land Rover, found the key that he hid just in case one of us finished early, and opened up the hatch. Inside I found the perfect tool to keep me busy these next few hours. I recall purposely packing away my travel-size foam roller knowing how wrecked my body would be after another dance with death. Around this same time some of my fellow Corn Fed Spartans came back down from the barbed wire challenge to check on me. They asked if I needed anything from my bag check, or if I wanted anything to eat as they were about to go grab lunch from the General Store.
Oh, the Original General Store of Pittsfield, VT. The most magnificent General Store ever. (How I love you so). I was ecstatic when they asked me if I wanted anything to eat. Are you kidding me? Of course I want something, I thought to myself, I’ve been eating protein/energy bars, trail mix, and other random foods up to this point. The thought of a juicy bacon burger from the General Store popped into my head. When Missy Morris asked me what I wanted my immediate response was, “Can I have a burger, with BACON?!” Everyone laughed and then they hopped back in Lisa Weberg’s SUV and headed out.
While I waited I grabbed the foam roller and went to town on every sore part of my body. No muscle was left unrolled! Upper Back? Check. Hamstrings? Check. Calves? Check. Hip Flexors? Check. Lower Back? Double Check. My basic theory in rolling everything out during the down time was to prevent my muscles from locking up. A few of the guys I made it back with laid down and went straight into nap-time. Not me, I was still rocking-out from the wicked energy spike after crushing that barbed wire crawl and nailing the celebratory Burpee back-flip. My primary objective was to be proactive and reserve some of my energy and channel it to my active recovery efforts.. The more I thought about it, the fact was evident that, once again, being a leader in this race was less than ideal, especially early on. The larger the lead you take in this race, one of two things happen. First, they continue to give you more and more work to break you down until the rest of the pack catches up. Or, secondly, they do make you wait, giving you time to rest. You are probably thinking, how is that a bad thing? The thought of it isn’t that bad, especially since you’ve been going for over 30 hours at this point. However, the reality is the longer you rest the more the soreness sets in. Muscles begin to cramp and you can feel your shoulders tighten, your legs begin to stiffen up, and the thought of lifting them becomes the greatest challenge. I could not let this happen.. During those hours in the field I did everything I could to stay somewhat active. Everything in my power to keep my body “fresh” whatever “fresh” meant after 30+ hours of racing.
While waiting in the field, I was visited by my dear friend, Andi Hardi. She was also about to make a trip back to Amee Farm, where our gear drop was and asked me if I needed anything. I realized this was quite possibly the last chance I’d have to get some fresh socks and shoes for a while so that is exactly what I requested. I gave her exact directions as to where to find my gear at bag drop and any other pieces of information she’d need so I could finish this monster of a race. She asked if I needed food but I informed her that Missy was already grabbing me a burger—or so I had hoped she was. It felt like it had been a while since they had left. Andi took off and I went back to stretching and utilizing my foam roller. I will NOT cramp up, I kept repeating in my head. Control the mind, control the body.
I was just about to begin stretching when down came my Corn Fed Family. The sight of burger brought out pure jubilation from my ribcage. I demolished nearly half of the burger before they had to take off to look for the other members of Corn Fed who were back at the previous challenge now. They only stayed long enough to hand me the burger and wish me luck. My caloric deficit was quite evident, something that’s just part of these multi-day adventures. In endurance racing, caloric intake and retention is everything—it can really make or break someone’s race (and body). No matter how much you try the body will almost always be in negative calorie deficit.
To put that into perspective, in a typical day a person will generally eat anywhere between 1200-4000 calories/day depending on a lot of factors. A typical high intensity, hour plus workout can burn upwards of 1000 calories, again many factors to actually determine accurate counts. During a race of this magnitude you are easily burning nearly 10,000 calories/day and it is very likely you are only consuming somewhere in the realm of 2000 calories per day. Taking that into account I was trying very hard to keep my intake optimal so I could still perform and not lose too much weight and keep my energy levels sufficient. I entered this event weighing in around 158-160lbs on average leading up to the Death Race. No matter what, I was leaving this race lighter than when I began, and with my metabolism helplessly trying to keep up.
After they left I ate another quarter of the burger and put the rest aside for later. Not knowing when we might start up again, I didn’t want to risk being too full. Nothing is worse than throwing up during a race. I wanted to avoid that as long as I could. I don’t remember when it was, but eventually Andi returned with a whole trove of goodies including a whole pizza. I was stuffed but not even ten minutes after her arrival I found myself digging in and having a slice. Might as well take advantage of the fresh, food while it’s available! Soon enough, it’d be back to dried fruit and nuts, beef jerky, and whatever protein/energy I had left in my ruck. Andi also brought me a new pair of smart wool socks, my Brooks Cascadia 7’s that I used last year for more than half the race. I was excited to have something to change into since I’d been walking around barefoot since arriving at the field. It’s good to take advantage of being able to air your feet out and keep them dry. I stick to a strategy of using a pair of Injinji performance socks underneath either a pair of smart wool socks or compression socks. The smart wool wicks away the moisture and the Injinji toe socks keep anything from rubbing usually resulting in minimal blisters.
Another hour or so had passed and finally it was time to get back into race mode. All the other racers were arriving at the brown barn toward the back of the. Making my way over to the circle drive where all the racers were reconvening, I was shocked to see how many people were still in the race at that point. It didn’t sit right. Given that I knew the race was about to become increasingly difficult from here on out. If this many people remained there was no doubt Joe and Andy would turn things up a notch to assist in boosting the drop rate and help them reach their less than 15% finisher rate.
I decided I’d be ready for whatever sadistic curveball they were about to dish out. I remember wandering around trying to catch up with any of my friends that I hadn’t seen in a while to see how their race was going. There was a ZICO Coconut Water tent set up distributing coconut water to all the racers. I snagged a few for myself being conscious of how much I ingested knowing that the magnesium content could make you more likely to be required to dig yourself a hole in the woods. Something I’d like to avoid for as long as possible.
I recall connecting with some of my Team SISU friends, including Daren, whom I met at my first dance with Death the year before during our eighteen mile hike with Team Tire. I also saw my fellow Corn Fed Spartans teammates, Jonathan Nolan, TJ Nomeland, and Andé Wegner who informed me she would not be able to continue after the barbed wire crawl challenge. When I asked why, she showed me her ruck and how it was completely torn apart. There was nothing she could do to fix it. She had tried to make adjustments and fixes but nothing worked and that was it. I never would have thought to bring a backup ruck, but after seeing that I made a mental note. Something to consider. You really never know what could be the determining factor in this race. Somewhere in-between all this and the race announcements I also bumped into another friend that I met around this same amount of time into the race the year prior, Matt B. Davis. He informed me that he had been talking to Corinne and she wanted him to give me a kiss for her. That’s right, Matt gave me a kiss…from Corinne, of course. At this point I was like whatever and told him alright, he promised to shoot her a photo of it, too. It definitely gave me a smile and made me laugh. He asked me if I wanted to tell her anything, and I told him to tell her I loved her. He reluctantly obliged.
Shortly after, Andy and Joe hopped up on a rock and began to explain to the racers, the crew members, and all of the family and friends in attendance that the race was about to officially begin. Another one of the mind-boggling mind games they play. At this point, I sympathized more for the family, friends, and crew. They usually are the ones that are most taken aback by these announcements usually having less understanding of how the race works than the racers. Being a veteran, I just knew they were trying to see if anyone would drop, they had a goal and sometimes the mind games were the most effective way to achieve their desired results. I understood this, studying the race so closely gave me a lot of insight on what their tactics were, especially from developing how to conduct my own simulation of this event. They began to explain what our next task would be, but my mind was racing. My energy still spiked through the roof and all I wanted to do was blast through this next part of the race. I just spent more than four hours doing next to nothing. I needed to get back out there. I needed a new challenge. I needed something to curve my appetite. I was starving for adventure.
Chapter 7: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bloodroot
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chapter 8: Surviving the Delusions
There I was, feeling a little lost back at the entrance to Bloodroot Mountain Trail. I thought, how did everyone disappear so fast? I tried to keep my cool. There were two people in front of me just a minute ago, they couldn’t have gone far, I thought, reassuring myself. I decided to investigate the route that Junyong Pak took earlier. Perhaps he was right after all, perhaps that was the correct route to take. I started to climb up the mountain. Still carrying my rock, I could feel my heart begin to race. I decided to stop, and instead of wasting time searching for my fellow racers with no real sense of which route to take, I opted to use the best tool I could think of in this situation, my rape whistle! Just kidding, but it was a survival whistle. There I was at be beginning of Bloodroot, surrounded by towering trees, barely able to see the crystal clear, starry sky above. Finally, I found my survival kit. I hastily opened it and retrieved my survival whistle. Since so little time had passed since I last saw a person (maybe ten to fifteen minutes at most) I was confident someone would be close enough to hear the whistle. No matter how many times I made that whistle echo through the woods, I heard nothing in return. I turned my headlamp off to search for any bobbing lights in the distance. Nothing. I set my headlamp to flash and started scanning the horizon in hopes someone would either hear the sound of the survival whistle, or at the very least, see the flashing of my headlamp. Still nothing. I couldn’t waste any more time.
Once my bag was packed, I secured it to my back once again and I tossed my rock aside. It was slowing me down and it was far more important for me to find the correct route. I assured myself this wasn’t cheating; I planned to pick another sizable rock up again as soon as I was back on track. Thankfully, the mountainside has an abundance of shale rock. I ran back towards the intersection where the group of us struggled to decide what route to take previously. As I ran back down the right path, I finally saw someone running toward me. It was one of the Race Directors, Norm Koch, relief entirely overcame me. I told him I couldn’t figure out where everyone went after I tied my shoe and he told me to hurry behind him and he’d show me the route.
We ran back down the path a little and we came up on this pink ribbon, which appeared to be placed in a manner suggesting this path was a blocked off. I realized that wasn’t the case when Norm climbed over the pink ribbon and started to climb up the mountain. It’s no wonder why I struggled to find the correct route to take. The path was hidden, it was blocked off. The path didn’t shout out and say, “Hey, take this path.” I laughed to myself and thought, another great way to mess with our heads, nice.
As it turned out, Norm is an exceptionally fast and efficient hiker; he moves up and down these mountains with ease and impressive speed. He should be fast, though, he lived in the area and hiked the mountains all the time. I tried to keep up with him but found myself trailing further and further behind with each step. Not only was Norm used to climbing up and down these mountains on a daily basis but there was no pack weighing him down either. He was cruising. I did my best to keep up with his pace until the gap grew at an exponential rate and I had to call out for him to slow down a bit. He continued moving at his pace. It is the Death Race, after all. Of course he wouldn’t put on the brakes for me.
I felt relieved that he never pulled too far ahead of me. After about ten minutes of climbing we reached a road where a group of racers were waiting by a truck. It seemed they too were off the path and were directed to wait there for Norm to come lead the way. It was clear I didn’t have a rock at this point. I feared someone would call me out for it. Naturally, I made an effort to blend into the darkness while I searched the road for something suitable to pick up and carry once again. I did not feel good about being rock-less. Guilt was finding its way into my mind. I knew dropping that rock when I did was the right choice, so I just told myself to keep looking. I assured myself, you’ll find something. And find something I did. Not even a quarter mile later I found myself back at it trying to figure out a way to fashion a harness on the front of my pack for my new best friend, the new rock. At this point my pelvis already felt bruised from the poor decision I made to use my waist belt as part of the holster for my first rock. The importance of finding a solution that wouldn’t add to the collection of cuts and bruises this challenge had already left me with was rising. When this challenge began I had thought I was a genius. I thought the combination of bungee cords and compression straps would be the ultimate solution to secure this rock nice and tight to my pack. That was not the case, the faster I moved the more the bungees gave, the more the rock would wiggle its way out, and the more frustrated I became. I had to stop at least four or five times just to readjust my straps and reattach the rock. The frustration was starting to poke at me like a five year old who wants you to look at something. It took everything in me not to let that frustration get the best of me.
Eventually our little group hit a well-marked section and we were all on our own. I remember taking off on my own for a bit up the mountain pushing myself and trying to shake the delirium that was beginning to settle in. Bloodroot Mountain is one of the toughest climbs I’ve ever been on. It’s even more twisted and challenging when you are climbing while the moon is out and having not slept in over 40-something hours. With each step I began to question whether or not my eyes deceived me. Looking to the left, I saw what appeared to be a racer. As I began to get closer I was certain this racer was rocking back and forth. Were they cold? Is it possible the rain from earlier caused this racer to become hypothermic, I thought to myself. As I approached I closed my eyes and shook my head. When I reopened them all I saw were some branches swaying in the air. These were the dark moments of this race. I found myself questioning what was real and what was just a mirage from the delirium that takes over after being up for nearly two days straight drinking 5-Hour Energy shots every ten or so hours. Some of the things I would convince myself were there even if it made absolutely zero sense, but it was hilarious.. Without question I saw a chicken run across the path ahead of me; again an illusion from the branches blowing in the wind. Not knowing what was really there was pretty trippy; even if the illusions only lasted a few seconds it’s worthy to note that I wasn’t always in a stable frame of mind.
This is what makes the Death Race such an extraordinary challenge to overcome, not only do you push your body to its absolute max but you are also testing the strength and endurance of your mind. Can you stay awake? Can you make the right decisions on little to no rest? Can you push your mind to keep going when your body starts to cry, only wanting to quit? The Death Race is ultimately a test of the mind, everything else is just there to make it suck even more. But those who endure, those are the ones who know success.
Along the hike I bumped into my friend Jane Coffey a few times and I expressed to her how I was feeling a little off with all the things I was seeing. At the same time I was running low on water and I recalled back to the previous year during the 2012 Death Race when Andy drank from one of the streams and told us this was his norm. I figured what the hell and filled my hydration unit up in one of the cleanest, clearest streams I could find. We also met up with one of the most incredible athletes I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. She was wicked fast, and relentless. Amy Palermo Winters was crushing this mountain. I couldn’t help but wonder how her prosthetic leg handled some of this mucky terrain they had us trudging through. Like I said, she was relentless.
My mind was entirely focused on reaching the peak of this climb. The climbs always take their toll on me. I knew once I reached the summit it would be all downhill from there. Literally. I was more than ready to reach the Chittenden Reservoir. Even if it meant we had to swim. As the descent continued I was cruising down the mountain, through some swampy areas and making killer time up for how slow I was on that treacherous ascent. During the climb down I ran into Mark Webb; I was so happy to see him.
As I remember a group of about four of us all converged at a road and had to turn around and take another route that was marked just a bit up the mountain we had just came down. I thought I had seen the worst of the sloppy muddy marshes on the mountain, but they were nothing compared to what came next. I was shocked my shoes weren’t sucked into the abyss. The sun was finally starting to rise. It felt like we had been on Bloodroot forever. I kept seeing houses off in the distance but apparently those weren’t real either! What the hell is real anymore? I kept thinking we just had to be close to the reservoir by now. I wasn’t feeling good anymore. The food I was eating was starting to get to me. It kind of came at me all at once. My head began to hurt, my stomach uneasy, I could feel my throat swelling up. Why am I getting sick now? Is this flu sick? Am I going to be able to finish? What the hell is happening to me? I felt horrendous. Barrrfff!!
Chapter 9: Down with the Sickness
There I was in the middle of the forest on the other side of Bloodroot Mountain, sweating, nauseous, exhausted, hadn’t slept in over 48 hours and I had just spent 15-20 minutes vomiting up every last bit of nutrients I had left in me. What’s happening to me? I need to rehydrate and refuel to make up for everything that just exited my system. I tried hard to focus on my priorities so I could continue on.
I had passed my good friend Mark Webb earlier and he caught back up right around the time I was having my puking episode. He checked if I was alright and I assured him I would be fine, I just needed to gather myself before I continued onward. I encouraged him to continue pressing forward while I lay there just off the trail. Bugs were starting to bite me, my entire body felt destroyed. My stomach ached inside and out. I can’t quit, I thought to myself. I must finish this race. All I wanted was an official Death Race finish after having unofficially finished the year prior.
Trying to eat wasn’t really working but I forced down some beef jerky, picked myself up and continued to move toward my next destination, which I secretly feared, the Chittenden Reservoir. It was a certainty that there would be some sort of swim that awaited us racers there. I wanted nothing to do with it. It’s not that I am not capable of swimming, my father taught me how at a very young age by tossing me in the water and letting me “figure it out.” It’s one of those things I picked up at a very young age, I was a fish, every summer you couldn’t find me anywhere else other than the pool. As I grew older though I developed a fear of the open waters. Seaweed, sharks, sting rays, electric eels, the more stories I heard of people drowning or being attacked the greater this fear grew. I tried to get those thoughts out of my mind as I continued my trek.
Not even 50 feet after getting up and continuing I found myself keeled over yet again, expelling what little was left inside me before going into a dry heaving fit. The feeling was beyond awful, my abdominal muscles were becoming increasingly sensitive from all the flexing, not to mention the 48+ hours of activity that I had already endured.
Regardless of how much pain I found myself in I continued to talk myself through this dreadful environment I found myself in. You’re not quitting, you must finish. This will pass. Leading up to this race and after my experiences I had discovered something that I truly believed in, you are only as strong as your mind. In an effort to practice what I preached through my Legend of the Death Race Adventure Races I was doing everything in my power to convince myself that I could overcome this. My mind is strong, I can push through, I can finish. I just kept repeating positive thoughts hoping to prove my mind is as strong as I believed it was.
Continuing through the forest I found myself becoming increasingly delusional. The lack of sleep was having a compounding effect on top of the series of vomit episodes. I swear I saw at least twelve or thirteen different houses that evidently were not even there. Trippy stuff.
As Chittenden Reservoir grew closer I across what the next challenge would be before being allowed the opportunity to enjoy a refreshing swim. There was a large gravel load that had been dumped alongside the trail and it appeared that the racers were being instructed to spread gravel all along this trail. Once again we were being utilized to make improvements to the surrounding land. There are many racers who become annoyed with these tasks that seem to be just Joe getting us to do his and his neighbors labor, but the reality of it is we’re helping to preserve the very land we race on. I see nothing wrong with giving back, given the experience they provide for us.
Before I could begin gathering gravel I still had to deliver my rock that I had been carrying to Joe who was waiting for the racers at the reservoir. Along the way there were signs that mentioned the distance of the swim one must complete in an Ironman. Luckily for us, this wasn’t an Ironman. This was the Death Race. That meant we would have to swim three miles. Yes, three miles. I began to dread this next challenge even more.
As I approached the area I tried to distract myself and only allowed my focus to remain on the current task at hand. Gathering gravel to pave the trail. When I arrived I had realized everyone was taking an opportunity to treat their feet. Last year I had found I was quite fortunate and had some of the better looking feet, while still very disgusting, they faired quite well. To prevent my feet from the dreaded trench foot, I decided to take this opportunity to dry my shoes and my feet out. So, I took my shoes and socks off and laid them both out in the sun in hopes they’d dry just enough over the next couple hours that these two tasks would surely take. That’s right, I went barefoot for the trail grooming challenge. There were a lot of looks, and a lot of fellow racers asking how the hell I was trekking back and fourth up the trails on the freshly laid, loose gravel. Quite honestly it felt great. My feet were drying out, I had to take caution with my steps but this seemed like the smartest idea ever. At least, I thought it was. Dry feet equals happy Death Racer. Plain and simple and mine were on their way to dryness.
Once I had completed my gravel task it was time to face what would be the most dreaded challenge of all for myself. Three miles of swimming. Three laps, each one mile round trip. After each lap I would have to take a gamble and spin the “Wheel of Death.” On it, was a tiny sliver of hope that would allow passage to the next obstacle, the rest of the wheel would return me to the waters for another lap until I had either won freedom or finished three laps, whichever came first. I grabbed my extremely oversized personal flotation device, a life vest hat I had borrowed from my neighbors back home. It was not made for someone my size, even before losing all the weight over the course of the race, it was too big for me.
I began to walk into the water, remembering I’ve always been a fairly good swimmer I began to convince myself that I would be fine. The Vermont water was still as cold as ice. It was almost July, but up here winter lasts all the way until May most years. As I walked further into the water, now at my calves, I froze. My heart beat accelerated, during the gravel challenge I was slightly delusional but was feeling a little better than I had earlier that morning. My breathing became heavy and within an instant a wave of anxiety rushed through my body. Uncertain where this was coming from I tried to steady my thoughts, attempting to convince myself that I could do this and was still capable of finishing this race. I may not have been feeling well but I could do this, sick or not I could do this. I was freaking out.
Photo Credits: Marion Abrams – Madmotion
Chapter 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.
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.
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.
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.