Another weekend of adventure, this time I was traveling to an Endurance Race that has been given the title, The Ultimate Suck. Hosted by Joe Decker of Gut Check Fitness out of California, I knew this was an event I could not miss even if I wouldn’t be competing. It took about four hours and forty minutes to drive straight from work to the central Illinois region, to the small town of Cuba, IL, just outside of Peoria, IL. As I drove down the winding, hilly, dirt gravel road I remember thinking to myself how this felt like the setting to one of those awful “scary” movies that always seem to take place out in the country. When I finally saw the camp sites come into vision I could see just past them there was a bonfire blazing and the red LED display lit up as it tracked how many hours the racers had been competing. They were already a few hours in.
There were no racers in site when I checked in and was directed to park by the campsite for Tim, who myself and Candie were crewing for. When I arrived most of the racers were still out on a hike. I changed into my typical race gear and sat by the fire while waiting for the first few racers to start coming back. I brought my camera with for the event, I had been wanting to shoot an endurance event like this for a while now. There could not have been a better opportunity, a 36 hour event, with a small enough attendance that photographing every athlete was possible. I don’t suspect that will be possible next time The Ultimate Suck makes it out to the Midwest.
When the racers started to come in they were way behind the lead competitor, Ben, who was almost done chopping his wood when I plopped down by the fire. Each racer had a pile of logs with their number on it that they had to chop. After that they had to take stack by stack over to Joe’s brother’s house which was about a mile roundtrip. Typically it took four to five trips for the racers to finish this. When Tim came in we couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculously large stumps Joe had save for him. When Joe came over he even laughed at the sick joke all the enormous stumps were and replaced one of them with a smaller one.
After Tim finished running all his logs back and fourth he was given his next task, which was to travel through this ravine in reverse from how they went through it earlier in the day. I opted to join him on this excursion and we were accompanied by two other racers including Michael Sandercock of Epic Racing Arena, whom I first met at the St. Patty’s Day GoRuck Challenge. The ravine hike was outstanding. It was muddy, wet, and full of natural obstacles. We covered a few miles, avoided full submersion by climbing out of the ravine at one part and made our way back to the farm. Then they had to dig some post holes. That’s when I decided it was time to take a little nap.
When I woke up they were beginning the Marines Corps. Fitness test. That was one of the most amazing parts of the race. Lead competitor Ben, finished the 3 mile run first, but he didn’t stop when he crossed the plane of that orange cone. No, he turned right back around and went back no more than an 1/8 of a mile and ran in with another racer. He didn’t stop there, he did this four or five times until every one had made it back.
They moved on to the push-ups part of the PT test and Tim was just making it around the corner. He was pushing himself. When he got back he was able to join in and do his push-ups and sit-ups separately. At the conclusion of the fitness test the racers were told to go get their buckets and sandbags which were each 50lbs for men and 30lbs each for the women. Tim knew this was the end for him. He assured me that he knew his body, he knew his limits and he was happy with how far he had made it. I was a little bummed he didn’t attempt the bucket carry but when someone decides they are done it is hard to get them out of that mindset. I pushed on him a little but he insisted and was happy with his performance, as long as he wasn’t going to regret it, I was not going to piss him off by pushing the subject too much.
I took off with my camera to document this bucket carry that would cover some decent mileage going up and down a very steep gravel paved, backroad hill. Some of the competitors didn’t seem to be phased by the distance or the weight they had to carry. Others it was a completely different story. Mike was struggling early on. I was actually concerned he wouldn’t get past this challenge. No matter how far he fell back, he never quit, he never surrendered. There was a group of us hanging by the camp site and Mike had laid down to take what he thought was just a 20 minute nap. He shot up out of the tent resurgent. When we told him he had already been out for nearly two hours his face dropped, “Do you think I can still finish he asked?’ Unsure what challenges lay ahead and how much time he had left before the end of Phase 2 (the second 12 hour session).
As it turned out Joe let him attempt to catch back up and Mike was off. I would like to turn it over now so you can hear the story from Mike’s point of view. He is a testament to the definition of Fortitude. Here is his story of making one of the most amazing comebacks any of us ever witnessed or heard of.
The sandbag carry didn’t treat me quite as well as the other competitors. My stubborn nature is great for some things, but I decided to farmer’s carry the buckets long after my shoulder and grip strength had failed me. I crossed the finish line totally exhausted, but relieved, and headed to my tent to grab some food. My legs, shoulders, hands, and arms ached, my heart didn’t want to stop pounding, and my stomach was trying to turn itself inside-out.
Tim was kind enough to offer up one of his MRE’s out of concern that I looked “as white as a ghost” and I laid back to catch my breath for what I thought was about half an hour, after which I hopped up to continue my quest to finish. In actuality, I was out cold for up to an hour and a half, and at one point told one of the volunteers that I thought I was done; I don’t remember any of this. I rushed over to Joe to see if I could still compete (technically you’re not supposed to sleep) and he gave me the green light after mentioning that I had a lot of catch-up to do. I took to the new set of tasks with new life.
Stage 2 of The SUCK consisted of some more enjoyable aspects than the previous stage. It started out with a strongman circuit including kettlebell throws, (more) farmers carries, sled drags, rock deadlifts, and tire flips. After completion of the circuit, you had to grab your PFD (personal flotation device) and run over to the shooting range, where they had a set of 3 targets at different ranges. If you missed a target, you had to perform a burpee penalty.
Luckily, I have some shooting experience and knocked this section out without trouble. The staff at the range then instructed me to run down to the bridge. When I arrived at the bridge, there was nobody there to direct me, so I continued along the path for up to a mile uphill, at which point I decided it would be best to turn around and double-check with the staff at the shooting range. Luckily, I ran into one of the racers on the way back, who lead me into the dry creek that we traversed the previous night. The MRE and rest definitely left me refreshed, but the food settled heavily in my stomach and the time off my feet had allowed some blisters to form on my soles. Each step felt like knives digging into my feet, but I continued to push on. At the end of the creek lay a disgustingly green and stagnant pond with a quicksand-like bottom and some really odd hot/cold spots. We had to swim across this pond to continue on the path, and after climbing out of a ravine, proceeded to jump back into a smaller green pond to get to our next task, the gas chamber. Apparently, Joe thought twice about spraying us directly in the face with pepper spray, and instead set up a hut with a fine mist from a pepper spray canister. Racers perform 10 burpees and are free to head on their way. I’ve always been a fan of horribly spicy things, and I left the gas chamber with only a slight burn in my eyes. From this point, each racer was tasked to carry 5 loads of firewood back to HQ, and proceed to dig a posthole. I was sure to pop a few Advil before taking up the posthole task.
The 24-hour mark was drawing near as I scraped out the last few inches of post-hole dirt. It was at this point that Nicole and Joe informed me I had to complete the entire circuit one more time, otherwise I would be disqualified. Time for completion: Less than 2.5 hours. I knew the trip from HQ to the gas chamber would take me about an hour, the log carry would take me 30-45 minutes, leaving me just under an hour for the post-hole dig. It was very possible, but I couldn’t stall or make any mistakes.
A few volunteers tagged on my heels to pace me as I took off towards the dry creek path, but I wasn’t about to let myself get DQ’ed after all the hard work I had put in thus far. The Advil was finally starting to kick in as I pushed the pace to an almost reckless level through the rough terrain of the creek. I scaled the slopes up to the green pond and jumped right in, moving as efficiently as possible through the water. One of the farm dogs, Tess, had jumped in alongside me and was furiously doggy-paddling to keep up. It’s the little things like that that lift your spirits and lighten your mood. After that, it was all downhill, as I returned from the trail after being gone just over 30 minutes. By the time I had run back and forth with my 5 handfuls of wood, I had over 1.5 hours to finish my post-hole dig. With the stage finish in sight, I dug with everything in my power and finished the 36” hole with over an hour to spare. Towards the end, Nicole walked over with a radio to see how I was doing. “He has about an inch left!” she reported.
I hear Joe on the other line saying “Tell him he has one minute to finish it.”
“Thanks Joe…” I replied sarcastically.
“Tell Mike he just bought himself 15 seconds with that comment.”
As with the beginning of each new stage, we started out with a PT test. This time it was a modification of the Navy test, and consisted of a 1.5-mile run, with timed dive-bomber pushups and leg lifts. When Joe told us to bring over both buckets with sand, I knew what was coming next. I wasn’t happy about it, but after coming back and avoiding DQ, I wasn’t about to give up with only 12 hours left.
The task was to carry both buckets of sand up to the top of a hill and back—a distance Joe mentioned would be about 1.5 miles round-trip. It wound up being 2.6 miles. I was smarter with the carries this time around, and took one sandbag and bucket on my shoulder at a time. I carried one as far as I could, and then went back and carried the second. It wasn’t the fastest method, but I was able to finish with little to no grip strength left in my hands, with only an hour or so lost time from the other racers. I still felt strong and ready to catch up with the other racers on the 10-mile run.
It was at this point I realized there was some disconnect between my wishes and capabilities. The 2.6-mile carry had taken a toll on my feet and they were blistered on every contact point. I attempted to cushion them with pads and rolls of gauze prior to leaving for the trek, but I knew it was going to be a mental game from this point on. Advil no longer took away the sharp pain of walking and was even starting to upset my stomach at this point.
One of the volunteers had offered to pace me and I hobbled up towards the fire to meet her. I could barely walk at this point, let alone run. “I think I might be done,” I told her as I approached, and immediately stopped myself. If I could just push through this mentally for a few hours, I could make it.
The run started at a slow shuffle, but my feet were not getting any better. The poor form that resulted made it twice as exhausting to move just a little faster than a walking pace, so we slowed down to a brisk walk. It was at this point my mind started to fail on me. My balance started to go and I began to zigzag my way down the 10-mile trail, freezing since I was no longer running to keep my body temperature up. I started to see floating houses and at one point, the volunteer’s headlamp turned into a blow-up kiddie pool… which she subsequently flipped down the road like a tire. I have to admit, if she wasn’t there to talk to and keep me at least slightly sane, I may not have made it back.
Upon reaching HQ some 3-4 hours later, I was instructed to perform burpee leap-frogs the final 1/8 mile to camp. At this point, there were only a few hours left before the 7am finish of the event. The other racers had been chopping the remaining wood throughout the night.
When I arrived back at base, we were all instructed to grab our packs with 50lb weight for one, final ruck with Joe. We set off into the woods, and Joe proceeded to find some of the steepest, most awkward hills possible to climb. The bottoms of my feet were absolutely screaming at this point and I couldn’t help but verbally reflect at this point. Flat land was one thing, but horribly uneven terrain was downright painful. After 4-5 hills, one of the racers nearly fainted, so Joe cut the ruck short and lead everyone back to camp. After a few minutes, Joe issued the final challenge: Every remaining racer had to complete a mile run in under 15 minutes, and we would be done. With every ounce of energy we had left in our bodies, we pushed ourselves through that final mile to cross the finish line in less than 15 minutes.
When it was all said and done, you could see the excitement through the pure exhaustion in everyone’s face. Personally, The SUCK was one of the most incredible, rewarding experiences of my life and I am truly amazed at the incredible athletes that completed this race. We left with new friendships; new respect for each other, and new understanding of ourselves… plus a pretty awesome trophy. What more can you really ask for?
Thanks to Nicole, Joe, and the Decker family for putting this incredible event together. Thanks also to the amazing volunteers and crew that were out there in The SUCK with us. It wasn’t just the tasks and location that made this event, but the people, hospitality and perseverance that went along with it.
Mike is an incredible athlete and I am thrilled that he was willing to share his story with us. Thank you again, Mike. I think you are more than ready for the Death Race. Hopefully we’ll be seeing Mike at the Legend of the Death Race Training Camp this November. He’ll crush it.
The remaining hours spent at the event we all shared stories, enjoyed some awesome homemade gravy and biscuits, and I finally shot my first gun ever, a 22 gauge shotgun. IT WAS AWESOME! I was never a fan of guns prior to this…that might have changed. One thing is for certain, I cannot wait until the next Ultimate SUCK. I will most definitely be competing next time Joe Decker brings his extreme endurance event to his parent’s lovely farm in the good ol’ Midwest.