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.