In what was the most race-like start of all my experiences at the Peak Races Death Race, we were off in an instant. What remained the same is not knowing when it starts (officially, it’s seriously complicated), and you don’t know when it will end. Andy and Joe had just finished telling us the race would start in seven minutes and there we were starting three minutes early. Well done Joe and Andy, well done. I was the first one out the gate after strategically placing myself next to Joe and catching an earful of the quick change of plans for a slightly earlier start. Though I was the first one to the stone stairs, I quickly slowed my pace and reeled myself back in. If there was one thing I learned from last year’s experience is that more often than not it pays to fall somewhere in the middle of the pack versus blasting ahead and taking the lead.
This year, all the wisdom I’d gathered from my previous Death Race experiences would be relied upon greatly in making all my decisions. I’ve seen the Death Race from every angle, as a racer in the summer, as a photographer and assistant to the Race Directors in the Winter and Team, and as a reporter in Mexico. Combining all the wisdom along with my courage to continue to return to this race, and all the strength and power I’ve developed since recovering from shoulder surgery a year and a half ago, I hoped and prayed by the end of this race I would land the fabled official finish, leaving me to take a skull and bib home. Knowing full well that those would just be symbols for my achievement and what it really means to finish the Death Race.
As I began my climb up the staircase that was built the year prior I couldn’t help but reminisce. At this time last year at the start of the race, myself and the veterans moved these rocks I stepped upon into place. The stairs we built at the Year of the Gambler go one mile up the side of Joe’s mountain. A lot of racers were already making moves to push to the front. My friend and fellow Spartan Race competitor, David Magida came up next to me saying something along the lines of, “I think I can be first to the top.” I reminded him of our phone conversation a week ago and assured him (and his ego), that I was certain he could be first to the top. I reminded him, “remember Magida, stay in the middle of the pack.” He decided to hang back, and thanked me. He immediately changed his plan deciding it best to stay near me for at least the start of the event.
Running up these stone steps has become one of my favorite past times every time I come out to Vermont. Just a month before the race I had the pleasure of showing my mother, sister, and Kristine, the pride and beauty of what we built the year prior. It’s a wonder to imagine that these stairs will be here for what is likely to be the rest of time. The most glorious thing of all is to say I helped build them, not with machines, but with my hands and the hands of my fellow Death Racers, my brothers and sisters in arms.
When we reached the top I was somewhere in the first ten to fifteen racers to arrive. At the top we were required to check in and knock out 100 burpees before heading back down the stairs back to Riverside Farm. On the way down caution had to be taken as there were still a swarm of racers were still ascending to the top. As I reached the bottom of the mountain and began an all out sprint toward the white barn I could see in the distance all of our packs and rucks stacked up into a mound. As I entered the corral, I was instructed to find my pack. I could hear Don Devaney in the distance yelling, “if you don’t have all your gear you will be disqualified.” As soon as I found my bag I realized the Nalgene bottle I borrowed from Mark Webb was missing and it became clear that they were messing with everyone and some gear was purposefully taken away from a few of us. I shrugged it off and moved on to the next task.
We were once again instructed to hike to the top of Joe’s mountain to Shrek’s cabin. When we arrived there was no one actually checking people in but the instructions were to continue on to Tweed River Drive. On the descent toward Tweed, I became a little uncertain of the path we were taking. It wasn’t the same path I had taken in previous treks up and down the surrounding areas. I had a feeling that we would make it to our destination regardless. At the time I was traveling with a group of veteran Death Racers and some newbies which included Ella Kociuba, David Mick, and Magida. On the way down we had to do a little bushwhacking which added to my uncertainty. Knowing the general area and direction we were headed I still had faith we would wind up at the trail that leads to the top of Tweed River Drive soon enough.
Not even five minutes later, I recognized our whereabouts and led everyone across the trail toward the tiny cabin at the top of Tweed. There awaited a mound of stones and rocks and my predictions became true. We would be rebuilding the sections of the stone staircase that were not up to standard. When we all arrived there were already quite a few Death Racers having their pick at the stones. I overheard Peter Borden making claims that, “if you don’t grab a large enough rock they will send you back for another.” I took this to heart, knowing that Joe and Andy will often challenge racers to exceed their perceived limitations. If I didn’t grab a large enough boulder, and they’d definitely expect a lot of me given what they’ve seen me lift while helping Miguel Medina build his cabin this past Winter, I’d be sent back without a second thought. In all actuality, my fear was that having become so close to the masterminds of the Death Race over the past couple years might work against me. Typically at this race, being well known can work against you and I had a huge red target painted on my back.
I quickly began looking for my rock, it concerned me how quickly so many people made it over here and I soon realized that most of these racers didn’t get sent to Shrek’s Cabin first. I shrugged it off knowing full well that everyone will have their own unique Death Race. No two racers have the exact same race. They’ll be similar, but often muddled with slight differences. Once I found what I thought was a solid looking stone that I could manage to drag with my rope, as I had seen everyone else doing, I looked to Borden for confirmation of it’s adequacy. He laughed at me and said, “Matesi are you kidding me? You should know you need a bigger one than that!” I was genuinely perplexed. That rock seemed like a decent size, not too big but not small like some that I saw people dragging. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to show up with something inadequate to their standards. Instead of searching for a large one – I had already strapped mine in with my rope – I found some smaller stones to attach that would bring the weight up to par. So I hoped.
My good friend, Amie Meyer was right next to me working on securing her rock as well, she gave me a quick hand in adjusting and fixing my rope to my pack and I began to attempt dragging the rocks behind me. While using my trekking poles for leverage I found myself absolutely grounded. I could barely move it. It became quickly apparent that once I began moving it would bode me well to keep the momentum going. An object in motion stays in motion, as I recalled from my days in physics. While that may be true in theory, it most certainly is not in practice. Even with the assistance of a slight down hill, the amount of friction these rocks and the rope had being dragged across a rocky road did nothing but make this one hell of a struggle.
I looked around at my fellow competitors and for the most part everyone in the surrounding area had the same difficulty. These rocks were massive. As we all made our way down Tweed River Drive, navigating in and out of racers who were moving slower than others became an obstacle itself. Sometimes I would find myself having a burst of energy and I would cruise down the road with ease, only to stop and became a roadblock to a fellow racer following behind me. A little ways down the drive, before reaching the U-turn where the gravel road becomes a paved road again we reached a turn off into the woods. Thus began the real challenge of this task. Sections of up and downhill areas. Some muddy, some dry, all sucked. No matter which way you went, or how you moved this challenge was a bitch. I wished I could just pick my rock up and carry it but that was part of the judgement for whether your rock was large enough or not. If you could carry it, “not big enough.”
Not too far down the trail I had met up with one of my finishers from the first Hurricane Heat Twelve Hour, a twelve hour Death Race simulation camp I began leading under the Spartan Race banner earlier in 2014. Brian Edwards finished the one I held in Vegas, and I was excited to see him competing. We decided to stick together and work on pulling our rocks through this wicked tough section. After a few issues with my rope starting to burn my hands, and not working the way I had hoped, I decided to start working smarter instead of harder. There are times in the Death Race where you have to make decisions for yourself and many times that involves teaming up with a fellow racer. This was definitely one of those moments. I looked over to Brian and said, “let’s just start carrying our rocks, we’ll move mine then come back and move yours until we get there.” He was hesitant at first, not knowing what the exact rules were and being new to this all. I assured him that we’d be alright and this was a much simpler way to accomplish our task.
We continued moving our rocks along the path, dropping them, then going back to get the other. It put a lot less strain on my body doing it this way, and it saved my hands from facing anymore torture. I took a look at my hands after taking the gloves off once, and already I had a few blisters and torn skin on my fingers and palms. Not a good way to start a race that would last up to three days. I think Brian was torn about the new strategy considering his system of dragging was working much better than mine had. Either way once we reached the staircase where the rope climbs and hercules hoists had been installed I think he realized that carrying up the steep slope of the mountain would be the only way up.
As we approached the area I could see a bunch of microphones and recording devices set up. It turned out that Marion Abrams, the videographer and Peak Races Social Media Manager, was working on the new Spartan Race podcast that would be hosted on the new Spartan blog my content team was developing. By that point we had met up with another finisher of the first HH12HR (Hurricane Heat Twelve Hour), Christopher Rayne. Chris was an animal, he’s a military guy who is simply a genuinely great person to be around. I requested his assistance in getting both mine and Brian’s rocks up to wherever it was on the mountain that they needed to go. Before we could begin the climb, Marion spotted me and requested a quick interview for the podcast. Of course I had to oblige.
To be continued…