At approximately eight hours into the Year of the Explorer we left the comfort zone of Riverside Farm to head toward a destination known by many to be a zone of danger, a climb that has broken many a person: the notorious Bloodroot Mountain. Bloodroot came early at this Death Race, seeking to claim as many victims early on. Maybe the race directors wanted the length of the Death Race to be something more manageable,as the imposed cut-offs demanded racers to perform at a high level to earn a skull. Uncertain what lie ahead, one thought that occurred to me was that a hike through Bloodroot Mountain this early on could mean a night swim or submersion at Chittenden Reservoir in my future —a sure fire way to get people to drop like flies. That swim crushed and destroyed the strongest of racers last year. It was my biggest fear, but no matter what I would face it head first. If it came.
As I walked down Upper Michigan and started the unforgiving climb that is Bloodroot Mountain, I began to feel a twinge in the arch of my right foot. “What could that be?” I thought to myself. Disappointed in feeling any type of pain this early on I did everything I could to ignore it. “One foot in front of the other,” I told myself. There were a few stretches of flat before the real climb , which is where this pain began. It was not completely unexpected as my feet had been mildly sore the week leading up to the Death Race, but nothing to worry over. In light of the newly felt pain, perhaps I should have taken more notice to what was going on with my foot. It was hard to believe but even with all the mental preparedness, leading up to the hardest race on the planet I was still clueless how I would handle myself should I sustain a foot injury. For that past year and a half my shoulder was receiving all my attention. I couldn’t really be thinking about quitting already could I?
This was my internal struggle only nine or so hours into my third attempt at the Peak Death Race. Already something was in my head telling me this task might not be accomplishable. As I hobbled on, I thought about possibly needing nutrition. I decided to stop near a few friends, Christopher Acord, Christopher Rayne, and Brian Edwards. I ate some food, trail mix, half of a peanut butter sandwich, that sort of thing. Still trying to keep my head in the game I ignored the pain and just tried to catch up with my friends while enjoying some trail side snacks. The moment of relief was quite brief, lasting only a short while before it was back to the hike.
After replenishing some much needed nutrients, I began my climb once again. One foot in front of the other. Trying not to notice the sharp pain crawling up my shin sending triggers to my brain telling me, “Tony, stop doing what you are doing at once.” I refused. My inner monologue would not win this battle. I control my mind and I control what I feel. And this, this was nothing. Every step I was reminded that it was something but still, I refuted it. There was just no way I would let anything stop me this early on. I was too damn stubborn to.
Bloodroot Mountain is always one of the more challenging parts of any Death Race. It was best not to look up or too far ahead, keep your eyes in front of you. Monitor the terrain, and slope. Watch out for creeks and water puddles. It’s best to keep your feet as dry as possible for as long as possible in the early stages of a race of this length. Dry feet are happy feet. Focusing on maintaining a steady pace I marched up the endlessly grueling ascent. My pack felt heavy. Along with the added weight of the log, I would never admit it at the time but I was struggling. I overpacked in a worried state, fearing how long we might be away from basecamp. With all the extra weight each step had to be calculated. I need to expend only as much energy as necessary to make the climb without exerting too much to be ready for whatever it was that came next. It was a see-saw trying to balance how hard I climbed,wanting to keep myself within reach of the top placement spots at any given moment. My strategy that I learned over the years was to keep yourself out of the top positions without falling too far back. It’s best to be in the middle of the pack. Never last, and definitely not first. Way too much attention for those in first and it usually just results in added FUNishment. But with that bit of a break and the human feeling of being vulnerable to an unexpected injury I slipped further back in that middle I was shooting for. I needed to pick it up and finish this next challenge that lie in wait with unprecedented haste.
When I neared the point where I had climbed an estimated three quarters of the full ascent, I began to see the leaders making their returning descent. I figured, or should I say, hoped this meant the task was quick and more importantly that meant we weren’t headed to Chittenden Reservoir…yet, at least. This little bit of light that showed me an end was near gave me a kick in the ass to keep myself moving. All the while I had completely forgotten about my foot aching, and as far as I remember the pain never came back. Later I would find that this was most likely the result of a pinched nerve. Continuing to climb Bloodroot I was able to pick up some intelligence that I would need fresh water from a nearby stream. It had to be clean, that meant a nice flowing stream. It was important to retrieve it near the top of the ascent to ensure that the water collected remained a nice cold temperature, signifying it’s fresh level.
I emptied out my Nalgene bottle and filled it in the next flowing stream that I spotted slightly off the trailside. With my more than half full bottle of fresh, pure, mountain stream water I was prepared for whatever it was that needed to be done at the top of Bloodroot. When I finally made it to the top of the climb I recognized this from the past two years, the difference was a matter of daylight. This was the first time I had seen this spot on Bloodroot in the daylight. It’s interesting, I’ve seen parts of this mountain at all times of the day. It is infinitely full of life. There’s always something new to discover. A hidden creek, a fallen tree, the colors and the landscape ever changing. It’s something special to behold.
To my surprise there were a lot of bodies at the top already. I started questioning myself internally on how I’d fallen so far behind. It seemed impossible that this many people were here before me. Then I remembered, everyone’s Death Race is unique and each their own. Instead of letting it bother me, I proceeded to move forward with determination to finish whatever it was that Task Master, Don Devaney had in store for me. I could see everyone around me making containers out of their logs to hold what appeared to be a cup worth of water. Some were carving into the log to create a hole while others built theirs up using twigs and duct tape to make a bowl. I wondered if that was part of the reason you need to get instructions from Don. Perhaps he was telling people which way to make the container. I waited in line patiently to see Don for my instructions. With the sun beginning to set and being in a dense forest area the bugs were relentless. I was getting attacked on my face and my arms. I pulled my Team SISU buff over my face. Blocking everything possible and jokingly hiding my identity from Don.
After a few minutes passed Don called all the new arrivals up to the front to hear their instructions. As I walked up, he looked directly at me and told me to go to the back of the line. He waited for me to leave before telling that group the instructions. I ran back to the end of the line and began the process again. I had a feeling Don was going to be out to get me every chance he could get. I was ready for whatever he had to dish. As I made my way closer and closer to my second attempt at receiving the instructions, I had a feeling in my gut I might get stuck here longer than I’d like to be. The sun was setting. This task would become increasingly more difficult if the daylight vanished. As I walked up to Don, once again I was promptly greeted with dismissal from the group and sentenced to a return to the back of the line. I knew Don was trying to get under my skin, so I refused to let him. It irked me to keep playing this game, and wasting time but this was no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Just remain calm I told myself. Don’t show him how you feel. The next time I returned to him he told me to reveal myself if I wish to hear his instructions. “Ah ha.” He was “offended” by my face mask. So once again I returned to the back of the line. Only this time I would return without the Buff hiding my face. At long last, Don looked to me and presented me with my next task, I must bring him the freshest water in a cup sized vessel made from my log.
I quickly headed back to where I set my bag down next to Brian and sat myself down on the ground determined to get this over with quickly. At first I focused on attempting to actually carve a cup into the log. Utilizing my KaBar knife, the hatchet Rob Barger lent me, and a utility knife, I quickly realized how silly it was to be working this hard to create a cup when plenty of people were succeeding with making the pathetic looking twigs and duct tape walls to increase the “height” of the logs “walls.” If it worked for them then certainly I’ll have a shot at it working for me. The sun was really starting to set and I wanted to be on my way back already. I asked for help to hold the sticks in place while I wrapped my humorous mustache duct tape around the twigs I attached to my log. I poured a small amount of water into a plastic Ziploc baggy and set it inside the crafty log holder. I presented my creation to Don, he drank the cold stream water and I was free to go. I packaged my log into my ruck, repacked all my tools. Wished Brian good luck and assured him that we’d meet up again. By now my girlfriend, Kristine, would have made it to the race site. I turned on my headlamp and took off down the mountain.
To be continued…
Photo Credits: Obstacle Racing Media (ORM), Doug Kline, and BIG AP Photography