Adorning my freshly-made “buckskin”garb I gathered my gear, and after meticulously crafting the aforementioned buckskin outfit with 108 stitches and completing the tedious task of sliding a porcupine quill through my log, my load was lightened considerably. I no longer needed the log, so I was allowed to toss it in the fire near the teepee, which was a relief from all the weight I struggled with during the hike up and down Bloodroot Mountain. Our next task was to follow a sparsely-marked trail along a snowmobile route out to what was referenced as General Gilke’s. The hike had some serious ascents and descents as it followed alongside the mountain. 

Late into the night, I found myself hiking alongside groups of racers, but I never attached myself to any particular group. Back at Riverside Brian was still making his buckskin outfit when I took off and I hoped that he would catch back up at some point. The darkness was intensified by the surrounding trees and tall brush, and who knew what animals could be lurking around the surrounding forest. I was also much further behind than I had wanted to be at this point in the race, so all I could focus on was pushing myself as hard as possible to catch up to the leaders. 

Surprisingly, someone was besting Mark Jones and was already returning from whatever challenge that awaited them. Not to succumb to defeat so easily, I saw Mark Jones in hot pursuit of this unknown leader. At the time, I had no idea who this mysterious racer was, but one thing was certain, he was giving Mark Jones one hell of a competition. It was exciting to see and motivated me to push myself in hopes of catching up to those guys. Seeing that they were already returning from a challenge I hadn’t reached to yet I hoped I was nearing it myself. How wrong I was. 

I was probably only about halfway out to General Gilke’s when I approached a group of racers that were seemingly confused about where to go. There was a gate that was closed and no markers in the immediate vicinity to assure you to cross over. This moment served me well and provided me with a chance to overtake this large group of racers. Confident in the path I was taking, even with the limited markers I had been following, I urged everyone that this was the path we had to take. I began crawling around the gate through a gap to the right of the fence where it appeared others had crossed as well. The rest followed. Continuing along the trail, I eventually saw another marking and was reassured this path would lead me to my next destination. 

Not too much further along, the snowmobile trail came to an end. It was time to make a right turn onto a road that continued to add more ascents to this arduous hike. I began to wonder whether we were going to the same summit that the past Winter Death Racers had to conquer during the latter half of their race. I knew how far that was and this hike was far longer than the five miles we were lead to believe was the actual distance. 

As I climbed up the road, dawn was beginning to break. Dan Grodinsky was arriving from where I was going and he stopped to take it all in. Seeing him stop snapped me out of my focused state and ushered me to say to Brian “hold on, we’ve gotta soak this all in,” followed by turning around and doing just that. It was at that moment when I saw it. One of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was breathtaking. Fog, mountains, and gradients of pink, orange, red, blue, and purple. The word, “majestic” doesn’t do justice to that view. That sunrise is forever forged into my memory as a reminder of how gorgeous the world is. The experience reaffirmed why I enjoy tackling these incredibly challenging events, they combine an unbelievable journey with extraordinary scenery.   

After taking a moment to enjoy my surroundings it was time to snap back to reality. I was in a race, the Death Race. If I wanted to remain competitive this year I needed to hustle. I hurried down a road which seemed to go up and down with no end in sight until I could finally hear the sound of people working. As I arrived at the location of the next challenge, I was warned by some racers that the next challenge required a bucket. Go figure. I didn’t bring a bucket. I decided not to bring one because for the first time in what seemed like forever a bucket wasn’t on the list. I assumed (unwisely) there would be buckets available if we needed them especially since there were so many that have been left behind over the years. I should have known better! This is the Death Race, nothing is ever going to be handed to you that easily. 

Because I didn’t have a bucket I slowed my pace and began strategizing on how I could convince a fellow racer to lend me their bucket. As I approached, I saw that there was a group of people doing burpees. As it turned out, 1,500 burpees was the penalty for not bringing a bucket. Having done that kind of quantity of burpees over the years I knew how long such a task would take. There was no way I could risk falling as far behind as that penalty would set me. 

I dropped my pack off to the side of the road and walked the remaining couple hundred feet over to the most devious man in all of obstacle racing, the ever sadistic mountain man who challenges all who enter his realm to leave their comfort zone far behind, none other than Spartan Course Designer, Norm Koch. He’s known well in the obstacle racing world, and he, too, started as a Death Racer. Norm was now focused more on creating the ultimate trials of human ability, and he sat here with our next array of tasks. 

First up, we were required to grab a branch from a nearby tree. I had my hunting knife secured underneath my handmade garb and it came in handy. Then, Norm instructed us to make an ax out of a rock, paracord, and a stick, like one he showed us. From the looks of it, the quality of the craftsmanship wasn’t too important so I quickly fashioned any old rock to a stick, showed it to Norm and was given the nod. Finally, Norm asked me if I had a bucket, knowing the penalty I pretended I had one and told him it was by my bag. At this point I had to join in the rest of the people who had made it this far and were also “playing the game” of pretending to have a bucket. There was literally a line of people rotating the use of just a few buckets that were brought along by other racers and left behind to prevent us all from failing this task. It was there, in that moment, that everyone was working together–us  against them. We all told the same lie so we could avoid a penalty that none of us wanted to face. Our rationale? The bucket was never on the gear list, so why should we be penalized?

After waiting patiently, it was finally my turn to grab a bucket, head down this trail and find a stream powerful enough to fill my bucket sometime before the race was over. Everywhere I searched I was finding barely a trickle of water. I finally found something that looked like it might work, so I started filling. It took a while. I remember thinking to myself, there is no way this is the stream he was referring to, but I didn’t want to look any further. Once my bucket was finally full enough I started heading back up. It was then that I saw another racer further up the hill that I just went down to find water, coming back with a very full bucket, and realized where the good stream was. I had passed it. Nevertheless, I carried on and went back to show Norm my bucket full of fresh water. I passed the test. 

As I gathered my gear, it appeared that a large group of people showed up and must have missed the memo about the buckets, but what they were doing did not look like the 1,500 burpee penalty we all feared. It appeared that Norm wasn’t actually paying attention to those serving the penalty, and even when he did look over, so long as they weren’t just standing around he let whatever sorry excuse for a burpee they were doing pass. Literally, half the group would stand and perform only the jump portion of a burpee while the other half laid on the ground and pretended to do push-ups but they weren’t even that, it looked more like a bunch of people lying on the ground humping and flopping around for some sort of strange ritual. I laughed at the sight, finished packing my gear, and took off back down the long trail to the White Barn at Riverside Farm.  

On the way back, I got word that we would need our axes for the next task when we reached the White Barn. Of course I wasn’t thinking and had already ditched mine, so I busted out everything needed to quickly fashion another ax. Returning to Riverside Farm, I was instructed that I would need to have my axe checked by Peter Borden to determine how many forward rolls I would be performing.

Death Race, Vermont, Pittsfield, TeePee, Mountains, Riverside Farm, Peak Races, Upon initial inspection Peter was a bit worried about performing the first test he had lined up which was seeing if the ax, when swung, could actually do what it was intended, and cut wood. Since the construction of my “ax” was flimsy at best he opted to perform a durability test instead. Peter took my axe and placed it in a fire pit. Since the ax was made out of a stick and a rock, the chances of it catching fire were huge. I was worried. At this point, I thought there was absolutely no way I’d pass this test without having some huge penalty. After a few minutes my ax proved to be more resilient than any of us expected and still had not caught flame. It passed the test! 

Now all I had to do was grab all my gear, pack it up and head up to the top of Joe’s mountain to Shrek’s cabin for a quick time trial. The rules were simple: get to the top, check in, and get back to the bottom, as fast as possible. Not knowing what we would need to do at the top, I made sure I had all my required gear, but packed a little lighter on the food this time just to lighten my load. That last trek all the way out to Norm took a huge toll on my feet. 

Returning to the White Barn in under an hour and a half was helpful to my mood and spirit. I had made up a great deal of time on that challenge—especially given the weight of the pack. I felt happy that it was mid-morning and the sun was shining brightly. I made my way over to the volunteers who were administering the next challenge. I could see that they were handing out what appeared to be a topographical map for the next challenge. Orienteering…being the “Year of the Explorer” I expected a navigational skills challenge to eventually present itself. The time had finally come. 

To be continued…

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