Having made up a lot of time with our strategy we found ourselves beating the 4PM cut-off by four hours. As I recall, we were somewhere in the middle of teams who finished. After a quick refresh at basecamp it was right back to it with the next challenge.
Next up, we found ourselves back on our own again and the task was to get to the top of Joe’s mountain all the way to Shrek’s Cabin where we would have to “start a fire”. I say that in quotes because before taking off for the summit, I caught wind that all we needed to do was make a fire by using a bow drill.
In typical Death Race fashion, it wasn’t explicitly stated that you had to use a stick and a bow drill to make the fire, so some people who arrived earlier had discovered that you could have a match attached to the end of your bow drill and still receive a passing grade. With this knowledge, I made a sprint to the top with only the things I needed. As I made my way up, I received confirmation from a few others who had already made fire and were headed back. Knowing the secret to completing this task set me up make up some time if I could get it done quick enough.
When I arrived at Shrek’s Cabin, I checked in with Peter Borden and went off to the side of Shrek’s to gather some hay, I quickly fashioned myself a bow drill, recalling my experiences at the Survival Run in Texas, this felt like cheating know I was using a match to make my fire. One of the strange things about Death Race is the lack of direct rules and instructions, with such an open box and the freedom to do anything in, around, our outside the box, it’s sometimes hard to determine what was within reasonable compromise and what wasn’t. I often look back on this decision and my rationale is that it was allowed which means it was an acceptable strategy, whether it was the right strategy, is up to the person who used it. In my opinion, I feel I cheated myself by not actually making my fire, but on the other hand, my conscious tells me that I played the “game” of Death Race. By playing the “game,” I found myself propelling forward, way ahead of the rest of the participants by doing whatever it takes.
You can decide what you think, but here is how it went down. I got that bow drill, I attached a stormproof match to the end of my drill, placed the strike pad on the wood notch that I was going to grind and eventually cause enough friction to create fire with. I set up my bow drill and like magic, I had fire quickly. Technically speaking, I used a bow drill to create fire. My drill just happened to be a bit, modified.
When I think back to past experiences at Death Races, I recall the time that another Tony rode a bike more than half way up Joe’s mountain while everyone, literally, everyone else ran to the top. Or the time I heard some guys caught a ride to the next challenge just because they were that much more resourceful and willing to take that chance. Could they have been ejected from the event? Certainly. Were they? Nope. It was with this prior knowledge and the wisdom of past Death Racers, that I could quickly justify my doing this task in this manner. It was all a part of the game, and I was hacking it, one challenge at a time. At survival run, the rules were very specific, something like this would never fly, and I would never have tried it, but the Death Race things were, different. Everything was open to interpretation.
By playing the game and hacking this challenge, I was in and out of Shrek’s Cabin within eight minutes of arriving. Running downhill is one of my strong suits, I navigated back to the White Barn at Riverside Farm in a flash.
After returning to the White Barn we were directed to grab a log and carry it up along Tweed River Drive, this part kind of blurred past and brings me to the next challenge which we had to endure for oh, somewhere between six and eight hours, at this point in the race, who’s counting? The next challenge was probably one of the most brutal, it was a test of how bad you want it, how much mental fuckery can you endure. That’s what this next challenge was all about.
Navigating up Tweed River Drive with a log was easy compared to what came next. It was in this challenge that some of the hardest, strongest, athletes would suddenly break. Unbelievably so. The challenge was quite simple, a test, administered by none other than the mastermind who had tortured me with a mile and a half of log rolling through other people’s puke back at the 2012 Death Race during the Year of Betrayal, the infamous, Jack Carry.
The test contains 26 questions with 26 matching answers, you were to match the answer to the question using letters. Simple enough right? There were a few stipulations, for one thing, if you turned in your test and had one, just one wrong answer, you’d be sent home. Think that’s bad? It’s worse, you were not allowed to speak to anyone during the entire test. No cheating. No sharing answers. No talking. Silence. One hundred percent silence from the participants. Think that’s it? Ha, I’m just getting started, after all this is the maniacal, Jack, who orchestrated this challenge from hell. For questions, you didn’t know you could wait in line and check if an answer was correct. The more questions you knew the easier this would be to do the process of elimination until all the answers were correct, however, after you asked a question you could do one of two things. First, you could elect to stand on the hillside and work on your test, trying to figure out answers. Then to get back in line you would have to hold a Yoga stance for eight minutes at a time. One pose, hold for 8 minutes. Jack would give you options you could select for your pose. There were a few poses in his collection, standing on one leg, or laying on your back with your feet over your head, or laying on your stomach and holding on to your bent legs by the feet, I almost always alternated between laying on my back with my feet overhead and laying on my stomach with my legs bent. Those two were great, stretched my back and my hamstrings like crazy. I rather enjoyed the long holds. They were, meditative the more we did them. At least, they were for me.
This madness went on for hours and hours and hours, as the night wore on the cold began to set in. One of the first things we did upon our arrival was drop our rucks in a pile. We weren’t allowed to access them. Oh, how I had wished I’d grabbed an extra layer. I had arrived with one of the first groups initially, so the line we waited in to ask Jack a question grew longer and longer after each cycle. Since we couldn’t access our rucks I did what any sensible person would do after being up for more than 30 hours or so, I started acting a fool. I was dancing, and bouncing around and doing all kinds of silly things to keep my body heat up. Remember that whole silence thing, yeah, that sucked every so often someone would slip, the race directors or volunteers might have asked a question and instead of staying silent, a participant would acknowledge the question, and boom, that was it, race over. For some, this was devastating, to put so much effort and training and to travel to this event is everything, and to get kicked out all for opening their mouth and uttering a single word. I found this to be quite brutal and every time a fellow racer was dropped for this I genuinely felt for them. What a shitty way to get dropped from this race, but it’s a mental challenge, a very, very, effective, and difficult challenge.
As the night wore on, all I could think was when would this be over? It seemed like this could go on and on and on. As we did more questions I started to realize that some of the questions and answers were bullshit. How did I come to this conclusion? I purposefully asked a question regarding the same answer twice and received two different answers, evidence that this entire event was another mindfuck, possibly one that couldn’t be won. I lost trust in Jack and figured he was just trying to drop people. At that point I stopped caring about the test, now it was just about enduring. Eventually, I thought to myself, they’ll just shut this thing down. At least, that’s what I had hoped.
Not long after my revelation, which I couldn’t share with anyone due to the whole silence game, another racer lost it. I don’t recall the exact circumstances but some of the race directors, in an effort to get participants to break their silence I am sure, started dumping out everyone’s rucks. Mind you we were initially told to empty our rucks, many of us used separate dry bags within our rucks to keep things organized so even though we had to empty those bags out it would have been relatively easy to find most of our things. But they started dumping the individual bags and mixing everything up. This was a pretty messed up and a shitty move, one that should probably never have happened. Nonetheless, it did, and a racer completely lost it. Sleep deprivation, fucking with gear, and the fact that everyone’s stuff was now mixed together in this massive pile including medications was the shitstorm we needed for them finally bring this challenge to an end. After the racer went wild and sacrificed his bib to the raging campfire, the race directors decided to let everyone collect their things and we were told to meet at the White Barn back at Riverside Farm with no mention of how to get there.
It was now midnight and tt took my quite a while to collect my things, I tried to be strategic by stringing my things together with a carabiner, yet I couldn’t find half my things. After what felt eternal, but was really only a good five to ten minutes of scrambling around, I finally found everything and started on my way. By this point I had fallen behind, I was probably sitting somewhere in the back half of the pack as I set out toward the White Barn. On the way out I saw my girlfriend, Kristine, she had parked her rental car up there and was just hanging out watching all of this insanity play out.
Over the past two years, I have struggled to come to terms with my decision to “game the system” at this point of the race. It has been an internal struggle for me and a large part of why it’s taken me so long to finish my “Death Race story”.
Recently, I had a revelation and was able to talk through this with a close friend. In that moment of the race I panicked, I wanted to finish this so bad and didn’t want something stupid like this dumping of bags thing to be my demise, I wanted to get back to the front of the pack, where I had been the majority of the event. I began to think back to past Death Races I had been a part of and recalled some tactics utilized by racers who not only finished but ranked in the top three.
You see, after the Year of Betrayal in 2012, the Death Race morphed into this sort of, do whatever it takes and use a “figure it out” mentality to finish. For instance, if the instructions are, “get to the White Barn as fast as possible” with no indication of HOW to get there, what’s to stop you from riding a bike or hitching a ride? Hell, if I had a jet pack, I could have used that. The rules were arbitrary. You have to kind of figure out what is and isn’t acceptable through trial and error. Sometimes you can get away with gaming the system, sometimes you are punished severely. In previous Death Races, I witnessed top finishers carpooling to a challenge, and one time I got passed up by a finisher who was lucky enough to find a bicycle to ride up Tweed River Drive to whatever the next challenge was at the 2013 Death Race. With this knowledge, I made a decision.
Resourcefulness, in this event, was considered a necessity and given that prior knowledge, that wisdom, I decided this was my moment to play the game the way others had in the past. Let me be clear, this is something I would only do at a Death Race, were it any other race, I prefer to play by the rules. But this was the Death Race, and the Death Race was about “figuring it out”. In many cases, at any given moment during the race, what rules existed and what rules didn’t could be up for debate. For two years I have struggled with writing about this part of the event. Given the circumstances surrounding how the Death Race worked, I still don’t really feel good about what this specific segment but, live and learn, right? One thing the Death Race showed me was that I was willing to take a huge risk even though there could have been consequences. You see, I had already played the risk analysis out in my head, in the Death Race, this was [possibly] an acceptable strategy, worth the risk and were it any other event, an Ultra Marathon, a Hurricane Heat, or hell even one of the 12-Hour Hurricane Heats that I brought to life under the Spartan Endurance umbrella, it wouldn’t even be on the table as an option. My prior knowledge of the Death Race gave me the confidence that this risk was worth taking.
It took me two years to come to terms with the, rather ballsy decision I made back then. The fact remains, I was just willing to take that chance. That chance could have gotten me a DNF, but it didn’t. The fact is, had I been “caught” and told what I did was unacceptable I would have accepted my fate and walked away.
You could say, lady luck, was on my side.
After catching a quick car ride half way down from the top of Tweed River Drive, I jumped out of the car and ran the last quarter of a mile back to the White Barn, likely saving myself a solid 10-15 minutes of rucking and providing me with the recharge needed to prepare for the next evolution in this race.
To be continued…
Author’s Note: It’s been three years since this event occurred. This article has taken about a year to write. Some events may be missing information, out of order, or misremembered. I’d be happy to hear of any corrections I need to make to the timeline if needed.