What you are about to read is part 2 of my grueling journey towards completing the Spartan Death Race. The first chapter highlighted all of my life’s moments that lead to finally stepping foot in Pittsfield for the 2018 death race, which you can read here. Last year taught me more than I could ever ask for, but there was still the final piece of the puzzle missing – actually finishing the race. The moment they opened registration for the 2019 Death Race, I signed up without hesitation. As I said in my 2018 media challenge video - I will attempt this event as many times as it takes in order to finish.
Nine years of my life have led up to this moment.
This is my story.
The twelve finishers of the 2018 death race huddled around those who stayed until the end for hugs and best of all – cake! Those who did stay towards the end were allowed to take their bibs home, which was a rare offering by the staff. Many of those who held their glued-together skull in their hands were barely awake thanks to the fleeting adrenaline that still trickled through their bodies, but still had the energy to keep their smiles glued to their faces as loosely as their finisher skulls. Matt Dolitsky drove back to the farm to pick up his bib and say one last goodbye to me as Leo and I prepared to make the most of our time out there by visiting Niagra Falls with complimentary lodging at my aunt’s house in Buffalo, NY.
It was great to see my relatives up north since I rarely get to come up there as much. I was unable to come up there for both my uncle and my grandmother’s funeral earlier that year, so I was glad to finally pay my late respects since both their urns were at her house – fitting and a little dark that I was brought there by an event called the “Death Race”. Eating a home cooked meal was very much appreciated, and we even ran a barefoot 5K through the neighborhood afterwards to help disperse the lactic acid that lingered in our legs from the previous days of abuse.
Oh, man… It felt so amazing sleeping on an actual bed that night and taking an actual shower! Wearing clean, freshly washed clothes made Leo and I feel brand new and ready to enjoy a little vacation time at the falls! The entirety of the next day was spent out there slowly walking around and taking in the sights of the breathtaking waterfall that carved its way between Lake Ontario and Erie. In fact, the day of constant walking most likely kept our legs from cramping up. Despite walking slow, we both felt pretty great! What made the day even better was the awesome photo op we had with our bibs:
Killington had become a yearly pilgrimage for me by this point. Every year we would get our craziest Team Regiment folks out there to pursue our ultimate goals. Some were looking to merely finish, while others like me had our eyes set for not only finishing before dark, but to finish in under twelve hours. I won’t go into much detail of the actual race itself since there’s an entire personal account of that here, but the highlight of that trip for me was getting to meet back up with Robin. Robin was my tormentor through the death race so it was nice to see the more ‘normal’ side of him. We had a bite to eat while reminiscing on the misadventures of the race at The Garlic (GREAT place to eat by the way). It was very reassuring to hear him say that he and the other instructors had pegged me as a finisher, and that my placement in the low crawl drag race was heavily stacked against me. “You got screwed pretty bad at that part”, chuckled Robin. I shrugged. “That just means I’ll have to come back next year and finish it, then!”
It was comforting to see him out there the next day on the course, barefoot and helping a wheelchair-bound Spartan finish the Sprint. I found these humanizing qualities omnipresent in just about all of the Death Race instructors. They all have a hidden side of them that cares and wants to see people become better versions of themselves, you just have to peel the onion back a little bit to discover it.
True to Robin’s nature, he made sure I was aware that I fell short of my Ultra finish goal by seven minutes! This was only the start of his ‘contributions’ to my 2019 Death Race experience, and I would expect no less from him!
Aside from 2019 registration opening up a month or so beforehand, no news had come down the line from Peak races regarding their next sufferfest, until now. The bombshell of a rule had been announced that set everybody scrambling – we had to register this event with a partner.
My first instinct was to look towards those who were in the class last year, until Peak revealed that you couldn’t partner up with somebody who had already registered! It took me only a couple minutes of thought before I had the perfect partner in mind. This person had experienced failure at GORUCK selection in the past after training countless months (even quitting his job) to attempt. He had a long history of endurance races (some of which he took the podium at!), and a no-nonsense attitude when it came to working hard towards any goal. I had first-hand witness to his skill at endurance events and have trained alongside him long enough to know that there was no other teammate that I could have been more compatible with for an event of this caliber of suck. Almost as soon as I asked the question, Wil Daniels responded to my request with a resounding yes. It turns out that he had his eyes on this event since 2012 as well!
With the same goal in our scope, he and I trained together at every opportunity we could afford. From running (and winning!) the Tampa GORUCK Star Course 50 miler, to crunching out a 1,000 burpee session, we made it clear to each other that no matter the pain we were going to push through until we were deemed official finishers!
I craved this feeling… the nervousness, the constant checking of the weather, gear lists, videos and more. Meticulously I had spent the days leading up to my travel packing, re-packing and re-arranging my gear. Thoughts of the race invaded my conscious and unconscious mind, each equally jabbing a dose of nervous adrenaline straight into my heart every time. This was a feeling I rarely felt leading up to races, and like a distant high I sought it out constantly. This event was something that delivered that high and then some! The chaos leading up to the death race was always turned up to eleven, and this year was certainly no exception.
Much like last year, Leo was meeting up with me to fly out from Orlando into Manchester, NH. However, this time we were meeting up with my partner Wil in Manchester as well since he was flying from New Orleans. Or so that was the plan…
Just as I shuffle out of the TSA security line in Orlando my phone buzzes with a notification. “SWA Notification – your flight has been delayed until 6:55pm”. The torrential downpour layering the windows in the terminal were no doubt the cause of that delay. Leo finally finds me when my phone buzzes minutes later, “SWA Notification – your flight has been CANCELLED”. “What the shit” says Leo in a thick Hungarian accent, holding up his phone displaying the same message.
I quickly text Wil, who had already landed midway to wait for his connecting flight to improvise the best solution. After re-checking bags, re-entering the security line, cancelling reservations and making new ones, our best plan of attack meant Leo and I landing in Hartford, CT while Wil follows the original plan of staying in Manchester. He was going to rent our car, drive down to Hartford to pick us up and we were going to all leave for Rutland, VT from there. The plan sort of worked, but thanks to some beaurocratic nonsense Wil couldn’t just drive the car under my credit card, so they had to make a new contract with his name on it, then we had to stop at a rental car place in Hartford, re-do the contract under my name again before leaving on our merry way. Oh, and we had to pick a location with low taxes and fees so we weren’t charged extra and we got a nasty chip on the windshield from an errant rock while driving along the highway. The race was on a Tuesday, and this was our Saturday/Sunday. Good thing we got out there early to get a little extra prepwork in!
Thankfully the next couple of days were a little easier, albeit just as stress-inducing. We got some last minute gear and we met up with Leo’s partner, Jeff. The more we thought about our gear, the more last-minute changes we had to make to our written gear lists. What if they actually check and see if our paracord really is 100 feet? Better line it up and make markings every 10 feet…What if our 1 yard of fabric really isn’t a square yard? Have we mentioned all of the detachable parts to our gear in the non-mandatory gear list section? These questions bombarded our conversations almost every hour of the day.
We found reprieve in these nerve-induced gear checks by going to the sauna or hiking out a short stretch of the nearby AT that Matt recommended I hike the previous year. Sure enough it calmed the nerves down a bit and brought us back to level ground, as temporary as it may be.
Only one more sleep separated us from our fateful day. Peak Races tantalizingly posted about a get-together the night before at Riverside farm for a special pre-screening of the 2018 Death Race documentary. Now if you are new to the Death Race you should know that whenever they offer a pre-game meetup, there is some shenanigans involved in one way or another. Nevertheless, our group decided to take the risk and stop by to watch the film. I mean hey, it’s better than sitting in our hotels nervously shuffling through our gear for the 8th time, right?
My mind leapt towards the worst possible outcomes. Would they make us watch the entire movie in the blank position? Would they pause every ten minutes to make us do burpees? What effect will attending this have on our race the next day? I nervously shuffled into the brown barn with about 30 other spectators, each of us on edge for whatever awaited. The nerves slowly subsided as I hugged it out with those beloved racers that I suffered with last year, in addition to finally meeting up with Dawn, our other Team Regiment member.
Although the documentary itself was in the early stages of development, it was incredible. It captured all of the intense moments that I vividly recalled from last year with all of the raw emotion that it encompassed. The gamble of coming out to see it was a total win, by the way! There was no punishment, no shenanigans or any kind of adverse impact towards our race. It was a rare gift from Peak Races that certainly helped cool off everyone’s nerves, that’s for sure! Seeing the documentary and all of last year’s faces brought my confidence back up to where it needed to be. All the doubt, concern and apprehension faded away as the credits rolled. I was officially ready for what was to come!
NOTE: I reference some locations in the Pittsfield area that you may not be familiar with in this story. To help you visualize things, here is a map:
We darkened our hotel room as best as we could to make sure we get the deepest, most long lasting sleep as possible. I sank into my bed knowing that I will not be feeling that comfort again for a long, long time. Despite this, I found myself waking up periodically to either pee due to the pre race jitters that we’re all familiar with. Thankfully the race was due to begin at around noon this time and not 10pm like last year! We slept as long as we could, ate two breakfasts, brought some lunch and parked at the Clear River Inn to shoot the shit with some other racers until we approached 11:30. Half of our conversations were strategy – Should we leave now and risk punishment until noon? Should we arrive at the last minute? Would that incur special attention (spoiler: it would)? The mind games of this event were riddling our thoughts even until the very last minute!
Our group decided to get to the farm at around 11:30 to stick with the tried and tested strategy of Death Race – don’t be first, but don’t be last. We arrived at the farm to see an already red-faced Don Devaney hustling around cars and screaming at passengers to get out. Passengers had to get their gear and line up at the fence for various exercises while the drivers had to constantly rearrange their vehicles in various orders. As soon as I lined my car up in order of license plate number, the rules changed to where they now had to be in order of states.
Finally I got out of the car to line up with the other participants where I was told to shed all my gear immediately. First we had to pile all the gear up in a massive pyramid on one side of the fence, then pile it up to the other side. If anybody had any loose gear, they learned about securing their gear down pretty quick! One participant had silver duct tape wrapped around the grip of his axe – a BIG no-no! He laid in the plank position while the rest of us continued to shuffle around our gear even more while some various exercises were thrown in to kill time until the noon registration opened up. Unfortunately for me, my car keys were in my manila envelope that was loosely strewn about my bucket. Sure enough my keys were lost, setting my mind into instant “oh shit” mode. Without those keys, my entire group was stranded here. How were we going to get our stuff from the car when it was over? All of our phones were in there and even if we got the doors open, the car would not start without the key fob nearby. To make matters worse, the chip on the windshield was already forming into an even larger crack! This wasn’t a good start…
“Take this and don’t lose it” said one of the race directors as they handed me a bead, interrupting my thought chain of rental car concerns. “Take this and don’t lose it” echoed the next volunteer as we trudged towards the registration tent. Wil looped his beads into his shoelaces as I stashed mine in the zip-up hip pouch on my pack. Almost immediately we noticed a pair of racers frantically searching the grass for their lost bead. “Those poor bastards”, I thought. Knowing that it will only be a matter of time until it was my turn to be that poor bastard. You cannot avoid it at the Death Race. Everybody will have their moment when they are underperforming or some mishap occurs. If you are consistently the top performer the race directors will purposefully put you in that ‘poor bastard’ situation just to see how you react to it. It’s unfair, but being a leader involves how you handle unfair situations.
Registration was a process in itself. We handed in our folder with our two cans of food, $20 bill, driver license and waiver and we picked up a printout of the mandatory gear list. I explained to staff my situation with the car keys and instead of the expected “that sucks, welcome to the death race” response I actually had my concerns echoed. After getting their assurance that they’d search far and wide for my keys we got our pictures taken and answered a couple of questions on camera before we were told to make our way across the field and line up along the tree line. Wil and I nervously looked out there where people were bear crawling towards with all of their gear when it dawned on us… we’re currently last.
Granted, we had an excuse of having to sit aside with staff to explain our car key situation but excuses do not go very far in this kind of event. We quickly went through our final admin table in the barn to pick up our complimentary shirt and hoodie. Since it wasn’t on our non-mandatory gear list cards, we were already in trouble if we were to get gearchecked. Knowing this, we quickly told Jason that we were going to stash our hoodie and shirt over at our cars before hustling to the next spot. “If that is what you think is wise, then go ahead and attempt it” he uttered with a sinister tone. By that point we didn’t have much of a choice. We figured that we would get screwed on gear check anyways, plus Wil had no room whatsoever in his GR2 ruck to fit anything else in. We nervously stashed our clothes at the car as I took the opportunity to stealthily pee by the car, playing it off as me searching the car to see if I had accidentally left the car keys inside.
“We gotta fucking move Neil” said Wil, looking at the vast field of participants slowly bear crawling with their gear towards the other side. “We’re in last place, let’s MOVE!” We quickly rushed to the field, tightened our gear and started desperately crawling to at least not be last. Sure enough, being in the back of the pack brought special attention by the staff. “HURRY UP ROSTER 24/25! DON’T BE LAST!” shouted one of the staff as the people we were creeping up on were shouted a different message. “DON’T LET THEM PASS YOU OR YOU’LL REGRET IT!” Our teamwork mindset kicked into overdrive as we inched towards and beyond the team in front of us and then the next two after that! The hot afternoon sun had us already drenched in sweat as we lined up with the rest of the participants and were instructed to put our blindfolds on and produce the gear that they call for. After going through that we were stopped by a question from Jason, “Who among you does NOT have your shirt and hoodie on you at this time?! Where in our instructions did we say it was okay for you to ditch your gear?!”.
Ah shit. Here we go already.
Meekly, about half of the participants and I raised our hands, expecting the worst to come. Wil and I muttered some profanity before I forced myself to stop those thoughts. This was all by design. I knew from past stories and from personal experience that almost everything you do at the Death Race was going to happen anyways, and that they frame it as punishment for whatever made-up infraction you made. Remember, they just want to get under your skin! After all, Jason never said we couldn’t stash our shirt and hoodie! After running back to our cars to pick up our ditched clothing we came back to an angry Jason and Don, telling our half of the class to run to the woods and start cutting wood into 2 foot sections for people to chop later on.
Meanwhile, those who didn’t ditch their apparel continued to do blindfolded exercises while holding hands. As expected, everybody was given some strenuous work to do no matter the made-up consequences that were imposed upon us. Regardless, my mind was still clouded by the missing car keys. Half of my mind knew it was foolish to think that far ahead, but I still couldn’t shake off the concern. Every exercise was underscored by that concern until I made sure just about every staff member was aware of the situation. Our wood chopping was interrupted with Don’s booming voice echoing through the mountainside, demanding we stop what we’re doing, grab our gear and run to the fence line with all of the other racers for the next activity. “Excuse me… EXCUSE ME!” (a common phrase we learned to fear) “GRAB YOUR SEWING KIT AND GET TO THE FENCE. NOW!”
Some tasks were hinted before in some videos, and this was one that we were anticipating as one of the “greatest hits” tasks from the past. Sure enough, we were instructed to take out our floral print and cut our bib numbers out on the fabric and sew them on to our bibs. This was a throwback to an earlier race where they forgot to order the bibs, so they just had people sew their numbers on to their clothes! We went straight to work, ignoring the constant din of yelling and cheap insults hurled at the class to get a reaction. I traced out my numbers on to my fabric and got my numbers on my bib while Jason gave us the rundown on the admin rules of the race. Don had a few genuine heartfelt words to say regarding his Deca Journey and the purpose behind it as well, allowing some emotion and heartfelt compassion to seep out of his words as he spoke. Seeing that human side of Don really disarmed the fear he portrayed in his role of taskmaster and replaced it with a respect for him. It takes a lot of strength to talk about something with such strong meaning that it brings tears to your eyes, and Don was no exception to the rule. Once I was done sewing I packed my gear up and heard the “ONE MINUTE REMAINING” shout from Don. I looked over at Wil and he was still trying to get his second number attached to his bib. Not good… We’re last AGAIN.
Knowing that I’d get trashed for abandoning my teammate, I stayed with him and assisted him in any way that I could, even though it was really a one man job. “TIMES UP. GET YOUR GEAR AND HURRY OVER TO THE POND” shouted one of the staff. We quickly fumbled through our gear but we were too slow. “NEIL”, shouted Don in a tone resembling the thrill of one catching their prey “TOO SLOW. I DON’T CARE IF YOU DON’T HAVE YOUR GEAR ON. YOU’RE LAST.” Remember how I said that it was only a matter of time before my number gets pulled out of the ‘DR fuckery’ hat? Well, now was that time to be the poor bastard everyone was happy that they were not! Don handed me an old broom. The broom I carried signified being the sweeper of a race. I was at the back of the pack, and everybody else had to avoid being swept (get it? Course sweepers). The rule was that if you were the sweeper two times in a row, you were eliminated. It was embarrassing to be in the back of the pack so early on, but as David Goggins says… so the fuck be it. I kept my head low and ran as fast as I could to the pond where we got dunked. Fortunately for me my instructions were to leave my gear behind and catch up to the rest of the pack, meaning that I was one of the rare few who were still going to have dry gear, for however long that will last!
After getting properly soaked we all ran out of the pond as I made sure that I had my broom and that I was at the front of the pack this time while we headed back to the fence line to await further instructions. After going from last to first (an easy task since I didn’t have to carry my gear for that evolution), they let me set the broom down. My punishment however lingered on. I was told to run to the tree line and grab a log that I thought “was fitting for my punishment” that I had to carry for an undisclosed amount of time. Then… it was ‘Joe time’.
Joe time is a special part of the race where everything planned goes to a halt while Joe gets to inject his own little task into the day. His first task for us was to have everybody’s name memorized in two minutes. Frantically, people ran around introducing each other – a task that would inevitably end in failure. One or two people got the hint and pulled out a sharpee and immediately started writing names on bibs. The purpose of the task was to provide a demonstration of response vs reaction and how the fear response of the brain always tries to override rational thought. This task was a way for Joe to introduce us to his friend Patrick Sweeny, who was an expert on fear and how the brain responds to that kind of stimuli. See the video below for what went down:
Although we got the right idea of writing names on bibs, we were out of time (big surprise). Our next task was to run up and down the mountain to Shrek’s cabin and back. The only person that didn’t have to run up and down the mountain was the one who first thought of the idea of writing names down. That lucky individual got to take everybody’s pack one by one and toss it in the pond. For the rest of us, those who fell behind Michelle Roy (a frequent bloodroot 100 runner) were to be eliminated, with Josh Fiore leading the pack. Those who had a penalty log also had to carry their log up the mountain as well. “So the fuck be it” I muttered to myself as I hefted my log over my shoulder and slow-jogged alongside the back of the pack of panicked runners.
Right away it was pretty evident that almost all of the log carriers were going to be too slow. Thankfully, some racers saw this and offered to take turns holding our logs so that we could conserve our energy and stay ahead of Michelle. Dawn was my log support, which was perfectly appropriate since Team Regiment is well adapted at carrying heavy stuff for long treks! Michelle announced to us that if we have somebody helping us carry the log, we won’t be DNF’ed if we happen to fall behind her on the trek. Though Dawn and I were happy to hear that, we still didn’t want her to pass us! Our pace picked up more and more as we finally made it to the top and we immediately started our slow jog downhill. We were proud to be in front of Michelle through the entire task, adhering to the simple ‘don’t be first or last’ mantra of the race. We made it out of the mountain trail and back into the clearing with plenty of time to spare (good work Dawn, you rocked it!) to discover lots of people moving logs and packs towards the pond.
“Grab a pack and get moving” was our instruction upon making it to the field. Don stopped me by that point to trade my log with somebody who was carrying a massive thick log. Apparently my log wasn’t big enough to reflect my punishment! It was around this time that I was approached by one of the staff and was told that they had finally found my lost keys! The relief I felt at that point was incredible! Though I had a massive log over my shoulders, it had felt as if I had dropped an even heavier one off. From that point on my mind completely shifted gears. Now unburdened from that lingering concern, I was fully immersed into the event with no care for what lie ahead – completely dialed in to the current task at hand. Nothing could hurt me at that point on!
With my head now in the game, I low crawled and pushed my log all the way from the fence at the white barn to the pond, making sure I stay within arms reach of Wil, as instructed.
Now at the front of the pack, Wil and I had plenty of time to stew in the cold pond. Though it felt really cold at first, I knew that it was a deliberate attempt by staff to get our core temperatures down in the hot midday sun. Once everyone had finally low crawled over to the pond we were given our next task – remove the two fallen trees from the pond and move them all the way to the other side of the property.
After much effort the trees were finally removed out of the thick muck of the pond and over to the tree line at the corner of Joe’s property. After doing log PT for a short spell we were then split into three groups, each with their own special task:
· Clear out the area around the pond
· Clean/reinforce 69 of the marked stone steps leading up to Shrek’s cabin
· Cut and chop the felled trees and put all of the wood in a nearby shack
I followed the group to go clean stones up to Shreks cabin, led by Yancy. I knew that Yancy doesn’t like to play the role of Death Race Drill Sergeant, so it was a breath of fresh air to hear his positivity beaming down towards us as we worked each and every stone along the way to a firm fit into the ground and a clean brushed surface. I saw this exercise for what it was – a break from the high intensity beatdown we had been subjected to all morning and a chance to get some shade while we work. One by one we used our trowels to clear excess dirt piled on the rocks and used felled evergreen branches to sweep the debris. After what felt like an hour or two we made our way back down to the slow tune of the setting sun. Nobody had quit so far, which clearly had made a mark on the staff since they kept mentioning it to us. Our group met up with the logging group and we helped them wrap up their task while the staff nagged us with a timehack countdown. “For every minute you’re over your timehack, you’re doing 100 burpees”. I remembered last year’s 3,000 burpees and the fact that they were framed as punishment, but planned to be issued to us no matter what. I kept my head in the work and accepted that no matter how exceptional we perform, they will find a flaw to exploit and punish us with. Once we were officially done with all three tasks, we were then instructed to hold hands and then lunge all the way across the field. Patrick led the way in synchronizing the exercises, eventually getting us to successfully do a backwards somersault with our arms locked!
The results for our three group challenges came in at this point. As expected, we didn’t perform as we should have. The pond cleanup was satisfactory, but only 67 of the 69 stones were properly fixed and the lumber team took too long to complete their tasks. The punishment? 3,000 burpees.
Or so they claimed.
We were told that sometime during the event we were going to do the burpees, but if anybody turned in their bib at that very moment and quit we wouldn’t have to do the exercise. I shrugged it off knowing that they were just playing their usual mind games and focused on the next task that they actually told us to do, which was line up in two rows opposite of your partner and then move over three people to the right. This was when they introduced two new rules:
1) The person in front of you is your new partner until specified otherwise
2) If your original partner DNFs, you DNF as well
Once the rules were established, we were given two minutes to sprint to the other side of the field as fast as humanly possible, find our gear and our new partner and get back in the same formation we were just in. Following that we were advised to eat and drink something (that’s never a good sign) and get out one ziptie. As the sun set into the darkness of night, they handed us each one egg and introduced us to two more rules:
1) If your egg breaks, you DNF.
2) You will be ziptied together at the wrist with your new partner for the rest of the event
Slowly and ever so cautiously, I moved side by side with my new teammate, Tom. He hailed from the Czech Republic originally before moving to the UK and we exchanged other various pleasantries while we carefully walked with our egg along the dark trail to Miguel’s cabin where the task of the first night would frequently bring us back. Just beyond the cabin was a sheet of paper stapled to the tree with a puzzle on it. With our wrists still bound, we crabwalked towards the puzzle and bear crawled back to the cabin to give them the answer to the puzzle. If we got it wrong we had to go back and do it over again. We approached the cabin for the first puzzle. “Correct answer! Proceed to your next puzzle which is just beyond the first one”. This activity was slated to occur all night long, apparently. The route we took to the next puzzle went straight up the mountain, with the difficulty of the puzzle increasing more and more as we went on. Even more troubling was the fact that they were meticulously tracking bib numbers and how many puzzles they had completed. Were they going to drop people who don’t perform that well? Were we just going to continue until every puzzle was completed? Who knew… the only thing I could do is keep myself and my teammate strong for this task and stay at the front of the pack!
As the night droned on slowly, most of us caught on to the game and would whisper answers to each other as one team crossed paths with another on the way to the next puzzle. Tom was starting to get loopy so we’d spend quick five minute breaks sitting down to eat, replace socks and maybe catch a quick one minute nap while giving our wrists a reprieve from the constant friction of the zipties reddening our wrists. It didn’t help that my strides up the mountain were much more different than Toms, which made pacing a difficult thing to manage. After finishing twelve puzzles we were instructed to head all the way down to the cabin and get ourselves back over to Riverside farm. The inky black sky slowly ebbed towards a tint of blue as the birds slowly began to wake up. The first day of the death race was now officially over! Unfortunately for us, that meant the real race was about to begin.
Despite daylight breaking through the trees, the 10pm-7am noise ordinance was still in effect. Anybody caught being loud would get their bib removed. With our minds still awash with the fatigue of the first night, we were instructed to take our shoes off and enter the brown barn. After lining up we were mercifully told to remove the zipties that bound us to our makeshift partner – thank goodness! Rubbing my freed wrists, I quietly awaited the next set of instructions from Don and Jason. “Your next challenge will last until 11am. You will now be doing land navigation” explained Jason with an almost sympathetic tone to his voice. The room was split into six teams, each of which were given a poorly drawn topographical map of the area and a set various points that were popular at old death races that we had to reach. Each point was valued differently and we needed a total of 180 points to be turned in before the timehack or everybody on that team was a DNF. Each point had a unique hole punch placed in an obvious location that had to be punched into a single map to ensure the team wouldn’t split up.
Some groups immediately had their alphas that wanted to dominate the conversation and the task. Other groups such as my own quietly deferred to the expertise of the one or two DR veterans who had been to these areas in past races. We had opted for the lesser checkpoints instead of doing the 14 mile trek to the one big point (including a poem memorization). Little did we know how fatal of an error this decision would be for our group.
Admittedly, we were collectively lacking in our ability to use the compass and the map. Afraid to speak up and apply what I had studied, I meekly deferred to the knowledge of the veterans in order to avoid breaking group cohesion. Our first point was to travel to the nearby shack at the end of Tweed River Rd dubbed the “crack shack”. Once we arrived we immediately ran into issues. For one, there was no hole puncher anywhere in sight. We searched everywhere and even ran ahead on some of the trails, only to find trees and unused, overgrown trails. After spending over an hour and a half looking around for a non-existent hole puncher, we punched a hole into our map with a tent stake that looked recently placed at the shack. Perhaps that was our hole puncher for the area? It was hard to say. After banging our heads on the issue for another thirty minutes, we decided we needed to just keep moving – this time towards Miguel’s cabin. With precious time already wasted, we hustled towards the cabin via the direction of a DR vet, only to discover that we were on the wrong trail! We had a more detailed map that somebody had printed and laminated and discovered that we were on an incorrect series of switchbacks and we had spent the last twenty minutes going in the wrong direction!
Frustrated, I finally took action. I pulled out my compass and lined up true north to the north on the map, taking into account the -14 degrees declination that I had memorized. I lined up the edge of the switchback to the direction of the trail we needed to be on and set a bearing. “Straight through the brush, downhill that way”, I pointed. Half of the team was already on autopilot, clearly starting to feel the hurt of what we’ve been doing for almost 24 hours. We cautiously bushwhacked down the mountain straight towards the orienting line and sure enough, there was the trail we needed to be on!
With my confidence beaming and our feet on the right trail, we hoofed it over towards Miguel’s cabin. After reaching a fork in the road some of the DR veterans recognized it and we thought of a plan. Some of the slower hikers were to stay here and replenish their energy while three of us would ditch our gear and run to the cabin to punch the hole. No point in sending everybody out there and back when we can give some people a break, right?
Sure enough we found the hole punch hanging right off the side of the cabin that we spent the previous night solving puzzles at. Now we were starting to make progress! After linking back up with the team we set out towards Amee farm. We weren’t blind to the reality of the situation by then, however. We knew that we were very far behind on our time and that we have to execute the remaining points without any error whatsoever. On our way towards the farm we crossed paths with two other teams, each of whom said they were far behind and that the crack shack checkpoint was actually misplaced at Shrek’s cabin. Well damn! The freaking map that they gave us was wrong… go figure!
In a hurry, we said our quick goodbyes to the other teams and trekked towards white river. Some of us removed our shoes as we trudged through the cold rocky river, opting for a quick minute of foot care once we got passed through. Unfortunately for me, this was when I discovered that the gold bond powder had caked into a solid, unusable block due to the humidity seeping into all of my gear. Only four pairs of socks remained for me and I had to make them last for another 40 hours. As Goggins would say, so the fuck be it!
Completely out of my element, we all relied on the DR veterans to show us the way. We hiked along the edge of the property line of a farm before stopping to turn around. “This can’t be the place” muttered one of the experienced vets. After meeting up with the property owner (nice person by the way) we backtracked and kept going down the road along the river. Not once did it dawn on us to ask the person for directions to Amee farm…
Hindsight is always obvious when writing these things. It really puts a spotlight on my sleep deprivation-induced stupidity! After fruitlessly hiking down a service road near the river we reached another intersection of unknown private property. This was when it really dawned on us that we were completely screwed out of any chance of making our time hack or the 180 points required. We hiked back to the river crossing, taking a couple breaks to let the slower hikers catch up to the rest of the group and we took a quick snack break. “Let me see that map” I sighed, frustrated with our situation. Since we knew we were at the river crossing, I knew our exact location on the map. With a cautious level of mistrust in the map already due to the misplaced Shrek’s cabin point, I brought out the detailed map and lined the compass and map up and took a bearing at Amee farm. Pressed for time, I urgently asked the group if anybody felt strong enough to run with me. We had one shot left and it was obvious that some other members needed to replenish their energy. One other person raised their hand and I pointed to the direction we had to run. “Grab a Nalgene, let’s go”
With the map in hand and a bearing pointing us to our supposed destination, we set out. A hiker that maintained the local trails was heading towards us along our run and we asked about the farm. “Ya’ll are heading the right way, just take the trail over there towards the sound of the cars on the road” said the fella as he pointed literally in unison with my compass arrow. We continued to run, cutting back to the property line that we were at an hour ago only to discover that the route continued just around a corner. Go figure!
Not long after that the trail opened up into a clearing at Amee farm. Right in front of us on a workbench was the hole puncher staring right at us. Ben and I wasted no time punching our hole and proceeding to sprint back to the rest of the group. After merging back with our group we set out to the brown barn at Riverside. There was no way we were going to get all of the points, so we might as well be back to our point on time and accept the punishment we have in store for us with the hope that their mislabeling of the map will grant us some kind of mercy or exception to the DNF rule.
Now, if you were part of the land nav team that was successful, you already know that the brown barn was NOT the location we had turn in our map at. We discovered this after taking the hour-long trek back to the damn place! By this point we felt beyond redemption. There was very little we could do to justify our continuation in this race, but we had to keep trying. Grudgingly, we started towards our turn-in location across the map towards Michigan Rd and Crossover St. This was when things started going sideways fast. The summer heat was bearing down on us without mercy as injuries started to set in for a few members. We became stretched further and further apart as the midday heat, sleep deprivation and despair sank deeper into our psyche. Occasional passing cars along the road would kick up dirt that would cake into my lungs with every labored breath. I slurped the last drop of water out of my Nalgene in an effort to make the dry cookie I was scarfing down more palatable. Many racers speak of their low points during their adventures – and this was mine. Frustrated thoughts and excuses clouded my mind as I’d justify the position I was in. “How could these DR vets get lost?”, “Hard to move with a purpose when half the group is slow”, “How could 11 people not study land nav and all be placed in the same group?”, “Maybe if they gave us the actual right points on a map we could do their stupid little challenge”.
Just as my mouth felt like dry chalk I stumbled upon a creek to refill my water. Right as I slurped up the ice cold water through the lifestraw it had felt as if I had overcome that dark moment. I shook my head and snapped back to reality. “Shut the fuck up Neil” said a wiser voice in my head. “You’re here precisely because of you and nobody else”. “You studied land nav and were spot-on with your measurements. Despite this you didn’t take charge and lead this team to the right locations on all points. You got slow people in the group? Take their fucking gear and offload their burden to make the whole team faster. The vets got us lost? You’ve lived in the same city for 30 years and your dumbass still gets lost”. Line by imaginary line, I smashed the excuses in my mind with some cold hard truths. I was here because of myself. Full stop. Much like last year’s low point with my drybag failure, I realized that it was up to me to unfuck myself out of the situation that I had placed myself into. I took another gulp of cold water through the lifestraw, secured my gear and held my head up. This wasn’t over for me by a longshot. However for some teammates, it was.
IT band problems rendered a racer’s brisk walk to a hobbled stride. His teammate opted to stay with him and wait for medical to come by and pick them up. We finally approached the Iron Mine checkpoint where we employed the ‘speedy boi’ strategy of letting people rest while two runners drop their gear to run to the checkpoint to holepunch our map. I opted to rest this one out in order to prepare my lunch for the day – MRE cheese sauce (my 6th packet by this point by the way) with pepperoni and a MetRX cookie dough protein bar. I know what you’re thinking by this point so I’ll answer your questions right away: Yes, this royally plugged me up and yes, I have problems.
Once the hole was punched and my gut was filled with god knows whatever the heck I just pumped into it, we learned that the other team at the iron mine was at their very first point on the map! At least we are not last! Just as my confidence built up with the thought of only the lowest performing team being cut, I noticed two figures waiting for us at the trailhead at the top of the hill…. Race directors BJ and Rob.
Reality jabbed us right in the face when they began writing down our bibs. On the clipboard I noticed a line of other bibs with a checkbox next to them labeled “DNF”. Just as I saw that was when they confirmed to us that our team in addition to two others had been eliminated from the race due to time hack failure. Disbelief shrouded my thoughts as the pen loudly struck a checkmark next to my bib under “DNF”. We were told to hike back down the road and wait for Jason’s truck to come pick us up and bring us back to the farm. Stunned, I couldn’t believe that my DR journey was over only after 24 freaking hours!
Our group sat down for a couple minutes to shoot the shit and talk plans of where to eat that night, fully immersed in the thought that we were all actually dropped from the race. The only hope I had by that point was that we might be able to get back in to the event with some bargaining at the farm, but I wasn’t ready to put all my belief into that yet. Jason’s truck eventually made its way to us where we stowed our gear and hopped in. Patrick opted to walk on his own – it was clear that he had a lot to think about and wanted some alone time to digest it all. He was a hardened DR vet so I couldn’t imagine how shitty an early DNF felt for him. Just minutes after driving, Jason spilled the beans to us. “Joe is willing to give people chances to get their bibs back at the farm” he said with an almost sinister undertone. A couple people weren’t interested, but I immediately perked up. I knew that Leo was in one of the DNF teams and would be given the same chance, but I had no idea if Wil was removed or not. That unknown ate at me until we arrived at the farm and learned that he was still in the race! Nothing mattered to me at this point except for getting my bib back and making it all the way. I at least owed him that effort. Everything I do will be an attempt at coming in 1st at every challenge. He needs that buffer just in case things didn’t go well for him and they’d be looking at his partner’s performance to determine his fate. I knew that he was trying his hardest to stay in the game, and I had to reciprocate that effort tenfold. Bring it the fuck on.
Those that wanted to get back in were instructed to line up in front of Joe. “Who’s your group leader?” he said with a frustrated tone. Immediately I raised my hand. No more hiding, it was time to step up and take charge. He said his usual “You’re not gonna make it” crap and tried to make people back down while other failed teams trickled in. I nodded at Leo in another line, silently approving of his decision to stay in the fight. “Follow these guys and do everything they say” said Joe, dismissing us to the two staff members that would be our tormentors for the day. We were told to leave our packs behind and take whatever we thought we needed for the day. I grabbed my Nalgene and stashed a couple of snacks and set out to the first task that awaited us in the sweltering midday sun.
The first evolution was underscored by mercy. The staff knew that the heat was becoming unbearable that day and that we were going to face some heat casualties if we didn’t do anything proactive anytime soon. We hiked into a clearing in front of a river where we were told to sit down in the water. Some people groaned at the task but I was happy to plunge into the water and even dip my head underwater – it felt amazing! My core temperature almost immediately dipped into a bearable level during our mandatory mid-day bath as we prepared to make a bridge out of two fallen trees that the instructors had to walk across. Though the task was cumbersome, I did appreciate the underlying gesture of keeping us cool. I downed another packet of MRE cheese sauce as we set out to the next location in downtown Pittsfield – the town hall.
Anybody who has done the death race before knows that part of the event is slated towards some kind of community service. Last year we did landscaping around Shrek’s cabin, and this year it was removing the bricks of a fallen chimney at the town hall. Apparently the community appreciated it so much that we made it into their local newspaper!
Don Devaney of course had us moving with a purpose while occasionally punishing people for moving too slow or hiding behind the team, but the task in itself was time consuming but fulfilling. After it was complete we were all lined up in the plank position, “I need eight volunteers, NOW” bellowed Don as he paced up and down the line of planked racers. True to my efforts to step up and lead, I raised my hand and ran over to the huddled group of other volunteers who threw their name into the hat of whatever unknown task awaits us. Once the eight were determined, the remaining folks split from us and started doing more PT at a nearby basketball court. “Glad I volunteered” uttered a few of the participants as we set forth to our next destination – the general store.
To those who aren’t aware, Joe DeSena owns practically half of Pittsfield by now including the general store and Amee farm and lodge. Our next task was one of the signature “do Joe’s chores” task that was meant to make people think that this was stupid and attempt to drop from the race. What was this stupid task that I’m eluding to, you ask? Brace yourselves, because it’s some next-level dumb shit!
Don and Jason shuffled us in to the back entrance of the store and introduced us to the next task. “We’re going to be moving both of these entire pizza ovens to Amee farm”, instructed the taskmaster as we all lined up out back. The smells of the food being cooked wafted into my nose, tantalizingly knotting up my stomach in hunger for an actual warm meal. Piece by massive piece, we slowly moved the massive ovens over to Jason’s truck and over to the farm. The entire task must have taken at least four hours to complete. There were pieces sticking out of the oven that we had to take off, narrow passageways through the store that we had to negotiate the behemoth of a piece through and then with every ounce of strength lift up on to Jason’s truck to then unpack and set up at the farm. Despite how cumbersome and sucky the task was, I took delight in every little good thing that I experienced such as the brief minutes of sitting in his car in the cool AC, or getting a packet of applesauce from Jason, to getting awkwardly little-spooned by Euan Campbell in the bed of the truck on the way back (yeah that part was a little freaking weird but ok).
Once that burdensome task was completed we were sent over to Riverside farm to await further instructions. It turns out that we were there earlier than the rest of the teams which in the Death Race meant that we had to do some busywork tasks while the others trickled in. “Get your gear and get some food” were the ominous words from the taskmaster. You know things are about to get real when you’re offered a small break to eat and drink, and this was certainly no exception. About 28 of us lined up in front of Don and Jason in front of the white barn for our next task. The sun baked into our skin as they outlined our next do-or-die challenge. The first seven people to complete the following tasks were allowed to remain into the race.
· Race to the top of the mountain to Shrek’s cabin and back down
· Run to the pond, swim to the other side and back and submerge for 20 seconds
· Run back to the brown barn and start a fire
Those who couldn’t hack it fast enough were to be kicked off the farm and sent home. This was it. “Can we get some water really quick before we start?” Jason shook his head in frustration “NO. THREE…TWO…ONE… GO!”
My mind immediately dug into the memories of the low crawl elimination challenge last year. This was not going to happen again… no way in hell was I going to let that happen again. I don’t care how much it hurts, I was going to do everything in my power to not only be in the top seven for this challenge, but I was going to finish first. Right away I sprinted to the foothills of the mountain, jogging side by side two other frontrunners. I couldn’t yield a single inch of ground to them. I had to do this for Wil, but most importantly I had to do this for myself! Step by labored sweat-ridden step I inched ahead of the other frontrunners, making it to the top of Shrek’s cabin where an integrity-checker verified my bib number and gave me the thumbs up to run down. The race was down to just me and one other person vying for first place with a major gap separating us from the remainder of the pack. This was evident as we sprinted down the mountain past those who were still making their way up. I remember passing by Randy and shouting words of encouragement as I knew the exact thoughts going through his mind at this elimination challenge. He got dropped at the same time last year and I knew he was putting out as much effort as he could! I then crossed paths with Eric who was clearly showing signs of heat exhaustion but still pushing upwards. About ten more quick exchanges of “good luck” and “keep pushing you got this”, I found myself far into the lead as I shot down the mountain with a reckless speed that guaranteed my intended 1st place finish… and then it happened.
After turning a technical corner, I felt the ground below my left foot shift followed by a grinding CRUNCH and pop that sent shockwaves of pain from my ankle up my entire leg. Memories of my 2013 mishap immediately flooded my mind as I took my first step to gauge just how badly I just shredded my ankle. My worst fears were confirmed when the first step felt like a red-hot poker was being jabbed into my foot. The pain roared up my entire body as I yelped in pain. This was bad. Very… very bad.
Still desperate to finish 1st in the challenge I moved as fast as I could in a hobbled run, occasionally stopping to walk the technical switchbacks that jabbed pain up my foot to the tune of my belabored heartbeat. The runner behind me finally caught up as we neared the exit of the trail back into Riverside farm. “C’mon man you got this, use my shoulder”. Holding back tears of pain and heartfelt appreciation for his kind gesture, I looked over and realized that it was my land nav running buddy Ben from earlier in the day. “Ben, just go man, this is an elimination challenge you can’t afford to help people right now” I said while barely holding my emotion in one piece. “Nah, we’ve got a sizable lead on everyone. We’re getting through this” he said, accepting no other alternative. I nodded and ran as fast as I could, forcing my foot to swell so that it could become numb to the shockwaves of pain that buzzed through my entire leg. If I had to complete the rest of this event on a torn apart ankle in order to finish, then that’s what I was going to do. I couldn’t let Wil down because of something stupid and simple such as pain, no matter how mind-numbingly intense it was. I winced in pain less and less as it normalized in my mind, thinking back again to David Goggin’s famous words as the fields of Riverside Farm presented itself… “So the fuck be it”.
Now on flat ground, I sprinted along the field to the cold pond for the next evolution. The ice cold water numbed my foot more as I swam across with two other contenders. “Twenty seconds underwater. Get it done” said one of the integrity-checkers at the pond. Already huffing and puffing for air to deliver much needed oxygen to my muscles, it was clear that this was going to be much harder than expected. I exhaled all of my air and dove under until I felt like blacking out. “Seven seconds. Keep trying” said the disappointed staff. SEVEN seconds?! Shit. The two others surfaced next to me with the same results. I forced my mind into a meditative calm, taking deep breaths as I felt my throbbing heartrate slowly deescalate. One…two…three… submerge. I kept my hands above water to show my counting. My heartbeat throbbed in my ears, reminding me of my oxygen-starved body at just the ten-second mark. My hands overhead trembled as they counted the eternal seconds up to twenty. I heard the other two people prematurely surface next to me. I knew that if I could fight the immense urge to surface for just a few more seconds, I had this in the bag! Eighteen… Nineteen... TWENTY! Both my hands signaled the end of my countdown by flipping the bird towards the staff, surfacing with my hands still held high giving that one finger salute! Their laughs and mine signaled the completion of the evolution as I scrambled out of the pond and back over to my gear laid out by the white barn. I didn’t bother looking back as I sprinted towards my gear, grabbed my firestarter kit and beelined it to the brown barn.
Don Devaney was leisurely standing at the second floor balcony when he noticed me in first place. “YOU CAN’T HURT ME, DON!” I shouted, not even bothering to look for his reaction. With a smile on my face, I scrambled to the designated area and grabbed whatever dry kindling I could find and immediately got to work. The pain fueled my defiance. The more I felt, the more I wanted to dominate every challenge that presented itself to me. Last year I was eliminated at the drag race and I wasn’t going to even give a hint that I was entertaining that fate this year. About twenty seconds later, the other two runners came barreling in with the same expression of desperation on their faces. I realized that I forgot to bring my dry tinder flakes and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls with me, but that wasn’t going to stop be from getting it done. I meticulously scraped off magnesium flakes and bundled it into a tiny pile underneath some pine needles and sticks and began scraping showers of sparks on to my pile. The cameraman mistakenly got too close to my pile as their heavy breathing blew my arrangement apart. I quickly rebuilt the pile while one of the competitors raised his hand. “I GOT FIRE!” he shouted. “Very good, make sure your bib number is recorded and head down to the white barn to await further instructions”. I desperately flaked off more magnesium into my new pile and sent sparks flying into it. A couple sparks caught and a flicker of a flame emerged, but not enough to catch to the kindling. Another person behind me got their fire started… and then another. This was not good.
Don crept up behind me to personally supervise my firestarting skills by this point. After making a third trip for extra kindling I scraped off an extra big pile of magnesium shavings and began to rapidly shower sparks on to my pile. Just as Don began taunting me a lick of flame caught on to my kindling. “I HAVE FIRE!” I shouted in a trembling voice fueled by adrenaline and pain, looking right at Don as the smoke cradled my face. “Bib number 25 has fire! Extinguish your fire and you’re good to go”. I took no time in dousing my flame and hobbled over to the white barn to take what few minutes I had to tend to my injury. After changing my socks and downing another packet of cheese I wrapped my foot as best as I could. A red and purple bruise already started to line itself at the base of my ankle and up to my calf. This was going to be tough to manage, but it had to be done. The elimination challenge was done, and it was worth every sacrifice to make it happen. I was officially back in the race!
After the first seven winners were chosen, persons 8-10 were also allowed back in for whatever reason. Some speculate that person number ten was a favorite of Joe’s, but I just think it was an effort to get people fired up over nothing. This was around the time when I saw Eric stooped over getting washed with a hose while groaning in pain. It was clear that he was overworked by an overzealous staff looking to make a show out of him, and it had taken its unfortunate toll. The combination of repeated trips up and down Shrek’s cabin with little to no water left him heat exhausted and in extremely bad shape. It broke my heart to see such an amazing athlete hurt so badly. The official winner of last year’s Death Race was out of the game, or so they announced. I also noticed Randy was walking around without a bib giving people hugs. Sadly his journey had ended, as he was did not make the final cut in the last evolution. Heartbroken, I vowed that no matter the pain I had to carry the torch for them. I wasn’t going to let Joe tally another win, especially when my teammate was still out there somewhere! The last athlete DNF that I saw hurt me the most – it was Ben. The young man from Colorado who sacrificed time to help me hobble down the mountain apparently couldn’t get his fire started in time. I started to walk over to the ‘DNF pit’ near medical to give him a hug and thank him, only to be stopped midway by Jason, “You are NOT allowed to talk to people eliminated from the race!” Every step resounded in pain as if my ankle was personally reminding me of the selflessness of Ben. Could he have made it past this round had he not taken the twenty seconds off his personal time to help me? I don’t know, and I certainly hope he doesn’t spend the next year wondering the same. Ben, if you’re reading this – thank you buddy. Come back and finish this thing. Don’t let Joe win.
Since we were waiting for other racers to finish their tasks from the successful land nav groups, we were given some busywork tasks by Don at the firewood shack to re-stack all of the logs and tidy the place up a bit. After a couple of times being told that our handiwork wasn’t good enough and to redo certain areas (big surprise), we reconvened at the white barn to wait for the majority of the racers to finish their tasks.
After fixing my feat and gobbling up a complete cookie, I realized that I only had two pairs of socks remaining. We all took the time here to trade food and medical gear – a piece of cookie for a piece of beef jerky, a clean towel wipe for some gold bond powder, you name it. I tried to force a quick nap but my adrenaline had another say in that plan, so I patiently laid down with my injured foot propped up on my bucket when I noticed the silhouette of somebody very familiar running down the mountain with their bib very much in tact with the big red number “24” beaming in front! Wil had made it! We were still in the game! (The video above was taken right as Wil was running in, you see him at the end!)
(Matt B. Davis from ORM was out at that time doing audio interviews with people, including myself. You can hear the interview here!)
“You’ve no idea the kind of shit I went through to be right here right now buddy” I cheerfully declared as I got up to give him a hug. It was clear that he was about to say the exact same to me, but we had little time to reminisce about the misadventures of our second day out here. For now we had to focus on fixing our feet, getting some food in our bellies and adjusting anything else that needs adjusting. The light of the day was slowly bleeding away behind the mountain, and our next task was being headed by number 24 himself. We were to go back up to Shrek’s cabin as fast as we could to await further instructions. The trek up to Shrek’s was riddled with stops to allow the slower folks to catch up to us, adding to the frustrations of those in the front since we were strapped for time. After trudging up to the top our bib numbers were recorded in the order in which we made it to the top, followed by the instructions to follow the white ribbons down the switchback trails to Miguel’s cabin. From there we would learn of a challenge that would occupy our entire night and most frustratingly, our entire minds.
Although the trail leading down to Miguel’s cabin was marked with tape, we still managed to get lost. The route wasn’t always along the trail and if you weren’t shining your headlamp off course you wouldn’t notice the sudden bushwhacking detour. A couple of other racers were found along the route carrying logs up the mountain, one of whom was being removed for medical reasons. Chaos followed us wherever we went. There were lost racers linking back up to our group, other racers hallucinating badly, and other times we would all turn our headlamps off so that people could go to the bathroom. After retracing our steps and finding lost racers, we finally reached the cabin for what awaited us.
Two red solo cups were covering something on top of a barrel, with a staff member recording bib numbers on a clipboard and relaying the message to the top of Shrek’s cabin. “You have twenty seconds to look at this lego block design. Then you must hike all the way back up to Shrek’s to re-create the design you just saw”. Expecting a memorization challenge, I swiftly got out my cheap digital camera with a smug grin on my face, thinking that I was going to destroy this challenge in one fell swoop. My heart sank as soon as I reached into my bag, though. The camera was completely soaked thanks to a failed drybag, and wouldn’t turn on. The two AA batteries inside had been corroded in the pond water and the internal electronics were no doubt soaked as well. So much for that idea… on to plan B!
I hastily brought out my notepad and pen that was still somehow dry and devised a plan with those around me consisting of Wil, Ronald, Leo and Patrick. Each of us furiously wrote down as much as we could describe with our notepad and passed it on to the person behind us, consolidating what we found into what was hopefully a decipherable solution. One by one we jotted down what we saw, but the hiccup in our plans was that there were two different designs and that they would shuffle them around under the cups. Needless to say we were clearly not going to nail the design on the first attempt in any way!
We made our way to the top of Shrek’s cabin along the switchbacks making sure we didn’t miss a single ribbon along the way. Dashee, Andrew and Euan combined with our group along the trek up to try to make sense of our puzzle as well, comparing notes and ideas on how to better communicate our findings to our teams. We knew the night would be long, but the gravity of the situation really sank in when the first couple people coming down the mountain met up with us. “This puzzle is hard as hell, but what’s worse is that for every time you get it wrong you have to do 250 burpees!” The racer was still panting with his headlamp shining into his breath. “Make it count you guys”.
The cheerful night two drunken-style chatter suddenly froze as we approached the peak after learning what awaited us. Sure enough we all completely bombed our first attempt, conceding ourselves to a little corner to do burpees at. 250 burpees had little effect on me, though. After all I had spent eight and a half hours doing 3,000 of them in the exact same area one year ago, so I just did my periodic sets of ten with ten second mini-breaks and cranked them out. To make things a little easier they announced that we would only have to do 250 burpees for the first two failed attempts as well!
The second attempt came with a better plan. We had assigned certain layers to each person to memorize but the two different designs threw us off greatly. The only assurance of progress we got on our second attempt was that our submission was the closest one to being correct! Every person I crossed paths with along the way I collaborated I stopped to collaborate our findings and make sense of what we had. I didn’t care if other members of my group were lollygagging and chatting it up, I was going to get this done right! The third attempt was finally underscored by some confidence, as we were almost certain that we had the final design of one of the two lego stacks memorized correctly. We also found an alternative route up to the top that drastically cut our travel time down since it circumvented the switchbacks for a more direct route. Daylight was starting to break through as the outlines of trees became clearer as the minutes rolled by. We handed in our third submissions one at a time with slight changes on each of them based off of the unknowns we still had lingering in our notes. One design had two stacks of 2x2 legos, the other had a blue lego section with a gap and another design had two stacks of red legos instead of one. Unfortunately, all of our designs weren’t correct, but we had narrowed it down to three simple unknowns that we could verify easily.
Daylight made our trek down much easier, and the massive swelling that had restricted any strenuous movement from tweaking my foot any further had numbed the pain in my ankle. Armed with our notepads notating the three unknowns, we approached the cabin one by one and announced our findings out loud so those behind us could focus on the next area of interest. “Wrong puzzle, pass” said our first makeshift teammate. Not good… if we keep getting the wrong design we won’t make the time cut-off…
The next person won the bet and our design of interest came up. “Okay, one stack of white brick, no gap on the blue brick, and one stack of the red brick”. We got it! All three unknowns were solved! The remaining three simply verified the findings to make 100% sure that we were right. In fact, I was the first person to not need all of the time to look at the legos – I just gave the thumbs up, put my gear on and patted the shoulder of the person behind me. “He can use my remaining time”.
We rushed back to the top with our secret route, laying our gear down and approaching the table of legos with confidence. “bib 25, your design is correct!” “bib 24, you’re correct!”, one by one we cheered in victory. Only a small handful of other racers actually got their puzzles done, so it was a huge morale booster to be in the pool of contenders who actually got the task done! The rest of the competitors were seen taking a break around the cabin. If they were to be dropped for taking a break, then so be it – I wasn’t going to be a part of that mess. My paranoia kept me from indulging until I had verification from the staff that it was okay to set my gear down and await further instructions.
After about a ten minute reprieve consisting of foot care, gobbling down my 9th MRE cheese packet (I have problems) and a quick five minute nap it was time to set out to our next challenge. Little did I know how intense this next challenge was, despite there being little to no physical strength required whatsoever.
We approached the base of the brown barn with a hanging cloud of sleep-deprived stupor among us that mirrored the black rain clouds that loomed ahead in the distance. “Take your shoes off, lay your gear down and get out your water, ear plugs, earmuffs and blindfold” said a restrained Don Devaney. I could tell that he was itching to scream at us but was muzzled by the pre-7am noise ordinance. No matter, he was going to have his fun with us in due time…
With our required gear in hand we did some ‘relaxation exercises’ in the field in the form of yoga poses riddled with various re-shuffling exercises just to confuse us some more. Here’s a video of all the craziness below:
“NEIL” shouted Don. I guess it’s past seven now… He signaled with his finger for me to approach him. Dissatisfied, he shooed me back in line. “bearcrawl” whispered the person next to me. “NEIL” bellowed Mr. ‘bad Santa’ once more, signaling for me to approach. I bear crawled up to him in a confused stupor. “NEIL”, he said once again. I tilted my head in confusion like a lost puppy until I realized he wasn’t saying my name anymore, but for me to actually *kneel* before him. Funny joke…
“Remember what Robin Crossman wanted me to do to you at this event?” he said, holding back laughter. I gleefully nodded, remembering him being told that I should wear a part of his Deca journey with me for the entirety of the event. Before I could guess, he whipped out a pair of padded bike underwear and adorned it on my head like a crown. Thankfully Don washed his undies! After sharing a good laugh and explaining to the remainder of contenders who Robin was, I was told that I had to keep those with me or in my gear for the remainder of the race. So the fuck be it! The reality of the situation for me (and probably for Don) was that it was a silly way of showing respect by sharing such a vital part of his journey with me and me alone. He and Robin knew how long I had prepared for this event and how much it meant to me, and despite the levity, his gesture was greatly appreciated and met with pure smiles.
Afterwards we were all ushered in to the top floor of the brown barn where our next task was introduced to us – Don’s lecture!
We were quietly ushered in to the second floor of the barn with strict instructions to not say a single word once we entered the building. In an effort to trip is up, Don stood at the entrance shaking each person’s hand saying “welcome, how are you doing?” in an effort to get some people to speak out of instinct. A couple people failed and were held outside, presumably to get their bib marked for their infraction. After being shuffled to three rows of people at arms distance apart we donned our blindfolds and listened carefully. “Everything I say will be on a quiz. Listen VERY carefully to my words. Your continuation in this event depends on it”. Roger that, Don!
As he began his lecture about the writings of Joseph Campbell, staff began their efforts to distract us from listening. They ate food in front of our noses, dropped heavy stuff on the floor, coughed, rang their phones and any other kind of distraction they could have mustered up. The heat of the day had already crept into the building as the fatigue of being awake for so long joined forces in my head. My knees began to feel weak as the desire to drink water and listen to Don fluctuated wildly. I heard a loud THUD next to me as one of the racers had either passed out from exhaustion or sleep deprivation. He sounded embarrassed and I could hear him slurping a Capri sun from one of the medics as another contender nearby collapsed as well. “Keep your knees bent” whispered Jason as he walked through the columns of people. Right when I was at my last wits in fighting collapse myself, the lecture mercifully ended. “Any questions?” bellowed Don.
A few people raised their hands while the medics mercifully went around handing us pieces of a warm egg and sausage biscuit, clearly aware of the medical issues we were facing. This is when things really started to get emotional for everyone. At first there were questions to simply reiterate portions of his lecture, and then some questions became personal. “Who is your hero, Don?” asked a groggy voice. A rare pause interjected his response. “My hero…” He started, embedded in deep, emotional thought as the lump in his throat couldn’t be held any longer “My hero is Frank Petrosino.” “Frank was my closest friend, and he died three years ago of ALS” he thoughtfully explained, no longer fighting back tears. It was clear that the memory of this loss was still fresh in his heart and his openness to wear his emotions on his shoulder despite his tough façade brought tears to the eyes of those around the room, including myself. He explained the legacy that his close friend instilled upon him, and how his life will never be the same after his loss. Every sentence he spoke clearly brought out raw memories of him, as if inviting us to ride the carousel of pain, loss, love and appreciation alongside him as he told his story. It brought grounded meaning towards his Deca Journey – which was to bring awareness to people with mobility issues, and helped me dig deep into my own mind to deal with some of my own problems as well. As the questions continued to surface from the rest of the participants he spared no emotion as he dug deep into his explanations and lessons learned from his family, friends and kids.
As everybody remaining in the race was thoroughly emotionally strung out, exhausted and at the brink of passing out, we were informed to sit down and listen to the next set of instructions. “You will be using your earmuffs, earplugs and blindfolds for this next task” explained Jason. “You are to sit where you are and count to one hour in your head. As soon as you think that you have reached one hour, raise your hand and somebody will escort you out of the building to await further instructions”. Most of us expected this challenge since it was hinted in a couple of teaser videos in the past, and since this was often hashtagged #greatesthits, we knew that we would likely do this as a re-creation of the 2015 challenge. Those who studied this challenge knew that falling asleep or claiming your hour was up before it was actually up would bring severe consequences in the form of 500 burpees or being straight up removed from the race. I took a quick bite to eat, gulped down some water and waited for the final signal to begin. “One hour starts…..NOW!”
Practicing this task in five minute intervals in my spare time gave me a lot of confidence, but doing it on my third day without sleep was a whole other monster of a challenge. I sat indian style while signaling ten second intervals of the minute with my left hand, and marking off minute intervals with my right hand. Every time five minutes passed, I drew an imaginary five, ten, fifteen, etc. in front of me a couple times to remember which five minute interval I had just completed. The strategy was sound, but the execution was insanely difficult. About twenty minutes in I could hear loud snoring (even with ear protection on!) from people on each side of me. Fighting the incredible urge to sleep, I kept shifting my sitting positions and focusing solely on the internal metronome in my head that best resembled the metronome app I had practiced with in the weeks leading up to the event. Thirty minutes had passed, and some of the people who were snoring had either stood up to claim their hour or were forcefully removed from the room. Unsure if their fate ended in 500 burpees or a DNF, I focused even harder to fight off the temptation to squeeze in a nap. At around 45 minutes the staff started blaring their phone’s alarms to trick some of the sleepers into thinking that an hour had been called. Some fell for it while the minutes became more and more agonizing to keep track of. Fifty minutes…. Fifty five minutes… almost there! The final five minutes were incredibly difficult to track as my left and right hands constantly tried to switch roles of the minutes or seconds that they originally tracked.
Sixty minutes finally came. I hesitated for a brief moment as I did the math in my head. During my five minute training sessions I always claimed my five minutes when the real time was five minutes and twenty seconds. Had I counted at the same speed? Should I wait a little more just in case? Just thinking about that brought my head into a swirling din of fatigue and restlessness, making it clear that if I spend one more agonizing second trying to ponder my situation I was going to be in the pool of unfortunate people who fell asleep. Not wanting to resign to that fate, I nervously raised my hand.
Somebody tapped my shoulder, startling me as they helped me maneuver around the rows of people still counting. After walking for a bit a blinding light seared into my retinas in unison to my ear protection being removed simultaneously. “Number 25, walk down the stairs and await further instructions”. I took a quick peak back into the room and saw a lot of people still counting. Shit… did I raise my hand too early?! There were about five other people standing outside in front of Jason as he told us to congregate to his left and to his right as he read off our bib numbers from a clipboard. “Number 25, to my right”.
More and more people started to trickle down the steps into our groggy gathering of half-asleep, nervous group. After a couple minutes it was clear that an hour had already passed as the remainder of zombies shuffled out of the barn and into the field. After everybody had been placed to the right or left of Jason, he explained that those to the right (the group I was in) had claimed their hour early and those to the right had claimed it later. With a quiet acceptance I resigned to my expected fate of 500 burpees. I had done 3,000 before, so what’s a fraction of that going to do to me? Before I could think about it again, we were told that everybody was going to pay for our inaccuracies no matter who got over or under. Turns out that all they wanted us to do was to struggle against sleep for an hour! At first a wave of relief flowed over me, but was cut short after learning of our punishment.
Our first penance for failure came in the form of seal crawls across the field, then uphill until we reach the fence line. If you’re not familiar with these god awful exercises, you basically have to low crawl without the use of anything below the waist. Inch by inch I pushed my body forward, trying my best not to use a single muscle in my legs after hearing somebody next to me being forced to go back ten feet because they made that mistake. Leo absolutely dominated the exercise, finishing when the rest of us were not even halfway across the field! Eventually I made it to the fence, but not after rubbing the skin off my elbows in an effort get a tiny bit of rest in while avoiding any potential punishment for being in the back of the pack. “Go back down where you started, only this time you cannot use anything above the waist this time!” shouted Rob. At first it felt much easier since I was just sliding downhill, that is until I grinded my back over a jutting rock. After taking a second to compose myself and accepting that I’m going to be missing some skin, I started on the flat portion of the crawl with my arms flopping around with reckless abandon. The heat of the day began to take its course as my heartbeat thumped in my eardrums as the combination of grass and sweat burned against the open sores on my elbows and back. The next punishment sounded easy at first – five eight-count bodybuilders. With this being the Death Race, it came with a caveat. Instead of counting from one to eight in the standard movements, Rob kept counting up to a number, then back down to see if we could all remember what move coincided with what number. With everyone being as sleep deprived as we were, we actually synced our moves up pretty well! Any break we had in our movements I made sure to guzzle down water and peel my shirt off the scabs that were already trying to weld themselves to the fabric.
Mercifully we were told to grab some water and get ready to head back in to the barn afterwards. I noticed that our shoes and packs that we had lined up outside the barn had been taken from us. Guess that means we’ll have to do some barefoot scavenger hunting later on, then!
Once we got back inside we were ushered into specific places on the floor where we had to lie on our chest and prepare ourselves for the next twenty minutes of taking a written exam. “If anybody scores anything below an 80% on this exam, you are OUT!” shouted Don. After being handed the exam I laughed a little inside. There was no way that they were going to DNF the entire class, because there was no way in hell that we were going to get above an 80% on this thing! There were three questions, two of which had to be answered in a list of things that had to be remembered from the seemingly eternal lecture that Don gave hours ago. The last question was in the form of an essay question: In 300 characters, name why you should be the hero of your journey.
After jotting down what very little information I could recall on the earlier questions, I put my sole focus into the last one. I thought about the display of strength that Don gave when his raw emotion went on full display as he opened up to us earlier, and the balls it took for somebody that badass to reveal their true feelings in such a candid moment. For the first time in my life, I wrote down some seriously deep stuff on that essay question that I couldn’t have done had it not been for Don’s inspiration. I won’t go into the details here, perhaps when I’m a stronger person, but I was fighting back tears by the time I handed in my paper. Content with everything I had put on that paper, I patiently waited for the next set of instructions.
A great aura of unease and lack of confidence emanated from the room as we quietly shuffled back outside for some ‘relaxation exercises’ in the form of yoga hold positions. Once we were thoroughly ‘relaxed’ (read: smoked) we were berated by Jason and Don. It appeared that somebody had left a piece of trash out on the field during our below/above the waist low crawls! “We invite you to Joe and Courtney’s property and what do you do?!” demands Don. “YOU TRASH THEIR PLACE LIKE FILTHY PIGS! DO YOU SEE ANY PIGS AROUND HERE?!”. I think by this point they could have just placed the trash there themselves just to piss us off and get a reaction, but it didn’t matter. Our next form of funishment involved everybody tying each other’s wrists together on a single line and then rolling around in the mud like a bunch of filthy pigs! I saw it for what it really was – an effort to cool everybody’s core temperature down. The midday sun had been brutal, and to get hosed down and to roll around the cool mud actually felt nice by that point. We did a couple of tasks to keep us in the mud such as organizing ourselves based on our last name, then by the third letter of our mother’s maiden name while doing sets of burpees. The staff got a little overzealous with the mud however and one of them hurled a ball of mud straight at my eye, forcing me to break ranks from the line to have the hose rinse the mud out of my eye. Sucks to suck, I guess!
Once Courtney forgave us for our egregious infraction, however valid it may have been, we were then given a timehack to run and find our packs. The rules were as follows:
1) It was on riverside property
2) It wasn’t in the woods
3) It wasn’t indoors
4) It wasn’t behind the brown barn
Remembering back to 2018, I was fully expecting to have all of my gear including the drybags opened up and inundated with water. Fortunately after scouring the perimeter of the place, somebody found all of our packs and one of everybody’s shoes in the back of a truck that was backed almost completely against a wall, forcing us to work together to squeeze one pack out at a time. Around this time thunder loomed in the horizon, as if presaging the course of the rest of the race. One by one we got our thankfully dry packs out of the back of the truck and fastened our one shoe on. Next we were to look for our shoes where the following three rules applied:
1) It was on riverside property
2) It wasn’t indoors
Immediately we all split up, carrying our gear that by this point resembled a portable yard sale as we hobbled on one tenderized foot and one solid shoe. No big surprise but eventually we found our shoes all tied together in a ball, tied up into a tree. Leyla quickly climbed to the top and untied our rats next of shoes and quickly ran to the center of the field where we started trying to untie the mess laid before us.
The rain started to pitter patter on our heads while our timehack for untying the shoes came to an abrupt end. “I need one shoelace per shoe all tied together in a double fisherman’s knot if any of you ever want to put on your other shoe for the remainder of the race” declared BJ. Thankfully some of us brought extra pairs of shoes in their gear, so we eventually got the task done – one half removing shoelaces while the other half starts tying them all in one giant string. Just as we were allowed to untie our shoes again, the heavens decided to open up on us! Don could have been spraying us with a hose and we couldn’t have known the difference! While the shoes were being undone, we had five minutes to all stand underneath the awning of the barn along the line of rain that was being dumped off the edge. With no time to get our my poncho, I huddled next to two people as closely as I could while violently shivering in the cold deluge that mercilessly covered my body.
The next task was to give Courtney something nice to look at in the fields, which meant the next hour would be spent planting flower seeds in the field where we did the twelve hours of low crawls in the previous year. In between the last evolution and this one, at least two people had dropped due to issues with trenchfoot combined with mild hypothermia. It’s amazing how quick the body starts to shut down when it’s deprived of sleep!
I took this evolution for what I really saw it as – a low energy ‘break’. We were tasked to use our toothpick to poke a hole in the ground, then use our chopsticks to remove a seed from our soaking wet packets and plant it in the ground. Thankfully our packs were nearby and we were even allowed to run over to the portopotties to attempt to puke/crap/pee, so long as we continued to move with a purpose. You’re probably guessing it now but this was one of those moments where I yet again downed an entire packet of MRE cheese sauce. Yup… still have problems.
With a rain poncho on and a belly fully of calories laden in god-knows-what, we eventually were called to the white barn where we were allowed to set our gear down, take care of our feet and get a bite to eat. Now if you’ve ever played a video game and you’re about to face the final boss, you remember there always being a save point in a room filled with a bunch of gear? This was that room. I knew that we were probably looking at some dreaded Joe time soon as we were all handed these crappy Spartan logo rain ponchos and instructed to wear those instead of any ones that we brought – gotta look good for the cameras, I guess!
The medics quickly came by me and asked how I was doing. “Aside from my ankle I’m a ten out of ten!” uh oh… why did I just say that. At the Death Race there’s an unspoken ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with the medics. They know that many of us have some serious reasons to be there, and if we can keep moving despite some crippling injuries that they wouldn’t bother you if you don’t bother them. I tried to control the damage that’d already been done, “It’s fine, really. I just need to wrap it up”. I took my shoe off and the medic gasped. “Holy SHIT. That thing is swollen, bruised and red! You may be looking at a fracture here. We gotta pull you out of the race and take care of this.”
My heart sank. Another medic who knew me personally came over to take a look. His reaction wasn’t as astonished as the first guy, and he actually let me explain how the ankle was feeling while the first medic was explaining that the red and purple bruises indicated a fracture. “I’ve been walking on this just fine for the last day” I said calmly, though nervous as hell since my participation in this race was now hanging by a thread. A third medic came by to take a look. “Looks like a bad sprain. Can you move your toes? Is it numb at all?” The toes moved as best as they could despite the swelling and I could feel them pinch the tips of my toes. The three medics spoke among themselves, analyzing my situation. I interjected their discussion with a white lie, “It doesn’t hurt at all right now, I’ve been able to operate just fine on it. This isn’t the first time this has hap”- “That’s probably because you’re pumped up on adrenaline right now” one of them interrupted. Shit. I just may get dropped….
“Have you sprained this foot before?” said one of the medics. “About five times in my lifetime in fact”. She studied my foot some more. “I’ve completed events on this exact injury before. Would wrapping it in a bandage remove me from the event”? I asked impatiently, creating a sense of urgency that I needed to wrap this up and continue on. “Not at all. Would you like us to wrap it up for you?”
Hell. Yes. I was still in! I gleefully traded food with other racers that were congregating around my foot while the medics wrapped my swollen kankle up. “You’re on orange alert right now, though. If you injure this any further, we’re going to need to remove you from the event and get you to a clinic or hospital. Understood?”
“Roger that. Loud and clear”. Whatever you say… just let me stay in!
They gave me a spare bandage for me to re-apply later on while giving the race directors the heads up on my situation. After scarfing down more food and guzzling down an entire Nalgene I hastily put my shoes back on, thanked the medics and put my flimsy Spartan poncho (read: elaborate trash bag) on to join the rest of the pack that was nervously congregated around Joe.
Almost immediately we were told that we had all failed him, and that we were to surrender our bibs and from here on out we had to earn the opportunity to be let back in. “I need you guys into three separate groups. One group of people who think they’re mentally and physically strong, another group who’s just mentally strong and the other group that’s feeling completely beat down” explained Joe. After one of the staff ripped my bib off, I hobbled over to the mentally strong group, keeping in mind my orange alert given by the medics in a cautious bid not to make things worse. In the end it didn’t matter what group we were in. We were being shuffled around constantly, You’re not doing burpees strong enough, move to the weak group” “You’re tearing up my grass, get out of the mental group you aren’t thinking when you act”. We must have done 150 burpees each until we were properly shaken up and lined back up into groups that Joe thought were appropriate, with me being one of the unfortunate souls stuck in the weak group. We lined up side by side and were put into groups of three with one person being the strong one, the other being the mentally fit one, and the other being the all-around weak one. “Look to your left and your right. You’re a team now” I looked over and saw Kert Elkins and Ashley Seeger to my side and smiled. These were some badass athletes! Though I was a little embarrassed to be in the ‘weak’ group, the combination of strength that the three of us had was undeniably top-tier. Here’s a video of the whole thing:
Once we were acquainted, we listened closely to what Joe had to say next over the constant pitter-patter of raindrops on our ponchos. This was when we were introduced to one of our final challenges – the Denali challenge.
The time was about 3pm, if memory serves correctly. Until 8am the next morning, we were to run up Joe’s mountain to Shrek’s cabin and back down as many times as possible. If we wanted to stay in the race, we needed to complete 11 laps. Another blow to our morale was when Don and Michelle came out to inform us that nobody passed the written exam we had taken earlier, with the highest score being a measly 42%. Nobody was too surprised as they gave us the usual “everybody is a DNF and we all have to earn our spot back blah blah blah” speech. We shrugged it off until Michelle and Don told us that three of the essay portions of the exam were written so well that they were worthy of a passing grade. Both of them looked at me with a hint of emotion in their words as a wave of panic swept over me. I didn’t want them to read aloud what I had written, but thankfully they stopped there just to keep us guessing. After that scare tactic, it was time to begin the challenge!
With our gear on, we all hastily made our way to the top of the mountain. Kert, Ashley and I were holding a sizable lead on the rest of the pack. We held our heads low and kept marching with a purpose until we met with the staff at the all-to-familiar sight of Shrek’s Cabin to ask our names. “You guys are here first, so you’re now known as team one”. Hell yeah we’re team number one! After giving each other some fist bumps we started making our way back down as cautiously as possible since everything had become a slip-n-slide by this point. Sleep deprivation had definitely taken its toll on me since I must have secretly asked Ashley what Kert’s name was about four times by the time we reached the base of the mountain trail. After checking in with the staff comfortably sitting outside the second floor of the brown bar balcony, we took a couple minutes to put new socks on and grab some quick food to eat. I figured that if we spend a few minutes now to solidify our feet and stomach we could easily regain our lead, should it get lost. Team two made their way down as I put on my last pair of dry socks and changed my shirt out. “We gotta start moving with a purpose c’mon you guys” warned Kert as we tightened our gear straps and started back up the mountain again. With almost 30 people remaining in the event, he was right. There was no way that they’d allow that many finishers in the event so they were definitely going to start finding creative ways to pull people out!
Our second trip up was much more efficient thanks some dry-ish clothes and some extra calories in our stomach. Concern washed over me however as I realized that I only had about 500-600 calories remaining in my drybag, and we had at least another day ahead of us. I kept my eyes open for any quitters or people sitting down eating so that I could beg for some food, should the need arise. Our stomachs were metabolizing nutrition at a lightning fast rate by this point. Any sugar-laden food immediately brought us back from the brink, only to crash just an hour later. Our second lap ended as we tallied another lap at the barn. It looked like those eleven laps were going to be a non-issue! Just as I let the concept of hope seep into my mind, we were given a new rule for our third lap. “pick any one of these objects you see at the side of the barn. For your third lap, you must carry it all the way up to Shrek’s and back down. Get it done”.
We peered around the corner and saw a cornucopia of torturous tools. There were massive sand-filled slosh pipes, a kayak and multiple logs. Seeing as we were a group of only three, we opted out of the kayak since it looked incredibly cumbersome. The next best option was one of the logs that were sliced in half and hollowed out to form a “C” shape. As cumbersome as it was, we were more than content with it since the slosh pipes looked like an absolute nightmare. Thankfully we got pick of the litter since we were team one. It pays to be a winner!
Lap three started slow, as expected. We kept trying different approaches with the log, each of which presented their own challenges. Kert and Ashley were the exact height while I had at least a foot on them. If any of you have done a GORUCK or any other event demanding a group to carry something, you know that height differences mean that either the tallest or the shortest person in the group are going to get absolutely wrecked! The uphill trudge was nightmarish. Sleep deprivation meant that we were rapidly starting to fade, making our decisions more and more idiotic while our movement slowed to a crawl. Ashley gave us a 200mg caffeine pill while we took off our ponchos since they were more or less sauna suits now that the rain stopped. This was definitely my weaker moment in the race. I wasn’t used to being the least common denominator of any group, and I knew that my hydration and nutrition were bringing me down. Thanks to our height differences, it was more efficient to go two at a time while resting the log on the back of our packs and just muscling our way up the mountain. If any of you have done the Killington death march, this was equal to about two of those while also carrying a giant log with all of your gear on.
After hours of work and several stops along the way, we had finally made our way to the top thanks to some much-needed help from Eric at the end, who was given a chance back in the race if he completed 14 laps barefoot by 8am.
Notice how I only said barefoot… the underwear part was a wardrobe option he opted in on his own accord!
The sun had now set and we took a couple minutes to rest at the cabin while starting back down. Team two was up there with their kayak and was starting to head down as I furiously removed my rain poncho to cool down. I was definitely overheating and my Nalgene had run dry, putting me in a very bad place. Thankfully Michelle was up there as well, and had a small bottle of Gatorade! I filled up my camelback with a combination of whatever water remained with the Gatorade and some enduralite powder while downing my final packet of MRE cheese. To those who are wondering, that was cheese packet number twelve!
Shortly after the kayak crew made their way down, we began our descent. Thanks to Ashley’s paracord and carrying ropes we were able to simply slide the log down the mountain while occasionally guiding it away from the others who were still making their way up. I certainly had an appreciation for being on a log crew and not the slosh pipe – every group we passed on our way down looked absolutely miserable. The rain had made the pipe slippery and even more unwieldly than it already was. Many folks were clearly fed up with their predicament and just wanted to get the task complete, including our own team as a matter of fact. I got the hint that I should put the brakes on my efforts to keep talking to Kert and Ashley and just focus on negotiating our way down the mountain. We were tired and no doubt apprehensive about what awaited us for lap four as the sky once again surrendered to the cloudy blackness occasionally lit up by the thunderstorms off in the distance that were heading our way.
Finally the trees parted and the lights of the brown barn had shown itself! You know the absolute sense of relief you get when finally dropping that rock-filled bucket or sandbag off at a Spartan race? Multiply that times a thousand, because that’s what it felt like for all of us on team one when we offloaded the log off our shoulders and heard that final THUNK of the log landing in its final spot!
After getting our lap recorded, we were approached by Michelle for our instructions on lap four. After putting the log in storage at the barn we were presented with a very unorthodox situation. We had two options:
1) Continue lap four with your packs. You also have to bring two decent sized pieces of firewood to the top of Shrek’s to keep the fire going all night long, or
2) Have each member of the team get tazed and have lap four automatically marked as complete, letting us start lap five.
Yes. You heard that right. Get freaking tazed! Even more enticing was the fact that lap five was when the group was split up and the individual challenge began at whatever pace we can each muster (oh, and laps from lap five onwards were done WITHOUT our gear). After learning that the tazer wasn’t one of those nasty ones that shoot the electric barbs out, but was instead one of the handheld ones that you jab into somebody, we opted to get tazed. We figured that five seconds of pain was well worth paying as opposed to the two hours it would take to lug a bunch of firewood to the top and be set one lap behind. Ominously she confirmed our decision. “Good choice. Get some water, set your gear down and when you’re ready, meet me at the top of the barn. I’ll be with the medics”
We met with team two (the team with my partner Wil in it) at the bottom of the barn immediately after they got tazed. At first they were messing with us and told us that it was the worst experience ever and that it was the kind of tazer that shoots the prongs out, but their laughter gave away their fib pretty quickly! Just as we rounded the corner, I overheard Don screaming at somebody about disrespectful conduct, with Ashley turning the corner to meet with Kert and I. She seemed stunned. “I’m sorry you guys… I shined my headlamp at Don and he got pissed off at me. We can’t get tazed now and we have to do lap four with the firewood”. Say WHAT?!
Looking in disbelief as my shoulders finally started to acclimate to not carrying anything heavy, I looked for the same kind of laughter that team two chided us with minutes ago. Sadly, she was dead serious. Michelle guided us to the firewood shack where we were told to pick two sizable pieces of firewood each and tell her when we were about to head out. At first I was pretty pissed off that we had to spend another hour or more losing our lead AND another free lap, but I was about to round that corner of the barn to find her anyways, and Don would have simply pinned the headlamp infraction on me. There was no getting out of it – we had to suck it up and start marching.
The final trek up to Shrek’s as a team was pretty separated. We agreed to go our own pace since we were each facing our own bouts of exhaustion, sleep deprivation and general crankiness. I was eager to get started on the solo challenges so I took as few of breaks as possible to re-secure the logs I had stuffed into my pack. I ate a small 100 calorie gel packet on the way up, knowing full well that my remaining 300-400 calories weren’t going to last me the rest of the race. “I’ll just tough it out and hope adrenaline brings me through the last eight to ten hours” I muttered to myself as the lights of Shrek’s cabin broke through the tree line. Ashley had already dropped her logs off and started her way down, eager to get the solo challenge started as Kert and I shambled up to the top. Kert was fading pretty fast so he opted for the ten minute nap that the staff were allowing people to take (they even woke you up when your ten minutes were up!) They said we may not be able to start solo challenges until the entire group was at the bottom, but I started heading down anyways in hopes that it wasn’t the case. If it was, I figured I’d take the chance to start begging for food.
Running down with my pack was a cautious affair, as usual. I couldn’t wait to take the thing off and just carry my Nalgene and food and start hoofing it as fast as my wrecked ankle could take me. The wrap around my ankle kept the swelling down to a manageable state, but even my shoe looked like it was bursting at the seams trying to contain it all. I knew that uphill would be my strong point – nobody could outpace me on the uphills! Downhill was another story. The rain gave me two options on the downhills, slip-n-slide rocks or wet mud. Any miscalculation would turn that medical orange alert into a medical DNF, so I had to tread carefully. I made it down to the brown barn where my lap was tallied and I was clear to begin my fifth lap on my own! I gave Ashley a high five and wished her luck as I grabbed my Nalgene, dropped my pack and headed straight back out to the total blackness of the mountain. The death race had now gone into single elimination mode!
My headlamp dimly lit the wet trail ahead of me with no signs of anybody else on the pitch-black mountain. Thunder rolled in the distance as rain periodically tapped me on the head. With my burdensome pack finally off my shoulders I was in full on ultrarunning mode. This was when the real race began for me! My headlamp batteries had been steadily draining over the last two days and my spares were corroded from the pond water. Luckily I planned ahead for that, making sure that my headlamp was set to the absolute lowest brightness mode in the nights prior so that full brightness mode on the third night would be actually useful. I was going to need that light, more specifically my ankle was going to need it.
I passed a couple of teams still lugging their slosh pipe up the mountain and another two teams still bringing it down. That thing must have been no joke! Wil was on his way down when I saw him on my way up, and he was booking it! I knew I made the right choice in picking him as a teammate! A lot of others on the mountain were going incredibly slow, as any normal person would on their forth day in an endurance event, but Wil and I chose to be abnormal. Despite my ankle constantly grinding against my pain receptors, I wanted to beat as many people in lap count as possible!
I made it to the top of Shrek’s incredibly fast. I had to if I was going to be struggling on the downhill. Eric and Leyla were huddled up at the fire looking downtrodden with another person taking their ten minute nap as well. I told myself that I will allow myself no more than two naps if my situation started getting bad. Despite me feeling absolutely dominant, the effects of sleep deprivation on my brain were starting to become unmanageable. I remember heading down and seeing Athena and I had to do a double take on her because my hallucinating brain showed me that she had no eyes in her sockets and a dark shade of black mascara surrounding them. With the brain being incredibly adept at finding patterns in things, I kept seeing faces in the rocks, trees and mud. Oftentimes they would shift and contort to the auditory hallucination of Jason Barnes in the distance shouting out instructions.
As I finished my fifth lap I ran to the awning where everyone had stashed their gear. A few people were napping and a couple folks were eating. Thankfully a generous racer let me eat some of their trail mix as I refilled my Nalgene and started running back up without pause. I saw Kert on his way down, and I was happy to see him moving with a purpose as well! He shouted as we crossed paths, “That nap brought me back from the brink, man. I feel great now!”. Hell yeah, buddy! I crossed paths with the slosh pipe teams again on the way up, cherishing what little human contact I had on the mountain. They were definitely in the hurt locker, so I kept my words to a concise “keep it up guys, you got this”.
The hallucinations at this point started to get really, really bad. Sleep deprivation was so extreme that when I stopped running to pee off the side of the trail, I almost immediately went into REM sleep with my freaking dick still in my hand! I recall mistakenly giving a tree a high five because I thought it was a person stooped over taking a break, and I knew that some of the lightning flashes were not real since there was no thunder to accompany it. As the rain grew, my mind stretched the headlamp-illuminated raindrops towards me in a way I can only describe as going into light speed in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Despite all of this, the scientist in me was fascinated by it all. Knowing how my brain was adept at stitching patterns together, I was studiously observing how it operated when the sanity control mechanisms involuntarily shut down. Like a third person observer, I would take mental notes of my warped perception of reality as it melted around me. Looking back, that scientific part of me is probably the sole reason why I was able to keep moving.
Cold rain now lathered me as makeshift streams forked down the trail. I knew that if I went any slower my core temperature would plummet. Movement meant survival, and I intended on not only surviving but thriving. I made it to the top of the mountain once again, shouting out my bib number and immediately turning around to start heading down, ignoring the people huddled in the shack and around the fire. I wanted my story to be that despite my completely trashed ankle, I wanted to dominate the majority of people who were still left in the race who had (mostly) perfectly good feet!
I crossed paths with Wil again, giving him a fist bump and a quick word of encouragement and nothing more. We each had to focus on hitting those eleven laps and had no time to socialize – we could do all the socializing once we finished this shit!
Lap six was complete as I checked in to the brown barn. A headlamp shined down on me from the balcony, “Murphy, bib 25, lap six.” I gave a thumbs up, refilled my Nalgene, grabbed my last snickers bar and headed straight back up, letting the rain cool me off as I kept constant forward motion. It was a little frustrating passing people with complete ease on the uphill, only to have them stroll by me on the downhills but I still took pride in the fact that I was able to do all of this on a badly injured ankle. I stopped to do another pee color test, once again taking a quick five second nap as I peed. Without any EnergyOps caffeine strips remaining, I was fading pretty fast. I zigzagged up the trails, barely keeping awake as I tried to read the graffiti on all of the trees, knowing full well that my brain hallucinated mere patterns of moss into words. It was a game to me, really. I wanted to observe what my subconscious was interpreting of my reality while uncontrollably leaking into my conscious as I took mental notes of the random words my mind was spewing forth. The game quickly got serious when my steps were becoming to staggered and uncoordinated that I fell a couple times going uphill. “I’ll be taking that ten minute nap”, I said to a tree in a very matter of fact manner. Smiling, I continued on after a wiser part of my mind took control.
Despite my reality peeling away around me and my mind desperately clamoring for a reprieve, I was smiling from ear to ear. “I fucking LOVE this”, I shouted to nobody. This was the moment I was waiting to experience – when everything around me had completely gone sideways. This was the point where other people would take a break or quit. This was the moment that was so rare that I treasured it like the opportunity of a lifetime, as if Warren Buffet rolled up to me in a limousine and said “hop in”, for that it was the single greatest chance I had to break through the other side and become a better version of myself. These moments, where nobody was looking, were the moments that Don described as going through the devil’s anus and out the other side! Only on hour 60 of an endurance event was I able to grab on to that messed up part of my mind that ate away at me and drag it out to the surface, kicking and screaming, so that I could beat its ass. All of the negativity, doubt, fear and depression that had stopped me from coming out here in the past was blasted away with every step I defiantly took up that rainy mountain. “You can’t fucking hurt me”, I said aloud as tears of happiness mixed with the rain on my face. This moment, on my seventh lap up the mountain, was my single greatest moment at the Death Race.
The rain had mercifully let up by the time I reached the top and immediately got my shoes and socks off and put them by the fire. I rested my head on a log, gave the staff the thumbs up and immediately fell asleep on the cold muddy ground in mere seconds.
It was clear that my brain was rapidly repairing what it could. I would wake myself periodically due to my legs twitching, or to slap a daddy longlegs spider off my face (those suckers were EVERYWHERE by the way). I remember seeing Wil reaching the top, grabbing something from his makeshift drop bin that he brought to the top (SMART) and running back down. “Ten minutes are up, Neil” shouted one of the staff. I quickly put my shoes and socks on, avoiding the tempting warm pull of the fire from keeping me there any longer than I should be and got moving right away. Feeling renewed, I told the staff that I was going to do the next lap in my kitten booty shorts that I (in)famously bring to my races. Yeah… I actually brought those to the death race!
I could tell that the nap had a huge benefit since the hallucinations were downgraded to just facial patterns in things and not the extremes I had endured prior. I felt much more alert and found myself having cheerful conversations with actual people and not trees on the way down! Athena brought my spirits up by humming the epic sax guy song (memories of the 2018 Killington Ultra!) with me as well! Even though lap seven was a great lap, I knew I needed to reapply the wrap around my ankle and actually spend some time to pitstop at the brown barn. Michelle logged my lap and told me that she’d wrap my ankle if I walked up to the balcony. From there I saw a tally of who was still left in the race and how I compared to the other competitors. Wil was absolutely CRUSHING it, and I wasn’t too far behind him either! In fact, had I been able to get tazed and get a free lap four I may have been side by side with the guy at this point!
As Michelle wrapped my foot, I casually mentioned seeing a bunch of food laid out on the first floor of the barn. Without any expectation of that food being for anybody but race staff, I playfully said, “man, I wish some of that food downstairs was accessible to racers, it’s taunting me every time I finish a lap!” She smiled, “Actually, if you come with me after this I’ll let you get a ham sandwich and some chips. I’m letting each racer have one helping down there since we’ve got a ton of food leftover”. Freaking jackpot! Actual REAL food! I piled on as much ham and cheese as I could stuff between the burger buns and grabbed a handful of salty chips and profusely thanked Michelle. “You just saved my ass by the way”.
Like a raccoon making off with the steal of a lifetime I quickly shambled over to the awning to sit on my bucket and begin my ravenous feast, furiously trying to remove my pants to put on those booty shorts. A couple people saw me with my loot and acted like I just won the lottery as I channeled my inner Frank Reynolds and proceeded to annihilate that sandwich! My hedonistic feast had little time for words as I shoveled in every calorie I could, picking up the fallen pieces of sandwich that fell off my mouth during my mantis-like feast and shoveling that in as well. I didn’t care how filthy and pantsless I looked, I was in heaven and my calorie woes had been solved! I set my sandwich down for a moment to try to shimmy my pants off my shoes, but my ankle was so swollen that I didn’t want to risk messing up my fresh bandage. I felt bad that I couldn’t get the shorts on, especially since Tom seemed pretty stoked that I actually brought them, but I couldn’t take my shoes off and risk messing up what I had going for me. Oh well!
Not wanting to spend any more time sitting down, I continued to destroy the last half of my sandwich as I started my way up the mountain for lap number eight. My stomach immediately started metabolizing the calories and I felt like a brand new person as I bolted up the mountain even faster. With my nutrition and hydration on point, I reached the top of the mountain in no time, apologizing to the disappointed staff that I wasn’t wearing those cat pants. The trip down was a lot easier with some food digesting in my gut, and I finally saw Wil at the awning this time taking his very first pitstop. It seemed that he made the same discovery that I had made and he was devouring his one allotted ham sandwich with the same gluttonous fury I had put on the lap prior. Lucky for me, there was big bag of potato chips sitting in the area that I nabbed and started shoveling in my mouth while Wil was wrapping up his break time. I told him that I’d meet him at the top where he’d undoubtedly pass me on the downhill and we said our temporary goodbyes.
Going up the mountain again this time brought on a new fatigue – the food coma! I was totally fine with this problem as opposed to a calorie bonk-out, and I decided to cash in my second ten minute nap that I had allowed myself to take. I realized that by this point I needed to get as much rest as I could for the undeniable beat down that was going to occur when 0800 arrived. I propped my head up on a log by the fire, said some nonsensical stuff to the staff and conked out right away. “Ten minutes are up, Neil. Start moving”. “Roger that” I said, opening my eyes to the sky that was starting to turn a light blue. The last night was fading away into the last day of the Death Race, and I was ready to crush it!
After cautiously going down the mountain, I got to the barn and had my eighth lap marked. Since it was finally daytime I decided to wake myself up by taking another pitstop to stretch, put trailtoes on my feet and most importantly brush my teeth. Something about brushing my teeth at an endurance event always woke me up, especially when it coincided with the sunrise. Replacing that layer of sugary crap off of my teeth with a minty fresh flavor was absolutely uplifting! I resisted the temptation to join the five other people that were dead asleep under the awning, instead preferring to talk to Leo who had just completed a lap. It turned out that he had only completed his fifth lap thanks to a very slow and arduous journey with the slosh pipe. Even worse was the fact that his group had accidentally dropped the pipe and had cracked the entire cap off one side where sand gushed out.
Don had awoken by this point but was still muzzled by the noise ordinance that was in effect until 0700. He despondently looked at those who were sleeping – glad I chose not to sleep or I’d be screwed! As I sat on the steps of the barn tending to my feet, Rob surprised me with a can of Sprite. Acting like a homeless person that had just been given a thousand dollars, I profusely thanked him while I guzzled down the sweet nectar, loudly belching in between my words of gratitude. After getting my shoes back on and packing everything back into my pack, I set out to start my ninth lap. “You have two hours to complete three laps,” said Don, already wide-awake from whatever satanic energy he was fueled by. I nodded, grabbed my pack of sour patch kids (aka my silver bullet) and my Nalgene and hurried back up the mountain.
Going up was much faster this time when I didn’t have the ever-shrinking illumination of a headlamp to guide me. The nighttime hallucinations had subsided and I was going up as fast as my ankle would allow while gnawing on sour patch kids. Occasionally I’d hand out a sour patch kid to folks heading down the mountain, asking what lap they were on. “Lap six, how bout you?” “Lap seven, hangin’ in there…” “seven for me. You?” Each of them looked at me in disbelief when I told them I was on lap nine! I was thrilled to have gotten this many laps in despite my foot being the way it was. Hell, I was simply happy to be participating in the Death Race, let alone being in the small pool of people still in it at hour 60+!
I got to the top and talked to the guy with the clipboard recording split times for people. “your last split was 50 minutes”, he declared. Crap. I’ve gotta hurry it up if I want to squeeze two laps in the next hour or so. I hurried down to the bottom, crossing paths with Wil who was on his eleventh lap. Only him and Andrew were on their eleventh lap, which made it hard to believe that everybody but those two would actually get DNF’ed come 0800. My goal was to get at least ten laps in and hope to have enough time to spare for the eleventh, but I wasn’t going to transform that medical orange alert into a DNF this late into the game.
The minutes flowed on as it was clear that those who were caught sleeping at the barn were forced to crank out some laps. I rushed to the barn to get my ninth lap tallied before refilling my Nalgene and heading straight back to the top. Ten laps are in the bag, but if I wanted to irk out an eleventh lap I will have to really step on the gas for this next hour! Sweat began to drip down to the tips of my shoes as I pushed down on my knees, passing the groggy masses of people who were understandably operating on autopilot by this point. Many of the folks that I crossed paths with had some very encouraging and positive words as they recognized my handicapped ankle in addition to my lap count. With a smile on my face I reached the all-too-familiar Shrek’s cabin to eagerly hear my split for the last lap. “forty minutes, your fastest one yet!”
Hmmm. Well, if I wanted to crank out an eleventh lap I would have to do it in under thirty minutes, provided that we could not be out on the mountain after 8am. I cautiously continued my stride down the mountain and back to the barn where I then asked for clarification on the 0800 cut-off. Jason confirmed to me that that time was a hard cut-off, meaning that if it was 0745 (the current time), I had to tally my lap before 0800 or the current lap will not count. Ten total laps it is, I guess! Even though my ankle was in a constant state of pain, I pushed through to the best of my ability while avoiding the dreaded medical DNF! I took the next 15 minutes to prepare for the final beatdown since there was no way that Joe would allow this race to continue on much longer. Medically they avoided going beyond the 65-70 hour mark simply because we’d be at risk of brain damage if we were to continue on without any long lasting sleep built into the schedule. Remembering seeing the final beatdown last year, I put some arm sleeves on to protect the already festering yellow scabs that lined my elbows. I thought about putting some kneepads on but I opted to stretch and eat my last bit of calories instead.
We were instructed to be standing in line shoulder-to-shoulder by 0800 no matter what. Wil shambled outside of the barn with bags under his eyes, it was clear that his overnight efforts had taken their toll on him. Fortunately for him the staff recognized his above-and-beyond efforts and let him rest for a little while to reward him for being number one at the Denali challenge. His listless eyes moved over to me, “Bro.. I’m so tired right now” he drunkenly said. I gave him a high five and a hug for his hard work and spoke quickly. “We’re in the final stretch right now buddy, this is it. We’ve got to stay focused” I said, trying not to sound like a drunken fool myself. I could see Joe exiting the white barn, surrounded by camera crew, walking straight towards the remaining twenty five of us. Shit was about to get very, very real.
My mind was mush by this point, but I recall there being some talk from Joe that we didn’t perform well enough and that there was 20 more hours remaining into the event. You know – the usual DR fluff that he likes to put on to scare people. After the scare speech we were told to bearcrawl-race to the fence and line back up in the same order that we’re in. The endex smokefest had begun!
Wil and I stayed ahead of the pack right off the bat, keeping a sizable lead as we turned the corner of the fence that had all 75 bibs laid on top. Once we were shuffled back into our lines the staple of Joe-time exercises commenced – burpees. With a line of drool lapping down my chin I could tell that my body was on its last drop of gas. Thankfully, they began blasting us with cold water straight out of the hose to help wake us up as we cranked burpees out while Don, Joe and other staff lectured us on our failures, their philosophy on the race, and a couple of other points that went straight past my head since water was being blasted directly into my face. Nevertheless, a defiant grin was plastered to my face as I did my burpees. “YOU CAN’T HURT US” I said, hoping that my taunts caught the ear of Don and company. Wil and Andrew were doing burpees next to me and they started chiming in as well. “YOU CAN’T HURT US”, we said in unison. A stream of water blasted me in the face, courtesy of the staff that spent the entire night up on Shrek’s counting our laps. I remembered the nonsensical blabbering I shared with them that night and the laughs that it forced out of them, so I went ahead and said it again while everybody else was silently enduring their torture. “Pee is stored in the balls”, I said while laughing. The ploy worked and completely disarmed their seriousness as they started laughing while still trying to annihilate me with the hose. “YOU CAN’T HURT US”, I said again.
My mind continued to defiantly sharpen against their jabs as Don took out a piece of paper and began reading off “The man in the arena” by Theodore Roosevelt.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
“Remember this speech. GO.” Said Don. Right away I knew they expected us to fail, knowing full well that we couldn’t coordinate that kind of mental prowess as we approached hour 68. We still put in an effort to at least try, though. We lined up and assigned individual parts of the speech that we tried to memorize. Once we learned our line we got back in the order in which we heard our line so that we can recite the speech in the right order. Surprisingly enough, we got most of it right! Of course we probably swapped a word here and there and of course they laid into us because of it, but by this point we were expecting any excuse from them to try to make us feel bad. The next part however, really messed us up.
“Who here got twelve laps in” asked Joe. Andrew and Wil were the only ones to step forward. “You two can retrieve your bibs, you’re back in the race now”. “Everybody else failed. Those are the only two who deserve to move on” said Joe dismissively as he walked away. Everybody was silent, save for the clicks of the cameras. Just as we all started to actually believe that there were only going to be two finishers, Don came up with a clipboard. “Andrew and Wil, if your original partners are still here, have them step forward”. With my ankle freshly torn up from doing burpees, I limped towards Wil and rested my arm on his shoulder. “Anybody else who’s original partner is still here right now, step forward”. Don got pissed off at us and explained how the Denali challenge specifically said eleven laps to complete, and how none of our exams passed, and how most of us failed land navigation and didn’t deserve to be here. “YOU”, he pointed at me, “YOU FUCKING OWE HIM” said Don, then pointing at Wil. He said the same to Andrew’s partner and then started naming off bib numbers, of which number 25 was included. “Those of you who have those bibs…. Retrieve your bibs now”.
The bib was damp and cold from the long night, chilling me as I reunited with it. Number 24 and 25 are back in the game! I looked around and saw a few people wandering the fence, looking for their bib while a few others stood behind, including Leo and my team one partner Kert. My heart sank at the next words that were spoken:
“Those of you remaining who do not have a bib on, you have been eliminated from the race. Go over to the white barn to see medical and get your interviews done”
Stunned, I looked over at the seven who had fought so hard to remain echo my disbelief as they paused for a moment to wait for the next ‘gotcha’ moment, but that moment never came. Slowly they walked over to the barn where the camera crews awaited them. It was actually real… they had been eliminated from the death race at 68 hours. At the time of writing this, the only stated criteria for their removal hinged on their partner still being there in addition to an undisclosed cutoff of Denali laps, but there were other unknown factors that determined the reminder of their fates. There still lies a bunch of confusion and understandable anger over this since a couple people whose original partner were not present at the end still got to retrieve their bib, in addition to some only completing six or seven Denali laps. In the end, those seven were at least given the title of unofficial Death Race finisher. Before we could process the situation any longer, we were tasked to attempt to recite Roosevelt’s speech once again.
With only eighteen people remaining, we tried our best to memorize what we could but we were too flustered from what just happened to function properly. I got out my notepad and furiously started writing down the speech in case it would serve me later. Others who still had dry paper and a working pen attempted the same before we were stopped and told that we have only two minutes to run back to the brown barn, retrieve our gear and run back as fast as humanly possible. Without any delay, I sprinted over to the line of gear. A putrid smell emanated from the pile of packs, no doubt from the days of fermented beaver pond water that stewed in the hot summer sun. Worried about any other surprise elimination challenges, I kept to the front of the pack. I noticed those who were just eliminated flush with emotion over what had just happened and I was determined not to join them, even if it meant injuring my ankle again.
After lining myself back up at the fence I noticed Wil had just picked his pack up and was hobbling back our way with three instructors surrounding him like sharks honing in on their kill. “Oh god please don’t eliminate him” I said aloud, fully prepared to rip my own bib off if it meant keeping him in. Thankfully there was no culling of the herd once we had lined up as we awaited our next set of instructions. With Wil at the front, we started running the entire perimeter of Riverside Farm. Of course we were not running fast enough, so we were told to sprint past Wil and ‘trample the weak’. Off in the distance, a big white truck was perched in front of Joe’s yard with a table and lots of camera crew. We put two and two together and started running over there, sitting down in front of the truck in two rows. Where Joe, Courtney and Patrick all in the bed of the truck, armed with a shotgun.
We were told that our next task was to run to the brown barn to do a picture vs picture comparison puzzle, then to run all the way over to Chittenden to do some kind of bucket exercise – a task that would no doubt take twelve hours to complete. Knowing full well that they were full of it, I just waited for them to cut the crap and get to the point. “We’ve got eighteen skulls here, one for each of you. Every twenty minutes we will destroy one of these skulls, meaning that one of you at random will be eliminated from the race”. To demonstrate, Patrick threw a skull into the air and Courtney shot at the skull mid-air in a makeshift skeet shooting operation (she missed by the way). “That’s one person right there who just got eliminated”. After their stunt in removing the last seven people, we were all paying close attention!
Right then, somebody got up, running into the field where the skull lie intact. Unfortunately they stopped whoever it was and told them to get back with the group while they go over their next talking point. I raised an eyebrow at this point because it started to feel like their actions were made up on the fly. They’d tell us one thing, and then completely contradict themselves to show off another cool rule that was seemingly made up. Patrick started going into his speech about fear and how the brain responds to it – how team cohesion is ripped apart into bouts of parasitic thinking when chaos is thrown into the mix, where people start only thinking about themselves. He proceeded to launch another skull for Courtney to shoot (and miss again), this time walking out into the field to shoot the one skull while leaving the old one still intact. I caught on to their game by this point and knew that twenty minutes had definitely not gone by. “Who’s skull is that?!” shouted either Don or Joe. “MINE!” screamed Athena as she dropped her gear and ran out into the field to grab it. This time they didn’t stop her like they stopped the other person and she became the first official person to have a skull. As if once again made up on the spot, Joe told her that the event was now over if she chose to keep the skull for herself, or relinquish it to give others a chance at taking home a skull should they choose. She immediately chose to relinquish the skull. “All or nothing”, I said as others chimed in. Then the fun part began.
Ronald handed her his axe where she then proceeded to smash her skull into various fragments, handing them out to the remaining eighteen still left in the class. My expectation of the outcome of the race by this point felt fulfilled. It wasn’t about some $9 skull that they ordered on Amazon (No literally, this is the exact one they ordered), or even the bib that only eighteen of us still had on. What I held in my hand had zero value to anybody else. Much like the Barkley Marathon, there was no real participation trophy. The only people who genuinely knew your story were the ones who counted the most – they were the ones who were sitting right beside us all. I looked at those around me as we each looked at our fragments that in any other situation be simply thrown away if discovered on the ground.
We exchanged handshakes and pats on the back, but then another option was given to us. “Those who want to have a complete skull…. There are seven skulls floating in the beaver pond right now. If you want one, GO NOW” shouted Don. Immediately two people ditched their gear and ran over there while the rest of us hesitated. Remembering back to my “all or nothing” statement, I simply sat still next to Ronald who nodded at me in approval. I looked over to Wil and it was clear that he had different plans. I nodded at him to go on ahead. I had gotten what I wanted by this point. Seven years of my life had been with this endgame in mind and I had finally gotten what I had wanted – to be declared an official Spartan Death Race Finisher!
Others who opted for the complete skull eventually got up and jogged over to the pond once the first few people started running back with a skull in their hands. John Chambers opted for a much cooler skull by running to the half-skull in the field that was peppered with shotgun pellet holes! Content with the fragments in my hand, I stashed them away in my pack with a smile glued to my face. I looked down at my bib and knew what I had to do next. I gleefully removed my bib and tossed it over to Rob who was telling people to go to the pond or give him their bib. In my T3 event I typically instruct the participants to bring their most valued medal, bib, headband or whatever trinket that embodied their hardest and most meaningful accomplishment. In the rare times that I get to participate in my own event I’d bring my 2015 Ultrabeast medal. But to be honest, the artifacts of my failures (such as my 2018 Death Race bib) are the pieces that I put on display the most – they give me the hunger I need to never stop running towards my dreams. I didn’t want to place down an elaborate skull in that pile of mass-produced trinkets that races bought from China. Instead, I have the pleasure of comically tossing a fragment of a broken skull into that pile now. Those trinkets may one day get lost, broken or left in a box when we move from place to place as our lives move beyond this day. What mattered the most to me was in my heart – a dream I had chased non-stop since I couldn’t run more than a 5k seven years ago that had finally been realized.
I was officially a Death Race Finisher.
This was a level of personal sovereignty that nobody could ever take from me, and it by no means marked a finish line. The point of the Death Race is to build a better version of yourself. I will continue to take these lessons learned to beat my previous records in these kinds of events (I registered for 2020 already) and to pass these lessons on to others who have a similar dream that they think is impossible. My story doesn’t end here, but a major chapter of a greater story certainly does. The next chapter is one with your name on it, should you choose to join me.
So I had some questions about the gear that I picked, specifically the pack and the axe. I’ll link them below with some other gear that I swear by.