My Death Race Adventure
For those of you that want to skip to the end, I did not complete Death Race. If you would like more, details, read on.
Death Race (DR) is the creation of Joes Desena and Andy Weinberg, the Undertakers. It takes place in the quaint little town of Pittsfield, Vermont. Competitors do not know when the race starts, when the race ends, or challenges lie in wait. The race involves physical and mental challenges over a 24-72 hour period. Basically, they just screw with you throwing whatever kind of head fakes at you that they can think of. The Undertakers design DR to whittle the field down to as few finishers as possible, usually 10-15% of the starters. It is considered one of the hardest races in the world.
The question I am asked most often is “why?” The answer is simple. I’ve completed over sixty endurance races including ironmans, triathlons, marathons, ultramarathons and ultraswims. Death Race presented an opportunity to see how far I can push myself.
The other aspect that attracted me was the unpredictability. Life is structured. Triathlon and marathon are structured. Always training in a straight line. 140.6 miles is 140.6 miles. The kind of training that would be required for DR was something that I felt I could sink my teeth into. I found the unpredictability to be refreshing.
In October 2010, I signed up, was accepted, and training began. I should point out here that Nicole, my incredibly supportive and understanding wife, encouraged me to sign up after we saw the DR video. She either thought it was something that I would really enjoy, or came to the realization that I am worth more dead than alive.
The training was, at times, extremely tough. All night trail hikes with 40 lbs of sand on my back, mountain biking to Harper’s Ferry, WV (also with sand in my back) only to climb Maryland Heights carrying the bike and then biking home again (all in the cold rain), carrying 50 lb. buckets of sand, truck tires, logs, splitting wood, more push-ups than I care to remember, 35 hours of sleep deprivation, and dreadful burpees. There are two people I would like to thank for helping me with training; Neil Moscowitz for creating some very psychotic workouts for me and Kevin Chrapaty, for braving the all night 35 mile trail hike.
One of the really neat things that happened along the way was that I was able to connect with other competitors through Facebook. It was a lot of fun to share workouts, speculation and just general “what the F$#@ are we doing” discussions. I came to realize that this was not a race pitting us against each other as competitors, but together trying to help each other beat the race, Joe and Andy, and our own internal demons. I became more stoked than ever to get to Pittsfield and be a part of this phenomenon.
In March, the Washington Post called and asked if they could do a story on DR and my training for it. The writer was Lenny Bernstein who I had met several years ago when Heather and his son were on the Macabai track team. The DR race directors actually made it a requirement to have an article written but I had already planned on ignoring this and taking the penalty task. We would later learn that those competitors that did not have an article written would either need to show up completely shaven of all body hair (and they were going to check) or carry a hay bale up the mountain and be back at the start by 6pm race day. Two people did the hay bale challenge, it took them seven hours.
Lenny came out and spent many hours with me trudging around a snowy forest with me while I carried a 50lb log. My biggest fear about the article was that I would come across looking like an egotistical jerk. The article was better than I could imagined and discussed DR, adventure racing and training. Some surprises came out of the article being written that I did not expect; I re-connected with some old friends that read it, heard from countless people that were inspired to work out or try something new, and was contacted by Team Red, White and Blue.
Team Red, White and Blue (RWB) is a non-profit that works to help wounded soldiers re-integrate into society. It was founded by Major Mike Erwin. Once he told me the story, I knew I wanted to be a part of this great cause. You can still donate to Team RWB at www.firstgiving.com.
The week before the race CNN called and asked if I would mind if they followed me though out the race. Sure, why not. Val and Kim came out to our home and we did some interviewing and they filmed some workouts in our woods and up on Sugarloaf Mountain. In Pittsfield we would meet up with Nadia and David. I thought that this would add an interesting aspect to my DR experience.
The only clue as to what we would be going through in DR comes in a list of required equipment. We can have with us anything that we think may be useful, but must always have the required items with us. Anything else we put in our backpacks must also remain with us for the entire race. This year’s lilst came out one week before the race and included goggles, tape measure, 10’ of climbing rope, hand drill with a ½” bit, 1-Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil, hand saw, and one live fish. One Facebook, my fellow competitors and I had lots of debates over the fish. Would we be eating it? Would we need to keep it alive? What kind of fish is the toughest? People were actually buying fish and carrying it around with them all week to experiment. I planned to use a Beta and name it fluffy.
Then, in DR style, a change came. The Undertakers emailed us on Monday saying they were going to scrap the list and send us a new one by Wednesday. Fluffy was off the list. A twenty dollar bill and two one dollar bills were added to the other equipment list. We would later learn that PETA go word about the fish and demanded that it be removed from the competition. We would also learn that their intention was to put all of the fish into Joe’s fish tank and make us correctly pick out our fish after the first 24 hours of the race.
In our last email from the Undertakers we were told to come with a good knowledge of world wide religions as this would be a theme for the race. I downloaded a cheat sheet and laminated it (legal to do). We were also told that there would be a parachute packing class taught by two special operations soldiers at noon at the Amee Farm (the base camp for the race) and that this could be very important for our safety and that the Free Masons would be holding a meeting at 2pm and that we may want to attend this as well. I thought these activities sounded interesting and was kind of looking forward to them.
The Thursday before the race Nicole and I headed up to Vermont. I was looking forward to our time together. It rained for most of the ten hour drive, an ominous sign. We ate and hung out for the evening. The only other person staying there was my friend Eric Rohnacher who I had been emailing and Facebooking with for months. It was great to finally meet him and we spent some time discussing strategy. He had talked to Andy (race director) earlier in the day. Andy told him that the first challenge would blow our minds and eliminate 40% of the field. Gulp.
We arrived at the Amee Farm (base camp for the race) noon. Lots of people were milling around all looking for the parachute packing class. One of the things about DR is that they give you limited information leaving you to figure the rest out, either correctly or incorrectly. Rumors were flying. Was the class at the farm, the general store, or at the church? We all slowly came to the realization that this was a fake out designed to waste our time and energy, and splurge any chance to rest. We headed back to the hotel, deciding that the Free Mason meeting was probably also a fake.
After resting for a while, I did the final packing of my backpack. All clothes were put in ziplock bags, camelback filled with water, and food packed into 5-6 hours supplies. We arrived at the general store for check in. I was given a fish hook and told not to lose it. I placed it on my hat for safe keeping. Parking was a half mile in the opposite direction of the farm so we had a decent walk, with full 45 pound pack, just to get to the farm. When we got there, it was controlled chaos. I met Johnny Waite and Dan Grodinsky, two of the guys I had been emailing with. Besides all of the other competitors, there was a huge piles of wood rounds, boulders, and 16” pvc pipes. We were told to get in line for a video interview. As this was happening, Joe Desena decided that we should move the wood into groupings of 15, the boulders into straight lines of 6 boulders each arranged smallest to largest, and the pipes cut into 5’ sections filled with water and capped. We went into action. The race had started. I took a moment to look at the scene in front of me. A collection of incredible athletes from all over country (and world in some cases) coming together to attempt something more difficult than 99.9% of people would never even consider. I was in awe, and feeling a little bit like throwing up.
The other activity going on was that we had to buy Vermont fishing licenses from the game warden (he really was the actual Vermont game warden). New debate. A one day license cost $20, three day for $22. The race would last for more than one dollar. Should we get the three day? Would we need our $22 for anything else. I decided that this was probably be a good investment so I went for the three day. It would suck to get to Sunday and not have the license and either be eliminated or have to do a penalty.
The video interview was in a booth. The camera was on the other side of a whole and you could not see the person asking the questions. Why are you here? Are you doing this of your own free will? Do you realize that you could die, be harmed, or seriously maimed?
At 6pm, we were told to march down to the church and take a seat in the pews, quietly. Our packs were stowed outside but all of us gathered items we thought would be needed for the night. Headlamp, food, drink, gloves, jacket. The rumor was that our packs would be taken away while we were in the church. Inside, the Preacher stood in front of us and graciously talked about he admired our dedication and commitment to being great athletes. He then began a synopsis of world religions going through one at a time, there origin dates, founders and core beliefs. I was so happy I had shoved a piece of paper and pen into my pocket. Not really sure why I did, just a gut feeling. Others had to. We were scribbling as fast as we possibly could. The Preacher was not pausing to help us at all. The guy next to me and I were trying to help each other get everything important. The information was coming so fast. I was glad I had my cheat sheet. The Preacher wished us well and sat down. Next, an older women walked up to the pulpit, welcomed us to Pittsfield, and without saying anything else, uttered a four word sentence in Greek, and then sat down. We all looked at each other stunned, trying to figure out what she said and write it down. Andy and Joe each got up and spoke about the rules, told a few stories about some interesting stories about a few of the competitors, and told us that no one will finish the race this year. It was announced that 152 people showed up to compete. We were also told that anyone who was still in the race on Sunday afternoon was to be back in the church, be clean (either in the pond or by hose) and in clean clothes. Blank stares among us.
A few of the rules. Support crews were allowed to give us food, water, clothes and tell us anything they know. It was widely known, however, that the staff would also lie and misdirect the support staff so information was always suspect. They were allowed to meet us at checkpoints and even walk with us when actually possible. They were not allowed to assist us in any challenge.
We made a mass exodus back to the Amee Farm. Nicole walked with me with CNN trailing behind us. At this point any butterflies were gone. I was in the race that I had worked so hard to get to. The only question left was, how far could I go?
Joe Desana got up in front of the mass of people. We were to get into teams of 13, bid numbers 1-13, 14-26, etc. Our group came together. First collect 16 boulders, 1 hay bale and 1 pipe section with water. Put 13 of the rocks in a wide circle with everything else in the middle. We each got behind one boulder, each weighed between 40-60 pounds. It was raining. Our task. Dead lift the rock in front of you, put it down, step to your left, until you have done each rock around the circle. Then as a team, step into the circle and lift everything in it at the same time. We would be doing this 150 times, all while wearing our 45 pound backpacks. There would be a judge with each group. If we did not lift the boulder to our chest, the whole group would have to re-do the lift. They kept their word on this. This challenge hit me hard. I thought back to what Andy had told Eric: The first challenge will knock out 40%. I did not do much weight lifting in training and knew I would suffer. I was concerned.
The sun had gone down at this time. The support crews were heading off for their briefing which became a typical DR event in itself. They were told the rules and then sent off on a trail up a mountain to look for clues. None of them had been told about this part. Only a few of them had flashlights, some did not have correct shoes, and there was no guidance. Welcome to DR. Nicole finally got back to the hotel at around midnight. Our plan was that she would meet me in the am.
We started the challenge. Our team was a good one. We worked together very well and always had someone calling a cadence. Yihtzie, a 21 year old guy from the Bronx quickly became our main cadence caller. He had lots of energy and kept us moving well. We would make ten revolutions and take a short break for food, water and stretching. Fairly quickly, we had assigned ourselves which items we would lift in the middle. The judges told us we were in the lead but that easily could have been a head game. Joe Desena came by every now and then and told everyone that if we wanted to drop out, he would give them a full return (you pay $400 for the pleasure). He said “There is no shame in dropping out, this is Death Race”. CNN stayed close to our group, sometimes in the middle of our circle filming me and the others. Desena had announced at the church that CNN was following someone as was Nightline. Someone on our team asked if the CNN guy was on our team. I fessed up that I was “that guy”. Now I felt some pressure to perform but no one seemed to really care.
After a couple of hours, I was hurting and in serious trouble. Doubt was in my head. Legs, hands, back; everything hurt and was on fire. This was nothing like what I had envisioned.
Chris, a guy who had just lost 100 pounds, was in serious trouble. His thighs and back were cramping. He needed to sit out which meant the team had to lift his load. We were all very willing to do this. Not one person complained. I loved it. Unfortunately, he had to drop out soon. The disappointment in his eyes was haunting.
I asked someone who had done the race before if this was anything like what they experienced. They said this was way worse. We heard about people starting to drop out. Someone broke a foot when they dropped a boulder on it. Another person messed up a finger.
We were nearing half way and took a break. CNN put their camera in my face. I heard Nadia ask me a question and it didn’t quite register. I realized this and knew I was in serious trouble. I ate and drank realizing I was dehydrating. It was also cold. I told CNN that I was having a lot of trouble with the lifting and didn’t know if I would be able to even finish this challenge. That thought sucked.
We got back to work. I thought if I could just get through ten rotations at a time, I could get through this. I am sure everyone else was having the same problems, doubts and conversations with themselves. There is no way that I was the only person feeling this way.
We hit 85 rotations and Joe Desena told everyone to stop, and collect all of the items into a pile. We had been going at this for 5 hours, lifted boulders 1200 times for a total of 60,000 pounds (30 tons!). All while wearing our 45 pound backpacks. It rained almost the entire time.
The group gathered around Joe. He told us we sucked for not getting further but it was time for a cleansing (what the f^$?). We would owe him 60 more rotations later.
We marched down to the river, full packs on. We were going to walk in the river up to the Riverside Farm. We crossed over the river on a bridge. My heart literally stopped. This was not a slow moving meandering river. It had rained for several days. This was a rushing river with rapids. I quickly put on my water shoes.
We stepped into the water. Holy s%&^. It was frigid and deep. The current was a force. The bottom was rocky, not little rocks, big rocks. The only light was coming from our headlamps. One by one we trudged along hugging the shore as much as possible. People were tripping and falling all over the place. We did not know how far we would be going or how long we would be in the river. The cold water did feel good on the sore muscles but that was the only positive. Step by step we just kept moving, very slowly. My legs were getting battered tripping on the rocks and the current never let up. By the way, we were going upstream. The shore on both sides of the river went straight up and was covered with heavy brush. No one could get out if they wanted to.
After about an hour, I tripped hard and was swept downstream about 30-50 feet. Luckily, someone caught me otherwise I would have kept going. I was already wet, now I was soaked, and so was my pack. I kept moving. Looking upstream or downstream, the only thing visible was a long line of headlamps, and that was it. There was no moon. Darkness everywhere.
A rumor started circulating that we had to show up at the end of the river walk with a fish. Damn fish. I came across some people trying to catch so fry in a shallow area by using their hats. I decided, what the heck, I could us a break. Believe it or not, I caught a fish in a matter of minutes. I made a deal with another guy to put my fish in his bag in exchange for a bottle of Gatorade later on. On I trudged.
Then disaster struck. I took a hard fall and lost a shoe. Gone. Down river. Crap. I remembered that I had my hiking shoes in my backpack. There I was, standing in a rushing, belly high river, holding my pack trying to get my shoes out of my pack, on my feet, while not letting my backpack and its contents get swept away. I began trembling violently. I knew hypothermia had set in. Finally, the shoes were on my feet and the pack was re-secured on my back. I don’t know how long it took and I had wasted a ton of energy that I did not have to spare. My shivering had gotten worse. I was screwed.
By this time, people were spread out up and down the river. Sometimes you could see others, sometimes you were alone. Now it was really dark. Somehow, I caught up to a guy named Jed (I think). We stumbled on together having a good conversation about nothing and everything. This helped me out a lot. There was another guy with us who didn’t talk at all. He was tripping all over the place. Jed and I decided that one of us had to hold onto him at all times so he wouldn’t get hurt. We came to a “Y” and had to actually cross the river to go up the tributary. This was treacherous but we made it. Finally we came to a gravel beach head where a guy from the race was standing. We thought we were at the end. He yelled at us “Hey 113 (my number), are you shivering? Cold? You suck. Drop out now. No shame.” I told him to f*^$ off. He smile and told me to keep moving, I wasn’t done yet.
We march for about 45 minutes more. My shaking continued. Finally, we were stepping onto a path. We had been in the river for over 3 hours. On cue, CNN was there. I walked along the path, shaking violently. My legs and feet were torn up and bruised. I was wasted. I saw a bonfire up ahead and thought if I could just warm up I could probably go on. When we got to the fire, we were rushed past it to get in line to cross a big pond with a rope across it. People were going in with full pack. It was deep enough that they were going under. On the other side was a mud hill with a 50% slope. People were scrambling up it, some falling all the way back down. Above that, I was told were would be given a candle and had to march around a field. If the candle went out, start over. We were to do this circuit seven times. I knew I couldn’t.
All I could do was stand there in watch. I couldn’t even focus my eyes on what was going on. I was trembling with hypothermia. I had been broken. I stood there for what felt like an eternity. Just staring. Could not move. Someone from the race yelled in my face, “In the pond or out of the race”. I was out.
I backed away but stood there watching. I thought about all the training, the time, my girls, Nicole, the support of my friends and family, about Eric and Johnny and Dan and the other still in.
I looked at the faces going by me. You don’t make eye contact with someone who just dropped out of a race. You are too afraid you will see yourself in them. I know this. I understand this. I saw Dan and asked if needed anything. He asked for water. I reached into my pack for my camelback bladder. It had burst. I told him I was sorry and wished him well. I wouldn’t have been able to go on much longer anyway without water.
The camera was in my face the whole time. I knew they wanted to talk to me. It was hard to do the interview but it cleared my head up a little. I began to feel a little better about the day.
I knew that even though I wasn’t finishing and didn’t even get as far as I hope (10.5 hours) I had accomplished a lot. I had participated in one of the hardest races in the world and completed two challenges that most people wouldn’t even consider attempting. I was with amazing people in an amazing event. I was true to myself and went as far as I physically and mentally could. No regrets whatsoever. Joe and Andy – what a great monster you have created. Keep on.
I walked back to the Amee Farm, found my stuff and called Nicole. There were ex-competitors (like) me staggering up and down the road. I don’t know how many people had dropped out by this time but it was a lot.
I showered, we stopped for pancakes (you can’t go to Vermont without having something with syrup on it) and headed home.
Thank you to everyone for their amazing support and love; Nicole, Heather, Tara, Nellie and the rest of our family, the great people at Allentuck Landscaping; all of my friends, Fleet Feet in Kentlands, and all the people that I don’t even know that reached out to me. I never anticipated the outpouring. It was wonderful.
PS No, I don’t want to split your firewood our move a pile of rocks for you. Thanks, but done.