Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wilderness Search & Rescue Training With KSAR

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take a Wilderness Search and Rescue course in Pittsfield, Vermont (home of the Death Race). It was offered by Killington Mountain Guides through The Endurance Society. Taking this course was appealing to me for several reasons;

  1.        I spend a lot of time in the woods and things happen. I would like to know what do when something goes wrong.
  2.        There was a search near my home about a year ago for two missing children in one of the wooded areas I know really, really well, perhaps better than anyone. I would like to have helped but felt unqualified.
  3.        The Endurance Society is led by Andy Weinberg (one of the Death Race founders). I think anyone who knows Andy would agree that if he is involved, it is probably a safe bet it is going to be an awesome and unique opportunity.

My friends Mike O’Hearn and Ted Ventre decided to join me for this adventure so we made the trek up to Vermont not quite sure what we were in for but open to anything. We knew we would be camping and providing most of our own meals (MRE’s – Meals Ready To Eat or, more likely, Meals Refusing to Exit). We also had a list of gear to bring.

Our Lean-To
We arrived after sunset and were pointed to a trail to take. Packs on, we headed into the dark. The campsite was a half mile straight up the mountain. Heavy breathing. Three other people were already there as was a fire, a lean-to and an outhouse. After meeting Amy, Dave and Rod, it was decided that Ted and I would take the lean-to and Mike would use his tent. There is something about sleeping under the stars that I have always enjoyed. Our host and instructor, Bob Giolito arrived on an ATV a little later and briefed us on what to expect. He also informed us that a group of West Point cadets were training on the next mountain with Joe Desena (the other Death Race founder) and if any of them got hurt or lost, we would be called in to help. The temperatures that night dipped down to 40 degrees but we were all comfortable.

At day break, we gathered our packs and gear and headed back down the mountain. There we met the other participants and our instructors. All of the participants has some level of experience in the outdoors and in endurance events. Everyone was very impressive and genuinely nice.

Bob and Chris
The instructors; Bob, Chis, Dave, Murray, Steve, Wade and Laura, are all bad ass outdoor people. Climbing, repelling, back country skiing, you name it, they have done it. Bob and Chris are Vermont State Troopers and with their colleagues have created the Killington Search and Rescue team (KSAR), the group the local police and fire departments call in to find and save people in the back country. The best part, they are extremely nice and very generous with their knowledge.

The first day was spent learning about head, back and neck injuries, how to move an injured person, and what to do in an emergency. We practiced a lot of the skills that were needed to help an injured person in the wild. It was a ton of information.

Then, in the late afternoon, Bob got a call that a woman was stranded on a cliff. At first, we all rolled our eyes thinking it was a connived drill for our benefit. After looking at Bob’s eyes, we knew it was for real. We all grabbed our gear, jumped into some trucks and headed down the road.

She Is Stuck Up There
Upon arrival, there was a fire engine already on scene. We hike up to the cliff. The woman had gotten stuck about 60 feet up on a cliff after taking a wrong turn. She could not go up or down and was beginning to panic. As “trainees” our job was to retrieve gear, observe and stay out of the way. Bob roped in and climbed up to the woman. Three other people took a trail around and over the cliff and repelled down to her. It took over two hours to get her down. We returned to camp, had dinner and Bob debriefed us.

The second night in camp brought the sound of a Black Bear somewhere above us on the mountain. This was confirmed the next day with the discovery of bear scat up the trail. So, to the age old question; does a bear shit in the woods? Answer: yes!

The next day started with more information and practice. In the afternoon we were given two practical scenarios that we had to successfully complete. The first was a climber who fell 40 feet and was unconscious who we had to assess, treat and evacuate. The second was a missing hunter who we
had to locate, treat and evacuate as well. Both scenarios presented us with real life complexities and issues. The afternoon ended with CPR re-certification taught by Steve, who had been the local fire chief for 27 years and was a magician. It was the most entertaining CPR class I have ever attended, to say the least.

One more night under the stars. As an added bonus, we got to witness the super moon and lunar eclipse on an incredible setting. Four days in the woods with no showers, it was one stinky, long ride home.

I think the big take-away for more is that as much as I love being in the woods (and I really do) and doing things like running across the Grand Canyon and competing in things like Death Race, bad things have and do happen. Anyone who does this stuff has seen it, and it can be ugly. At the very least, taking a course like this gave me the tools to know what to do to help someone, or even myself. 

Super Moon
Andy Being All Official
Steve Explaining The Resuce

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Triple Anvil - 420 Miles of Fun?

Before I get to my report, huge thank you for all the support and love I got from friends, family, race management, volunteers and fellow racers. I am especially grateful for the support from Nicole, Heather, Tara and Nellie. I would never consider taking on the stuff I do without your support.  I am your biggest fan.

I get asked a lot why on earth I would sign up for the Triple Anvil (Triple Iron Distance Ironman); 7.2 mile swim, 336 mile bike, 78 mile run = 420 mile total. It is insane. It is ridiculous.  Isn’t an Ironman (140 miles) enough? I don’t have a real good answer. Perhaps it was because I was inspired by friends who had done it before, maybe it was to find out if I could, or it was just the next thing in a sequence of really hard, stupid stuff that I wanted to try. Never the less, when I emailed race director Steve Kirby last spring (we had been emailing each other for about a year) and asked when this year’s event was going to be held, and he told me he had already signed me up, I simply accepted it and began planning. I was very excited to find out that fellow Death Racers Dan Grodinsky and Frank Fumich, and my friend Jim Wilkes would also be there. One caveat, Frank and Jim would be doing the Quintuple Anvil (5X = 703 miles, holy crap!).

Training had gone really well. I was very satisfied with what I was able to complete in the months leading up to the race. 420 miles is a big number and the format of the race is mind numbing insane. The swim course is 18 laps. Not too bad. The bike course is 67.5 laps of a 2.5 mile stretch of road, back and forth. The run course is 39 laps of a one mile stretch of road. Again, back and forth.  Like I said, mind numbing, but I had tailored my training to simulate this as much as possible.

In the week leading up to our Thursday morning start I was starting to feel not so great. Headaches, icky feelings. I chalked it up to nerves and tried to put it out of my mind. I’ve been there before, I can handle it. Dan, Frank, Jim and I communicated often. I was excited to find out Any Weinberg, the Death Race Race Director, would be there to cheer us on. Andy had done the Double, Triple and Quintuple Anvils and knew he would be motivating. Besides, he’s just a super nice guy to be around.
I arrived on Thursday afternoon and set up my tent in a field along the course (yes I was going to camp out) and set up my race area with my food and supplies. Every athlete had a support team except for the three of us who had been in Death Race. We really are an odd bunch! We decided that we would support each other.

Mosi Smth, Me, Beat Knechtle, and William 'The IronOx Pruett
At the Thursday night pre-race meal I met the other twelve competitors; 12 men, 1 woman. Everyone was so nice, encouraging and genuine. Everyone was a great athlete. I have done a lot of long and difficult race but felt like an imposter as their resumes were read off. I looked out at Lake Anna from the deck we were on and a sinking feeling overcame me. My head really hurt. Pre-race jitters? I hoped so.

I actually slept well but arose early with the same headache. I walked down to the lake to think and breath. I had a bad feeling in me. Something wasn’t right. I was having real thoughts of backing out. That was a first. If I packed up and left no one would know right? Pushing aside my concerns, I got dressed anyway, ate some food and headed to the water for the 7:00 am start. Even as I got in the water my head was throbbing.  Steve started the race by striking an anvil with a hammer, the same anvil we would each get to strike when we completed the race. Would I get my chance? I had my doubts at this point but off we swam.

Dan Grodisky and Me - Pre Swim
I swam well, a little off course at times, but relatively comfortable. There was a mist over the water which made it hard to find the buoys but it burned up as the sun came up. At one point I got very off course and heard my name being screamed. I didn’t realize who it was at the time but afterwards I learned that it was Jim, who had dropped out of the 5X the day before due to illness. He had helped me out at a 50 mile ultramarathon that I got hurt in a few years before. I guess he was helping me again.

I finished the swim in 5:20, a very respectable time. My head had throbbed the whole time but I was very pleased. Off to the bike. A very long bike ride awaited.

From here things headed downhill very fast. My plan was to do four laps and then stop and eat real food (pizza, peanut butter and jelly, potatoes), while eating power gels and bars on every two laps in between. I knew that I would burn through 8,000 calories on the bike alone. This was working very well but as time went on I was in more and more achy pain and getting lethargic. The sun went down and the temperatures dropped. Biking in the dark is kind of interesting. You feel like you are riding in a small envelope of light from your headlamp surrounded by deep darkness. There were no street lights (we were in a state park) by the way. Dark.

My body was holding up fine, just a very ichy feeling and headache. At 100 miles I decided to really sit down and take inventory. It was now the middle of the night. I discussed my situation with several people. They suggested a one hour nap. I set my alarm and closed my eyes. One hour. I sat up. The headache and aches were worse. Crap. I decided to set my alarm again. One hour. No better. It was
Andy Weinberg and me
time for a big decision time, a big hard decision. I decided that I had no choice, I would sleep until morning knowing that I would probably not have enough time to finish the race. Reality sucks.

When I got up at 6:00, I still felt bad, maybe even worse. I was in a bit of a daze.  I went and checked in on Frank. He was still running. He is an animal unlike any I have ever known. I walked down to the lake. The Double Anvil swimmers were getting started. I talked to Andy for a while and watched the swimmers. I tried to encourage Kevin, competing in his first triathlon ever! Go big or go home I guess.

I still felt yucky and could not fathom getting back on my bike. My decision was made. I had toed the line with some of the very best. I had swam a good swim and biked 100 miles. My training had worked. My fitness level was where it needed to be. I started an extremely difficult race that most would never even consider. I was just sick.

I had no regrets and decided for the next few hours I would support my friends old and new. If I couldn’t race, I wanted to make sure they were successful. In that time I spoke to many of my fellow racers and their support teams. It was gratifying to a part of something larger than myself. Of course I would have liked to have finished, but was glad to a part of something so huge.

Post Script  - Dan Grodinsky is from Montreal. On the night if the bike the Capitals were playing the Canadiens in the season opener. We made a bet that the loser had to sing the other's national anthem at the tent area of the race. Because of my early departure we did not get the chance to settle this bet. The Caps lost. I owe Dan a performance of Oh Canada. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Suck

As reported by Eldar Saphic:

Completed The Suck event! One of the toughest challenges in the nation created by Joe Decker. It is a 14 hour race from hell where one has to carry two fifty pound sand bags, backpack, a tire, sledge hammer, enough food and water, while climbing steep hills, crossing channels of water, and running in the wilderness at night- but it did not stop there. Our recovery time was hundreds of pushups with the fifty pound back pack, burpees, crunches, jumping jacks, and numerous other things which I can’t remember due to hypoxia. The group consisted of true super athletes, death racers, endurance runners, sprinters, and marines. The race started at 7PM in the middle of nowhere and carried on till 9AM. The base camp was 50 feet from the “End of the World,” sign-somewhere miles away from nowhere in hobbit land that still has not been discovered by the lord of the rings. It was pouring rain with a thunder storm and tornado watch deciding to be a part of the competition. It was dark, cold, wet, and miserable. Fun time! The spectators …copper head snakes, humongous vultures, and animal eyes glowing in the dark all around were cheering us on throughout the night. We started as a group but adventully separated from each other throughout the night, carrying buckets with fifty pound sand bags, tires and other gear while walking through knee to hip deep muddy cold channels in the middle of night makes you think of a lot of things in life, especially the things humans take for granted. Joe Decker does not tell you where the start and where the finish line is…it truly mimics true life. You don’t know where and when you are going to be born or how long you will last on the journey. My goal was to finish it…and I did it! Our goal was also to start a fire in the middle of the thunder storm, with everything wet including the matches….but we did it.. as a team we ended up building a bon fire:) “That is how winning is done!.” Will never forget the time spent with the team. Even though it was partially a competition the group was very supportive of each other and without each other’s support none of us would have made it. Great job to all of the participants and finishers! You are the true athletes! Thanks to Joe and Nicole Decker for making this event truly memorable. My knees will remember you till the rest of my life. For those who want to step it up a notch or I should say 100 notches, or for those who would like to find what they are truly made out of, they should try The Suck! What a great weekend! Gut Check style! Great job once again!
— with Joe Decker.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Big Ditch - An R2R2R Adventure At The Grand Canyon

When you look at a picture or a photograph of the Grand Canyon, no justice is done to the incredible awesomeness that makes this place one of the wonders of the world. Even standing on the edge, one may think they can understand the awesomeness, but until you are deep into the canyon, you simply cannot.

Truthfully, when Mike Bogan, my friend of over twenty years suggested that we do the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) run, I don’t think I fully grasped the challenge that lay ahead. Nothing new there. Mike’s friends SJ and Brandt would round out our group.

R2R2R means travelling from the South Rim to the North Rim and then back again. The South Rim is at 6,000 feet above sea level, the North Rim is at 8,000. As a crow flies, they are approximately 12 miles apart. By trail, they are 23 miles apart. That makes for 22,000 feet of elevation change over a 47 mile round trip through a desert environment. From the Colorado River to the North Rim it is an 18 mile uphill trek, with the last 5 miles being a serious climb.

We assembled in Las Vegas; Brandt and I flying in from Maryland, SJ and Mike driving from San Diego. We arrive at the canyon in late afternoon and were greeted by some elk on the way into the park (they are really, really big animals). After checking in we headed over to the Backcountry Information Center to get some intel on trail conditions. In the office there is a poster map detailing where and when people have died in the canyon. Although most had occurred during hotter times of the year, it was still rather surreal. They told us that there have been some rock slides on the north side so some scrambling would be in order, and that there was still snow up there as well. Next, over to the edge for our first look at the country’s largest drainage ditch.

 Holy crap. That was our cumulative thought. That is one deep whole. The cool thing is that as you approach the canyon, it is just a sudden drop off. No warning, just down, down, down. We tried to follow the trail we would be taking with our eyes but it simply disappeared into the abyss. I was now stoked.

We packed our provisions (about 4,000 calories of food, headlamps, yak traks for ice, spare batteries, sun block, body glide, etc), filled our camelbacks with water and electrolytes, ate dinner and off to bed early for a 3:30 am start.

I think we were all up and ready well before the alarms. The forecast was for 19 degrees on the rim but it felt more like 30 which was welcome. It was dark, very dark, as we hit the trail. The trail up and down the rims is a series (a very big series) of switchbacks going back and forth up and down the face. The drop off on the outside of the trail is thousands of feet down. The trail is rough with loose rock everywhere. It is not comfortable to run these in the dark.

 Within three minutes our day came to a perilously close end. Mike and I hit a patch of ice and went down fast and hard. I was ok but, granted, a little freaked out. Mike got up sore but ok. A few feet in another direction, they would be looking for bodies. We shook it off, and headed out again, albeit a little more aware.
Light was just starting to show in the east as we crossed the Colorado River and arrived at Phantom Ranch. A little food and refilling of the camelbacks and off we went. I had been running well but something was not feeling right. My legs felt tight and compressed. I ran/walked the next couple of miles but they were just not loosening up. In fact they were getting painful.  Brandt and SJ hung with me while Mike went ahead. He was running great, he and SJ had put in the training that was necessary. I did what I could but did not get the mileage I would have liked. Brandt seemed ok with this pace so we sent SJ ahead as well. I was grateful to have Brandt with me. Before too long, we were on a trek rather than a run. Some quick math assured me that we would still be able to finish, just later than we had originally thought.

We were now in the midst of an 18 mile climb. The surroundings were stunningly beautiful. The desert was just starting to bloom. It was weird to think that in about a month, all of this would be fairly barren and arid. But for now, it was breathtaking.

There was one disturbing thought that did occur to me about now. I had looked up what kind of animals we could possibly run into out there (I always like to know what could eat me). One of those animals is a Mountain Lion. I brought the subject up with Brandt and we decided that the traditional strategy of yelling, waving our arms like maniacs and throwing rocks would probably suffice. I had privately decided that I did not need to out run a Mountain Lion, I only needed to out run Brandt, so I felt pretty good about my chances (sorry Brandt).

About now the climb to the North Rim got serious. There had been some collapses along the way so we had rocks to scramble over every now and then. The climb was getting harder, the elevation was affecting our breathing and now we were encountering patches of snow and ice. I’ll be honest, it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Finally, we met up with SJ and Mike on their way down. Turns out we were only twenty minutes from the top. Eehaw! New energy and we were there. We rested a little, ate, hydrated and headed south again.

It was like a new hike. We were able to fast pace the hike and made great time. Brandt and I were now old friends. Before long, we were back at Phantom Ranch re-crossing the Colorado and heading 8 miles up to the South Rim. The sun was going down so out came the headlamps again. Even though we were now somewhat familiar with the terrain, the fatigue, the dark, the time on our feet, it all still made the climb extremely exhausting.

There was a gibbon moon shining over the canyon. It created really cool shadows. Every now and then I would look up at the South Rim and see someone flashing a light at us. I would flash mine back. It was nice to know there some humans around, even if they were miles away. We were easy to spot as we were the only people in the canyon. That was an overwhelming thought. There is a ranger building with a yellow light at the top of the trail. It is visible for miles. It had been playing all sorts of mental games with our brain; always there but never any closer. The night air temperature was dropping fast.    Finally. Finally. The yellow light was right there in front of us. We had made it. Nineteen hours and six minutes. R2R2R. Done.

Back at the lodge (which we had to walk to), Mike and SJ had a pizza waiting for us. They thought we may have actually bedded down somewhere in the canyon for the night. I wasn’t sure if I was more insulted that they thought we would not finish or that they weren’t worried enough to be looking out for us! Never the less, I was very thankful for the pizza and for their camaraderie. A few laughs, stories shared, and this adventure was in the books.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

JFK 50 - A Day To Remember

Yesterday was the 50th running of the JFK 50 Mile Ultramarathon, and my 5th time at the race that I love so much. The opportunity to spend the day on a beautiful trail, with lots of interesting like-minded people, and the accomplishment of crossing that finish line once again; what’s a little temporary pain? For the most part, this blog posting is not going to be about my race. I’ll give a brief report, but then I want to tell you about a truly, inspiring person that circumstance had me cross paths with.

I should tell you that I did not know I would be in the race until Monday, five days ago at race time. I received a call that I had a spot if I wanted it. It took me about ten seconds to so ok. I texted Nicole to get her thoughts, she texted back “Go ahead, you deserve it”. Little did I know that this would have a double meaning. My long run recently had been 8 miles. Fifty miles? No problem. Hah!

The weather was perfect, couldn’t have asked for better. At pre-race, I connected with my Team RWB teammates and we posed for a couple of photos. The first part of the race is on the Appalachian Trail, hilly and rocky. It is actually my favorite part of the course. I was running with a teammate, a Green Beret soldier from Missouri. We pushed each other and chatted. We were doing a fantastic good pace and I was already thinking about the Guinness I would have later that evening. That is when I found myself flat on the ground. I had hit a rock wrong, heard and felt snaps in my ankle, and hit the ground hard. A small crowd had quickly gathered around me to offer help. Pain was shooting up my leg but I told them, and my friend, to please continue on, that I would be ok. I lied but I did not want to slow anyone down. The aid station was about a mile away so I got up and ran/walked to it. The next aid station after that was seven miles away. I decided to push forward, maybe the ankle would loosen up. It did not.

About two miles in to this section I needed to lean against a tree to take the weight off my foot. It hurt like hell and was swelling up fast. I felt a hand on my shoulder. “You ok buddy?” It was a fellow Team RWB’er. I told him yes. He looked at me and suggested we walk for a while. I told him to go ahead and that I would be fine but he insisted. We introduced ourselves and set out to run/walk/hobble. His name was Jim W. and his story is one of the most inspiring I have ever heard.

Jim is a wounded veteran. He is a true warrior. In 2003 he was a combat platoon leader operating in the southern section of the Sunni Triangle. A difficult assignment.  In September 2003 he was hit by an IED and later struck by a grenade. Upon his return to the states, his physical and mental health were spiraling out of control. He became his own worst enemy. One morning, a nurse even told him, “We did not think you were going to make it through the night”.
He has a traumatic brain injury, a constant state of migraine, sporadic sight loss (his left eye had gone dark while we were running), and loses the function of his left arm from time to time. Jim has suffered through PTSD, depression, and has been suicidal several times. He was told that the life he lives today would never be possible.

But, as I said, Jim is a warrior. He has a wife and two little boys that he adores. He made the decision that his life was worth fighting for and that is just what he did. He decided that nothing was going to stand in the way of him just being him. When he asked, his doctor told him he should not compete in a triathlon, he went rogue and did it anyway. In fact, in the last year, Jim competed in numerous Ironmans, a triple Ironman, several marathons, and here he was in a 50 mile ultramarathon. In fact, he had been in Europe for work and had flown in the night before for the race. One of Jim’s missions is to help people that need it. That is what he did for me.

Here I was struggling with a boo-boo on my ankle and this man had been through hell and back and now was trying to get my sorry ass moving. Thinking that there are a lot of people who could benefit from his story, I asked him if he was doing any speaking. He humbly said that it was not time for that yet. I hope someday he will.

My ankle was steadily getting worse and it was getting harder and harder to even walk. As much as I appreciated Jim’s company, I desperately wanted to make sure he finished the race. It was way more important. He left but made me promise to finish. We both knew that I lied.

I finally made it to the next checkpoint and did the math. Thirty-four miles to go, eight hours to do it in, an ankle I could not put weight on. I knew that I would not even make the next time cutoff so I bowed out and caught a ride back to my car.

Quitting sucks but sometimes you walk away with some valuable experiences. The day was great, I was doing something I thoroughly enjoyed, and I met an amazing person who brought some perspective to life.  You really can’t ask for more than that.

Last thought. In the words of Mike Erwin, founder and fearless leader of Team RWB: Jim, you fire me up!

Last last word: Just had xrays done. Fractured fibula. Bummer.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bruce’s Death Race Adventure – The Sequel – BETRAYAL

I am sitting at home now writing this race report battered, bruised, with my tail between my legs, and much sooner than I had once again hoped. Short answer, I made it as far as I could in this beast of a race, but not far enough. I enjoyed every last bit of my time in Vermont, but in the end, just like most of my co-competitors, was chewed up and spit out.

My training this year had been tough and spot-on. My friend Bill and I spent Sundays crawling through sewer pipes with 50 pound sand bags, dragged big logs up and down ravines, hiked with full backpacks through waist high frigid water for miles, carried 50 gallon buckets of water on winding trails, did pushups in streams, split wood for hours, and of course, 1,000 burpee sets, and so on. Going into race week I felt stronger and fitter than I ever had, confident in my abilities, and extremely calm, which is extremely important. My only concern was the condition of my feet. They were in bad shape and in pain, and I knew they were going to be a problem.

The theme for this year’s race was Betrayal. That is all any of us knew, Betrayal. Would Andy and Joe (The Undertakers) betray us? Would fellow competitors betray us? Or would our own bodies, minds and emotions betray us? The thoughts lingered.

An unofficial theme for every Death Race is “This is the Death Race”. This is not a 5K. This is not a triathlon. Or a marathon. This is the Death Race, one of the hardest races on the planet. You hear these words when Joe is displeased with the speed of your burpees. “This is the Death Race, pick it up). You mutter these words when you are in pain, tired and hungry in the middle of the night, “This is the Death Race”. And you laugh these words when you slip off the trail and are lying flat on your back with you backpack weighing you down so that you can’t get up, “This is the Death Race”.

Although we had been told that there was not going to be a required equipment list, in the week leading up to the race three different lists were sent to us, each one a little different. This was designed to f#ck with our brains. In the end, the list was an axe, certified life jacket, pink swim cap, needle and thread, five gallon bucket, a bag of human hair, saw, pen, paper, and a black compression shirt. Additionally, we should bring anything we thought we would need to survive in the wilderness for one week. Anything we brought would stay in our backpacks for the entire duration of the race. We were even required to submit a list of our items. Food, water and clothing could be stashed at the Aimee Farm, our base camp. There would be no outside assistance from our support people away from Aimee Farm.

The drive up was beautiful, much better than the torrential rains of last year. Nicole and I arrived in Pittsfield and pulled into the Inn we had reserved. We finally found a person that worked there. He told us he would be with us in a little while, as soon as he finished de-lousing our room. The may be the Death race but we got in our car and drove up the road as fast as we could.

We lucked out and got a room at the Swiss Miss Inn, a cute B&B directly across from the Aimee Farm. We were met by the innkeeper, Whalen, and extremely nice guy who cooks awesome pancakes. Standing outside the inn for a moment, I looked up at the beauty of the Green Mountains and suddenly had the gut feeling that they were laughing at me and what I was about to go through.

Shortly after checking in, we met Bruce and Melissa Harris from Pensacola, Florida. Bruce was a Marine drill instructor for 20 years and is now a K-9 police officer and trainer. He is an intimidating block of human muscle but as it turns out has a heart of gold. The thing about Death Race is that new friends become fast friends, and quickly become old friends. It is the commonality of what we are going through and what got us here that glues us together. As the day went on we ran into other Death Race friends Johnny Waite, Kevin Lowe, and Yitzy Sondag. It was great to finally meet fellow Team RWB athletes Marcus Franzen and Marc Dibernardo, Army Special Ops guys from Fort Campbell. We had a nice dinner that evening and relaxed.

Friday at 1230, our first task was upon us. We were to hike up a steep mountain trail with our gear to be weighed in at the top. Nicole hiked it with me. The view at the top was spectacular. We entered a cabin one at a time, told to look straight ahead and step on the scale. Do not say a word. We were given some rabbit pellets and told to keep them dry the entire race. The games had begun. Back down the mountain we went.

Next we went to Riverside Farm for “official” registration. Our pack list was turned in, we received our race numbers, and new instruction. Hike back to the Aimee Farm along the river trail, when we get to the farm, sew our numbers on our black compression shirts in 3” block letters that will last the entire race. Nicole and I went our separate ways. Along the trail there were signs, about 40 in all, with quotations, symbols and pictures, all having to do with betrayal. I wrote down every one of them, as did everyone else, not know if we would need them later.

My understanding is that Death Race received over 8,000 applications for the race, accepted about 300, of which 56 dropped out for various reasons before ever reaching Pittsfield. It is a comical sight to see 250 incredible athletes sitting on the ground sewing. I think we should form a quilting club.

From sewing, I was to crawl through a 30” culvert pipe that runs approximately 50’ or so under the road. There was some water flowing through and it was dark but I had done a lot of this in training so it was no big deal. Not everyone felt the same way. I guess I was chatting with the guy in front of me so much that someone behind me told me to shut up. Oops. Nerves.

Upon exiting the pipe, we were to put on our pink swim cap and life jacket for a “swim test” in the duck pond. The girls monitoring this activity were sure to tell us that all of the animal waste from the pasture uphill ran into this pond and we were sure to get sick. Regardless, the water felt great as the temperatures were heating up. I’m glad to report that I did not get sick.

Now it was time to do Joe’s chores. We split wood, carried wood, stacked wood, re-stacked wood when they felt like we did a poor job, and weeded garden plots. Just like home. Some people feel that Death Race is really to help Joe get stuff done around the farm. After a while, we were told to hurry back to the other side of the farm and make sure we had turned our identification to a women at the table and get in line. I ran over to the table but did not have any identification on me. I quickly took out my chapstick, wrote my name and race number on it. The woman laughed when I gave it to her and said “Well, this is Death Race!” I was kind of bummed. I really liked that chapstick.

With backpacks back on, we loosely organized ourselves into groups and were told to either pick up a 12’ kayak or 5’ PVC tube filled with water. I remember the tubes from last year – heavy and awkward. I ended up under a kayak. Group by group we hiked back over to the pond. We put the kayaks and backpacks on the ground, put our swim caps and lifejackets back on, and all piled into the pond. This was where we were to have our pre-race meeting, floating in a stinky duck pond with 250 of our new bestest friends, most of whom were probably peeing. Andy and Joe appeared and instructions began. The mood was very light with lots of laughing and joking going on. You could tell everyone was pumped to really get going. We were also introduced to a man named Chris who was part of the race staff. Chris has just lost an immense amount of weight and was working on losing more. I suspected that Joe and Andy were helping him with this. Besides being sick, psychotic bastards, they are really great guys that go out of their way to help people, just not in Death Race. It was inspiring to see everyone cheer for Chris. Andy went to the other side of the pond and dumped in several hundred numbered ping pong balls. The number was your group for the next challenge.

Group by group, with packs on again, we lifted our kayaks or pipes and headed up a trail. Here is the thing, we had people on each side of the kayak lifting it, plus the width of the kayak. The trail was steep, winding, rocky, and single track. You were not walking on the trail. You were walking beside it, through brush, around trees and on awkward angles. It was tough going to say the least, and we had just begun. Eventually, this section of trail opened up onto a fire/gravel road. Races ensued to not be near the end of the groups. Running with full pack, other people, up and down mountain roads, with a kayak above you…fun. After several hours we came to a wider clearing. Here our groups formed a circle and we passed the kayak hand to hand like a clock. Joe was displeased with our effort so it was burpee time. First he told us we were doing 100, then it became 200, 300 etc. I like to do burpees (I know I am strange but consider the race I am in) so this was no big deal. Chris, the guy who had lost all the weight, came by to each group and did a burpee with us. We all shook his hand and congratulated him.

Off on the trail again. It was beginning to get dark so headlamps were put on. If I remember correctly, this portion got rougher. In fact we had two people in our group go down because of blown ankles and blown knees. I waited with each them until a race staff member could take over. Their race was over. I felt for them knowing how much effort I had put in, they probably did the same. This is the Death Race.

A few more hours later, another clearing, more burpees. We actually named this place Burpeeville. Strange things happen in the Vermont wilderness. We were told that from here on, there was no turning back. This was the last chance to exit. People that were struggling, injured or not feeling well were encouraged to drop out. I’m not sure what time it was, but we had been going since 1230. Fatique was naturally setting in. It creeps into your mind that maybe you should get out. Many people did. Groups that had kayaks were now carrying two tubes and vice versa.

On we went. The hills got steeper, the terrain got uglier. There were big rocks and roots to climb over. Streams and puddles to go through. For most of the time, the left side of the trail was a drop-off. Twice I fell off the trail tumbling until I could grab something. With a backpack on, you have little balance to stop momentum. I ended up in a plant that caused a burning sensation on my skin for about twenty minutes (wild parsnip someone said). By now, my feet were a serious issue. Every step was torture. It really pissed me off.

One of my big mistakes last year was not eating enough. I set my watch to eat every 45 minutes. It really helped. One of the big problems we faced was that everyone was running out of water and getting dehydrated. The hours between two and four a.m. seemed to take forever. Time and distance just seem to stand still in the pitch black dark. People were working together but there was starting to be some edginess. Tired, wet feet, thirsty. Maybe we were going to betray each other. After three hours with no water we came to a stream. Everyone filled their bottles and camelbacks. Some people had filters, others, like me, had iodine tablets. Once the water was safe to drink and everyone was re-hydrated, the mood seemed to get better. Dawn was beginning to break, it was a new day. Saturday.

At approximately 6 am we arrived at a house next to a reservoir. We dropped the tubes and collapsed for a short rest. We had hiked 25 miles over 15 hours carrying a 12’ kayak or 5’ tubes filled with water over rough mountain trails. I had heard the 60-100 people had already dropped out. Rumors tend to circulate so I don’t know if it was true or not.

The condition of my feet had only worsened. Even sitting down they were excruciatingly painful. I was trying to think of anything I could do to make them better but I had no ideas. Andy was there to greet us. He told us there was pizza, coffee and donuts in the house and we were welcome to it…if we dropped out. Or we could continue on and go for a nice swim out to a yellow buoy and back. Everyone was required to wear a life jacket but Andy said I didn’t need to because of my swimming. I had been hiking with a guy named Chris who was also an ironman. We debated a swim race but opted for a nice slow float with the life jackets on. The water was awesome. I flexed my legs and feet as much as I could to try and loosen them up. It helped some. Hopefully enough.

We got out of the water. Ate more food, drank more water, stretched. Our next task was to take our 5 gallon buckets, march a half mile up a dirt driveway, fill them to the top with gravel, bring them back down, and pave the road. We were required to do this eight time. A five gallon bucket filled with gravel weighs about 80 pounds and is awkward at best. Every trip back down the drive became torture. Agonizing. Some old guy that was watching us saw me struggling and came over to talk to me. He introduced himself and began asking me about my faith. I know this is not going to sound too great, but if ever I wanted to kill someone, it was right there and then. I picked up my bucket and walked away thinking that maybe this was part of the betrayal, or just some quack in the woods.

I sat down and considered the situation. I knew that we were to hike back towards. Someone told me it would be 12 miles (it was actually 18 I later learned). I was out of food. I couldn’t walk. I was out. Done. Finished. My body betrayed me.

This sucked. I sat on the ground and starred off across the water of the reservoir. It was beautiful. I thought about 9 months of training coming to an end because my feet betrayed me. I think I now understood the theme. I looked down at my watch. I made it 24 hours. I was proud of that. I wanted more but it wasn’t going to be. I know everyone had pain to deal with, but I couldn't push through mine this time. Someone told me I could walk up to a road and catch a ride back to Pittsfield. The ride took forty minutes, plenty of time with my thoughts and to come to grips. There were 11 other drop outs along for the ride.

Back at base, I found Nicole and I had a cheeseburger that may have been the best one I ever had. My feet we still killing me but I felt great. Still felt strong and wide awake. I learned of some friends that had dropped out before me and tried to find out about those that we still in.

This was my last attempt at Death Race. I had decided that long ago. I want to find some new challenges. I know that most people don’t get this whole Death Race thing. The looks I get from people when they hear about it or see me working out are usually just blank stares and then questions about my sanity and life insurance policy. I understand that it is not normal. Andy, Joe and Death Race literally chew you up, spit you out and you stand up a better person for trying. How many opportunities in life are there to just dig to the depths that you didn’t think you had? There is an understanding that only comes from doing it.

Finally, I am indebted to Nicole who should probably be sainted. Even though we grew up only a few miles apart, we met and fell in love while I was a rugby player. She should have run. She didn’t. Nicole has always encouraged me to push further and train harder. Maybe it’s the life insurance, maybe not. I couldn’t do any of this stuff without her alongside me. The best part of the weekend was spending time with her.

Postscript: The race finally ended this morning, Monday June 18th (It started on June 15) after 62 hours and 38 minutes. Eleven finishers.

Monday, March 26, 2012

That "Egg" Ain't Gonna Move Itself

Bill in the Rock Garden

Leon doing one of many Burpees
Carrying my "egg" up the mountain, one step at a time

The forecast for today called for rain showers. I was looking forward to this as it would add a difficult dimension to the training that Bill had planned. It never did rain but the workout proved difficult none the less.

Bill’s goal was to simulate the hills of Vermont as much as possible, not an easy task to do in Maryland. We met at Gambrill, a state park in the mountains west of Frederick. A thick fog hugged the ground which gave an eerie feeling. We were told to bring our backpacks, our 50 pound sand “eggs” from previous workouts, nutrition and hydration.

Our day started with dead lifts of the eggs. We didn’t do a lot of them but it was enough to get our blood pumping. Next, we loaded the eggs into our backpacks and headed off into the forest, opting to bushwhack rather than take trails. We had parked near the top of the mountain so our route took us straight downhill. Along the way, we stopped every fifteen minutes for burpees, push-up or crunches. The first part of our hike was made difficult just by the need to duck under limbs, going through underbrush, and climbing over fallen logs. Soon we came to an area we called the "rock garden". The area was littered with granite rock outcroppings that were covered with lichen, moss and wet leaves. The lichen and moss were actually quite pretty. This portion was treacherous as the rocks were very slippery and many of them were loose. The weight in our backpacks added to the difficulty of staying upright. As we stepped over each rock, I am sure Leon and Bill were thinking back to the sign back at the parking area warning about Timber Rattlesnakes, as was I. After about a mile of making our way through the rock garden, we climbed into a stream and waded our way down the rest of the mountain. The water was cold but refreshing.

Near the bottom of the mountain, the stream began to parallel a private drive where we came across a couple of people chatting by a pickup truck. They turned towards us and gave us the now familiar “what in the hell are you doing?” When we told them we were training, the grouchy old lady told us to leave her property. Realizing we had wandered out of the park, we ever so politely apologized and turned around to head back up the mountain. This time, we opted for the private drive and then bush whacking again when we reached the end of it. This route was even more steep than the way we came down. Every step strained at our quads. The steep slope caused us to take small steps which only made the trek longer. I actually began to look forward to the calisthenics as a way to take a break from the climb. Eventually we made it back to the parking area. Leon had to leave early for a family event. Bill and I jumped into our cars for a short ride over to the Frederick Watershed Area for the next part of our workout.

We left one car at the top of this mountain, loaded our eggs into the other car, and headed three miles down the mountain. This road was one of the steepest and most winding roads I have ever been on. Our task was obvious, carry the eggs back up to the top, no backpacks. We moved way slower than either of us thought we would. To be honest, it was painful but I knew it would pay off in Vermont. Every so often we would need to put the eggs down and rest. When it was time to get moving again, our mantra became, “These eggs ain't gonna to move themselves”. Finally, the top of the mountain was in sight and our workout was over, for this day at least.