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.