Friday June 15. Death Race start day. I had been preparing for months. I had suffered on overnight ruck sessions with Joe Decker, I had pulled back-to-back Goruck Challenges to test my endurance and the effects of sleep deprivation, I had run, I had cross-fit, and I had lost about 12lbs. I was excited and ready to get going. It was reassuring to have 6 other Team SISU (the SoCal-based training group we formed that now includes over 300 people!) racers in the group as well as our tremendous support crew.
After attending the hints meeting at The General Store, Michelle and I headed back to the house for final gear preparations with the rest of the group. The house was abuzz with activity. I made last minute decisions on gear and food – I was trying to keep my ruck to 25lbs including the weight of the ruck itself. Water, food, maul and the backpack alone eat up about 15lbs. It is no joke when I say that I was counting ounces and every GU pack, protein bar and extra bungee cord were carefully considered. Mandatory gear included: axe/maul, life preserver, pink swim cap, needle, thread, black compression shirt, pen, paper, bag of human hair and a 5-gallon bucket. These items were to remain with us at all times.
First thing on the agenda was the official weigh-in at the top of Joe’s Mountain. At the weigh-in I was able to determine that my pack came in at just over 30lbs. 5lbs over my ideal weight but not bad. Success! Little did I know that I would become intimately familiar with this peak over the next couple of days. While we waited in line Andy Weinberg’s kids ran around assigning burpees to anyone caught cursing. Ha! One of them was also handing out rabbit food pellets to all the racers with clear instructions not to lose them before the end of the race. This was a complete ruse. The pellets were never used but, oh, I held onto them in my pack for the entire race like they were made of gold!
From the weigh-in it was a rush to the official registration at Riverside Farm during which we were asked if we wanted to quit. This became a recurring question throughout the race and one that always made me laugh (little did the Death Race staffers and volunteers know that they would have to drag my dead carcass from the course before I quit). After registration we hiked back to Amee Farm (Death Race central and base camp for all racers and crews) where we had ever diminishing time to get our race numbers sewn onto our black compression shirts – the first task of the race. I used medical tape for the numbers so they will stick to the shirt in addition to being sewn on. The whole of Amee Farm was alive with frantic energy and chaos. Some racers sewed, others had begun to split wood, and a few were clearing debris from the area. Still others took the short swim test in the pond (while wearing the required pink swim cap) and did the mandatory crawl through the culvert. Had the race begun? There were constant threats of disqualification for not sewing fast enough, not moving fast enough…not doing enough. It was all a brilliant effort by Joe and Andy to rattle us and I loved every minute of it!
Eventually, we were ordered to congregate in one area and lift canoes, slosh pipes and a tractor tire over our heads – again, all under the constant threat of disqualification from a guy barking orders through a megaphone. We moved across the road to the pond and were instructed to retrieve our gear, set it down on the grass and then jump in the pond. And this is where the race officially began I think. Joe and Andy gave their orientation/welcome speech and reminded us that none would finish so we should all quit immediately. Gotta love these guys! Always encouraging! After some time Andy dumped a box of ping pong balls with numbers on them into the pond and it was a mad scramble to get one not knowing, of course, what the number meant! It soon became apparent, however, that these numbers would divide us into 10 teams. Except for one person all of the SISU people – Daren, Michelle, Yesel, Lisa, Dameion and me – managed to stay together but he was probably the lucky bastard not to be on Team 10 as we all found out soon enough.
We were ordered out of the water and regrouped on the grass as teams – each team responsible for carrying a canoe, slosh pipe or tractor tire. Wet and unsure as to what lay ahead we began our trek up the trail and into mountains. Months and months or preparation and here I was…in the Death Race. I couldn’t help but smile. There was nowhere I would rather have been at that moment. Surrounded by my friends from SISU, the Goruck Toughs I’d met at other events, the new people I’d met in the last few hours and the rest of the excellent athletes brave enough (crazy enough?) to even attempt this race. My people.
Going up the hill is the last time our crews would see us for the next 24 hours. They did not know this and neither did we. More than 300 souls headed to parts unknown. All we needed was ominous music playing in the background because what followed was ugly…an epic ass-kicking beat down. I’m not certain of exact time frames but I think we were on the move for about 6 hours stopping only to do hundreds and hundreds of burpees (may the inventor of the burpee die a slow, miserable death…from doing burpees) and to switch the item (aka “coupon”) we were carrying with other teams. For the most part we were on fairly decent fire roads and trails…until the final coupon switch…right before Bloodroot Mountain trail. Cue more ominous music and Vincent Price’s laugh from “Thriller”.
So, basically, Team 10 got stuck with the tractor tire for the last 16 hours of this little hike just as we hit Bloodroot – difficult single-track trail made more challenging by the TRACTOR TIRE we had to carry. Large rocks, ruts, tree roots, mud, trees, dips and rises all conspired against us. The worst way to move the tire was to roll it but the narrow width of the trail made it near impossible to do anything but that. Carrying it would have been faster and more efficient. It was just not possible. We tried every which way to move that tire. This was an ass-suck but we focused on the task at hand and slowly…ohhhhh, so very slowly…made our way. By the time morning broke we were still on the trail. And far, far behind everyone else. We later learned that the other teams were made to do burpees while they waited for us but since we never arrived they were sent ahead to the next task. I think I would have rather done the burpees. What?!
Well, we finally made it out to a clearing where Joe Desena sat around a campfire. After a very brief rest we were ordered to catch up to the rest of the group. The tire stayed behind but it was not the last time we would see it. By this time many of us had run out of water or were running low.
We had been warned to not drink water from the streams but eventually many of us refilled from these streams (sometimes adding iodine tablets…sometimes not). We still had no idea how far or how long it would be before we got back to Amee Farm. We were headed to Chittenden Reservoir where the rest of the group was doing a swim of some unknown length and was hauling buckets of gravel up a hill to a driveway that needed maintenance. We never made it. We ran into the group on our way to them and were told to return back to the clearing. More water bladders were refilled from streams (BTW…no one got sick. The water was perfectly safe to drink. Just another betrayal by Joe and Andy) AND we got stuck with the tire AGAIN. Not sure how many had pulled out at this point but we heard racers were being driven back to Amee Farm in droves.
Eventually, we were released from the tire but not before missing the multiple choice test given somewhere near Riverside Farm (and a chance to rest and eat). The tire team was SMOKED and the race was about to go solo. Add tractor tires to the list of “No Friends of Edgar.”
So, this is now Saturday afternoon. We had yet to see Amee Farm and our crews. I was out of food save for a few Cliff Bloks and half a protein bar. The next challenge involved being partnered up with 2 or 3 other people to locate a numbered stake up on Joe’s Mountain between the lower cabin and the upper cabin at the summit. Well, racers were scouring the area looking for their numbered stake with very few teams succeeding. There were NO stakes to be seen anywhere! Was this a ruse? Had the front-runners betrayed everyone and hidden all the stakes? Hours were lost, nerves were frayed and frustrations ran high. I found a discarded stake with a number crossed out and, like many others, my team decided to break our stake in half, share with another group, write our number on it, turn it in and proceed to the next task of splitting wood. It was a calculated risk. Like so many others, we thought this was part of the game – a thematic betrayal of the rules, another obstacle to test our mental fortitude, a twisted plot element conceived by Joe and Andy. Ohhhhh, how wrong we were.
As Daren and I got busy cutting and splitting our log (the next task) one of the race staffers got on a bullhorn and announced that cheating had occurred in the stakes challenge. Cheaters were asked to turn themselves in and face the consequences. Daren (whose team had also cheated) and I turned ourselves in immediately. At this point I still thought this was all part of the game and the Betrayal theme but I was wrong. There WERE stakes out there. Why almost no team could find theirs is up for debate. We were given our punishment. While everyone who didn’t cheat (or didn’t cop to cheating) traveled up and over the mountain back to Amee Farm with their split wood, those that turned themselves in were told to leave their wood and gear and head to Amee Farm for our punishment. Daren, Michelle, Yesel and I head out and proceed to get lost for several hours. Tired and hungry we FINALLY made it to Amee Farm for the first time in over 30 hours! Our punishment was time in the pond before going back up Joe’s Mountain to retrieve our wood and proceed with our tasks. We were in the SUCK but deep.
Amazingly, I felt strong. My feet were blistered and hurt like hell but otherwise I felt good. I’d gone through a couple of dark moments – a few spots in which I considered, ever so briefly, the idea of dropping out. I rode those out knowing it was my frustration at being behind because of the punishment. At some point on Sunday we lost Daren due to severe dehydration and awful foot blisters. Yesel and I continued and eventually returned to Amee Farm around 5pm on Sunday. We were informed that we were disqualified but could continue on the course for fun. Another attempt by Death Race volunteers to get us to quit. Didn’t work. We asked for our next task and were told we had to carry a 60lb bag of cement mix back up Joe’s Mountain. And, here, is where I nearly broke.
Carrying 50-120lbs of weight in my ruck and on my back is nothing strange to me. It is what Joe Decker prepared us for on his SUCK events in San Diego. But for some reason the idea of going back up that infernal mountain (not an easy task or short distance) just ate at me and the more it consumed me the more certain I became this was another attempt by Joe and Andy to rattle us and make us quit. I believed in my heart that we would get a mile into the trail and that a Death Race staffer would tell us to drop the cement bag and continue with another task. My friend Dameion was also beside himself with anger at having to lug this thing up the mountain. In fact, at one point while loading the cement bags into our rucks and rearranging our gear, Dameion and I both pointedly accused each other of being a mole and betrayer! 50+ hours of sleep deprivation was making us a bit paranoid!
Yesel, Dameion and I headed out. The 60lb bag of cement mix weighed down my ruck and sat heavily on my morale. I was at the edge. If this was not a ruse then I was certainly done for the day. About a mile in Yesel and I sat to rest and consider our options. We were at our wits end. Dameion continued on only to see him tear past us in a teary rage a short while later on his way to dropping out. That was really difficult to see. Dameion was a beast on the course and no doubt could have finished but mentally and emotionally he was cooked and his priorities were with his family – this was Father’s Day after all. He made the right decision for himself. But at the time it really got to me and certainly made the idea of dropping out easier to accept.
I left Yesel and moved ahead to scout the trail still certain in my belief that this was a ruse. After crossing a wide stream over a narrow footbridge the ugly realization hit me like slow sledgehammer to the head. This was no joke. We really DID have to carry the cement bags up the mountain. I got angry. I cursed Joe, Andy and their descendants for generations to come. In a last act of defiance I removed the bag of cement from my ruck and left it by the side of the trail. Let Andy and Joe come find it and remove it! I went back to Yesel, delivered the bad news and sat down. We were both going to call it a day but would rest a bit first. I think I was ok with my decision but resting a bit delayed going back up the trail to Amee Farm to officially drop out. And here is the FUCKED UP thing about this race and how it gnaws at you in different ways. I felt guilty. I felt guilty for littering the trail with the bag of cement mix I had left behind! I went back, retrieved the bag and in the process added about a mile to my overall haul of that damn cement. I sat down deep in thought…Yesel a few yards away in her own misery.
The minutes ticked by. A waiting game – me against me.
And out of nowhere who comes shuffling up the trail humping TWO large rocks in his pack? None other than Daren and two of our crew guys, Kyle and Mark, egging him on with moral support. They see us and tell us to get up. I tell them I’m done. Kyle says I’m not done. He tells me to get up. I politely say no. He calls bullshit and tells me again to get up. Daren limps past me and I think: Daren is HOBBLING past me in tremendous pain but is still getting it done! There is no excuse for me! I realize I am just feeling sorry for myself. I get up and as I load the heavy ruck on my back I curse loudly. FUCK! FUCK! FUUUUUUUUUCK! I see Yesel also getting up…nearly in tears from the pain. And we begin to walk.
We made it to the top and unloaded the cement bags inside the cabin. The hike up was exhausting but I was happy to be rid of the weight. We hiked back down to Amee Farm…I’m not sure which was worse: the hike up with weight or the pounding my feet took on the way down. It was past midnight and we’re into Monday morning! In the haze of my exhaustion I faintly recalled an email Andy had sent the week before to all the Death Racers. In it he proclaimed that the race would be over by midnight on Monday night. My soul dies a little death at this possibility. There was no clear end in sight. The possibility of another 24 hours was very real. We arrived to an almost deserted Amee Farm. The crew area was mostly cleared out by now. Tents had been struck, dropped out racers had gone home, crews had packed it in. There was no bonfire blazing in the pit like the previous night. All was quiet. We checked in and, mercifully, were directed to Riverside Farm for our FINAL task!
Our challenge at Riverside Farm was as follows: log-roll through a somewhat oval loop that I estimated to be 1/4 mile in length. At the midway point we were to stir a bucket full of rotting bull intestines. The upper end of the oval reeked with a nauseating odor. Oh, and we had to do this SIX times! After each lap we had a mental challenge: correctly answer a question posed to us or the lap did not count. I managed not to puke although by lap 4 I was apparently coming out of my rolls fast asleep! The great thing is I was laughing and even posed by the nausea-inducing bucket for pictures…the smell did not bother me. I even tried to make a deal with Andy to lessen our required laps if I could get through four of them without puking (if I puked I would do extra laps). Except for one person everyone had puked so far. The odds were in Andy’s favor but he did not take the bet. I think he gave it some serious consideration though! (Hmmm…note to self for 2013 Death Race – Year of the Gambler: Andy is not a gambling man)
Approximately 2 1/2 hours later we were done with our laps! We walked to the barn about 100 yards away and were greeted by Joe who informed us we had finished the race! SIXTY-TWO AND A HALF HOURS of non-stop action and no sleep finally came to an end. Joe handed us our Death Race finisher skulls. I was exhausted but happy and relieved to be done. The full impact of the moment would not hit me for a few more days. We headed out and walked to our cars. 300+ had begun the race on Friday afternoon and 59 would eventually finish. And just like that our long journey came to an end.
There are so many stories, anecdotes and moments that I have left out but it would take many more blogs to detail them. Over the past week I have had time to reflect on the race and my participation in it. I came with no expectations other than knowing it would be hard. For me the race was not about competing against other racers. For me the race was about pushing beyond my comfort zone, digging deep, reaching past the pain, not listening to the voices that told me to stop. I came close to dropping out and I am so happy that Daren hobbled by at the right moment. It set me straight and I was able to get my head back in the game.
And, ultimately, the most fun was meeting my fellow racers. I don’t remember all their names but I do remember the funny shit they said, the words of support and encouragement they offered and the acts of selflessness that I witnessed. I tip my hat to all of them.
Death Race 2013 is the year of the GAMBLER. I am beginning to prep my poker face. Deal me in.
Ruck On. Stay Muddy.