Disclaimer – this report contains most of the details I can remember over the course of the race. I remember times of day only vaguely – I can only recall whether it was light or dark and whether I was dry (rarely) or wet (mostly). I number the challenges by how I experienced them. There were supposedly 30 tasks to be completed.
YOU MAY DIE.
I considered that fair warning and showed up to the Amee Farm in Pittsfield, VT on a drizzly June Friday afternoon ready to risk it.
There was a line of racers waiting to do the video interview waiver so I joined the end while scanning for familiar faces. I had survived the 2010 Death Race with no permanent scars and was back for more, along with many other survivors. I had also gotten to know many new entrants through the busy Facebook page, where advice and tips and reports on gear, clothing, hydration, speculation, etc. had been flying in the previous months.
I had spent the intervening year following my usual training schedule – ultramarathon running, Crossfit and rock climbing – ramping it up in the last few months with more race-specific movements. On occasion I met up with fellow NYC racers Mark Merchant, Ian James (from my Crossfit box) and Ryan McGregor to do some workouts, such as punishing weighted stair climbs using sandbags and doing various movements with them.
My pack was loaded with required gear – axe, saw, #2 pencil, goggles, tape measure, 10’ length of rope, a $20 bill and two singles, a hand drill with ½” bit. The requirement for a live fish had been removed the previous week. However, while I was in the interview line, Andy announced we had to obtain a VT fishing license. Licenses were $20 for one day or $22 for three days. Thinking that $22 was the exact amount of money on me I went for the 3-day one in case a 1-day one would prove to be insufficient if we had to catch a fish on Sunday, more than 24 hours away. Already I was trying to guess at the organizers’ head games and traps. It was a waste of time in the end but at least VT Fish & Wildlife received a $22 donation from me.
We were also given a fish hook so I wrapped mine in duct tape and stowed it in a pocket in case I had to produce it in order to cross the finish line or use it to get out of a task. I was wearing cargo capri pants to have gear and food readily available in pockets – small knife, GU gels, some fruit and nut bars. My race number was worn as a bib which I had to wear at all times.
Once the video waiver was done, I dropped my large duffle bag on an open patch of grass near support crew tents. That would be my source of food, water, spare clothing and emergency supplies over the course of the race.
Joe and Andy had us stack logs in piles of 15 around the farmyard and up at the Lodge. In the farmyard we also grouped piles of rocks, hay bales and long PVC pipes filled with water.
I said hello to Hobie Call, celebrity winner of so many Spartan races, (tried not to come across a complete fangirl) and met his two brothers who were crewing for him. When they learned I had no crew they offered their help with anything I needed over the course of the race. So many crews were helpful to me over the weekend that I never felt ‘unsupported’ and I very much appreciated the care.
“We are twice armed if we fight with faith.” – Plato
This prep work done, racers and crews headed to the church in Pittsfield for the 1800 race briefing. Pastor Howard gave a sermon and imparted facts about various religions, from Buddhism to Zionism. Many of us scribbled down the information for future reference since religion was the theme this year.
Pastor Howard stressed the importance of faith and belief, regardless of one’s particular religious persuasion. Faith in oneself would be necessary to get through the upcoming challenges.
Joe and Andy explained the race rules and regulations. They stressed the importance of being at church on Sunday at 1500, clean, dry and dressed, for a mandatory meeting. Anyone who did not attend would be disqualified. If we were mid-task as the time approached we were to drop what we were doing, get to the meeting on time, and go back to resume the task afterwards.
I knew to expect a longer, tougher race compared to last year but the thought of it extending to Sunday afternoon was daunting.
We were told we could have a small cup of wine on the way out, then headed back to Amee Farm. I was excited the adventure was finally beginning and Joe did not disappoint.
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” Jesus Christ
Task #1 – Friday 1920
We formed into groups of 13 and laid out a ring of rocks, with PVC pipe, bale of hay and 2-3 larger rocks in the center. Standing outside the ring with a rock in front of us, we were to raise the rock to chest height, lower it (no dropping), rotate to the right, lift the next rock, repeat until everyone had lifted all 13 rocks.
Then we were to move to the center and lift objects up in the air at once. A race official would call it a clean lift.
Do this 150 times.
The number took a minute to sink in. We were going to be in that farm yard for quite some time, I realized. This challenge would fatigue our legs early in the game. 150×13 = 1,950 lifts plus 150 lifts of the objects in the middle. This added up to some ridiculous total number of pounds/kilos lifted.
We started lifting and got into a rhythm, teaming up when necessary to lift the larger rocks in the circle. We got through the rounds making a theme of each round, talking about what we did for a living, where we came from, favourite comedy movies, etc.
Some rocks could easily be cleaned from the hang position but others had to be deadlifted and hauled up. Most were awkwardly-shaped and difficult to grip securely. I used my Crossfit experience to use my legs as much as possible, saving my arms and my lower back for future tasks.
Paul Roarke was my rock-lifting buddy whenever I came to a ‘two-fer’ I could not lift alone. Dan the school teacher acted as drill instructor calling ‘lift, lower, rotate’ to ensure we moved as efficiently as possible.
Hobie’s brother Walden passed by at one point and got me a much-needed water bottle refill.
Every so often Joe would make every team switch places and we would have to find a new rhythm, a new way to handle the awkward rocks.
We heard of a couple of people were injured by dropped rocks and were out of the race already.
We had reached 104 rounds after about 5-6 hours when Joe told us to stop. We would finish the task later but had to move on to the next challenge.
“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” Lao Tzu
Task #2 – Saturday 0100 approx.
We were led down the trail into the Tweed River. Shockingly cold water swelled over my feet and up to my knees. The bottom was stony and very uneven. However I soon got used to the cold and the effort of moving upstream kept me warm. The center of the river seemed deeper with a faster flow so we hugged the riverbank, clambering over and around fallen trees where necessary. The water rose to my waist on occasion and I could hear guys around me gasping. I was glad to be a female with extra fat layers and internal genitalia. I could see headlights stretching ahead and behind me in the darkness. It was necessary to keep an eye on each other so no one was swept away. Some people tried to catch minnows in ziplock bags.
We came onto a beach after a mile (or more) and I thought this was the end of the river walk. However this was a pause to gather everyone together before resuming the ritual immersion. I was shivering while on the beach and pulled on a rain shell to keep warmth in. I kept it on the rest of the night.
Eventually we were marched up on dry land and to a sight familiar from last year – the pond. It was just as cold this year (a constant 47F apparently). We were made to stand in it for 5 minutes, waist-deep, before scrambling out to stand by a roaring fire. This was a brief respite as we were told to line up by a pair of ropes stretching across the pond. We were to swim/haul across, with our packs on, climb up the steep embankment on the far side for a candle ritual, before coming back to do it again, and again. We would do this ‘ritual’ a total of seven times.
The shock of water took my breath away as I tried to keep my head above water, avoiding swallowing any of it, and hauled myself across. Clawing my way up the muddy hill got me warm and I hustled through the trees. The thought of going back across the pond 6 times was not pleasant. Race volunteers handed us lit candles and directed us to follow a loop around a meadow without letting the candle go out. This was on the grounds of another farm.
I cupped mine with my hand, enjoying the warmth, and power walked around the loop to get warm and to get the remaining 6 loops over with. Going through the pond the second time was not so bad as I was prepared for the cold, and I knew I would get warm doing the candle loop.
My desire to finish this task as quickly as possible just meant I got to sit around on the ground longer while everyone regrouped. I shivered in a huddle with my racemates, soggy pack on my back, until we got the order to move. Gladly!
We marched through the farm buildings and along a short section of trail to Borden’s. Appropriately enough the task here involved axes. We had to grab two sections of trunk, split them into 7 pieces and stack them.
I have never chopped wood before so it was quite the learning experience. I eventually had 14 splinters and shards to pile up.
Next task – take another section of trunk and carry it up a trail. Along the way there would be a Bible verse to memorize. We would have to recite it back at Borden’s and if anyone did not remember the verse they would have to go back up again.
I grabbed the smallest trunk I could find, labelled ‘W’ for women (‘X’ was for men) and rigged a climbing sling and carabiner to carry it. We did not have to bring our packs but I brought the #2 pencil and my fishing license. It was an effort carrying the awkward, 40# section of trunk up the dirt trail. Joe Decker and a bunch of other racers came flying down happily.
I crawled under a short section of electric fence (which was active, as my sweaty brow discovered), passed a guy kneeling over his log dryheaving, and lurched up to the verse. A number of racers were there writing it down and memorizing it. I can recite it from memory even now although I of course wrote it down –
“Corinthians 16:13 – Be watchful. Stand firm in the faith. Act like men. Be strong.”
I continued up the hill with my log and was happy the trail soon levelled out and started to descend. A number of racers were in earshot so we practised reciting the verse. Back at Borden’s I recited the verse correctly to a race official and was told to split the trunk into a few pieces and stack it by the house.
I gladly hacked at it but could not get a good bite into it. Hobie had just finished demolishing his log and came over to take care of mine in less than 10 seconds. It was impressive. I must learn how to do this for next year!
By now 6 or 7 of us had completed these tasks and we were told to head back down the river to Amee Farm. In the river, of course. It was much easier travelling in daylight and in the direction of flow. It was easier to see obstacles and decide on whether to go over or around them.
We kept together as a group for safety. Either the distance was a couple of miles or we were moving very slowly but it seemed a long time before we saw the bridge signalling the trail back to the farm.
It was probably 0900 or so and I was hungry for some real food and in need of a change of clothes. Once at my drop bag, which I moved into a communal canopy for shelter from the frequent rain showers, I had a hardboiled egg, a nut bar and an Ensure. I changed my shirt and shorts and headed back to the yard to see what Andy had lined up next.
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” Confucius
Challenge #3 – Saturday 1000 approx.
Andy told me to head a short distance above the Lodge across Route 100, saw off a 18” section of tree trunk and bring it back down. That was easily done. Men had to cut off 36″ lengths.
Back at the farm I was instructed to carve my race number into the log with my hand drill. It had to be approved by a race official or be redone. I was #136 so I took care with the curved parts meanwhile envying those with single digits. My dot matrix ‘136’ passed inspection.
Next I was to hike to Colton Camp with backpack full of gear and my log. Luckily it fit inside my pack making it easy to carry. The log weighed 40# added to about 20# of gear so it was not too bad a load. I added a litre of water, an Ensure and a couple of GU’s to see me through the next few hours. The hike to Colton Camp, where last year I ate one pound of onions at some point on the Saturday night, was an easy few miles on jeep and gravel roads. I was feeling very fatigued though, much more tired than I had felt at the same time last year. The repeated near-hypothermia conditions may have taken their toll.
At Colton Camp the familiar faces from last year were there to check me in and send me on my way to Roger’s house. I remembered the brutal steep rough trail from last year and resigned myself to a slow muddy plod. I hiked my pack high, tightened the waist belt and set off. It was not raining, for once, and the water rushing down the trail was pleasantly cool. Close to the top of the main climb I met other racers charging back down, Joe Decker was of course grinning as he practically ran by. Religious symbols and names of religions were pasted to trees here and there. Some racers were photographing them as they went.
I soon came close to the pond below Roger’s and hustled up the hill. I was thirsty and in need of some food and looking forward to a break. I fondly remembered Roger and Jennifer’s house from last year, when they were the Onion King and Queen. The driveway was a hive of activity with wheelbarrows of wood going by. It turned out that most of the necessary chores had been done by racers ahead of me. I got to clean up the remaining bits of kindling and do 50 pushups. It was lovely to see Roger and Jennifer again. Before chores I had to leave my log in the nearby pond, so it could soak up water and get heavier, lovely.
My chores done, I sat down to drink and eat. A crew member offered food to whoever needed it and I gratefully took a Snickers bar. So much for the Paleo Diet – I am bringing 20 Snickers bars next year!
My last task here was to retrieve my soggy log, carve the words ‘1RO’ into it, and get the approval of the race official. I used my knife and made it a work of calligraphic wonder. The race official chided me for taking so long but at least I passed inspection. I wondered if it stood for the Bible verse ‘1 Romans.’
I retraced my steps back to Colton Camp. So many people had been through that the mud was churned up and in many places scraped off the rock that lay underneath. My shoes – Inov8 Mudclaws – lived up to their name. I felt like I was wearing crampons and had confidence in my footing even with a load on my back. I enjoyed reaching the top of the climb and floating downhill to Colton Camp.
I checked in with race officials and was told to do 50 burpees. Josh Zitomer was there already getting them done, and another racer, Travis Buttle had just checked in also. He had not done burpees before so I did 50 with him, 5 sets of 10, leaping into the air with each one. It felt good for the body to do a different movement after plodding under a load. I wished Travis good luck with the rest of his and headed back to Amee Farm.
“It is any day better to stand erect with a broken and bandaged head then to crawl on one’s belly, in order to be able to save one’s head.” Mohandas Gandhi
Challenge #4 – Saturday afternoon, around teatime
Back at the farm I ate another hardboiled egg and a nut bar, then got on with the next challenge: place my hand carved log in the pond, then come back to the farmyard and climb through the culvert to the pond. I waited while a racer got most of the way through the 2-foot diameter corrugated metal tube. Once it was my turn I squeezed in backwards and face up with my pack on top of me. The water was cool but not deep as I inchwormed my way up, using just my legs to slide up the corrugated metal tube. It was only 100 yards? or so. The little circle of light below my feet got smaller and smaller but I eventually emerged into the light, born-again as it were.
I pulled out my log out of the pond. Fortunately it had not drifted out of reach, it just soaked up more water. I took it and my soaked pack down to the farm to regroup. I know I took a long time here to empty my pack of soggy things and repacking it with mandatory gear, as well as changing clothes again. I kept my trusty Mudclaws on though. The rain and mud and river walking were not over yet. I was pleased my headlamp had held up to all the rain and river soakings so far and packed extra batteries (thanks to my boyfriend for this excellent gift).
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao-tzu.
Challenge #5 – Saturday 1830 approx.
Andy told me to head down the trail to the river and follow the flagging tape to the hut at the top of Joe’s mountain. I had to have my log and my pack of gear with me. With fresh clothes, food supplies, water AND Red Bull, I headed out alone. I crossed the river and headed up The Stairs trail. I came to a gushing stream and saw the tape led up the streambed. Figures. It was almost 1900 now and rain was falling hard. I started up the stream which was cascading in white torrents. It was not deep and the footing was easier than the slimy river rocks. I wondered if I would have webbed feet by the end of this race. Thunder and lightning started and the sky was darkening early. I could not tell if the roaring was the stream or the thunder. It was a very primeval experience. I expected to be following the stream the entire way up the mountain to it’s source. Up and up I went. The Tire Guys came charging down at one point and I also spoke to a woman who had decided to leave the race and was heading back to the farm.
I waded upward and soon had to turn on my headlamp. I saw two lamps ahead of me and caught up to Val and Paul. I had noticed them earlier in the race always working well as a team. The flagging tape has just left the stream to head into the woods on a random bushwhack path and I was glad of the extra company to help find the way in the dark.
We found our way through the woods and met up with Mark, who had come from the opposite direction and wondering which was the right way to go. Now we had four headlamps to light our way. The sun had set but the rain had stopped. We came onto a dirt road which made for faster progress as it wound up and down hills. Every so often racers would come by us on their return journey.
A sign marked the ‘Gaza Strip’ – a barbed wire course leading uphill. The trail had rivulets of mud flowing down it so we made messy progress. Mark charged ahead squirming under the barbed wire with his pack. Val, Paul and I teamed up to help get through it.
We came out the top end and kept going up and up. Soon we left the marked trail and followed flagging tape up the steep muddy side of the hill. The air got cooler so I knew we were close to the top.
Finally we emerged from the trees and could see the starry sky overhead and our destination, the hut. We gladly dumped our packs outside and went inside to meet Chris Mitchell.
We sat in the warm hut and I found myself nodding off almost immediately. Chris took us through the peanut ritual – there was a pile of discarded shells in a corner. He gave us each a portion of shell which we had to keep safe, so he gave us plastic soda bottles as containers.
Paul, crew member for #7, whom I later learned was Travis, arrived to await his arrival. Paul produced a stove and offered tea or coffee. It was wonderful. I had coffee although still fell asleep after drinking it. I may have been out for 10-15 minutes. Paul and Val nudged me awake to get on the trail again.
We hauled up our packs and retraced our steps all the way back the way we had come up. We could move a little faster as we had confidence in finding the trail and it was mostly downhill. The stream was easier to descend too. We passed the time talking about races we had done and what was on our calendars for the rest of the year.
We arrived back at the farm while it was dark and looked forward to regrouping with food and drink. Paul’s father offered me wonderful pizza which I gladly devoured. Real savoury food was a treat. He also gave me a cup of hot chocolate and I learned that it was Paul’s mother who had given me a cup of chicken broth earlier in the day.
It was while standing in a group chatting that I started feeling sleepy and I know I nodded off for a couple of seconds. Being asleep on my feet was a new experience for me. I had to get moving again and avoid the temptation of sleep and the resulting sloth (incidentally the Seven Deadly Sins were one of the themes last year).
“A good word is like a good tree whose root is firmly fixed and whose top is in the sky.” The Quran
Challenge #6 – Sunday 0530 approx.
Other racers were busy chopping piles of wood – the bundles of 15 logs we had assembled days ago. Hobie was warmly dressed and hacking away. Apparently he had tried to quit the race earlier but was talked into continuing. There were so few piles left that Andy told me to go cut down a tree and chop that into logs. Which tree? Any tree. I love Vermont.
I went up past the Lodge – where Mark Merchant was decimating his log pile – to where I had obtained my log and saw a few racers chopping away. The tree had to be a minimum 4” thick, 30’ long so I picked a suitable one and hacked away with axe then saw. I cut the branches off and dragged the bare trunk down to the farm. I felt absurdly proud. This must be how vegetarians feel when they make their first kill.
It was a quick and easy task to chop up the trunk and stack the logs. The sun had come up, it was not raining, and I had a Starbucks Double Shot for breakfast.
Travis was also taking care of his tree trunk so we both got our instructions for the next task simultaneously.
“A jug fills drop by drop.” Buddha
Challenge #7 – Sunday 0930 approx.
Hike up to Colton Camp with our packs and logs. Retrieve a bucket. Return to the farm and fill the bucket with water up to a certain level. Carry it back to Colton Camp. If the bucket was filled to the correct level then we would pass the test. If not we would have to empty the bucket and return to the farm and refill it. The only hint I got was the women’s minimum level limit was less than the men’s. Assuming men had to fill the bucket to the brim, it did not give me much information. So far women’s loads had been 50% of the men’s but I could not assume that.
The hike to the Camp was brief. Grace passed us going the other way having completed a number of tasks so I knew she was hours ahead and still moving fast and looking good.
At Colton Camp we each strapped an orange 5-gallon bucket onto our pack and returned to the farm. While Travis filled his bucket to within 1” of the top and put a cover on it I filled mine ¾ of the way and hoped that was more than enough.
Once we passed this test we would continue on to Roger’s again. I knew this would take many hours and I was wondering how far we would get before having to stop and get ready for church. I had also been wondering how I would ultimately drive home to New York City and get to work on Monday morning. I wrestled with this, not that I wanted to quit the race. In the end I decided to see how the day went, finish the race, and if I was in danger of falling asleep at the wheel, I would stop somewhere and sleep.
We struggled up to the Camp, careful not to spill any precious drops (although I had my water bottle handy just in case). Travis’s friends Paul (coffee and tea caterer extraordinaire) and Dale were along for support. As we lurched up the trail I saw Dennis Lesniak hauling his load along with a great entourage. I also saw Ian James, his swollen knees bulging through bandages, carrying his load and marching determinedly onwards.
Travis and I would take turns specifying a target – a puddle, a strip of tape – to reach before we could set down our buckets. This made it more bearable. My forearms were burning when we reached the Camp. It turned out that men had to fill the bucket to within 3” of the top and women to within 6”. Luckily we both passed and did not have to repeat the exercise. It was 10:30 or so at this point and I was wondering if I would make it to Roger’s and back in time to get to church. Thanks to the encouragement of Travis’ group and the Colton Camp race officials I realized there was time. It helped to know we would not have to return to the Camp on the same steep muddy trail but could take the road.
We headed up the trail putting one foot in front of the other. Familiar landmarks from the previous ascent appeared every so often – religious symbols posted on trees. We saw a tiny red eft and stepped carefully around it. Travis’ boss Pat hiked up with his dog Seamus and chatting helped the pass the time. There was now a defined trail through the woods and bare areas of rock were slick where the earth had been scraped off. It was warm and humid under the trees but the sun was shining. I think that was the first time I saw my shadow all weekend (headlamp light did not count).
We made great time to Roger’s, taking just over 2 hours. Once there Jason offered us our choice of cookies which was a nice treat. Our sole task was to split our logs and throw them on the pile for Roger and Jennifer. I happily quartered mine and bid it an untearful farewell.
Travis’ family were there and offered me the best PBJ I have ever had. They accompanied us on our brief hike back to Colton Camp. My pack felt empty without the log and it made for faster progress.
We checked in at Colton Camp around noon and were instructed to head back to Amee Farm. We were in 12th place or so and I was second woman.
“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”Buddha
Challenge #8 – Sunday 1300
There were about 4 of us returning to the farm at the same. Andy was there to meet us and tell us the next steps. What he told us was hard to swallow:
first, complete a test of 166 multiple choice questions about religions. Then get to a nearby farm with cucumber plants and plant them.
Return to Amee Farm via the river, then climb up Joe’s Mountain following the same route as the previous night – streambed, ravine, various trails, the Gaza Strip, etc. Our tests would be graded in the hut and anyone who did not pass would have to come down to the farm, retake the test, then go back up for grading again.
I was calculating the hours and hours this would take, mentally listing how many spare batteries I had for my headlamp, how much food I had left (one hardboiled egg and two GU’s).
The group of racers all looked at each other and agreed we were in it to finish and would get what we could done before church, then head back out after the meeting to finish the tasks.
It was starting to rain so I huddled under the canopy Travis’ crew had set up and got to work on the quiz. We all had our sheets of questions and #2 pencils trying to answer questions as a team. I was sorry I was no help with this as I kept nodding off in my chair.
We all realized that with the church meeting happening in less than 2 hours all we could do was answer the test and maybe do some gardening. It was a relief to sit down and take a break though. I changed into my apres-race clothes, knowing I would be changing back into my dirty race clothes. My Mudclaws were grey with mud so it was nice to put on clean shoes and socks.
Travis’ family kindly offered to let me stay with them in VT that night so I could get a good shower and comfortable sleep, and would have a shorter ride home in the morning. This was a wonderful idea. I rode with them to the church and got settled in the pews with the remaining 30 or so racers and their crews. Once again my eyes started to close.
Pastor Howard praised our tenacity in lasting so long (45 hours and counting). Joe said he was waiting for Andy who might have been out retrieving Ray Morvan. Finally Andy walked in and also praised the racers still going (Ray had been located). He asked for a show of hands from those racers still in the race. “Congratulations, you have all finished the Death Race” or words to that effect is what I heard next. I think it took a few seconds for that to sink in as a wave of relief washed over me. There were tears in my eyes. I would not have to go back up Joe’s mountain.
That church never experienced more praise and euphoria as it did that afternoon when 35 survivors out of 155 starters learned of their success. No matter where we were on the course, and Joe and Grace and others had performed more tasks than the rest of us, we had finished.
There were awards for Joe and Grace as first place finishers, and group photos, and big skulls for the rest of us. I was ecstatic at surviving once again and seeing so many others finishing, especially Mark Harrison who had been such a help to me last year and who came back with a vengeance this year to finish. Ian did not let painful swollen knees stop him, and Travis did himself proud (and learned to do burpees).
I got to chat with Hobie and his brothers one last time outside. It was a peaceful sunny Vermont afternoon yet I was boiling inside with happiness. The satisfaction of achieving a goal lasts a long time, outlasts the bruises and aches and the weird rash that many of us got. I had a new ‘longest time on feet record’ having been up since 0600 Friday and it was now 1600 on Sunday.
Joe and Andy and their team of volunteers put on a great event that challenges racers physically and mentally. There was one question asked of me in a video interview that I vaguely remember from one of the days, regarding why I wanted to enter the Death Race. I wanted to find my limits, mentally and physically. I believe the mind can force the body to go through a lot and therefore the mind is the limiting factor (short of death). If the will to persist is strong then I can push to get as far as I can. Someone would have had to physically drag me from the race or time me out to make me quit. Thankfully that did not happen and I have not had my will pushed to failure. Yet.