ESF’s ENDURING ATHLETE OF THE MONTH – MARCH
By Pete Williams
If you were going to lay odds on someone to win “The Death Race,” the grueling endurance event in Vermont billed as “Survivor meets 300,” Paul Roarke would be an attractive option.
A former U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant and Iraq war veteran who authored the book Corps Strength: A Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant’s Program for Elite Fitness, the chiseled 50-year-old Roarke’s fitness regimen over the years has included boxing, martial arts, power lifting, and triathlon.
Roarke was inspired to write the book after watching many of his fellow career Marines suffer injuries and chronic ailments. Now the Pensacola resident, who serves as an instructor at the Navy’s international leadership school, is among the 200 crazies who on June 24 will attempt The Death Race, arguably the toughest test in the endurance sports world.
Concocted in 2007 by longtime endurance athletes Joe Desena and Andy Weinberg, who decided Ironman Triathlons and eco-challenges weren’t tough enough, the Death Race brings athletes into rural Vermont for a competition with no defined start or finish time. The challenges vary each year but typically involve tasks such as chopping wood, hauling heavy wheelbarrows, crawling under barbwire, navigating long distances in the dark, and carrying tree stumps and bicycles. Only 10 percent of the field finishes.
The Web site for the event is youmaydie.com and participants must literally sign their lives away. The winners of the first Death Race finished in about 12 hours but it’s gotten longer each year. This year, athletes are bracing for a 72-hour ordeal.
EnduranceSportsFlorida talked with Roarke about his strategy:
Q: You spent nearly 30 years in the Marine Corps and you have an incredible endurance sports resume. Do you feel any pressure to win this race?
A: Pressure makes diamonds. I always put pressure on myself; it’s my personality type. If I’m not struggling with something, I’m not living so I’m kind of used to it. I wrote a book and put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure it sold well, went out and promoted it. I’ll finish unless I get injured, which can happen, but knock on my wooden head, I’ve never had a major injury. Never had any chronic things – back or knee problems – I have bunions, but my whole family has those. Nothing but minor aches and pains; that’s what led me into the book. The kind of physical training system I’ve developed over the years helped keep me going while others got hurt. Some of these guys I grew up with in Marine Corps were studs, great athletes, but they fell by the wayside and that’s given me a lot of belief in the system.
Q: How do you train for an event like this?
A: I’ve done dozens of triathlons and road races, a few adventure races, and when I looked at this I realized it would be a fundamental mindset change. It’s a long race – three days – and if you figure the average person does a marathon in four hours, you now have to think in terms of 72 hours. So you have to change your mindset and think of what it means to be long, what it’s going to take mentally and physically to get there. I knew off the bat this would not be a speed event. I always talk about doing more exercise in less time, keep the intensity up for a lot of reasons. For this – and I could be wrong – it requires more of a long slow burn. You have to have the physical toughness to do things over and over.
Q: What have you applied to this from your military training?
A: Normally I do training runs at an eight or nine minute a mile pace. That’s too fast for this race. In Marine recon, you’re required to cover extreme distances for drops or to get to a point. You can’t take off at a 7-mile pace; you’d be done after a couple miles. So they developed the Recon Shuffle, a shuffling pace at 12 minutes a mile. That’s a different stress on your body. Mentally you just want to go faster and get it over and your body gets stiff and sore when you run that slow. I know there will be times when I’ll have to hold myself back. I know what it’s like to be up for two or three days without sleep and you basically become a zombie after two days. I know what’s going to happen. People are going to take off and then four or five hours go by, and if they’re not used to doing things for that period of time, they won’t be able to do it. I’m going to hold back at first to put money in the bank. After day one or two days I can withdraw that.
Q: What have you learned from past Death Race competitors?
A: I’ve looked at the videos and talked to people who were in it and I think it’s more about just moving forward for three days than it is about speed and strength. That’s what I’m training for, doing a lot of humping, heavy pack stuff, fast-paced walking. Normal Marine Corps load is 60 pounds. You have to carry certain kinds of gear. A regular Camelbak is not going to cut it. You’re carrying stumps and buckets. I put on a hybrid pack and now I’m training with 40 pounds. I’ve also been training on the beach. I don’t think people up north have done a lot of walking in soft sand, which is tough. Another advantage is I’m from upstate New York and go up there in the summer. Here the humidity is tough in April and May. After I run here for a couple of months, I go up there and feel I have an extra lung because the humidity is less. That’s a huge advantage.
Q: What do you plan to wear for the Death Race?
A: They don’t give you the gear list until two weeks out. My race pack with a 100-ounce Camelbak weighs 12 pounds. I have an Alaskan pack board, which allows you to strap anything to it. They’re going to make us carry a firestarter, some change One year they had to carry a five-pound Greek translation book. I feel like whatever they give me and if the load is under 40 pounds I’ll be fine. I started riding my mountain bike with the pack, which is kind of hairy.
Q: What’s a typical day of training for this like?
A: My big thing is doing combination training. I rode five miles, came back, and I hit the truck tire with a 10-pound sledgehammer. Then I did 100 pull-ups, 200 pushups, a kettle bell routine, and 500 crunches. That’s not much from a time standpoint, just 90 minutes of effort. I want to be able to do that for seven or eight hours and then I’ll feel like I’m ready to race. Sunday is my big day, where I start combining everything. I’ll take off on the mountain bike with the pack, ride 10 miles, carry it for a mile, do that a couple times, go park and run 3-5 miles, gear up again and do it all over. I have a place where I can throw some logs around. My goal is to get to the point a week or 10 days out where I can get up to about a 10-hour day. Think about it. That’s still only one-eighth of the potential race, so you have to pay your dues. If I can do eight hours – I’m going to take breaks to eat – but if I can do 8 to 10 hours of pretty hard but not max effort and if I can bear weight, carry my bike, run, I’ll feel pretty good about it