By Pete Williams
PITTSFIELD, Vt. – It was 20 hours into The Spartan Death Race on Saturday and the transition area looked like nothing in endurance sports.
Logs were strewn everywhere in front of a barn alongside Route 100 in this Central Vermont town quickly becoming known as the home of the most unusual endurance challenge in sports. Athletes dealt with obstacles in the mountains that loomed in every direction, but some of the more difficult tasks took place right here in this muck of mud and sawdust.
It began Friday night with a few deadlifts – 1,300 or so with rocks ranging from 10 to 30 pounds. That’s 100,000 pounds worth of deadlifts over six hours. That was followed by a hike upstream in 45-degree waters which were at times waist deep.
After emerging from the icy waters, the shivering contestants were forced to carry a lit candle for a quarter-mile. If they lost the flame, they started over, repeating the loop seven times over a three-hour period until sunrise.
The log splitting event, a Death Race staple, included a new twist. After selecting their 50-lb. tree stumps, athletes were forced to carry the stump up a windy 2.5-mile trail. At the top of the mountain they were read several bible verses. Upon retuning down the mountain they were required to recite the verse from memory. Miss a word, go back up the mountain. Get it right and they got to chop wood.
Twenty percent of the field missed and headed back up the hill with the wood.
The race already was eight hours old and just getting started.
This is what Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg had in mind in 2005 when they came up with the Death Race as an alternative to triathlons and other endurance races they felt had become predictable and routine. The idea was to create an event athlete couldn’t possibly train or prepare for in advance.
Athletes do not know how long the event will be or what obstacles it will include. They’re not even given the exact starting time, just instructions on when to be on site, along with a list of items to bring. This year’s list included an ax, saw, drill and bit.
Other highlights (lowlights?) of this year’s race included carrying a 40-lb. log for more than 24 hours and carrying 10-gallon buckets filled with water for 2.5 miles. If one drop was spilled, they started over.
After more than 35 hours on the course, the mentally drained competitors were given a 200-question test to recall information given to them at the beginning of the race and throughout the course.
An average Ironman triathlon winner takes eight or nine hours to navigate a course, with much of the field taking between 12 and 15 hours. The 2010 Death Race winner, Joe Decker, took 28 hours to finish.
Decker was back for more punishment, one of 155 crazies taking on the ultimate in a category loosely defined as “adventure mud runs.” It ranges from the low-key and all-inclusive (Muddy Buddy) to the challenging (Tough Mudder and DeSena/Weinberg’s own Spartan Race).
The Spartan Race debuted with three events at the end of 2010 and now has two dozen events with The Death Race re-branded this year as The Spartan Death Race. It belongs in its own category.
Decker, the 41-year-old owner of Gut Check Fitness in San Diego, was the first to emerge from the woods having hauled his freshly-cut 36-inch log through the mountains. After using his hand-drill and bit to embed his race number in the log, he crossed Route 100 and tossed it in a pond. Then it was back to more hiking and a pitch-black crawl through a small culvert under Route 100.
Emerging from the culvert, Decker was told to hike back to the pond and retrieve his log. Unlike subsequent athletes, whose logs floated, Decker’s sunk to the bottom.
No matter. He entered the pond and retrieved it within 10 seconds.
Back in transition, athletes still were drilling their numbers into logs. One imposing guy in a triathlon tech shirt and right sleeve tattoo struggled with the drill.
“I’d say woodworking is probably my weakest discipline,” he said to nobody in particular.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this mid-race snapshot of The Death Race is how good everyone looked. Some had shredded their white race bibs, but most everyone looked far better than an average marathon or triathlon finisher. Only 20 or 25 athletes had dropped out. Most everyone was in good spirits.
Of course, when you don’t know when the finish line will come, you pace accordingly.
We spent just 90 minutes at The Death Race, which admittedly is like covering one-half inning of a baseball game. One blogger preparing for the 2012 event did a more thorough job here, noting that Tallahassee’s own Megan Mays, 28, earned everyone’s respect for slogging through the race.
Decker repeated as champion, which has to rank among the toughest repeats in sports.
Race organizers required athletes to generate pre-race publicity for themselves and the event or risk some sort of hideous punishment. (Full-body shaving, including head, was rumored.) Mays and Hansen, incidentally, were two of the only four women left standing when the race was called on Sunday afternoon after 45 hours.
Just 35 of the 155 athletes who started finished the race and only 7 completed all of the tasks. That group included Vermont’s Grace Cuomo Durfee.
Paul Roarke, the 50-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant from Pensacola, dropped out after suffering a leg injury 26 hours into the race.
“No excuses from me,” he says. “I will just have to try harder next year.”
Listen to Megan Mays and Rebecca Hansen discussing their pre-race training HERE.
Listen to Joe DeSena discuss the creation of The Death Race HERE.
Read about Paul Roarke‘s pre-race preparation HERE.