ESF’s ENDURING ATHLETES OF THE MONTH – JUNE and JULY
By Pete Williams
There are endurance athletes and then there are people like Rebecca Hansen, 49, and Megan Mays, 28, who were among the four women (and just 35 overall) who finished the 45-hour Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vermont, last month.
Competitors in The Death Race have no idea how long the event will be – it gets longer every year – and only a vague idea of what obstacles and challenges they must face. This year’s group was forced to do six-hours of squats, wade through 45-degree waters, and spend two nights climbing mountains in the dark.
Oh, and they had to do most of it with heavy logs tied to their backs. No wonder most of the 155-person field dropped out.
Mays, who lives in Tallahassee, and the Naples-based Hansen underwent a staggering amount of training for The Death Race, but even they were amazed at what Death Race creators Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg threw at them.
We spoke to them in March on The Fitness Buff Show about their preparations for the event and again this morning, 10 days after the race. You can listen to that interview HERE or read an edited transcript below. Here’s our report on the race from a two-hour visit to the site.
Q: How do you feel?
Megan: I feel pretty tired still, definitely recovering. My muscles not happy with me, but mentally I’m ecstatic for going through the race and finishing.
Rebecca: I’m pretty good, feeling back to normal.
Q: How did you step up your training leading up to the Death Race?
Megan on the mountain
Megan: I had the help of a wonderful local gym here in Tallahassee. The owner Laurel Blackburn got very creative coming up with some death race simulations for 12 hours and that was very helpful. We don’t have a lot of mountains in Florida so there was no helping training for that, but putting us through those exhausting, menial tasks that went on forever really helped.
Q: The event began with a ring of stones ranging from 10 to 30 pounds that you had to squat for five hours. What was that like?
Megan: I was shocked when I heard what we were supposed to do and doubtful I could make it through the first day. One guy dropped one on his foot and broke it.
Q: So now you’re at 1 a.m. in the woods in the freezing water looking for fish.
Rebecca: That was my favorite part of the race. I grew up trout fishing with my dad and the glow of the lights was beautiful. It was freezing but we caught trout in a baggie with our hat and I really enjoyed that part of the race.
Q: I didn’t realize there were volunteers and support crew. Did you meet up with people or bring them along?
Megan: I had an awesome support crew. Three came from Florida and two lived in New York and drove over for the weekend and I definitely could not have finished without them. It was all about team effort.
Q: What were they allowed to help with?
Megan: They were allowed to clothe, feed you and tell you where you were but they weren’t allowed to touch your gear. They couldn’t put your backpack on you or help you with any of your tasks.
Climbing the mountain
Q: How much of these people did you see?
Megan: In the beginning it was touch and go. They would check on me and bring me food, but toward the end I had one of them with me at all times.
Q: Rebecca, you are involved in ultramarathons, what kind of preparation did you undergo?
Rebecca: The most valuable thing I did was a 60-hour race simulation. I had gone 48 hours without sleep but I wanted to see if I went to 60 what would happen. I slept two hours a night and did race stuff when I was awake and the second night I’m lying on my lawn and fireants crawled on me and bit me. I was groggy and moved to my neighbor’s lawn and the sprinkler goes off. By the third day I was in a stupor and I was really exhausted but I knew if I could get to 60 with that much exhaustion I could get through anything. I did this 10 days before the race.
Q: Megan, when I saw you at the Death Race you were wearing long pants. How did you choose wardrobe for this?
Megan: I wasn’t very well prepared. I brought all of the workout clothes I owned and I knew that I didn’t want poison ivy or bug bites, but I was not prepared for the cold. I had two racers give me shirts off their backs because I was in water and shaking so bad they were worried I would go hypothermic. Just the way everyone helped each other was awesome.
Q: Are there limits to what you can bring?
Rebecca: I had some good people coaching me that had done it before but if I had to do it again – and I will next year – I would take the bare minimum.
Rebecca - running it back in 2012
Q: Just 10 days removed from the race and you’re commited to doing it again?
Rebecca: Andy (race co-founder Andy Weinberg) asked me before the race if I would so I signed up before the race.
Q: I have no plans to do this next year but I do have a friend going back so I promised to be on his support team so I’m looking forward to helping him.
Q: You spent long hours climbing those mountains, often in the dark. Did you have much to go by?
Rebecca: We really didn’t. Megan and I met on the second mountain and I was nervous because it was thundering and lightning and there was a nice man that helped us out there. His instruction on how to climb a mountain in torrential downpour was invaluable. The mountain was hell and it just didn’t let up.
Q: It seems like you had to carry a log forever.
Megan: At least a full day and probably more than that – at least 25 or 26 hours.
Rebecca: At least three-quarters of the race. Love the log.
Q: It seems like this race gets longer every year. Does it seem like this harder than what you’ve seen from the last couple of years?
Rebecca: When Andy told me to sign up, it was a 24-hour race. Then it became 36 and then longer. I think because 35 of us finished they’ll bend over backward to make it more difficult and longer and tougher next year.
Q: What was the toughest part of it?
Megan: The biggest challenge was being out there the second night and it was dark and I was tired and going up a mountain and not knowing where I was going. I almost sat down and didn’t get up. Once the sun came up, I felt better and was going down the mountain and I just pushed through those times.
Q: What was your biggest injury in the race?
Megan: I didn’t have too many injuries but I was going into the race with knee problems and they got really achy, especially since half of the race was downhill. I didn’t get any major injuries, but I did see people with gashes and broken fingers.
Q: Could you sense when people were dropping out of race?
Rebecca: It was the second night when a lot of people dropped on that second mountain. I was climbing with some guys and they ditched me. I didn’t realize they had quit the race. As people tired and started to hurt, they dropped out. They weren’t necessarily physically tired but mentally tired. Going through that water and pushing toward hypothermia, people were pushed to their limits.
Q: Was there a lot of swimming?
Rebecca: We were chest-deep swimming across that pond with your backpack. I thought I was going to go under. It wasn’t swimming, more like dog paddling with a backpack and a log.
Q: How tough was handling nutrition during this?
Rebecca: I thought I had it down from ultramarathoning events. I had ziplock bags of four hours worth of food and the second climb my food floated down the river and I ran out of water and there was a period of eight hours when I didn’t have anything. That was more psychological than anything.
Q: Did it seem like the racers helped each other out?
Megan: Absolutely. I didn’t feel any competition at all but that was because I was in the rear, coming in the back end of the group, I got help from so many other racers so I offered whatever I can. I can’t say I had fun at the Death Race, but it was the most awesome weekend I ever had.
Death Race finishers give thanks
Q: Anything you trained for that you were disappointed wasn’t included?
Rebecca: I thought there would be more barbwire. I set up an obstacle course on my lawn simulating that. I shouldn’t say that otherwise there will be tons of it next year.
Q: What do your neighbors think of this?
Rebecca: They look at me like I’m a lunatic and my kids come out and shake their heads and go back inside.
Q: After finishing the Death Race, it must be a letdown to jump into a local 10K or sprint triathlon. What do you possibly do for an encore?
Megan: I’m setting my sights on mountain climbing. I don’t have Everest in future but I want to summit Denali in the next couple years. I have no mountain climbing experience.
Rebecca: I’m training for my first double Ironman in February and some of the guys I met in the race were talking about Primal Quest next year, so I’m talking about that too.
Read Megan Mays’ blog chronicling her training and race experience HERE.