Tag Archives: Joe Decker

Committed to The Death Race

By Pete Williams

Last year's Spartan Death Race

For all the talk about Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race, there is one event that remains far above the rest when it comes to crazy, hardcore, physical challenges.

That’s the Death Race, held since 2005 and rebranded last year as The Spartan Death Race.

Death Race participants don’t know how long the race will last. They’re not even given a start time, just told to be at a farm in Pittsfield, Vermont on a certain day in June ready to go.

As for the challenges, they’re like no weekend mud run, including Spartan Race and Tough Mudder. Last year’s Death Race began late on a Friday night with athletes squatting 10-to-30 pound rocks…for six hours.

They spent the next 39 hours navigating a series of grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 40-mile course that runs through the woods. Competitors had to wade through icy water, haul 20-pound stumps up and down mountains for hours, memorize Biblical verses, and carry a 10-gallon bucket of water for 2.5 miles.

The Biblical verse challenge came after 15 hours of racing and required the athletes to memorize the scripture, climb the top of a mountain and recite. Get it wrong? Go back to the bottom and do it again.

Rebecca Hansen, shown competing in triathlon, will attempt to complete a second Death Race in 2012

Last year, 185 started the race and only 35 remained when it was called after 45 hours. Remarkably, some of them are among the 200 committed for this year’s event (June 15), including several who finished the race. Rebecca Hansen (left) was one of two Floridians to finish last year’s event. The 50-year-old ultramarathoner from Naples committed for 2012 shortly before embarking on last year’s race.

Paul Roarke,the 51-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant from Pensacola who dropped out after suffering a leg injury 26 hours into the race, also is back. Megan Mays, 28, of Tallahassee, the only other Florida finisher last year, plans to return to Vermont, but only as part of a support team for other athletes.

Joe Decker, the two-time defending champion from San Diego, apparently is not returning. After all, it’s not like he has anything left to prove.

Other Floridians among the registered: Joe Falcone, 35, of Boca Raton; Doug Bush, 32, of Davenport; Joshua Clifford, 26, and Abraham Lara, 27, both of Fort Walton Beach; Andrew Andras, 35, of Miami; Bruce Harris, 48, of Milton; and Ricky Weiss, 28, of Tallahassee.

Unlike other endurance races that offer a detailed map, Death Racers have no idea what to expect next as the course map and list of challenges are kept secret.  This provides competitors with one of their biggest challenges as the length of the race can range from 24 to 48 hours. For an endurance athlete, not knowing where the light is at the end of the tunnel can be sheer torture.

Race founders Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg created the Death Race after becoming bored with marathons, Ironman triathlons, and eco-challenes. Though it’s not an official policy, it seems they let the race last until about 80 percent of the field drops out. Thus, the event gets longer each year. Last June, they called it after 45 hours with 35 athletes remaining.

“We commend the brave athletes for taking on this challenge and taking the ultimate test,” Desena says. “We are creating a course that offers no mercy and breaks the will of at least 80 percent of the entrants.  We have never had more than 20 percent of the participants complete the course.  We don’t expect that to be challenged this year.”

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Death Racing

By Pete Williams

Logging the Death Race

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.

Joe Decker, shouldering a load

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.

Joe Decker, two-time winner

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.

Death Race attire varies

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.

Mays was one of two Florida athletes to appear on our Fitness Buff Radio Show before the event. Rebecca Hansen, a 49-year-old trainer from Naples, also finished.

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.

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