As a “retired” recreational adventure racer, I could not resist when I heard that my friends Steve and Murph were coming from Colorado to do the Death Race in Vermont this year. Every adventure racer has heard of the Death Race, but despite the fact that it’s local to me, I had never seen it.
The question in my mind: is this race notorious because it’s been over-publicized, or because it’s truly a unique and interesting physical and mental challenge? This year, race entrants had to choose between getting an article published about the race or swimming 12 miles before the race started. Who in their right mind would choose the 12 mile swim? In an effort to help Steve, I emailed a magazine editor friend of mine and he said, “That race has been so over-publicized you’ll never get anyone to run another article about it.”‘ He sounded annoyed. But Steve did find some publications to run articles—more than one, in fact.
So perhaps the race is over-publicized but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still an interesting challenge. I couldn’t make the first day, but Steve’s wife Lara and friends Marcy and John kept us posted via Facebook. The first thing racers had to do was chop and split wood. Then they left the area for the night and after a chilly swim in a nearby reservoir, they built someone’s driveway. So my next thought was, this is a scam for the town of Pittsfield to get free labor.
On Saturday morning I was able to get to the support area, and shortly after, the “betrayals” began. The race emails had warned us that this year’s theme was betrayal. When the racers went out on Friday night, many packed food and water for 12 hours. 26 hours later, they still hadn’t come back. There was a constant stream of contradictory rumors and false information—they’re coming, they’re not coming, they’re not allowed to come, we can bring them food on the course, if we bring them food on the course they’ll be disqualified. Support crews ran around whispering to each other, passing on the latest “intel,” most of which turned out to be false. One DQ’d, exhausted and angry racer said that the betrayal consisted in never letting anyone come back to the support area without getting DQ’d, so the race would essentially be a contest to see who bonked last. But later we heard they were given food on the course. We didn’t know if it was true.
Finally at about 6:00 pm on Saturday, Lara and I ventured out to try and find Steve and Murph. We found them in a long string of racers trudging up a hilly dirt road, buckets and axes on their backs and sweat streaming from their faces. We’d been told a mere hour ago, in an official race briefing, that we could bring support to the racers if we could find them on the course, but Steve didn’t trust it. He wouldn’t take a thing from us. We threw food in the bushes anyway and went back to HQ.
Back at home that evening, I told my very sensible non-racer friend Allison what I’d seen so far. She was disdainful. “Sounds like a scam to get free labor,” she said. “Not to mention it sounds utterly stupid. Why would anyone do an event like that?”
“To see what you’re capable of,” I tried to explain. “Steve says he wants to know what his real breaking point is.” I’ve raced with Steve a couple of times and as far as I can tell, he has never experienced his breaking point.
Allison shrugged. I could see that there were no words to explain it to her.
I returned on Sunday to hear that racers had finally been allowed to return to their support area during the night, and in fact had been there twice in my absence. They had spent hours in a chilly pond during the night, stacked bales of hay, hiked more, split more wood, had an origami challenge, and were now carrying 60 pound bags of concrete up a small mountain. I hiked one of the trails on the course and found racers who were beginning to get the glassy-eyed stare and slow, incoherent speech patterns of the seriously sleep-deprived. One racer was furiously chopping his block of concrete with an axe in the middle of the trail, an act I later discovered to be a sign of mental breakdown, since the racers had been warned that they would be DQ’d for breaking their concrete. Steve and Murph came into HQ at about 3:00 pm, now 48 hours into the race, finished with their concrete haul and apparently in the top ten, although it was hard to tell with all the misinformation that race officials continued to disseminate. The race director sent them on a hike to a nearby farm, where they were to participate in something called the “rolling challenge.” Lara, Marcy, John and I piled into two cars and headed down the road to watch.
In a field at the farm, we found a roped off loop course through tall grass, probably about an eighth of a mile long. The racers were told to lie down and roll on their sides through the course, for six laps, in a motion that was sure to make them sick after 50 hours of exertion with no sleep. Just to make sure they did get sick, they were to roll this course in the hot sun, including a section in which they rolled under sheets of hot black plastic tarp, and halfway through they had to stir a pot of rancid cow guts ten times. There were drawings of barfing people posted along the way, and a section in which they had to roll over logs and chicken wire. After each lap, they had to answer some trivia questions in order to make sure their minds were tested as well as their bodies and stomachs.
I watched the lead racers come through, and they finished with absolutely nothing left in their stomachs. Steve and Murph arrived shortly after, and began the course after 120 push-ups. I followed along for a while.
“So, what do you think?” I asked them.
“I think this is the hardest race I ever did,” Steve answered. Murph nodded in agreement.
“I’m trying to figure out whether I think it’s a serious endurance test, or a plot to get the town residents’ work done around here,” I said.
“It’s both!” Steve gasped, between rolls.
Shortly after, Murph propelled himself off the course on his elbows and vomited repeatedly into the bushes. He seemed to roll much faster after that, so I suggested to Steve that he do the same. He obliged, although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional.
I had to leave after the second round of vomiting and dry heaving, however. It looked so tortuous I could feel my own stomach muscles clenching in sympathy pains. Steve and Murph were starting their third lap when I left at about 6:00 pm.
I didn’t see a post from Lara proclaiming them as finishers until shortly after midnight that night, about 60 hours into the race. I went to see them at their rented condo in Killington on Monday afternoon, and notwithstanding a stiff hobble, they both looked great.
“So, what do you think after a night of sleep?” I asked them.
“I still think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Steve, without a moment’s hesitation.
“Mentally and physically,” Murph added.
They showed me their finisher skulls, a rare and coveted prize in a race that has few finishers every year (this year 51 finished out of 230). They were full of stories I hadn’t heard yet, particularly about the mind-bending things that happened because the betrayal theme called everything into question throughout the race. Nothing anyone said could be trusted, whether it came from race staff, racers, support crew or spectators. But what racers learned, most not until the end of the race, was that many of the things race officials said about penalties and cut-offs was false by design. If you believed a race official who said “make this cut-off or you’ll be DQ’d,” and you quit because of it, that was the betrayal. If you kept on going no matter what you heard, you were a finisher. No one could truly betray you except yourself.
Back to my question. Unique challenge or over-publicized scam? I like Steve and Murph’s answer: It’s both. And then some.
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