I practically have a wing named after me at Gem City Bone and Joint, an orthopedic center in my hometown, Laramie, Wyoming. A few highlights: Snapped my left leg telemarking, requiring a shiny plate and six screws; smashed my right shoulder mountain-biking, shoving my collarbone right through my back, requiring lots of fancy work with a bone saw; tore my biceps tendon—"a bull rider's tear," another doc called it—ice-climbing; fell to the ground rock-climbing, almost ripping my left hand off.
"I know you're not going to not race," the doc said, "so ..." He gave me a six-day course of steroids for my back and threw in a bottle of Vicodin. "At your age, after this race, you're going to need it."
YOU'RE ADVISED not to attempt the Death Race without a support person, someone to squirt fluids in your face or haul you off to the hospital. Sue, my wife, thought the race was idiotic, but once I decided to do it she had my back. She always does. A marathoner herself, she's seen me covered with blood and stitches; stayed calm when I was arrested in Tajikistan or Tibet or Burma; kicked my ass climbing at high altitude; and installed a new sink and rewired the kitchen when I was away too long on an expedition.
Our tickets from Wyoming to Vermont were canceled without explanation (lovely airlines!), so, naturally, we were rebooked and endlessly delayed, with pre-Vermont stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. After traveling for 48 hours, we arrived in Pittsfield just in time for the Friday-evening registration, having had no more than a few winks of bad sleep in two days.
But the race wasn't scheduled to start until 4 the next morning, so I wasn't sweating it. After signing liability waivers (for death or dismemberment), competitors were told to meet at 8 P.M. at Pittsfield's Original General Store for a pre-race overview of the course. We were also advised to show up with all our equipment. Three weeks earlier, competitors had been e-mailed a list of mandatory gear: $50 in pennies; a posthole digger; a ten-pound bag of onions; a knife (three-inch blade, minimum); and Greek: An Intensive Course, a five-pound, 850-page modern-Greek textbook.
The list made me anxious. I could imagine digging postholes, on the clock, while trying to recite Aristotle, mouth bursting with onions like something out of Cool Hand Luke. A week before the race, we were sent a cryptic e-mail in Greek. I got it translated. "Less is more," it read. "Light is better than dark. Make sure you're on time. Prepare thyself. Nothing banned; you can bring a projector, gloves, broadcasting equipment, computer. The mind is a terrible thing to waste."
A total of 132 people had signed up, but only 89 showed that evening, the rest quitting in advance and forfeiting their $200 registration fee. We all had our 50 pounds of gear, plus water and food. Some people carried not just a knife but an ax; some an ax and a saw; some a humongous Bowie knife.
At the general store, there wasn't any orientation to speak of. Instead, De Sena, Weinberg, and a race staff numbering around 40 gave us maps and loaded us into vans that took us halfway up a 2,621-foot peak called Sable Mountain. From there, we were ordered to hike to the end of the road—about half a mile—where we were told to form into teams of eight. I managed to get myself in with five guys and two women who were ripped. Both women and half the guys were personal or military trainers; one rock of a guy was a Blackhawk fighter pilot; all would drop out within the next 12 hours. We were told to carry our pennies, our five-pound textbooks, and a footbridge—a 17-foot wooden footbridge, to be precise. Thing must have weighed 300 or 400 pounds, and there was one for each team.