At dusk, with each of us carrying about 35 pounds in one hand and part of the bridge in the other, ten teams started marching uphill on a steep, muddy, switchbacking trail. Within minutes, people were stumbling, dropping the bridge, headlamp beams arcing wildly through the forest. De Sena started barking like a drill sergeant: "Five feet! No more than five fucking feet between teams!" He threatened to pull any team that couldn't keep up, so everyone was groaning and slipping and cursing.
My team found its rhythm right away. Lift the bridge on three, move with quick, choppy steps (like you would carrying a refrigerator), drop it on command when we butted up against the next team in the dark. The weight was absurd. It would be easy to crush a vertebra or slip a disk. No one talked about it, though. We were, one and all, stiff-upper-lip Type A's. Suffer-in-silence souls. People who take a dare even when it's dangerous—especially when it's dangerous.
Each team eventually carried its bridge to the top of Sable Mountain. By then it was midnight on Saturday. We'd started at 8 P.M. We were all hoping we might still get a few hours of shut-eye, but we were ordered to carry the bridge back down the mountain. At that moment we all knew, without a doubt, that this wasn't just a pre-race initiation; this was the race. The hideous bridge-humping exercise was a prologue designed to do two things: (1) make certain that we all started in a profoundly sleep-deprived state; (2) make certain we were viscerally afraid of what might come next.
At 3 A.M., we were allowed to drop the bridges and run back to where we'd started seven hours before. There, we each had to load up a five-gallon bucket with gravel and, still carrying the other 35-pound bucket containing the Greek textbook and the pennies, take off running down another trail in the dark.
Following orders, we poured the gravel into various dips in the trail, then De Sena commanded us to jog down to the bottom of the mountain, to the Amee Farm, to the "start" of the race. When we got there, at about 4:30 A.M. on Saturday, we were required to translate two words in Greek, thanatos and genos ("death" and "race"), and told to turn around and go right back up Sable Mountain. Sue poured Gatorade down my throat and plugged a PB&J into my pocket, and away I went.
WHOEVER SAID "What you don't know won't hurt you" was an imbecile. Not knowing is exactly what the Death Race is all about, and it most certainly will hurt you. I knew the race took place in a bucolic Vermont valley and would include classic farm tasks—chopping wood, moving manure—but I didn't know that such efforts would represent only a small fraction of the race, and that 90 percent of our time would be spent running up and down the surrounding, forested mountains, circling back to the meadows of Amee Farm only once every four or five hours.
One of the more hideous tests was a 200-yard barbwire trench, laid out near the top of Sable Mountain. When I got to it, I dove onto my belly without hesitation and started slithering through the mud beneath the strands. Because the barbwire hung only about a foot above the trench, my clothing and skin—everybody's clothing and skin—kept getting caught. It was impossible to reach the other side without getting bloody. And when you did get there, you were told to turn your ass around and go through the trench again, cutting your hands and back and head, before heading back down. I ran the whole way. All the way up, all the way down. Going up was no problem, but coming down, my knees started to whine. I dutifully ignored them, running as fast as I could.
By this point, competitors were spread out through the woods. We were all in misery, so a camaraderie sprang up. If someone passed me, they'd say "Keep it up" between breaths. If I passed someone, I'd shout "Power on!" The race was so hard that we weren't competitors so much as members of one ragged, just-hanging-in-there team. Nicknames emerged: A woman from the Lone Star State was called "Texas"; a guy from Australia became "Oz"; I was "Wyoming."