Before the race, one companion had opined that the Death Race was "utterly contrived." I'd agreed. But, hell, so is every other sport besides walking and running. No one was playing basketball or football a thousand years ago. Those games were created by us humans to challenge ourselves, now that we no longer had to wrestle saber-toothed tigers. In fact, a good case could be made that running up and down hills carrying extra weight (like a baby or a haunch of impala), never knowing what's around the next bend, is closer to what man was up to for a million years than almost any socially accepted sport.
When I got down to Amee Farm for the second time, I was told to turn around, go back up, and retrieve my posthole digger, the bag of onions, and the knife. "You're in fourth place!" Sue whispered before sending me off with a handful of gel packets.
Running back uphill, I passed a guy even older than me who was astonished by my pace. "What're you—fucking mad? Running uphill ...Pace yourself, man, pace yourself!"
I didn't. I should've walked, but it was a race, right? Besides, I wasn't ready to walk, because I wasn't in enough pain yet. But by the time I got back down to the farm for the third lap up, my knees were screaming. More than half the athletes had already quit, and the race wasn't even half over.
FOR THE NEXT TASK, I had the choice of splitting wood or wheelbarrowing manure. I'd failed to bring an ax, but I could purchase a wheelbarrow for $25 in pennies. (You could use your pennies to buy your way into or out of a given task.) The leader, Joe Decker, 40, a solid block of steel, was on his second-to-last lap in the wheelbarrow event when I started it. He gave me a huge grin and warned me not to go too fast on the first laps, because you had to keep improving your times.
Judging by Decker's video submission, it was clear he was the epitome of what De Sena and Weinberg were looking for in contestants. There were clips of him competing in some of the toughest races on earth: the 2000 Raid Gauloises (a 520-mile trans-Himalayan race) and California's 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon. He's run 65 marathons, completed the 152-mile Marathon des Sables across the Sahara, and also placed first or second in half a dozen strongman contests. He's a one-in-a-million mutant who's built with a gymnast's upper body atop runner's legs. Founder of San Diego's Gut Check Fitness, "a boot camp for civilians," he was named World's Fittest Man after posting the best time in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records 24-Hour Physical Fitness Test.
Stefanie Bishop, a financial broker from New York, had skipped the video and instead posted a provocative picture of herself in a bikini, wielding a large red ax. I later found out that she was a serious triathlete who'd competed in March's winter edition of the Death Race, an 18-hour snow ordeal, and had whupped all comers, men and women. She's slender but with muscled legs that could squeeze the life out of a sumo wrestler.
Throughout the many hours of hell slog, both Decker and Bishop were always smiling, a phenomenon she'd explain to me after the race. "Even when you're miserable, smiling lifts your mood," she said perkily. "Allowing yourself to get flustered and angry is when you lose focus, then everything falls apart."