A Soul-Crushing Sufferfest I’ll Never Do Again
Before the event, the doc gave me a six-day course of steroids for my back and threw in a bottle of Vicodin. “At your age,” he said, “after this race, you’re going to need it.”
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I unintentionally pitchfork a clod of manure into my mouth. Sputtering—it tastes like brussels sprouts and farts—I spit it out, finish loading the wheelbarrow with dung, drag it out of the barn, and start running and rolling across the field. This is my 14th round-trip, and I'm being timed; each circuit has to be quicker than the last or they start adding laps. I race past the timekeeper, dump the manure at a compost pile, and head back to the barn.
Death RaceDeath Race competitor JENKINS, MARK. Subject's expression of enjoyment may prove short-lived.
Death RaceJENKINS pilots wheelbarrow, contemplates nothingness, during Death Race “manure laps.”
It's June 26, I'm 17 hours into the Death Race, and, all in all, I'm still feeling pretty strong. A barbwire gash on my head has coated one side of my face with blood, but as I told the medic in my best Monty Python falsetto, “It's a mere flesh wound.” My back no longer feels as if the vertebrae are being crushed, but the pain in my knees is definitely worse. It's not raining (at the moment), and my one-person pit crew—stalwart wife, Sue—is running alongside me, pushing peach slices into my slack-jawed mouth. I know I can finish this race. What I don't know is that this is the last time I'll feel good for a month.
I fill the wheelbarrow again and sprint across the hayfield, shit flying. En route, I pass Stefanie Bishop, 27, the fastest woman in the event. She's practically skipping behind her wheelbarrow, turd-flecked blond hair bouncing. At age 51, I'm grimacing, huffing like a horse, while Bishop, halfway into her laps, effortlessly gives me a broad smile and shouts, “Yeah! Go get 'em!” It's twisted. The girl's some kind of superhero.
The next task turns out to be a pond swim. (In the Death Race, you never know what each new challenge will be.) I've been ordered to count out 1,250 pennies and put $5 worth in a plastic bag. After running straight through the night lugging ungodly heavy objects, sitting in the grass counting coins sounds almost pleasant. Except I'm so exhausted that my mind's malfunctioning. I keep miscounting. By the time I get 500 pennies into the bag, the Vermont weather has changed its mind. It's drizzling and I'm shivering.
I stand on the edge of the dimpled pond and watch as the bag of pennies, plus two bags of rocks thrown in as decoys, sink into the chilly water. My job is to go in and retrieve the pennies. Bishop got ahead of me during the counting, and I watch her perform this task with ease—diving in, bobbing back up with the correct bag, and then tearing off for the next mission.
I slide into the water, nuts shriveling, heart momentarily halted by the shocking cold, swim out to where I think the bag sank, and go down. I try feeling my way around in the foot-deep mud but find nothing. I surface for air and then, like a duck, flip ass end up and dive again. I do this five times, holding my breath as long as I can, blindly groping in the billowing muck, and still I don't find the damn pennies. Ten times—no pennies. Fifteen times—no pennies. By now my lips are blue, chest constricted, joints rigid, jaw so stiff I can no longer speak. I'm reaching the point of hypothermia but refuse to give up.
That's always been my problem, of course. I've viewed DNF-ing a race as a fate worse than injury, so I've straggled in with broken bones on more than one occasion. Not reaching the summit of a mountain kills me, so I've almost died trying a dozen times, returning with frostbite or torn tendons or a triple hernia.
Obviously, I don't know when it's time to say uncle. But I have a sick feeling that this race may teach me when it's time to scream it.
EVERYBODY WHO SIGNS UP for the Death Race—a demented sufferfest held in Pittsfield, Vermont, every summer for the past six years, with a winter edition in March that's been run only once—clearly shares my problem. Founded by Joe De Sena and Andy Weinberg, triathletes who were tired of ordinary races and gifted with a creative sense of the sadistic, the Death Race is an idiosyncratic form of punishment that can't be compared to any other race in the world. The New York Times dubbed it “Survivor meets Jackass,” and for ordinary athletes the competition is indeed appalling. Without exception, my climbing and cycling buddies, wife, daughters, and everyone else I asked said it was the stupidest thing they'd ever heard of.
“Our goal is to break you,” De Sena bluntly told me on the phone a few months before the race. A stocky, crew-cut, no-holds-barred entrepreneur from Queens, New York, the 41-year-old De Sena is convinced that America has become despicably lazy and needs a kick in the ass. “We don't give you any water, we don't give you any food, we don't tell you what you'll have to do in the race,” he said. “You don't know when the race really starts or when it ends. We don't encourage you. We want you to quit.”
It was this pervasive foreboding that I found so appealing. In most races, you know exactly what to expect—tasks, distances, feed stations—and can therefore prepare yourself mentally, easing anxiety. Not in the Death Race. All you know is that it takes place on or near De Sena's property, the Amee Farm, a rolling spread in central Vermont's Green Mountains, and that you'll be forced to think for yourself, adapt, suffer ceaselessly, and suck it up in bizarre situations. Every year the race is different and full of cruel surprises: In 2009, for example, competitors carried a bicycle for ten hours only to ride it for five minutes.
The race's Web site is YouMayDie.com, the name alone drawing in a certain type of person—i.e., me—like cattle to the slaughterhouse. Here you'll see videos of exhausted competitors crawling under barbwire in the dark, splitting wood in the rain, running muddy mountains or slippery-bottomed rivers while bent under absurdly heavy loads. “We push participants way out of their comfort zone,” explains Weinberg, 39, a high school gym teacher. “The people who enter this race are amazing, inspiring individuals. The kind of people you want in your foxhole.”
Each participant in Death Race 2010 was required to upload a video of his or her training methods to YouMayDie.com. I toyed with the fates by sending in a parody of a training film—extolling the use of bundt cake as a performance enhancer—but most of the videos were serious fare, leaving no doubt that those who entered were insanely fit and knew how to hurt. Most entrants appeared to be military, ex-military, physical trainers, triathletes, ultramarathoners, or some other iteration of psycho endurance freak.
Although fewer than 20 percent of competitors are able to finish the Death Race, I didn't think I'd have much trouble, since mountain climbing is practically the definition of masochism. But I wasn't taking any chances. I decided that my standard daily workout—100 push-ups, 100 pull-ups, 100 sit-ups, 30 minutes of stadium stairs—was insufficient, so I began adding time to the stairs. After I could run stairs for an hour without fatiguing, I moved to running hills at altitude. After that I started running hills with a backpack. Eventually I was running ski slopes with a heavy backpack, which landed me in the surgeon's office one week before the race.
“Well,” said the doc, comparing my latest set of back X-rays with the previous set, “it looks like this time you've managed to severely inflame an old injury on your L5.”
“All right!” I was actually relieved. The injury was so painful that I thought I must have squashed a disk.
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.
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.”
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.”
That sort of thinking is important, because the Death Race attacks you mentally as much as it does physically. Online, you can find De Sena bragging about how the race separates the tough from the timid, the pussies from the powerful. No one forces you to sign up, but after you do, you'll receive regular e-mails from Joe and Andy advising you to give up in advance. “It's not too late,” they say. “Just quit.” They also throw in helpful training advice: “Check yourself into a state prison and get into as many fights as possible” and “Have some teeth pulled without drugs.”
“We are animals, meant to sweat,” De Sena said. “For thousands of years, every day was a death race for humans. This race is for the hunter-gatherers left in society, those few who can still deal with risk and uncertainty.”
I NEVER DO FIND my pennies in the goddamned pond, which means I won't have that five bucks to buy my way out of some unknown future task. When I finally give up and crawl out of the water, I'm shivering uncontrollably. Sue covers me with fleece jackets and pours hot soup down my throat.
The next task is to run—with textbook, posthole digger, onions, knife, remaining pennies, and six heavy chunks of firewood—up and over another mountain to someplace called the Onion House. By this point it's almost 4 P.M. on Saturday, and the few of us still going have been at it for 19 hours.
I can no longer run. No act of willpower could put the pain in my knees out of my mind. I hike as fast as I can, following fluttering bits of pink survey tape straight up a trailless mountain thick with poison ivy.
At the top of the 1,000-foot climb, there's no Onion House. Instead, the survey tape turns and drops straight back down. Going up was manageable for my knees, but going down is excruciating. I should've paced myself, recognizing that, since this is a long race, an extra half-hour walking the downhills wouldn't have made much difference.
Should'ves are always irretrievable; now I have to deal with the consequences. I'm sidestepping, limping, tripping over deadfall and flipping onto my face. At the bottom of the mountain, the survey tape doglegs and goes back up. I begin the ascent with knees screeching and diminishing hope, which surprises me. What the hell is my problem?
When I finally reach the Onion House, the assigned task is to wheelbarrow firewood back and forth for ten laps, then chop up nine pounds of onions and eat a pound. If you still have enough money, you can buy yourself out of this torture, but then you might not have enough to avoid whatever comes next.
For the first time, I sit down to rest.
The old saw “A winner never quits and a quitter never wins” is running through my mind like a loop tape. Am I a quitter?! I can't get my head around it. I never quit. Yes, I've turned back while climbing mountains, but I've always had an excuse other than my body or ability: bad weather or avalanches or rockfall or the injury or death of a partner. I never quit just because I'm in pain.
“Push through the pain!” also echoes, as if my old high-school wrestling coach is screaming inside my head. Which is exactly what I've always done in the past, regardless of the consequences.
I stand up and look down at my knees. They're swollen to the size of cantaloupes. I try to start walking, but hobbling is the best I can muster. I stop and just stand there.
It is at this point, as my bloated ego screams in my ears, that I have an epiphany. Somehow—it will surprise me for months to come—my rational self steps out of the thorny vines of machismo and forces me to think about what's going on. Yes, you can continue, it says, and by the end of the race, tendons and ligaments will be popping out of your knees like worms, another surgery inevitable.
I suddenly remember how, throughout the race, Andy Weinberg (the good cop to Joe De Sena's bad cop) has, remarkably, praised those who quit as much as or more than those who continue—and it all becomes clear. This race isn't only about you against the preposterous physical challenges. That's the ruse, the perfect stratagem. This race is you against your own ego. The constant goading to quit is an exquisite, mind-bending double message: You should already know to rise above your horse's ass of an ego—and thus know when to quit—but we know you don't and won't simply because we're telling you to quit.
It's genius. The lesson of the Death Race is that you still haven't learned your lesson. My mind is on fire with the elegant atonement of it all. And while my spirit isn't broken, my body is. I quit at 21 hours.
DECKER WINS the race in 28 hours and five minutes. Bishop is the first female finisher, in 33:35, tying for sixth overall. While I had my knees packed in ice—I would be in a wheelchair for two days, popping Vicodin, with trashed iliotibial bands that would require six weeks of physical therapy—Decker and Bishop and 17 other implacable competitors continued to run up and down the mountain with all their equipment, paddle down a river in a tube, and finally, at the finish line, do 100 push-ups. The posthole digger was never used, just carried. Of the 89 who started, 19 finish, the last straggling home in 39 hours. In all, the race was 45 miles long, with more than 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
“Every year, the participants are better,” Weinberg says afterwards. “And every year, it's getting harder,” says De Sena. They don't make any money off the Death Race; indeed, the first year they lost more than $10,000. They have no plans to make it bigger or turn it into some kind of reality show. “We won't change the philosophy of the race,” says Weinberg. “The mystery is fundamental.”
De Sena sees the Death Race as his contribution to an America in decline. “Most people are like zombies, sleepwalking through life,” he says. “If we can wake up a hundred people, a thousand, ten thousand, we will have done something.”
I call both Decker and Bishop a few weeks after the race to congratulate them.
“I'm still on a mental high,” gushes Bishop from her office in Manhattan. “I loved that race. It was like three Ironmans back to back. I had sooo much fun.”
Only five weeks before the Death Race, Bishop raced the Ragner Relay, running 60 miles. “So I couldn't train as hard as I would have liked for the Death Race,” she says. To prepare, she ran hill repeats with a pack, doing push-ups and squats and burpees at the bottom of each lap. A week after the Death Race, a co-worker said that her legs “looked like they'd been shoved into a pillowcase full of tacks.”
She's already signed up for the 2011 Death Race. “I'm gonna bring it next year,” she laughs. “I want to beat all the guys this time.”
Decker is signed up, too. He found the race perfectly suited to his abilities: ultrarunning and weightlifting. “I'm not going to lie to you, though,” he says. “Twelve hours in, I wasn't sure I could finish. My back was killing me from carrying that bridge. I finally had to stop and stretch. I calmed myself down, and from then on I had one mantra in my head: Run your own race.”
Decker says it was definitely one of the toughest races he's ever competed in, but he still doesn't think he's reached his limit.
But at long last, I have.