Warm-up: Foam Roll T-spine, Lats, and Quads, 10 Air Squats, 10 Push-ups, 50 Single Unders, 10 Pistols (each leg), 10 Clapping Push-ups, 50 Double Unders
Front Squat: Heavy set of 10; 3 powerful box jumps after each warm-up and the working weight set
MetCon – For Speed:
Walk rest back to start each time.
“Let’s finish this thing. Everyone is saying this is the hardest Death Race there has ever been. Let’s be able to tell everyone we finished the hardest Death Race.” These were the words Kevin energetically threw at me while we were finalizing our gear and food for our next task. The race director personally told Kevin and I that our next task would literally take us all night and that we were not allowed to go it alone. We were told by our support crews that this task had dropped more people than any other one. It took the leader a full 6 hours to finish it. That fact alone told us we were in for a long, arduous night.
It is Saturday evening and the sun is quickly setting. We, too, wish to be setting but off in the direction of our next task. The short respite at the Farm with Kevin’s wife and my dad and sister did much to raise our spirits if not improve our physical condition. Laughing and joking with family while refueling with food and water felt good. Sitting down and having every muscle and sinew tighten up felt ruinous. The rain waylaid us for a quarter of an hour, but as soon as it stopped pouring we took off away from Amee Farm.
Kevin and I hastened down the hill towards a mountain shrouded in fog. We crossed over the bridge we had come to on our first night of the race. The first night had us leave the safety of the bridge and climb down in to the river. Tonight we would be heading up the mountain.
The hike began auspiciously enough. The rain had abated, the temperature was cool and comfortable, and we were on a trail. We soon overcame a group of four guys heading up the trail as well. They had stopped because they lost the trail. It was by this time very dark and we were working with our headlamps. The thick fog swallowed our light to where, looking forward down the trail, not light but rather darkness was visible. After some exploring by both parties someone spied headlamps several hundred meters up the cascade we thought we were to cross. Upon further inspection we found our next piece of orange tape hanging from a tree branch right in the middle of this tributary. And so the dry hike turned in to a scramble right up the heart of the cascade.
The amount of desensitization it takes to be hiking along in dry clothing up a gradual slope and then, spying the next orange mark in the middle of a raging cascade, wading knee deep in to cold rapids to continue the climb without pause boggles my mind. But the Death Race had done it. Neither Kevin nor I questioned the move and went right ahead with our slogging.
We were apt scramblers by this point and began moving faster than a finisher’s pace. Hand over foot we moved up the giant, water-filled staircase that was our trail with our 70lb logs attached to our 30lb backpacks. All of the mandatory gear was still with us: manual hand drill with bits, axe, saw, pencils, rope, goggles, and tape measurer. In addition to all of the mandatory gear we had a few items that would prove their worth like a knife, more rope, nylon webbing, some dry clothes, lots of food, and more than enough water. With the race fast approaching 36 hours, we had been turned in to figures too outrageous to be mistaken for tramps. But we forged ahead.
We had spent the majority of the weekend soaking wet from hiking and swimming through rivers and ponds and the incessant falling rain. It was hard to blame the rain as its only crime is not knowing how to fall upward. But the hiking through the river, swimming in the pond, and now our climb up the cascade was harder to stomach. It would have been much easier if this were like other adventure races where you are given coordinates and you must navigate, choosing your own trail, to said coordinates. Sadly, we were resigned to get our adventure in the rivers, ponds, and cascades.
The headlamps above us continued climbing, but I had a distinct feeling we were gaining on them with increasing rapidity. Kevin and I were moving along in sync and at a good clip. We had worked out systems of travel that required little communication. If he was passing through a limb that was in the way he would hold it back until I gained and could grab it so it did not swing back in to me, and I would do the same for him. If the guy in front dislodged a log or large rock that would be swept up in the current we were quick to let the second know. We were a team sharing as much of our burden as we could.
One burden that we were unable to share was that of hallucinations. 30+ hours in to the race and working on only 6 hours sleep from Thursday night, our minds were beginning to break down. It was past midnight and we were working our way up through the AM hours of Sunday. For me it started with random blurs in my peripheral vision. I trusted my eyes too much early on and was constantly whipping my head around thinking I saw something moving at great speed off to my right or left. I was lucky that the delusions were isolated to something so innocuous.
Kevin, on the other hand, was seeing all kinds of stuff. It was days after the race that he asked me about the photographer that was taking our picture as we were climbing up the cascade. I convinced him there was no such photographer, and he conceded that it would be hazardous and not make logistical sense. But he said it was the most real memory he had of that climb up the cascade; everything else was a blur but that photographer stood out in his memory so acutely.
After what seemed like an hour of climbing up the cascade, including some VERY treacherous sections with high volume, swift water, our trail exited the ravine and went straight up one of the side walls. We did our best to follow the orange tape losing it several times. Our progress was slow, but it was forward progress nonetheless. We found ourselves coming upon a large group of racers sitting on their packs and logs resting and decided to join up with them. One of the hardest parts of this climb was finding the next orange marker, and so we could now share this responsibility with many other pairs of eyes.
And so the duo became a fellowship. I was reunited in this fellowship with the Glamazons, two young ladies from my stone lifting group. I told them it was a pleasure seeing them still in the race. The group afforded Kevin and I a bit more rest as we were late to join them during their rest stop, but it was soon time to move on. We were out of the cascade and its ravine, but we were still on near vertical slope often moving forward only by gripping trees, roots, rocks, and anything else you could grasp with a hand.
It was a full hour and many rest stops after we joined the group that we finally made it to the top of the mountain. There was no distinct peak, but instead a round top that extended as far as I could tell in all directions. We came upon trails crossing and bisecting our own. It became more important, as well as more difficult, to be vigilant and always on the lookout for the orange tape. It was too easy to blindly follow one of the splitting or intersecting trails. And though we were out of the cascading river, we somehow found ourselves walking level trails with 4-6 inches of standing water. There was never a time for the feet to dry this whole race. #trenchfoot
Shortly, we found ourselves headed down the mountain. This confused us because we knew it was this current task that we were to be crawling under barbed wire for almost a quarter of a mile at the top of a mountain. Just when we thought we had made it to the top of the mountain to have our mettle tested by metal we were quickly let down by a racer coming the opposite direction (with one of his support crew!). “You’ve only just begun,” the wise sage of a racer told us. He said we would descend the whole mountain all the way back down to a different point of the river and then ascend all the way back up before we would find our fated barbed wire. At least it was only walking.
Forward we moved, but there was a schism of the fellowship. Kevin and I felt that we were taking too many breaks and instead wanted to keep a slow, steady pace with breaks of less frequency and shorter length. We made public our plans to push ahead and were surprised to be joined by three young ladies, two of which were the Glamazons. The ladies seemed zealous enough and matched our enthusiasm nicely. We moved on as a group of five heading down the mountain to whatever lay below us.
We met several other racers coming up this section of trail and they each gave us their opinion of the trail that lay ahead. Some were very positive in their reviews, others painted a picture of hopelessness. We took it all in stride and continued our slow trek, but we were not moving without problems of our own. When I said we wanted to take less frequent breaks, I meant we did not want to stop and take our packs off every 15 minutes. We rested more or less every quarter hour, but we kept our packs on while sitting on stumps and logs or hunched over hands on knees style. Somewhere between every 45 minutes to an hour we would go packs off.
One problem we were having was dozing off. I am not exaggerating when I say that one of our girls fell asleep walking right next to me. She continued walking but her eyes were shut and she was unresponsive. She would also fall directly asleep every time we stopped to rest. If she sat down, especially with packs off, she was out before you could even look over at her. But this did not worry me too much as given the chance we all could have fallen asleep standing upright. I directed conversation to her more and more as we hiked, but she was slowly shutting down mentally.
Another girl was running a huge calorie deficit while soaking wet in tepid temperatures. It was a perfect case for hypothermia. She had a ton of layers on including a trash bag with arm and neck holes cut out for her to wear, but she could not get warm. I had a thick, dry long sleeve shirt in my pack and offered it to her many times, but she was far too kind in not accepting. She continued on shivering slightly and not making much sense when she spoke.
The third girl in our group was very despondent. I could not tell if she was just bearing her pain silently or if she too was shutting down mentally. She was not speaking much at all. On the other hand, Kevin and I continued to chat albeit less frequently and with his speech not as jovial as earlier. This is when one of my other shining moments happened in the race. I felt that I needed to fill a distinct leadership role in the group.
I had just eaten a whole packet of Gu Chomps and most of my bag of dried apricot, and I was feeling better than I had at any point on this task. That coupled with the feeling of taking charge of a group of people that were in bad shape did a lot to sharpen my mind and enhance my mood. Even if I was totally over-reacting to what I thought were signs of fatigue and mental shut down from those in my group, the idea of leading them safely along and continuing on our quest energized me.
I continued making jokes – some self-deprecating and a lot making light of the situation. I tried to keep everyone in the game mentally. There was a lot of negative talk about not wanting to get to the barbed wire much less crawl underneath it for a quarter mile. I kept saying let’s just get to the barbed wire and then make our next decision. And, probably like an asshole, I kept reminding everyone it was just walking.
Well, walking is hard to do when you lose the trail. Kevin and I were leading looking for the orange blazes when he started seeing spray painted orange blazes on the ground. I never saw one. Now, Jessie will tell you that I have a hard time seeing certain colors and I see them in different shades than other people. She likes to make light of this fact often when I dress myself poorly (habitually). So I listened to Kevin chalking me not seeing them up to the fog, darkness, and my poor color recognition. And for the life of me I could not find an orange marker anywhere after many minutes of searching. So we followed Kevin down a trail.
I was skeptical right away because I could not understand why they would all of a sudden go from marking the trail with orange tape to spray painting on the ground. I dissented in my mind for the next 2 or 3 minutes of hiking, and when we could not find another marker on this new trail I voiced my concern. It was just as this was happening that down the hill in the general direction of our trail we spied two headlamps. Kevin decided he would go down to the duo and ask about the trail. He quickly found out that they were on a totally different trail about a hundred meters below us, but got down to them all the same. The other four of us followed suit and met up with the two headlamps below us.
It turned out to be two guys from my stone-lifting group, Sean and John (or SeanJohn as they had come to be known as). They were many hours behind us in the race and had no idea what trail they were on or where they were going. They were following neither orange tape nor orange spray painted arrows. They were following wooden clothespins that had been painted with reflected paint. I was at a loss. The painted clothespins and spray painted arrows seemed silly to me, so I discounted both ideas. SeanJohn would end up heading off on their own following their trail. (I must take a moment here to let you know that after the fact, there were indeed both painted clothespins and spray painted arrows. The spray paint had been severely washed away by the rains, and the pins were on a different trail. We happened to be on the side of a snow shoe, cross-country skiing, and snow mobile mountain. There were tens of miles of trails on this one side of mountain and they all crisscrossed all over the place. More people lost the trail here than any other part of the race.)
SeanJohn departed and I made a decision. I had the other four in my group take a much needed rest with their packs off while I would retrace our steps back to our last orange marker and find the trail. I was afraid of everyone falling asleep with their headlamps off, so I took my extra headlamp and put it high on a tree trunk facing the way I would be heading with the blink function on. I was determined not to lose my team.
I felt downright buoyant with my pack off my back moving along the trails. Every trail junction I came to I found two sticks. I placed one sticking out of the trail I came from and the other up the trail I was going to explore. I did this at each junction and sometimes ended up three junctions deep before resolving to retrace my steps (and sticks) back to previous or original junction. This maneuver took about half an hour before I finally was back on our original trail. Sure enough, I looked down the hill and plain as day saw a 3ft orange marker hanging down from a tree branch at eye level. How we missed it I will never understand. I scurried back to the other four making sure each of my sticks were lined up to get us back to our orange marked trail.
After a 5 minute walk I saw my headlamp flashing just as I had left it and made my way down the trail to Kevin and the three ladies. We woke up the one girl given to deep slumbering whenever we rested and began shouldering our heavy packs and logs. This is where one of the greatest delusions occurred. Kevin, after much effort, got to his feet and began eyeing a 3ft stick at his feet in consternation. I witnessed it right from the get-go. He pawed at it with his feet and then sighed, “
So we backtracked to the orange marked trail and started our short-lived climb down. We soon rounded out at the bottom near the river and began a steep climb up. My adrenaline and sugar-infused high was coming down now. I felt fine knowing that I only had to walk up this mountain, however steep it was and however heavy my pack felt. But I was beginning to experience the random blurs in vision more regularly. Finally, my delirium went full-blown. We paused for a short rest with our packs on and as I gazed off trail a stump turned in to a peculiarly short man playing the fiddle. I saw the stump, and then I saw it morph in to the fiddler. I knew it was just a stump, but the fiddler looked so real. I verbally laughed and shook my head and then refocused. I saw the stump plain as day morph back in to the fiddler. I had to keep moving.
Now everywhere I looked I was seeing things. Most of all I saw my dog, Dolce. At one point I saw Dolce sitting on her haunches with her tongue dangling straight out of her mouth. And then all of a sudden her tongue lengthened and grew to where it was hanging a full 2ft out of her mouth down to the ground. This was a new experience for me; I had never been exposed to such vivid hallucinations before.
My deliria were simple and small in scale to what some people saw. There was much discussion on the Facebook page for Death Race about hallucinations. I think Kevin may have even started the discussion. People were seeing flashes of light, mail boxes, animals, people (alive and dead), themselves, and all sorts of things. Some people said they were seeing snakes all over and in the water during the cascades – a very dicey place to be frightened by a snake. And still others said they heard sound effects to go along with their visual delusions. Our minds were playing awful tricks on us.
I wish I had seen something cool like Luke did in the Magic Cave on Degobah.
After a long climb up the mountain we arrived at the barbed wire. The girls by this time had decided they would not even attempt the barbed wire, their Death Race was over. They would walk around it and get to the checkpoint to bow out of the race. Kevin and I began our long, slow crawl up the mountain under the wire. Water was streaming down the trail bringing mud and small rocks with it, and we were to crawl right through the middle of it. This would prove to be my breaking point.
I did not care that I was getting more wet. I had no problem being under the barbed wire. It was that the crawling was forcing me on to my hurt knee more and more. But that was not the whole story. There was no end in sight. I had been racing for almost 36 hours. I had never done anything like that before. The lack of sleep, barely adequate fueling, horrible weather, and the knowledge that so many around me were dropping out at this point as well all helped lull me in to this surrendered state of mind. I was too weak mentally to keep going. That was an extremely hard thought to come to terms with, and I do not think I really understood it while I was making it. Instead of realizing the truth I told myself I made it further than some 200 other people and that was good enough.
Well, it turns out that is not good enough. Not finishing the Death Race is fine, just like not winning a soccer game or not placing first in a workout at the gym. The unacceptable part is knowing that you did not do your best. We have that responsibility. I ask it of all of you every day at the gym. You might not PR every time you step foot in the gym, but you can surely do your best for that given day. I now know as irrefutable fact that I did not do my best. Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but I could have forged ahead. It was only crawling.
Death Race 2012 participant,
P.S. – I neglected to proofread my own work because it was TL; DR.
P.P.S. – There will of course be an epilogue to this work. I had quite the adventure coming down from the mountain alone on a different trail (complete with moose encounter in the dark and 4:30AM hitchhiking).