Death Race 2012

In late March my wife Victoria signed me up for this year’s Death Race.  Although I had two and a half months to prepare, the Death Race began the day I was officially registered.  I joined the Death Race facebook group and began reading gear recommendations.  The race directors were members in the group and posted either cryptic clues or warnings that no one was going to finish this year. During the last month before the race, competitors received a series of emails with inconsistent gear lists and contradictory logistical instructions.  Even before the race officially began, the race directors were confusing and frustrating participants.

I arrived in Pittsfield on Thursday, June 14th with my crew (Victoria and my mom, who decided to join us at the last minute). We went to the General Store and met a few fellow racers. Everyone was amused by the comically impossible “leaked” task list that was posted in the store.

We stocked up on last minute supplies and relaxed for the rest of the day.

There was a 10am meeting at the General Store on Friday morning where we were promised “hints that would help us finish.”  Several racers from past years said they planned to skip this meeting, believing it was a diversion to get people to waste their last few hours before the race.  I stayed at the hotel and continued packing while my wife and mom went to the meeting.  It turned out this was a real meeting and Andy answered questions about the race.  We found out there were several racers who were moles and were out to betray us.  Also Andy stated the longest we would be away from the camp is 12 hours.  I would later come to regret listening to this hint.

After final preparations, we made our way to Riverside farm and were told we had to go to the cabin at the top of the mountain to get weighed with our gear.  Most people were driving up Tweed River road as high as their cars were able and then hiking the rest of the way, around 15 minutes.  This was the first of seven trips I made to the top of Joe’s mountain.  At the summit there were two kids in volunteer shirts and they were handing out 5 rabbit food pellets to each racer.  We were told we had to turn in 2 pellets at the end of the race or face a 3000 burpee penalty.  I waited in line with the other competitors, weighed in at 244 lbs with my gear and headed back down to Riverside farm.

We were given one last chance to back out of the race before we were asked to turn in an index card listing all the gear we were carrying.  The rules stated we had to carry our gear the entire race.  This prevented people from leaving their gear at camp if they thought they wouldn’t have to use it anymore. We were told our three-digit numbers and told our first task: to sew our number into our black compression shirts (required gear) in three inch block numbers.  We had until 6pm to complete this task, roughly 3 hours.  We were pointed towards a trail that led back to Amee farm.

I began hiking down the trail and quickly came upon a sheet of paper stapled to a tree with a quote about betrayal. There were a handful of people crowded around the sign either writing down the quote or taking a photo of it.  I wrote it down and continued along the trail for around two miles.  I passed a few dozen more papers with either more quotes or cryptic drawings.  Many people were taking the time to write or photograph everything but I just read them and continued along, enjoying the scenic trail.

I arrived at Amee farm and met with my crew.  We went into the gear tent so I could learn how to sew. I saw a few number sewing strategies:  competitors were either cutting their numbers out of other pieces of cloth and sewing them to their shirts, using duct tape to write their numbers and then sewing this on, or “drawing” their number with thread by sewing many small loops.  I went with the first option and cut my number out of a white bandanna. It took some practice but I was able to sew my number, 636 onto my shirt.

We still had a couple of hours until the 6pm race start and all the competitors had to complete three tests.  First, a swim test (wearing our pink swim caps and life jackets, both required gear) around the Amee farm duck pond.  The water was cool and refreshing during the afternoon heat. Second, crawling through an ~18” culvert that runs under the highway in front of Amee farm. Third, the strength test, which was chopping wood.  Once we ran out of logs, racers were assigned to various cleaning/maintenance tasks.  At some point, five kayaks and around a dozen 12” PVC pipes filled with water appeared.  Racers who were not busy with other tasks were ordered to hold the kayaks overhead.

As 6pm neared, all racers were ordered to pick up an item and hold it overhead with their group.  We were ordered to run across the highway and set our items down, run back for our packs, and then to jump into the pond. Everyone was pretty jovial despite the cold water and we received a bit of race information from the race staff.

Then Andy threw a box full of ping pong balls with numbers on them into the pond and everyone had to grab one.  It took an embarrassingly long time, but eventually everyone found their groups in the pond.  We were told we had to pick up either a kayak, or two slosh pipes per team.  Team 5 picked up two slosh pipes and got them overhead.  We were told we were heading on a 25 mile hike and everyone ran up a trail.

For the next couple hours we ran up and down Jeep trails while being threatened that the last group to our destination would be disqualified.  This caused a lot of passing and groups kept pushing each other out of the way. As we continued and it got dark, the groups began getting separated and some times there would only be a handful of people helping out with the pipe while the rest of the group was lost in the stampede. We ran like this for a couple hours.  Sometimes we would reach a cabin or a dead end in the trail and then we were ordered to turn around and proceed another way.

Eventually we reached a clearing in the woods and were told to stand in a cirlce and pass our slosh pipes around.  After a bit of time, we were told to drop our pipes and gear and to do burpees.  Every 50 or so that we did we were ordered to do 100 more.  This is when I heard the first couple people quit the race. I noticed that most people were doing Spartan burpees where you don’t have to do the pushup at the bottom so these people were cycling through them pretty quickly. I believe some people got to around 500 before were told to stop.  I read that racers did sets of 1000 burpees at the Winter Death Race so I was counting because I was curious how many I would get.  I ended up doing 277 chest to ground burpees before we were ordered to trade kayaks for slosh pipes and vice versa.  There was also one unlucky group who got a large tractor tire.  This was definitely the heaviest and most difficult to carry object so those guys should be proud.

We took our kayak and continued on for an hour or two to the next clearing in the woods where we had a short rest and did another hundred or two burpees.   I can’t remember if we proceeded to a third clearing or if the second one was the last, but the trail became very steep and challenging.  We rotated who carried the kayak so it wasn’t terrible, but it was still challenging.  Once we reached the final clearing, we were ordered to go back down the trail to help everyone else up.  As the last few groups were catching up we learned that someone had a bad twisted ankle and their group was carrying them up the trail.

We were told we were going on a long hike and ordered to drop off our bag of human hair (required gear).  Everyone was curious about what we would use this for but we never saw it again. Our group quickly gathered our things and we were the second group out of this last rest break.  This was lucky because it put us at the head of the pack for the long hike along the Vermont Long Trail.  The trail was narrow, curved, at times quite steep and rocky.  We had two people carry the front and two people carry the back of the kayak.  We often had to come to a complete stop while we figured out how to fit the kayak between trees or around curves.  We went slow but moved continuously from 12am to 5am.  The line of headlamps behind us slowly separated and by the end we were all alone.

We made it to the next checkpoint around 5am, where Joe was waiting near a fire.  He told us to continue and we took some snowmobile roads for another hour until we reached a volunteer’s house on the Chittenden Reservoir.  Andy had told us all the streams on this side of mountain are contaminated so most people had run out of water an hour or two earlier since they couldn’t refill anywhere. Everyone was happy to fill up at the reservoir. Our next task was to complete a ~250m swim test.  I decided to carry a wetsuit for the race after experiencing really cold water for the first time at World’s Toughest Mudder.  I put on my wetsuit and did the swim.  It was incredibly refreshing after hiking all night.  Most people spent some time near a fire warming up after the swim so I used this time to snack and fill up my Camelbak.

More teams arrived and we were told our next task was to take our buckets, take the 1/4 mile trail back up from the house, fill up our buckets with hard-pack gravel, then to return down the trail and repave the trail.  Every group was assigned a section of trail to complete.  We spent the next hour or so moving gravel.  Some racers were able to fit their buckets into their backpacks or strap their buckets to their chests using some rope or webbing.   I wish I had the equipment to do this!  Some of the smaller racers appeared to really struggle with the buckets but I propped mine on my shoulder and it was simple enough. I found a steady pace and moved around 20 bucketfuls. Eventually we were told everyone had to do 3 more buckets and then we were done.

Andy was telling people that we would return to Chittenden tomorrow to do a 1.5 mile swim.  The hike was probably 15 miles and it seems the idea of doing this four times intimidated some people.  A few more people dropped from the race and were told a shuttle would return them to Amee farm.

We were told to head back to the last checkpoint with the fire.  If Jack, a previous Death Race finisher who joined the dark side this year, beat us back, we were DQ’d. Those done with their last 3 buckets of gravel headed out.  I hiked and chatted a little bit with Olof, who would end up finishing in first place, Junyong, who would go on to finish second, and Todd, who was very upbeat and motivating. I had plenty of water but my food was running dangerously low.  I made the mistake of listening to Andy when he said we wouldn’t be away for more than 12 hours.  I rationed my food from midnight on, but I was down to 2 packets of Clif Shotblocks (combined 400 calories) with at least a 10+ mile hike ahead of me. I was starving but I focused on stories of people surviving for weeks without food and continued on.  I beat Jack back to the checkpoint and there were around 40 others there. We were ordered to do 100 burpees and then we were off again on a different path than the one we took the previous night. I focused on getting back to the camp and eating and hiked for the next few hours. My feet were starting to hurt at this point but I found that running occasionally helped me land a little differently and use different muscles.

Around noon we were back along the river along highway 100.  A few people ahead of me were stopped at a man’s house along the trail who was letting us fill up our water from his hose.  He told us we were only 1.5 miles from Amee farm but he did not think we were returning there for a while. My heart dropped because I was completely out of food at this point. We turned off the trail and began climbing along a steep road into a neighborhood.  It was hot, I was starving, and my spirits were low.  This is when I began thinking that the betrayal is that we would not be allowed to return to the camp or to see our support crew.  This made sense because at some point everyone would run out of food and have to drop out of the race.  This would fulfill the directors’ promise of no finishers this year. I almost resigned myself to quitting but decided to continue as long as I could.

I continued climbing up the road.  Towards the top Jack jogged by me.  I saw a few people ahead of me run for a few seconds to try to catch him but everyone was too tired and gave up.  A few minutes later I made it to the top.  Everyone was sitting in a line on their buckets relaxing while waiting for everyone else to arrive. I was the second person who admitted to arriving after Jack, so Joe told me and everyone who arrived after me that we were disqualified.  He gave us the option of dropping out and catching a ride back to camp or to continue “for the experience” although our names would not be published as official finishers. I opted to continue although a few people agreed to drop.  We were told we had a little more time to rest until 2pm. Then we would have two hours to take a 250 question test.  The racer behind me was generous enough to share some trail mix with me and that helped me gain a little energy.

The test threatened that we would have additional tasks to complete at the end of the race based on our results.  We were told Roger, the owner of the house where we were assembled had all the test answers and he would be happy to give us the answers if we did some work for him.  The test questions were impossible.  The questions revolved around various illnesses, phobias, and Death Race rules.  The numbers on the answer sheet were randomized so it took a lot of time just to find where to enter your answer. Racers continued filtering in during the exam.  They were each told they are DQ’d and given the option of unofficially continuing.  Some racers opted to continue, but some quit.  I found a comfortable shaded spot on the side of the road and tried not to fall asleep during the test.  This was the first time I began feeling the sleep deprivation.  It looked like everyone was trying not to doze off.

After two hours everyone turned in their exam and gathered behind Joe.  He ran us back down the hill. On our way down we ran past the tire group.  It looks like they never made it back for the test after spending all night carrying that tire.  We got to Peter’s farm near Riverside, which had a stack of logs.  We were told to get in the plank position and stay that way for a while.  Racers tried their best but the planks were pretty ugly.  Afterwards we were marched back to Tweed River road.  We were told to gather behind a truck that was going to drive up to Joe’s cabin and we had to stay near the truck or we were DQ’d.  The truck drove off at a ridiculous pace and everyone was left behind.  The front few people looked like they were running but everyone else looked like the walking dead going up that hill.  I put one foot in front of the other and cursed the hill.  Some people’s support crews found them during the march up and snuck food to them while I stared jealously.

At the top of the hill we were put in teams of 4 and told we had to find a stake with our team number on it on the trails near Joe’s cabin.  We also had to take a bucket full of hard-pack up with us.  Don, one of my team members gave me a snickers bar which energized me enough not to quit.  We hiked up to Joe’s cabin.  On the way up we began hearing teams say no one was able to find their stakes.  We passed two stakes on the way up but they must not have belonged to any teams.  We looked around the top of the mountain and did not find a single stake.  Other teams confirmed this.  Eventually we found a piece of wood and made our own stake and wrote our team number on it. We saw several other teams making stakes too. We headed back down and turned in our stake.  I guess a lot of other teams had the same idea because there were a lot of stakes that had been turned in.

Our next task was to take a section of a big log and to either saw or chop off a marked section of it.  Then we had to cut the section in half and to split each half into 6 pieces of wood, making 12 total.  I got lucky because the staff assigned me a thinner log.  Although it was thinner, it was full of knots and it took me forever to split it.  While I was splitting the log Victoria and my mom found me.  It was great to finally see them after nearly 30 hours and they really lifted my spirits.

Due to all the knots in my log, I ended up with a lot of small pieces that I stuffed into my bucket which I decided to bear hug carry back over the mountain to Amee farm.  I got a burst of energy from seeing my family and from knowing I was finally heading back to Amee farm where I could restock on food.  I headed down the trails and attempted to follow the signs back to Amee farm but I ended up lost.  After an hour or so I backtracked and met up with a couple other racers and found my way back to the farm with them.  It seems like some trail markings were missing and turnoffs were hidden.  At least that’s how it seemed to me, but I know everyone was getting lost.  Eventually I made it back to camp, turned in my chopped wood, recited the alphabet forwards and backwards and went to the gear tent and ate a burger and other food.

After some much needed rest, I checked in with Andy.  He was asking everyone to tell him what happened during the stake search.  I told him my group was unable to find our stake and I was labeled a criminal.  I think everyone was labeled a criminal at this point and we were sent to sit in the duck pond for 45 minutes. I made a bad decision and asked the volunteers if I could put on my wetsuit.  They said I didn’t have time because I’d have to sit in the water an extra hour because I’d miss starting with the current group.  Once I got in the water I found out everyone had already been in for a while so I should have just put on my wetsuit.  I learned not to ask questions at Death Race.  I stayed in the water for around 20 minutes and I was starting to get cold but then for whatever reason, Joe called on the walkie talkie and told me and the guy who got in the water after me that he was sending us back up to the cabin to perform community service with Amelia Boone, who would end up being the second female finisher and with her friend (Brian?).  I got out and put my clothes on and ran over to the fire to warm up for a couple minutes before heading out but we were told to go as soon as I made it to the fire.  Oh well.

It was around 1am Sunday at this point and five of us set off across the trails.  Brian led the way but we were unable to find the trail that took us all the way to the cabin and we ended up coming out near Riverside farm and we had to take Tweed River road to the top.  This is an easy hike with a gradual slope but it takes forever and is boring.  I was having trouble keeping up with Brian and Amelia.  Those two sure know how to climb mountains.  It is difficult to train for this in Houston and it showed. Eventually we made it to the top and we found out our community service was taking a bucket with gravel up a different trail and filling some holes.  Another volunteer raced us up the mountain for around ten minutes before showing us where to dump the gravel.  Interestingly enough, we passed a few stakes on this trail and we realized the stakes did exist, but they were located on a different trail system and not where we were told they were.

Amelia and Brian went to finish chopping their wood and took the path back over the mountain.  Another racer and I decided we didn’t want to get lost on the trails again and decided to take Tweed River road back.  We slowly marched down and I began dozing off while walking down the road.  The slow walking, darkness, and halo of light from my headlamp created a hypnotic effect and I remember short dreams I had while sleep walking this stretch. Eventually we made it down to Highway 100 and followed that back to Amee farm.  We checked in and were grouped with a racer named Norm Koch and we were told to go back over the mountain and back to Peter’s farm, where we did the planks the day before.  We turned around and headed right back up the mountain through the trails.  This was around dawn on Sunday morning so I felt more energized once the sun came up.  We tried to find the path that went right to the cabin but once again got lost and had to back track.  We came out on Tweed River road closer to the top and followed the road the rest of the way.  We checked in with the volunteers and laid down for a few minutes to rest our feet and backs.  This was around 7am and it was the second time that morning I had laid in that exact spot and looked up at the stars/sky.  We can barely see stars at night in Houston so seeing the sky lit up with them was a beautiful sight.

We hiked down to Riverside farm, crossed the bridge and hiked up and over another short trail to get to Peter’s farm.  I think we arrived around 9 or 10am.  Volunteers told us we had two tasks. First we had to split 10 logs into 6-8 pieces. Second, we had to carry a huge log up a trail and memorize a phrase and an origami design at the top.  The log had a piece of paper stapled to it and we were not allowed to get this paper dirty.  This forced us to carry the log instead of dragging it. My family was here and kept me company while I chopped wood.  It seemed like they were running out of men’s logs so a volunteer told me to carry two women’s logs.  One of the logs fit in my bucket and I carried the second one in my hands.  I hiked around a mile up the trail, dropping my log every couple minutes to rest. Eventually I got to the origami instructions and did my best to copy them onto a piece of paper.  I didn’t understand all the steps from the directions so I decided not to spend a lot of time trying to copy the instructions.  Instead I would do my best through guess and check.  I only spent a few minutes at this station, while others were there for a long time.  I got the phrase and headed back down.

I made my way back down and picked a nice shaded spot under a tree to work on my origami.  I sat near Joei Harrison and watched her work because her paper actually resembled a crane. She turned in her crane to the volunteer and I learned the design did not have to be perfect, just passable. Joei was kind enough to give me her crane after she was finished so I unfolded it and did my best to recreate her folds.  It took around 30 minutes but I was able to make a passable crane.  I turned in my origami to the staff and was asked to tell them about what I made.  My mind was not processing anything at this point so I answered that this is a swan, not a crane, named Mermaid because its tail has scales.  The staff signed off and told me to head back over the mountain to Amee farm.

I was near the front of the pack at this point.  This would be short lived because I got lost for around three hours on the Fusters trail trying to make my way back to Amee farm.  I took this trail before and found my way but at some point I realized I was probably way past Amee farm so I turned back.  I found a couple other racers who were carrying wood.  They turned back too but I lost them as we headed back uphill.  I was hallucinating a lot during this hike.  I kept thinking I saw cabins and cars in the woods.  At one point I thought all the leaves on the ground were spiders.  Large rock formations looked like signs and billboards to me.

Eventually I backtracked all the way back to the cabin and met up with another group heading down to the farm.  A strange volunteer named Alana was screaming at everyone and trying to tell us which trails to follow but we decided to ignore her and take our own path down the Stairs trail.  This route was quick and direct and eventually we crossed the footbridge and made it to Amee farm. I rested and ate at the farm.  Rumors were spreading that the race was ending tonight and all we had left was to carry a bag of concrete back up to the cabin and then to complete the final rolling challenge.

Before we got our bag of concrete we had a gear check.  Chris took our gear lists and asked us to show a couple items from the list.  I got my 60lb bag of concrete and stuffed it in my backpack.  I felt energized based on the rumors that we were almost at the end.  Victoria and my mom began hiking with me and we stayed close to Norm and another racer who was also on his way up to the cabin.  Victoria and my mom ended up hiking the entire way with me and it was great having their company that last evening.  Norm found the correct trails and we made it to the top without getting lost.  I dropped off my cement at the top and waited while the volunteers radioed for our next instructions. It was around 8pm and we were told to go back to Amee farm down the trails.  My crew was shown the way back to Tweed River road because it was getting dark and they didn’t have lights.  I later found out they were lucky enough to get a ride back to the farm.  I made it back to the farm without getting lost.

We learned most of the staff had left Amee farm to go to Riverside farm for the final rolling challenge.  It was 9 or 10pm and we were put in a group that would hike back over the mountain and down to Riverside farm.  A new “volunteer” led our group on a blistering pace up, down, and all around the mountain.  He must have been a local because he ran us around trails I hadn’t seen yet and I was fighting to keep up.  I was delirious at this point and wasn’t processing anything very well but I know at some point I was ready to stop but another racer told me he wasn’t going to leave me alone in the woods at night.  I’m thankful he stuck with me and kept me somewhat with the group.  That hike/run took everything I had left out of me.  I had no energy and I felt my feet beginning to tear.  Luckily we were back on Tweed River road and all I had to do was walk down to Riverside farm.  It was around midnight Monday morning and I made it down to the farm but didn’t see where I was supposed to go.  At this point I lost everyone I was with and I sat down to rest and gather my thoughts.  I saw occasional headlamps or car headlights across the field but I sat, worried I would get punished for getting separated from my group if they found me alone.  I think I fell asleep for a few minutes because I sat up and I was freezing cold.  I knew I had to get up and move around so I decided to hike around the field to the other side where I saw some headlamp activity.

I walked around the outside of the farm but I was having difficulty navigating because I went down the wrong road and had to turn back.  A car pulled up beside me and a fellow racer was driving.  I don’t remember his name and I have no idea how he got his car but he told me to get in and he drove us to the boat house where we registered on day one.  He was a life saver because I was unable to process which way I needed to go. We got out of the car and I used his phone to call Victoria, who happened to be parked a couple cars down.  We walked over to the rolling challenge and talked with Olof, who was finished and had won the race.  He told us we had to roll 6 times around a loop set up around the field and that this took around 3 hours total.  It was 2am and I considered throwing in the towel and just heading home to sleep.  Rolling for hours did not appeal to me whatsoever but I decided I was finishing the race.

I took off my backpack, knowing this was the last time and I would not have to put it on again.  I was especially glad to be rid of that stupid bucket that bounced around on my back for the past two and a half days.  I put on my wetsuit, pink swim cap, and gloves.  I checked in, got the rolling rules, and began rolling.  The loop was over flattened tall grass.  There was a short section which went uphill and curved over a few logs and roots.  There was a bucket filled with cow intestines/waste and we had to stir this bucket during every loop.  The smell was nauseating. There was also a tarp that we had to roll under.  At the end of each lap Jack Cary would tell us “This lap does not count…unless you answer this trivia question.”  “What sense is most closely linked to memory?”  Smell!  I answered this question after most laps but I also heard a few other questions rotated in.  Most people were cold and shivering during the rolling but I was nearly overheating in my wetsuit.  I ended up taking off the swim cap and gloves and unzipping the suit a little to let some air in. A lot of people were vomiting during the rolling challenge but I went one roll at a time and rested for two or three seconds after each roll so I wouldn’t become too dizzy.  I wasn’t the fastest roller but I finished after rolling for around 3 hours.

I finished in 63 hours.  Joe and Andy congratulated me and I received my skull.  I have never experienced an event as unique and challenging as the Death Race and I am proud I completed it.  Thank you to Andy, Joe, Jack and all the other volunteers for creating a one-of-a-kind adventure for a very small subset of people.  It was a unique feeling spending 63 hours pushing myself in an environment where time and the outside world are completely inconsequential.  It was like spending two and a half days in an alternate universe.  I’m proud to say I participated in this event.  Every participant should feel the same way, regardless of whether they lasted 2 hours or 67 hours (last finisher).  Simply being out there in Pittsfield and setting out with 250+ other racers is an accomplishment in itself.  Thank you to Victoria and to my mom.  Sorry you got thrown into the race more than you anticipated.  My crew got betrayed just as much as I did but they stayed by my side whenever they could and helped me keep going.  Thank you to all the other racers who helped me along the way and shared food and encouragement.  Thank you to Joe and Andy for giving us the opportunity to push our limits.