“I am a man who once was a soldier.” -2011 Death Race. Pittsfield, VT. 24-27JUN11
When I look back at our journey it began very appropriately for what one would expect when attempting a race called the “Death Race”. Our flight out of Birmingham was delayed then cancelled due to storms, leaving Penny and I no choice but to rent a car and set off on an all night drive to Charlotte to board the only flight the wonderful attendant (Myrtle) at the Birmingham counter could find. As we drove north, Penny got on the phone and found us an early morning flight out of Atlanta. We checked into a hotel room and caught 5 hours of sleep.
Driving into Pittsfield Vermont, I realized something that made common sense yet I had neglected to research about the area. It was mountainous! Every direction we looked had lush green mountains. To the eye it was beautiful but to my trained knowledge it meant thick vegetation that could be impossible to navigate through. I knew immediately that my legs (especially the “4 days post surgery” left calve muscle) were going to be tested. The town was small and peaceful with farms, cabins, and ski resorts. The weather on the other hand was terrible. Rain and from the looks of it there had been lots. According to the weekend forecast it wouldn’t change. Perfect conditions for a suck-fest.
Jon had arrived before and checked into our room at the Amee Farms Bed and Breakfast, a five star hotel located at the race site. I highly recommend to anyone dragging their loved ones to this race (as I did Penny) to stay here. It was a large, newly renovated farm house that was spectacular. Huge front porch with a view of the mountains, open basement space for us to lay out all our race gear, modern bathrooms and comfortable beds.
Jon and I got right to laying out our race gear for a military style equipment check, packing and a chance to talk to racers as they too arrived. We immediately met a man named Ray who had done 5 Death Races and finished two. I quickly adapted a saying, “WWRD (what would Ray do)”, as the time table guess work and mind games of the weekend began to play out. If he got dressed, I got dressed, if he laid back and ignored a “time hack” I did as well.
On Thursday night we got our packs prepped and went up into our room to get our last night’s sleep and visit with an old Army friend who I rarely get to talk to in person. During the night the rain became so intense that it woke me up and I could hear the creek outside our window turn into a torrent of rapids. I thought about the people who decided to camp at the race and how shitty of a start that would be.
Friday morning, my eyes open and the reality of the day sets in as my mind whirls. What has been a theory and an idea for months is now here. It felt just like waking up the day I left for Basic Training, Ranger School and my combat deployments. In my head I resigned to the fact that it was a Death Race and I was prepared to go to any level to accomplish this goal. I got out of bed and said good bye to that comfort in my head. I showered for the last time and made myself forget that warm water existed.
In years past the race organizers had played tricks by making the racers show up to “meetings” only to take them out into the woods for hours, unprepared clothing and gear wise until the moment the race really began. As they sent out messages on Facebook telling us to be at a “parachute packing” class at noon and the at the General Store for race check-in at 3, I was skeptical. I decided to dress race ready from morning on and be ready to go at any moment. I also used my military experience to guess the “bullshit” they were trying to feed us to waste our time and I was right (which continued throughout the weekend). I guessed they were going to try and get us out of our rooms and chasing fake meetings and timelines to waste our energy and rob us of a valuable last chance for a nap. I went down to the location of the parachute packing class just in case and the building was locked. Dozens of racers were standing in the rain and it was blatantly obvious my thoughts were correct so we hustled back to the room. I saw Ray standing in the hall and with a smile he said, “learn all about packing chutes did ya?” I was amazed to look out the window and see the others stand there and then walk from building to building never catching onto the joke. At three we went down to check-in, again expecting to be whisked away on an early start time but it was normal. Sign in, get your bib number and my Death Race sweat shirt which Penny quickly called “dibs!”. We were told to be at the local church at six for the race brief and start. Again we laid in the room resting. My nerves began to try and bother me as hour after hour of waiting went on. That was my first experience with what is the beauty of the Death Race. Without us even taking the first step it was playing with our minds and causing us to metabolize valuable energy.
It was finally time. We went across the street to Amee Farm to record our “video waiver” where they went through the usual gamut of agreeing to dark cold, dangerous, confined spaces and harmful activities. Been there done that. What was noteworthy about this video session was something that reminded me of some training events I went through in my Special Forces training. We were sent into a room that was normally the bathroom of Amee farms. We were told to sit on the toilet right next to a wall urinal and face the mirror of which there was a small space that had a camera showing through. A voice from behind the mirror asked all the waiver questions then said, “Have a good race”. Jon and I took our ruks down to the church and ushered inside for the briefing. We piled into the pews with our large packs. There was a buzz of nerves in everyone and the place rang with the chorus of introductions and listings of how we each trained and what our past accomplishments had been. We also were all making jokes about the horrifying possibilities that were about to play out. Would they burn the church with us inside and see who made it out alive? The race organizers entered the church ( I recognize them from YouTube) and began telling everyone there wasn’t enough room for our bags and that they needed to be taken outside and put in the grass. As everyone began shuffling out with their bags myself and Jon recalled all the tricks the Drill Sergeants would play in basic training with “unsecured” gear and weren’t about to separate ourselves from our gear, hydration and nutrition. We squished them in between our legs and draped our jackets over them. At the same time I saw two girls doing the same thing and later learned they were former Marines who were in a team that they had named the “Glamazons” because they were large muscular, incredibly attractive females. A preacher walked to the pulpit and started the event with a prayer and a story about honesty and integrity and a run down of the world’s religions which we feverishly took notes of for future questioning. Then Joe Desena (the race organizer and a man more sadistic than myself) began the brief. He informed us the race had officially begun and that we needed to file by the back of the church and partake in the communion wine and memorize the taste for a later test. We filed out and I skipped the wine in fear of a cruel Death Race joke of it being laced with Ex-Lax or Epicac. We all walked the one mile down the road taking our final sips of water and replaying our game plan in our head. We were headed to Amee Farm to begin the event.
Chore #1: 7pm, Friday. 50 degrees and drizzling. We were broken down into 13 person (co-ed) teams of which the “Glamazons” were on. Our instructions were simple. Retrieve one large stone per member (averaging 45lbs), one bail of hay and one 100LB Slosh Pipe (PVC pipe filled with water). Put them in a circle. Going in a counter-clock wise direction each team member will Olympic lift clean the rock then step to the next rock. After one full rotation the bail of hay and the slosh pipe will be raised up with each team member touching it in some way. This was to be done 150 Rounds while wearing our packs! Round one made it glaringly evident that this was to suck. But then the Glamazons kicked in and the entertainment began. Their energy was met by Jon’s and my own as we got games started like “ask personal questions”, “name your favorite movie, book and song” etc. Rounds crept slowly by and the monotony was contrasted by the slow grueling fatigue in the legs and back. The race organizers intended for this to cause people to quit early but their mistake was allowing us to talk. They would walk around and yell demotivating statements and threaten us with time penalties. They lied and said people were quitting but as we passed the 2nd, 3rd and into the 4th hour I could tell their plan had back fired. No one was quitting. This years competitors were of a higher caliber than in years past and full of former military personnel who had played mind games before.
Around 1:30 AM we were on round 87 (approximately 1,232 stone lift reps) and I honestly had grown weary of the routine. They called for us to gather up our gear and line up in front of a trail that led down to the river. I quickly put on my head lamp and tightened up the trash bag inside my pack to keep my gear dry because I knew my ass was about to get wet.
Chore #2: 1:45am, Saturday. Water temperature 47 degrees. The 154 competitors (of the 200 registered) walked down to a dark river bank. I could hear the rapids and Ray said to me, “Its a lot higher than I have ever seen it.” As I took my first step into the river and felt the 47 degree chill I turned to a media camera man standing on the bank and said “How are you on this cold night?” Anyone who has ever river walked before knows how treacherous the steps are. Slick rocks of assorted size cause your feet to bang and bend and the current pulls your legs away from you as the weight of your pack makes balance almost impossible. The temperature was breath taking and as we trudged on in a line of head lamps it got deeper. In the army I judged levels of wetness by body parts. As long as its only my feet and legs submersed I don’t consider that wet, but once my balls and ass touch the water it officially becomes wet. That happened right away. Down the river we walked in a line of head lamps. People stumbled and some fell completely in. I passed one man sitting on the bank shivering and said “don’t sit there to long, hypothermia will set in”. He responded simply by saying, “I lost my shoes” so I said goodbye to him. He was finished. About one hour in were told that we had to take the fish hook issued to us at check in and catch a fish. Ridiculously people began fashioning poles and using string to tie the hook and waded out to try and catch a fish. Jon and I laughed at how gullible people were and why someone would think they could catch a fish in a river that a hundred plus people were standing, so he and I went onto shore and took off our shoes and wrung out our socks and took the chance to eat a snack (Gu-Gel). Less than five minutes later a voice yelled, “Continue walking!” We got back in and moved down the river for another mile and Jon and I continued to talk and entertain those around us. I got hung up behind an annoying girl who could not balance and moved slowly. We came to an intersection and were told to cross and go up a tributary. This girl turned to me and said “It will be safer if we hold each others shoulder straps and cross together.” I said sorry you are falling on your own, Im crossing without you and we hustled around her. From up behind us came team Glamazon. Just about the time I thought they were moving dangerously fast, one of them slipped and fell. She got caught in the rapids and washed out. She tumbled onto her back and then rolled over desperately scrambling to cling to a rock. Just as she was about to go under the medic in me kicked in and I went out, grabbed the ax handle sticking up off her pack and put her up on a rock. The tributary turned out to be more difficult to walk in than the actual river but luckily it was only 100 yards before we were called up onto a trail leading up a hill. I saw the same camera man from before and I said to him, “earlier you said you were having a good night. How is it now?” He only looked at me with confusion. We were guided up a trail and quickly passed a fire and told to go down a hill and wade into a pond to waist level and stand for 5 minutes. Jon and I waded in and it was frigid! As we stood there I began to feel a deep freezing pain in my testicles as they froze. I looked up on shore and saw my fiance Penny standing there. I smiled at the sight of something familiar and pretty. It became the first of many times that her face would pull me out of feeling sorry for myself. She became like an angel of light in the middle of a dark place. I smiled and waved to her and asked her how she was. Five minutes passed and were told to go to the other side of the pond.
Chore #3: 3:45am, Saturday. Water temperature 47 degrees. We were told to enter the water, use the rope to pull or swim across the 200 foot pond with our packs on and exit the other side. Climb up a severely steep, 100ft muddy bank and go into the field. We were given a lit candle and told to walk around a 100 yard field without letting the candle burn out (if it did you had to run back to the start to get yours re-lit, which happened to me in round 1). We had to complete this 7 times. I entered the water and the “gasp reflex” that cold water causes hit me immediately. The water was well over our heads and I clung to the rope with one hand and swam with the other desperately trying to keep my head above water while wearing the 35 pound pack. We quickly moved through all the rounds trying to beat inevitable hypothermia. I began to shiver so bad that I bit my tongue twice. This event caused the first large group of people to quit, approximately 20. As we finished the sun began to rise. In the army I learned that humans are solar powered. When we come out of a long dark night and see sun light we get a strange awakening of energy and a positive attitude. It was a welcome sight. We were instructed to walk up a trail and take our instructions from the man at the end.
Chore #4: 6:30 am Saturday. Rain/50 degrees. After a two mile hike we began to hear the sounds of wood chopping. In the yard of some house a man told us to go pick a tree log. We were to split it into 8 pieces and show it to the judge. Jon looked at me and said “I have never swung an ax.” He learned very fast as usual. By this time the rain had picked up and was very cold. Penny was there and wearing her rain coat. She looked on worried about how long we had been wet and cold but she also had never seen us in “Army mode” and didn’t know that we were perfectly fine. After chopping our wood we were instructed to pick another tree trunk (of which they were all huge) and carry it up a one mile trail to the top of a hill and read a note. Then return back down, recite the note or face going back up to re-read it, then chop our trunk into another 8 pieces. Jon and I formulated our plan. I had made my ruk frame a traveling hardware store with wrapped lengths of rope, duct tape, string, and lashing. We unwrapped the lashing and tied it around the log then fashioning two loops for shoulder straps. It would be terribly uncomfortable but having a 100lb log on your back is much better than trying to carry it in your arms for two miles. We struggled to our feet and began up the hill as our frozen wet leg muscles rejected the idea. Every 100ft or so we had to stop and lean forward with our hands on our knees to rest. That technique became know as the “stiff legged bend over” and was the main rest technique that got us through the race. Half way up the hill there was a short length of barbed wire trench we had to crawl under with our logs that served more of an annoyance purpose than anything. At the top of the hill there was a sign on a tree. “Corinthians 16:13. Stand firm, walk in faith, be strong “ I wrote it down on a piece of paper and we began the terrible journey back down the hill. It was at this point that I had my first session with feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t want to walk my shoulders were crushing under the weight of the log and my energy levels were empty. I kept telling Jon I needed to rest. Resting with a log on your back is hard, the technique I used was to find a section of the ground that was inclining up and I would flop back and let the log meet the earth above me. There is no way to do this without falling quickly and every time I did the bark would scrape the skin on my back. As I walked it would rub the skin on my lower back so I would place my hands in between myself and the log but the weight was bruising the muscles in my hands and I was worried I would need them to carry something later. I was damned either way I tried. At one point I sensed something bad was about to happen and I told Jon we needed to rest. Just as he turned around to look at me the left arm strap I had tied came undone and the log flew to my right side. The strap slipped off my right shoulder and skinned its way down my arm. When it reached the elbow it caught traction and flipped me over just like a judo toss. Somehow I landed on the ground unhurt. I was simply astonished at the ass kicking I was taking. During one of the rest periods I saw a man that I recognized from YouTube videos and remembered that he was attempting his 4th Death Race. I said to him as he walked past, “What advice do you have for a young first timer to the Death Race?” His answer was simple, “Is there anything that you cant do for 5 minutes?” I said no there isn’t. Then he said, “the Death Race is just a whole bunch of 5 minute increments.” He walked on down the trail carrying a 100lb log over his shoulder. We returned down the hill and recited our Bible verse correctly, chopped up that damn tree stump and took a minute to eat a snack ( I used the Gatorade Prime Bars and Gu-Gel for carbs). As we sipped Accelorade electrolyte water out of our camel backs I watched a female racer strike her first tree stump uselessly. She was simply to small to even chip away at it and her support person (her husband) looked on helplessly and encouraged her to keep trying. I felt so bad for her that I walked over and split her log and said “Good luck in the race” Her husband thanked me and I never saw her again.
Chore #5: 9:30am, Saturday. Water temperature 47 degrees. We were told to walk the two miles back down the river to Amee Farm where we had began the night before. I didn’t really care about this but it apparently demoralized some and we had more people drop out of the race. As we walked the rain poured and we got soaked from both sides above and below. At the end of the river we walked up the trail and into the farm to check in. We were ushered back into the “video session bathroom”, but this time in groups of three. It was Jon, myself and Eric (the man who gave me the 5 minute advice). Jon and I perched onto a bucket and Eric sat on the toilet. It was a strange tight fit with three of us still wearing packs. This time they asked specific questions about the race for us to that point and how we were doing. The voice asked what we were afraid of and what made us think we had prepared properly. Jon and I answered questions but I noticed that Eric simply sat on the commode and repacked his ruk without saying a word. Upon exiting the video session we were given instructions for our next “chore”.
Chore #6: 1045am, Saturday. Steady rain / Air Temperature 52 degrees. We were told to walk up to the top of a short hill. Pick out a tree log and cut it into a 36 inch section. I knew this meant we would be carrying it so we chose our log carefully. I picked a log at the bottom of the pile that was about 6 inches in diameter and we measured and cut it into two 36 inch sections. We returned down the hill and were told to use the hand drill and mark our race number into the log. Only requirement was that it must be readable. I chose to put the number 66 on the end of the log. Next would be one of the nastiest portions of the Death Race.
Chore #7: 11:30am. Light rain / Temperature 55 degrees. Our instructions were that we would be carrying our log up a trail that we could see went towards a very large and steep mountain. Something told me that I wasn’t coming back until at earliest that night so Jon and I took a moment to do some maintenance on ourselves and our food/gear. We sat in the rain and put Goldbond powder on our nether regions to prevent the inevitable “monkey butt” (chaffing) and put on on dry socks and boots (of which we soon realized was an act of futility in this environment). Penny fueled us up with a cup of warm coffee and a turkey sandwich she had gotten from the General Store. It was like a new lease on life. I also took one of the many timed out packets of pills I preset into my food bags (Aleve, Vitamin and Juice Plus capsules). We both decided to lash our logs across the top of our rucks the same way we would a machine gun or anti-tank rocket in the Army. This took my pack up to a shitty 70-80 pounds. I said goodbye to Penny and told her I would see her that night and we set off on the first steps of what was to be a miserable time in the mountains. We climbed up a winding trail for about 4 miles coming to a little cabin called “Colt Inn”. We checked in and were told we were in 61st place (I personally didn’t care). We used this break to stretch and eat another snack of Cliff Bar and water. Then we were pointed to another trail and told to follow the orange ribbons hanging from the trees to a place called “Rogers Onion Shop”. I really hoped they weren’t repeating an event from last year in which you had to answer a question or face the penalty of eating one pound of raw onions. Off we set up yet another steep climbing trail. Just a few minutes in the two race organizers came running down the trail saying the leaders were approaching (who were 3 hours ahead of us for the record). I was interested to to see what they would look like because Jon and I were moving in small steps that climbed no more than six inches each time and resting every few minutes. I looked up the hill and a man named Joe Decker came down at a pace that might as well have been jogging and had a smile on his face!!!!! We hollered “goo job Joe” and he took the time to give us high fives as he ran by. I could only stand there in amazement, then turn back up the mountain and continue moving at what now seemed like a slugs pace. During this first hour of climbing to “Rogers” I fell back into my second period of weakness. Every step was hard, my lungs burned for air and my energy levels just felt shitty. By this time I had been on the move for 18 hours and was at that point of having to “break a barrier.” My body and mind were trying to convince me to stop and go back to my comfort zones and my heart and soul were calling on my experiences from Ranger School to drive on and never give up. Step after step we climbed as the muddy trail beneath our feet slid away making us fall and slip and cling to trees for help. We crested a ridge and the orange ribbons continued down the other side and into the trees. There would be no more trail for a couple of hours. We pushed through branches and hopped over logs following these ribbons that were obviously placed at intervals difficult to find and follow. The terrain was so wet and steep that even a sure footed patch of earth would betray you and land you on your ass sliding painfully down. I slipped a few times and instinctively but incorrectly reached my hand out landing it on sharp sticks and branches and scolded myself each time knowing that a vicious cut to the hand in this situation could put me out of the race. This hike passed the feeling of hard and long and began the “where the hell are we going” phase. Every now and again we would come along some one on their way back from our destination and they would all say a different time and distance that we still had to go. We heard everything from “almost there” to “one and a half hours away”. This simply sucked. After about four hours since we began the hike we finally came across a girl who told us it was nearby and pointed to a visible cabin letting me know she wasn’t full of shit. We walked up hoping to get a moment to put our packs down and rest.
Chore #8: Sunny (finally) / Temperature 70 degrees. Our instructions were to remove our logs from our packs and throw them in the pond at the bottom of the hill then return for more instructions. I walked down and set our logs barely off the shore wedged into some reeds to prevent it from floating away because I wasn’t about to swim in the cold water again unless they specifically told me to. Our next assignment was to take a wheel barrow and load one log into it from a wood pile, walk it across a lawn and put it neatly into a stack of firewood we were apparently creating for the owner of the cabin. We had to do this 10 times. Then we were told to perform 90 push ups. I thought those would suck as fatigued as I was but they were a welcome change from the heavy hiking we had been doing and gave me a chance to move my blood around. Now we had to go retrieve our logs that were now water logged adding at least 5 pounds to them and carve “1RO” into it. I wanted to relax during this task so we removed our wet shirts and shoes and enjoyed the only sunshine I would see during the entire race. Easy and done. But the obvious next task didn’t even need to be said. Reload the log and walk back to Amee Farms. We used this time to freshen up our “powdered areas”, refill our Camel backs with water (that we were surprised to see provided by the race) and eat a power snack while we talked to a nice old lady who built that cabin with her husband Roger over 20 years prior. As we set off we knew we needed to hustle because we had a huge uphill portion through brush and and hard to find trail markers and were getting dangerously close to sun set. Trying to follow this path under a head lamp would have been terrible at best. Off we set talking and making jokes as usual. I made fun of Jon for liking the singer Adelle and he rebutted by attacking me watching American Idol. Along the way we picked up a “tag along” racer who followed us up the mountain and we listened to a thunder storm building in the distance. I prayed that it would stay away because I didn’t want to be on the top of a mountain during lightening strikes and the stormy skies would shorten our day light by a solid hour. By this time Jon and I had created a system that kept us very steady, we would flop down and rest two minutes every 20, then at the top of each hour we would remove our packs and rest 5 minutes and have a snack. This gave us 9 minutes of rest and 51 minutes of work per hour (but the “stiff legged lean forward with hands on knees rest” could be called at any time one of us was suffering). Remarkably we made it to the top of the mountain and began the large down hill slope that we originally had to climb hours before still in natural light. It was storming pretty hard but we were in very high spirits especially watching our tag along fall over and over trying to stay with us. All through this hike we had randomly passed signs tacked to trees with different religious symbols on them (this years race theme was religion). As we passed back by them on the way home Jon said “We should probably remember these for a future test that could keep us from paying a penalty like another long hike” but with us being “knuckle dragger” infantrymen we laughed and said “nah, I’ll take the hike” and ignored all of them. As we arrived back to “Colt Inn” we were required to do 100 Burpees before we could return to Amee Farms which was the source of Penny, food and a moment to take the packs off. We broke this task down into 33 sets of 3 Burpees plus one and knocked it out in about 20 minutes, stretched again and rucked up for the final 4 mile hike home. All in all this chore was approximately 16 miles and simply sucked.
As we came walking down the hill into sight of Amee Farms we could see figures standing on the porch waiting for racers to appear. I waived knowing one of them was Penny and I saw her go running down the stairs and out into the rain. I could see she had a bag in her hands and I was excited knowing it was probably food. She gave us the now normal “intel update” on other racers and the race itself and gave us a heads up on the next chore of which the leader Joe was already finished with and gone. It was to have us hiking up to the top of a mountain that was currently covered from sight by thunderstorm clouds so I knew this was to be a long night and my head needed to be screwed on straight. We ate another sandwich, repacked our bags, put on some clothes that Penny hung up to dry while we were gone and got everything in place for movement in pitch black mountain darkness. We spoke briefly to racers who had quit and were wishing us well and said goodbye. I told Penny to go to bed and sleep well that I would not be back until morning. We moved down to the headquarters and got our assignment from Joe Desena himself. Now I was informed earlier by Ray to never believe anything Joe says, that he lies constantly so our briefing was useless. He said, “You are going on a 9 hour hike to the top of a mountain to meet a guy named Chris and eat a peanut.” I asked what trail will I take. “His answer was, “It will be hard to see because it is marked with non-reflective markings” and he pointed in the general direction of a mountain miles away. Thanks asshole.
Chore #8: 8:00pm, Saturday. Dark, rainy / Temperature 50 degrees. We walked down the only trail leading from the farm towards the river. I hoped it wasn’t putting us back in the water but I was prepared for anything. We had no idea what we were looking for and Jon suggested we say a prayer for the nights task. When he was done I turned on my headlamp and it shined directly onto a reflective piece of tape hanging in a tree. There were no orange markers like we had followed earlier anywhere to be seen. I said to Jon, “the theme of this year is religion. Satan is a constant liar and Joe Desena right now is Satan. He said there would be non reflective markings and the first thing we see is reflective. This is what we will follow.” It was a huge leap of faith but we took it. We walked up hills and down hills sometimes seeing reflectors and many times seeing nothing. We stayed on our hike/rest routine and several times simply stopped and questioned if we were on the right path or not. Hours past and we kept playing over possible wrong turns as doubt rumbled all through our minds. What bothered me most was that we heard there were 40 other racers already on this course and yet we could feel the sense of being alone in the woods. After a few hours we randomly heard voices coming out from the woods into a field that we were standing lost in. It was two race volunteers who were moving quickly somewhere. We asked them for better instructions and they were not very helpful. But they did confirm the reflector theory and said we should be on the top of the mountain, then disappeared quickly back into the trees. We continued on and and followed reflectors and “terrain associated” our way up. A little past midnight we heard voices and saw a large number of headlamps coming down from a ridge line. I am still very institutionalized from the military and I quickly turned off my headlamp and told Jon to do the same because I think everything in the night is an enemy and needs to be ambushed. He reminded me that we were in a race and they were likely other racers and we should go try to get information from them. But as it turns out they wanted the same from us. They were lost and looking terrible. It was a large group and we recognized some of them. The Glamazons were there and they yelled out “is that team Sean Jon?” (that we unknowingly had been named by other racers). They told us they had been wandering in the dark for hours. They all looked terrible and plopped down. Their group was like a cancer cell that metastasized. One lost racer linked onto another then more and more until they were just a group of lost, negative energy wandering through the woods. Jon and I wanted to get far away from them as we could sense they wanted to latch onto our positive energy and obvious sense of direction. One of the members of the Glamazons was sitting with her head in her hands and I told her to get up and stand with me. Without even looking up she said “I don’t want to”. That was the last time I ever saw her as Jon and I made up an excuse to get away from them. We told them we would go check another possible trail and one of the stronger members of their group went to check a different direction. We dropped down the hill a little and went “blacked out” turning off our head lamps and watching them. After a bit they all staggered to their feet and wandered on down the same trail they were sitting on. I had a feeling they were wandering off to find a place to quit. When the coast was clear Jon and I re-emerged and headed down what we guessed was a good trail. Sure enough as had happened all night the reflectors just kept popping up right about the time we thought we were on the wrong path. Up, up and up, as the hours past on. Finally we came across a severely steep muddy creek running down the side of the mountain and there was barbed wire strung across it that went up much farther than our head lamps could illuminate. I knew that meant we would be as well. Packs off, bodies down. I chose the technique of pushing the pack under each strand of barbed wire and then would crawl under to meet it. The water was cold and the mud was getting all over us. I estimate this went on for about the length of a football field, pretty much straight up. We came out at the end and saw another few racers returning from the top. They told us it was “WAY UP the hill!” Shit…. On we climbed. The race designers created a path up in the worst case scenario. Mud, vegetation, roots and rocks. No step was confident and when you did slip and fall you were punished with sharp hard objects impacting your body parts not to mention the weight shifting of the log slamming you onto the ground. This was getting ridiculously funny. After about 45 minutes of mud crawling we saw a little wood cabin on the horizon, literally at the top of the mountain. I walked inside and the two volunteers we had talked to earlier in the evening were sitting on a bench inside. We checked in and he asked us a few “safety administrative questions.” Are you hurt? Are you delirious? Do you want to continue? After we said of course we do he told us to “listen carefully, as it could help us buy our way out of a bad situation later.” So out came the pen and paper. “My name is Anthony Kessler. I have 6 brothers and sisters. My parents names are Angela and John. I was born in PA. When I was 6 I was attacked by a bear and I like peanuts.” He then told us to go back the way we had come from. We ate a small snack, powdered the chafed areas, took a piss and put on our packs. The walk back down was faster than coming up but just as punishing. I slipped a lot and several times took a sharp stick to my hands. We tumbled down the steep mountain side and picked up the trail just as the man who gave me the “5-minute advice” did as well. It was now time to walk back to Amee Farms and see what chore the sunrise would have for us.
The walk down was easier but the fact that we were approaching 35 hours into the race at this point the hallucinations were starting to set in. At one point I looked at a tree, and the bark illuminated in my head lamp registered in my eyes as the face of satan. Both Jon and I were hearing voices and our conversations were becoming a little less coherent. When we would stop to take our two minute rest periods I had to keep cutting them short because we were dozing off. I would listen to Jon’s breathing and when it became rhythmic I knew he was asleep and I would say loudly “Ruk up!” knowing that the disciplined soldier in both if us would immediately jump to our feet following orders. On we trudged. As we descended the mountain the sky began to grow lighter and sound of the river grew louder. We finally reached the bottom and were a few hundred feet above the Tweed River. As we peered through the trees in the darkness we could see what we thought were cars on a road. It was strange, they were moving so fast and there were so many of them as if the little town of Pittsfield had turned into a major metropolis with a rush hour on Sunday!? This made no sense and confused us severely. As we got closer we realized it was the white water of the rapids and that our mind was hallucinating again. Man we need the full sun rise to save us now. About one mile from the farm we needed just one more chance to rest. As I dug a snack out of my pack I could hear someones car stereo playing loud music. I commented to Jon that it was very rude of them to do that at 5am, keeping people awake. It didn’t make sense to be hearing it but it was clearly music with a bass rhythm and lyrics. As we leaned against our ruks resting Jon began talking about Joe Decker the leader. Next thing I realized I was talking about a major league baseball pitcher and how it wasn’t fair of the race organizers to expect us to be able to hit one of his pitches. It dawned on me that I was sleeping and then I heard Jon ask, “what are we talking about? I was asleep.” We had actually both fallen asleep and had a conversation together about two randomly separate subject. I said,”Jon we have to get up and move. This is getting bad.” As we walked on I could still hear the music and it was coming right from a little creek beside us. It was clear as day music, but it wasn’t at all. It was the flowing of water crashing against rocks and my brain just interpreted it as music. I hadn’t felt this since my days in Ranger School but luckily I knew what was happening and I also expected it to happen. Its just always shocking when it finally does. On we walked and we popped up from the trail into Amee Farm to a small group of people clapping for us because apparently not a lot of people returned successfully from that night.
We were immediately approached by one of the race organizers, Andy. He said “You tough mother fuckers just wont quit will you!?” He was referencing all of the 20 or so people who came in form the darkness not just Jon and myself. I answered, “You asked for the toughest athletes in the country. We came.” He pointed us to a large pile of wood and told us to chop it.
Chore #9: 5:00am. Cloudy sunrise skies / Temperature 50 degrees. Our pile was one of the last remaining ones so it was of course the shittiest selection of wood to chop. It was water soaked, large and full of wood like birch and other crap that makes your maul bounce like a rubber mallet. Because it had now become obvious to everyone that Jon and I would never separate, when we would be assigned our individual tasks they would just give us a huge portion equalling two peoples worth. We just started swinging. I took 5 swings and Jon took 5. This was a tough morning for me. My energy was low and I kept having to rest my hands on my knees and gasp for air like a fish out of water. Eventually the pile got smaller. Jon started talking about the coffee Penny could bring him and I was simply interested in some more energy bars, a 5-hour energy and an Aleve. After we finished with our wood pile we were then sent to move 10 large rocks from a pile into a line along a driveway. In essence our final chores of the race were for us all to put the farm back into working order after the destruction of the week. About this time Jon was asking if I thought Penny was awake and I had to laugh because he was “jonesing” for some warm coffee. We walked up to the yard of the Bed and Breakfast where Penny was staying and waited like some starving lost puppies, staring up into the building we were unauthorized to enter. Right on cue my wonderful fiance came bounding out of the door apologizing for over sleeping and had coffee in her hands for Jon. She was upset about not being there in the dark when we returned from the night and acted like not being up before 6am was over sleeping. I was amazed she had even gotten up by then after the exhausting long hours she had pulled taking care of us to that point. Penny got me fresh socks, some yummy supplements and caffeine. I was rejuvenated and ready to do some more chores.
Our next assignment was to go cut down enough trees to equal 60 feet in length and bring it back to the wood pile, then saw it into 2 foot sections (firewood). They didn’t say they had to be big trees so I chose some little saplings and sawed right through them. While we were making the sections there was a young racer who was working on his pile. He truly had the worst pile I had ever seen. As part of our required items list we could either bring and ax or a maul. The decision came down to an ax being lighter but a maul having the ability to split large logs. This kid chose an ax to travel lightly and was now paying severely for it. It looked like he was using a chisel to split large logs. He was never going to finish his pile and the “race volunteer” saw me looking at him. His parents were standing by watching their some refuse to give up but fighting an impossible battle. The race volunteer said, “Fuck this, this is ridiculous. If you all three work on this pile of wood you can be done and move on.” We jumped up and grabbed our mauls and started helping this kid chop his pile. It fucking sucked! I had one tree stump that I cut on for an hour. Finally it was all gone and Jon and and I quickly grabbed our gear and ran away from the wood area in fear of them assigning us more. We reported to the check in point and were assigned our next chore.
Chore #10: 10:00am, Sunday. Cloudy skies / Temperature 55 degrees. Upon listening to this chore briefed it sounded horrible. We would put on all our gear (including the log we had hoped would be removed by this point) and walk 4 miles back up to “Colt Inn” where we had been yesterday. There we would be given an empty 5 gallon bucket and we would then return back to Amee Farm. Fill the bucket up to an unspecified amount and walk it back to “Colt Inn” There they would measure it and if we brought the “secret amount” correctly we would be released to travel the grueling 6 more miles to Rogers Onion Shop to drop of our log and return the 10 miles to Amee Farm.
I simply thought “shit”. My feet by this point were raw. The skin had become so water logged that it was nearing the point of whats called “slothing” in which large pieces of skin just simply let go and fall off. Its very painful. My inner thighs and the accompanying anatomy of that area were chaffed to the point that GoldBond powder wasn’t helping anymore. My legs and shoulders were screaming with soreness and my fatigue level was very high. This was the time in which my training was going to have to carry me on. We say something in the military and at my gym, “Embrace the Suck.” I had to commit my mind to walk through all moments of pain and discomfort and be committed to finish. I said to myself that I would walk step after step until they told me to stop or I fall over dead. We put our packs on and began the painful 4 miles up the mountain. We talked a lot to keep our minds off the pain and we even had about a 30 minute session in which we mimicked Joe and Andy the two race organizers. It was cruel but endearing. We retrieved our buckets and headed back to the Farm.
During the Friday night race briefing at the church they had told us that all racers must be back in the church at 3pm sharp on Sunday or be removed from the race. This was strange and left many ideas and theories in our head but we weren’t about to risk missing the time hack. The problem this presented us was that we would not have time to complete this task and make it there. Our required church time was less than 4 hours away and we had a hike ahead of us that was at least 8 hours in duration. My plan was to go back to the farm. Fill our buckets to the very top just to be on the safe side to avoid being sent back down the mountain to try again. We created a spill proof lid using garbage bag and duct tape, a great idea that we had gotten from some racers we saw ahead of us. While we did this a CNN news crew interviewed us. This only left two hours before the required church meeting. What would have to happen is that immediately following the meeting we would return to our gear. Say goodbye to everyone and disappear up the mountain not to return until the next morning. We got our gear prepped for night time travel. Fresh batteries in the headlamps, food accessible without looking and filled up CamelBacks. Then we laid down on the ground and used this opportunity to take our fist nap in almost 43 hours. It began to sprinkle so I draped my rain jacket over me and Jon crawled inside the garbage bag that had become his trademark “poor mans rain coat”. We fell asleep instantly and it was like I was at home in bed. I woke up after about 45 minutes and my body was more stiff and sore than ever. It took me 15 minutes of stumbling around to get loose enough to walk. Also this nap caused my brain to give up and when I woke up I didn’t want to continue this race. I had to walk off to a place where no one was around me and have a “come to Jesus meeting’ with myself. When I emerged I was more determined than at any point in this entire race. I woke Jon up and told him that we had a race to finish. His eyes had a moment of staring at me in which I knew nobody was home. But then just like the Jon I know he appeared, rose to his feet and started working. We got everything prepped. Put a clean wind breaker jacket over our race clothing and put on fresh tennis shoes to go to church (we were instructed not to dishonor the church by showing up muddy). As we piled into the pews there was a much smaller crowd this time. On Friday night there were 154 racers. Now there was less then 30 sitting. All the “characters” of the race began to appear. Everyone of the volunteers were there. All the people from the check points. It reminded me of the day I was “released” from SERE School. All the characters that had cause my misery were standing along side us symbolizing the end of training. This felt similar but I didn’t want to release that poison into my mind. I wasn’t finished with all the tasks they assigned me and I had work to do. Joe Desena arrived and informed us that they were sending someone to rescue Ray off the mountain that Jon and I had been on the night before. Ray was found walking around shoeless and in circles. That is a major symptom of delirium and hypothermia and I thank God they found him because he would not have stopped trying until he died. Ray is too cool to die just yet, but with his determination I feel confident he will be found dead on the side of some mountain some day with a fistful of mud that he clung to in one last effort to continue forward. When they brought him into the church he had returned to consciousness and Joe began talking. “We have 4 people who have completed all the tasks required of them. If you still have to leave this church and go back up the mountain raise your hand.” Our hands went up and he counted 21 hands. He then turned to Ray and said, “Are you quitting or are you still in this race?” Ray said “If you will let me go back up I have a race to finish.” We all nodded our heads in agreement. Joe responded, “The race is finished. If your hand is in the air your have finished the 2011 Death Race. It went longer than we ever intended. The conditions were worse than we knew they would be. We kept adding tasks trying to get you to quit but you just wont. You just wont quit. Congratulations, you are finished.”
An applause erupted and my throat choked up with pride the same way it did when I stood on the graduation field of Ranger School and the Special Forces course. I joined this race because ever since I left the Army I have had a strange feeling that I was a pussy, weak and that I ran from a war that wasn’t finished. I questioned myself if I was any longer tough enough to reach the brink and continue on. I did it! I had every intention of walking until they told me I had to go home and thats exactly what happened. I was finished with the 2011 Death Race at 45 hours and 24 minutes and I did it with a friend that I rarely get to see anymore. I did it on the week that I will turn 33. I at 33 years old, performed to the caliber that I did when I was 23 years old. And Im not done yet.
I prepared for this race intensely. I trained for months, I competed in multiple races and CrossFit competitions but in the end it couldn’t have been done with out some very important people helping me. The week before the competition in one of my last training sessions I had an accident and a large piece of metal fragmented off a maul I was working with. Pieces lodged into my chest, shoulder and left calve muscle. I retrieved the ones from my upper body myself at home but had to turn to Brad Gosdin and Debbie Hayes of the Shelby County Memorial Hospital to help me. They got me in touch with two generous and skilled surgeons named Dr. Woods and Dr. Scoffield. Those two doctors worked me into their busy schedule that very day and I had a minor surgery just 4 days before the race removing a piece of metal from beneath my left calve muscle. It was lodged against a nerve and had taken away my ability to bear weight on that leg. The next day Traci Smith, one of my favorite people on this earth, began an intense two day therapy routine that left me severely bruised and unable to walk. She worked tirelessly for a total of 4 hours of her personal time to force my clave muscle to release and pass through the trauma stage. When I arrived at Amee Farm I was hobbling up the stairs of the hotel just 12 hours from the race start. Once the race began I never once had pain, or hesitation in a leg that just 3 days previous was crippled. It wouldn’t have happened with out the care of the friends I have made at my Training Facility. Thank you.
Most importantly is my beautiful Fiance Penny. She stood by me as I trained for hours and talked incessantly about this race. She stood in the rain and stayed awake all night making sure I had everything I needed to succeed. I love her, she is the best. I don’t know if I could have broken through the walls I hit along the way if I hadn’t had Jon there with me. He gave me a distraction from the discomfort and he also gave me confidence because I knew he was a witness to the soldier version of myself that I was trying to see if I could still harness and unleash.
The 2011 Death Race was a success because I had great people backing me up and pushing me towards success. That is why I have decided next year to run this race again. But this time I will take it one step further. I will travel and compete alone. No partner, no support. Just myself and my thoughts. I will go into the Green Mountains of Vermont once again to battle my demons and fight to return from the darkness triumphant. Training begins very soon.
“See you at the top of the hill.”
- Sean Dickson