Well, here it is, my recap of the Peak (a.k.a “Spartan”) Death Race. It’s long, and detailed, and probably full of typos. So don’t hesitate to skip over sections and scan the photos instead. Photos of the event are also available here, here, and here.
Before I begin though, I kind of feel the need to explain why it has taken me so long to blog about it. First and foremost, I’ve been absolutely swamped with work related to my Ph.D. dissertation (which is coming along nicely, by the way, thanks for asking). The second reason is that for some time after the event, I honestly didn’t know how I felt about it. I had a lot of sorting to do around my own thoughts and feelings about the event itself as well as how it ended for me. Ultimately, I didn’t want to blog about it until I had an adequate grasp on those thoughts and feelings. So now that I do (more or less), let me get started. (I should also note here that my memory of some of the details may be a little off. There was a lot going on and I’m not sure I’ll be able to remember everything in the correct order.)
The commute to Vermont was fairly unremarkable. Mid-afternoon before race day, I landed in Boston, picked up my rental car (a process that took nearly as long as my flight), and made the 3-hour drive to Pittsfield. Along the way, I stopped in Warner, New Hampshire, to buy a styrofoam cooler, ice, and food for the race. I had packed a lot of stuff with me already, but still needed some essentials:
- 12 bagels
- 20 bananas
- 2 large containers of dolmathakia
- 2 large containers of potato salad
- 400g plain potato chips plain
- Snickers bars
After loading up the cooler, I hit the road again and arrived in Pittsfield just before 9pm as the pre-race day registration was wrapping up. I signed the lengthy waiver form, got my Peak Races shirt, hoodie, and cap, and I took off for Rutland – a town about 20 minutes from Pittsfield – to track down some dinner and a hotel. Applebee’s and the Holiday Inn. Yup, not proud. Have you ever eaten in an Applebee’s by yourself? If so, give me a call and we can commiserate. That was a new low.
Returned to the hotel, set the alarm for 5:30am, and after my long day of travel, I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow.
After waking up to “Time” by Hans Zimmer (which I guess has become my go-to song for waking up on race days), I savoured the last shower I would have for a couple of days, got my gear loaded into the car, and headed to Riverside Farm in Pittsfield – an incredible property owned by Joe De Sena, one of the co-founders of both the Death Race and the Spartan Race series. After arriving at Riverside, I unloaded my gear, pitched my tent, threw my gear inside, and headed over to registration to exchange my car keys and driver’s license for my race bib…#159. Shortly after returning to my tent, Jesse Cox (another racer from Winnipeg) came by and we chatted for a bit. He didn’t have a tent so he threw his gear in mine.
Riverside Farm. Perfect weather for a race.
Ready for…whatever this is.
At around 8:30am, race briefing began. We were all herded into a holding area with our packs and they went over the rules.
All the standard rules: listen to race officials, cut-off times are strictly enforced, and so on. And then some not-so-standard stuff, like if you find a dead racer in the forest, don’t just leave them there, tell somebody. They finished the briefing at 8:50am and told us the race would start right at 9am sharp. The first task, was to run to the top of “Joe’s Mountain” (which was directly behind us) without our packs and we would be given instructions at the top. After a few minutes, I decided to go hit the porta-potty for one last pre-race pee, and as I went to line up, the race started…five minutes early! What the…?! As I began sprinting to the trailhead to the top of the mountain, I thought to myself “Why would they do that? Why would they start the race five minutes early? Hmmmm…..”
After arriving at “Shrek’s Cabin” at the top, we were given a phrase to memorize (“Shackleton only had one nut”) and then had to race back down to headquarters to recall it and retrieve our packs. I raced back down to headquarters in 15th place, recalled the phrase, and went to grab my pack from the holding pen. Glancing over at the holding pen where our packs were left, we discovered that our packs had been thrown into a single giant pile and our task was to locate our own in the mess. Luckily, my pack was yellow and on top, and stood out like a sore thumb (see below).
After the early race start, the mind games continue.
After grabbing it I headed back up the mountain where we then instructed to continue down the back side of the mountain. After a 10-minute descent I arrived at a pile of giant stones as a part of the lead pack in the race. The next task? Move one of the stones approximately one half mile around (and up!) the mountain, to the path we took to the top. The stones would then be used to build the steps. Okay, that’s easy, I’ll just pick one of the smaller ones (which were still big) and be on my way. Nope. They assigned them to us based on our gender and physical size. And all the biggest rocks were on the top of the pile, which meant the first group of racers who arrived (us) were assigned the biggest rocks. Someone mumbled “The Death Race…just because you’re in the lead, doesn’t mean you’re winning.” I was quickly learning that the Death Race was not really a “race” at all.
(Photo courtesy of Jesse Cox)
After being assigned one of the larger rocks in the pile, I secured my rope around it, and began dragging. This rope was not up to the task and was completely shredded within 200 yards. So I covered the remaining distance by using a combination of strategies: flipping the stone end over end; dragging it using large branches as a cradle; and pairing up with others who were having the same problem. Eventually, after about an hour and a half, my rock found its home at the top of the steps and I was instructed to either go back and get a second rock or help someone with theirs. So over the next few hours, I alternated between helping others carry their rocks and building the path by digging the spots where the stones would sit. Some racers worked very hard, some went into hiding, but most just wandered around looking busy. Some racers got “caught” doing nothing by Joe De Sena and were punished, while others just seemed to coast along. There also appeared to be some favouritism going on, as in DR veterans who were overlooked by staff if they were doing nothing. But who really knows what was going on…it was all very, very weird stuff.
At one point, I decided to set my pack down on the side of the path, and when I wasn’t looking it was promptly thrown into the forest by the race organizers’ kids, who, unbeknownst to us, were actually instructed to do that. As I spent the next 20 minutes wading through the stinging nettles in the surrounding forest trying to locate my bag, I again began to ask myself just what kind of race this was supposed to be. It seemed less about completing extremely difficult physical and mental challenges and more about completing moderately difficult physical and mental challenges while simultaneously having your head screwed with. Having your head screwed with, I suppose, was the primary source of the “emotional” challenges they advertise.
Building the stone stairway.
Me on the far left. Always look for the white visor :)
I don’t recall exactly how many hours we spent dragging rocks up the mountain to build those steps, but eventually they called us into one big group and began “releasing” us in the order in which we arrived back at headquarters after the first summit of Joe’s Mountain. So I was released 15th, and as I arrived back at headquarters, a staff member intercepted me and told me there were two bib 159’s, and that I was going to be bib 159.5 from now on as she scribbled a “.5” on the front of my bib with a felt marker. This was no joke, by the way, and it wasn’t a one-off mistake either; race organizers had actually handed out dozens of duplicate bib numbers. This error (I’m assuming it was an error) ended up causing a lot of confusion for friends and family members who were trying to follow specific racers online. However, this problem was moot since the event organizers didn’t update racers’ progress online anyway.
We were then told to grab a section of log and take it along with our packs to the top of Bloodroot Mountain where we would be assigned our next task. The hike up Bloodroot was long but not technical, though the task at the top was a bit tricky. With the section of log we brought, we were told to “make a cup that a cup fits within and the freshest of water to drink”, which basically meant that we had to somehow create a hole in the log that a small jar would fit inside and then retrieve fresh water from somewhere. People were doing all kinds of weird stuff to pass this test. Some were trying to burn a hole in the log, some were trying to hollow it out with tiny knives and corkscrews (see below).
Top of Bloodroot Mountain for the cup-within-a-cup task.
I had nothing in my pack to create a hole with; I only had a hand saw. So I decided to cut out a quarter section of the log and then cut the log in half lengthwise. I then bungeed the two segments together and stuffed the bottom of the hole with leaves so it would hold the jar. Looking down on it from above, it kind of looked like this (logs are black, jar is blue):
Not pretty but getting it done.
Although it wasn’t fancy, I thought it might be good enough, so I rushed back down the path about 200 yards to the nearest stream, filled a Ziplock bag with fresh water, and ran back up to have the cup inspected. After passing the test, and having the water dumped on my head, I started my descent back down Bloodroot. Darkness fell on the way back down and the headlamp came out.
I arrived at race headquarters at around 11:15pm. We were told we had two tasks to complete before leaving headquarters again for the next longer challenge. The first task was to use the four yards of buckskin we brought to create an outfit that we would wear for the remainder of the race. We were told it needed to be two pieces (a top and a bottom) and had to have at least 108 stitches. Once we completed that task, we would be given instructions for the second task. Before starting on the first task, I went back to my tent, dropped my pack, grabbed some food, and took my shoes and socks off. I decided to do this next challenge barefoot to let my feet rest and cool down. As any ultra-endurance athlete will tell you, good foot care is absolutely critical during a race. (If you want examples of what happens to racers that ignore this, either do a google image search on “ultramarathon blisters” or go check Peak’s FB site and scroll down to photos in early July. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Race headquarters at dusk.
Just before I started on the first task, at around 11:30pm, one of the race organizers got on the bullhorn and told us that anyone who was still inside the pen (where we were required to complete the two tasks) at midnight was going to have to do 500 burpees as a penalty. Okay, I had to think and move fast! I decided to go with the kilt look. I cut and sewed together a skirt with maximum range of motion so it wouldn’t restrict my movement during running, hiking, and whatever else I was going to have to do. I also weaved buckskin lacing through the belt line to create a belt of sorts, which I synched tight so there was no chance it would fall down. I then cut a quasi-poncho-type top which was more like a cape that was sewn together around the front. This style also maximized range of motion and made it easy to pull on and off if needed. After sewing the 108 stitches, I put on my new sexy outfit and I presented it to the task coordinator. After approval, I moved on to the next task.
A different kind of sweatshop.
The next task was to get a new section of log and alter it so that a porcupine quill could drop through its center. Importantly, if the log broke or split – in addition to having to start over – there was a penalty. I quickly ran to the pile of logs and selected a log with a narrow diameter. Again, using my hand saw, I cut a thin pie slice out of the log so the center was exposed but so the log remained intact. I took it to the task coordinator and dropped the quill through the center with 4 minutes to spare before the midnight burpee penalty. And as it turned out, the 500-burpee penalty was a lie: there would be no penalty for anyone in the pen after midnight. More mind games.
I then returned to my tent, put on some dry socks, a fresh pair of shoes (I started with Asics Fujiracers and transitioned here to Asics Kahanas for additional stability), and loaded up my pack with food and water. While I was preparing to set back out, at 15 hours in, Jesse Cox returned to the tent and told me he was calling it quits. This was his longest race to date…a very impressive performance. Huge congrats to him.
At headquarters, they gave us instructions for our next long challenge. We were to head for several miles into the mountains, up a series of paths and roads, to meet “Gilke” at Gilke’s Cabin. There, he would provide us with our next challenge. In order to find our way there, were given a set of instructions – directions for what paths to take and distances for various unmanned checkpoints. I’m not going to mince words here: as it turned out, one of the distances that was provided was extremely inaccurate and/or misleading. I don’t know if this was done deliberately, but it wouldn’t surprise me in light of the fact that we were being lied to on a regular basis. However, I digress.
In the forest that night, I got lost a couple of times. I had to retrace my steps, backtrack for hundreds of yards, and second-guess the instructions I was given. Eventually, I found my way to Gilke, but others weren’t so fortunate; in the pitch black forest, many veered off onto the wrong trails (who could blame them?) – trails that were much closer to where the instructions claimed the trails were supposed to be. Unfortunately, these trails led them off into the middle nowhere or even back into town, which effectively ended some of their races. The only reason I stayed on correct trail is because the instructions claimed the correct trailheads were also marked by orange ribbons (that were barely visible). At one point, in order to stay on the correct trail, you actually had to stubbornly ignore the distance they provided. Specifically, even though the instructions noted a 0.5-mile from one checkpoint to the next trailhead, the distance (as measured by a fellow racer’s GPS) was actually over 2 miles! Can you imagine how anxiety evoking it is to walk that extra 1.5 miles in a dark, isolated, unfamiliar landscape at night with no indication that you’re even going the right way? Yikes. That wasn’t fun.
Despite those challenges, that hike was also one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had. On that moonless and cloudless Friday night, when the forest opened up, there were hundreds of thousands of stars carpeting the sky and the Milky Way was crystal clear. On the ground, there was a low-lying mist that blanketed the meadows, and hundreds of fireflies sparked in and out of sight all around me. On several occasions, I actually stopped, turned off my headlamp, and reconnected with that bigger picture. This, I thought, is what life is all about. It’s not about racing, or money, or PhDs…it’s about this, right now, right here, this moment of silence…this moment of stillness beneath the chaos.
Arriving at Gilke’s Cabin, a few race staff members were sitting around a bonfire. I was told I needed to build an axe using wood and stone from the surrounding area, and then cut down a sapling that was marked at the end of another trail. I quickly grabbed my hand saw and cut two 2.5′ sections of wood and used hockey tape to secure a big rock with a sharp edge to the end. I also reenforced the shaft of the axe with hockey tape so the whole axe was solid. After presenting the axe for approval, I ran through a swamp and down the trail to where the saplings had been marked. I began chopping down the sapling which actually went surprisingly fast. The final bit was tough, so it took some twisting to get the sapling to break. I ran it back and was asked if I brought a bucket. “A bucket? Why would I bring a bucket? It wasn’t on the mandatory gear list.”…he replied “If you did your homework, you’d know that every Death Race involves a bucket. The penalty is 1500 burpees.” Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh…..
Okay, so I was up there for quite a while with many others…doing burpees…and I took a brief nap. I then got the green light to make my way back to headquarters. The view on the hike down was also incredible. The sunrise was slow and transitioned through every possible hue of dark blue and purple, and through red, orange, and yellow. Daybreak is always a special experience when you’re doing an ultra-endurance race because the night is often cold and long, and you feel closed in (though it is often peaceful too). So when day breaks with a beautiful sunrise, it’s even better…almost euphoric. That morning, the horizon once again appeared and eventually the golden light lit up the fog in the valley below.
On the way down from Gilke’s Cabin. Daybreak on Saturday.
The euphoria was short lived. We arrived back at headquarters and were instructed to do 100 backwards somersaults in the holding pen. Completing this task resulted in severe …unadulterated…nausea. Some of the other racers were buzzing through this task, but I clearly have a sensitive vestibular system, and I struggled. It took a good 10 minutes of relaxation breathing afterward to get my head to stop pushing my stomach’s “eject” button. I never ended up puking, but I came close. And on some level, after all those energy bars on the way to Gilke and back, I kind of wished I had.
After the backward somersaults, we were told to hike back up to Shrek’s Cabin with our pack on and back down again for another 50 burpees. We were also given three names (which I’ve since forgotten) to memorize at the base and recall at the top.
The orienteering challenge was next and, at this point, the few of us that were moving on to this challenge were told that we were the lead group…and that we were wayyyyy ahead of schedule. Despite being ahead of schedule, they handed us the maps and briefed us on the task. As they explained it, the objective was to collect a total four points by hitting different checkpoints that were located throughout the region (see the map below). Some of the checkpoints were located closer to headquarters or were easier to find, and thus they were worth fewer points. Alternatively, some were located farther away or were harder to find, and they thus were worth more points. The trick was to select which checkpoints would get you the four points in the shortest amount of time.
At this point, I joined up with Dan Grodinski, Amelia Boone, and a few others, and we strategized around how best to tackle the challenge as a team. After some discussion, we agreed to hit the two most distant checkpoints (Hayes Brook and the Iron Mine; 3 points and 2 points, respectively) because they were likely easy to locate and didn’t involve much elevation change. So we packed up our gear and headed off into the valley.
Prepping for departure.
My ridiculous skirt.
Here’s the part where I thank the Manitoba Orienteering Association (MOA) for their assistance. As part of my Death Race training, I decided to join MOA to learn to orienteer, and ran a number of orienteering races prior to the Death Race to do this. The folks at MOA showed me the ropes in terms of wilderness way finding. The Hayes Brook was relatively easy to find, but finding the most direct route to the Iron Mine on the way back required some orienteering skills. So thanks guys! It paid off.
So we made short work of the orienteering challenge and arrived back at race headquarters several hours before the cut-off time for that challenge. As a way of killing time, they next had us weave our way in, out, and under the fence that bordered the holding pen while dragging our bags behind us. Kind of hard to explain. It wasn’t enjoyable, but it wasn’t the worst thing they had us do. That would come later.
With our packs on, we headed back up to Shrek’s Cabin where we had to build a bow drill and start a fire with it. This task was not easy, and it was also scorching hot on top of the mountain to boot. I was actually pretty lucky. I found some shade and tracked down some good materials to build the drill, and after about a half an hour of struggling, I managed to get a tiny fire started. While I was doing this, I witnessed rampant cheating by many racers. People were using matches and lighters, and the whole scene was just a bit of a joke. I’m not saying this as a criticism of those racers; I’m saying it as a criticism of the event. The New York Times described the Peak Death Race as a combination of Jackass and Survivor, and I was starting to truly understand and appreciate the accuracy of that statement. There were certainly some interesting challenges, but there was no real structure to the race, there was no fairness, and there were plenty of lies, manipulation, and mind games on the part of race organizers. I really didn’t know how to respond to what I was going through at the time…so I just kept going.
Instructions for building a bow drill.
After getting the tiny fire started (it was more like a puff of smoke), I headed back down to headquarters and we were told to hike up Tweed River Drive for the next task. After hosing down to cool off and (again and again and again) topping up food and fluids, I started making my way up to the top of Tweed. Upon arrival, I witnessed one of the weirdest scenes I’ve ever encountered. I’m going to let the photos do most of the talking here.
First, we had to wait in line with our packs to talk to Jack Cary (the race organizer who came up with this next challenge). Jack was sitting at a table at the top of a gravel road giving instructions to racers.
When it was our turn, we went up, and he instructed us to dump all the belongings out of our bags onto a pile of barbed wire just off to his right. Everything had to be out of the bag and if we had bags inside the bag, we had to empty those out too. “If you have a bag of M&M’s,” he said “I want those emptied out on the ground”.
The beginning of the end for some of my gear (note this is early on before the remaining 80 racers behind us arrived).
Then, we had to wait in line again to receive a copy of the actual exam (pictured below).
The goal was to complete the exam with 100% accuracy. One wrong answer meant disqualification. You also weren’t allowed to talk or communicate in any way, with anyone, except for Jack. After receiving the exam, we had to do 100 push-ups to get a pencil.
Obviously, in order to complete the exam with 100% accuracy given the difficulty of the questions, we had to line up single file in order to ask one “yes or no” question at a time to Jack (as in “Is the answer to “Z” number 18?”). In order to ask one of these questions, in turn, you had to first do a 10- or 20-minute “relaxation exercise”. As you can probably guess, the “relaxation” in the title was a joke; these were gruelling exercises. Check them out here:
Stretching after another 10-minute plank.
I’m on the right (above). I only got to do this one once before they took it away for being “too easy”.
The exam continued for 9 hours total, in scorching heat, from 3pm to midnight. During that time, we weren’t allowed to eat, and for fluids we were allowed to go one at a time to drink out of a nearby creek. One race staff member was handing out snacks (like a bag of peanuts or a bite of a sandwich) to racers in exchange for push-ups, burpees, and/or squats. There was only a few of these snacks, 5 to 10 at most, so most of us went without. As the exam progressed into the night, racers (myself included) started to get restless. People were quitting or getting disqualified, and as a result, they were rifling through the pile of equipment and other racers’ belongings were getting destroyed and/or lost. Meanwhile, other racers who were still in the race, were forced to watch in frustrated silence as our equipment was trampled on and tossed in every direction. There’s no way to know this for sure, but it seemed to me that the race organizers knew that they had taken things too far, and just before midnight, they decided to call off the exam because the whole situation was completely out of hand.
Over those 9 hours, I managed to lock down 23 of the 26 answers, and with another 45 minutes or so, I would have completed the exam. But it was over, so we were told to line up for one last time, hand in our exam, and collect our belongings from the enormous mound of equipment. And then, “it” happened…
As I was two people away from the front of the line where I would finally hand in my exam, a race staff member bumped into me and, as I was mentally focused on completing the exam, I instinctively mumbled “sorry”. He turned around and immediately disqualified me from the race.
So at 39.5 hours in, my race was over. It wasn’t over because I quit. It wasn’t over because I had missed a time cut-off. Nope, it was over because I said sorry…because I was instinctively being polite. As it turned out, Amelia Boone had also been disqualified for the same thing (she whispered “excuse me” as she passed by someone) four hours earlier. Just brutal. However, as ridiculous a rule it was, it was still a rule, and I broke it. It was my responsibility (it took me over a week to own that).
After being disqualified, I made my way to the pile of equipment and salvaged what I could of my stuff. People (myself included) were furious that our equipment had been treated this way. People had cell phones and GPS’s broken, medication and asthma inhalers lost, and everything was just generally wrecked and/or strewn all over. Ultimately, my survival knife, thumb compass, and $100 cash (all of which we were on the mandatory gear list), were either lost or stolen. The race organizers refused to replace them.
So in the end, I didn’t earn the skull, and I’m okay with that. The skull, as it turns out, doesn’t really represent what I originally thought it did. I thought the Death Race would be about physical and mental endurance, and emotional challenges associated with those. However, it turns out that the Death Race (at least this year’s Death Race) is about obedience, and tolerating being degraded and disrespected while completing physically challenging tasks. And it was just a lot of hype.
I completely understand their claim that the race is supposed to mimic real life, and that life is sometimes unpredictable and unfair, and sometimes you just get screwed no matter what you do (even if you do everything right). Well if that was their objective, they definitely achieved it. However, the cost of doing that, I think, is that they’re going to lose the interest of a lot of self-respecting athletes year after year. They certainly lost mine. Now I’m certainly not judging those athletes that participate in the Death Race year after year; I guess I’m just saying “thanks but no thanks.” This one’s not for me.
So I’m not pleased with the outcome, but I’m happy with my race. With the exception of the one hiccup (i.e., the “sorry” that I will never regret), my physical and mental performance was tip-top. My race diet, equipment, strategies, and post-race recovery were all great as well…and I’m very, very pleased with that. I also had an amazing time trekking through the beautiful Vermont wilderness and, as usual, got to spend some time with some amazing athletes and people. I also accomplished many of the challenges with relative ease and that was a nice confidence boost. Having a disqualification was also a humbling experience, and I think I’ll be a better athlete for it. Yes, I failed to complete this event…and surprise surprise…the sun still rose the next morning. Life goes on…and life is good.
So there’s really not much else to tell. After being DQed, I descended back down Tweed River Drive (which, by the way, was one of the longest and crappiest walks of my life) in complete shock of what had just happened. I packed up my gear, was cleared by medical staff, and left for a hotel, arriving at around 5am. The next day, I headed back down to Boston where I met up with friends Christy and Kevin. The day after that, we hit up a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. It was a warm sunny evening. I was with good company. I had a couple of hot dogs and an ice cold beer. Yes, things were good again.
So that’s that. Although I will continue to process what happened in Vermont, and how the experience fits into my life and with my understanding of myself, for the most part, the Peak Death Race is way behind me. Overall, the experience was another good reminder of how easy it is for me to sometimes fall back into the groove of chasing awards, recognition, accolades…and meaningless skulls. And in that groove, it’s easy to lose my vision of what my life is truly about: self-respect, integrity, self-compassion, and even deeper still, a respect and appreciation for the natural world around me, as well as for the people with whom I share it.
So in moving forward this year, I will go back. Back to my roots. Specifically, I’ll be returning to the World Championship Tough Mudder event (a.k.a. World’s Toughest Mudder), which takes place in Las Vegas on November 15-16, 2014. I also plan to take on the Canadian Death Race in the summer of 2015, where I’ll try to shatter my personal record on that course. As a fun training run, I’ll also be doing Tough Mudder Calgary on September 6th. Depending on how these go, I may shoot for bigger races, but that’s a decision for later time. For now, it’s about this moment.