Note: Peak Races' Death Race was recently ranked in the Top 10 Most Insane Endurance Races on the Planet. It's a 60+ hour endurance race in the mountains of VT. About 300 start the race and only 10%-15% ever finish. The deeper and further you go into the Death Race, the more you discover about yourself. This year’s theme, Year of the Explorer, was spot on in metaphor. Sure, we had to wear buckskins and make axes and create fire, but truly, DR goes beyond the obvious. It’s a one-of-kind event setup to force Death Racers to shed the conventions of society and explore and call upon the hidden reaches of our minds, bodies and souls.
Out of 300 Death Racers who started the race, 64 collected their skulls after 66+ hours of playing the game. I was literally death racer, 65 (55+ hours deep into the race), late Sunday afternoon. I missed the last time drop by just a few seconds, steps and yards in the sprint from Borden’s house to Riverside.
It was late Sunday afternoon and I was standing at the entrance to the corral of Riverside Farm, with Johnny (a race director), waiting for just “one more” racer to show up. That's all I needed so I could move on to the next phase of my Death Race journey.
While I was waiting, I looked back and reflected on my race so far, which was really a race against myself. I crushed every time trial and passed every hard cut off. But what happened in between was an epic adventure:
The race started at 9am Friday. In summary, that day would be grueling combination of moving boulders weighing 200-300 pounds for more than a mile through the mountains for many hours to build a staircase, followed by 10 mile hike up to Bloodroot (peppered in were hundreds of burpees, back and front rolls).
After our 10 mile hike with full pack and insanely steep ascents, we reached the top of Bloodroot. What I saw looked straight out the scene of Apocalypse Now: Countless death racers spread out across the woods, fires crackling, smoke rising, and Don’s voice bellowing, calling out, “Bring me a container for my cup and fresh cold water.”
We, my racing partner Wayne, saw death racers frantically trying to hollow out the logs that we had to carry to Bloodroot, so we began to use our axes and knives to hollow out our logs too. After 90 minutes of chipping away at that damn log and getting cold water from a nearby stream, we went to the Don, to test our works. FAILED!!! Our hollowed out logs weren’t deep enough.
A second attempt still FAILED. It was now dark and we heard Don shout out, “You have 9 minutes to bring me my container and fresh water or you’re out of the race.” At this point, the pressure was on and instead of buckling under it, Wayne and I broke out our saws to cut through the hollow ring in the log. We got creative and I placed my Mentos bottles to elevate the hole between the log and my fresh ring, then I ducted taped that SOB. I ran up to Don, with 3 minutes left, who looked at my container and said, “What the hell is that?!” At first, I thought I was done, but he smiled and placed in his cup and said, “You pass, now get out!” Wayne had the same success and we were finished and hiked another 10 miles back to Riverside Farm.
We would learn a great lesson here. Don never said bring him a wooden container. Earlier a death racer brought Don his running shoe as a container, which the cup fit. That racer was told to quickly leave so others didn’t see it. So, the genius of DR was now becoming more apparent.
I learned that there are rules, but those rules couldn’t or shouldn’t be treated as face value. This lesson would serve me well and help me go deep into the race. You can play by the rules, but you can, improvise. Some would call this cheating or cutting corners, but it’s a level playing field in the race. Plus, no one said Death Race, or life for that matter, was fair!!! Game on!!!
We arrived back to Riverside Farm from Bloodroot about 3am Saturday morning – 20 miles of rucking done. The next task was visit Pocahontas who was issuing assignments at a teepee next to a roaring fire in the corral. She instructed that we would take our buckskins and make a top and bottom using 108 stitches. Also, we had to take our logs and saw to the middle to create a big enough slot for our porcupine quell to fall through the center of it.
I walked back to my ruck/work site a bit troubled. I chucked my log back at the top of Bloodroot, so I’m now without a log and at risk of being DNF (Did Not Finish). I decided to worry about it later and began to sew my buckskin.
Threading a needle at 0330 in the morning and being far sighted was a challenge, but I did it. I won’t say how many stitches I did, but let’s say it was a token amount that I was willing to gamble on. I needed that time to figure out and find a damn log.
I spotted near the teepee a big pile of logs that apparently passed the quell test, taken from racers earlier, and now being used to fuel the fire. So in the dark, I ninja crawled around the back of the teepee, out of the light of the fire and scored me one pre-cut log. Yes!!!! It needed some additional sawing to ensure I passed the quell test, so after 10 minutes, I was ready to present my buckskin and log to Pocahontas. I passed the task and Wayne and I were off to our next adventure.
After gearing up and fueling, we went on another 10 mile hike to a place called Gilke. We saw the most beautiful sunrise and clouds below in the mountains. Will never forget it. I will also never forget what death racers were sharing with us coming back from Gilke: “When they ask you if you have a bucket, don’t say no!” If you answered no, then you would have to do 1500 burpees. Sure enough, when we came upon Gilke, we saw racers pounding the ground with burpees.
We decided not to check in just yet. We observed the scene and off to side, we spotted an orange bucket next to a pickup truck. After seeing the “process” we checked in. Our task was to build an axe, chop down a tree and carry water with our buckets. When time came for us to be asked about our bucket, where I would say yes, an ambitious racer jumped in front of me to answer the question, where she said NO. I used this racer like a fullback blocking the linebacker, I just walked by the director and headed to the truck and the bucket with Wayne. Task done, no penalties and we beat the system. Back to Riverside.
On our way back to Riverside, my support crew and trainer, Sheryl a.k.a. Yoda, intercepted us about a half mile up the trail from Riverside. She asked if we had our axes from Gilke? We didn’t…apparently, we should have brought them back to be tested. If not, then hundreds of rolls back and front. So Wayne and I broke out our para cord, duct tape and knifes and ad hoc new axes. The test was to see if our axe could chop wood and then withstand a blow by a real axe.
So I cut off some of my smelly, sweat soaked buckskin and taped it around the handle to act as webbing to diffuse the blow of the axe, then reinforced it with more duct tape. We then checked in at Riverside for the test. Borden was impressed with my axe. It passed the chopping. He had a second opinion chopper try and my axe still withstood the blows. So now, Borden took his axe and bam, my makeshift axe was in pieces. DAMN!!!! For partially passing, I got an easy 100 back rolls in the sun.
This is where the pressure turned up on us in the Death Race.
We arrived at Riverside around 1130am and we now had an orienting task to pass in time for the 4pm cutoff. We had 4 or 5 locations to choose from to accumulate 4 pts…each location had a hole punch for our cards. The further away the location, the more points it was worth. We didn’t have much time. In fact, we were behind the 8 ball.
We decided to go after the two farthest points (Ironside and Haynes) so we can get the 4 needed with extra to spare. Now, there weren’t any specific “Don’ts” or rules on how to get there and back. We had Sheryl, my crew accompany us, she helped us force march up Lower Michigan and up the trails.
At this stage of DR, use every tool in your tool box. If it’s not in not in the box, then create the opportunity. This is when I suggested to both Sheryl and Wayne, we needed to get a ride. So after trekking for a bit on Lower Michigan, which led to the trails, we scored a ride. It didn’t hurt to have a crew member who is an attractive woman help flag down unsuspecting accomplices.
Getting in/out those cars, I was humming Mission Impossible theme. Those drivers who let two smelly and sweating racers in their cars, went above the call of duty.
Although the impromptu rides back and forth on Lower Michigan didn’t cover much distance, it did help bank vital minutes we needed. Some would shout out cheater, but I say, if Captain Kirk can find a way to beat the Kobayashi Maru, then improvising was fine with me.
I got a huge belly laugh when I saw another death racer on the trail cranking out some speed on a mountain bike. Death Race, like life, again rewards those who take risks, show initiative or push the envelope.
We got back to Riverside with 30 minutes to spare and made the 4pm cutoff.
Our next task was to go up Joe’s Mountain to make fire with a bow. Unlike earlier racers who spent hours trying to make a fire with a bow, we knew the instructions simply said make fire with the bow et. al. in your hand. It didn’t say you couldn’t use a match in the other hand. Bam. Up and down Joe’s mountain in warp speed.
MY DNF & RESURRECTION AT TWEED
Tweed was the next task and it was the most controversial task in the entire race. In short, the race stopped at Tweed. The racer in first place arrived at 1230pm Saturday and by 10pm, all the racers in the race would be at Tweed. Not one racer would leave Tweed before midnight.
What was the hold up? A test that was rigged to fail.
I had heard about the grind that was Tweed and I decided with Wayne that we were in no rush to get up there. We changed our socks, ate and drank, and took a leisurely pace to Tweed. Sheryl told me not to answer the questions, but I completely forgot her advice and nearly blew my race and actually I would be DNF’d an hour later.
Upon arriving at Tweed, we were greeted by Andy Weinberg, the co-founder of Death Race, who was happy to report that death racers have been stuck at Tweed for hours, afraid to take the test. If you didn’t get 100%, then you were out of the race. Also, racers had to be silent. No talking. Andy told us that the racer who was second place was DNF’d when a director bumped into him and the racer said, “Excuse Me.” Out!!! His race was done. Many racers ended that way.
There was a moment where there was a lot of crying and commotion. I won’t go into detail, but it became very evident that Death Race, the mental screw, broke many elite athletes Saturday night. Advantage DR.
So around 10pm, we were now in the grind of Tweed. We had to either pay $100 or do 100 pushups to get a pencil to take the test. I did my 100 pushups. Good thing I counted correctly, because a volunteer from afar counted them too. If I had fudged just one, I would have been DNF’d.
So now, I’m taking the test of 26 questions that had to match 26 answers. We were allowed to ask the “professor” one question for the right answer on the test. But to get to the professor, we had to do insane yoga poses on gravel for stints of either 10 or 20 minutes, then get in line. The only way to take the test was to do this 26 times, which explains the grind and time delay.
I remembered what Andy told me saying that no one had the balls to take the entire test and hand it in. For some reason, which I still cannot explain, I took the entire test. I showed a volunteer who looked at me as if I was crazy. He said, “Are you sure?” I was then escorted straight to the professor. All activities stopped and zeroed in on my position before the professor who exclaimed, “We have our first racer who believes he has answered the entire test correctly.”
It was a rush. It was ballsy. But very quickly, it would become bone headed. I stood before the professor with all the death racers watching. The professor began to grade my test, a test I knew was rigged. He looked up and said, “You failed.” At that moment, my ballsy move now become a bone head move. I handed over my bib and my race was over at 11pm, just an hour away from the midnight cut off.
What the hell did I just do??!!! I just threw away my race for bravado. I got caught up in the moment. I had plenty of juice to put into the race, why did I do it?
Sheryl and her husband Doug couldn’t believe it. They were rightfully pissed. Did I do it, because I couldn’t move on? Did I fall on my head? They tried to reassure me, but now I had to step back out of the shadows of the fire and the silence of the scene to mentally audit on what I just did.
After about 20 minutes of sobering reflection, I decided my move was dumb, but not fatal. There must be a way to play the game and get back in. I asked myself what would Capt. Kirk or 007 do? Then I said, what would Patrick Slevin do? Bingo!!! Patrick would press the envelope.
First, after talking to Sheryl assuring her that I still had juice in the tank, we agreed that I would crew Wayne, which lifted my morale. I would still test myself in the race and help my friend. However, I didn’t want to accept my self-inflicted DNF. I had time left to change my fate.
First thing I did was make my way back up to the professor’s table and there in the dark, next to the professor was a pile of bibs. Slowly, but purposely, I ninja walked right up to the pile and stole back my bib and no one saw me do it. If so, it’s not like anyone would tell on me, the racers were under orders for silence. It was risky, but I had nothing to lose.
Now I had my bib back, but how to get back into the race? My number was radioed at Riverside that I was DNF. It’s now midnight. Racers were told to hand in their tests, no grading, gather their gear and head back to Riverside. The grind was over and my window was quickly closing.
So I played the one card left for me to play. I walked up to the professor still at the table and said, “Professor, since I was the only racer who had the balls to take your test, stand before you and hand in all the answers, will you let me back into the race?” A bit taken aback, the professor sized me up, smiled and to my surprise, he said, “That was a ballsy move and yes you can be back in the race.”
Wow. I knew then and even now how lucky I just became. I was resurrected to race some more.
Death Race again revealed itself as a microcosm for life. You sometimes must take initiative and make your own luck. And I just got more luck than I deserved. The professor asked me if I knew where my bib was, motioning to the pile. I said, yup, right here, where I pulled out the bib out from the back of my shorts. I got out of there, before any minds changed.
I took off to find Wayne and we hiked back down to Riverside for our next task.
Up to this point, less than 100 death racers were left. I’ve been tested and pressured, but didn’t come close to any breaking point. I’m still smiling and enjoying this miserable journey of suffering and self-discovery.
I’ve discovered that at 40+ hours, I was still kicking and crushing tasks. My months of training were paying off and I was ready for the final push.
We arrived back at Riverside around 1230am, Sunday morning. Little did I know that my strength, toughness and endurance would be tested and pushed to the limits by my decision to ride a yellow bus only a few hours later.
My Death Race journey was about to take a steep turn into the deepest reaches of myself. Would I answer the warrior’s call?
Look for Part II in the next few days to see how I answered.