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.
We are faced with many choices throughout our lives. No matter how big or small the fork in the road, there’s a consequence for making a choice. Every choice made forms and fashions the person we are now: The good, bad and ugly. In my Death Race journey, I would soon have a choice between riding a white charter bus with AC or a yellow school bus with no comforts whatsoever.
TIME TRIAL & 7AM CUT OFF
As soon as we returned from Tweed, we were assigned another time trial around 12:30am Sunday. Death Racers now had to run up and down Joe’s mountain as many times as possible leading up to the last cut off of 7am. Wayne and I decided that we would do a conservative 3 laps, given there wasn’t any set amount that we had to do, or so I thought. We determined 3 laps would be a happy medium between conserving energy and cranking out a respectable number of 1 mile laps up and down.
After completing our first lap in roughly 90 minutes, Wayne’s hamstring injury, an injury he had been managing for the last 24 hours, was now getting worse. He needed to take time to rest it. Up to this point, Wayne led the pace in all our hikes, forcing me to keep up with him!!! So for this injury to slow him down, it told me it was really bad. So at this point, Wayne knowing I was committed to finishing the race with him, told me to go on without him.
Admittedly, it was hard to leave my Death Race partner. I didn’t know this man a week before the race and now we bonded and shared a special experience only a few hundred death racers can understand throughout the world. Now, I’m going on without my friend and race partner. He would slowly, painfully and successfully do a second lap before the race would be over for him. Gutting through that pain tells me the measure of the man and he has more fortitude than most people I know. I will never forget what we accomplished together and look forward to next year’s race with him.
Now on my own, I successfully finished my second and third laps with hardly breaking a sweat. – Averaging around 80 minutes per lap. It was during this time that I had the pleasure of being crewed by Death Racer badass, Jane Boudreau Coffey, who decided not to race the summer DR. I would be helped by Jane on several occasions throughout the DR and I’m honored to say she has become a dear friend. She is simply an awesome human being.
After my 3 laps, I told Jane that I was going to stand down. That I had a few hours now to kick back and prepare for Sunday’s challenges. So she left thinking I was good for the next few hours. As soon as sat down to enjoy a Gatorade, this voice shouts out, “Slevin, what are doing?” It was my pit neighbor Amie “LiveWire” Meyer. I said, “I’m chilling out, why?”
Amie would inform me that I had to do 5 laps in order to make the 7am cut off. “Say what?!,” was my response. “I’ve only done 3.”
Fortunately for me, Amie and her crew were about to head back up for another lap. I had about 2 to 2.5 hours to complete 2 more laps. Up to this point, my fastest lap was 80 minutes, so I would have to find a new gear to pull this off with time to spare. Amie and her crew gave me a few pointers on the trail and gave me some great motivation on the stairs, which I’m forever grateful.
So, I high tailed it up Joe’s mountain like a man possessed. The steep stone stairs, muddy bends and rooted traps became a blur in the light of my headlamp. I would make it to the top in roughly 25 minutes. Going down the mountain would be the greatest danger I would put myself in the entire race. I literally sprinted down the mountain. Never slowing for stairs, mud or racers. “On your left or on your right”, all the way.
One slip, one trip over a root, I would have body slammed onto rocks, trees or racers. One misstep and it would have been broken bones, if I was lucky. I made it back down, sprinting my ass off to the check point completing the descent in roughly 15 minutes. Aimee spotted me coming back down and she was surprised to see me so quickly and her high five in passing was awesome.
I didn’t ask how much time I had remaining at the check in and sprinted back up the mountain for lap 5. At the top of mountain, I found out it was 5:40am, so I realized I had plenty of time to safely descend back down the mountain and have time to regroup.
After checking back in, I had just under an hour until the 7am cut off. I had forced myself to run harder and faster than I’ve ever done. It was a moment of pride and satisfaction, but it was short lived. During those hours of high intensity, I sacrificed fuel for time. No Jane or Sheryl to force me to fuel up. I was now bonking from a lack of food and hydration.
Simple decisions were now becoming major trials. I knew I needed water, but what to eat? Wayne’s wife, Lexi, was offering to help, asking me what I wanted, but I couldn’t respond. I didn’t know. The combination of sleep deprivation and falling behind on calories was becoming a serious threat to my ability to press forward.
Around this time, Andy Weinberg announced we had to put on our adult diapers and Tyvek suits. We had to be clean as well. So, after downing as much water/Gatorade I could find, I stripped down and hosed myself off and put on the uncomfortable adult diaper and heat retaining Tyvek suit.
Sheryl finally arrived and began feeding me Snickers bites and salted foods. At one point, she gave me a Yogurt type of tube, which made me gag and throw up some of it (I never tested it in training, which is a big no-no). As the photos show, I was having a 1000 yard stare and trying to overcome some legitimate threats to my ability to go on in the race.
By the way, we didn’t need 5 laps to make the cut off. Three laps would have been more than enough. However, I don’t regret it. I found gears and guts that I haven’t called upon before and that discovery was worth the price of admission.
I thanked Amie passing her on the mountain for pushing me beyond myself.
THE MAGIC BUS
It was 7am and there was roughly 75 death racers who made the last cut off to finish (little f) the race portion of the Death Race. The race was now at 46 hours. We celebrated making the final cutoff by doing various leg killing exercises like jumping jacks and squats. After a few hundred, we were told that we would have 16 hours of hiking bloodroot and swimming in the reservoir for the rest of the day, so now would be the time to drop out.
It was a head game being played and I was fine with the hype becoming true. Bring it on. Then two buses pulled up to the corral. A white coach bus and a yellow school bus. I couldn’t hear everything, but I understood we would have a choice of which bus to ride. Also, something about “long and easy” or “short and hard.” If white bus meant long ride with easy tests, then I wanted the yellow bus’s short and hard. That’s why I came to Death Race, to be beaten up and tested.
The white bus just looked too comfortable. I didn’t like the look of it. I would probably get on and want to fall asleep, so why voluntarily put myself in that crucible?
Two-thirds of the death racers had similar thoughts and only 26 would board the white bus. They had to leave their packs at the farm. As we were boarding the yellow bus, many racers left their packs too, so I followed suit. This would hurt me, because Sheryl thought my pack was an indication of my boarding the white bus, which would go to NYC. Sheryl would think I was now gone for the next 12-18 hours, so her crewing help wasn’t needed.
We boarded the yellow bus with the windows staying up. Man it was a hot mixture of sweat and stank. We took off for Killington and stopped for a minute and then the bus took us straight back to Riverside Farm for what would be a day long series of hard labor.
I quickly realized that I was now on my own without crew support for the remainder of my Death Race journey. I did have some help from other crew members, which says how special the racers, crews and volunteers were at this event.
RIDING A UNICYCLE
As soon as we disembarked, the approximately 50 racers were told to race up Joe’s mountain for another time trial with full pack. On my way up, I teamed up with Valerie Smith who I met during the first time trial Friday morning. We had crossed paths on several occasions, exchanging jokes, so we teamed up for the lap up. About a quarter ways up, a boy comes running down the mountain, then a racer who said the kid was the only person up there. Now, there wasn’t anyone there to take our bib numbers.
Val and I took stock of that Intel and decided to wait and fuel on the side of the trail until we confirmed. Once we knew the score, we made a strategic decision on our next move and finished our lap.
Upon returning to the corral, burpees, front and back rolls for the next hour. The 16 hour hike was still an option and these tasks were just to sap our energy. We were then told to hike over to Peter Borden’s house for a series of tasks. Val and I began our trek over. She was told by her crew, Matthew Waller, to drink her 20oz of Zico water, which she tried, but when we got off the main road, she asked me to stash away the Zico, where Matthew drives by at that very moment, shouting, “Finish it!!!”
Caught!!! We had a good laugh.
Upon arriving at Borden’s place, it looked like the Lord of the Flies. Death Racers playing leap frog, doing horse races, scaling ropes, writing letters, taking outdoor classes and riding a unicycle. At first blush, it looked like a lot of fun. Couldn’t wait to get into it.
Val and I split up and I went to the farthest station, riding the unicycle. The task was to ride it about 40 yards to a cone. I watched other racers attempt it. I even helped one by giving him my arm. He nearly made it and I nearly lost my arm. If you failed to ride the unicycle, it would be 100 back rolls and 100 front rolls. Upon sitting on that damn thing, I decided I wasn’t going to risk singing soprano, so I let the unicycle fall saying, “I’ll take the zero.” Off to do about 30 minutes of rolling in the hot sun.
Next task was traversing a horizontal rope/cord tied between two trees. Many racers traversed it by being on top with a foot guiding and the other off and balancing. I’ve never traversed a rope with that technique before, but the rope was so close to the ground that going under was risky. If you touched the ground and failed to touch the other tree, 100 back rolls.
When it came my turn, I tried the technique and quickly lost balance and swung to the bottom. A switch flipped, in me, and I said out loud, “Screw this!!!” I just began pulling myself along the rope and getting rope burn on my inner thigh and arms. I quickly finished it and I punched the tree to indicate I was done.
The next several hours would be filled with rolling over weeds and nettles, riding other racers in horse races, racing on hands/knees over gravel and taking Mrs. Borden’s class where we learned to greet people and sing a song, “I’m alert, I’m alive, I’m enthusiastic…clap clap.”
What was considered a tough test, but I actually loved it, was sitting submerged neck down in the freezing river for 5 minutes. It was cold and getting in initially was tough, but the cold water worked wonders on my sore muscles. After 5 minutes, I didn’t want to get out. Funny, my feet and legs were so numb, I had trouble climbing up the bank.
Throughout these tasks, I did my best to get to my pack to drink water and eat pretzels. I still felt like I had lost a half a step. This was confirmed, when Andy Weinberg, quietly walked up to me and said he was watching me, that I didn’t look that good to him.
Damn!!! I knew he wasn’t playing any mind games and now I was on his radar. I wasn’t going to be DNF’d. This is where I summoned upon whatever reserves I had within myself as well as take a caffeine tablet. I closed my eyes and did some visualizations and mantras. One I liked a lot, I learned from book written by a Navy Seal:
“Looking good, feeling good, ought to be in Hollywood.”
When I opened my eyes, we were being told to get in the river and run “3 miles.” I got my second wind and ran up the river. I had my second wind. Helping up racers falling and tripping over the rocks. I knew Andy was watching me and by the time we arrived at our destination, he concluded I was fine, because I didn’t see him again.
HITTING A STONE WALL
It was now around noon on Sunday. Standing in the middle of the river, (the deepest part was just below the waist) we were instructed to remove the stones and begin to build a stone wall along the bank. The wall would be about 3 feet high, 3 feet across and about 50 feet long. We were told how important hydration was and that we would have water breaks. About 2-3 hours of slugging big rocks, we still didn’t have that water break. What a shock!
I was definitely feeling the effects of dehydration and began to take handfuls of the clear river water for the next hour or so (I would get diarrhea a few days later). Finally, we were done with the wall and ahead of schedule per Johnny, a race director. The stone wall was awesome and it benefited a family. A great job by the death racers.
We were now allowed to go to our packs. But we were given only 3 minutes to eat and drink as much as we could. After that, we were told to assume a position that we must hold for 20 minutes. If we were to twitch a toe and move an ear or talk, we would be DNF’d.
I could see other racers dosing off during the 20 minute test. Their heads dropped to the side, mouths opened. Val was right next to me. We would periodically clear our throats to let the other know we were still awake. If we had to go another 10 minutes or so, I’m not sure if I would have been able to keep my eyes open, so I was happy when Johnny began to give us our next set of instructions.
He told us to quietly get our packs and get into the river for a run back to Borden’s. The last 5 racers to Borden’s would be DNF’d!! We all got into the water without making any noise, leaving behind more than a few racers still cutting zzzz’s and sawing wood.
Once we were in the middle of the river, the mad dash to Borden’s was on. It was during this part of the race, I heard more screams of pain and anguish. The rocks under the water were trapping ankles and tripping racers. It was mayhem. I will never forget some of the faces of terror and anguish in that river.
I arrived at Borden’s in good shape and made the time drop. Borden wasn’t too happy. Apparently, a death racer left a granola bar wrapper on his property earlier in the day. So we all had to roll sideways in unison around his house. Getting dizzy leads to nausea and that’s what he was gunning for with us.
Thankfully, everyone held their cookies and we completed the loop. We were then told our next task was to run to Riverside and the last 5 would be DNF’d. We had 1 minute before the race would begin. During that minute, I had to relieve myself. I wasn’t going to ask to use the bathroom, I sat there and did my number 1. Urinating in my wetsuit for 24 hours at World’s Toughest Mudder made this second nature.
MISSED IT BY THIS MUCH
I was ready for this next race. I felt strong and confident. I could run with my full pack and beat out 5 other racers. I liked my odds. Go!!! I was in the first half of the racers starting out of Borden’s, but by the halfway point to Riverside, I began to lose steam. My mind was telling my legs to mush, but they were getting heavy.
As I rounded the bend with Riverside in sight, I was now toward the back of the group. I could see a few racers making it to the corral. I looked back, I could only see one racer coming up on my tail. It was Val Smith, my partner for the day.
At this point, I had less than 100 yards to go, so I dug as deep as I could to sprint to the corral. Less than 10 yards away, Val, the badass racer that she was and is, passed me with just a few paces to spare. Johnny waved her through and he motioned for me to stop.
Sheryl was there with a big bottle of Gatorade. Word finally got back to her that I was the yellow bus. I downed as much as I could, thinking 5 racers would come up from behind, allowing me to continue my Death Race journey.
A few more did show. Now, I just needed one more to round the corner and Johnny would let me pass. However, Johnny explained that several death racers self-DNF’d, so they didn’t count toward the drop. Still, I felt pretty good about surviving it. I was at the front and just needed that one additional racer fighting to make it to Riverside Farm.
This is when I took a few minutes to circumspect. Although, I was slower, I was still strong and lucid, ready to carry the 80lb cement bags waiting in the corral. Back home, I trained carrying a 100lb heavy bag, so 80lbs was going to be relatively light.
As time began to run short, Johnny explained that even though we were about to get DNF’d, we could continue to the finish, but without our bibs and there would be no record of finishing or a skull.
Indeed, several racers continued without their bibs and finished. However, the thought of finishing the race without my bib on, frankly, turned me off. My goal was to finish whole. Meaning, finish the Death Race with my bib on. The skull, for me, was irrelevant. It was never a motivator.
I did take a few moments to try to figure out how I could get around this challenge, but my self-made luck had ran out. This was the end of my Death Race journey.
When Johnny made the call and informed our group that we were DNF’d, I was ready to accept it. Val would go on to finish the race and get her skull. The 26 death racers who boarded the white bus would come back from NYC and all 26 would collect their skulls in addition to the yellow bus death racers.
As it would turn out, this was the last time drop of the race. Literally, I missed finishing my first Death Race by just a few steps. No one would be DNF from this point forward.
As Get Smart, Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by that much!!”
WAS IT FAIR?
There were murmurs throughout Sunday and Monday that those death racers who chose the white bus, had it easy and essentially were given the skull. The white bus took them to NYC for a scavenger hunt in Mid-Town Manhattan. Sunday evening, the death racers were treated to a $10,000 dinner at the exclusive Explorers Club (all the while wearing their adult diapers and Tyvek suits). Then back to Riverside Farm around 3am to finish their race. Since I wasn’t there, not sure what other tasks they had to do.
In my opinion, the 26 death racers still had to face challenges and endure mental torment. I knew several of the racers and watched many others over the weekend. Many were the leaders or in the top 10, so they had already proven themselves. So I think its BS to cheapen their accomplishments. Every one of them earned their skulls as much as the yellow bus racers.
Something as simple as choosing which bus to ride, determined the fate of my race. If I could have done it over again, I would have made the same choice. Sure, getting on the white bus and getting on the subway as a team and eating an expensive meal would have been awesome. However, just like in life, there’s no room for envy, regret or second guessing yourself.
I wanted to be tested and the yellow bus decision ensured that I was.
THE DEATH RACE GODS
I handed over my bib to Johnny and now I was officially DNF’d. I was proud and satisfied with how far I went into the Death Race – over 55 hours and somewhere in the ballpark of 80-100 miles of hiking. The race forced me to go beyond myself and push gears that I suspected were there, but never had to call upon.
I never came close to quitting, nor did I reach any breaking points. As I gathered some of my gear to leave, I concluded that I played a good game, and had I been allowed to continue, that I would have made it to the finish.
The next day, I would learn the Death Race finished in just over 66 hours and 64 skulls would be awarded – the largest number ever.
That’s when things got a bit weird. I learned on Facebook that my name was called out to receive a skull.
I heard from 2 racers who finished the race that my name was called for a skull. Did something happen I didn’t know about? Was this the Death Race’s revenge for my improvising?
I would get in contact with Andy Weinberg who confirmed my name was indeed called, but someone had forgotten to take my name off the list as a DNF.
No worries I replied. The skull to me was irrelevant. The journey was the greatest reward for me.
However, I believe everything happens for a reason and that my name being mistakenly called out to collect a skull, wasn’t a mistake, but rather a message from the Death Race gods. My name being called out for a skull was their sign of approval on how I played the warrior’s game. I felt that they bestowed upon me one last honor before I left Pittsfield and the Green Mountains of Vermont.
I look forward to next years’ Time Traveler Death Race.
Part III: I write what Death Race means to me and how the lessons learned apply to both our professional and personal journeys.