Monday, July 18, 2011

The Death Race

A friend of mine Annette Smith, created a blog for me some years back, not so much to get my story out there to others, as much as just keeping my memories intact for myself. My last entry up until now, was after my November of 2009 Sahara Race (6 day,150 miles self-supported running race through the Egyptian Sahara Desert). I haven't exactly been lazy since then...well at least not physically..just too lazy to write! Since then I've done about 13 marathons in 11 different states...Comrades Marathon twice (South Africa...56 miles...the oldest and largest ultra-marathon in the world...both the up and down years)...and last year I cycled in one of the hardest cycling races in the world, Furnace Creek 508 (508 miles non-stop and 35,000 feet of elevation gain over 10 mountain passes and crossing the Mojave Desert and Death Valley)...but after doing the Death Race, I knew I had to get typing again!! WOW! 

I've sat down many times to write this, but each time as I begin to reflect back to what I experienced at the Death Race, 15 minutes has gone by with me just staring into space..but nothing typed on the keyboard. I'm finding it hard to put into words, an experience so deep, both physically and mentally, that simple words typed on a computer will never come close to doing it any justice. There's just no way for ANYONE to even remotely understand what it was like "out there", without experiencing it first hand...or at the very least witnessing what we were going through...but to FEEL is really the only feel the feel the wet and feel your back aching under the strain and quads screaming for feel the weight of your loaded pack rubbing against your back, and a heavy log being carried on a shoulder or back or being dragged behind you for MILES!! To feel the cold water of a Vermont river hit you is like a wicked slap in the takes your breath away. You feel your spirit begin to drain out, and your will slipping feel the rush of fast a flowing river tugging at your legs in the middle of a dark, cold, and rainy you try to suppress your panic...all these things aren't easy to convey to someone reading from a couch. I've done plenty of hardcore races and climbs all over the world..some are even considered the hardest in the world. I'm certainly not the fastest, nor the most skilled...not born with the genes of a super human specimen..but with that said, I also know very few people who are as stubborn as I am, and who are as determined as I am to NEVER GIVE UP! What I lack in skill and physical brawn, I make up for with a strong will and determination to keep going and finish what I set out to accomplish. Some people seem to think that under circumstances that giving up is warranted..."oh I was just feeling so bad I just couldn't go on"..or "the conditions were terrible"..this or that..there's a million excuses..blah blah..if I sign up for a race, the only way I'm leaving it is across the finish line, or on a stretcher...PERIOD! 

The Death Race was my first venture into the adventure race type of event, but this is still no adventure race...nor is it a running race, or a mountain climb, or fits nice and neat into any kind of know what it INSANE race...put on by 2 great guys...pretty hardcore in their own right...and obviously slightly demented individuals themselves...Joe Desena and Andy Weinberg. I met Joe on my plane ride home from climbing Mt Aconcagua some years back and quickly realized this crazy type A, high strung, big plan kinda guy... was right up my alley!! We've kept in touch ever since and when he devised this torture-fest called the Death Race, he started to hound me to sign up for it...taunting in his normal way..thinking his 3rd grade reverse psychology of "Oh Frank you could never finish my race...don't even bother to come", was gonna work on me?!! Like I'm going to fall for that shit...or you REALLY think I can't finish Joe? Oh damn, you almost had me, of course you know I can...nice do know that, right? Each of the last few summers, I've had scheduled what I like to call one of my "life list" races. These are races that I consider so important, that I don't want to take any chances of hurting myself by doing some psycho's race...races like Badwater, Leadville, UTMB, Furnace Creek 508..all races I've finished! So up until now, I had passed on Joe's race, not wanting to take the chance of injuring myself..and now I know that was a very real chance!! Little did I know that this race they call the Death Race, was right up with there with the best of them!

So I didn't do a lot of DR training..sure I swung the sledge hammer some, and pushing a loaded wheel barrow around a handful of times. I did carry a 50 lb bag of mulch on my shoulders around my neighborhood some..about 5 times (I wish now I had done it 500 times) I was always "planning" on doing these routines often, but they never seemed to materialize on a regular basis...just fits and starts and then I'd slide right back to I was just relying on my excellent fitness level, but even more so on my will to not qive up!! I've never done dead lifts in my life, and hadn't training with a pack but maybe once or twice. I certainly never jumped in freezing cold water (at least sober...or minus a few Polor Bear plunges), and don't even train outside when it in retrospect, I was pretty unprepared!!

Since Joe and Andy had informed us that deceit was all part of the game, I rarely believed much of what they said! I knew they were mind games..and so when we showed up in the rain at about 6pm to start the DR and they explained we had to form groups of about 13 and gather in a circle around 13 HEAVY rocks and lift ALL of them (13 rocks equals 1 set) 150 sets worth..I thought to myself "SURE we do, that's not even possible, is it?"! So somewhere between the 5th and 6th hour, I started thinking..."holy #*@+, these crazy bastards weren't kidding!!" My group made through about 75 sets which is...well a SHITLOAD of lifts..and for someone who's seriously NEVER done a dead lift, I was wondering if I was going to finish the very first task...and if I did, end up destroying my legs and back enough that I couldn't see how I'd last through the rest of the race! Even though the doubts had already set in, I NEVER considered quitting, nor would I ever...but that doesn't mean I could imagine finishing either! I just couldn't wrap my brain around how I'd keep this kind of thing up for 3 days STRAIGHT...but that's too much of a mental chunk of time to take on anyway...just one step at a time Frank!

    (Look how excited I look...NOT!!)

    (There's me in top left w yellow rain jacket and baseball cap...
    looking like my spinal cord is going break any second!! 
    That was 1 of about 1,000 lifts!!)

All of a sudden after about 7 hrs, they told us to drop the rocks, and we were to head out! I sometimes felt they were making it up as we went along, and I figured they clearly didn't estimate how long 150 sets of 15 dead lifting rocks would take..FINE by me! We headed off on our 1st hike (limping I might add) and into the river we went...a COLD Vermont river at that. It was about 1 or 2AM and we're all trudging up stream, against FAST flowing rain fed...take your breath away...cold water! Also, before the race started, we were informed we had to buy a VT fishing license and they gave us each a hook and told us "whatever you do, do not lose this". So quickly the rumor started flowing (no doubt from Joe or Andy's mouths) that we each needed to catch a fish. At some point in this 2-3 hour hike, almost everyone was crouched on the edges of the banks, trying to catch minnows. So somehow I found myself almost dead last, teaming up w my new friend Rebecca Hansen. (Her, another new friend John Wall, and I had met via email and we had all driven up from the DC area in John's RV together...along with a good friend of mine Gokhan Mekik, who's a little crazy in his own right. G as we call him, had once walked the entire width of his home country Turkey..that's about 1,000 mile..and if that wasn't bad enough, he did it in the middle of WINTER!! So he was clearly at the right event!! He was nice enough to fly up from Charlotte, NC, just to crew for me). So its about 3 am and I'm on my hands and knees, IN the river, SOAKING wet and probably in the early stages of hypothermia...trying to catch a minnow with my baseball cap...WTF!! THIS was one of the 1,000 times I said to myself..."DUDE, you gotta take up a different hobby than this endurance shit!" I often kid around and say I need to stop this madness and take up fishing, but THIS is not what I had in mind!!!!

So needless to say I did catch a fish..actually not just 1, but 3...1 for me, Rebecca, and John each...who'd had to abandon his fishing because he was getting hypothermic and needed to keep I put the fish in a zip lock baggie and into my pocket (where they stayed there alive for about 2 days..but at some point in my delirium, I lost track of the poor buggers, and I suspect they all DNFed).

We emerged from the river trek, and then it was onto a pond "swim"...and I laughed when I realized how much effort I had taken during in the river, not to get wet above my waist...what a joke that was! Now we had to plunge into FREEZING water (about 45 degrees), up to our necks...pack included...and cross a small pond by pulling ourselves across with the ropes they had stretched across! I guess even Joe and Andy realized that swimming in water over our heads, with loaded packs probably wasn't a good idea! Once we made it across, we had to climb...sometime grabbing vegetation, or simply clawing at the muddy ground with our fingers trying to gain traction to make it up the 45 degree angled slope..then immerge from the woods onto an open field, grab a lit candle and walk/jog around the field and back to the start without our candle going out...and if it went out, we had to do it all again! It was during this pond swim, when I first noticed the fear in people's faces, and watched the life go out of them. I could just see the spirit leave their eyes, rather than face the cold water again! And strangely, it was then that I felt myself come alive the most! I knew that Joe and Andy expected people to freak out here, and it was in fact SOO over the top, that it struck me as almost, I really do mean funny...and I found myself smiling as I plunged into the freezing water! I'm not sure if it was adrenaline, or pure madness..and didn't really care...whatever it was, I actually enjoyed this part, in a perverse, masochistic kind of way!! At this point with icy water up to my chin, I thought to myself "I obviously can't get ANY wetter, so how much worse can this possibly get??" (if I only knew!)

I started off with a bit of a hiccup on this task though. I had the bright idea to take my pack off, and place it into a big heavy-duty garbage bag I had brought, in order to keep it and it's contents from being totally soaked. But in my rush (more like panic) I forgot to cinch the top as I'm pulling myself across I'm thinking, "holy shit, this is MUCH harder than I thought." I finally reach the other side and go to climb out but CAN'T. Rather than the water just flow in and out of the pack's fabric, the garbage bag idea had backfired and it had taken on AND HELD about 5 gallons of water...I had to take it off in order to climb out, then rip it open and toss the bag, before I could keep going..not to mention that this totally soaked everything I had!..oh time to bitch about that..I was freezing to death!! And we had to do 7 circuits of this pond swim, hill climb, and candle walk crap...that's right, swim/pull ourselves across this freezing pond, climb up a massively steep hill, then walk around a big field with a lit candle, 7 TIMES!!!...this would wreak on the racers! But I came to realize that despite the rain and motion of carrying it, the candle stayed pretty lit and I could cover it with my hand and actually jog around the field...hey, I'm a runner, and I was finally excited to move my damn legs at more than a snail's wow, I could actually feel myself warm up by moving (when I say "warm up", believe me, my teeth were still chattering)...but others were slowing down and getting colder and colder...their faces getting more and more stark shades of white. I wasn't sure if this was because they were that cold, or just that SCARED! Hey I was scared too...shit, I was scared just driving up to Vermont...but I didn't let my fear take over my heart and mind. When your heart loses hope, you're done for. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other ..that's one soaked, cold, muddy, and sloppy foot in front of the other...and after each plunge in the freezing pond, I just kept telling myself, "that's one more down Frank, and one less you have to do". And strangely, although I certainly don't take any pleasure in seeing others give up or freak out, I have to admit I was strengthened a bit by seeing other people who I perceived to be stronger looking than me, give up! I was feeling stronger and stronger at this point and I was thinking I could take whatever these lunatics were going to throw at was just matter of keep on, keeping on...and never, ever give up!!

I had been going with Rebecca up to this point, but it was going up the steep climb out of the pond where I was having to wait for her and help pull her up, and I realized I would freeze if I didn't keep moving. It's one of those moments where you feel bad leaving someone...I've had to do it before and I'm sure I'll have to again..I never like it but this wasn't a team event, and I needed to go I knew she understood. You sure couldn't fault her, because although the women were allowed to carry lighter weighing stumps up the mountain, and logs on their backs later (and rightly so)...their packs contained the same mandatory gear our us they had to carry just as much weight in them as we did. I'd see her many more times later trudging along. I ran into her, I guess about a day later going different directions on a trail with the logs on our backs, and when I saw her I said "Damn Rebecca, you are one TOUGH BITCH" I hope she knew I meant that as only the highest compliments!!!

After completing this "task" we made our way to another area where we had to chop some wood....and throughout this recap, the exact details escape me because I was exhausted, soaked to the CORE, sleep deprived, and probably generally out of my I don't remember how MUCH wood. I only remember it POURING rain, and me chopping wood and thinking "F#@+, this SUCKS. So I get done chopping, and then walk over to where the BIG stumps of wood were, to discover I had to lift this monster of a stump, and carry it to the top of the mountain. I know it's all hazy at this point already, but I'm pretty sure my stump weighed about 75-100 lbs...I couldn't even get my arms around it. I was one of the later people to get to this point, and assume everyone before me picked up the lighter ones and so all that were remaining at this point were monsters...or hell, maybe they were all that big...I don't know. Well, I could hardly pick it up and the few times (like 3) that I managed to wrangle it onto my shoulder, I made it about 40 steps before having to drop it for fear I was going to blow out my back. And the rough edges of the bark was digging into my shoulder so painfully, I could only take it for just a little bit. I had absolutely ZERO idea how in the HELL I was going to get that son-of-a-bitch up the mountain, with me still alive..but I vowed if it took me an entire day, I would somehow. At this stage I ran into Rebecca again and she gave me a piece of netting. So I took my 10' piece of rope (one of the required items we had to carry in our packs, along with a big axe, hand crank drill, and some other crazy pack easily weighed 25 lbs) and I used it to attach to the netting that I had wrapped around the stump, and I proceeded to pull the piece of shit (wood) up the mountain...2 feet at a time. I had my back towards the uphill and I wood use...oh excuse me, "would" use (can't seem to get wood off my mind) a rowing motion to pull it towards me up the hill. So I back step up, and then bend my knees and back and pull towards me. At some point when I felt like my arms and back were going to explode, I'd try to roll it you can imagine how well THAT went, especially since my stump wasn't exactly round and had an side jutting out so that before one rotation would go by, it would veer off to one side...OHHHH the agony and frustration of this!!

So let's fast forward I don't know how was during this period that I'd see people passing me in both directions, because they had managed to use straps and secure these beasts to their backs. Where were MY straps you ask? Yes I was smart enough to bring them..but in the chaos of leaving the rock lifts, still dumb enough to leave them behind! (that was another twist in the dead lift section that I failed to mention..after the 15 rocks were lifted, we all got in the middle and had to lift a big bail of hay and a massive awkward PVC pipe filled with water...but our bail of hay was falling apart, so I volunteered to us my straps to secure the hay and forgot them attached there) So as we left for our lovely night time stroll up the river, I had left a vital piece of equipment that I would come to pay dearly for. So while most everyone else seemed to be making the best of this task, I was SCREWED without my straps, and thus forced to improvise with multiple torturous techniques. It was during this nightmare, that I met two others that were having an equally hard time...Daren and Yesel. They were struggling right along with me for a while, and we exchanged grunts..each of us focused on our own problems, but still acknowledging our shared misery...bonding in that way that only pain can do!! At some point, I did finally get to the top, where there is a bible verse printed, and we had to memorize it... and in the ever increasing UNLIKEY event my tired ass got off that mountain WITH my stump, I was to recite it to the volunteer at the bottom...and if I so much as messed up a single word of it, I had to DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN!!! Another option that was becoming more and more appealing to me was to mess it up on purpose...and when they told me to go back, drop the log on the race official's foot and proceed to punch him square in the mouth, and go the F@#* home!!!!! But now now Frank, I was here to finish this, not assault a nice volunteer that had only become the devil incarnate, because I was dumb enough to sign up for this idiotic shit!! It wasn't his fault that I was carrying a stump of wood easily half my body weight, up a mountain in the rain, when I could've been sitting on the beach...which is exactly where I left to come to this god forsaken place where the sun never shines!!!

Ok, so back to the stump and the mountain..I make it to the top, memorize my bible verse and start to make my way back down...dragging it now seems the best way to precede and I was finding it exhilarating...yes exhilarating is a strange word to use for such painful labor. I thought this struggle is maybe how the Egyptian slaves much have felt as they lugged huge slabs of rock to build the pyramids...actually I didn't think of that at all...only now on my couch can I come up with such a nice the time I was thinking very eloquently...THIS SUCKS!!!...but anyway, I was thrilled when I started to realize I might actually complete this diabolical task!!! I was actually making progress coming down, dragging the stump behind me...but then the unthinkable my HORROR, my netting broke!!! OH MY GOD...NO...I had sheared it away and it disintegrated beneath the friction of the wood and ground...actually now that I was forced to stop...I stared at it for 5 minutes trying not to cry, and I realized I was lucky to have made it that far before it ripped. Ok, so what do I do now? (note: we weren't allowed to roll it down hill, and even if we did, it would roll right off the trail and I'd never be able to get it back) I've come way too far to quit now...I WILL get this mo fo off this mountain if it kills me. (looking more likely) So I take my rope and wrap it around the stump and after more than a few failed techniques, I manage to get the rope to hold, and get it going again. Of course it falls off again and again, but I keep putting it back on again and again! And then I realize that the rope itself, is now shearing apart too and if THIS breaks, I am really done for!! I simply don't have the strength to pick it up and carry it. By the grace of God, and Mary, and St Ann, and St Christopher who I have his medal around my neck (patron saint of safe journeys), and my dad, and every other person in heaven I could think of to ask for help... that piece of rope sheared away to the most tenuous of little pieces, but NOT before I got it back down....GLOOOOORIOUS!!! I recited the bible verse, while at the same time seriously considering getting it tattooed on me as soon as I got home....don't worry Chelsea, that urge has passed now!! I had made it through that task!!!! Haaaallelujah, HAAAALLELUJAH..hallelujah, hallelujah, halleluuuujaaaah...I could almost hear the church choir singing!!!! WOW! I also owe my mom a great deal of credit too! I always mention my dad who passed away in 2005...he was a WWII vet and POW, who was awarded multiple medals in battle. I think of him often when doing these races and ask him to watch over me. But my mom who's alive and well, prays for me with all her strength, and I KNOW that helps me through. I'll say to her "mom, I'm doing a tough one this time and I think I could use your prayers". And when she says yes, she isn't just giving an empty promise, she's ON HER KNEES praying for me...and for that...thank you mom!!!!

So next, I THINK I chopped some more wood but can't swear to it...then it was back into that river for the same hike, this time in reverse..but amazingly, this time the cold water acted like an ice bath on my sore and exhausted muscles, and actually did me some good. Of course my feet and toes were killing me, and tripping on all the under water rocks didn't feel especially good, but I wasn't going to complain about that!!

So we make it back to the starting area and then I quick change of clothes for me..not sure why because it was still raining, but there's something mentally soothing about putting on clean and dry it's a fresh start...your new coat of armour..and with it, you feel refreshed to go back into apposed to your old dented and weakened old armour...dirty, ripped, soaking wet clothes. I allowed myself about a 30 minute eye closed session here. I honestly don't think I slept..I was too sore and too in dread of what still lay I just laid there in our RV for a few minutes, and re-grouped mentally...then off I was to the next one. At this stage I was by myself still, and felt fine going off I had nobody to worry about but myself...nobody to wait up for, and nobody I felt like I was holding up...just putting one foot in front of the other, at my own pace able to just converse with myself...and boy, we had some interesting conversations!!

I was then told to march up the hill, grab a log, measure out 36 or 38 inches..can't remember now...with my tape measure (required item) and use my hand saw (another required item to carry the entire race in our pack) and to saw it off at that length. We then had to carry this nightmare of a log, with us for the rest of the ENTIRE race...but before we had to use our hand crank drill (ANOTHER required item..that alone weighed 6 lbs) and drill our races number, one hole at a time, into our logs. So once I had drilled the number 124 into mine (that was about 20 holes), I had to set out on our first hike with my log strapped to my back..and I THINK this was about 6 miles. I managed to find my straps and secure them around the ends of my log, and then hold the other ends of the straps with my hands, tightly in front of my chest/neck. This seemed like a pretty good method, that is if you have forearms like Popeye the Sailor Man...but mine aren't quite as strong!! After a while, supporting a 40 lb log like this, became agonizing on my forearms and hands..not to mention on my shoulders and back. However in the first part of this hike, I was feeling strong and making good progress. I was happy to let my legs finally do something that was more familiar..I wasn't running, but I was good at hiking too and even on steep hills I can thrive I was starting to feel more confident. We got to a check point at some point, and the race volunteers informed me that the hike was going to get much more steep, much more muddy because of the rain (yes it was STILL raining), and much more difficult. I was thinking to myself trying to suppress my smirk "sure it is fellas"...thinking that this one just another head game of theirs! And I guess I forgot to mention in the beginning, that we had ZERO idea about ANYTHING in this idea when it started until it did, no idea how long it would last, what we had to do, or if anything they told us was really true. We had a list of required items we had to carry with us at all times, and no idea if in fact we'd ever use them, or if they were just messing with us! So you had to be mentally prepared to roll with the punches...and believe me, they were all below the belt. You had to keep your chin up and chug along, no matter what! And I'm actually the type of person that needs to know the terrain and how many miles I have to go between checkpoints during a regular race. But that was one of the things that appealed to me about this race. I WANTED to step out of my comfort zone..I wanted to feel uncomfortable and nervous..I KNOW my legs won't quit, but I prefer to forge ahead and not THINK about what's next..I don't like to worry about THINKING...but this damn race made you think..and WORRY!!

    (I have no idea what the hell I'm smiling for...oh that's right, 
     it stopped raining for 15 minutes there!!)

As I'm hiking on this portion, I'm asking guys how long they heard this would take and the responses were ridiculous. I thought to myself "there's no way it's going to take 8+ hours to hike 6 miles...or if that's true, I must be in better shape than these people." And then at some point I saw Grace, the woman that would end up winning it for the women's division, WAY ahead of me coming back from her reaching the turn around point and I asked her "how much further do I have". She kind of chuckled and said "oh honey, you've got a ways to go". I realize now she must have been feeling sorry for me for even asking this early into a little child asking his mother in a long car trip "mom, how much longer before we're there?" But I thought she was exaggerating or must have underestimated my ability (legend in my own mind), but in a few hours time, I would come to think "holy shit, she was being nice...its WAY more than a 'ways to go'...Jesus!!!" It just never got steeper and steeper and the rain made it super muddy and with that damn log on my back, it started to get agonizing. I was ok when both hands were tightly clutching the straps to hold it in place, but when I tripped or purposely had to grab onto literally pull myself higher, or steady myself for balance, this god damn log would swing around wildly, and take ME with it! It became like an anchor around my neck...I just didn't think it would end. But I had another I had my camelbak bladder that was holding enough sports drink to last me about 4 hours, placed into my pack. What happened soon after I left the last checkpoint, was that the weight and pressure of the log on my back, was pressing into the liquid bladder, and actually popped the end piece off that I sucked on. But it doesn't only operate as the part that lets the liquid out, it also keeps it once it popped out (no I had no idea) all my sports drink must have spurted right out under the pressure of the log resting against it...and since it was raining and I was soaking wet anyway, I didn't notice a solid flow of Heed Sports Drink, flowing down my body. So you can imagine the surprise when I went to take a sip, and all I heard the was slurping gurgle when your straw sucking at the bottom of a drink that's empty!!!! HOLY SHIT, WHAT?...TOTALLY out of liquid, with hours more to go probably. So my energy level kept going further and further down, compounding my annoyance at the log, and the steep and muddy terrain. This was becoming a comedy of errors!! Things were going downhill fast..and then they literally started going downhill after reaching the top part of the mountain, where we had a steep drop before reaching the turn around point. At this point I was parched, and I had to rearrange the damn log about every 5 minutes. Luckily I ran into another couple of hikers who weren't in the race, and I asked them for a sip of their water...just a gulp or two, and no calories, but at least it wet my dry mouth!!!

Then in trying to rearrange my log (somehow that doesn't sound right) I decided to try it on the front of my chest, handing around my neck like a big Neanderthal necklace. But before I go on here, let me say a little about this log! I have since had dreams about it (nightmares obviously) but I must say that this one thing did in fact at times, bring some levity to our misery out there. When hiking on a trial and coming across another fellow lunatic, it became quite the joke to say things like "hey dude, impressive log you got there!" appropriate response would be "thanks man, you got a pretty big one too"...all of course with trying to keep a straight face...but they always ended in a laughs. But I think the best belonged to some woman who wasn't part of the race, but out there just hiking (why, I'm not sure). My log and straps were KILLING my back and I needed help in adjusting it as usual, and I came across her and said "excuse me, would you mind grabbing my log real quick, and adjusting it for me?" and she replied "gee, usually a guy buys me a few drinks first, or at least introduces himself before asking me that...but you're pretty easy on the eyes...although a little dirtier than I prefer, but what the hell!" I think I may actually have pissed my pants a bit laughing!!! CLASSIC!

So back to switching the log to the front of me...I soon discovered this was NOT a good idea when descending a steep have a 40 lb log pulling you down as you try to keep your footing on horrendous trail. I took a few falls...but one especially when I went down hard, FLAT on my chest and lucky the log didn't break any of my ribs, but it sure knocked the wind out of me...and scared the hell out of me! I realized I could easily injure myself seriously, if not down right break my neck. So I ended up hanging it on my side, and carried it like a purse (it wasn't a good look for me)...still not very comfortable, but it would have to work..I had to be there soon!! Sure enough, I FINALLY reached the checkpoint, where I had to throw my log into the edge of a lake, hike back to the checkpoint, load and move some wood (with a broken wheelbarrow...are you kidding me), then fetch my log out of the lake, carve more meaningless shit into it with my hand crank drill (by the way, mine was a 1948 model that I got on the Internet..I'm not kidding..when the guy from the antique store asked me what I was going to drill and I replied "I have no idea"...there was an awkward silence on the end of the phone. He finally said "well son, if you don't know what you're going to use it for, I can't tell you which model will suit your needs best". So I said "I need it for a race"...more awkward silence...and then he finally said "a race? what the hell kinda race?"...I said "well this is gonna sounds kind of strange..but there's this race in Vermont called the Death Race. We don't know when it starts or when it finishes, don't know what we have to do, or how far we need to go. We may have to memorize stuff or build stuff or carry stuff for long distances..and it may last for three days straight...but I know I need a hand crank drill somewhere along the way!"....WAY MORE SILENCE...then he says "that's about the dumbest shit I ever heard son!" And I said "yeah I which model should I get?" And after a little more explaining, I ended up with the one I pulled out of my pack) So anyway, then we had to do 100 pushups...but I love pushups and since I guzzled as much water as I could swallow when I arrived, by this time I was already feeling better, and knocked those bad boys right out..already starting to feel a little more back in my element. When I got to this checkpoint, there were probably 10 others there, and I think I got in and out of there before any of those 10. I wanted to make it back to the farm before it got dark, because of course I neglected in bringing my head lamp on this trek, thinking there was no way this would take me ALL DAY...think again Frank!!!

    (I may have to send this to the antique dealer!!)

So I left there with some urgency...drank as much water as I could before leaving too, just enough where I started to feel nauseous...because I still couldn't fill my camelbak bladder up...and so I took off. Somewhere along this route, a younger guy came up from behind me, MOVING!! I realized I needed to stick on his tail, or I was going to get caught out there alone at night in the rain with no head lamp...and I did NOT want that to happen...otherwise I think I'd STILL be out there stumbling around today!! I wish I could remember his name. He had an awesome pace going...way faster than I normally would have gone, and I'm frankly amazed I ended up keeping up with him, but I did...and I owe him a big thanks!! After a couple more hours, we made it back to the checkpoint where I was able to tell the race volunteers..."you know what, you guys were right on about the trail getting much steeper, much more muddy, and much more difficult". There response was "great, now give us 100 burpees!"...gee thanks! These are the exercise that everyone hates!!!..where you start standing, crouch down, pop your legs back so you're in a push-up position, do a push-up, pop your legs back under you, and then jump up...ok, that's ONE..only 99 more to go. I personally hate them and even when I'm starting from total rest at home, I can barely do 20 before my heart feels like it's going to bust out of my you can imagine how it felt NOW. I basically did sets of 10, and my form varied from horrible to really horrible. I think the race officials were probably feeling sorry for me, and who can blame them for the way I looked coming in there...and so they only yelled at me once..."hey man, watch the form". I spit up something..not words...just some kind of unidentifiable liquid stuff...and adjusted my form in the least possible way, and made it through.

Here I caught up with John, and he looked pretty darn good. He left before me, but before we reached the farm at the bottom, I had re-joined him and from then on we'd stick together. When we got back down, others were crawling through a drainage ditch, but by the time we got there, it was in a torrential downpour with thunder (lovely) and the drainage ditch was too filled with water and too dangerous for us to do the the sadistic bastards decided to just have a group of us crouch in a mud/freezing water pit for 5 minutes without moving (worse if you ask me) and then army crawl around a grass field and then over...yes onto and across the paved road...that felt wonderful on my bare elbows and knees...thanks guys..much appreciated!!!

So then John and I took a break to change clothes and PRAY that the rain would let up. When I asked Gokhan to come to the race to crew me (and it turns out, us), I wasn't sure what, if anything, he could do for me..but I felt a little better knowing he was there regardless. Poor Gokhan turned into our pizza delivery boy. I think this was the second or third pizza we asked him to bring back to the RV. The others I scarfed down, but this time I was so hungry waiting for it, I went ahead and ate a few turkey and cheese wraps I had packed, with chips, and an ice cold Pepsi...HEAVEN!!! So by the time he was back, I was already horizontal..half comatose but half staring outside watching it POUR, but praying it would stop!! I think it was about an hour but looks like all my friends "upstairs" were listening, because it actually STOPPED raining...cue the choir...Hallelujah, HALLELUJAH..hallelujah, hallelujah, halleluuuujaaaaah!

So John and I decided to get moving during the break in the rain (it didn't last long) and stick together...and actually since it was now just getting dark and we were heading out on a 10+ mile hike (with no lighted markers) in the other direction UP a mountain, they made everyone pair up for safety. Just as we were leaving, we ran into a guy that had dropped out and he proceeded to scare the shit out of us about how bad the next section was (he didn't tell us HALF of it). At this point, I could go on and on but clearly this is getting long winded. What I MUST say though, is that most of this trail hike was IN a stream..well it was probably a stream when they laid the pink ribbons to mark it, but it was more like a raging waterfall by the time we got there...because YES, it was raining again. And I'm not exaggerating when I say the trail marking ribbons were hanging on trees and bushes ABOVE the stream..and the banks of it were so steep and overgrown, that you had pretty much no choice but to hike IN and UP the stream, stepping on precarious rocks UNDER the rushing water..trying to place your feet where you couldn't even see...crazy! Any rocks right on the edges were covered in slippery green moss...PERFECT! 

One of the reasons I have to go into at least some detail here is because without John, I probably never would have made this, or it would have certainly taken me twice as long...and I owe him a big thanks!! At this point my log had become so painful on my back..and actually not so much the log, but the straps were cutting into my shoulders and I didn't know how much more of THAT agony I could take. I couldn't believe I was envying other people that had bigger packs and could actually place their logs vertical, IN their packs...ahhhhh, what a luxury I thought..if only!!!! So anyway, I called upon poor John to help me re-arrange my log about 100 times (once again, I don't like the sound of that...and believe me, there was no laughing going on here by either of us!)...maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a LOT and he NEVER once complained or said "Frank, come on dude, we gotta get this right and keep going". He always stopped and helped me, and never complained about his log. And this guy had the sure footedness of a mountain goat. His log was attached in the front of him, and he kept it balanced by holding on with both hands and stepping up without holding on to anything..where I was like a drunken idiot...falling and grabbing everything I could to balance, and downright petrified that I was going to fall backwards! Hmmm...I'm climbing up a waterfall, with a 40 lb log around my neck, stepping on slippery moss covered rocks, in the middle of the night, after going on and on for 30+ hours...that does sounds kinda insane right??!!

Hours pass and then we get to the dreaded barbed wasn't so physically bad as it was a mental nightmare and a TOTAL hassle. At this point in the trek, we know we're close from what others had told us, and you just want to get there!!! But now we have to spend about an hour to cover the distance of a 100 feet (or yards..not even sure)...crawling under the wire, while trying to keep our pack from catching...or taking it off and dragging it behind us along with the log...or keeping it on and me having John lift the wire up higher to help me get under and vice versa....or throwing the log over the barbed wire as I go under a section. So actually as I write this, it's all coming back and forget that part about this not being so SUCKED!! I think we both wanted to scream...well I know I did. Plus..yes, it was still raining and where we had to crawl was right in the gully where the cold water was running we're exhausted, pulling our log behind or chucking it over, cut up, thirsty, frustrated...and we had to INCH our way up, while cold water ran down our necks...UHHHHH....but as everything else, we eventually got through it with much cursing and swearing...oh Joe and Andy, if you two could only have heard the lovely words I had for both of you!!!

We reach the top just as the faint glimmer of morning light started to brighten up the bleak and dreary sky. We actually saw some breaks in the cloud cover at this point, and a slight feeling of optimism creeped back into my heart! It felt like my spirit was filling back up slowly. To get to the summit as the morning broke, and knowing that the worse was behind us...was an intensely emotional moment! I don't think I showed it, but I felt like my soul was ignited again...the flame never went out, but it was sure burning low for a while! What a wonderful feeling to see light again, and to know another day has come and your through that cold dark night!! WOW!!
So we walked into a tiny cabin on the summit and checked in with the race official. He made us memorize some bizarre personal information that we assumed we'd have to recite on the way down.. John seemed to have a slight problem with this, but that was probably because he was concentrating so hard on his foot placement with every step!!! But I had it down fast..his parents' names...John and somebody...he had 6 brothers and sisters...they lived or were from PA, and he had once been attacked by a bear..still remember that and have no idea whether a word of it was real..and didn't care one bit...I recited it the whole way down and remembered it and...of course, nobody ever asked me about it again...bastards!

So reverse all that misery on the way down, except in the daylight, we were able to find some areas we could skirt around the stream a bit, bushwhacking our way down...the undergrowth and thorns ripping at our ankles and legs, but we didn't give it the least bit of thought...we were moving fast and making progress on auto pilot. I don't know how long the descent was, but eventually we made it to the clearing, saw some other humans...and knew we had made it. We walked to the farm and checked in, seeing fewer and fewer competitors...not realizing how many had actually dropped out...we were still among the few still standing and that felt damn good!!!

The next task was a LOT of wood chopping..and some threats to carry goat manure...or some other shit..both literally and this point I knew I had it in the bag and no matter what they asked of me, I was all over it.."sure Joe, where's the shit then"..."which pile of wood do you want me to chop"..."hurry up and tell me what's next, I don't have all day" (well I guess I did) So this is where another wrinkle comes into play, and where a little sense of urgency comes around. Joe started threatening us with "if you don't chop this wood by such and such a time, you're DNFed" I knew he was messing with me...well, hoping he was anyway...but all of a sudden there was talk of cutting people off more and more, and I secretly started to get nervous. For months via email, they had said this race would take us into Mon, Tues, or even I had covered all my bases at home and work, and so told Chelsea I would be home "sometime next week". I think her response had been something like this in her half kidding/serious kind of humor "like hell SOMETIME next either finish by Mon or you quit"...."yeah ok, ok..sure Chel" (I would've stayed until Friday if that's how long it took) So since I thought there was no cut-off time, I was taking my time, relatively speaking...competing to survive , not to win and I really didn't care how long it took as long as I I was hoping that this strategy wasn't going to backfire. Let's face it, they can lie to us, so even if they said there was no time limit, that could've been a lying..or maybe they just changed their minds....more WORRY!

    (I'm starting to look slightly a mess here)

    (hmmm...I gotta do WHAT with this?)

    (Imagining Joe's and Andy's head right there!)

    (out of my way!)

    (ahhh...I feel as fresh as I did...oh say, 38 hours ago!! NOT!)

    (Happy to be done with THAT...bring on whatever's next!!)

And before the race, all the racers had met in a church for our pre-race meeting and since they had told us to be well versed in the world's religion (also via taunting emails), we all thought we'd be quizzed at some point on random facts about religion (there were laminated posters ALL over the forest with religious symbols that we assumed we would have to know which religion they belonged in the midst of the physical misery, we were always pulling out our pens and paper that was dry inside baggies, to jot info about a PAIN IN THE ASS...can you imagine the insanity of that!!..and by the way Joe, I'm pretty sure I pissed all over one of those signs!! :) So the minister, in our pre-race meeting, (and now that I think about it, how do we even know he was the real minister...hell Joe and Andy probably paid the local gas station attendant to go in there and "preach" to us) started rattling off massive amounts of religious information, on a number of different world religions and most everyone tried to keep up and take notes..I took them for myself, Rebecca, and John...but the minister was purposely speaking very quickly (no doubt by instructions from Joe and Andy...BASTARDS) and it was virtually impossible to take accurate notes...flash back to college...well maybe not, since I slept my hangovers off through most of my college curriculum....Hey maybe THAT'S why I'm dumb enough to sign up for these lunatic events!!! I should have listened to my parents more.."study study Frank!!!" Too late now..anyway, so after the meeting, Joe gets up there and tells everyone that no matter WHERE we are on the course, we MUST be back in church, showered and clean, by 3pm Sunday for a meeting...and then we can go back out to where we were to finish...strange...but what else is new!!!

So John and I were chopping with urgency and after a couple of hours, we asked what the next task was. So we had to hike back up to the checkpoint that we had done the burpees, grab a big plastic bucket, hike back down to the farm, fill it with water and take it back up to them...yes, with the log and our packs still. Ok, fine I said...out of my we marched straight up there..awesome pace...grabbed our bucket and turned around and hiked back down..we were almost at a power walk..or at least that's what I felt like and remember. But when we got back to the farm, it was about noon, and so we had 3 hours to fill our buckets up with water (about 35 lbs) and carry that (obviously very carefully...but Rebecca was going to lend John and I her gloves that had a built in hook on the palm area, AND we were going to duct tape the entire top of our buckets, amazing that our brains were still capable of thinking of solutions to problems). But still, carrying a 35 lb bucket of water, back UP a trial, while still carrying our log and pack, still wasn't going to be so fun...and we were afraid that if we had some difficulties..well of COURSE it was going to be difficult, we didn't want to risk the chance of being late for the meeting because Joe and stressed "you WILL be DNFed if you're late" (for non-racers..that mean Did Not Finish...the 3 most DREADED words in endurance racing!!) We mulled it over a bit, and another guy we teamed up with for the last hike, was pushing to try to get this next task done..but herein lies another issue...if we didn't have this meeting to worry about, after dropping off the buckets of water, we were to continue hiking out in that same direction where we were to drop our logs off and return and basically be DONE!!! At this point, we knew this from the few that had if we took our buckets out now and even did reach that checkpoint with our water buckets, we'd have to hike back JUST for the meeting, and then go BACK out there...which would've been unnecessary hiking and time. But if we just took a two hour break and waited for the meeting to be over, we could rest some, and then go back out...let's face it, we have until Weds right, so why the hell kill ourselves to save two hours at this point. The other guy said, "what if they stop the race in church?"...but I just didn't think they the wait two hours and rest option won out!

So we took a break...we had about 2.5 I went down to the pond and jumped in and took a bath...AMAZING...even though it was's funny how when you don't HAVE to do something, it doesn't hurt quite as bad. We had something to eat, and then we PASSED OUT in the RV for about an hour. So at this point we ran into Rebecca and she said she was " in finished the race" This didn't make sense to me since she was a bit behind us" but I was so out of it and exhausted, I didn't really put much thought into it...good for her!! She is one of the toughest woman I have met, and she sure deserved to finish, no matter where she had gotten to..she never quit!!!! So when we woke up and it was time to make the meeting..I was seriously delirious...I couldn't make sense of what was going on..Rebecca was laughing hysterically because I kept asking her the same question over and over, and she kept answering, but I just couldn't make sense of anything she or John was saying. I can honestly say I was actually half asleep still as we walked to I mean really sleeping as I was walking...I was in some state of half consciousness and having these bizarre thoughts about what was happening to when you're sleeping in bed having a nightmare and you think you're awake but dreaming. Let's face it, it was Sun afternoon and since Thurs morning, I had about 5 or 6 hours sleep at best in the last 80 hours...INSANELY sleep deprived (I was up at 7am on Thurs and we left the DC area at 9pm Thurs night and drove all night long to get to Vermont by Friday morning...with me driving about 6 hours of it, and staying up most of the remaining time)...not to mention a tad bit of physical activity in between!

    (Me passed out in John's RV parked across from the main 
    check point at the farm)

So sometime in church I finally managed to shake some clarity back into my brain, and I just wanted this damn meeting over so we could get back out there and finish this shit!! Well, it was DONE...they announced if we were still standing, we were finishers. I think you could feel collective sign of relief flow through the church..but honesty for me...and I know I speak for John hit me initially like a punch in the gut. I REALLY did want to go back out there and knock the last 1.5 of the tasks out. I know I was beat up and exhausted, but I WAS ready for more! I always had it in my head that it was going to be 3 dark nights out on this race course, and we'd only done 2 so far...and was excited because I thought we could get this done before the 3rd one was even amazingly, this was good news to only plan on another maybe 8 hrs or so!! And I even looked right at John and said "fuck it man, let's go back out there anyway"..and as soon as I said that Joe says "well you can go back out there if you want, but there won't be any volunteers and nobody really cares"..and then I remembered I had a friend racing in RAAM (Race Across America...3,000 mile bike race) which ended in Annapolis, Md the next day, and I had always wanted to get back in time to see him at the finish. And so ending now, meant we could actually drive through ANOTHER full night and get home by Mon morning in time for me to drive to Annapolis to see OK, I've FINISHED!!! And after it sank in, it started to sound better and better, I had done it!!!!!...and felt pretty damn good about myself for making it to the end!

About 155 people started this race, and I was one of only 35 who finished...that's 120 people dropping out...and those aren't ordinary people...but hard asses!!! Those aren't good odds, but then again, I'm usually in that group and don't know why I'm still surprised about that. They had only ordered 16 skulls (our trophies) because they didn't think more than that would actually I decided my penance for not getting to go back out would be to not grab one now and let 16 others snatch them, and I'd just wait for mine to be send to me in the mail. People keep asking me..would you ever do it again? And my initial response was something along the lines of "F*#^ no!" I'm usually a "one time race guy" when it comes to REALLY hardcore races. I just want to find out if I can do them, and when I do, what's the point of doing it again. But there's just something about the Death Race that appeals to me...each year is how do you know you can finish the next year then right?...and I hear that there are other things in Vermont besides cold rain, mud, wet, dreariness, and misery...maybe there are, but that's all I saw! Maybe I'll go visit there again next June 15th to find out...oh wow, is that the date of the 2012 race?? what a coincidence... :)

    (all smiles post race...what misery??!)

One of my favorite quote that's as simple as it gets..but sums up this race perfectly is by Winston Churchill:
Never, never, never give up.

Special thanks to Gokhan again for taking all the time to come and crew us (and for all the pics at the farm), and John for letting us drive up in his RV and destroy it basically. And I got to thinking, with all the people who dropped out, what were the odds that 3 people from the same RV all finished...John: that RV of yours must hold some serious magic buddy..or maybe you're pumping some rich oxygen in there!! Thanks again!!

ABC's Nightline coverage of the Death Race:

Washington Post Article by Lenny Bernstein

Life after Death Race
In February I wrote about Bruce Allentuck, a 45-year-old father of three from North Potomac who was putting himself through a super-human training regimen for the 2011 Death Race (since renamed the Spartan Death Race), an insanely cruel competition of strength and endurance. Competitors are not told when the race will begin or end, how long it will last or what kind of body- and soul-destroying tasks they will have to complete. Very few people finish.
Allentuck lasted 10.5 hours before he was done in by hypothermia during a three-hour upstream wade in a cold Vermont river. You can read his amazing description of the ad­ven­ture on his blog.
Another local, Frank Fumich of Arlington County, did complete the race. (Based on information provided to me by organizers, I erroneously reported in my original story that Allentuck was the only person from this area participating.)
It took Fumich 40 hours. Forty consecutive hours of running, lifting, wood-chopping, wading, hiking and crawling. Much of the time, he was soaking wet.
Fumich is now training for a triple-Ironman triathlon in October.
Next races and events:
*Virginia Triple Ironman: 7.2 mile swim, 336 mile bike, and 78.6 mile run (non-stop). Oct 2011

*Coast to Kosi: 149 mile ultra..Australia (non-stop) That will complete me running on ultra on all 7 continents. Dec 2011

*North Pole: 100 mile ski trek to the North Pole. Apr 2012

Frank Fumich

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