Oftentimes we hear of the “race within the race” referencing some intriguing subplot. Nowhere was this more true than in Killington, VT the weekend of the Reebok Spartan Race World Championships. But, the story is from a different race that had quietly started Friday afternoon without fanfare and with very few spectators – the Peak Team Death Race. The Peak Team Death Race and the athletes who participated are a rare breed. Numbering less than 60 and competing in teams of four they would be out in the Vermont wilderness for three days in a desperate attempt to earn a coveted Death Race finisher skull.
Born in 2004, the Death Race is the Spartan Race origins. The DNA of where Spartan Race was founded in this epic endurance challenge that sees a finish rate just over 10% in most events. A summer, winter, team, and traveling version, the Death Race is a very different event that the obstacle course races in the Reebok Spartan line-up. Lasting several days and with no idea what challenges and tasks will be required to finish, it’s brutalizing. Founder Joe De Sena says, “Spartan Race in a baptism into this life, the Death Race is an exorcism.” This Death Race would prove to be one of the most difficult to date.
When the Death Race’s annual Team competition kicked off in nearby Pittsfield (well, not so “nearby” when you have to hike the whole way, in the rain, through your second night of zero sleep, deep in the woods, with your wrist zip tied to a long rope shared by several dozen other racers) and included steep climbs, frigid rivers, moving massive loads on slippery paths, all with no idea what was coming next or how long it would all last.
This spectacle arrived in the resort town just before midnight Saturday, out of the cold, dark, wet night, as groups of four filthy runners came off the highway and towards the Wobbly Barn. Inside, the party was rocking, with hundreds of athletes dancing and celebrating with their finisher medals proudly dangling from their necks, earned on the Saturday Spartan Race courses in Killington. Soon, many of them were drawn to the front door to gawk, open-mouthed at the Death Racers amassing to bang out hundreds of burpees in the muddy parking lot. And these weren’t the glorified squat thrusts that so many people try to get away with, either. These were chest to deck, jump with a clap overhead, full-blown burpees.
And when everyone else went back to their after-after-parties in condos with hot tubs, these Death Racers sat in the rain on the gravel by the registration tent, waiting for their bibs and chips for the UltraBeast kicking off the next morning at 6 AM. Yes, after 48 hours of brutal work, freezing cold, and no sleep, they were told to complete the hardest obstacle race ever staged and with their packs and the same time cutoffs as the rest of the field.
If you think this story could be no more incredible, it’s time you meet Noah Galloway. In 2005, Noah was stationed in Iraq where, during his second tour of duty, he lost his left arm and his left leg in an IED attack. Now, 8 years later, he was huddled in the cold with his fellow racers. In the two full days prior he had neither asked for nor received any special treatment. He lifted the same rocks (ok, even bigger), climbed the same hills, took the same abuse as everyone else. With one arm, one leg and am indomitable spirit. He’s no stranger to Spartan Race courses, either. With two finishes in Virginia, most recently Wintergreen, and Carolina in 2012, he dons a blacked out gas mask and runs along with Operation Enduring Warrior, an organization aimed at empowering and motivating injured veterans.
Plenty has been written on the insane difficulty of the Ultrabeast and the low finisher rate, hovering around 42% on the day with chilly temps, and muddy tracks making the course even more challenging than designed. While most people would never, ever, EVER even consider taking on the Ultra Beast, much less the Ultra Beast after 48 grueling hours, Noah is clearly not most people. Nor are his teammates, Nele Shulz (2013 Winter Death Race Champion), Andrew Hostetler, and Eric Matta of team Reload Fitness.
At the outset of the Ultra Beast, the racers were told that finish position would be determined by combined team times. So it made sense for the fastest runners (in this case Andrew and Eric) to go out hard, and for Nele and Noah to do their best to keep up.
Over 12 hours later, David and Eric had arrived at the end of the course and were looking for their teammates. They could certainly be forgiven for looking for a chair in which to wait – after all, they’d been up for about 60 straight hours and had covered countless mountain miles. Instead, they set off backtracking the Ultra Beast course so they could all come across the line as a team.
Fast forward to 8pm. Long after dark, all four are working together. Nele’s legs swollen painfully, but still moving forward. . Noah’s prosthetic leg had broken and was barely able to support any weight, forcing him to practically hop the balance of the race on his other leg. They each credit the other with having gotten them this far, and now Andrew and Eric shouldered the extra load, supporting their friends while they moved as a unit towards the finish.
There are countless stories from this year’s Team Death Race that will stand out in the minds of those who were there to bear witness. Mark Jones’ superhuman performance throughout. Vermonter Jane Boudreau Coffey’s inspiring finish, earning her coveted skull. People helping one another along the way, sharing food, water, and encouraging words. The sight of 60 year olds racing alongside 20 year olds in one of the most difficult Death Races ever delivered, everyone suffering as a unit to finally cross the Ultra Beast finish line and be told, “You’re done. It’s over.” Hearing those words and knowing that it was finally time to stop, was like music to their ears.
And among the finishers at the sushi restaurant after the race, a team of four, Nele being carried in unable to walk, barely able to keep their eyes open, Team Reload Fitness celebrated their finish as a team clutching their hard earned finisher skulls.