by Carrie Adams
Two weeks ago, I got an email from Neil Preston, 34, asking me not to publish his profile. A nagging calf injury threatened his participation in the race. The middle school teacher from Richmond, VT was devastated at the prospect of not being able to participate in the race. He calls that “a dark day.” On June 12, he sent a new message, one that was far more positive. Hes said, “I’ve still lost tons of training time but baring further pre-race injury I will be there. upcoming race.”
The Vermonter is no stranger to the Death Race. He did the Death Race in 2009 and 2010 and the Winter version of the race in 2011. He has not yet finished the summer Death Race.
“The Death Race is a bit of a meat grinder. The directors are trying to get people to quit while you are finding your own personal breaking point. I find that interesting.” He then jokes, “I describe the suffering and it’s basically farm chores. All the work people show up and pay good money for results in a lot of chores getting done. Crowd sourcing.”
Preston is compelled to return to the event yet again in 2011 because of his performance. He’s impressed with what he’s turned out in an event that boasts between an 80 – 90% failrure rate. “It’s been exciting.” he says, “I will outperform myself from last year so long as I have that feeling. I also think the attitude is amazing. I’ve never been anyplace where there is such uniform and collective suffering and the attitudes are so positive.
Like most racers who have faced the Death Race before, he recognizes the mental element tied to the race. “To say that you are preparing for it isn’t realistic. I don’t believe you can train for something that will be designed to try to break you.” That’s why he believes the event is so special and unique, “The Death Race will always be great because you’ll never be able to prepare for it and I find that exciting!” It doesn’t deter him from training, however he can cite the significance of spending hours on your feet.
Preston claims that the race has changed over time. “There is enough information out there on what the race will entail. “It wouldn’t have changed my performance dramatically if I would have had some understanding in the past but it would have given me understanding of the framework. Oh well.” He stops, “Can’t go back.”
Preston grew up in athletics, playing soccer and lacrosse but never Varsity level and not in college. “I never considered myself an athlete,” he says. Currently, he plays soccer with fellow Death Racer Andrew Butterfield and he’s done the Burlington marathon but he’s not an extreme or ultra endurance athlete. Despite having seen the race, he still comes into the event with reservations. In addition to losing precious training time with the lingering calf injury he says, “I still have anxiety and it’s a daily conversation piece.”
Preston says he’s happy with what he calls, “A very level and simple existence.” Married for seven years, he and his wife spend a lot of time at their home hanging out with friends and cooking. “I think I have a healthy attitude about it.” He knows several of the other local participants and notes, “At this point, it becomes part of who people are. It definitely has an alteration.” The other racers also inspire Preston: “…incredible people. They are the kind of people that I want to be my friends and back me up and help me out.”
Preston has finished a Death Race – the Winter 2011 event. He says he had a crystallizing moment during the race while talking with a few snow shoe marathon participants – a Peak Races event that happened on the same weekend. He was building a cairn – one of the Winter Death Race tasks when they began talking. As he explained the race he says, “I knew there was no way I was not going to quit.” He realized, “The only thing I want right now is to finish this race and it was very clear. I was not distracted by any other racers, hunger, or pain. What I wanted was clear and present and I don’t think you feel that very often. There is so much other distraction in your world that was a crystalizing moment.” He knew he would do whatever was asked of him and he’d complete the event. “That’s it,” he told himself, “it doesn’t matter what they give me now. I’ll finish. I’ve never had that feeling. You get to this place where you realize it’s one of two things: You can’t do it or you won’t do it.”
Preston acknowledges that “Every person who’s quit has stopped because they didn’t want to anymore. Including me. The Death Race is for each person. Their race day. Mine will be of my version.”
All his Death Race experience has shown him the thing that he says makes the race so interesting, “The race has to be about you. It doesn’t matter what someone else has to do. Nobody else’s race matters but yours. And everybody has to live with what they choose or don’t choose on that day.”