by Carrie Adams
The Death Race brings men and women from all over the country to try their hand at finishing a race that has both a death waiver and a less than 15% finisher rate on average. Each person who is called to Pittsfield has their reasons to take on the race and for almost all of them, it’s life changing. For Parker Eastman, age 17, his finish was not only a herculean feat, but a Death Race record. He became the youngest participant ever to finish the race. His brother, Spencer, previously held that record when he finished in 2008 at age 18. Hear Parker’s incredible story in his own words of how he took on the Death Race in the year of betrayal and emerged with his finisher skull.
Hungry, tired, and alone, I begin an ascent up a desolate mountain road. I haven’t eaten in nearly 24 hours, and I haven’t slept in well over 30. My feet ache from constant hiking over the past day; they’re raw and blistered from frequent submersions in the local rivers coupled with the elongated hikes. I dream of ending the suffering, of walking to a race director, saying “I quit!” settling down, and filling my stomach. But, I can’t do that. I can’t quit, because deep down, I know that I can handle more. Regardless of how pained I am, I don’t need to stop.
Few fail this race physically. A majority fail mentally. I do not want to fall into the latter category, the group that decides the race is too much, quits, and then tries to justify to themselves and others why they quit. The only way I’m ending this race, is if I collapse. So, I begin muttering to myself, “I may fail, but I will not quit!”
And so the hours pass and so the suffering continues.
A day later, and I’m back on the same mountain. I’m tasked with carrying a 55 pound box housing an Ice and Water Shield six miles to a cabin that sits atop the mountain. My arms can hardly hold the weight; the result is short bursts of running with the box, while it rests on my shoulder. Lack of food and sleep have caused mass frustration on my part, and results in frequent outbursts at those that have come to support me. Rumors have surfaced that this is the final challenge; the coordinators have spread through the support groups that the state of Vermont has mandated that the race ends at 7 PM. All hopes are stifled upon my return to Amee Farm, when I’m told my task is to summit the mountain again, and then descend to the farm at the base of the opposing side.
I’m told to team up with another man, one of the older competitors whose belittled the challenge in marathons and Ironman competitions. We decide to hike up a ravine that transcends the switchbacks that would otherwise lead us to the summit, cutting the hike from 1+ hours, to about 25 min. The conversation that ensues focuses on the fundamentals of mental toughness, particularly what sets those of us that remain from those that have dropped from the race. In endurance racing, there are peaks and valleys. Some of the time, you feel great. You’re at the peak, and feel as though you could go forever; your feeling reinforced by constant positive thoughts. Yet, endurance races are long enough for you to take on the opposing viewpoint; you’re not strong, you’re tired, underprepared, and the pain will all go away with the simple words “I quit.” It’s not how great you feel during your peaks that defines how strong you are, but how well you cope with the valleys. More training may make you peak higher, and it may even dampen the valleys, but if you have a weak mental game, there is no hope of finishing an event like the Death Race.
Somewhere along in the pain and suffering, the question is raised, “what am I willing to give up to finish this race?” For me, I was willing to give up everything. There is no greater pain than failure, so at hour one when I was struggling to hold a kayak above my head, hour 36 when I was hypothermic from sitting in a pond for 45 minutes, hour 45 when I was carrying an 80 pound stump up a mile and a half slope, hour 50 when I was carrying a 55 pound “Ice and Water Shield” box 6 miles up a mountain, or hour 60 when I was hallucinating, vomiting, and rolling around in others waste, I pushed through my physical pain. I did not want to fail myself by saying, “this is too hard for me. I quit,” because I knew that was a lie. So, after more than 60 hours of not failing myself, I finished. 344 began that race thinking they had what it takes to finish, yet only 51 finished. 51 people said to themselves “there is nothing this race can throw at me that will make me quit”, and they all won a skull for believing so.
Events like the death race teach us a lot about ourselves. A majority of competitors learn what they can handle, and at what point the pain becomes too drastic to endure. Yet, a small percentage learn that, in a mental sense, they are unstoppable; there is nothing that can be thrown at them that will make them stop. For these few, they would rather die than not finish the race.
A lot of people asked me why I signed up for this race. With a name like “The Death Race”, many would be perplexed at the allure of the event. My honest answer, I wanted to see how long I could go. I’ve always considered myself an endurance athlete, I swam and ran distance throughout high school, and always felt fine at the end of a long workout, so this was my tool of measurement; it was a way for me to compare myself to others that consider themselves endurance athletes. At the end of the event, when I begin to realize the magnitude of my accomplishment, I acknowledge that I reside with the few; I discovered that I would rather die than quit.