[Editor’s Note: The Death Race that began on June 24, 2011 is a monumental part of the Spartan Race history. The athletes are phenomenal individuals and the volunteers and crew for the event are second to none. It defines the spirit of our racing series. Several segments will be released on this year’s epic race including official results.]
by Carrie Adams
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like…” –Thoreau
Rain broke through the thick overhead branches of the mountainside forest and the steep, gnarly trail was overrun with mud. Run-off plummeted down the rocks making every step unsure and dangerous. Shielding my eyes from the rain, I looked skyward and sighed. Eighteen hours into the race, we hadn’t yet reached the halfway point of the trail up to Roger’s Farm for the next task. Serving as crew for a few friends, I had ventured out on the course and was experiencing firsthand the level of difficulty the racers were enduring. I was beginning to wonder if we’d get out and back before dark.
Blazing out of the dark woods below us in what became a trademark red bandana came Grace Cuomo Durfee, who would ultimately get a fourth place overall finish. She was just one of four women to complete the grueling challenge. As she returned from the checkpoint, she graciously offered, “Not too much farther guys. It’s steep,” before charging up. It was hard to understand how much had happened in the past 18 hours and how much lay ahead of the racers in the 2011 Spartan Death Race.
On June 24th, the small town of Pittsfield, VT was inundated with racers, their families and support crews for the legendary Death Race. Religion served as the race’s theme. A meeting was set for 5:30 PM at a local church. Religion seemed fitting; to use a Christian metaphor, the setting was biblical. The skies were dark and ominous. Fog rolled off the mountain peaks, beautiful but telling… it was cold in the mountains. Thunder rolled, and the rain clouds spit out large rain drops as racers congregated around the barn to check in and to huddle together to stay warm. Racers trudged into the church, some solemn and others boisterous, but all awaiting instructions for what they were about to face.
The course for the race is ever-changing but has a few trademarks. Amee Farm is ground zero and mountains on either side of the farm serve as grounds for the grueling death race tasks. This year, the main locations were the church, Amee Farm, Riverside Farm, Tweed Cabin, Borden’s, Roger’s, and Colton’s Camp.
Says competitor John McEvoy, “You can watch all the videos you like on the Internet, read every article, review and blog (including this one) about the Spartan Death Race, but you will honestly have no idea what it’s like unless you actually experience it. Looking back on what I had to do over a 24hr period, it seems like a messed up dream or better yet, a nightmare.”
Start: 5:30 pm Church. Racers were prepared for the theme of the this year’s race, Religion, with a sermon outlining the world’s major religions. Upcoming challenges would test their strength, sanity, faith in a higher power, and most importantly faith in themselves. Racers are told that they must return to the church Sunday at 3pm and cannot be late. They are instructed to be clean and dry when they arrive.
Official Race Start at 8 pm at Amee Farms.
Challenge 1: Lift 100,000 pounds of rocks. Each racer was assigned a team and were told to clean boulders to chest height in what would amount to about 2,000 repetitions. Many religions believe in hard work and industriousness. The Death Race wanted to give the racers a humble beginning. After six hours, the racers were instructed to collect their gear for a hike.
Challenge 2-3: Fishing and 3 mile River hike – A baptismal initiation, racers had to hike upstream for 3 miles in a fast moving rocky river bed, at times waist deep, and catch a fish, as a ceremonial offering to feed the multitudes (the parable of the loaves and the fish).
Challenge 4: Ice swimming – Once racer’s arrived at Riverside Farm they took part in a Shinto cleansing. Racers had to traverse a deep pond with packs, bushwhack through woods, run cross a field holding a lit candle and return to the pond. They had to repeat this loop seven times. They then had to return to the farm via the 3 mile river hike downstream.
Challenge 5: Log carry and split - and memorize a prayer. On their return, racers had to head up a trail carrying a log, then memorize a prayer then come down and split their wood. The prayer was Corinthians 16:13: Be watchful. Stand firm in the faith. Act like men. Be strong.
Challenge 6: After heading back to Amee farm via the river they had to saw 3 foot sections of downed trees, bring them back to HQ, and drill their race numbers into them. The log was a mandatory article to carry through the rest of the race. Each one weighed approximately 50 lbs. (Female racer logs were 18″ and weighed about 25 lbs). The logs with the race numbers took on their own identities. They represented the duality of racer and obstacle, a Taoist yin and yang.
Challenge 7: Pilgrimage to Roger’s Farm. Racers carried their packs and logs up the mountain on a treacherous and technical mountain trail that had become even more challenging with the torrential rainfall. The pilgrimage was an acceptance of a physical journey to achieve spiritual awakening.
Challenge 8: Help thy Neighbor. Once at Roger’s Farm, racers threw their logs in the lake, stacked wood, and completed chores. They then retrieved their logs from the lake and carved a 1RO into the log to serve as a reminder to help others. Roger’s Farm had the highest drop-out rate of the entire course.
Challenge 9: Return to Amee Farm. Racers hiked back out to the Colton checkpoint on the trail back, did 100 burpees, and were allowed to proceed back the the farm.
Challenge 10: Into the Darkness. Culvert crawl – Entering a narrow culvert about 3 feet in diameter, racers had to crawl against an onrushing stream of water for 100 yards, with their packs.
Challenge 11: To live is to suffer. Racers hiked with their packs and logs up 5 miles in a 30 – 40% grade trail that included 1/2 mile of barbed wire to crawl under and waterfalls to climb. The trail, nicknamed “Gaza Strip,” served as a true test of will and endurance. At the peak, racers took part in a secret ceremony and were sent back down the mountain the same way they came up.
Challenge 12: Baptize others. Racers were instructed to fill five gallon buckets to the top and take them to Colton checkpoint without spilling the water or letting the level drop more than two inches. Racers still carried their logs and packs.
Challenge 13: Remove your burden. Racers hiked back to Roger’s Farm and dropped off their logs as a metaphor for putting their burdens in the hands of others. Then, the racers returned to Amee Farm.
Challenge 14: A time to reflect. Racers took a 200 question exam focused on what their experiences had taught them after their time on the course.
The challenge ultimately ended at the church at three PM on Sunday, after over 40 hours on the course. Racers who finished were at various points along the course – not all had completed every challenge on the list – but each had committed to meeting at the church at that time and so stopped what he or she was doing and prepared to honor his or her commitment.
The early leader and 2010 winner, Joe Decker, ultimately won again. Destroying the course in what he has called his final Death Race. Says Decker via Facebook, “What a torturous, miserable, painful, punishing and INCREDIBLE time! I feel so honored to have competed and become friends with some of the most solid & motivated people in the world. Many would ask WHY?! But we all know why. I t’s just about ‘Can I do it?’ ‘Who and what really am I?!’ My motto is “Get Busy Livin’ or Get Busy Dyin!” They may call it the Death Race, but I call it truly livin!”
Grace Cuomo Durfee, the dynamo from the mountain trail, was the first female to finish the grueling event, proving that not only can women participate in the race but they can also excel in it. She was overheard telling a camera crew, “I’m doing this for all the women out there.”
The Death Race is a life-changing experience for anyone who participates. Stay tuned for more on the Spartan Death Race 2011: official results, the participants, the volunteers, the crews who took on parts of the course themselves…
The Death Race has never been about dying. “If you are willing to push your heart, body and mind to the limits you can experience moments of pure bliss… what it truly means to be alive…” – Michele Roy (Death Racer, 2011)