by Carrie Adams
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” -Oscar Wilde
Recently, Spartan Race has been covering profiles of the awe-inspiring individuals taking part in the Spartan Death Race. An endurance event like no other on the planet that has been taking place every year in Pittsfield since 2005. It’s an event aimed at giving competitors the ultimate challenge in the Green Mountains of Vermont and an opportunity for those brave enough to sign up the chance to find themselves and redefine their lives in a backdrop of unforeseeable challenges. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show that overcoming is worth the effort required to achieve it and being alive is a state of being where death is just a state of mind.
Ax in hand, Ray Morvan, now 48, hacked away at the stump in the ground for over an hour, using his hands at various points to dig and pry at the roots of the stubborn stump to extract it from the ground. He’d removed his bib already that was previously pinned to it and now he worked at the stubborn, heavy stump expertly with his ax. His reward for the task – to carry the heavy piece of wood for the rest of the day. He would DNF that race at the 11 hour mark – his first attempt at the race in the summer of 2009.
In the winter race the following year, he was told to put together a wheel barrow and then cart 12 logs of firewood up the mountain in deep snow. With no easy way to push the wheelbarrow in the drifts of snow, he had to improvise in order to navigate the trail with the heavy logs and cumbersome wheelbarrow to reach the summit. It was a daunting task.
This summer marks the fifth race for the veteran Death Racer, a mortgage banker from Springfield, VT. His first attempt, he weighed in at just about 240 pounds and had recently left rehab for treatment of a drug and alcohol addiction. He was admittedly not ready and when he left at the 11 hour mark, a spark had been ignited. For a man who nearly died in 2002 from appendicitis and has endured more than a dozen abdominal surgeries since, he’s no stranger to death and he plans on competing in the race until they won’t let him anymore.
The Death Race has been in existence for six years and though there is a legacy and reputation behind the infamous race for competitors there is no discernible pattern, no way to predict what is coming next, or what might be included from event to event. Creator’s Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg make sure that the event maintains it’s original design: a race that a competitor can’t possibly train for or prepare for in advance. Joe DeSena spoke at length about the spirit of the Death Race in a recent interview with Endurance Planet.
The race is meant to be unpredictable and impossible to prepare for as a competitor and it doesn’t disappoint. That’s why it’s so intense. “Completing one year means nothing.” says 2010 summer and 2011 winter Death Race competitor Bryan Selm. “You don’t rely on that going in the next time around. You just can’t.”
For some, it represents the ability to endure. Lisa Madden, 9th place finisher in the 2010 event and seasoned trail runner said, “You figure, you know, you have a capacity for suffering, so even if you take on something really challenging, it’s a willingness to suffer and get through what you’ve taken on.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Eric Skocaj, a grad student who didn’t finish his first time around. With lessons learned and a lot of mileage behind him as an ultra runner he’s going into his second attempt at the June event with the attitude that, “I’ll suffer more and continue more than I’ve ever done before.”
It’s deeply personal for everyone who competes. It’s about choosing to continue in spite of everything that is happening around you and choosing to find out what you are capable of accomplishing. For Neil Preston, a Winter Death Race finisher in 2011 he recalls a pivotal and galvanizing moment in the race when he realized, “That’s it, it doesn’t matter what they give me now. I’ll finish. I can point at any other athletic thing and I’ve never had that feeling and I think that you get to a place where you will do something or you won’t do something. It becomes that simple.” Nate Brown, another Winter Death Race finisher said eloquently, “…Having those moments where you can push yourself despite your shortcomings are important. It may be tough for you, but you can get down and get past it, and complete it.”
Other veterans of the race point to the what the event has come to represent to them. Jack Cary says, “I need to do things like this to feel alive and it doesn’t have to be every day, but knowing that there is a date in the future where I’ll push past perceived limits means something.” Andrew Butterfield, a promising working actor in LA abandoned his life and moved to Vermont, a place that represented a different kind of opportunity for the creative, animated competiror saying, “I realized I was pursuing things for other people not for myself. I wasn’t living in a way that made me happy. This race is about living. It’s not a “Death Race”… it’s really not. This race is about life.”
2010’s winner Joe Decker believes that the race gives competitor’s the opportunity to find themselves and find out what limitations they have placed on themselves. To the four people he brings with him this year he says, “Find out who you really are and what you are made of. Maybe you’re not as strong as you think you are and maybe you are stronger. You don’t know until you go beyond your limits.”
For those new to the event, the unknown has depths they can appreciate and their ability to articulate that realization is inspiring. Kat Dunnigan, an experienced Ironman and endurance athlete said she was immediately interested in the event and had to try because, “The one thing that is amazing is that your ego is put away and you are no longer worried about anything but that task at hand… it’s painful but it’s a peaceful place to be. There is nothing left to do but put one foot in front of the other. I can put one foot in front of the other.”
John McEvoy, an Irish immigrant and owner of a successful CrossFit gym CrossFit Craic says, “In CrossFit there is a saying, ‘Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable’ that’s the place you need to be to be making gains and then you welcome that. You appreciate the discomfort, the pain. Believe me, I want to finish – I have confidence in myself that I can, I want to see where my limit and how far I can actually push myself. One task at a time.”
Another new entrant Rebecca Hansen, a 49 year-old mother of three girls and Double Ironman competitor and ultra runner says simply she “likes to try things I could fail at. It’s okay to be in way over my head.” Failure is redefined in an event where just toeing the line is a victory.
The Death Race has come to represent a journey that can only be experienced by those who are brave enough to sign the waiver that states simply, “I may die.” And you may die, the event is challenging and dangerous enough for that… but most assuredly during the grueling event you will be living… uninhibited, unfiltered, and undiluted. Those who cross the line and earn their Death Race skulls are death race survivors and proof that it’s actually possible to live yourself to death.