Last Updated on March 11, 2018 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
It was 5:30 am on Sunday morning when a defeated looking athlete approached my table. “I’m out.” he said “I’m too beat up to go on.” I looked up at him, and it was obvious he was tired. Hell, we were all tired. It had been 25.5 hours since I had gotten any sleep, but that was nothing compared to the Death Race athletes who were now 44+hours into their race.
And in that 44+ hours they had sprinted up and down a stone staircase to a mountain peak countless times while carrying heavy gear packs, had carried massive rocks that weighed hundreds of pounds, had done thousands of burpees, built their own axes, navigated an orienteering course, started fires with a stick and a string, sat for hours in a near impossible written history exam where they were required to remain 100% silent AND hold difficult yoga poses, sewed a suit out of buckskin, made a cup out of piece of wood, and more that I still can’t coherently remember.
All of this in the hot summer sun AND freezing cold Vermont nights, easily approaching 100 miles, and on no sleep. It had been a long two days, and the finish of this race was nowhere in sight. NO ONE would fault this guy for throwing in the towel.
Except I knew what was coming next.
I knew what the racers and their crew members did not know, that these athletes were all about to board one of two busses (wearing an adult diaper and at Tyvek suit, but that is another story, welcome to the Death Race) and one of these busses was headed to New York City. There was a real possibility that this athlete was about to get 5 hours of rest off of his feet, and that his weekend of manual labor and never ending hikes would be over. He would quite literally cruise his way to the finish line.
Of course, there was an equal possibility that he would board the bus that would circle Pittsfield Vermont for an hour, return to Riverside Farm, and he would be put right back to work, carrying 60 lb bags of concrete to the top of another mountain for the rest of the day. But the point was, if he quit now, finishing would never be a possibility.
While I knew all of what this athlete could face, I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t ruin the integrity nor surprise of the race, or give this athlete an unfair advantage by letting him know what I knew. It is sort of an unwritten rule that we try to get into the heads of the athletes before the race and tell them to quit, tell them that they will never survive what the race will dole out to them. So I said to him exactly what I had told two other athletes who had approached my table within the last few hours.
You have busted your ass to make it to this very point, and you have come this far. (The athletes were in a middle of a 7 hour time trial running laps up and down the stone stair mountain. There was no minimum on the number of laps they must complete; and while those with the most laps would benefit in the overall results, the athletes could rest if they wanted to. As long as they were back at the base by 7 am and not out on the course, they were able to move on to the next challenge). You don’t know what is coming next. And what comes next may totally suck, and it may confirm your decision that yeah, you want to quit. But what comes next may be something significantly better, and you’ll be glad you didn’t quit. But if you quit NOW, neither possibility is yours. Succeeding in what you set out to do would no longer happen. So you make the decision that you can live with for the rest of your life.
It was at that point that I made the realization that the Death Race is an amazing metaphor for life. We all struggle at one point or another. We’ve all been in a situation where were just wanted to throw in the proverbial towel and give up. But the reality is, not a single one of us knows what’s around the corner. For example, you may constantly struggle to make ends meet, keep a roof over your head and food on the table, but tomorrow you may wake up to the job offer of a lifetime. Or you may wake up to car with a blown radiator and even more bills that you can’t keep up with. But around even another corner in the future may come a life changing opportunity. Or not. You just never know…but if you quit, you truly will never know.
The athlete in question listened to me and did not pull himself from the race. And to be honest, in my own delirium, that was the last I thought of him. My priority was volunteers and bib numbers: actual names and faces didn’t register at that point. It wasn’t until around 3 am the next morning, 66 hours into the race, when we were awarding skulls (the finishing prize) in the glow of headlamps that a man came up to accept his skull, gave me a huge hug and said “Thank you for not letting me quit” that I remembered our previous exchange. I still don’t know what bus he got on, or what he struggles he faced after he left our initial conversation the morning before. But he did not quit, and in accepting and facing whatever challenges were around each corner, he eventually made it to his goal: the finish line.
As a staff member for the Death Race, my experience is vastly different from the athletes who participated in the race, and I will leave them to give you the play by play of passing a porcupine quill through a log and the perils of trench foot.
On my end, there were a lot of hilarious stories and trying moments that came out of this weekend. There was stomach-hurting laughter as we all fell into the “I’m so sleep deprived that everything is now hilarious” moments. There were tears choked back as I had to tell a good friend that because of seriously concerning medical reasons, we had to take him out of the race he had wanted to finish so badly. There were spreadsheets for days, calming the nerves of concerned spectators and family members, bartering a piece of my coveted paper to a racer who needed to write down trail directions in exchange for his wife’s energy drink, and so many other great memories that probably will make little sense to those who weren’t there.
But my take home lesson from the weekend? Never give up. You never know what’s around the next corner.
A special thank you to all of my amazing volunteers for your time, help, and patience this weekend, especially those who went above and beyond with their time and effort; to the other staff members for being so kickass; to Hannah Hawley for being an amazing person and friend who cared for, fed, and caffeinated absolutely anyone who crossed her path; to Geoffrey for being my rock and making sure I stayed fed (a full Heather is a happy Heather!), to the athletes for constantly inspiring all of us, and to Andy, Joe, Peter, and the rest of the Peak Crew for providing this amazing experience for all of us.