It’s Friday August 2, 2019, 3 weeks after the Death Race as I start writing. I was advised after the race to take some time to “contemplate and process” the events that took place, but unfortunately work and various responsibilities left me a busy bee upon returning home from Vermont.
“You have just undergone a traumatic experience, take time to recover.”
I took time in my own way. I went internal a bit. I didn’t check any notifications until 2 days after. Then I answered the DM’s, the FB notifications, and the emails, but I shyed away from posting on social media.
There were so many congratulatory messages. So many people asking for tips. Emails about interviews and podcasts. It was all very overwhelming, it still is. Who am I? I am a regular person. I am not particularly strong or fast. I have a decent amount of grit and a strong will, but I am not superhuman. Yet it happened. I finished my second Death Race, and I was somehow crowned the winner. Not just the winner, the first female overall winner in the history of the Death Race.
People are looking at me differently. Do I deserve it? I don’t particularly think so. I feel strange about the whole thing. I was standing there, 70 hours in, with 17 others next to me that had made it that far. I knew I couldn’t run the furthest or lift the heaviest, but I was still in the game. I acted on impulse, grabbed a skull, and in that moment, Joe decided the race was over.
Here’s one thing you have to realize about the Death Race, everything is very arbitrary. There are no rules; The rules that exist can be changed at any time; You don’t know when it will end. So I am going to tell my story, as honestly as I can recall it, and I am going to let you form your own opinions about what does or doesn’t make sense. There is only one thing you can count on at an event like this: It will not be fair.
September 30th, 2018 I signed up for my second Death Race. In December, they announced partners would be mandatory. I partnered up with Charlie Denny, an elite Spartan Racer who I had met at my first 12 hour Hurricane Heat in July of 2017, and had become a good friend. Over the next several months Charlie proved to be a wonderful supporter and motivator. We live a couple hundred miles from each other and rarely got to see each other, but we made good partners even at a distance. The first month of our partnership he had me doing 200 burpees a day, on top of my planned workout. We shared our workouts daily and kept each other accountable. Our styles influenced each other. When I was feeling weak he would call me and give me a pep talk. We started sharing day to day struggles and triumphs and became closer friends because of it. We both had very busy schedules, but we knew no matter what we had to carve out the time to train. Personally, I knew I couldn’t let him down. It wasn’t just about my finish anymore, it was about the team.
In 2018 I had let all the emails from Peak and warnings of “quit now” from the race directors into my head. I was worried and anxious for months leading up to the race. This year, I made a conscious decision to ignore the idea of the race entirely until it was go time.
Peak races decided to release our gear list in the form of several videos, each containing only 2-4 items. There were probably 12 videos, with 1 or 2 released a week. Most were released in the middle of the work day and I couldn’t pay much attention to them. I ignored them for a while. It wasn’t till maybe 3 weeks before the race that I decided to go back and watch them all and jotted down the items in my phone notes.
1 Dart, 10 balloons, 2oz Bag Balm, Whistle, 1 yard Floral pattern cloth, sewing kit, duct tape NOT SILVER, blindfold, construction ear muffs, chem lights (3 red, 3 green), a well lubricated and foldable limb saw, axe, sound proof foam ears plugs (preffereably pink), a hefty handful of 11″ zip ties, compass, 100ft paracord, water sanitizer, 2 feet of tinfoil with no wrinkles or creases, a shovel, 1 9″x12″ manilla envelope with the letters tau theta written on it, ability to carry 2L of liquid, children’s safety scissors, 1 crisp $20 bill, 2 canned goods, chop sticks, a firestarter (non electronic or compressed fuel), and a toothpick.
The videos also suggested we learn about edible mushrooms in Vermont, and several videos had journey songs playing in the background. I spent 2 weeks trying to memorize a handful of Journey’s greatest hits, and then a photo was posted of an exam which appeared to be Journey trivia. I learned a couple stand out facts about them and decided not to stress it too much.
Charlie and I sent each other lists of the mandatory items we were bringing to cross check each other. I ordered most things on Amazon, and we split the bulk items we only needed a few of. Thanks to the genius of Francis Genarelli, my best friend Ashley Alarcon’s partner and another elite Spartan athlete, we found a method to keep our aluminum foil uncreased. He learned an old army trick to wrap the foil around PVC pipe and encapsulate it inside another PVC which was capped by rubber at the ends, enabling the foil to stay uncreased and dry through whatever they decided to throw at us.
The week before the race, the nerves came in full force. Everything I had been ignoring took over my mind in the blink of an eye. Self doubt creeped in. Maybe I didn’t train hard enough. Maybe I’m missing a list item. Maybe I don’t know Journey well enough. Oh my God, am I really going to try and do this again?
Welcome back to Pittsfield
On Monday, July 8th, Ashley and I carpooled up to Pittsfield. We were splitting a room at the Clear River Inn with Charlie and Francis. Shortly after we arrived we met up with some other racers for dinner at our hotel, and bumped into other friends also staying there. It was finally setting in, I was back. I was thrilled to see everyone and my joy wiped away any bit of nerves. It was just gonna be a few days in the woods with my friends, challenging ourselves, becoming stronger. The outcome didn’t matter, I was in it for the adventure.
The race directors posted that we should all come to the farm that night. They had made a documentary about the Death Race and were inviting us to watch the uncut version for the first time. I was super excited about it, but over dinner, several racers suggested it was a trap. The group was split with half wanting to go, and half having made up their minds that if we went now, our race would begin early. Some spoke of a time years ago when they were invited to dinner at the farm and showed up in neat dinner attire only to be made to do farm work in their nice clothing. I spoke to Charlie about it and he strongly felt that it was a setup. I had a feeling it wasn’t and suggested we bring our gear in the car just incase, and he agreed.
Charlie, Ashley, Anthony and I were about to head over to the farm when we bumped into some more friends in the parking lot of our hotel and got chatty. By the time we got in the car it was 7:55pm and the post had said movie promptly at 8pm. Despite really wanting to go, we agreed it would be dangerous to show up late, and got out of the car, opting to take a walk around town instead. Patrick, Ronald, Ashley Seeger and Jael drove by us on the road, honked and waved hello. As the sun started to set, we headed back to our rooms, for our last night of sleep for the foreseeable future.
We awoke around 8 am, did last minute gear checks, and headed to breakfast at The General Store. Francis opened the door, and none other than Joe De Sena was on the other side on his way out. “Oh hey, you guys racing? Are you all DNF’s?” We responded with a confident absolutely not as we walked passed him inside. We bumped into a few racers who said the movie was amazing and they couldn’t wait for it to be released. A few people told me I was in a chunk of it. I was suprised, happy, and now all the more eager to watch it, wondering when or if I would even get the chance to. We ordered breakfast and sat down with the group for our last real meal. Matt B. Davis with Obsacle Racing media was there and shot a couple short videos of us for their IG stories before wishing us good luck. We quickly went back to the room to pack away all our stuff, and then Charlie, Francis, Ashley and myself got into my car and headed to Riverside Farm at about 11:40am.
I pulled into the parking lot and saw everyone lined up and their rucks in a giant pile. The staff pulled everyone out of my car before I could even park. Once I got out I was given a number and asked to put my ruck into the pile. A minute later Don Devaney started screaming asking “Who brought me this small bucket?” He held up a red 2 gallon bucket belonging to Francis. Francis declared it his and Don demanded he run down to the river to build him a sand castle. I giggled in my head because buckets weren’t even on the gear list, and here he was being punished for bringing a small one. A minute later, BJ Pierce stated that Ashley and myself had small buckets also. Don looked at me and said “You go build a sand castle too,” then looked at Ashley and said “follow her.”
We ran down to the river, not seeing Francis anywhere. The river banks were mostly rocks, but there was some sand. We had a quick talk and decided that I would fill my bucket with sand, and Ashley would fill hers with water, and we would run back and build the castle in front of Don. We carefully scooped handfuls of sand into the bucket, packing it down with water every so often to keep it together. When we got back Don questioned why Ashley’s bucket didn’t have sand in it and I quickly answered, “To help pack the castle so it doesn’t fall apart.” I tipped my bucket upside down and slowly started wiggling the bucket upwards. Ashley was on top of packing in the sides with her water as I slowly lifted the bucket off, worried with each movement that it might collapse. Thankfully, it held together, Don declared it satisfactory, and told us to line up for registration. We ran off towards the white barn and got in the back of the line.
One by one each participant turned in their crisp $20 and canned goods, received their Death Race Bibs, took a photo, and said a short statement to the cameras with their partners. I said my hellos to BJ and Jason Barnes, and even got a hug from Don before he stated “Ok, that’s the last of that,” and switched back into director mode. Charlie smiled at me and said “that’s the 3rd director who has acknowledged you.” He seemed to think me being a finisher last year might be helpful this year. I thought it meant I had a target on my back.
Minutes ticked by with no Francis in sight and we were all starting to worry. As we got closer to check-in I looked at Ashley and told her she had to find him. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to register without your partner.” She disappeared off to find him and a few minutes later I heard Don say “We have to get a camera over here.”
When Francis returned he told us that he had stayed down by the river and built an entire village and fortress of sand castles. Multiple castles with a moat and everything. He said he wasn’t told to come back, so he just kept building, and was fully prepared to simply sit by the river building sand castles for as long as was necessary. I thought it was hysterical, and in that moment knew for sure he was ready for whatever heinous nonsense we had in store for us over the next couple of days.
We all checked in, then went inside the barn to grab merch, a DR t-shirt and hoodie. While in line, Don approached me and asked “Are you claustrophobic?” I answered that it wasn’t an issue I had addressed yet and I wasn’t sure. “Well you will,” he responded, as he proceeded down the line asking others. I saw several people in the parking lot putting their gear in their cars, so I collected all our stuff and ran it back to the car.
We were told to do a “romanian chair,” or as I liked to call it, a backwards butt scoot from the white barn down to the tree line. There we put on our blindfolds and were gear checked for a handful of items we had to pull out of our rucks while blindfolded. Jason yelled for anyone who didn’t have their shirt and hoodie to step forward. Roughly half the group stepped forward. He exclaimed that we were never told we were allowed to go back to our cars and we would be punished for doing so. Anyone in the group who had done so without their partner was given a new partner, then we were told to go back to our cars and retrieve the clothing. As punishment, we were sent off into the woods to chop up down trees for firewood. This didn’t last very long before we were sent to race up the mountain.
Charlie was much faster than me and got a little ahead, but would then wait. Eventually he got too far ahead of me, and I saw a group of 7 who were carrying a table up the mountain. I stayed with them to help rotate on and off the table. Once we reached the top we had to grab logs to carry back down. Euan hit me in the forehead with a log and was apologetic, but i assured him it was likely my own clutziness of bending down to grab the next log before he was cleared out of the way that led to my head injury. That lump on my head would prove to be an annoyance throughout the Journey as it was directly where my headlamp sat.
When we got back down the mountain we lined the logs in front of the white barn and lined up along the fence line, with our butts downhill, and our legs stretched straight uphill out in front of us. Don told us our money would go to the foundation he had been raising money for all year. Don is currently on a cycling trip around the country raising money for the One Step Ahead Foundation. He said some very moving words about his journey and I think we all got a little teary eyed.
Then he told us to get out our floral cloth, cut our bib numbers and sew it to our bibs. I started pulling out my sewing kit as a volunteer came over and told Charlie and I to put on our blindfolds and we would be gear checked for all of our items. Thankfully I knew well where I had everything stashed, and we got through gear check relatively quickly. Blindfold back off, we started to sew our numbers on. I was struggling, clearly not very good with a needle and thread. Don became agitated and said we were moving too slowly. When he called time I only had 1 number sewn on.
We were told to low crawl to the pond with our gear and we sang “Don’t stop Believing” at the top of our lungs as we crawled. Once we all got in the pond and our gear was waterlogged, we were told to get 2 down trees out of the pond. As we were trying to organize ourselves, Don began loudly screaming “Peanut Butter Jelly” to add to the noise and chaos.
We split into 2 teams and carried the rather long trees out of the pond and over to the far side of the farm where we were told to get down into a squat with the tree. I was next to Eric Hutterer, last year’s DR winner, and quickly noticed he had a 40lb kettlebell in tow. “Im guessing you can’t let that hit the floor?” I asked. “A little present from Joe,” Eric replied as he placed the KB on top of the tree. Once they decided we had squatted long enough, we were told to chop the trees up into fire wood and stack it. The trees were thick and this was the first time I realized my light axe wasn’t quite hacking it with thick logs. It took me quite some time and effort to break down the wood. Mental note to get a sturdier axe for whatever events I may partake in the future.
We were then split into 3 groups, 1 group was to clean the wood chips out of the field, one to head up the mountain to clean the stairs, and one to head back to the pond and make it look like shangra la. I went with the group up the mountain, led by Yancy, tasked with cleaning and stabilizing the stairs. For anyone who is unaware, the “stairs” are on a trail going up Joe’s mountain from the farm to Shrek’s cabin. They are large flat rocks that were placed there years ago during another Death Race. We made sure they were stable, got rid of any loose or cracked stairs, and cleaned out loose weeds and leaves. It was a tedious task and we were slow moving up the mountain. Yancy asked us all to run up to the top for a group photo and work our way back down, but a couple of people began moving slowly and we had our first med drop of the event, Tracy, a guy I had met in Fayetville at a Hurricane Heat in ’17 who was feeling dizzy.
When we got back down to the farm, the group cleaning wood chips off the grass was still working, so we all joined in to help. Joe threatened 100 burpees for every minute longer it took us, and I got horrible flashbacks from the pain of last year’s 3,000 burpee night. Directors then decided they didn’t like where our firewood was stacked, and we had to run it across the field to a cabin and stack it there instead. After several rounds of running back and forth, and with the sun going down, we were told to get into a line and do a penalty in unsion.
We had to do lunges across the field and the backwards somersaults, while our arms were intertwined. Charlie was next to me, and we pep talked each other through it. Every backwards roll hurt. Inevitably we were over extending our necks, being kicked by a neighbor, or landing oddly on our legs. We repeated the somersaults over and over for some time. Then we were told to get in 2 lines facing our partners. We were moved 2 down and told we were now facing our new partners. I was facing Ashley Seeger. I had met Ashley last year and I knew she was strong, plus we were about the same height, so I was grateful for that when they told us to ziptie our hands together.
We were then all given raw eggs and told to keep them safe. If our eggs broke at any point in time, our race was over. Ashley used her blindfold as a cushion and stuffed her egg into her nalgene bottle. I put mine inside my noise cancelling earphones and wrapped it tightly shut with my blindfold, then hung it from my sternum strap so I could keep it close and safe.
The last light left the sky as we were led into the woods by Andrew Hostetler. We walked in mindless circles for hours, backtracking periodically and turning down different trails. We had no apaprent direction and it seemed the circling was meant to confuse us. Go down this trail, about face, go the other way, turn around, turn the other way. Eventually we were lead to Miguel’s cabin, where the task of the first night awaited us.
Riddles at Miguel’s
We had to bear crawl up the mountain to a tree with some sort of puzzle or riddle, then crab walk back down to the cabin and give our answer to Dylan. If our answer was correct, we could proceed to question 2 which was on a tree higher up the mountain, if it was wrong, we had to go back to read 1 and come back with our new answer. This process would repeat until all the questions were answered. I don’t think any of us realized just how many puzzles there were. We spent the whole night doing bear crawls and crab walks and romanian chairs and low crawls, up and down. Suicide drills, the crawl version. Each puzzle on a tree higher and higher up the mountain, each time we had to go all the way down to give our answer. Truthfully after a while, when we were so high up the mountain we knew no one could see, people were standing and walking. Some people even cut their zip ties, knowing they had backups to replace it so no one would see. Some people stopped to eat or nap. Ashley and I stayed tied together the whole time. It proved difficult when we had to get something out of our rucks, or had to use the bathroom, but we made it work.
The puzzles greatly varied. 1 was a sequence of patterns and you had to guess what was next in the sequence. 1 was a picture of moon phases and you had to name which phase was in the middle. 1 was a code. 1 was a math problem. Some were riddles.
What number is on the opposite side of the die?
I am everything when on my side, and nothing when cut in half.
A symbol that is the number of bones in the skull divided by the number of orifices.
Luckily enough it seemed that Ashley knew the answers to the ones I didn’t and vice versa. There were 2 or 3 neither of us knew, and fellow racers helped us out, as we did for others.
When we got down to the bottom after question 11, we were told to hold high plank and wait till everyone else was down. We didn’t get the chance to answer it, but it turned out the few people who made it to question 12, the final one, had a code they had to decipher which translated to “a bucket filled with water.” That one was particularly difficult as the codex needed to decipher it was located in the window of the cabin. Apparently only 1 or 2 teams figured it out, but the directors said since no one returned to the cabin with a bucket filled with water, we had all failed.
Race directors walked us back towards the farm and we arrived at the brown barn where we had to take off our shoes and go inside. We were VERY smelly. We split into 4 teams and were given maps with checkpoints worth point value. At each location there was a unique hole puncher which we would have to punch our map with to prove we had been there. We had to accumulate at least 180 points. Our team quickly noticed that the top of Bloodroot was worth 120 points, the most on the map as it was the furthest away at roughly 14 miles. Heading there would take a long time and we would need to hit other locations to accumulate more points. The directors told us that there was a poem there, and if we could return having memorized it perfectly, we would gain another 70 points. That decided it, we were heading to Bloodroot.
Before they sent us on our way the directors told us that from here on out, every challenge would eliminate half of the group and that it would work in our favor to come in early. On the way out of the cabin I confirmed with Jason that only 1 map had to be punched, not the entire teams. I knew that this meant once we were out of sight of the directors, we could sent out a fast runner to go collect the punch. The directors said we had to be back at a bridge on Upper Michigan Rd by 8 am with our maps to check in our points.
We headed out on Lower Michigan Road as the sun came up on Wednesday morning. When we reached the Iron Mine, the only other check point on the way to Bloodroot, 2 other teams were sitting on the side of the road resting. I searched for Charlie but he wasn’t there, his team must’ve gone another way.
Ashley S. volunteered to run down to collect the punch and told us to wait for her on the main road. Another team caught on quickly and sent Andrew and Jael, their fastest runners, down the road also. We took the time to drop our rucks and eat as we waited. Just as Ashley reappeared, a pickup truck with Don and some camera guys rolled up on us.
Don got out of the car and screamed that we were all resting and none of us were taking the race seriously. We brushed him off knowing he was just trying to get into our heads. Ashley took off with the map up Bloodroot to get the next checkpoint.
“None of you are going to finish, she is in the lead,” He yelled pointing up at Ashley. Again I brushed it off, knowing Ashley was on my team and she was the only one who needed to get that map punched. Those were the rules. Suddenly Don turned his eyes to me. “Why are you just standing here? You will NOT repeat.” He was threatening my skull. He had said earlier I couldn’t do it again. That time it got under my skin. With him still yelling at me, I took off down the road.
My team ran after me and we headed up as Don’s voice continued to boom behind us. Ashley had left her ruck behind, so we carried it. 2 other members of our team decided to go with her to help with memorizing the poem, so we took their rucks as well. Our remaining team was myself, John Chambers, Dashee Vavrova, Clay Speakman, and Ronald Tortola. We continued up Bloodroot at a steady pace, carrying 3 extra rucks, 2 of which were absurdly heavy. A we passed the bridge checkpoint we would later return to, Jason made us all grab a rock out of the river to carry as well.
Time passed slowly and with no sign of Ashley returning, I started to worry. What if they held them at the top? What if Don was yelling for a reason? I vocalized my concerns to the group and Clay tried to calm me saying they stated the rules and we were following them. Only 1 person had to punch their map, and we should conserve our energy. But Don’s words started to echo in my head “You will NOT repeat.” I argued with Clay. “Yes, they told us that. But this is the Death Race, it isn’t fair. What if they’re waiting for us ALL to get up there and here we are taking our time. We can move faster. We have to stop resting.” We bickered for a bit and ultimately the team agreed to move faster. I acknowledged I was being stubborn and apologized, but I didn’t want to risk the race being unsure.
Shortly after, Ashley and our other teammates appeared heading toward us back down the mountain, followed shortly by Jael, Andrew, and Frank. I apologized to my team again for being wrong and stubborn, but they understood my concern.
Ashley read the poem and we were all assigned a line to memorize. Once we had our lines, we headed back towards the bridge as a team. When we got there Don asked us to recite the poem. Only 1 person on our team messed up a single word, but he corrected it before he finished his line. Don said since he fixed it, our punishment was only 200 burpees. When we finished, we were told to drop the rocks and sit down in the river. Jason stood on the bridge and asked us 3 journey trivia questions. We got the first one right, but when we got the second one wrong, he made us lay down in the freezing river. When we got the third one right, we were allowed to get up. Our team was the first ones allowed to continue. As we were sent back to the top of Bloodroot, we were told we were no longer a team.
2 guys got out in front, then Ronald and Ashley, then myself, with Dashee, John and Clay behind me. For a long while I was alone on the trail. I realized then why Ashley had taken so long. I had forgotten how long Bloodroot was. It was a long windy uphill grind through the woods. I became paranoid someone was going to pop out of a bush and kidnap me. Don’s question from check-in repeated in my mind “Are you claustrophobic?” I was sure I was gonna be grabbed and thrown into a box somewhere. I was on high alert and ready to knock out anyone who appeared.
Eventually, I heard voices and reached the top of the mountain. I was grateful to not be alone anymore and I felt great knowing I was the 5th person there. A group stood by a fire at the summit and I was asked a question. “What temperature is it in Celsius?” Crap, I thought. Now I have to guess what the temperature is, then convert it to Celsius. “I know there’s a formula, I just don’t remember it right now.” The response was “Yes, there is a formula, but often nature will give us the answer.” I immediately started to look to the trees, and a bit off to the side, I found a tree with a thermometer. I reported back the temperature and when I was given the Ok, I was then told I had to find one of three mushrooms in the woods and bring it back. The mushrooms were Chaga, Chanterelle, and Reishi. As I stepped off I was told I could chose to continue carrying my egg or eat it now, shell and all. I told them I would think about it as I started to search the trees for mushrooms. A minute later I decided I didn’t want to carry the egg anymore, and as I went back to them, Clay John and Andrew reached the summit and decide to eat their eggs as well. We all cheers and popped the eggs into our mouths
I continued to search around for mushrooms and was told I was more likely to find mushrooms back down the trail, not at the top. I took the advice and headed back down bloodroot. As I headed down I passed many making their way up. I searched forever and could find nothing. I kept making my way back down bloodroot and I found myself wandering into the woods, over down trees, feeling more and more hopeless with each step. I swore I was gonna end up with poison ivy because I started to completely disregard my surroundings.
I saw people who had reached the top well after me heading back down to the next checkpoint. Ashley A. told me there was a bunch of Chaga near the top and my frustration grew as that was the first place I had tried to look before someone told me not to. I started on my way back up the mountain. Realizing I was now one of the last few people still there, I reported to Debbie, “I am less enthused than when you saw me last.” She responded “Maybe there’s mushrooms near the fire.” I looked and there were Chanterelle’s sitting right next to the fire. I asked if it was ok and she gave me a head nod. I picked up the mushrooms and headed down the mountain. Iron mine was our next checkpoint.
We had been told that there were 32 participants remaining and that only 16 would get to continue after the next cutoff. I ran as fast as I could, frustrated beyond belief. I was the 5th person up and now one of the last ones down. Luckily I knew it was a long road down and I had some time to make up the distance. The faster I moved the more I felt my thighs chaffing. I had been wearing shorts this entire time. I stopped to slather some trail toes between my thighs, then continued running. The trail toes werent helping. I stopped again and changed into capris, then cranked up my speed. I managed to put atleast 6 people behind me before I felt ok slowing down a bit. I caught up to Ashley S. and Jael and they assured me we had put enough people behind us to be safe before the next cutoff.
As we approached the iron mine, Jael bolted. I chased after her attempting to keep her in my sights. I knew there was a fork in the road before the mine, but never having been there before, I didn’t know which way to go. Luckily i was able to keep up and made the right turn at the fork. I approached a creek where I saw a couple of people in the water, and more people off to the side sitting in the damp rocks. Rob told us we had to build a fire and make tea with our mushrooms. I asked him how many people had come down all ready. “Less than 16.” I went over to the stream and put some water in my Sawyer bladder to filter, then I took out my fire starter kit and filled a small tin with water to boil.
I took out my ferro rod and fatwood sticks and started to look for tinder. Everything was wet. I found a couple dry twigs and leaves and made a small pile of tinder. A minute later someone walked by and stepped on my tin, causing a leak and soaking the tinder. The tin was now useless as a boiling pot. I scrambled to make another small pile as 1 by 1 people started to get up, there fires done, and walk over to get in the creek for whatever was next. Jael and Ashley S. had predicted this and carried dried birch down from bloodroot, so their fires caught easily.
I looked to my left and saw Dashee make a bowl out of her aluminum foil, so I did the same. Slightly worried about creasing the foil, but in the moment unbothered. She had a roaring fire and I couldn’t seem to get mine started. I’d get small embers but they just wouldn’t catch. I heard Rob sound off every time someone got fire, and each time I became more frantic.
Finally, Rob called stop. 16 people had successfully made fire. He asked for us to give him our bibs. My heart sank. I looked at him and said “No, use your walkie talkie. Joe needs farm work done or something.” He responded saying it was possible for Joe to decide there would be a buy back option, and stated that half the group we started with, who hadn’t chosen to go to bloodroot, was at the farm right now trying to buy their way back in. But, he said, “per the current rules, I have to take away the bibs of anyone but the first 16.” I asked him if Charlie was still in the game, and he said he hadn’t heard anything. I looked up at Ashley A. and Francis also sitting on the sidelines and we all hung our heads in sadness, fearing the worst.
Was it possibly that Wednesday afternoon, just 24 hours after we had started, we were out of the race?
Rob took our bibs and said “MAYBE, this is just a break for you to rest and get some snacks.” I immediately pulled a pizza MRE out of my bag and tried to stay positive as I enviously watched the 16 in the creek doing PT. After 15 mins or so Rob walked us over to the side of the bridge over the creek. The 16 finished up their PT and BJ looked at me and said “I’m sorry.” My eyes welled up with tears as he gave me a hug.
As we were about to move out back to the farm, I looked at the 16 and smiled, remembering how supportive some of them were for me last year when I was in the final 12 and they were out. I looked at my friend Andrew, and said “Go get that skull,” then smiled at a few others as they lined up to move out. My group fell in line behind them as we headed back. Francis looked at me and said, if we can get back in this thing, will you? I responded hell yes, even though truthfully my body wouldn’t have minded calling it quits. Ashley looked spaced out and beaten up as well, but agreed she would stay if she could. We all limped our way back, already pretty beaten up.
We stopped at Peter’s house on the way back to build a dam to help him catch fish. BJ told us all to get in the water, including those of us without bibs. I smiled at the opportunity to join the shennanigans, and 2 dogs on the property revived my spirit. We all got in the water and started passing rocks to build up the dam. The rocks were huge and heavy, and moving them was dangerous, but it was great recovery time for my legs and the dogs bouncing in the water next to us kept my smile on.
The next thing I knew Joe was standing on the edge of the water and said “Whoever wants their bib back come follow me.” I jumped out of the creek and fell in line. I’d say about half of those eliminated decided to call it quits right there. The 16 remained in the water, the quitters sat in the grass, and our little group followed Joe back to the farm.
Get Your Bib Back
We lined up at the white barn where we had left the logs we carried down earlier. I looked across the farm to see a large group sitting by the medic tent, the group we had split with on the land nav challenge. I searched for Charlie, and saw him standing in clean clothes talking to a camera crew. My heart sank again. He was out. I saw Eric Hutterer also, and wondered what the hell had happened to eliminate such strong guys.
One of the guys in our bibless group wrested Don as we all watched and Joe was cracking up. Don told the guy to grab a log and head up the stairs to Shrek’s, then go back down and meetup at Miguel’s. He headed off and next was Frank, then Jenny, me, Ashley, Brandon, Will, and Evette.
We all spread out pretty quickly. I wasn’t very far up the mountain when I came across Frank, with a VERY bloody nose. “Did you hit yourself in the face?” “Yup,” he replied as he continued to FLIP his log up the mountain. It was too heavy for him to carry and he had made up his mind to flip it end over end all the way up. I admired his dedication and wished him luck as I passed him. I turned the corner to find Jenny trotting along with her log. She was in good spirits and our pace was similar. We leapfrogged each other and talked as we moved. Eventually, Charlie appeared behind me carrying a log, with Ashley A. behind him. I was ecstatic to see him.
“Oh my god, what happened?” He told me right away that he was out. His team had decided to hit the wrong locations on the map and didn’t acquire enough points. When they were eliminated they were allowed to eat, change and hang at the barn. He said Joe had given him a buy back option afterward, but it didn’t seem right to him having been allowed to eat real food and rest.
He had decided to come up the mountain with us to help Ashley with her log, but then he was going to leave. I admire him so much. He is an extraordinary athlete, but still always so selfless. The same can be said about Eric, who I asked him about next. Charlie told me Joe had given him a really hard time and made him work harder than everyone else. I won’t go into detail because I wasn’t present for it, but ultimately Eric was also eliminated.
When we reached Shrek’s Charlie said his goodbyes and Ashley thanked him for his help. It was now Ashley, Jenny and myself at the top. Ashley turned to go back down the mountain when I stopped her and reminded her we had to go to Miguel’s. She looked at me stunned and confused. “Miguel’s is on the other side of the mountain, we can’t go there.” I stated again “Don told us to go up the stairs to Shrek’s, then down to Miguel’s.” She protested, “That’s too far, I don’t even know how to get there.” I repeated, “That’s where he told us to go, we have to go.”
I pointed to a trail on the other side of Shrek’s. “I think this is it.” I wasn’t positive, but I had a feeling. Ashley protested again “NO, that trail goes to crack shack.” We asked a medic sitting at Shrek’s, but he didn’t know. Jenny decided she was gonna head down to the farm and call it quits. I bargained with her. I told her she was doing great and asked her if she would be happy with herself if she quit. She thought it over and decided to stay. Brandon reached the summit and stated he knew the trail. (Atleast that’s what I thought he said, but later on this didn’t seem to be the case.) The 4 of us headed down the trail next to the stairs as the sun started to set on the second night.
We soon realized we had gone down the wrong trail. I don’t know where we were, but we were on a mountain bike trail, and it was all switchbacks. Jenny and I stayed in the front, with Brandon and Ashley in the rear. We were slow moving, but we stayed together. Log to the left shoulder, log to the right shoulder, log to the ground and rest. Over and over. Ashley asked how I was moving so quickly, I showed her my shoulder switch method and she gasped. When I asked what was up she told me that she had been holding the log the whole time. Not resting it on her shoulder, HOLDING IT above her shoulder. When I asked her why she would do that, she said it was the only way she knew how to carry it. I don’t know if it was delirium from exhaustion or what, but I couldn’t fathom carrying the log that way for all that time. Her pace picked up a bit once she realized how to carry.
We wandered deeper into the woods with no clue where we were going, trying to cut down switchbacks and giving each other pep talks. Brandon periodically had to stop. He told us he was having a hard time controlling his breathing and he needed breaks. We all stopped as a team. Eventually we heard yelling in the woods. I felt relieved.
“Where are you guys going?” echoed from the distance.” “Trying to find Miguel’s,” we replied. Eventually Andrew Hoestetler appeared. We told him we were coming down from Shrek’s and trying to find Miguel’s and got lost in the switchbacks. He told us in fact, we were the closest group to Miguel’s and no one else was even close yet. I breathed an even bigger sigh of relief. We followed him for a couple of minutes as he moved us onto a different trail. “Here is the trail you need. Follow these flags.” He pointed to a series of checkered flags tied to the trees, then bolted off into the woods.
We started down the trail and a few minutes later Brandon was on the ground saying he was struggling to breathe. We waited and then he told us he had asthma and his medicine was in his ruck back at the farm. I hadn’t realized before, but he had taken his ruck off and left it there because he had horrible chaffing inside his arms. He needed his pump now. I told the girls to stay with him, then dropped my ruck and bolted down the trail towards Miguel’s. As I was running I realized I should’ve asked one of the girls to come with me to be safe incase I got lost, but it was too late now. I was flying down the trails. When I arrived I told Andrew what was happening, and he took off to get a medic, telling me to proceed with the next challenge.
The guy at the cabin told me I was the first one to arrive. I had 20 seconds to memorize a lego puzzle and then I would have to run back up to Shrek’s and rebuild the puzzle. On the table were 2 red solo cups and a pen, he told me to choose a cup. I picked the cup and as he lifted it he started the timer. I quickly scribbled words on my hand stacked on stop of each other in a weird pyramid fashion. BLUE WHITE BLACK RED. Time’s up. My weird diagram didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Whatever. Head back up the mountain towards Shrek’s. I started walking trying to remember the blocks in my head.
Suddenly I realized I could no longer see the checkered flags. I tried to backtrack, but still found none. I went forward again and found myself on a ridge and the trail seemed to disappear into a brush front of me. I backtracked. Still nothing. Go back toward the ridge and into the brush. This is wrong. Run down a trail, it has to lead somewhere. I felt like I was going in circles. Suddenly I was deep in the woods and saw no lights around me.
Where was Miguel’s? Where was Shrek’s?
I was alone on Joe’s mountain.
I felt myself panicking. I had no idea where I was. It felt like an eternity had passed. I made up my mind to pick one trail and follow it. Every bush rustling hyped up my adrenaline. My nerves had skyrocketed. I talked to myself, worst case scenario eventually the sun will rise and you will figure it out. Try to breathe.
I kept wandering till I looked up and saw headlamps. THANK GOD. I ditched my trail and cut straight up through the trees towards the light.
When I got in line with the group I was practically delirious. I heard someone ask where I had just come from and then heard someone else say “She just walked out of the bushes.” Patrick asked me if I knew how to get to Miguel’s and I told him I had just come from there but that I had gotten very lost and would be of no help.
My breathing was rapid and someone else asked if I was ok. “I was panicking, not 100% ok, but I just need a minute.” I fell in line as the group wandered and I gathered myself.
I saw Ashley and asked her if she had my ruck. “Andrew made us leave it there,” she said. I was pissed off. “Great, so I ran to get someone medical help and they made you guys abandon my ruck in the woods.” I was frustrated and honestly afraid to leave the group to look for it. Ashley assured me it was just around the corner, so I ran off to see if I could find it. After maybe 3 minutes of being away from the group and losing sight of them, I ran back. I was not about to run off into the darkness alone again.
“It’s not around the corner, and I’m not running off into the woods alone again. I don’t care, I’m leaving it there.” Amanda Priest Oliver came to my side and volunteered to help me look. We ran off together and after several windy turns, still no ruck. Then I heard screaming off in the distance. “Athena! It’s over here!” The screams were coming from somewhere far off in the darkness. After my name being called again, I realized it was Jenny. I looked at Amanda, thanked her, and told her to head back to the rest of the group, then I continued on into the woods following Jenny’s voice. I found her and my ruck safely.
I must’ve looked out of sorts, because she asked me if I needed a hug, which I gladly accepted. I told her I had gotten lost and felt very anxious and uncomfortable. She reassured me the trails were poorly marked and hard to follow, but she seemed confident continuing on just the 2 of us alone. We were heading back up towards Shrek’s. When I asked how she was so confident, she told me she had done the Peak Ultra races a few times and was used to the trails on the mountain. I asked her if she was local, and she said she was from Massachusetts. We chatted a while and she kept my mind distracted to calm me on the way back up the mountain. She lived with her husband and their dogs in a van and owned a gym. I was grateful to have her there. I commented that I was happy I didn’t let her quit earlier, and now she was helping me to continue. She told me she felt much better than she had earlier and was glad she stayed.
We reached Shrek’s to be greeted by Dylan and Rob. When I asked if I could attempt the legos, Dylan said “Sure, but first you have to run to the farm and bring back 3 pieces of wood each. While you’re down there, grab your bibs, they are on the fence.” I was relived we were finally officially being allowed back in. We asked if there was any water available because we had been dry for a very long time (the last time I filled was in the creek at the iron mine) and he told us we could refill at the white barn. So we headed back down the stairs toward the farm.
The trip back down was light and easy. We passed Frank on his way up, with his bib back on, I cheered for him. Then we grabbed water, put on our bibs, filled our buckets with wood, and headed back up. The trip back up was not so easy.
I don’t know how long it took us, but it felt like hours. A camera crew stopped us on the way up, “Tell us what you are doing.” I explained we had to bring wood up before we would be allowed to attempt the lego puzzle. I’m not sure how well I formed those sentences, but I felt groggy. Jenny and I tried to keep up the conversation to keep each other mentally present. Every so often we would set the buckets down and take a break for a minute, then get back up and continue. Only once did we take a longer, maybe 10 minute break, in which we both nearly fell asleep and agreed not to do that again.
On a rock near the top, I fell asleep and tripped over my feet. I was able to keep balance, but the first foot that landed kicked a rock, hard. I stubbed my right big toe and instantly went to the ground in pain. I knew it was bad. “I’m gonna lose that toenail.” I took a couple minutes to rest and then we got back up and continued, but my toe was very painful.
By the time we were back at Shrek’s the others were there. Everyone was trying to solve the lego puzzle. The penalty for failing was 200 burpees, then back down to Miguel’s to try to memorize it again. All we had was my shitty diagram on my hand, which by now was mostly rubbed off from sweat. And my memory failed me since it had been hours at this point since I had looked at the puzzle for 20 seconds… needless to say, we failed and started cranking out burpees.
Jenny did a few and was struggling, so I suggested we rotate and do them 10 at a time so we have a break to rest. After a few rounds, she told me she was blacking out for a second every time she did a burpee. NOT good. I asked her if she needed medical and she reluctantly accepted. The medic came over, asked her a few questions, and then offered to get an atv to give her a ride down to the farm to the medic tent. She looked at me and told me she didn’t want to leave me alone. I was floored by her selflessness. I said her health was the priority and I would be ok by myself, but that she needed to get checked out. She thought it over for a moment, and agreed to the ride. I waited with her till the atv came. I found out later that her race did in fact end there, and going to medical was the right choice.
After she left, I started down the trail towards Miguel’s by myself. I wasn’t far before I panicked, and turned around. I was somehow traumatized. I couldn’t bear the thought of going down alone. I asked the first person I found alone if I could travel with him, and he agreed. I am terribly sorry I can’t recall his name. He pulled out a notepad in which he had drawn a grid of boxes and explained how he was charting the 2 different puzzles and adding to his diagram each time he went up and down. He let me copy down his chart and then we headed down together.
The first trip back up together, we failed. On the second trip, the sun started to rise. It was Thursday morning, about 42 hours into the race. That next trip up the trail felt exceedingly long. I think we were both sleep walking. Luckily, this trail was mostly dirt and not as treacherous as the rocky stairs. I felt like I was in the twilight zone, drifting in and out of sleep, hallucinations creeping in, following the long windy path.
This time when we got back to the top, we solved the puzzle. I breathed a sigh of relief as I thanked my partner for his help, and we were allowed to rest by the fire. I took off my shoes and socks and left them at the fire’s edge to dry. I coated my feet in powder, laid down and elevated my feet on a rock. I was tempted to close my eyes, but knew better. The directors allowed us to rest there maybe 20 or 30 minutes while those who had failed the puzzle were tasked with pulling up weeds around the property. Then we all lined up to head back toward the farm together.