We lined up outside the brown barn and took out our blindfolds. Some people who had lost items were made to use their socks or insoles instead. We left shoes and gear outside the barn and brought in only water and our ear muffs. Don clearly explained to us that he was going to tell us a story, the details of which we would be tested on later. We had to listen very carefully. We put on our blindfolds and stood at attention.
There we were 2 days into the race, without a wink of sleep, blindfolded. In the beginning, Don spoke uninterrupted. Then there was a cough or 2. Then someone dragged a chair across the room. Then there were whispers. The staff did their best to distract us, and they did a great job. Someone ran across the barn. Someone’s cellphone rang. All the while Don kept telling his story. The distractions started off subtle and became progressively more impossible to ignore. I giggled at the nonsense I was being subjected to, but still tried as hard as I could to listen to Don’s voice above the distractions. Someone sprayed water in my face. Then someone was chewing chips in my ear. I smelled bacon under my nose and heard groans of yumm noises. Then a loud THUD. That one wasn’t planned.
I have learned since the race that apparently, standing at attention with locked knees can cause a blood pressure drop. Someone standing behind me had collapsed very suddenly to the ground. He was alright, and Don kept talking, but now the directors were whispering to us all to unlock our knees. A few minutes later John Chambers next to me cried out in pain. My instinct was to help him, but I knew I had to stay blindfolded. He simply had a bad cramp, and I quickly heard staff go to help him, allowing him to take off his blindfold and sit down.
So what was happening in this story behind all the shenanigans?
Don’s voice boomed as he told us the story of author Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. He broke down the stages and the meaning behind them. He repeated them over and over and painted a vivid picture, detailing examples of each that were both attention grabbing and, in my opinion, deeply moving. I can’t possibly recall the specific details of what he said, but I can tell you it was by far my favorite moment of the event. I’ll simply list the stages for you here.
1. Call to adventure 2. Refusal of the call. 3. Supernatural Aid 4. Resistance and commitment 5. Belly of the Whale 6. Road of trials 7. Meeting with the goddess 8. The temptress 9. Atonement with the father 10. Death and Rebirth.
In my research I have found that there are more stages, but this is all I recall from that day. I am unsure if we went over everything and my memory has failed me, or if this is where we stopped. But certainly for the point this was made to get across, these 10 were sufficient.
After he told his story, Don allowed questions. Someone asked who Don’s Hero was, and the moment took a very personal turn as Don told us of a friend he had lost. I won’t go into detail, but it was a very raw moment and I feel blessed to have heard it. I couldn’t contain my emotion and allowed tears to stream down my face under my blindfold. One of the staff placed a hand on my shoulder and handed me a tissue.
After a few more questions, our next activity was explained. We were to put on our earmuffs and sit in silence for 1 hour. We had to raise our hand when we thought the hour was over. With earmuffs and blindfolds on, this meant we had to count in our heads. I managed to count to 20 minutes before they played “Faithfully” and I felt myself doze off. When I snapped myself out of it, I knew it couldn’t have been for more than 5 minutes. But honestly, I had no way of being sure. I had to guess how much time it had been, so I rounded up to 30 and continued counting. This time the minutes weren’t so easy to keep track of. I was dozing in and out and knew I was miscounting. I heard footsteps and assumed people were leaving the barn. Someone’s alarm went off, I knew it was a trick so i kept waiting.
Ultimately, my nerves won, and I raised my hand. I thought it would be better to be under than have been sitting there too long. Someone took my hand, stood me up, and walked me out of the barn. I heard the count “48 minutes” before they said I could take my blindfold off. I joined maybe 6 others outside as we waited for everyone else.
Once everyone had finished, we were all punished. No one had timed it correctly, though I think the closest was 58 minutes. We had to lie down and go uphill using only our arms, then downhill backwards using only our legs. I started kicking into a somersault, but Jason quickly put a stop to that. I was only using my legs. Kicking down proved to be difficult. I kept my head tucked up which caused a lot of pain in my neck, Dashee was next to me struggling with neck pain as well. We followed that exercise with some 8 count bodybuilders led by Barger, then headed back inside the barn to be quizzed on Don’s speech.
We laid on our bellies, spread far apart, and started our test. Don threatened to DNF anyone who got below an 80%, stating the importance of his speech.
List the steps of the hero’s journey. List examples of a hero. What is an anti- hero? How are you your own hero? Etc. I doubt anyone did well on the exam.
When we got back outside we were told to crawl through a pit of mud. They sprayed us with a hose as they made us roll around in it and over each other. Don demanded we line up in gaelic alphabetical order. None of us had a clue what that meant. He started shouting out the gaelic alphabet as we tried our best to scramble into order.
Then we realized one of each of our shoes and all of our packs were missing, and we went on a hunt to find our things. Our packs were found in a truck parked in front of the house, but it was up against a rock wall with only a small slit at the top open for entry. A few people went inside and we passed them out one by one. Still, our shoes were missing. We continued to run around spread out across the property. The river, the pond, the treeline, around the barns, the house, nothing.
Eventually Leyla found our shoes tied up in a giant ball in a tree. She climbed up and got it down for us. All the laces were knotted together. We failed trying to untangle them and were told we could have them back if we fisherman knotted all the laces of our remaining shoes together. I had solomon shoes that don’t have untieable laces, so i was unable to remove a lace from my shoe. Someone handed me an extra lace they had, and I helped tie the long string of laces. Once BJ was satisfied with our laces and we got the shoes untied, we were allowed to have them back.
Clouds rolled in in an instant and the heat of the day dissapeared as the temperature plummeted and the sky opened up into a downpour. Staff demanded we sit under the awning of the barn while we put our shoes on. I was thankful until i realized they meant at the edge of the awning, where the water was pouring down the most. We all sat on the muddy ground with water crashing down over us as we put on our shoes. We were all trembling within a minute. This was my second dark moment. I had forgotten to pack a windbreaker and was very much regretting it as I saw others putting on jackets. I was soaked and freezing and there was nothing I could do about it. I accepted my fate and vowed to push on.
They told us to get out our chopsticks and toothpick as they handed out packets of flax seeds. They told us Sefra’s method to planting seeds was to poke a hole in the soil with a toothpick, then carefullly pick the seeds out of the packet and place them in the hole with the chopsticks. Courtney De Sena wanted the whole field (our barb wire from last year) planted. We spread out in a line and worked ur way slowly accross the field. The rain was relentless and my whole body was shivering as I painstakingly repeated the process over and over again, on my knees in the field. Poke a hole, pickup seeds with chopsticks and place them in the hole. It was rediculous thinking back now. The ground was flooded, my toothpick holes weren’t visible, and the rain was turning the seed packets into mush as the paper disintigrated. Yet there we all were planting seeds.
After what felt like ages out there in the rain, Patrick noticed my body shivering and found me a garbage bag. I was so grateful for that bag. I was a couple degrees warmer and the rain was no longer soaking my skin.
Eventually, staff told everyone to go in the white barn, a moment of mercy likely brought on by concerned medics. They passed out chips and we shared hot chocolate as we huddled and our body heat warmed us up. Then Joe came and they passed out Spartan rain ponchos. Someone suggested we put our race bibs over the ponchos to keep them tight to us and keep body heat in. It was a brilliant idea. After 15 minutes or so we were ushered back outside.
We were told that none of us passed Don’s exam and we all had to surrender our bibs. I mentioned aloud that they were helping to keep our body heat in, hoping for more mercy. Jason was about to allow it, before Joe spoke up, “Oh don’t worry, we’ll warm you up.” He demanded we all start doing burpees nonstop.
That went on for a while, then he posed a question. “Who here feels physically strong?” Some hands went up, mine not among them. “Who here feels mentally strong?” I nodded, knowing my body was in rough shape, but my head was in the game. “Who here is completely drained?” No one moved. Then he demanded we split up into groups.
Everyone started moving and I suggested we all stay together in one large strong group, but the staff demanded we actually break into 3 teams. Physically strong, mentally strong, and weak. Sensing confusion in the group about where we belonged, the staff began telling us which team to go to. They placed me in the physically strong group.
Then they counted us off and made several teams of 3 people, 1 person from each ability group. I was paired with Ivette and Tom. Joe told us in order to earn our bibs back, we would have to complete the Denali challenge. We had until 8 am the following morning to complete 12 laps from the brown barn up to Shrek’s and back down.
We started our march up the mountain, and quickly fell to last place. Ivette was struggling, moving very slowly. Tom and I would get a bit ahead of her, then wait for her to come up. I could sense Tom’s frustration and I felt it too, but I shook it off. She is trying, this is her best, we are a team. I offered to take her gear, but she refused. Peter Borden caught up to us from the back and noticed we were spaced out far from the rest of the teams. He told me to take her things and I explained her refusal. After a pep talk with her, she agreed to give me her bucket, filled with some supplies, but not her pack. I took it and we continued up the mountain. Several teams passed us on the way down as we continued up. I was worried, but shook it off and kept moving. When we got to Shrek’s she sat down to powder her trench foot. I took the opportunity to eat my last rx bar, drink some water, and pop a tylenol. The next couple laps continued at a slow pace.
On one of the laps Francis and his team passed us, and he told me Don gave them the option of being tazed in order to knock off 1 lap and he decided for the team to take it without question. I was suprised at first, then understood the decision. As we continued up the mountain I actually began to look forward to the idea of being tazed. Thinking if there’s a time or place to experience that, it might as well be at the Death Race, and it might even help wake me up.
.. We were never actually given this chance.
Eventually, teams start to head up the mountain with objects. Some a log, one with a kayak. On our third lap we were told we had to carry a slosh pipe up the mountain, then Lap 4 would begin individual laps. We were still in last place as Tom and I picked up a 100 lb sand filled slosh pipe. This movement was treacherous. Ivette was unable to carry the pipe, so it was just Tom and I the whole way. The ground was muddy and slippery and Tom is much taller than me. I took the front to try and even out the height. The pipe was heavy and awkward and we were moving VERY slowly, trying not to slip and fall. Ivette took our rucks to help with the weight, but she couldn’t carry all 3, so she began a sortve leapfrog. She would run 2 up the mountain a bit ahead of us, then go back for the 3rd.
The process was long and hard. When we tired, we would have to lower the pipe to the ground, but lowering only meant we would again have to deadlift it, then clean it to our shoulders, and it was very slippery PVC pipe covered in mud. We had no relief. My exhaustion was turning into hallucinations, and in a rest moment, I pointed out that I was seeing cartoons in the mud patterns on the pipe. Tom confirmed he was seeing them too and we had a moment of laughter as we rested. Andrew H. came over to us in that moment and asked who left a ruck on the trail. When we explained the leapfrog he stated “That’s actually very smart, but it was abandoned on the trail, so we brought it down to the farm. Go get it.” We sighed in frustration as Ivette ran down the mountain to claim the ruck.
When she returned, she told us she had explained our predicament to Jason Barnes, and he had told her when the first place team passes us on the way down, we were allowed to turn around and come back down. I was overwhelmed with relief. I couldn’t wrap my head around how we were going to be able to get the pipe up the mountain. When the team passed us, we started back down. I was frustrated that first place team had 3 strong men, and only a small log, but I ignored it.
We made it all the way back to the barn and as we went to set the pipe down, it slipped and cracked on a rock. Of course, it happened right in front of Don, who began screaming that we had broken a slosh pipe that had been on the farm for years and was like one of Peter’s children. In my heart I knew the speech was for show, but I knew we would still suffer for the break. Don asked if we had brought the pipe up to shrek’s and I spoke for the group, stating what Ivette had told us. Don screamed for Jason to come over, and Jason said he never said for us to bring the pipe back down.
I’m not sure if it was a miscommunication between Jason and Ivette or if Jason was lying now to get us punished, but I knew it didn’t matter. Ivette went silent for a while, then began apologizing to us for the miscommunication. I assured her it was ok. Don demanded we each grab 3 pieces of firewood and bring them up the mountain, then we could start our solo laps. By the time we headed up again, all of the teams had brought their items back down. They were all starting their 4th lap, the solo laps, as we repeated lap 3 as a team.
This lap seemed to be the slowest of them all. Ivette was apologizing to us for the penalty and I assured her we were going to be punished no matter what. I explained this is the Death Race and it doesn’t matter what we are doing, we just have to keep moving. Do one thing until they tell us to do something else. She couldn’t let go of the guilt feeling despite my assurance we were ok. I noticed her limping, and she mentioned she hurt her ankle. She would periodically need to sit down and rest, and we waited for her. She kept telling us to continue, but we knew we had to make it up and down together. She was upset and obviously in pain. When I asked how bad the ankle was, she said she thought it might be sprained. This time I stopped being encouraging and turned the focus to her health.
“We have no idea how much longer this race is going to last. We have to continue going up and down this mountain till 8 am. Who knows what tasks we will have to do after that. Do you think you are going to be able to continue?” She thought about it for a minute and finally answered, “You are right, I don’t know how much longer this will go on, I have to quit.” I double checked that she was sure, and when she was, Tom and I ran up to the top and called a medic. We weren’t far from the top and she was able to make it up, then I believe they called an ATV to get her down. From what I heard later, her ankle was in bad shape, and the decision to call it quits was the right one.
Tom and I finished our last lap back down together, then we were allowed to drop our rucks and start our solo laps. Some people were on lap 7 and 8 by the time we started 4. Rain picked up again and the mountain was covered in fog. It was hard to see more than a few feet ahead and as I tried to run, my headlamp thunked on the log-induced knot on my forehead. It was officially now every man for himself as we passed each other through the woods.
The first solo lap brought about some strange visions for me. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t alone previously and didn’t notice, or if my increased speed and rapidly depleting energy sources were the cause, but I was hallucinating heavily on the 4th lap. Near the summit I saw a french bulldog come out of a bush to greet me on the trail up ahead, then retreated backwards as I came closer. Of course I knew he wasn’t there, but I definitely saw him. On the way back down a cabin that had appeared earlier appeared again, only to vanish as I got closer to it. I would see that cabin in the same spot for the remainder of the laps. That is one hallucination that has really stuck with me, as a friend told me a day after the race that she saw it too. It is the only hallucination that occurred multiple times.
I reached the summit on lap 5 around sunrise, I took a second to take in the view from Shrek’s, then realizing how much ground I had to cover by 8am, I headed right back down. Fog, slippery rocks, and rain were my obstacles. I checked in with Don at the bottom, who watched from the deck of the brown barn with Jason and Rob, then turned around back into the woods. I was nervous about the clock. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me up that mountain. I had a deep heart to heart with myself in my head, and possibly a bit out loud.
This is it. It’s crunch time. Control your breath. Run as fast as you can. Ignore that the rocks are wet. Ignore the uphill. Ignore your painful feet. RUN.
I checked in with Andrew at the top of lap 6, then turned around and immediately ran back down. All the while crunching numbers in my head. Approximate distance…approximate time…I’m so far behind…can I fit in another lap?
I passed Anthony on his way up as I came down and asked him for the time. When I asked if he thought I could squeeze in another lap he asked how far I was. When I said 6, he told me I had to keep going. He was on lap 10. I reached the bottom and checked in with Jason. He told me it was 7:08am. I asked him what would happen if I came back after 8 am. “You DNF.” I took a split second to weigh the risk vs. what happens if I check in with only 6 laps, and I bolted back into the woods.
That lap took everything in me. Running at top speed, ignoring my pain, I thought back to a speech given to us earlier in the race about our amygdala or “lizard brain” and how it’s responsible for the fear response and keeping us safe. I was afraid of slipping on a rock and spraining my ankle, but I repeated to myself, “Shut off your lizard brain.” In that moment, self preservation was the last thing on my mind. I remembered my training and my boyfriend asking me days before the race:
“Is it an option to come home without a skull?”
I ran that lap on adrenaline and willpower.
“It is NOT an option to come home without a skull. “
Running through the woods, there were a couple guys still out there, but most of them had banked laps and were resting at the barn waiting out the clock for these last ~40 mins. Most of us still out there were women. I passed by Ashley S, Ashley A, Jael, Dashee, Amanda. We all cheered each other on and moved as quickly as we could. It was a wonderful moment to be a part of. I can say in particular Jael was on fire and I have no idea how she was moving so quickly. I spotted Dylan at the top, waved to make sure he saw me, then bolted back down.
Still worried about the time, i was FLYING down the last few stairs and saw the rest of the group lined up in front of the barn. Don yelled at me for being late, then asked for a time check. Jason stated it was 7:56am. I had made it. Up and down in 48 minutes. When I stopped moving, I suddenly realized I hadn’t had any water since I dropped my pack to start lap 4 several hours ago. My breath was rapid, I was dehydrated, and suddenly the pain I had ignored started to sink back into my feet.
I flexed and extended my feet as we awaited our next intructions. Ashley A. offered me a bottle of water she had on her when I told her I hadn’t had a drink in hours. Then we bear crawled over to the fence line in front of the white barn where we were told to do burpees. Non-stop. I think I reached 100 before I stopped counting. Don hosed us off with water as he declared it was Thursday and we still had a whole 24 hours left of the race. When someone opened their mouth to say it was Friday morning, he simply screamed louder “It’s THURSDAY! You haven’t earned Friday yet!”
The burpees continued as Don walked over to me and asked me, “What have you learned?!” After a brief pause I yelled “You have to be your own hero!” Don was pleased and moved on to the person next to me “What have you learned?!” He repeated, “You have to be your own hero!” That continued down the line till the last person. Then Don came back to me. “What else have you learned?” “You have to go through the devil’s anus to come out the other side!” He seemed very pleased with that response. The repetition of the phrase continued down the line again.
Don decided we had done enough burpees and allowed us to stand as Joe walked over. We stood at attention as Joe pointed out all of our bibs on the fence, stating that none of us had earned our bibs back. He demanded we recite The man in the Arena. Thinking it was another trick, I responded simply stating “The man in the arena.” That wasnt going to work this time. Don read it aloud line by line and asked us to recite it back in unison. Once we had completed that, he read off a list of numbers and told us to retrieve our bibs. Out of the group of about 25 (?) of us remaining, 7 had just been eliminated. I am still unsure of why.
They told us to run back to the brown barn, grab our gear, and run around the perimeter of the farm to a truck in front of the house. As we started to run, the pain hit me full force. Sharp pains rain through my feet. I was hobbling, and halfway accross the farm, I started hyperventillating. Don screamed for us to run faster as I struggled to control my breath. “If the person in front of you is too slow, run OVER them!”
I was thankful when we finally stopped and were told to take a seat in front of the truck. Patrick Sweeney, a “fear expert” began lecturing us on fear as Joe threw a skull and Courtney De Sena shot at it with a shotgun. She missed the first two shots, and Patrick took the gun and shot the skulls where they laid on the ground. He told us how fear often holds people back from opportunity. Joe interjected that they were going to keep shooting skulls and take away people’s opportunity to finish this race. A third skull went flying into the air. As it hit the ground, Joe asked “who’s skull is that?” I yelled “It’s mine,” and ran.
I was standing in the middle of the farm alone with a skull as Joe laughed. Unsure what to do next, I ran back towards the group. Right there, Joe spoke up “That’s it. The race is over. You win. ” He turned to the staff, “Pack it up, she’s the only one going home with a skull.” I froze, speechless, unsure of what had just happened. Joe said I took action and grabbed the first skull, that it took initiative and lack of fear, and I deserved the skull. Then I spoke up.
“I don’t deserve this skull more than anyone else. Everyone has been out here just as long and fighting just as hard. If there is only one skull, I’m not taking it.”
Don laughed and suggested I forfeit the skull, and we race to Chittenden to fight for the remaining ones. I hesitated, of course not wanting to run all the way to Chittenden, but ultimately decided one final race was the way to go to be fair, and agreed. Jason interjected “If you forfeit that skull and keep racing, whoever wins owes you that skull anyway.”
Then someone yelled, “Break it into pieces.” I’m not sure of who it was, but I looked at the group and asked “Do you want me to break it up, and we end the race here?” The consensus was yes. Someone handed me an axe and I swung hard into the skull. It shattered instantly. Somehow I hadn’t though about the fact it was plastic and I didn’t need to be swinging with all my might…my brain wasn’t operating at it’s highest function. I proceeded to make tiny chops and break the skull apart, tossing pieces into the group. I checked to make sure everyone had one.
Joe, in his final attempt to separate the group, asked who wanted a full skull. No one budged. Our pieces meant more to all of us than a full skull. Finally Joe told the group, whoever wants one, there are 7 skulls in the pond. Andrew and Anthony stood up and ran toward the pond, then a few more joined. Those remaining were happy with their skull fragments, and Joe handed me a full skull. I was relieved it was finally all over. It was somewhere around 10am on Friday, 70 hours after the race had began.
The first thing I did was pull my shoes and socks off. Within a minute there was a camera on my face. Joe was talking for facebook live. The look on my face in that video is vacant. I was exhausted and speechless. The only thing I could get out was how much my Spartan Endurance family means to me.
After a couple more interviews and photos, I picked up my shoes and hobbled over to the white barn to have a medic look at my feet. Trench foot is an understatement. Deep pruney lines, huge blisters, swollen ankles. All I could do was pop the blisters, coat my feet in powder and leave them out to dry. It must’ve been hot, but I wrapped myself in a mylar blanket and sat down. Jason Mozey greeted me, then ran to drop some people off at the house to shower, and brought me back a breakfast sandwich from the General Store.
Neil had his swollen purple ankle elevated as he ate an entire pizza. Anthony and Francis were comatose on cots in the barn. Ashley and I basked in the sun. A handful of people sat around for hours eating and talking. Somehow I still didn’t want to leave that place. I had the staff sign my bib, took a photo with Don and his bike, and eventually we left.
I have to say one thing about Don. Death Race Don is a force to be reckoned with, you do not want to be on his bad side. But after the race, the loveable, inspirational teddy bear is in full bloom. That man believes in people. He wants the best for everyone. And it shines through him. I hope to one day be half the badass he is, able to travel the country on a bicycle, all to raise money for charity. I’m hoping to compete in one of his events in the future. I made a point to tell him that his Hero’s Journey evolution in the barn was probably my favorite moment of the entire race. I asked him to sign my skull, and he wrote “You have done something. now go do something.”
Ashley, Francis, and I shared a room. We had dinner at the Clear River where we bumped into several racers for a welcomed reunion now that we were all clean and rested. The next morning we went to breakfast at Sugar & Spice where we again bumped into a large group of racers. After breakfast, it was finally time to head back home from Vermont.
So today is October 4th, 2019. I am officially the slowest blogger in the history of the universe, and I am sorry this took so long to complete. The fact is sometimes life gets busy and some things need to be pushed to the backburner for some time. I hope I did a decent job of telling this story as frankly as I can recall it, and I’ll let you decide what you think. Do I think I deserved to “win” that race? No. And I’m sure many people have said the same. However, the race isn’t fair, and that is something you have to understand when participating. Why were those final few eliminated? I have no idea.
I whole heartedly advocate for this race. If you are thinking about it, DO IT. But please understand the amount of grit and willpower it demands of you. Please understand, even if you give it your all, even if you make it to the very end, you can be eliminated. NOTHING is guaranteed, the rules can change at any moment, and it WILL hurt. As it stands, I don’t think I am going back next year. I would love to go every year, but there are a couple other multi-day races I have my eye on, and I certainly can’t take off work for all of them. Especially since one of them is just 2 weeks before Death Race. A lot can change in a year, and my mind might change as well, but for now, I have thought it over and over to no end, and I think this is the right decision.
A piece of my heart lives up in Pittsfield and it always will. Joe, Don, Jason, Rob, BJ, the entire DR staff are phenomenal and that event is unlike any other. It will show you parts of yourself you didn’t know existed. It will teach you how to dig deep and push beyond your limits. It will teach you how to be a better teammate, a better friend, and a better person. YOU are capable of whatever you set your mind to. You have to be your own hero.