Welcome back to Pittsfield
Riddles at Miguel’s
Get Your Bib Back
..to be continued..
The next morning, back in ranks early, Cadre John told us we would be heading to Red Rocks open space. Half the group would start the day rock climbing, while the other half did the Manitou Incline, then we’d switch. We broke off into our carpools and headed out. By the time we all met up at Red Rocks a couple hours later, the plan had changed. John said the other group would go to the Garden of the Gods instead of the Incline. He said they were “taking it easy on us after our rough hike yesterday.” I was more than a little disappointed. I didn’t come on this trip to take it easy. I felt jipped yesterday missing Torey’s and now again today, missing the Incline.
Garden of the God’s was pretty though. Mostly large rock formations that people were climbing on. We spotted a bear hiding in the bushes which was definitely the highlight for me. It didn’t take us long to walk around, and then we found a hole in the wall Mexican place where I ate the biggest burrito I’ve ever had in my life for about $5. Score. Nice and stuffed, we headed back to Red Rocks to do our own climbing.
Back at Red Rocks, I laid in the grass as I watched everyone take their turn. I’m not ashamed to admit I used some of my cbd chapstick to take the edge off a little. One by one I watched teams pair up, one to climb, and one to belay. Vito was at the top of the formation taking photos. I was safely on the ground hanging out with Ripley.
Amanda, seeing me sitting there wallowing in my nerves and avoiding my turn, took initiative and offered me her harness. No turning back now. I put on the harness, and I started to climb. My breath was shallow, and my hands were shaky, but I started up the wall.
Halfway up, I felt like I ran out of options. I couldn’t find a place to get a grip and move upward. I started to panic, and I asked for help. Cadre John guided me from the bottom. I moved up one more step, then decided I couldn’t do it, and started to lower myself.
A few steps back down, I said screw that, and started up again. I will NOT let my fear win. I am going to the top. I remained determined, and I made it up.
This was why I came to Colorado. To conquer my fear of heights. And while I most certainly was not over my fear, it was a huge step.
When I got back down I decided to explore a bit instead of just lying there waiting for everyone else to go. I hiked up the backside of the rocks and sat on the highest point I could reach. The view was astonishing. I could see to the Garden, I could see the Incline, and I could see for miles in every direction. I took some pictures and videos, then called my boyfriend. After we talked, I said a prayer for Eric, his friends and family, then I sat and meditated for a few minutes before I heard a rustle. Vito had hiked up as well. He had a bag of ashes in his hand. When I asked who it was he told me it was his father. We discussed him briefly, he spread the ashes, and then we both headed back down.
Suddenly, it was time for the Rappel portion of the day. We had to start at the top of the rock and make our way down. There was terror in my heart. I sat on the side where I had a view of the rock wall and watched. I started to get jitters. I hiked up to the top and looked briefly over the edge. Holy shit. We were high, and I couldn’t imagine lowering myself over the edge of the wall. For a second, I decided I couldn’t do it. I would have to sit this part out.
No Athena. This is why you are here. This fear will hold you back from every big mountain you want to climb in your life. DO NOT LET IT. The Cadre will guide you. This is the safest way to learn. YOU CAN DO THIS.
I put on the harness, and walked over to Cadre John. Jason, straddling the top of the rock, said “Athena, is this your first time repelling? That’s sick!” I replied, “If you mean sick, like I’m going to vomit, then yeah.” I told Cadre I was terrified, and he calmly talked me through it. “Hold onto the rope, pull the knot toward your belt to lower yourself, if you don’t pull, you won’t move.” I asked him to repeat it like 2 more times as I turned to lower myself over the wall. FUCKFUCKFUCK. Deep breaths, and I was clutching the wall, I couldn’t let go of it. “Stick your legs out, you want to sit in an L shape.” I heard, but I wasn’t processing. Still scared to push off, I scraped my shin on the wall. I slowly pulled the knot toward me, and started to lower myself, then straightened by legs. “Let go of the rope.” “NUH-UH,” I replied. I kept lowering inch by inch, freaking out.
Realizing it was my knot pulling that was lowering me, I finally recognized I had control of the situation. I took a deep breath, and let go of the rope. Nothing happened. I didn’t move. Feeling secure finally, a wave of relief rushed over me. I felt confident, smiled, and repelled the rest of the way.
Shawn, the one in our group with the most climbing experience, who I had vented about my fear to earlier, congratulated me when I got down. After we had all finished, he showed off by rappeling, face forward. I was in awe of his confidence.
I kept glancing off into the distance and could see the Incline. I asked around if people wanted to do it tomorrow after ENDEX, and a couple agreed. Then we headed off to a local BBQ spot for a smorgasbord of food and beers. I talked to John about his mountaineering experience. He travels a lot to climb and I got some great info out of him. Then we all heard stories about Alpha groups trecherous climb the previous day, they had went off trail near Evans and encountered some sketchy ridges. I was somewhat sad I hadnt made it to Alpha, but also relieved knowing I might’ve been petrified out on the ridge.
Family in the woods.
Back at camp, Cadre broke out the beers. We all gathered around the fire sharing stories. Cadre John told us he was currently homeless and traveling the world climbing. His next destination was South America for a while, and then he was going to apply to school at Harvard. People started affectionately calling him Cadre Homeless Jesus, as he had a very impressive beard and long hair. He was sad he would have to shave and look presentable for his interview. I was impressed by his brains and free spiritedness.
I was eager to chew off Melinda’s ear about her ultra running experiences, and she was happy to oblige. She told me about a couple 100 milers she had done, the Barkley fall classic, and how she had affectionately been given the nickname “Catnip Blackbile.” I would explain, but I’m sure you can infer how an ultra runner might get a black bile nickname, and it aint pretty. I really love the endurance community of weirdos, the rare few who would appreciate and even boast a disgusting nickname.
Cadre Edge told us about his personal training group, 18-Alpha fitness and his plans for the future. Overall, it was a great night. We got way too drunk, stayed up wayy too late, and really solidified our bond as the Ascent class of 2018.
Our class was really unique. If you know about Ascent history, you know it’s typically led by Cadre Chris Way. The ONLY go ruck cadre who isn’t SF. All I know about him is he finished Selection, and is an excellent climber. When I registered for this event, I had anticipated him leading the class as always, and I had spoken to several people who had done Ascent in the past and spoke very highly of their experience. Chris recently took leave, I have heard to focus on himself and further his knowledge and experience. It has been said he quit the company, but I am not 100% sure of this. Cadre Mickey who has also been on this event in the past, did officially recently leave the company. I had heard that Cleve and DS were supposed to be on this event also, but somewhere along the line, that changed. To sum up, NONE of the original cadre were on this event. Our class got a totally different experience than we had anticipated, and many were upset by it. On the fly, Cadre were hired to work it last minute, and many people think it compromised the intergrity of the event.
I am not saying I didn’t appreciate the cadre we had. I think they did the best they could at a moments notice, and I appreciate their effort. They simply didn’t have any experience with this event or the way it was run in the past. As such, I am going to address something many GRT’s have been asking lately. I have heard numerous people say that this was the last Ascent class. I cannot confirm or deny if that is true, but if it is, it’s likely because the men who were involved in starting it are no longer a part of it. I think if attention is given to it, it can continue in the future, but that is not up to us to decide. I know all of us there will share a bond forever and I am truly grateful to have been there.
Ascent was unlike any event I had done before. It was not a Challenge where we are just getting a 12 hour beat down, it was a bunch of weirdo GRT’s just spending time together in the mountains. It was a wonderful event I am happy I got to experience. I got to spend time with like minded people doing things that we love. I gained so much knowledge from my new found friends and I got a chance to learn a lot about the cadre.
The next morning, we were all lined up in ranks before sunrise. The cadre spoke, patched us, and then told us we could stick around if we wanted for more survival classes which would start in an hour.
I was getting my boots on by my tent when Vito ran by me, quickly whispered “Wanna see the sunrise?” then ran off. I jumped up and chased after him. He swung by a couple other tents, and the others did the same. It was a perfect light-hearted moment in the early morning, all of us prancing after Vito onto the mountainside like excited little children. We hiked out onto an outcropping of rock and sat in silence, staring in awe as the sun rose over the mountains. Troy shared a biblical quote that I wish I could remember, and we all felt unified and at peace. We took a few photos and soaked in the moment, then slowly headed back to camp.
We all hugged each other tightly and promised to stay in touch. Most who had agreed to do the incline backed out, but Justin stuck by me. We quickly showered, grabbed breakfast, and headed back to Colorado Springs.
The Manitou Incline is next to Pike’s peak. It is a staircase built into the side of a mountain, with a very steep grade. The trail starts above 6,000ft and it climbs 2,000ft in less than a mile. There are no guard rails and no flat points. Just UP for 2,774 steps.
We started up with a decent pep in our step and quickly passed many who started before us. But by the time we reached about 1/4 of the way, I was winded and need to stop occasionally for a minute or 2. Justin was obviously fresh and I told him he could head up ahead of me. He assured me he could use a break as well and waited, but I’m sure it was out of consideration for me. The stairs were numbered every 100 or so, which was kind of cool in the beginning, less so as we went on and the air became thinner, and the grade became steeper.
My fear of heights got the best of me about halfway up and I started to panic. Suddenly I couldn’t look down, and I eventually started bear crawling, afraid to let go of the floor. I had to occasionally stop and sit, not from exhaustion, but from fear. I was overwhelming myself. I found comfort clutching the metal wire that connected the stairs together. “Look, I found a handrail,” I joked as I clutched the ground. I apologized profusely to Justin, telling him to go ahead without me as I was sure I was holding him back and potentially ruining what was probably an amazing experience, but he remained understanding and upbeat. “I dont blame you, it’s scary up here.” I took a deep breath and continued on, scrambling up as fast as I could. Justin actually applauded how fast I was moving and commented jokingly that I was getting a full body workout by bear crawling.
I dont understand my fear, I never could. I know its completely irrational, especially in that moment when we were walking up a flight of stairs, but somehow in my brain it seems plausible that I could just slip off the mountain. I know that I have this fear, and I always warn my friends when we do something steep, but I will continue working on exposure therapy and hope I can cope with it someday. I am obsessed with mountains. I hope one day to be able to trek the Himalayas, but I know this will be the fear that holds me back from achieving my goals if I don’t work on it. My legs work; I have trained them enough to cope with treacherous terrain for hours and days on end. It’s my brain that doesn’t cooperate. I panic, I take short breaths, I get winded, and it slows me down where I shouldn’t. I’m working on it as best I can.
When we finally reached the summit, several strangers cheered for us and reached out for high-fives. I felt a wave of relief rush over me. It was done. The people took a photo for us, and I took one of the ruck, and then I was finally able to admire the view from the top. It was amazing. We gathered ourselves and walked over to the side to relax.
We sat there for a while, chatting on the top of the incline. I was astonished not many people were around, and it felt like we had our own isolated space on the top of the mountain. I was finally able to breathe and take in the appreciation for all that had happened that week. I was grateful for the experience, and I was grateful to Justin for being so supportive and understanding of what an emotional disaster I was. After a while, we headed down a trail on the other side of the mountain, stopping occasionally to take in the view and for photo ops.
It started to rain and I was overwhelmed by emotion again. I love the rain. Justin noticed my energy change and asked if I needed a moment alone. I said yes and he ran down the trail a bit ahead of me. I took another moment to meditate and say a prayer, and when I heard people behind me, I ran down the trail to catch up with Justin. We jogged the rest of the way down, as the decline grade made it easy, and the rain was starting to feel cold.
Once back at the bottom we got a quick bite, then headed towards Denver. Justin asked if I was gonna go back to my friends house. I knew I wasn’t, but I told him I didn’t know. I didnt’t really want to think about it. Justin had a 9pm flight and I dropped him off at the airport, then pulled into a gas station to figure out where I was going to stay for the night. I debated sleeping in the car till the morning, but realized I deserved a warm bed, and got a hotel room. When I got there I was exhausted, but when I saw they had a pool, I decided I needed a cleansing swim to cap off the week. It was empty, and was exactly what I needed. When some people showed up, I took a moment in the hot tub, then headed back to the room.
Sleeping in big puffy sheets felt amazing, and I was only out for maybe 6 hours before I had to get up to catch my flight. I slept on the plane in comfy sweats, and came home to an 80 degree day. Not in Colorado anymore. I checked in on Anthony as soon as I got back, but he was busy. Being home again was strange. I went to work, and when I got off I went to Eric’s crash site. I stared at the fence he went through for a while, seeing the cement ripped out of the ground, the bushes battered. I could picture it in my mind. I sat on the ground in front of all the photos and candles and flowers for a while by myself, then headed home.
I sent a message to Justin thanking him for being there for me all week. I don’t know anyway that I can convey how important his presence was. A bunch of us posted in the ascent group all week, sharing photos and thanking each other, but there are only 2 I have kept in touch with since. It is now 5 weeks later.
Life since has been interesting. I had the 9/11 memorial Heavy and the Killington Spartan Race since, each of which I could write an entire blog post about, but I wont. My busy schedule coupled with my depression and general laziness to do things lately isn’t exactly conducive to me pumping out blog posts. We shall see where this goes. I’ve always been very introspective, but communicating my thoughts and feelings outwardly has always been something I’ve struggled with.
Right now I am mostly focused on trying to be a better person, and taking care of my friends. I think that’s what I need most right now.
The vacation I no longer wanted.
Monday, August 20. It was my last day at work before heading to Colorado for Go Ruck Ascent. I had most of my gear packed but needed to throw in the last-minute items and double check everything. Ascent was going to be 3-ish days, but I was heading out a couple days early to spend time with a friend who lived near Denver. Or at least I had planned to.
My friend RJ had visited NY a couple weeks prior and notified me he was going to do an internship and wouldn’t be able to spend time with me. Since I had booked my flight early to hang with him, I was more than a little upset by the news. I felt tossed to the side. I understood the need for him to focus on his internship, but I couldn’t help but be annoyed at the extra time taken off work for no reason and the extra money I’d have to spend on food and rental car away from home. I was already strapped for cash, an issue I didn’t mind if it meant I could see my friend, but this situation wasn’t helping. We had also been talking almost a year about climbing a 14-er together, something I had been really looking forward to doing with him, but knew was no longer going to happen.
We had a couple surgeries scheduled that Monday afternoon. My shift was 11-9, so I started prepping the OR as soon as I got in. For anyone who isn’t aware, I am a Veterinary Technician. A few hours later the patients were recovering from surgery and I went to the office to take a quick break. About 4pm I was sitting on my phone catching up on messages as I ate my lunch. The surgical Veterinarian for the day started mentioning medications to me to be dispensed for the patients; There’s never a true lunch break for a tech. I read a message from my phone and froze, disoriented. The Vet continued to dictate medication doses and I asked “what?” as I scribbled something probably illegible on a piece of paper. She asked me if I was ok, and I said no as I dropped my pen. The words barely made it out of my mouth. “My friend died in a motorcycle accident yesterday.” I’m sure the words didn’t come out that clearly, but I heard her ask me if I needed a minute and I said yes as I grabbed my phone and ran outside. I was shaking as I collapsed onto the ground and re read the messages on my phone, hoping I was mistaken somehow.
The messages were from Kristina, a girl I went to crossfit with years ago, who happened to know a bunch of my friends from the neighborhood. I had messaged her about a gluten free pizza in her IG story earlier in the day and her response was “you heard about Eric, right?” “No, which Eric?” “The EMT from Bellerose, he was killed in a motorcycle accident last night and Anthony was with him. I know you are friends with them all.” I re read the messages two more times and burst into tears.
Anthony is one of my best friends. I have known him about 7 years and in that time, he’s been by my side through every hardship. Eric is Anthony’s best friend. They’ve known each other since they were kids. The two of them joined a bike club about a year ago and have been attending events across the country with their club ever since. Anthony had just invited me a month prior to go to a party with the club. I deeply regret not going.
Eric was an FDNY EMT. When I first met him, I didn’t take that well to him initially, cuz he was loud and a little obnoxious and I was very sensitive. He would crack jokes and I would take offense, and he would laugh. Nothing he said was that serious, he was just playing around. I came to realize that over the years. He was a jokester, but it was all coming from a good place. He had fun, no matter what he did. Over time I started to really appreciate his loud bubbly persona. He had the wildest laugh you ever heard, and it was infectious. He never hesitated to allow me into his home, pick me up in his van, or hand me a beer. He was the kind of guy who just wanted to make sure everyone was having a good time. The last time I saw him, we were drinking at my friend Melissa’s house and I was teaching him how to do headstands in the living room. No, strike that, It was my best friend Nicole’s birthday and we were playing ping pong. The last time I spoke to him was a couple days prior, when he asked me for advice on the Keto diet, which I had just done for 4 months to prep for an event. The last thing I sent him was a recipe for keto pancakes. So trivial.
*The last photo I have with him, he’s standing behind me with his face covered, oddly.
I picked up my phone and called Anthony, as I sat on the ground outside my job with my hands shaking. He answered bewildered, saying his phone was in his hand and he was just about to dial my number. The conversation is foggy in my mind, but his mom was driving him home and I told him I would come over when I left work. As I hung up my coworker Lisa came outside with a cup of water. I was hysterically crying. She said she hated to see me that way and went back inside, I don’t think I got any words out. When I finally gathered myself together and went back inside, the doctors told me I could go home. Lisa was going to cover my shift. I thanked them and headed home.
I called Nicole on the way and told her what happened. Then I stopped at my boyfriend’s house and succumbed to a cigarette before I was able to gather myself enough to go home and change for the drive upstate to Anthony’s house. I packed my gear for the trip in under an hour, not caring very much if I had missed anything, and left, stopping to grab a bottle of Jameson before I reached his house at about 7pm. I had a flight the next morning at 8am, but it didn’t matter.
Anthony threw his arms around me in the street and laughed that I was there because Star Wars was on tv. I had made him binge watch the movies years ago after he had told me he never watched them. He cracked the bottle and poured us shots the second we walked in the door. The story of the night prior came out of him immediately. I won’t share it here because it’s not my story to tell, but Eric had died in his best friends’ arms. Anthony was obviously beside himself, but was holding up his tough exterior. My heart broke for the devastation I knew my friend was feeling, and the knowledge there was nothing I could do. I stayed with him the whole night taking shots, exchanging stories, and listening to music. We eventually passed out together on the couch. I woke up around 3am and headed home to grab my gear and make my way to the airport.
I had an aisle seat, but by some magic, the woman sitting at the window moved to the middle because she wanted to put her things in the seat back and we were behind the exit row. I asked if it would be ok for me to sit there since she wasn’t, and my long legs could use the extra room. She obliged, but asked that I leave the window open. I said no problem, knowing my hangover would allow me to sleep anyway once i could lean my head on the wall. I tried to stay awake till the plane took off and I could say goodbye to New York from the window, but within minutes, I was asleep.
The light periodically woke me up, but each time only long enough for me to picture Eric’s face as he was passing (or my imagination of what it looked like) for a moment, and then to fall back to sleep. That happened about 3 times. When we finally landed and I couldn’t fall back asleep, I cried silently as the plane taxed to the gate. I didn’t want to be in Colorado, not even a little bit. I belonged home with my friends, not in a state where I felt unwanted and out of place. I texted RJ that I had landed, knowing he wouldn’t be home for several hours. I grabbed my bag, a donut and a coffee, and hopped on the shuttle to the rental place. The Alamo salesman convinced me my compact sized vehicle wouldn’t hack it in the mountains, and convinced me to opt for the $90 upgrade to full sized. I drove out of the lot in a Dodge Charger, so despite the extra fee, I was ok with my decision.
A rainy day in Denver
Next stop, REI, and I stopped at a Q’Doba on the way. It started to rain as I got back into the car with my burrito. At REI, I grabbed some last-minute essentials: a hydration bladder, some fire starting cubes for my pocket stove, and sunblock. Also a pair of Sorel sandals on sale which are now pretty much my favorite pair of shoes, and I was glad I had them out there. That Denver REI is like heaven. As if I wasn’t obsessed with that store enough, this one had 3 floors and a rock wall. It took everything in me not to go on a shopping spree. It also had an enormous parking lot, which I left my car in to go explore the neighborhood.
As I took a stroll down the riverwalk, the rain got heavier. I actually love the rain, particularly when I’m feeling down, it feels soul cleansing. I had no choice but to make the best of this week ahead of me. I checked out all the local shops and walked down the strip till I reached the end, the Denver Brewing Company, then walked back to my car. RJ texted he had just gotten out of his internship and I suggested he meet me somewhere to grab dinner and drinks together. He said he would be about 40 mins with the rush hour traffic, so I decided to meet him at his house so we could save time and go out together.
We met up and he shared some liquid goodies before we headed out to a local brewery. On the way out of his complex, we ran into his roommate, who he invited to come out with us. Somewhere between there and the brewery his friend decided he was hungry, he didn’t want to go to the brewery, and he wanted to bring food back to the apartment. I was peeved, but I didn’t say anything. I figured my presence was already being ignored, I might as well not make the situation worse by complaining. Night 1 in Colorado, and I spent it on a couch in front of the TV, watching Ted and eating bad Mexican takeout, which I had already had for lunch. The week was off to a great start. We were all in bed by no later than 10 and of course, he had to be up and out of the house early the next day.
He woke me up in the morning before he left to say goodbye, I hugged him and he said sorry, then left. I showered and drove into Denver to grab breakfast at Fork and Spoon. I had a delicious breakfast burrito with sweet potato fries and a cup of coffee that was refilled probably 3 times. The breakfast would’ve been the first nice part of my trip had it not been for constantly texting my friends back home checking on everyone. My friend Justin, who had decided just a week prior to register for Ascent, texted me that his flight had just landed. I told him I would come get him after I got my check. Naturally, a group of about 20 walked in the restaurant at that moment and it was a struggle to get the waitresses’ attention. I arrived at the airport about 40 minutes after he landed.
Driving in, I noticed for the first time a giant blue horse that seemed to be guarding the airport. It had red eyes and looked rather demonic, and I found it odd that this demon horse would be welcoming people to Denver. I mentioned it to Justin and he seemed to think it was a Bronco, which would’ve made sense. Later in the trip, I looked it up online and discovered that the horse is referred to as Bluecifer, and he is a fiberglass Mustang. His story gets more interesting. The horse killed its creator, when a piece of it fell and severed an artery in the sculptor’s leg. Apparently, some groups protested the sculpture being put there, but obviously, they lost.
Justin needed to stop at REI too, so we went there before swinging by a dispensary, a must-do stop in Colorado. I am not a big lover of mary jane nowadays (though I was in high school), but given the way I was feeling and where we were, I gave in. I walked out of that store with some brownie squares, chapstick, a transdermal patch, a packet of sunflower seeds, and a toffee. I put them away for safe keeping and didn’t think about them for a while. Then we headed over to Denver Brewing company where we both had a flight, got more than a little buzzed, and shared a lot more about ourselves with each other than we ever had.
I had met Justin at a Go Ruck Light in February of 2017, my first event. I don’t recall speaking to him much that night. Since then we have done several other events together, and he also ended up briefly dating a very good friend of mine, but we never really spoke about anything other than endurance events. Thanks to several beers and a rough time in both our lives, a lot came out at DBC. I was very thankful he was on this trip with me, and I think I can say the feeling was mutual. Over the course of the trip I came to find we are similar people, and I appreciated having someone who understood me. He was wonderful emotional support out there so far from home. Once our beers were emptied, I had a couple glasses of water and he spent the time photographing dogs that walked by, then we started the drive to Camp Tahosa, where we would sleep for the next few days.
As we pulled up to the entrance, Justin was quick to spot a group of GRT’s by someone’s Challenge pants. We hopped out of the car and were greeted by Vito, Troy, Melinda, Corey, and Max. The bunch of them were sitting at the welcome sign and informed us the camp owners had no idea where we were supposed to set up camp. After about an hour of waiting around, we eventually made up our minds to head deeper into the campground and set up wherever we felt like it, since no one was telling us where to go. Max, an 18-year-old kid from NC, pulled out his American flag and hoisted it up on the flagpole at our chosen site. We had all set up our tents by the time Go Ruck photographer Nick Schrein pulled up and told us we were at the wrong campsite. I was happy to see Nick had brought his dog, a 2 year old German Shepard named Ripley. I was thrilled to know we had a dog on the trip with us. The sun was setting and we figured no one else was going to show up where we were at now, so we left our stuff where it was, deciding to move camp in the morning. Then we headed into town as a group for one last real dinner. Corey, a very sweet guy from Texas who’s presence felt very familiar to me, as if I’d known him forever, drove us down into town.
We rolled into a cute little pizzeria/restaurant in Nederland, and everyone ordered a custom pie but Justin, who ordered a ginger ale. He was feeling some sort of altitude sickness I think, as our camp was above 9,000 ft. I also realized he hadn’t eaten all day and we had been drinking. I snuck off to the bathroom for a while to talk to my best friend about the funeral arrangements and make sure everyone at home was ok. When I got back to the table Justin had left to go lie down in the car. The rest of us ate dinner with a drink or 2 and got to know each other a bit. I took quickly to Melinda, who was the only other woman in the group so far. She was my mothers age, a mom to 2 military boys, an ultra-runner and a long time Rucker. When we got back to camp we all went straight to bed, as it was already after 10 and we had to move our stuff in the morning, eat breakfast, and be in formation to begin the official Go Ruck event at 9am.
We were all up around 7 am. I sat on the bench eating a bagel with peanut butter as Justin fired up his jet boil to make us some coffee. Melinda strolled over and sat with us, eating her bowl of oatmeal which she noted wasn’t very tasty. We got to talking and she mentioned that she signed up for Ascent for free, on an event credit given to her by Go Ruck after the Ft. Bragg Heavy. Justin had done the same.
I’m sure most of you are going to need some background here. Go Ruck’s Fort Bragg Heavy is the hardest Heavy of the year. It takes place in February and is a memorial event for Major Joe Warner, a former Go Ruck Cadre. The 24 -hour endurance event is led by several Cadre, including the president of Go Ruck himself, Jason McCarthy. I had briefly debating signing up for this event during the black Friday sale at the end of last year, but decided firmly against it for fear of too much pain. A few people I know went to Bragg. Go Ruck live streams updates on their FB page because of all the interest. I was glued to updates the entire first night, then I went to bed. When I woke up in the morning and checked, there was no update. I thought it was odd, but went about my day to my morning yoga class. When I got back in my car after yoga, I checked the page again. This time there was a letter.
I re read it multiple times.
I was introduced to Jerome by my friend Steve at the 9/11 Tough last year. He was very good friends with Steve and my good friend Hairon. I had done a few rucks with Jerome, and had messaged him to say good luck a couple days prior to the Heavy. His last facebook post said how nervous he was, and ended with the hashtag #dieliving.
I sat in my car crying trying to get a grip on the situation for a while, then I messaged Hairon to ask if he had seen the Tough page. When he said no, I called him. I was crying when I told him the news. It was heartbreaking to hear him cry. The call was short, he thanked me and I hung up. I must’ve sat in the car staring at my phone for another hour before I drove home.
The outpouring of support from the Go Ruck community was tremendous. People made die living patches, shirts were made, a memorial workout was set up, and all the money was sent the money to his wife and children. The funeral home was filled to the brim with people, and the VP of Go Ruck showed up to personally give his condolences to the family. For Paddy’s day, we all wore our Jerome shirts (it was his first event last year), for Bataan we carried his ruck (he was registered for the HTL). And I made a promise to myself to go to Bragg next year for him, even though I know I’m not ready for it. There are rumors it will be a double heavy in 2019, one for Joe, and one for Jerome.
*Jerome standing on my right during the 9/11 Tough
So Melinda and Justin started talking about Bragg, and I sat in silence as they spoke. When Melinda stated that she was next to him when it happened, and started getting into details, I broke down. “I’m sorry, but I can’t handle this conversation.” My voice cracked as my eyes welled up. Melinda apologized and asked if I knew him as she gently rubbed my back. Justin nodded with me and I wiped tears off my cheek as I answered her, adding that I had also just lost a friend on Sunday and was likely going to be an emotional disaster the whole weekend. I excused myself from the table for a moment and when I came back we started breaking down our tents.
We moved all our things to the new campsite, higher up on the grounds. It was much prettier there. We seemed to be on the edge of a mountain, with a valley below us. There was sparse tree cover so we could see well into the distance.
Now that we were all together, Cadre John asked us to move our cars down the mountain as it wasn’t safe for us all to have our vehicles so deep in the woods. We all moved whatever gear we had left in our cars into our tents and one by one moved down. I was backing my car up when a van pulled in behind me to drop off someone. The van hit a very large rock in the ground, which took off the entire side panel of the vehicle, and left my car stuck between that car and a tree. Justin, the cadre and I, spent some time trying to direct the car backwards out of the camp site. When it was finally time for me to back out, I was paranoid and moving slowly. Cadre John jumped in front of my car and started guiding me out of the spot with some wild hand gestures I had never seen before, but somehow was able to comprehend perfectly. As the last ones down the mountain, Justin and I were the last ones back. We joined the rest of the GRT’s and lined up in 4 ranks at 9am. I was pleasantly suprised to find 2 other women in the ranks, Madison, Nick’s girlfriend, and Amanda, who was wearing a OCRWC hoodie.
Cadre John B introduced himself, followed by Cadre Edge and Cadre Monty. They selected the 4 people at the ends of the ranks to be rank leader responsible for their group for the duration of the event. I was the lead on rank 3. Edge asked us all to close our eyes and raise our hands if we were offended by foul language. Being GRT’S who are used to cussing and dirty jokes to get us through tough events, we all laughed. I’m sure no one raised their hand, but he wasn’t wrong to ask. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more cursing come out of a man’s mouth than I did from his. But I was oddly impressed by the sentences that spewed out of his mouth over the course of the trip. Most notably “God damn motha fuckin booger eatin motha fuckas.” I do not recall what that was in reference to, but it flowed out of his mouth so seamlessly I cannot forget it. My response was a mix between a head scratch and a giggle. The cadre told us today we would be doing a performance test, then classes. The performance test was a 6 mile run. I groaned. John heard me and told me he enjoyed running. I said I didn’t, and added, “ One of Go Ruck’s motto’s is ‘Running Sucks.’” He laughed and said that was true, but we are running anyway.
A short hike down the road and we lined up at a trailhead where Edge led us in some dynamic stretching and mobility exercises. He practices and teaches form of yoga called Kinstretch. After the warmup he had us all sit down and he told us he studied under Wim Hof, an athlete known for his breathing techniches, who is worth researching if you’ve never heard of him. Edge led us in a breathing exercise that probably lasted 20 minutes. It was a great meditation, made even greater for me when Ripley decided to run up and boop her wet nose on my chin while my eyes were closed, a pleasant puppy suprise that I greatly appreciated. Now that our heads were in the game, we took off on our run.
I was slow in the beginning. Uphill running at altitude is certainly not my strong suit. Among this group of athletes, I felt weak. 25 minutes in, the first guy was already running back downhill. I couldnt believe how fast he was. Someone later told me he lived in CO and was used to the altitude, but his time was still impressive. By the time we reached the top of the trail, I was basically power- hiking. Luckily, I’m decent at running downhill. On the way back I managed to put 10 people behind me, but it still wasn’t fast enough. I finished in 58 minutes, and learned later from someone who had tracked the run, that it was probably closer to 5 miles. I was dissapointed in myself, but I shook it off. We were split up into different performance groups based on our time, and I was in the last group. Alpha team was to head to Mt. Evans the next morning, while Bravo and Charlie would head to Gray’s Peak. I was relieved B & C group stuck together.
The rest of the day was classes. The first was map and compass reading and land navigation coupled with pacing. Then we learned knots and rock climbing. The night ended with a trip to town to pick up sandwiches and then it was off to bed. We had an early wakeup call for the mountains, roll call at 4am.
At 4 am the next morning, everyone was still scrambling to get ready. I was annoyed and eager to get on the move, so I was almost excited when Cadre John got fed up and yelled “Front leaning rest!” All of us in ranks fell right into high plank, and those still at their tents suddenly ran over. Next thing I know he’s calling out count and we’re all doing burpees. That part I wasn’t so excited about. In case you were wondering, burpees at 9,000ft. aint fun. Luckily, he only counted to 11 before he told us to recover, and then we moved down to the parking lot. We all carpooled to the mountain, but as it was a while away and we stopped for gas and bathrooms, we didn’t arrive till about 7 am. The road up to the mountain was narrow and rocky, so half the group had to leave their cars in the lot at the bottom, while those with SUV’s shuttled everyone up the mountain. I was in the first group up, so I took the opportunity to stretch out my hips, and advised others to do the same. By the time we set out on foot, it was 8am.
I was anxious. Had I planned a 14-er on my own, I wouldve started at 5 am. Now it was terribly late and my stress had kicked in full on. They had told us 11 am turnaround time, which only gave us 3 hours to get up there. Edge was keeping the lead pace, and Monty was keeping the slow pace. John had gone with Alpha group to Evans. I started with Edge and tried to keep up, but my lungs werent cooperating and I fell to the middle of the pack. Luckily, we all kept a reasonable pace overall. The scenery was beautiful, the weather was nice, and Ripley kept running up and down the line checking on all of us.
We made our way steadily up the mountain and of course, the higher we got, the harder it was to breathe. Eventually, I found myself stopping every 15 minutes or so to rest.
At one point I noticed it was all switchbacks, and I thought I could save some energy by scrambling up the middle. Bad idea. The ground in between the trails was loose, and if I didnt continue quickly, I lost my footing. I made a significant gain in elevation, but by the time I crossed the trail again, I was very winded. I sat on a rock and struggled to catch my breath. I heard Joseph ask “What did you do that for?” and I replied that I thought cutting up the middle would be shorter. “Shorter doesn’t mean easier.” I laughed and rejoined the group at a steady pace when they caught up to me.
We all stopped together just below the final summit bid to have some snacks and take pictures. Edge advised us all to meet back at that spot on the way back down.
We all headed up Grey’s, snapped some photos, shared some congratulations, and turned back around.
There was Torey’s right next to Grey’s which I had my eyes and heart set on, but Edge declared we didn’t have enough time to make it, and my heart sank. It was right there, I could see it. So close…
Realistically, the climb up was steep, and it probably wouldve added another couple hours onto our trip. But I still was sad for not going up it.
Edge gave us repetetive words of wisdom “Breathe Mothafucka, Breathe.” The way down was much easier. We were all happier and chattier. We shared stories and experiences and took a nice group photo at the bottom, after we collapsed into a discombobulated pile on the floor.
We headed down the mountain again piling as many people into the cars as we could. Cadre Montey hitched a ride on the outside of Nick’s Jeep.
We went out to a local restaurant, then headed back to camp. I was starting to get a horrendous migraine on the drive back, so when we hit camp, I popped a couple of excedrin, changed into comfy clothes, and collapsed into my sleeping bag. I was only lying down for about 5 minutes before I heard Edge yell for us to get up. He wanted us to go for an icy recovery dip in the lake. You’ve GOT to be kidding me, I thought. Every part of me didnt want to get up, but I did anyway.
Barefoot and in my silkies and a sports bra, I headed down to the lake. He wanted us in there up to our necks for 3 minutes. It was COLD. No one was making much chatter and it was getting worse, so I started singing baby shark to get a couple laughs. People started showering in the lake. When he dismissed us I ran to the showers on the campground, which we all had just learned existed. After nearly 3 full days without a shower, it felt amazing.
Melinda and I walked back up the road to our camp as the sun started to set.
Back at camp, Nick taught us how to throw a tomahawk and we had some target practice. Then Shawn taught us how to start a fire and we practiced that for a while. We chatted, shared some beers, and maybe some edibles, and suddenly we were just a bunch of GRT’s goofing off in the woods. It was the best night I had there. The moon was full and shining through the trees, and suddenly I felt at peace.
Eventually, I crawled back into my tent. We had another early wakeup call the following morning for rock climbing. Alpha group was still out, and I was envious of them. We had come back down so early. We definitely had time for Torrey’s if Alpha was still out hiking or whatever they were doing. Incapable of changing my circumstance, I shook it off and went to bed.
I was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of howling. A pack of coyote obviously nearby, who were very excited about something. I got out of the tent to see if I could see them, but they were probably further than I thought and their voices were carrying up the valley. They kept me up for about 15 minutes before I drifted off to sleep.
Once back at the farm, we took another trip over to the pond. Robin told us we had 10 minutes to put a fish in his hand or we would be in trouble. I quickly pulled out my Adams fly and fishing line, and spent a few minutes cutting some line for others. Only me and a handful of people spread out around the pond and tried to fish while everyone else waited eagerly. The minutes ticked by without a bite. Robin warned us we only had a minute left. I was praying for a miracle. Robin’s final count “10, 9, 8….” We were told to get back to our packs. Robin told us thanks to a clever teammate, we were all saved. When I asked what happened, Yvette told me she took some tuna fish she had in her pack, stuck the fly in it, and put it in Robin’s hand. Genius. Apparently she had saved us from a couple hours of PT.
As we walked back away from the pond, one of the female medics told me her and a couple others were talking, and they were sure I was going to finish. I was suprised by her statement. I saw this particular medic watching me from around the fire as I was struggling through my burpees. I had a hard time believing she had that much faith in me. Still, her confidence lifted my spirits.
Back at the barb wire crawl, there were a decent group of spectators including former participants, all of the staff, and a camera crew. There was also a desk with a computer and another giant digital clock set up next to the crawl. The rumors were definitely true.
We lined up at the start line as we were briefed on what was to come. Joe told us the world record for longest distance crawled in 12 hours is a 10k, or 6.2miles. He wanted us to break the record. Furthermore, in order to be eligible for the $100,000.00 cash prize advertised before the death race, we must do a full marathon. Some quick calculations in my mind and I realized that goal was damn near impossible. My goal became simply to keep crawling for 12 hours. It felt very daunting, but I was committed to it.
He introduced the Guinness employee who would be monitoring us, and she gave us the rules. We must CRAWL only, no rolling. Joe added a rule that we cannot at any point stop moving while in the barb wire. 10 people were asked to volunteer to have their names entered for the record attempt. They were given a different color death race bib to differentiate them and were told to crawl on the outside edge of the track, which was marked with flags. The people who felt strongest volunteered and moved over. We were all allowed to rest if we deemed it necessary, at the end of a lap. We had to check-in with our bib number given to Emily, the woman sitting at the computer, after each lap. Joe threw 4 egg sandwiches into our group as we lied in the dirt. We all took a single bite and passed the sandwich. At approximately 9:20 am, we began the crawl.
I quickly noticed the bandage around my knee was cutting into the back of my leg. I felt the chaffe and it was painful. I asked if anyone around me had a multitool, and Nelson Diaz answered me. He passed me the tool and I struggled to open it as we continued to crawl, remembering we were not allowed to stop moving. I finally managed to cut the bandage off my knee while crawling- day off to a great start already. I had some knee sleeves I brought with me (rehband-for lifting) and I pulled them up to protect my knee as we continued. The padding wasnt much, but I was grateful for it as I looked around and noticed a couple people wearing shorts, with knees completely exposed.
It became clear right away who was going for the record. Amy Winters and Eric Hutterer took the lead quickly. Eric is a 20- something chiseled guy from Canada, and I’ve already mentioned Amy. Both remarkable human beings, I had done a 12 hour hurricane heat with Eric before and I knew he was strong. Amy has an unyielding drive and a spirit of positivity that never quits. She is hands down one of the strongest women I have ever met in my life and I am better for having spent 3 days in the woods with her.
The first few hours into the crawl, I was pacing maybe a 40 minute lap. I checked with my peers, and we all seemed to be going about the same pace. Eric and Amy however, were doubling our lap counts. By the time I hit 4, Amy was at 10, with Eric close behind at 8. As the hours ticked by, the gap between us and them continued to widen. Every time they passed me, my eyes welled up with tears, in awe of their determination and strength.
It was a very hot day, somewhere around 90 degrees, and there was not a sliver of shade as we crawled in endless circles. The course was rocky, my knees were swelling, my wrists were sore, and every so often my pants would get caught on the wire and leave me with a fresh hole. The staff started cooking burgers for us to eat, which we could stop and grab after a lap. No doubt this was thanks to Guinness and wouldn’t have otherwise been allowed at the Death Race. I was grateful for the courtesy. They put water coolers at 2 points on the crawl and made it mandatory for us to stop and have a cup of water every time we passed them.
I heard the man from the pond earlier, the one who came back in after he quit, try to quit again. Joe refused to let him and sent Jack, a kid he was mentoring, out into the crawl to keep him company. A short while later I heard him screaming, then he stood up and walked out of the crawl. His words were something along the lines of “Fuck this, I’m done with this shit. It fucking hurts. I’m not doing this anymore. Fuck all of you.” Amy spoke up saying that wasn’t necessary and to calm down, but he kept cursing as he walked away.
We were all in pain, we were just dealing in our own ways. Everyone out there had mixed emotions, and you could definitely feel it. Some of us were determined. Some were exhausted. Some were angry, and others refused to quit even when they should have. Over the course of the day, many were medical pulled, despite their protests. Most agreed a few hours later that the pull was necessary. Still, many of us stayed cheerful, with smiles on our faces.
At one point, I heard singing and I turned to look as I crawled. Sure enough, it was Sephra, wearing a one piece bathing suit with denim shorts and barefoot, bounding through the barb wire crawl happy as a kid in a sandbox. She did multiple laps that day, and made it look effortless. Later on, she came by with a camera taking photos, cheering us on and making small talk. She told me she worked for a company that stores seeds from plants all over the world, so we have the ability to replant them in the event of a natural disaster. She told me about how she met Joe, and how he let her build a cabin in his woods and live there. It was a lovely story in the middle of a very chaotic day. I was grateful she was there. She took my photo and went on her way
As I neared the end of my 5th lap, a medic jumped in the crawl and demanded I sit up on my knees. He walked over to me, rubbed my head, and said “You’re dry, medical DNF.” I became frantic and begged him to change his mind. “I feel fine, there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not done here.” He said “It’s 90 degrees, you’re crawling in the sun, and not producing sweat.” He was worried about heat stroke. He told me to stand up and step out of the barb wire. As I stood up, I burst into tears. “I FEEL FINE! Can I grab some water and sit on the sidelines for 10 minutes then jump back in?!” He said maybe.
A female medic walked over to ask if everything was ok. I was hysterically crying as I told her he was trying to DNF me for not sweating. The woman hugged me and told me it was going to be OK. She promised to return me to the crawl after cooling me off. “Are you sure?- he said he was gonna pull me from the race.” The woman reassured me and told me to jump on her atv. She drove to the white barn, stuck me in an air conditioned room and told me to drink 2 bottles of water. I downed both water bottles within 10 minutes. While I had the time, I used the bathroom. Normal amount of urine, normal color. I clung to that. I was fine. The woman took me back to the crawl, and I sighed in relief. As I hopped off the atv she told me to take a couple minutes before going back out. I began stretching my legs as Cookie (Steffen Cook- Spartan Endurance Krypteia) walked over to me with his phone on facebook live on the Spartan Endurance page. He asked me about my danger of being medically pulled, and I told the camera I felt good as I smiled and gave a thumbs up.
As he walked away I felt frustrated that my happy groove of crawling was interrupted by sadness, but quickly made up my mind to get my head back in the game and stay positive. I started out on my 6th lap, chugged a cup of water at both water stations, and by the time I finished lap 6 my bladder was about to explode. I hit the port-a -potty twice before starting lap 7. I exclaimed to the medic that my bladder was now uncontrollable and he seemed pleased. I started obsessively checking myself for sweat at least twice a lap after he told me if he caught me dry again, he was pulling me from the race.
I saw Ashley Seeger taking off her shoes to let them dry, and I realized what a brilliant idea that was. I quickly followed suit, taking off my socks and sneakers and lying them out to dry. I knew it would be beneficial to have dry shoes later, and I discovered it was actually very comfortable crawling barefoot. It also gave my pruned feet time to dry, which would allow for less blisters later on. My next lap went smoothly.
As I sat drinking water after my next lap, I noticed Amy asking for assistance. I heard a staff member saying he couldn’t help her, and I jumped up to ask what she needed. Amy’s back was badly bleeding from numerous barb wire cuts, and she needed a shield to cover her back. I grabbed my multi tool and ran across the field to find a bucket. My friend Andrew Blair who was watching from the sidelines came over to ask what I needed. I explained that Amy was in bad shape and I wanted to cut a bucket and duct tape the plastic to her back. Andrew took my multi tool, said he would get it to her, and told me to get back in the race. I was thankful for him as I started again.
It’s worth mentioning that Leyla DiCori, who had dropped from the race earlier, was supporting Eric. She stood at his side for hours on the sidelines of the barbwire, cheering him on, getting him water, and playing music from her phone. This gesture of kindness quickly formed a bond between the pair, who had just met at the start of the Death Race. The power of teamwork between the two of them was felt by everyone. I couldn’t help but feel bad for Amy, his competitor, who was going at it alone. I knew Eric had the leg up. I could see Amy sinking into her mind when she realized Eric was catching up to her. I tried to talk to her and cheer her on every time she passed me, but I could tell I was not helping her.
After lap 8 my adrenaline must’ve worn off, because I started to notice pain. stinging pain in my bikini region and underarms. I’m sure some people would leave this stuff out of their blogs, but I want to tell my whole story, even the ugly parts. I ran to the port-a-potty and found chaffing lacerations on my bikini line. Every time moved a leg in the crawl, my pantyline was cutting into my skin. When I touched it, it stung like hell. I ripped off some Leukotape I had on me and covered the spots so they wouldn’t get worse. I had no choice but to remove my underwear and pray that the barb wire which had already put several holes in my butt region, wouldn’t completely rip open my pants to reveal my naked ass. I also noticed chaffing spots on my bra line, which were getting deeper. I ran out of the bathroom to grab my multi tool, and a fellow racer cut my bra for me where it was chaffing and applied some trail toes. Now I was also praying my bra didn’t pop off. Whatever, I wasn’t in pain anymore. Back into the crawl.
Many fellow racers had worse issues than me. A couple had badly ripped up knees, lacerations on the backs of their knees from their make shift duct-tape knee pads, and lots of cut up bloody backs. Amy and Eric had completely torn apart their race bibs and skin.
BJ Pierce, a racer who had dropped during burpees, had stayed around to help us. For hours he was handing out water along the side of the crawl. Upbeat attitude, cheering us all on. As I stopped for water toward the end of the day, he asked me if he could help me. “Is there anything you need?” I thought about it. I was getting tired, and I knew night wasn’t far off. “Caffeine,” I replied. He assured me he would do his best. A short while later, he passed me a 5 hour energy. I stored it away inside my bra, worried about a pack search and it not being on my gear list. I thanked him and continued.
A short while later, Eric lapped Amy to claim the Guiness World Record. He had lapped her again before we finished, securing his hold on the title.
Around 830 pm, I finished my 10th lap. Knowing we had less than an hour left, I decided to use the bathroom, grab a snack, and fix my feet before we began whatever fresh hell was in store for us. On my way to the bathroom, Jason stopped me and told me everyone needed to be out of the area by 9pm. Realizing that was only 30 minutes away, I started running around the crawl, warning all the racers we only had 30 minutes to finish and move out. Everyone thanked me and started moving more quickly. I ran back to my gear and started taping and lubing my toes as the last bit of light left the sky. Robin walked over and asked me what the hell I was doing. I explained Jason told me we needed to leave in 30 minutes. Robin said Jason didn’t know what he was talking about. He told me the record attempt was almost over, but that we were supposed to crawl for 15 hours total. The man next to me decided if he had to continue to crawl, he was done, and he turned in his bib. Robin looked at me and told me to get back out there unless I was giving up my bib too, and so back out I went. On my way out I passed Yvette, who looked incoherent. I explained to her what Robin had just told me and she simply nodded her head. I asked her to verbally confirm that she understood me and she said she didn’t. A race participant who had dropped, William Chamblee, told me he would take care of her, and to go. At 9 pm, I started out on my 11th lap with my headlamp on.
I was halfway through the lap, with Randy slightly ahead, as I looked behind me to notice only Eric was behind us. Him, Leyla, the Guinness team and cameras caught up to us quickly. People cheered as the final seconds of the 12 hours ticked down and Eric’s final distance was logged. Shortly after, staff told me and Randy to get back to the start line. I passed the medic and joked with him about trying to pull me earlier, telling him I felt fantastic and still had plenty of energy in me. He gave me a high five and told me I needed to move quickly for the next portion. I nodded, wondering what was coming.
Staff told us all to line up again at the start of the crawl. I tried to line up in the front, but staff put a 2nd line of people in front of me. As the 21 people remaining lied there in the dirt, they told us we were to race through the crawl, and only first 12 people to cross the finish line and pop a balloon at the end were going to be allowed to continue.
3, 2, 1..GO.
I knew the course by heart now. After 12 hours I knew where the hills were, where the deep mud was, I knew where I had to crawl really low, and I knew where I could gain a little speed. I don’t know how much of that really mattered. Once we started, the only thought on my mind was MOVE LIKE HELL. I managed to get around someone in the front line and then i bolted as fast as i could. I must’ve caught my hair on the barb wire 5 times, each time simply ripping the wire off my head and continuing. I know I left chunks of hair out there. Doesn’t matter, MOVE. I felt a light from a phone standing over me, the live feed. I heard Rob count as his light passed my head “Eleven.” Only halfway through the crawl, I began to worry someone might pass me, and I somehow picked up speed. I felt like i grew extra legs, like a spider manipulating my way over the jagged rocks and under the barbs overhead. I was FLYING. Nearing the last quarter I heard someone say, “You’ve got it, you have plenty of space.” I turned around to see 12’s headlamp pretty far off in the distance. I calmed a bit and slowed my pace. I crossed the finish line and POP the balloon. SAFE.
I was told to go over to the line of people at the side in front of the cameras, and I continued to crawl. I heard someone say twice “You can get up,” before it registered. I sat in line with the other finishers collapsed into a forward fold over my legs, finally able to stretch and relax for a second. When I sat up, I must’ve spaced out for a second, as a sudden “Hey” from an inch to the right of my ear startled me. No clue anyone was there. I turned my head to see Rob. “Remember when you tried to quit last night?” I replied, “Yea, thanks for not letting me do that.” A minute or 2 went by before the final finisher, Ryan Robeson lined up next to me. It finally hit me. I am in the final 12 at the Death Race.
We sang happy birthday to staff member Peter and took a photo. Joe stopped our celebration saying none of us will continue unless someone can recite The Man in the Arena in Mandarin. There was silence for a second, then I said aloud “The Man in the Arena in Mandarin.” There were some chuckles and Joe said “Alright, you got it.” I tip my hat to Rob for that, I’m sure it’s thanks to him I think that way. He complimented me on it later.
We were given 15 mintues to do whatever. I cut open my knee sleeves, which were cutting off circulation to my legs because of how badly swollen my legs were. (3 days after the event I still had dents in my legs). As I got up to go change, Randy pulled me to the side. Pep talk time. He told me they’re going to play mind games with us and to stay strong. “It will be over tomorrow. You have this. Don’t let them play with your mind.” I thanked and hugged him, then ran off to change in the brown barn. I threw on shorts and a new shirt, put my dry socks and shoes on, and fell back in with the group. The racer who tapped out when Robin said we had to keep crawling gave me all his remaining MRE’s. I took cheese and meatballs and passed out the rest to the group. Neely yelled to get in line as I suck the last meatball out of the package.
We got a head count “1,2,3….11.” I said, “Where is Yvette?” and in all the mob and commotion between staff and racers, I heard someone say “She is here,” and took their word for it. Count again “1,2,3…11.” Next time Rob said it, “Yvette is missing.” I took a quick scan around the field for her and she was nowhere to be found. Rob disapeared for a second and returned saying she was in the barn. I dropped my pack and bolted. She was behind a closed door, so I knocked and asked permission to come in. I heard, “Yes, please,” and opened the door to find her on the floor, with no shoes on, and the contents of her pack all over the room. I told her everyone was in line waiting for her and we needed to move out. She looked at me with sad distant eyes and said “I need help.” I told her to get her shoes on and get in line as I packed her gear. We ran back over and I pulled her to the front with me, right behind Neely. Yvette told me she wasn’t sure if she could keep up with everyone, she had used all her energy in the crawl. I reassured her we were at the front of the pack, I was next to her, and we just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She nodeded and we started a brisk pace back up Joe’s mountain.
We stopped for a moment halfway up, noticing some of the group fell behind. Large droplets of sweat hit the rocks beneath us. We were on the stairs up to shreks, put in place by a Death Race years ago. The makeshift stairs were much thankfully much easier to hike up than the dirt next to them. Once we were all together, we finished the trek to the cabin. I heard a dog barking at us as we figured out a couple was staying at the cabin. “Is this the death race?” the woman asked. Neely said yes and radio-ed to Rob at the back of the line that we were moving out down the other side of the mountain.
After a short while, we arrived at another small cabin, and a few steps further, a metal rig was setup in the woods. The ropeflex.
We were told to put our gear down and grab enough water and snacks for 12 hours. The guy next to me stood at the rig with nothing. Neely yelled for him to get water. He walked away and came back with tomato juice. Neely yelled again. “You are going to stand here for 12 hours. YOU NEED TO GET WATER.” The guy silently stumbled away again. Don predicted he was too far gone, and wouldn’t finish. We had to stand at the rig pulling, and break the world record of 30,000 meters. We couldn’t be away from the rig at any point for more than 60 seconds, or the machine would reset to zero. The rules were we had to tell the staff member in charge of our side (3 people) every time we hit 1,000, and the clock resets every 10,000. Someone noted that the machine measures in feet, not meters. I asked what the conversion was, but no one answered. We started pulling. It was somewhere around midnight on the 3rd night of the Death Race.
Pulling the rope seemed easy initially. The resistance wasn’t terrible and we were standing in one place. The only annoyance was the rope kept picking up dust from the ground and spitting it into the air. It was a constant dust shower. I had to step further back from the rig to avoid getting dust in my eyes. It wasn’t long before my water bottle was coated in a thick layer of dirt. Every 1,000 feet I told Rob to come check and he marked me off in his little notebook. The repetitive motion of the rope pull started to put me into a trance. I told Rob how the rope coiling at my feet was starting to look like snakes and he laughed. In the days prior to the race, he had joked about me having hallucinations. A little while later I heard someone else mention the snakes too.
Staff members were sitting in chairs off to the side of the rig. Jack, Joe’s young sidekick, was among them. I looked over and saw him tilting over in his chair. I couldn’t get any words out before he collapsed over to the side out of the chair and hit the floor. Everyone was laughing. The camera guys even caught it on video. A short while later Don was snoring at the top of his lungs. We all shared a laugh over that as one of the staff recorded it on his phone.
I looked over at Yvette periodically and saw her nodding off. 2 or 3 times I ran over to her to wake her up, give her a pep talk, and immediately ran back over to my rope. I realized she had a good handle on it. Even when I saw her falling asleep, she used her head to lean into the rope and pull it down. Funny looking technique, but she kept moving. I decided I could stay at my rope. The rope that cant be left for more than 60 seconds. It became like a game. I had to pee. pull the rope and run, quick squat, run back and pull. strange game.
Eventually I felt myself nodding off. But I was still pulling. I made sure I kept pulling. It is so peculiar how I was completely checked out of my brain, but still pulling the rope. I heard people having conversations. I chimed in every now and then. I was not entirely conscious, but I was aware of it. Things started to blur, I was somewhere between dreaming and awake.
Around 3 am, I realized I never got an answer about the meters to feet conversion. I brought it up to Rob and he looked it up in his phone. He told me 77,000 ft. I realize now that math is wrong, but in the moment, I took it for fact. I told everyone in the group take whatever number they’re at now and multiply it by 4. If it doesn’t add up to 77,000, we’re fucked. I was nowhere near the number, and started to pull faster. We all started using different techniques, teaching each other what keeps the meter running longer with less effort. Grab at the top, walk all the way back, give it a good yank before you move back in, the meter keeps running. No more hand over hand. It was getting tiring anyway. I started noticing blisters on my fingers. I periodically took my work gloves off to let my hands breathe.
I noticed the sky starting to lighten, the 3rd morning. I told myself I just needed a 5 minute nap before the sun was up and they could see me. I allowed myself to nod off. I KNOW I was still pulling. It must’ve been 1 minute before I was awoken by Rob singing some nursery rhyme or something in my ear. I jumped, startled. He laughed. I gave him a pouty face and he smiled back at me. There was no way in hell was he letting my close my eyes. A few minutes later everyone must’ve been nodding off, because Rob took something metal and started clanging on the rig. Loud jolting echoing banging sounds started to ring out in the forest. We were all awake.
Around 5am, after 5 hours of pulling, Rob stopped us. He logged everyones numbers and gave us a quick run down. The top person had 15k ft, the lowest had 8k, and most were hovering around 10-11k. I had 10,800. I had slowed down significantly nodding off in the last hour. Rob gave us a speech about how some people seem to be happy doing the bare minimum. He told us we needed to prove how much we want this.
“There are 6 skulls. There are 12 of you.
Only the top finishers will get a skull. We are going to give you another 2 hours.
How bad do you want it?
We all pulled harder and faster than we had all night. The only sound was our heavy breathing and the gravel beneath our feet. I was quickly winded. It didn’t matter.
PULL PULL PULL.
We were exhausted. It didn’t matter.
Run in, grab the top, run back.
Pull with your whole body, into a squat.
The skull is on the line. PULL.
After a while, Joe showed up. He told us to listen as we pulled. He introduced us to Dr. Frank Bicci and Dr. Campbell who are experts on plant based diets. They started talking about their clients and the drastic health improvements they’ve seen when people switch to a plant based diet. Joe told us to repeat what they were saying back to him. In unison.
The first sentence was “I’ve seen clients recover from cancer after switching to a plant based diet.”
We repeated it back.
Then he says, “Clients have more endurance and quicker recovery on a plant based diet.”
We tried to repeat both lines back, but it got sloppy.
We were all still pulling, winded, trying to repeat sentences in unison. We couldn’t remember, we couldn’t catch our breath, we stumbled over our words as if we were intoxicated. We tried, but all that came out were disorganized mumbles.
“You can reduce chronic disease on a plant based diet. You can reverse type 2 diabetes on a plant based diet.”
We were a mess. an absolute jumbled mumbly mess. Joe suggested we make a song. We made the rhythm to The Farmer in the Dell.
“Diet change alone…diet change alone…”
Eric and I managed to catch on quickly to the lines and memorize them while everyone else was stumbling. We came up with a system. Chris Rice did a countdown, we all said our new chorus in unison, I started the first 2 lines, Eric started the last 2 lines, and everyone tried to follow.
“Diet change alone, diet change alone..
Clients recover from cancer based on diet change alone
Diet change alone, diet change alone
More endurance and quicker recovery with diet change alone
Diet change alone, diet change alone
Reduce chronic disease based on diet change alone.
Diet change alone, diet change alone
Reverse type 2 diabetes with diet change alone
Diet change alone, diet change alone…….”
over and over and over again.
Joe started filming a video with the doctors, with us in the background, pulling ropes and singing this odd exhausted mindless chant. I heard Cookie arrive and say he was already sick of the song.
My gloves were ripping. There were blisters on my pinkies. My hands were sore.
I looked at the meter and realized I passed 10k ft and the meter had reset.
How many times did my meter reset? I never told anyone my number. Will I be jipped of feet? Will I be eliminated?
Then I thought harder. I was so exhausted I didnt realize. No one’s numbers had been checked. half the group’s meters must have reset.
It didn’t matter. They weren’t checking.
We were all moving forward, I hoped.
Just keep pulling.
The staff told us to get off the rope in pairs of 2, people next to us must continue to pull our ropes along with there’s, while we talked to the doctors about our diets. Me and Euan Campbell walked over to talk together. Ironically, both of us switched to Keto a few months prior, in preparation for the DR. We both love its affects on our energy and stamina. We ended up in a mini debate about the benefits of keto and plant based diets. It was informative. As we walked back to the ropes, Euan and I continued our discussion about how keto has been working for us. Then my name was called along with Matthew Moortgat and we were told to leave our ropes and go do burpees behind the rig. Joe filmed another video while we did our burpees together in the background.
A short while later, we were told to stop. After about 7 hours of pulling rope, we lined up at our packs, take another photo, and head out on another hike. Back down the mountain.
Joe was in the lead, with Jack next to him. We headed straight down the middle of a bunch of switchbacks. It was slippery with loose dirt, leaves, and unstable ground. It was difficult to maintain footing, and we all got spaced out. Joe had us keep a head count. We periodically yelled numbers into the woods, as most of us could no longer see each other. I saw “8” in front of me, I yelled “9” and listen carefully for 10 off in the distance behind me.
When we finally got back together, Amy and I made our way to the front. I chatted her up as we continued to move quickly down the mountain. Where are you from? What do you do? You are so strong. How do you train? Ironically she lives in Hicksville, about 30 minutes from where I live, Queens NY. We talked a while about lots of things, I wont get into details, but she is a phenomenal woman. Strong as hell in every way. At the front, Joe was trying to convince Jack to come to Mongolia Agoge. He told me Jack comes from an affluent family, and he wanted to break him. Amy and I gave him 100 reasons why he should go, and Jack rebutted us with excuses. Joe decided no one was finishing Death Race until he agreed to go. Reluctantly, Jack agreed in order to spare the group. I personally couldn’t fathom how anyone could turn down Joe DeSena on an offer to take a trip to Mongolia.
We continued down quickly. I was bouncing off rocks. I slipped and took a pretty hard fall, but I shook it off and keep going. I recall telling Amy I was starting to see shadows in my peripheral vision, like people standing next to me, but no one was there. She told me hallucinations are normal with sleep deprivation. I told her I felt like I wasn’t speaking. I knew I was talking to her, but it felt sort of like I was outside myself, watching me speak. She responded as if it was normal. The whole experience was very interesting to me.
As the farm came into view, Joe yelled, “Run over to the tree, get in a line, lie down, and SLEEP.” Mandatory rest. My eyes closed, and I relaxed, knowing it was likely not going to last long. In the bright sunshine, I saw white behind my eyelids. Despite the light, i drifted into the endless brightness. I heard a snore, and Amy next to me giggled and asked if someone actually fell asleep. I heard staff in front of us on live feeds, but I couldn’t make out their words. I was genuinely napping, in whatever sense it was possible in that moment.
Maybe 3 minutes went by before we were told to get up quickly and run over to the brown barn. I stood and felt noticeably more tired. I assume that was the point of our faux naptime. On the way we passed the sandbags we had fetched from the lake earlier. We were told to pickup our sandbags and line up at the barn. I frantically searched for my bag, but couldn’t find it. Jason told me to grab someone else’s sandbag.
As we approached the barn I heard people clapping and my name being called. I looked up and for a minute, I had facial blindness. I saw a row of people, but recognized no one. I kept hearing my name but couldn’t figure out who it was coming from. Then someone waved an arm as they said my name, and I recognized Mike Raedy. I smiled and suddenly everyone else’s face came into focus. Dashee, Ashley, Abe, Andrew…several others. A moment later we were told to take off our packs and sit down. We were told to somersault across the farm to the fence near the white barn. It’s a race. On the fence were all the bibs of those not longer in the race. Another reminder we could lose our bibs at any moment.
“There are 6 skulls, go earn it.” We rolled as fast as we could. It was far, we were dizzy, it HURT. Every time I rolled my knees hit the ground on my landing. My raw swollen knees. I tried to place my palms over my knees to cushion the fall, but it didn’t help much. I was in pain. I heard Rachael hysterically crying. I had seen earlier, her knees were badly injured. They were cut up and bleeding. I knew she had it much worse than me, I kept rolling.
Dont think about the pain. You have come too far. Get. that. skull.
I stood up at the fence. Jason was on the live feed, he told me Mark Mckennet said “Athena, Option B, GO GET THAT SKULL.” I nodded in a daze and thumbs up to the camera. My friends were watching.
YOU HAVE THIS. DON’T FUCKING QUIT.
We somersaulted back backwards. We grabbed our sandbags, we rolled to the fence, we rolled back. We got on our packs, we rolled. It felt like forever. The whole time Don was screaming, “We are gonna do this all day, you better get used to it.” I ignored him.
Tune it out. It’s not true. It’s a mind game.
Staff was standing over us mumbling on the live feeds. I heard someone comment on how streamlined I was with my pack. I was thankful for the recognition. Early on in the race some were poking fun at me for only bringing a 21 Liter Rucker, while most had 50 or 60 liter Osprey’s. They were regretting them now. I was glad I packed light. Keep rolling. They finally stopped us at the fence. I looked to my left and Yvette was collapsed on her ruck next to me. Cookie walked over and took her photo.
I heard Robin yelling towards a group he had separated out, Amy, Ryan, Euan and Rachael. Ryan was protesting. Robin yelled “SAY YOU EARNED THAT GROUP.” Ryan responded finally, “I earned this group.” Robin said something about taking their bibs. I started to tear up. He turned to my group and said “TELL THEM THEY EARNED THAT GROUP.” I didn’t want to say it. He repeated himself. We reluctantly said “They earned that group.”
Don told us to run over to the white barn and line up. He told Ryan’s group to follow after we got there, and stay separated. He told us all to get into plank. I fall immediately into high plank, some others took their time. Some were on their forearms. Don yelled “HIGH PLANK.” I was shaking by the time everyone was in proper plank. I turned my hands and shoulders out to lessen the load, Don was all over it. “HANDS FORWARD, SHOULDERS TURNED IN.” I obey and he moves down the line. “BUTTOCKS DOWN,” he yelled repeatedly. I knew it hadn’t been long, but it felt like forever. I was shaking.
Neely told us all to stand up. She talked about how they buried Death Race in 2015, and how we were resurrecting it. She placed boxes in front of us. All 12 of us. She said our skulls were broken and we must piece them back together.
In silence, like phantoms, we all sat down, opened our boxes, and pulled out the skulls. They were in pieces, and there was glue in the box. We start piecing our skulls back together. There was no celebration, no smiles, only silence as we complete our final task. The cameras were all over us, but we were focused. Fix the broken skull.
I heard a staff member comment on how badly my hands were shaking. Yvette was next to me and said how she cant stop gluing her fingers together. I laughed at what a mess my glue job was too, and said how we’ll always remember how disheveled we were because of the state of our skulls. We giggled, then started to cry. I heard a staff member ask “Why are you crying? You just finished the Death Race.” I laughed, then it’s like a switch went off in my brain. I stopped gluing, looked up at Yvette, and said “Yvette, you’re holding a skull.” She responded “You’re holding a skull too.” I started crying more as I told her how proud I was of her, and we hugged each other. Suddenly the medic woman was taking my blood pressure. I didn’t even notice she was there. “Oh, hi.” I thanked her for believing in me. I told her I was doubting myself for a long time. She said “I know,” and smiled. She confirmed my pressure was good and moved down the line.
I finished gluing my skull and it read “Death Race Ressurection 2018.” I stood up. Rob was standing there and congratulated me. I asked him for a photo and he made a stereotypical goofy Rob face. I told him how thankful I am for him.
Cookie asked me to take a finisher photo. I smiled with skull in hand and then tried to go and find my sandbag. I was quickly stopped by a staff member and told I wasn’t allowed to leave the barn. I reluctantly turned around. Jason gave me a shirt, hat, and hoodie. I carefully folded up my Death Race bib, put it in the box with my skull, and put on the hoodie, thankful to be warm and cozy. I looked at my watch. 11:30 am, July 14th. 61 hours had passed from when we lined up at the church July 11th at 10pm. It was finally over.
Hugs and smiles all around. A chocolate sheet cake with a skull and barbed wire. A group photo, and we were finally released. Yvette asked me to walk with her back to barbed wire to find her headband. We started to walk over and were stopped by film crew. We went into the barn to be interviewed. I was a tad emotional, of course. I told the camera about how much I love the endurance community, how I’v met my best friends through racing, how much it’s changed my life. The camera man asked if I will be back. I thought on it for a second, and said yes. The cameraman thanked me and sent me on my way.
All the former participants came over and congratulated me. Mike Raedy told me he was heading to Palmerton PA for the Hurricane Heat with Abe and William. I asked if I could come, excited to be able to make it to Palmerton, a race I had deffered for DR. 20 minutes later I made the rational choice and decided not to go.
We all got cleaned up, took naps, and got some food. Before long we were all sitting around the farm drinking beers and sharing stories. I looked around me amazed at the position I was in, surrounded by Spartan Staff, the people I look up to. I was on Joe’s farm, the creator of this wonderful company that has changed me in so many ways. Cookie was showing me youtube videos, Ashley was trying to convince me to do Go Ruck Selection, Joe’s wife Courtney congratulated me. I couldn’t be happier. In the serene beauty of Riverside Farm, the sun set. Jason invited us all to hike Killington with him in the morning and we said our goodnights.
Th next morning we all went out for breakfast at the Original General Store. Afterward, everyone headed out for the hike, but Ronald Tortola and I opted to relax at the house. We sat together watching all the live feed videos and basking in the glory of our soreness. Eventually Cookie came over and offered me a ride back to the church to pickup my car, and I headed home.
Sooo many people reached out to me after the race. When I turned on my phone, the notifications exploded and my phone dropped to 50% battery. I answered the texts, and ignored the instagram and facebook messages. I wanted to respond to people close to me, I was too overwhelmed to look at anything else. In the time since, I have responded to everyone. I felt slightly burdened initially by all the people looking to me for advice. I still feel like a novice myself, who am I to be a mentor? What right do I have to guide others?
In the time since, I have had a few deep convos with close friends, and they have assured me of my power. I always tend to devalue myself. I’m insecure, i’m anxious, I feel inadequate. No more. My close friend Nathaniel said to me “I don’t want to hear you say ever again that you can’t do something.” I promised him I wouldn’t.
Don has said in the past “The Death Race will change you on a cellular level.” I know now that is true. As I type these last few sentences, it is 2 weeks after the Race. It took me this long to process my experience and write it all. It has changed me.
I have a rejuvenated sense of purpose and a new outlook on life. I am happier.
Coincidentally, some things have changed in my personal life over the past week, and I am rolling with the punches like a champ. My stress levels are down, my ambition is up, and I only see things getting better from here. I will be back for Death Race 2019, and I will do more. I will have new experiences. I will welcome change. I will believe in myself and my power. Because I am capable, I am worthy, I am amazing. And I am finally realizing that.
The first 7 months of 2018 were horrible for me. I fell into a deep pit of depression I felt I was never going to recover from. Somehow, that feeling of hopelessness is just gone. I symbolically died, and I was spiritually reborn.
I thank God everyday now. I am thankful for my body, and it’s ability to withstand extremely strenuous activity. I am thankful for my family, and their pride in everything I do. I am thankful for my friends, and their encouragement through every circumstance. I am thankful for my boyfriend, and his remarkable faith in my ability and endless support. And I am thankful for my mind, and it’s ability to bounce back from a seemingly hopeless depression.
Endurance events have completely changed me at my core. They are my passion, they are my drive. They have introduced me to remarkable humans and given me remarkable courage.
I’ve decided to start blogging regularly, so I can share my experiences with everyone. I can’t promise it will be great; this isn’t something I have experience with. But I will do my best. Because if I can give even 1 person the motivation I have received from this life, I will have succeeded. Thanks for reading, I know it was long, but I hope that it was worth it.
I’m Athena. I am a 28 year old Veterinary Technician from Queens, NY. I fell in love with fitness at 23 years old after doing a Spartan Sprint in Killington, VT. 5 years later, I am getting into the endurance side of things, long strenuous events that really bring me to the edge of what I think I can do. I created this blog after finishing the 2018 Death Race, thanks to prompts from a couple of friends, and questions from people all over. I hope to use this site to help me better evaluate myself and to educate anyone out there who might be interested in my experiences. Ultimately, my goal is to help others on their own journey. I promise to be as blatantly honest on here as I possibly can. And thus, I’m going to start by sharing a bit about myself.
Communication has been difficult for me my whole life, but I’m devoted to working on it now. I have suffered from anxiety and depression for most of my life. My mother first put me in therapy when i was 15 after she discovered I had been self mutilating for a few years. Throughout my teens I found comfort from my mental issues through substance abuse: alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, you name it. I was friends with the wrong people, I dated people who abused me. I was in bad shape. Spartan Race helped me change my life. I started going to a gym, then I joined crossfit, then started doing yoga, cycling, hiking, anything to keep me goal oriented and moving forward in life. I quit my bad habits and started becoming a pretty decent athlete. When I tried my first endurance event in February 2017, a Go Ruck Light, that really sealed the deal.
I hope to enlighten you all by passing on my knowledge, what I have learned through hardship, and how much it has changed my outlook on life. I went from someone who was barely alive, to thoroughly enjoying life. I have amazing friends, a wonderful boyfriend, and I look forward to everyday, most of the time. I still struggle with my mental health issues, but I have learned good coping skills, and I have a group of phenomenal people in my life to lean on when I am struggling.
That was my quick synopsis, it’s difficult to sum myself up in just a few short paragraphs, but I hope to open up more as time passes. I hope you all enjoy the journey.
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton