Anyone reading this is likely familiar with the Death Race, or at least the concept. It’s not truly a race, but an event. Folks gather in VT on a Friday night, then do random, unpleasant, painful things until the organizers (who are professional sadists) tell them to stop. This can be days later. Food, sleep, hydration, clothing and footwear tend to be after thoughts.
And there is a Winter version too. Because this isn’t unpleasant enough.
If you were around the Facebook Group last weekend you will also be aware that Nele and Joshua – both well known, loved and respected New England Spahtens – won the damn thing.
I was thrilled when she agreed to write up her thoughts and experience for us – and as you sit at home, with winter storms blowing – don’t forget – this was only one week ago!
Winter Death Race
Curled up in a warm bed at the Swiss Farm in I was thinking that this would be the last time I would be warm and comfortable for some time. You see it was February 1st and the Winter Death Race was scheduled to begin at 6pm that day.
Trying to be smart Keith, Joshua and I went down to The General Store early to register and collect our bibs (I was #001, Joshua was #100, and Keith was #102). We had then planned to head back to the hotel, get our gear ready, and sleep for a couple of hours before heading down to Amee Farm for 5.50pm to begin the race. We know they make early arrivals begin working before the race actually starts so the idea was to try to avoid that. Little did we know that almost as soon as we had left The General Store they announced the 6pm start time was a lie (the first of many) and the race started at 4pm.
Joshua left the hotel about 5 minutes before Keith and I. We walked the 5 minutes to the farm to find no one there. I had no idea what was going on. We were told the group was at Joe’s house. So we walked/ran the mile or so to Joe’s barn. Empty. We walked/ran back to the farm. We stopped into The General Store to see if anyone was there. Thankfully Don was. He told us the group was at Joe’s house in the basement. Not the barn. We were told to head back to Amee Farm and wait for the group who would be back shortly. Burpees were done to pass the time. A frozen beaver was pulled out. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
Just as Don brought over buckets filled with rocks for us to do Turkish get-ups with Andy told us we were going to Joe’s house to join the group. I was finally excited about the race. I had just wanted to be with the group and was frustrated about the whole start time lie. Everyone was in Joe’s basement. It was about a million degrees down there. Everyone had stripped down to basically what was their underwear and were doing squats. I was excited about getting involved. But no, because we were late we had to remain in full gear and continuously hold plank in the middle of the room until everyone had done their squats. I was dripping sweat just standing in that room. I switched between plank, raised plank, side planks, and modified planks. I was exhausting myself within the first hour of the race. We didn’t have water. Michelle, a previous Death Race finisher, came over and held me up in plank while she squatted over me. This was how I met Michelle Roy.
After what seemed like forever we ran back to the farm. The sweat instantly cooled and I was already unbearably cold. Levi from Reload Fitness was there with a gift of supplies! It felt so good to see another friendly face and it was such a surprise. I can’t remember what happened next. The sleep deprivation of the weekend just blurs everything together. I know we chopped and split wood. Cleaned out a barn. Carried 900lb bales of hay over to the barn in teams (we weren’t allowed to roll them). Lots of burpees were done. Again, my memory of that first night is very fuzzy. I remember seeing the sunrise from the top of Joe’s mountain. The view was breathtaking and I remembered why I was doing this. I felt renewed and recharged. It’s amazing what sunlight does to you.
I know at some point, maybe during the night I’m not sure, we split into 3 teams. We were all attached to a length of rope and had to reach the top of Joe’s mountain together as a team. We were also racing against the other teams. I know everything I’m writing is out of order, but that’s what the Death Race does to you. I can’t remember bits and pieces and things I do remember seem so disjointed.
Another “challenge” was the sprints. This happened during the first night. We were told to lay face down on the covered bridge with all our gear on (packs and everything). Initially we were told we would be sleeping here but within a couple of minutes we had been split into teams of five and were told to race the other members on our team and the loser would receive a strike. Three strikes and you were out of the race. This was the first time I felt the pressure of the race.
Those of us that made it through to see daylight on Saturday had the pleasure of pulling a 2,600lb metal beam out of the river. We worked as a team for this. The race had technically started at this point. Strange to start a race with a group activity where no one can take a natural lead, but it worked. Many of us spent a considerable amount of time in the river. I stripped down to shorts and went in like that. I saw others with hip waders and wetsuits. I didn’t have these items so I kept it simple. I knew I had to keep my clothes dry, they had to go. My first time into the water wasn’t so bad. I was laughing and smiling. Sure my feet went numb and I was shaking uncontrollably, but I could handle it. It was my second and third time in when I began to really feel the effects. My legs turned bright red, my teeth were chattering, and I was finding it difficult to walk. Every time I got out to warm up I was back in the water again within 5 minutes. It was no use arguing with Joe. I was sent to the greenhouse on ‘medical’ to warm up because some of the race directors were worried about me. I cried at having to leave the river. I was confused and thought I was out of the race. I had to be told several times I was still in before I would leave. Upon my return I was straight back in the water again. There was no sympathy from Joe. His demeanor actually helped me. If it was left to choice I don’t know how many more times I would have went in, but because Joe demanded it with no excuses I went in time and time again. One time I had re-dressed and he began shouting a 30 second countdown for me to get back into the water. I couldn’t take my clothes off, my fingers were numb and I had so many layers on. My boyfriend Ben was pulling my pants off me as I ran towards the river. I would do anything to stay in the race, I knew that.
We did the un-thinkable, the beam was out. I thought that was it, no more water. I was wrong. Now we had to cross the rope bridge, do 100 burpees on the bank on the other side, then wade back across the river to receive a tally on our foreheads. Once we had done this we were free to return to the farm to carry on the race. This whole period by the river is when I saw a lot of people drop. It was heartbreaking to see someone push themselves and give it everything but be unable to go on.
Now it felt like a race. After 1000 burpees and 10 river crossings you were allowed to leave to go to the farm. I ran to the greenhouse. I needed to warm up and change clothes. But importantly I needed to start the next challenge. Drag a log up to the top of Joe’s mountain and complete the tasks they have for you up there. Seemed do-able. We were paired with someone for the first ascent. I was paired with Melody Hazi, a strong female competitor. We got lost on the trails on the way up, but we weren’t far behind the leading men. On the top of the mountain we had to saw and split our log, build a 1.5ft mound of snow using just our right shoe (then knocking it down and doing it again with our left shoe), and then complete 6 tangrams (a puzzle involving 7 pieces and you had to copy the image on a card using all 7 pieces). After completing these three things we had to run down the mountain and do it all over again. I finished the 3 tasks alone and had no idea how to get back to Amee Farm. Thankfully Michelle Roy offered to run me down as she knew the way. I will never forget that run down. She talked and it kept me relaxed but motivated. She inspired me and gave me confidence in myself. It was at this point I thought about trying to win. She lit the fire inside me. I felt like I had just slept for 8 hours, renewed and ready to go. The faith she had in me kept me going. I would not let her down I kept telling myself.
I burst into the greenhouse at Amee Farm 5 hours after leaving for the first lap. I needed to rush to keep the female lead. My support crew came through for me. I had a quick turn around and I was ready to go. Then it dawned on me. I would be climbing a mountain in the middle of the night while it was snowing, alone. My heart began to race. What if I got lost? What if I tripped and fell and hurt myself? What if a psycho killer came out of the woods and killed me? What if the Blair Witch got me? Yes, all of these things did cross my mind. But I couldn’t stop. I just went. One foot in front of the other. Every sound I heard I ignored. I hummed tunes to myself to calm myself down when my mind started racing. I tried to think of the race and nothing else. I kept my eyes forward. I didn’t look back once.
I made it up and down the mountain a second time alone. Completing the tasks at the top. My next turn around was faster than the last. I had been told we were to meet at the yoga studio at 5.30am and that our order of arrival into the greenhouse after the third lap would be noted and would give us an advantage at yoga. I saw Olof and Josh getting their logs as I was leaving for my third lap. I arrived at the top of the mountain by myself. There was no-one else there. I had to knock on the hut to grab someone to monitor me while I completed the tasks. “Where is everyone else?” I asked, “You’re the first one up. You’re leading everyone” was the response. Complete and utter shock. How had this happened?
I was on the last tangram when Olof and Josh arrived. I couldn’t recreate the stupid picture of a barn. Eventually Olof and Josh were by my side completing the tangrams. We decided to help each other. I needed their help. We were going to wait for each other and go down the mountain together. After what felt like forever we all finished. Off we went. Running straight down the mountain. Forget the road or the trails, those routes were too slow. About halfway down I lost Olof and Josh. They were fast. Too fast for me. I could see the light of headlamps behind me. I instantly thought it was Melody and Don because they left straight after us. I began to run faster. Suddenly Mark Webb, Jeff, and another man speed past me. It was like they weren’t wearing full packs and hadn’t just climbed up and down a mountain 3 times. I was amazed. I ran the last stretch alone. Exhausted but still with the will to continue. I made it into the greenhouse 6 minutes behind the leaders, Josh and Olof.
I had no idea what time it was. I was hoping I was going to have some time to sleep before 5.30am. I had no time. It was 4am and I had to be ready. At 4.45am Don shouts we need to be in full gear we’re leaving now. We’re not doing yoga, we’re going to go on a 20 mile hike through Blood Route… I almost started to cry. I had been sat down long enough for my legs to stiffen and the pain to set in. My feet were swelling up, I was bruised everywhere, and it hurt to stand. “I don’t want to go” I said to my support crew. But even as I was saying this, and as defeated as I felt, I was getting myself ready. My brain was on autopilot. They made us run to The General Store. We did some PT as a warm-up for the hike. Then we ran again to the yoga studio. We were told how dangerous this hike was going to be and once we started there was no way to get us out of there. I was silent, just listening, looking for signs that this was an infamous Death Race lie. I couldn’t see any.
We began jogging into the woods. I quickly fell to the back of the pack and walked with melody and a volunteer, Dave. I would do this, I would complete the hike, but it would be at my pace. It would take me 12 hours, but that’s ok I kept telling myself. Finally I caught up with Josh. He was as defeated as I was. We both knew we wouldn’t stop. But this wasn’t something we wanted to be doing right now. We would get through it together.
We climbed an incline and rounded a corner and suddenly we saw everyone. Ben, Keith, Patrick, Andy, Don… People who had dropped out. I couldn’t believe it. They were going to see us off is what I thought. It did give me a boost, one I desperately needed. As I walked towards the group Don came up to me, shook my hand and said “congratulations, you’ve finished”. I was in disbelief. I denied it. I kept denying it. It couldn’t be over. But it was. And when that thought finally hit me I cried. And I mean CRIED. I was balling my eyes out. I was hugging everyone. This had been my family since Friday. These are the only people I had seen or spoke to. I had had no communication with the outside world. This was my world. We had experienced something utterly amazing together. We had gone through so much. Highs and lows.
“Go get your skulls” I heard. There they were. 11 perfect skulls placed in the snow. It was beautiful. I picked up my reward. This was it. This is what I had to show for everything I had gone through. Not everyone would understand when I would tell them, but instantly that skull has become one of my prized possessions.
I finished Winter Death race as I started. In The General Store laughing and smiling. Only this time I felt nothing but pure happiness. I was surrounded by people I loved. I had breakfast in front of me, my first real meal in over 40 hours. And sitting in front of me next to my plate was a skull that said “female champion” on it….
I still look at that skull and smile. I will never forget that weekend. I learnt so much about myself. I am more capable than I ever imagined. I saw the good in other people, in a world where you are constantly reminded of the bad. People ask me about the race, but unless you were there or have previously done a Death race it is too difficult to describe. The only thing I can say is that it is life-changing. I already miss it. I miss the pain, the discomfort, the other people, the greenhouse which became my home, the powerbars which became my diet, and the uncertainty of what was going to happen next. But I will return in June to do it all over again, and I couldn’t be more excited or happy by the thought.