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Reflective Reflections on the Death Race

Jonathan asked if I could share this with the blog – only happy to oblige!

Reflective Reflections on the Death Race

My name is Jonathan Cummings. Most of you reading this I’m sure have no idea who I am. That’s OK with me. I don’t Death Race. I don’t come up with Death Race challenges (yet anyway, Joe and Andy I’ve got some ideas if you want to hear them). I don’t crew for racers and sorry to those that have asked me in the past but I don’t know what the racers are supposed to be doing next. Despite my lack of a racer’s perspective, or a directors/organizers perspective, I’ve spent some of time observing this thing and A LOT reflecting on it, and the coveted Death Race skull so…in the spirit of post-race write ups I have some ideas I think others might be interested in hearing.

My first reflection is that the Death Race isn’t a race, or an endurance challenge, or torture, or a labor of love, or a bunch of yard work, or free labor for Joe, Andy, Peter, and the residents of Pittsfield, or an obstacle course, or a series of tasks, or group therapy, or a team building exercise. It isn’t a tryout to identify people who…, won’t quit, will quit, are tough, are the planet’s fittest, strongest, fastest, or have the most willpower.

While I think I’ve heard every item listed above offered as a description the Death Race is, those are just elements of it, reductionist explanations which absolutely fail to capture the sum total of the parts or adequately relate the Death Race as I’ve come to see it, as an experience.

From this perspective, let’s talk about those discussions Death Racer inevitably have with those from the outside world. Viewing the Death Race as an experience I think frames the discussion properly. For example, when asked about the Death Race, one should respond, as Jimi Hendricks might put it, “Are you experienced?” The difficulty is that for those that aren’t experience, it is difficult to explain it in any way but the reductionist list above, but for those that are experienced, whatever the end result, the shared understanding is instant. It is the difference between reading a story and being one of the characters. For the characters, you were there you lived it, I think you know what I mean. For the readers, if you want to understand, truly understand; come be a character, become experienced.

There is another reason I think of the Death Race and its racers as experienced or not. That is because of the constant choice racers face regarding whether or not to continue, at what pace, and the associated assigning of finisher status via skull, bib, official, unofficial, DNF, etc. If I were at race registration the question I would ask incoming racers is, are you experienced? I have come to view that as more important than a racers assigned result.

As this may be a tad bit controversial let me explain why. The death race is a microcosm for life, shit happens, you don’t know when or what’s next, you set goals anyway and you deal. You are (or at least should be) judged on how you deal with the shit. Thankfully, we are diverse as humans, so not everyone’s shit is exactly the same, and everyone’s goals are different. Therefore, I’m not interested as much in the end result (skull, no skull, whatever) as I am in the experience. This hit me hardest watching racer spin a roulette wheel to determine their fate after two miles of swimming. A good spin, your done, off to your next task. A bad spin, back in the water for another mile. I wish I could remember every racers experience there and recount them for you here, I can’t, but I’ll try to give you a taste by describing three of them.

Picture one of the top female racers; we will call her racer 1. She is been looking strong, resolved, she has been moving fast, and has had a smile, if the tiniest bit forced at times, all weekend long. She takes off her pack, inspects her feet and grimaces, but seems unfazed and ready for the first lap of her swim. Her outward appearance points toward this being just another in her list of tasks and she quickly, well quickly relative to swimming a mile on no rest after two days of racing heads back out for a second only a little worse for wear. Keep in mind it is about 7 am, and while the water is about 70 degrees, the air temperature is likely even cooler, with clouds and a few scattered downpours. Chills and shivering are become a concern for all the swimmers currently present. While watching Joe talk with some other racers I unfortunately missed the roulette wheel going around, but as I approached it I saw a sobbing – I mean the barely able to stand and walk while being wracked with tears – racer 1 move past me. Amidst the blubbering she announces a first for her: tears of joy at a Death Race. The cold had set in. With the tears with was tough to tell, but I’m pretty sure the shaking was actually 90% shivering. It was amazing to watch the joy in her face, but even more so to imagine the result had she spun a third lap on the swim. Would the mile have been possible, would she have quit. To me her emotion struck me not as a celebration of what was, but rather the crushing realization of what might have been.

Picture yourself now in a kayak, shivering racers inching their way half a mile out to a series of buoys and back, racers all around you. You hope beyond hope it won’t happen, but it does, a racer signals to you- our racer 2 – that she is done. The things that race through you mind. Is she OK? What about finishing, racers do anything, half die to finish, does she really want to stop? Shit, if she really wants to stop is she OK?!!! Alright, she’s OK, just shivering too much to properly swim anymore. However, she is not shivering too much to prevent her expression from telling on her face. I’m honestly tearing up right now thinking about it. Her look was of knowing the body has hit a limit in its current environment that the mind can’t overcome. Fear, dejection, disappoint, and the need for safety were all very clear on her face as she clung to my kayak and waited for the boat ride to shore. However, despite my tears in recollection, as far as I saw not one tear was shed by racer 2. In fact you’ve probably read about this already elsewhere, but I learned that later on racer 2, was sitting on the rise above the swim was with three other racers who had missed the cutoff for their final lap of the swim. As these racers start to whine and cry about their fate, racer 2 removes her prosthetic leg, accepts her unofficial status, dumps the water out of her leg, reattaches it, and calmly asks Joe what’s next.

Picture racer three, wait first ask what time it is. Oh no, it is already 12:28, meaning racers are well past being allowed to reenter the water. In fact all racers are being pulled from the water at 12:30, OK, now picture our racer three, having made the cut-off with only 2 minutes to spare. She is a shorter woman with salt and pepper hair, not a speedy racer, but she has just kept going, relentless in her completion of task after task. Making time cutoffs has been a challenge, but she is the personification of the racer who will not quit. To this point she’s made the times, but only just. As she leaves the water she can barely stand. She’s wobbly from the adapting her muscles and mind once again to gravity, not as easy as you would think after an hour of feeling weightless. More than fighting gravity she is trying to stand on ravaged feet. However, most of all her struggle with verticality is likely due to the realization that despite her efforts, and meeting the time, fate is not in her hands. It was clearly a massive struggle to arrive back here at the end of lap 2 of her swim in the time that she did. Despite the effort she still faces the wheel, and the chance of another lap. In fact, because she finished too close to the time cut-off the wheel has been modified by Don. What was once a slightly less than 50% chance of being done after two laps, with relabeling, is no down to about a 30% chance, and the chance of immediate disqualification is up from 2% to about 20%. Internally, it was a huge struggle for me to watch. I’m thinking, this is a race, all the others had to spin, and she should have to spin. I’m thinking, Fucking Christ, look at everything this woman has done, the effort and determination to make it in time, how could fate be so cruel as to DQ her now or assign another mile past the cutoff. I’m think, screw fate, she should just get to carry-on now, hasn’t she shown she deserves it despite whatever this stupid wheel says. But wait, why should anyone have had to spin then, does she really deserve a pass others didn’t get. Oh my god, it’s spinning. K, K, K, K, K, K, K, K, ck, ck, ck, ck, ck, ck, ck, click, click, click (DQ), click (done), click (DQ), click (done), click (swim), click (done), .., click (swim), …., click (swim), ……, click (done), …………………… oh please, oh please be done,……., PLEASE!, click. It’s swim. Fuck. I look at Don, while his words say something else, his face says Fuck. Melissa, dumbstruck, can clearly barely handle it. I can’t watch but I can’t not watch. Don’s words sink in. “Racer 3” he says, “you have another lap. There is no time to swim.” and then the dreaded words, “Go see Joe”. As she goes to see Joe, her face, my face, Melissa’s face, Don’s face, they are all blank. We are beyond emotion. In case you’ve never had to “Go see Joe” it is a death racer’s death, in this case the mark of “unofficial”.

Racer 1, went on to finish, the second place female I believe. Racer 2, continued on to complete many more challenges, and my greatest apologies if I have this wrong, but I believe eventually dropped due to sever blistering at the point of attachment for her prosthetic. Racer 3, carried on and completed the tasks she was able and ended beyond the allotted time, but because she did not complete the swim she was an unofficial finisher.

What if all you knew was that racer 1 received a skull, racer 2 did not receive a skull, and racer 3 was an unofficial finisher who did not receive a skull.

So let me amend, I would ask two things of someone in regards to the death race. One, are you experienced? Two, how was your experience? Is racer 1’s experience more meaningful than racer 3’s, 3’s than 2’s, 2’s than 1’s, and so on? My empathic answer is NO. Once you have been a character in this you can’t help but be experienced, I don’t care if it is as director, staff, volunteer, crew, racer, etc.

However, despite what I’ve said, there is variance in experience, not all experiences are equal, some have more experience than others, and different people get different things out of the experience. This all goes back to the diversity of people and their goals. So don’t get me wrong, skulls are important, people want ways to differentiate experiences. To me the important thing though is not to judge someone else’s experience based on whether or not they got a skull. Here is what you can know about someone with a skull. They completed the set of tasks they were assigned in the time allotted to them. By comparison what you don’t know is huge. You don’t know exactly what tasks they completed, how well they completed them, what their personal obstacles were and how they handled them, whether they meet their goals, and what they gained or lost from their experience. Same with an unofficial, a DNF, or any other label. As I’ve said, I am not trying to take anything away from these categories. Just view them as what they are, a means to personally evaluate goals, and a way to make this race a race and keep in mind, as with all things, what they can and cannot tell you.

So to racer 3 I say, you did not complete all the tasks in the time allotted, but here is what you did, you awed us all with your determination, you captured our emotions, you ran when running must have been near impossible, and you never turned on those providing your experience to beg, bitch, complain, or otherwise seek differential treatment. If someone only asked you if you have a skull, your only answer would be no, the tasks were not completed in time. However, if they asked, “how was your experience?” you could answer with…your race report. If you have read this far, go read that!!! Comparing “Racer 3, unofficially finished, no skull” to the Jane Coffey’s race report is well, let’s just say they present two very different experiences.

My second reflection, as stated above, is the death race mimics life. Each race (both by year and by racer) is a separate experience, a separate story, no two are the same, and that’s OK, it is how it should be. That is how life is. Twins don’t live the same lives, neither do Death Racers. Like life things happen, the best we can do is deal with them as we are able until the next thing happens. As much as death racing is about athleticism it is about being able to handle life. If you can endure and function under high stress it says a lot about someone.

This leads me to my third reflection, my challenge to all of those who are experienced.

My third reflection is that there is a way in which the death race is easy. Here is what you need to do. I’m sure every future post on the Facebook Spartan Death Race page asking for advice will become irrelevant after this. You ready for it. It is a three item list.

To succeed: prepare, show up, and do what you’re told.

Sure there are plenty of ways that doing what you’re told isn’t easy, the things you are told to do are difficult sure, but just do them. Or don’t do them. Either way the race or life goes on.

So here is my challenge to you all. If you chose to be experienced you are likely a person who prepares well, can handle a lot, has great willpower, and can push and adapt you mind and body to many circumstances. Your challenge now that the race is done is to select your own tasks, the one part of life the Death Race doesn’t mimic. When you go home Andy isn’t going to tell you to hike bloodroute, Joe’s not going to make you split 30 logs, and Don’s not going to be in your face for whatever Don’s in your face about. You must decide for yourself what challenges you choose to conquer. Having experienced the Death Race, and having to go back to life outside the race, I believe makes people face the reality of free will. Having to make our own decisions about tasks to complete I think it explains the post Death Race funk. So I ask you all to use your free will wisely, make the most of the talent and resolve you have developed, and select the right tasks.

So in summary, the Death Race is full of nuance, it could be called the “this is life race”, embrace your experiences, and free will is a terrible and wonderful burden, please make the most of it. I must return to my real life so all for now until our next experience.


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