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Featured Review: Team Death Race 2014

Editors Note: Brian sent this in as a community review, but it was such a detailed and well written write up, of an event that many people misunderstand or don’t quite grasp, that I wanted to give it more exposure as a Featured Review.

IMG_3608* From: Brian Lynch

* Event Details
Pittsfield VT

* Race Details
Note: As with every Death Race, there were a variety of pre-race emails and instructions- some meant to help you, others meant to confuse you. Ours were as follows: Email a 50 word explanation about why you signed up for the Death Race, email your own short definition of leverage, get to know your teammates very well in as much detail as possible about their hopes/dreams/fears, and bring the following gear to the start line: 12 foot 2″x6″ lumber per person, 1 plush stuffed animal at least 30″ long per team, 1 sewing kit per team, 1 waterproof note pad per person, 1 first aid kit per team, 100 feet of 3/8″ rope per person, and 1 blue barrel with a lid per team. There were also quotes in a different language at the bottom of each pre-race email that when translated said “My life is a circle”, “What rises must come down”, and “If we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it”.

The Breaking Point…
As the last few hours of Sunday pre-dawn darkness enveloped us, we sat in a small circle, the orange glow of the dying fire occasionally providing just enough light to see the thousand-yard-stare in each of our eyes. I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, forehead on my palms, uselessly trying to visualize Stephen’s design plan and the knots I would need to tie in order to secure it. Written on his waterproof notepad, Stephen’s crude illustration of a trash barrel tied between a pair of 12 foot 2″x6″s failed to clarify anything, in particular how we would secure the pieces together. Unable to articulate my doubts, I just muttered, “Draw it again” as Stephen retraced the same scribbled lines that had already failed to provide any insight the first three times he drew them. I looked to Carey for any help in deciphering the code, and saw the same blank stare in her eyes. We were fading, hard and fast…

The Beginning
Two and a half days earlier on Thursday night, myself, Matt Dolitsky, Carey Degon, and Shane Ellison sat at iPie Pizzeria in Killington devouring our “Last Supper”. The conversation centered on the optional 6AM meeting for all Death Racers at the top of Joe’s Mountain at Shrek’s Cabin. With registration starting at 9 am, and the race at 11 am, the idea of arriving 3-5 hours early to a 48 hour suckfest was not particularly enticing. Despite the promise of “information about something we would be looking for twice during the race”, we all decided that potentially doing 4 hours of burpees would not be a gamble we wanted to take. After all, it is the Death Race, so we hardly expected a warm welcome and a massage to kick things off.

Due to a last minute conflict for one team member, we were a team of three- Matt, Carey, and I- arriving at the top of Tweed Road at around 9 am Friday morning. After a quick intro with race director Johnny Waite, we were told to go see Mark Jones a few hundred yards up one of the trails to sign our literal Death Waivers. One of us had to remain with Mark for a PT exercise test, while the others would work on the first challenge from Johnny. We left it up to fate with the flip of a Mechanix Glove, and sure enough I, the Death Race rookie, was sent to meet Mark. My nerves were red-lining at this point, unsure of what to expect and wondering if I was in over my head here.

IMG_3601Before the PT test, though, Johnny called all the racers together for an overview of the race- the gist of it being that this would be a true race, an honest race, and that they would not be screwing with us for no reason like in years past. Previous Death Races had staff lying to racers saying they missed a challenge and were out of the race (when they in fact did not), just to see who would push on after being told they were out. Johnny explained the race was about our own minds not his deception, but that our minds would be what screws with us. This was equally as comforting as it was frightening, as we had no idea if it was true or just a bigger mind game to mess with us even further.

For our stuffed animal we chose a thin snake so that it would be easy to carry and lighter when wet. We were certain we outsmarted Johnny on this one, as other teams brought massive bears and other animals that looked like carnival prizes. Our first team challenge was to slice open the stuffed animal, empty the stuffing, and fill it with rocks/sand/etc… until it weighed 60 pounds. And we would be carrying this weight with us for the entire race. “We are screwed”, we said in unison.

Short of finding a Mercury deposit out here in the woods of Vermont, there was no chance that this snake could ever weigh 60 pounds. We made our way to my Jeep to unload the last of our gear, wondering if we would have to cut up our extra warm clothes to sew together with this stupid goddam snake. That’s when I realized I just happened to have the spare outside cover to my 40 pound sandbag in my truck, which was made of canvas and perfect material to sew the snake onto and fill with rocks. Carey and Matt set to work gathering rocks, while I went up to complete the PT test with Mark Jones. My PT rep score could be used later on in the race to get us out of challenges, and Mark said the next time I see him, the first thing to do would be to ask if it was high enough. After pushups, sit-ups, burpees, bear crawls, sprints, planks, and others I have since forgotten, I felt confident in my score, but still doubted that they would ever actually matter. Even still it felt good
to get the blood flowing and start pushing myself and it actually calmed my nerves a bit.

When I was done with PT, it was weigh-in time for the teams. We would have one chance to weigh-in, and if we were over 60 pounds we still carried the entire weight the whole race. If we were under, the team did 1,000 burpees, and then reweighed after finding more rocks. The first group climbed confidently up onto the scale, and sure enough they came in at 59 pounds. A collective groan and laughter rose from the rest of the teams, as well as last minute scrambling to find more rocks. As I would find out later, that team had a 60 pound weight vest in their car and pulled all the weights out of it. The issue? The vest itself they left behind weighed 1 pound.

After that, no one else wanted to be under weight, and sure enough, the next team weighed in at almost 90 pounds. Our team’s was a comfortable 65 pounds. The beauty of this Death Race is the way it made you think and strategize. Faced with 1,000 burpees and public ridicule, everyone was hell bent on being over 60 pounds. But in retrospect, 1,000 burpees can be cranked out in less than 30 minutes by a team of four, whereas an extra 30 pounds for the next 48 hours will slow you down by much more than 30 minutes. As the race progressed we learned to slow our thinking, consider the long term over the short term, and plan accordingly.

Johnny told us to strap our animal-weight to our 2″x6″s and carry it up to Shrek’s cabin on any trail we could find. The spine trail was steepest but avoided a lot of switchbacks, and we were up in 15 or 20 minutes. That being said, splitting the weight between just three of us and being forced to walk in a line rather than in a square formation was brutal on our shoulders, and a distinct disadvantage early in the race. At the top of the mountain, Johnny explained that he wanted us to really think about our lives and our purpose in life during this race. Sadly, a former Death Racer had died this past summer, and while this was a new issue for the Death Race Community to deal with, this would happen more and more as the group aged and the community grew in numbers. Despite the fact that as Death Racers, we probably “live each day to the fullest” far more than the average person, Johnny still charged us with the task of imagining our own Eulogy, what would be said about us
, what we would like people to say, and how to make that a reality. We actually meditated on this for an hour before setting off on the first real lengthy challenge, which was a fantastic element to the race and really embodied Johnny’s personality and passion.

Additionally, prior to each challenge we would also be given a new quote to memorize and recite at the end of that challenge, all of which focused on life and death and what they each really mean. The first quote was: “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth — and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up — that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” -Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

The Realization
…With our eyelids weighing down and bodies slumped, Matt crashed into our static fire circle. It was unsettling and startling, particularly the way he stood upright while we all sat hunched over, his sudden presence disrupting the toxically lazy feng shui the three of us had created around the warmth of the fire. “The leading team just finished a 5 hour hike, and if we don’t get moving now we won’t finish that hike before the noon cutoff.” The image was actually horrifying, our team carrying a perfectly constructed and engineered barrel/lumber structure up to Shrek’s Cabin 30 minutes after the race cutoff. I shot off the rock I had been perched on, backed away from the fire, and felt the cold air rush over my skin and through my body- as much of an energy boost as the strongest caffeine shot. Staring at the fire with contempt, I realized how close it had come to ruining our race…

The Marching
With the thoughts of our own mortality and legacy fresh in our minds, plus an impromptu speech from Joe DeSena who just happened to be trail running past us at the end of our meditation, we were off on the first challenge: carrying the lumber and team weight back down the winding switchback trails to Tweed Drive, and then around the far side of the mountain and back up the steeper side. We tried a dozen strategies to take the weight off our bruising shoulders, never finding a good way to utilize the third person. Some poorly designed shoulder padding did little to soften the weight on our bony shoulder blades, and an imbalanced design caused a number of obscenity laced tirades as the weight twisted the lumber. The trail switchbacked a full 180 degrees no less than two dozen times, but with a single trail running down the middle begging you to cheat and cut the course. Even worse this center trail clearly showed us that we could have covered in 10 yards what just took us 5
00 yards. This was the mental grind Johnny talked about, our minds fabricating rules about fairness and how long this “should take”.

When we ascended the last section of that 6 mile trail, over 3 hours had passed and I remember thinking “I would rather do anything with this lumber if it means not carrying it on my shoulder, absolutely nothing is worse than this.” It took me about 20 minutes to retract that statement.

As we reached Shrek’s Cabin and dropped the wood and weight, Carey recited our quote and we received instruction for the next challenge and the new quote: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after — lightly because you realize you paid nothing for it, but cherishing it because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.” Louise Erdrich

The next challenge was to attach our feet by any means necessary to our lumber, tie our feet to the feet of the teammate behind us, and march tethered together back the same trail we had just taken but in reverse direction. We cut our lumber into 3 sections, used the small amount of Duct Tape we had and began our march (the majority of our extra gear/food/clothing/duct tape was at Tweed Drive where the race started, at the very end of this trail when going in the reverse direction). Roughly 40 yards in, before we reached the trailhead, Matt’s tape had already ripped off. This was going to be a long march.

The Death Racers now refer to it as the “Clip Clopping”. All you could hear for miles was a sound like that of horses stumbling through the woods, our headlights bobbing in the distance as Friday night darkness fell upon us, with teammates stepping on their ropes, ripping tape, falling over, and swearing at each other and the world. And the team-weight. And Johnny. We swore at Johnny a lot on this one.

This is where strategy became so important, and teamwork a must. Whereas previous Team Death Races were more like racing a normal Death Race simply with other people on your team, in this race every challenge required coordination and planning and synchronicity with your teammates. On top of that, during the first march with the wood on our shoulders, we had the benefit of never knowing how much farther we had to go. On this march, we knew exactly how long this trail was, how many switchbacks we faced, and what we were in for. The slow grinding pace and monotony of the process was grueling, and we actually had to force ourselves to stop and take water and calories when all we wanted to do was get it over with. I think the lack of a serious physical challenge made it even harder to deal with. By the time we reached Shrek’s Cabin again, over 7 hours had passed, for a pace of 0.85 miles per hour.

IMG_3616The Build
…K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid. That was our mantra and design premise. Matt had awoken us from our trance and we were on a mission now. We had to essentially build a ladder, with the 12 foot 2″x6″s on the sides, only the rungs could be made out of any material. Our challenge was to march down the mountain with each of us in between rungs of the ladder and the 2″x6″s on our left and right. We would be going into town and up Lower Michigan Road until we reached a turnaround point marked by a car with flashing lights. Stephen and Carey frantically packed our bags, and Matt helped me cut rope and tie half hitch knots every few feet to make our rungs. We would not be rigid which meant we really needed to work together to move around, but we would be flexible and fast. I had no idea at the time, but that one sentence essentially defined the theme of the entire race and what it demanded of us…

The New Guy
It was a little after midnight and now technically Saturday morning, roughly ¼ of the way into the race, and we needed a spark. Twelve hours, same trail, same lumber, it was getting to us. Fortunately Johnny informed us that a team had just dropped out, and that one team member was still here and waiting for a new team to join. We quickly welcomed Stephen aboard, perhaps somewhat selfishly to give us a break with the animal-weight, not knowing just how helpful he would be as a teammate, or the depth of friendship that would be formed over the next 36 hours.

Our next challenge was to run a 10 mile trail, carrying only the animal-weight, but with just three of us. One person would need to stay behind for a mental challenge of some sort. Carey stayed back, and the rest of us decided that to keep a quick pace, we would rotate the weight every 5 minutes or so to ensure we were running at top speed at all times. We descended to Tweed and took off on a new trail, invigorated by a new route as well as the freedom of running without lumber draped over us.

The trail markings disappeared after a few miles, though, and we were forced to forge on in the hopes of picking them up again. Passing multiple teams doing the same thing, we ran a full loop of the trails in the area until we were back at the point we last saw markings. We felt lost. We were lost. Some racers actually slept at the trail intersection. It was here that I remembered at the end of the “Clip Clopping”, we saw multiple single racers from teams that were already on the next challenge screaming their teammate’s names as they wandered the woods. At the time I didn’t understand how so many of them got separated. Now it made sense. “Carey is going to get sent out to look for us, let’s retrace the trail we know is correctly marked back the other way.” Matt and Stephen asked how I knew that Carey would be coming, and I explained about the screaming lost racers from earlier, and that this race has all been about teamwork, so this challenge is about losing a team
member. If we wander further, deeper into unmarked trails, Carey will never find us and we will be wandering aimlessly screaming for each other. Content with staying on the trail we knew was marked properly; we doubled back, and sure enough ran into Carey coming our way. She explained her mental challenge was to recite info she learned about us, our hopes/dreams/aspirations from the pre-race email, and when she had given enough info she was allowed to come join us.

Hustling back to the top of the mountain, we realized we had moved from almost last place all the way up to second place. Our next challenge, along with some more quotes to memorize, was to take our animal-weight to the Pittsfield General Store and take a picture with it there. (As a side note: I have forgotten which quotes were assigned to which challenges after this point, and our group wasn’t given a quote for one challenge so we had to double up later on, so the rest of the quotes are listed in a group at the end- they are definitely worth reading to further understand Johnny’s race concept). The descent to Pittsfield town center is down the backside of the mountain, on the steepest section, over the hundreds of massive stone stairs that were placed and constructed by previous year’s Death Racers. It was remarkable to experience a small piece of races from the past, and through the many ascents and descents this connection was never lost on me.

We advanced well in our descent, passing the team weight around to save our legs and shoulders. Interestingly enough the trail to the main road took us past the barn that Stephen was actually living in on Joe’s property. Stephen recently moved to Pittsfield and was working with Mark Jones and others in town, in his words “to give back to the Spartan lifestyle that changed my life forever”. A very cool twist on our race and another reason why it was so great to have Stephen with us.

Once we re-ascended the mountain, Johnny’s next challenge was to all attach the same body part to a piece of 2″x6″ lumber, and work together to gather 50 pounds of burnable firewood while attached. With a bit more planning and strategy than we had been employing so far, we decided to take a 2 foot piece and tie one hand each to the lumber, allowing us all an outside hand with which to gather wood, to pile wood onto the board-strapped hands, and place wood in the team blue barrel we had with us. Armed with my hatchet, we made our way down the trail to find burnable wood, as in not rotten, that would fit in the small fireplace. This was no easy task, in terms of finding non-rotten pieces on the ground or chopping branches while tied together. I know my teammates were at least a little afraid of my flailing lefty hacks, so I deliberately did not tell them I was a righty. But I think they knew anyway.

We returned with our wood, and once again were given one chance to weigh both the wood and the team weight while standing on the scale, subtracting out our own body weight- no easy task just to balance it all. I stepped on the scale and after some quick math and delicately holding everything together, we made weight and were off on the next challenge. But only after we chopped the larger pieces into smaller chunks to feed the very fire that would almost ruin us 24 hours later.

Once chopping was complete, we retied ourselves to the board, picked up our team weight, and again marched the 6 mile trail together. This was significantly easier than it was with the lumber on our shoulders or our feet, and our teamwork had improved such that we set a 5 minute alarm for each person to carry the weight. At times people took an extra shift if they felt particularly strong, or if the rocks in the bag happened to be sitting nicely on our shoulders instead of stabbing into us, and we were moving efficiently and easily in the early hours of Saturday dawn. We arrived back to Shrek’s Cabin mid-morning Saturday, to an odd site of racers gathered around a pair of 40 foot trees, all staring towards the tree tops.

IMG_3604The Sprint Down
…Each step landed with enough force to buckle my leg. Our rope-rung ladder design accomplished everything we needed, namely getting us on the course quickly, but unfortunately would not allow for the use of trekking poles that had been so crucial in helping us up and down this steep trail with the heavy team weight. Carrying it down the steep decline without the aid of poles was exhausting, but we forged on with an unrelenting pace, determined to make up time on this 5 hour hike and be back to the cabin with a few hours to spare before noon. On the main road through Pittsfield, we actually passed a few teams, most of which had much larger and heavier ladder designs. After just a few exchanges of the team weight, we saw a car parked on the side of the road. But no lights were flashing, and this was miles and at least an hour before we expected to hit the turn-around point. Regardless, we held out hope that this was it…

The Eggs and Water
After nailing a few quotes for Johnny, he told us that not only would we each be climbing one of the trees, but that we would also need to tie a string around a branch about 30 feet up. Just getting up it would be hard, let alone tying a knot around a branch while swaying in the wind. There were minimal branches to use as foot and hand holds, and the first person up would be free-climbing, as in no ropes. Once up that person could set up a belay system on a high branch for the other three climbers. Having free-climbed a tree of this height in a race before I knew I was capable, but certainly was not thrilled about the idea given how exhausted I was now 24 hours into this race.

Stephen jumped right in and offered to climb, saying he does this all the time, and he practically ran up the tree. Matt, Carey, and I were thrilled, and shared a moment of appreciation and fortune that we acquired such a great teammate. I was second up the tree, Carey third, and Matt fourth, and we were all excited to be back on solid ground and footing. We took off down the stair-laden trail on our next challenge, this time again to the General Store, where we had to buy a dozen eggs and bring them, unbroken, back up to the cabin. This would be the first time we were in town during daytime hours, and the first time we truly realized how odd we looked. It must have been around noon, and we went charging into the store covered in dirt, blood, sweat, and asking for eggs. We bought two dozen in case we broke them, and on impulse I grabbed a Pastrami sandwich to ease my stomach’s cravings for real food. Eating during ultra-events is a strange combination of healthy snacks
and core calories, as well as binge foods that give you more of a mental boost than any physical nourishment.

Back up the mountain once again (which I breeze through for brevity’s sake, but it was actually a lengthy ascent/descent each time) we began perhaps the strangest challenge of them all. Showing Johnny our unbroken eggs, we each took one, cracked the top open, and swallowed the egg white and yolk like a shot. It was 1,000 burpees if anyone didn’t keep it down. We all managed the task, not exactly gracefully, but to completion. Next we each grabbed another egg, and Johnny read us the following quote: “After your death, you will be what you were before your birth.” While he read it, we each put a whole egg in our mouths, and without being able to say the quote aloud due to the egg, we still had to memorize it and EACH recite it back perfectly in 20 minutes. No writing it down like before. And to top it off, we had to do squats for those 20 minutes, struggling not to break the egg, drop the egg, or choke on the egg. There’s no other way to put it, we looked ridiculous,
and the EMTs on site loved it.

After an agonizing 20 minutes, the first of us recited the quote, but missed one word. That meant the eggs went back in our mouths, we got to hear the quote again, and we had to do a continuous 5 minute plank without dropping or breaking the egg. One knee touching the ground meant a failure for the group, which would have resulted another egg-based PT challenge. After a lot more almost choking and lots of drooling we finished the plank and the four of us perfected the quote, including Stephen who is native French Canadian and spoke just a bit of English. We set off on the next challenge, energized and laughing at the next team arriving with their eggs, and made our way to the covered bridge and river at the bottom of the mountain to await instructions on what to do from there.

We all knew there would be a cold water element to this race, and the covered bridge over the river was telling. Arriving at the bridge, we saw the team in front of us shivering together as they hastily put on dry clothes. Seeing the end result of this next challenge was not ideal. We stripped down to our base layers, and began a series of water submersions (water temp 43 degrees) and PT as a team, including rolling in the rocky sand, cutting up our arms and legs in the process. We were also forced to take handfuls of sand and put it down the front of our underwear, and then another handful down the back, with clear instructions to “Get it all way in there!” That part really sucked. Not much else to say there. Covered in sand and feeling like a breaded piece of chicken, we did more PT, more cold water dunks, more sand rolling, until finally we were allowed to get dressed and leave. Before doing so though, we all had to get in the water to scrape every last bit of sand
off our skin or else face horrifying chaffing the rest of the way. It was tough to crawl back in the water, but a necessary evil in the long run.

With dry clothes back on, we were told to march down the riverbed, sometimes with water hip deep and sometimes just ankle deep, but we were strictly told to never get out of the water and that we were being watched. The riverbed was lined entirely with algae covered rocks ranging in size from from golf balls to soccer balls, so not one square inch of ground provided sure footing. Again we carried the 60 pound weight through this march, struggling to stay mentally sharp so as not to roll an ankle on the rocks. After two miles we finally saw race staff, unfortunately we were in for more PT and submersions, this time actually using the team weight. Numb from the cold we actually managed it in good spirits, and instead of warming up by the fire when we were finished, we sprinted onward, determined to get back up the mountain quickly and then fully change/eat/hydrate at our gear drop at Tweed.

We arrived at Shrek’s Cabin atop the mountain in 4th place just after sunset on Saturday night, where Johnny presented us with the next challenge. A change of pace, we had to answer the riddle of the pre-race email clues. Our team had talked about this earlier in the race, and Stephen actually figured it out…the answer was The Sun. The translated quotes had the clues: “My life is a circle”, “What rises must come down”, and “that thing we would be looking for twice during the race” that we would get info on at the optional 6 am meeting…they all meant the sun/sunrise. Each sunrise is a well-known mental savior during the Death Race, often giving racers a surge of energy and enthusiasm after the cold dark hours of 2-5 am. Since we answered the riddle, we were allowed to skip 1,000 burpees that would have been the penalty for an incorrect answer. Johnny told us to head down to Tweed, change clothes if needed, get whatever food/water we needed, and then head to Mark Jon
es’s farm down the bottom of the mountain, which was called the “The Stump Dump”.

The Sprint Up
…As we approached the car, one of the EMTs we had seen throughout the race stepped out and told us the best news we had heard in 2 days: this was the turnaround point, and he thought it was the last challenge as well. He asked us a very thoughtful question to bring to Johnny in order to prove we made it all the way to the turnaround, which was to ask ourselves what we could do in the next 6 months to make a lasting change in our lives, using this incredible race experience as the leverage to do something great. Johnny never shied away from his desire for us to really think about our lives, and how we want to use the potentially limited time we have. We did an about face in the middle of the road, and immediately we were charging back towards the mountain, not entirely convinced this was the last challenge and sure we wanted to get back as quickly as possible in case it wasn’t . My teammates alternated the team weight until we reached the base of the mountain, at whic
h point I took it over. Still with no trekking poles and me at the front of our ladder, Stephen marched behind me driving his head into my pack to help force me up the mountain. Each step felt like I was climbing in quicksand, with the weight of my pack nearly toppling me backwards on multiple occasions. I wouldn’t let Stephen take the weight at the halfway point like he offered; I was determined to make the full mountain ascent with the weight. This was not to be a tough guy or a badass, but because I wanted to prove to myself that I can be even stronger 48 hours into the race than I was at the start, exhaustion and fatigue be damned…

The Stump Dump
It was named the Stump Dump as it used to be a mess of rotten stumps that Stephen and other workers had cleared over time. We had dropped a couple spots in the standings as our break at Tweed was longer than we expected, but it was necessary to fuel up and get ready for the Saturday night push. We wouldn’t see light again until the race was almost over, and tonight would be the toughest test yet. It was 8 or 9 pm when we arrived at Mark’s farm, and the scene was surreal- pitch black darkness with racers frantically running around doing PT or farm chores, with a roaring fire in the middle providing the only light aside from our bobbing headlamps. After stacking some long pieces of plywood, we were brought to one end of the farm which contained an obstacle course that Mark designed.

It was as simple as it was devastating. There were 15 stations in a line, a glow in the dark pole 75 yards away from the stations, and another pole 25 yards past that. Each station had one item in descending weight and size, starting with a 450 pound tractor tire, next a 150 pound concrete block, then a smaller tire, etc… all the way to a small concrete block. The challenge was simple, flip the tire or carry the item to the first pole (or the second pole for a few of the small items) and then carry or flip it back. Then move on to the next station. You must finish all 15 stations in 15 minutes. Stephen had done this course before, and his personal record was 13 minutes 30 seconds, and that was with fresh legs and not after being awake and running for 36 hours. The rule was everyone on your team needed to finish in time, or you all kept attempting it until you get four total passes.

Adding to the chaos was some basic math: There were 30+ racers, and 15 minutes per attempt equates to over 7 hours at this obstacle course, and that’s just one attempt per person. With some failures it could be double that. We recognized this problem immediately and were forced to coordinate overlapping attempts, despite the fact that there was only one pole we all were carrying items towards, and a collision would count as a DQ. Mark and the two course timers were no help in structuring all the chaos. Delirious from lack of sleep and still competing with each other, we somehow managed to organize with some semblance of order, rotating in different teams at each failure or letting a team continue if someone passed.

Stephen was first from our team, and managed to beat his previous record, finishing in just over 13 minutes. I stepped up next with some basic advice from him, namely to take deep breathes during the cement block carry as you use a ton of short explosive breathes during the tire flips. The first tire was devastating, as it was essentially a 450 pound deadlift and then a push-thrust, that by my calculations of a 5 foot tire diameter, we must have flipped 90 times. I know it took me 2 minutes 30 seconds to get through the first tire, and that was one of the faster times on that station. I finished the course in a collapsed heap, somehow completing it in 12 minutes and 52 seconds. Matt followed me with a time of 13 minutes 30 seconds, and Carey, like all the other females, was forced to try hopelessly at the first tire. There was serious gender bias in this challenge. Mark told us that to get our 4th pass, two of us could split the course but that we only had 14 minutes i
nstead of 15 to finish. Stephen and I had the freshest legs and lungs, and with me being stronger at the big tire flip and Stephen being better at the sprints, I took the first half and Stephen took the second. I managed to shave 15 seconds off my time on the large tire flip to 2:15, knowing I could run out of gas sooner, and we completed the full course in 12 minutes 20 seconds. I firmly believe I would have struggled to break 15 minutes doing this challenge on fresh legs outside of this race, which speaks to the very purpose of the Death Race in that it drags you to a terrible, awful, exhausting place, and then forces you to see how much strength and power lie within you if can force yourself to find it. Finishing that course twice in those conditions is something that will be a source of strength for me forever, and a reminder of what can be accomplished when the mind takes over the body, and “I can’t” is just not an option.

With our four passes of the obstacle course complete, we began the first of four farm challenges. After each task was done Mark would give us one of our four coveted Death Race bibs, something we had been expecting early on in the race and fighting to get for nearly two full days. The tasks were assigned based on random numbers Mark told us to pick from 1-15, and these tasks could be much easier or harder, faster or slower, depending on our luck of the draw. At this point I asked if we could use my PT score from the first morning to offset one task, when Mark reminded me “I told you to ask me first thing the next time you saw me. You forgot. So no you cannot.” I knew those PT scores would be worthless, I just didn’t think it would be my fault. There wasn’t any time to lament my oversight, our first task required unloading four massive 10 foot walls used in Spartan Races from the back of one truck and drag them up into another truck. The second was to each throw a 10
0 pound cinderblock 100 times across the farm lot. The third was to do 1,000 pushups as a team. We cruised through these first three tasks, until getting hung up on our last: Move 100 buckets of sand from one end of the farm to the other.

This seemed simple, and it wasn’t physically taxing, but it was a 2.5 minute walk end to end and back. That equates to over 4 hours for 100 buckets, time we did not have to spare. Creating a relay system and hurrying our asses off, we finished in 2.5 hours, twice the time all the rest of the tasks took combined. I even tried to barter with Mark with burpees to shave off some of the 100 buckets, to no avail. It was a devastating blow to us mentally and physically as we weren’t taking any food or hydration through the process, in fact Carey never left her post in the relay to even take a drink. We received our fourth bib at around 4 AM, and made the tired hike, again with our 60 pound team-weight, back up to the top of the mountain to Shrek’s Cabin to meet Johnny for the next challenge.

With our spirits low, our bodies starved for calories and hydration, the cold Vermont wind beat on us atop the mountain. I was the first to ascend the mountain and get instructions for the next challenge. I sat down in front of the glowing fire to stay warm, and moments later as Stephen and Carey formed a circle around the fire, we sheepishly began to throw out design ideas for Johnny’s “ladder” challenge…

IMG_3618, pittThe Finish
…Quads twitching, trail shoe lugs digging deep into the dirt and rock, we powered through the last few steps up the final incline. As it was just past 8 am, the sun was barely climbing over the tree line and the dew of the night still glistened off the leaves. The smell of the fire was faint as it burnt itself out, and as we crested over the last hill we saw Johnny sitting in a folding chair, right leg crossed over left, taking in the morning view. He smiled calmly, and before he even got the words out, I knew we had finished. I collapsed down and shed my pack with a thud; fighting back a few tears as I let the sweat roll off my face and the warm sun wash over me. Johnny gave us one last task though…asking us once again about our lives, what we had come to know about ourselves through this journey, and he prompted us to write our own quote about life and death and what they mean to us now having been through this race. His genuine and honest effort to help us discov
er our purpose and meaning of living was pervasive throughout the race, and was just as much a part of the significance and achievement of the race as were any of the physical challenges he threw at us. This experience seared itself into me; and I will carry with me what I learned about myself in those 47 hours for the rest of my life. I am truly grateful for my teammates, my fellow Death Racers, and for Johnny, Mark, and the rest of the race staff team for the experience we shared together atop that mountain.

This is my quote: “Our understandable but misplaced fear of death, the fear of its finality, is what drives us to achieve true greatness and inspiration in our lives.”

The rest of the quotes we had to memorize throughout the race were:

“Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you’re free to live. You no longer care about your reputation. You no longer care except so far as your life can be used tactically to promote a cause you believe in.”
Saul Alinsky

“When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”
Sogyal Rinpoche

“We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.”
Marcel Proust

“Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come”
William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Steve Jobs

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Crewing for a Death Racer

So, you’ve seen the Death Race, and you want to experience it in some way. Maybe you watched, as Spahtens won the 2013 winter Death Race, or you saw the skulls from the finishers of the summer Death Race, or got to run alongside them on Killington during the team Death Race – and you were inspired.

But, running the Death Race itself is far out of the reach of many of our physical or mental endurance limits (or perceived limits), and fortunately, many of us know this and don’t intend to actually sign up and run the damn thing.

Countless miles of walking ...
Countless miles of walking …

We’re still inspired though – and want to participate, or be around those people – maybe by watching normal humans go through this experience, we’ll come out better ourselves.

That leaves crewing for a racer, or volunteering. Both are essential roles in VT during Death Race weekend – and wether you are parking cars in a field, or helping a hypothermic racer warm up enough to go back out and continue – the event couldn’t happen without your participation too.

Crewing seems to be the most involved way to be at a Death Race without actually racing. You are assigned to an athlete, and your job seems simple – help the athlete finish the Death Race.

Easy, right?

Patrick helps Keith carry his axe
Patrick helps Keith carry his axe

Not even slightly. As crew, you signing up for one of the most grueling, taxing and frustrating weekends this side of actually racing. You are frequently the last to know anything, and you need to be able to respond to your athlete at a moments notice. When they come in at 3am, sleep deprived, beyond hungry and ready to quit – it’s your job to give them the sandwich you were saving for later, hand them a thermos – and give them that pep talk you know will motivate them to go back out and endure whatever else the Peak Races crew have in store for them.

Still interested? I reached out to two experienced Death Race crew – Sandy and Patrick, and a Death Race finisher, who has frequently attributed his skull to the support and care he received from his crew.

Patricks advice is right down to basics.

  • Keep them feed and hydrated. They will be tired and stressed so they forget to do these things.
  • Keep their gear organized clean and dry as you can.
  • Keep there head in the game. When they get tired they will make bad decisions.

These might sound really simple, but without the reminders to eat and drink, the racers will simply forget …

Sandy (as always!) is very practical and detail orientated – which make her a fantastic crew member.

  • First, dress warmly. You’ll have the barn at Amee Farm so you can be inside as much as you’d like, but it isn’t really heated very well and you’ll need warmth for yourself. Then, if you plan to be outside to watch some of the action, bring extra warm gear.
  • Second, be sure to bring some of your own nutrition. I ate like crap for the time I was there and paid for it for the week after. And by crap, I mean not much at all. There aren’t a whole lot of resources near the farm, so I would plan to bring some of your own stuff. There is a gas station with a small store and the general store that serves sandwiches and soups and such, but you have to get there.
  • Plan to try to get some sleep. I stayed awake the entire weekend and had a rough drive home. Over the summer, I took some time for myself and got some sleep each night. That was much better.
  • I brought a little portable heater and found a place to plug it in. That turned out to have been a good idea. I used it some and also used it to try to dry out shoes and socks and such for some of the racers.
  • Bring a chair with you – don’t count on being able to find one if you don’t have one.
  • If you are crewing and getting there after the racers start, have them take pictures of their stuff and where they have it in the barn so you can find it when you get there. It is insane in that limited amount of space when everyone is there. It gets better once people start dropping out and leave.
  • There are coin operated driers available at a hotel about 4-6 miles away from the farm (2640 VT 100, Pittsfield, VT). We used it quite a bit to try to provide dry clothes for the racers. Bring quarters and DO NOT dry shoes in the drier!

And then I asked James, who finished with a skull at this summers Death Race for his perspective.

James and Sandy celebrate his Death Race finish
James and Sandy celebrate his Death Race finish
  • Have a plan. Don’t go up there thinking you’re just going to help someone. Don, Joe and Andy don’t like crews…actually they detest them. So your good intended charity may become additional misery for a racer. That being said go! Go and spectate, it is a spectacle after all. Be there when racer get some sort of reprieve. Offer them encouragement, a sandwich, a soda, band-aid or shoulder. For me some of the best “crewed help” I got was from “mystery” people. Spahtens who just happened to be at the right place for me at the right time. I called them Death Race Angels and that’s exactly what they were. So go to Pittsfield, get with the Volunteer Coordinator, give some of your time. FInd out where and when racers will be at “rally points” and cheer on your teammates and friends. That is all it takes for some to get off their ass and back in the race, because racers are quitting in their head most of the time, but they won’t quit in front of you.
  • Know your racer. You better know your racer better then they know themselves. After 24 hours those remaining will be tapped into primordial parts of the brain. They will have forgone most higher social brain functions. Their mind is in survival mode. They are in fight or flight. So it’s safe to say that if they are still going they are in fight mode. You have to be able to think for them. Identify what they need. Food, water, clothing off, clothing on, foot care, dry socks. If you haven’t established a high level bond with your racer, you are just as likely to get yelled at or even hit by the frantic chaotic trapped animal they have become.

So, when you decide you want to head up to Vermont to crew for the Death Race – be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. In many ways, it can be one of the toughest roles of the event – and if you decide crewing isn’t for you, choose to volunteer instead. You’ll have an essential role, meet amazing people and get a lot more flexibility in your weekend.

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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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Sean Meehan – Death Race Finisher. Recap

Sean Meehan was one of the small group of Death Race finishers – and shared his experience … Thank you Sean, and congratulations!


We’re over a week removed from this race and I’m still broken.  Most of my wounds have healed, my toes are starting to regrow their missing skin, and I can finally put shoes on for more than the hobble into work.  The looks and questions I get from my coworkers are priceless.  Trying to explain to someone that you completed a race lasting 72 hours is like trying to explain the desert to an Eskimo; they have no frame of reference.  I’m sitting here and writing this as a Death Race finisher, an official skull holder and I should feel elated but I don’t.  It could simply be that I have a case of the post-race blues, though I honestly suspect it’s not. I built myself to complete this race; this race that never felt like a race to me.  I never raced, I just moved along, never really pushing myself.  I’m left disappointed and baffled by what happened.  Does this mean that I got nothing out of Death Race; no certainly not.  It raised so many questions in me: What the hell was the point, why did I do this, could I have pushed harder, why didn’t I push harder, where do I go from here?  Trying to figure out what the point of the race is like trying to grasp the meaning of life.  Maybe the point of the race is to gain insight into whom you are, maybe it’s to build memories, or it could be simply to survive for the duration of the event.  It’s probably something different for everyone.  I know for me it was all of those.


Death Race stripped away all of my pretenses; my true character was shown, both my strengths and weaknesses.  I was left exposed; a nerve ending awakened in the emptiness of space, being poked and prodded by events past.  My defects are the things Death Race nightmares are made of, they’ve filled many of my nights since the conclusion of events in Pittsfield Vermont.  I learned that I’m not as altruistic as I believed I was.  I found that I’m willing to cut corners, specifically if I believe that the end justifies the means.  When given and easier, softer way I’ll take it, every time, all the time.  Strengths of character had the light of Death Race shown upon them as well.  I only once waivered in my determination to complete the race, it was a brief moment and passed as soon as it occurred.  I proved to myself that when my mind is set on completion of a task that I will complete the task.  My will endures regardless of the hopelessness of it all.  I never once got angry during the race.  Even when a miscommunication cost me about two hours of rest time, added about six miles to my day, and forced me to miss my opportunity for real food.  I truly grasped the acceptance of the moment and what was needed in that moment.  I found myself at peace emotionally and spiritually under the duress of the physical pain I was forcing my body through.  These character defects and strengths were brought to light by the extreme nature of the event and I’m grateful and humbled for this.


I understand why people return year after year to destroy themselves, it’s the people.  The greatest thing about the Death Race is the people that are a part of it.  The people make the race.  It starts with Joe and Andy, the race directors, and flows all the way down to the volunteers and racers.  Even the people of this small town are a part of what makes this event so special.  The greatest moments for me had to do with the people I was surrounded by.  The people and moments like this: running into James Horgan at the Pittsfield General Store prior to heading to registration both of us anxious about our “strategy” to show up towards the end of registration; my crew member Robert Lee sneaking up on Joe’s Mountain at night to give me and some other racers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; every time when I saw Joshua Gustin Grant at challenges, giving me about as much encouragement as a volunteer could give; hiking Bloodroot with Keith Glass, Jane Coffey, and James sharing hallucinations and laughs; walking back to Peter Borden’s house with Jesse Howes, Jesse encouraging me to keep moving and ignoring my moment of doubt; the time I spent with James Fiore, Michelle Lomelino, Mark Sahley trying to fill in the “mud pit” at Peter’s; when Andi Hardy gave Patrick Mies II and I a ride across Joe’s property to our crew and car after our last check-in; lining up together, the remaining racers, all of us in our “tuxedos’  awaiting our fate inside the “Riverside Casino”; the hundreds of  smiles from Sandy Rhee and Amy Lillis.  These people, these memories, the emotions associated with them, this is what it’s about.  That’s what makes all the pain and suffering involved in this race worth it.


With all those great people involved, the memories made, and the self-insight gleamed, why then do I have such an uneasy feeling about my journey.  It’s simply that I could have pushed harder.  I could have worked harder laying the stones for the stairs.  I could have done better burpees, more pull-ups, hiked faster.  I could’ve run.  It amazes me that I never once felt the urge or need to run. Running is a part of my life, a part of my being.  Every move I made was contingent on an idea that I may have to do this forever and I need to be prepared to do so.  I conserved my energy not because I was “playing the game” but because I was afraid. Nothing is forever, not even Death Race.  I let my fear dictate my pace.  So I never pushed myself.  The idea of completing the race was more important to me than putting forth a strong effort and a good showing.  I went into Death Race with the belief that I wanted to find my limits, to push them.  I did no such thing.  Yes, I understand that completing Death Race in and of itself is an amazing undertaking, but it doesn’t feel complete for me.  I almost didn’t get my skull.  If I had pushed just a little harder, if I increased my effort just a little bit; then my finish would have never been in doubt.  A part of me feels that I was gifted a skull and that I didn’t truly earn it.  It was as if this skull became mine because there were enough skulls at the end of the day when those that truly finished Death Race had received theirs.  Then there’s the other side of that coin.  I wasn’t gifted this skull it was mine and I just needed to speak up, to prove I was worthy.  In the end I was willing to go to any length to get what I felt I deserved.  Even when it was over, and the chips were cashed in; my “never say die” attitude got me this skull.  Maybe the reason for this unease in my stomach is that I’m unsure of which of those is the truth.  I’m fairly certain I’ll never know and maybe that’s the rub.  Yeah, the box next to finish Death Race on the bucket list has a check in it, but it doesn’t feel complete.  I don’t feel I pushed my limits, at least not like I had intended to.


So this leaves me with one last question: will I return?  The answer is I don’t know.  I guess I’ll have to ponder whether I really have some unfinished business in the Green Mountains or not.  Right now I’m not even sure if the juice is worth the squeeze.  However, I do know that if my wife has her way I’ll never be back.  Honestly, at this moment there are other things on my radar and for today I’m ok with that.  My focus had been so intent, for so long, on finishing this race it’s going to be nice to explore some other things.

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Death Race 2013

Picture 12

Death Race 2013 a very small recap.

It is one week since I began the Death Race.  One week ago I was chomping at the bit to get started but I had to wait till 8 I had to wait. (for those not in the know; there’s rarely a good reason to be early in the DR)  I suppose at this point I was at the Original General Store, contemplating the unfathomable.

In the last week I have definitely gone through many stages of PTSD.  And although self inflicted it is debilitating all the same.  There’s physical pain, mental anguish, and survivor’s guilt.  I’ve questioned the significance of what I’ve done, the absurdity of it all.  I questioned why I have a skull when others don’t and I believe they deserve it.  I still can’t walk correctly.  But it is the Death Race.  It’s a game based so close to life itself that the participants actually exchange reality for the microcosm of the race.  In the race the skull is all there is.  You’re playing for a skull, which represents all you want, all your desires.  Everything in the “microcosm” of the race becomes that skull.

In the race  you will lie, cheat, and steal.  You will bargain, you will ignore pain, and sleep.  You will fore go eating, peeing, thinking. You will become a machine.  You will press on as your body falls apart. You will walk in the face of all opposition.  You will push your body beyond its limits and still have more to push with.  Even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  You will look at other racers for help but pray they drop before you do.  Anything, anything is a blessing.  A goo, a water, a moment to put down your pack.  A 3-mile swim is a joyful respite from walking and carrying that pack.  When you exchange different forms of punishment, you find comfort in it as a break from the monotony of a previous task.

The Death Race is within us all.  Every day we decide to continue on our present task or we chose not to.  Some times it isn’t for us to continue.  Other times we just don’t have a choice.  When you reach the back side of Bloodroot in your life, you know.  You know that backward is no relief to the hardship of going forward.  If you know you can only go forward, why stop when you get there?  And that is the difference.  I never stopped when I got where I was going.  I just accepted that I needed to go on to the next place.  I was so slow I never got any breaks.  I barely refueled or rehydrated.  When I got to the reservoir I was so dehydrated that I couldn’t swallow.  A gift from an Angel of a clif bar caused me to wretch but if I threw up I would lose what I did have.  So I drank lake water as I swam.  “You have a 100% chance of dying of dehydration.  Getting ill from bad water is at worst 50/50 chance.” ~ Todd Sedlack. But this is the Death Race.  And this is what Death Racers do.  If you think about what’s ahead of you your already dead.  If you simply do what is in front of you, getting to a lake, a farm, a house, or a tree 200ft ahead, you will survive.  You have to make small goals..  You have to be aware of your present situation only.  Anyway that’s how I got my skull.  Call it bullshit.  Call me what you want.  But I finished.  And my way worked.  At least this time.

This is not my final polished recap.  There will be more in time.  Right now I need to thank the entirety of the New England Spahtens.  I have tried in vein to read all of your posts of encouragement.  Its too daunting a task.  You people are insane.  Right now however I need to say that in every sense of my words I could not have done this without the help of all of you.  For the crew in Pittsfield, every small bit of help was thousands fold how it effected my race.  A goo slipped into my pocket at Riverside farm gave me the energy at 3:30 in the morning to keep going.  A bottle of coke at Amee farm might as well have been mythical Ambrosia.  Gatorades from out of nowhere.  Nutella sandwiches.  Every little thing was the difference when I used them.  Kind words of encouragement.  Lies telling me I looked good or strong.

I will name each of you by name when I can sit and write properly.  But if you saw me at anytime, please consider this my deepest gratitude.

Sandy Rhee.  Half of that skull is yours.  My crew chief.  My Death Race Angel.  I know you grieved as hard as I did.  And managed to run your own race too.  You have watched out for me from Rebel Run through the DR.  I don’t suppose you never wanted a child only 3 years younger than you.  I could never ever pick someone as awesome as you in my corner.  You are simply one of a kind.  With no guidance what so ever you saved me.  You knew all that I didn’t.  Thank you.  Thank all of you.

Picture 13

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Summer Death Race 2013 – DONE

From 6am Friday, until almost noon on Monday – the Summer Death Race was non-stop.

The athletes chopped wood, did burpees, built stair cases that went up a mountain, gambled against the house to save themselves from gnarly barbed wire crawls and mile long swims. They carried rocks for miles.

There was heartbreak, and there was elation.


Every single person who stood up to the Death Race is an amazing individual. Inspirational.

Our little running clubs provisional results (note – these may change as news comes in)

Nele Schulz – DNF
Keith Glass – FINISH
Sean Meehan – FINISH
Junyong Pak – DNF
Jane Coffey – BIB finish
James Horgan – FINISH
Eric Matta – FINISH
Andrew Hostetler – FINISH
Tim Francis – DNF
Chris Irving – BIB finish
Stu Klaas (PA import) – DNF
Jonathan Albon (Brit import) – DNF
Joe Benoit – DNF

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Summer Death Race 2013

Updates for the Summer Death Race  – if you are posting about a New England Spahten, please use hashtag #nesdr

Obstacle Racing Media:



The Team:
Nele Schulz
Keith Glass
Sean Meehan
Junyong Pak
Jane Coffey
James Horgan
Eric Matta
Andrew Hostetler
Tim Francis
Chris Irving
Stu Klaas (PA import)
Jonathan Albon (Brit import)



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On Instagram (photos)

On Twitter

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Guest Blog – Winter Death Race training camp

This weekend, three of our best loved New England Spahtens took a trip up to Vermont for the Winter Death Race training camp – this is a small taster of what they should expect at the full Winter Death Race in February – and while the experience was still fresh, I asked for a recap.

Nele came through – and her story is amazing. If you haven’t read about Nele and her history yet – check this post out – she has an amazing story, and it really puts this Death Race training into some perspective.

Over to Nele …


Death Race Training Camp

The Spartan Death Race is possibly one of the hardest races to complete and it is not your traditional obstacle course race.  It has a dropout rate of 90%; there is no time limit. It is a physical and mental beating full of lies. The 2012 Death Race lasted 60+ hours, the 2012 Winter Death Race was a 31 hour Death Race in the snow and below freezing temperature. That is all I can tell you about Death Races because I have yet to participate in one, until now. I will be participating in both the 2013 Death Race and Winter Death Race.

I train often and I like to think I train hard. However, I was unsure how to start training for Death Races. Thankfully, Spartan Race hosts a weekend long Death Race simulation known as the Death Race Training Camp to help you prepare. On Friday afternoon, Joshua Grant, Keith Glass and I filled Keith’s car with gear and headed up to Pittsfield for a weekend I will never forget.

I have never done anything remotely similar to a Death Race. I hadn’t really thought about taking part in one. It was Keith, an actual Death Racer and dear friend and training partner of mine, who talked me into signing up. Initially I was treating the Winter Death Race as training for the Death Race, I would just do as much as I could and then drop out but my competitive nature has gotten the better of me and I see the glimmer of a skull on the horizon, I just have to give it my all.

We arrived in Pittsfield on Friday January 4th at 7pm and headed to The General Store to get checked in. We were told that CBS were coming to film for “60 Minutes” and that this was a race, with a winner and prizes. I couldn’t help but get excited. Keith quickly dragged me back to reality with one simple line. “It’s a lie”. I quickly remembered where I was and what I was here for and agreed it did seem too good to be true. We went into the Death Race Training camp with no goals. It was a gear check and a chance for Joshua and me to see what a Death Race is like.

We went to the farm to meet everyone and get started. Our home for the weekend was a heated (I use the word ‘heated’ loosely) greenhouse minus any plants. I had a gear box that would stay at base camp and a backpack with me filled with necessities to carry during activities. We got changed into our cold gear and waited for it to begin. People who were on time had been dragging wood to the side of a river for about an hour. I was getting excited. We were split into color coded teams. Keith, Joshua and I were all on the pink team. We had to wear a strip of pink duct tape on us, this would identify us as pink team members and be our burpee ‘scorecard’.

Fourteen people started the training camp. We had to do 300 burpees before the training camp was over. Our score was going to be kept on that strip of duck tape we wore. CBS were indeed there filming, that part wasn’t a lie.

I honestly cannot remember what our first task was, the whole experience just blurs together but I will try my best to get the order correct. We were late so we had to carry big planks of wood down snow covered trails to the river with two other latecomers. Upon return to the farm, everyone had a head start on sawing and splitting wood. I tried my best to catch up. The group was energetic and enthusiastic, a lot of laughing going on. I was feeling good. Then we ran to the Bikram Yoga studio and dugout an entire Spartan Race in pieces from the snow and loaded them onto trucks. I remember this taking a while. Lastly, the concrete blocks used for the ‘atlas carry’ were uncovered and we were told to grab a bucket and a pipe and get them back to the farm any way we want. A couple of people unloaded their rucks and carried the concrete block on their back. I opted for the dragging method, putting my block in a bucket and looping rope through the pipe and looping that through the handle. After dragging tires for training I could handle this. Not sure what time we returned to the farm but this is when the first person dropped out.

Again, I’m a bit hazy on facts and tasks, but we spent a considerable amount of that night cleaning out a barn. A foot of hay followed by 2 feet of some sort of hay/feces/urine/dirt mess. All our gloves were getting covered in the dirt mess and the smell was unbearable at times. We were allowed 30 minutes to sleep after that, before sunrise and before Joe and Andy arrived.

Bringing a sleeping bag and sleeping pad was the best decision I have made in a long time. I slept warm and comfortably and woke when the sun was rising. It was beautiful outside; trees everywhere. I hadn’t seen my surroundings by daylight yet. Not much time to enjoy it though because we were back to sawing wood and splitting logs.  Joe and Andy arrived with a promise of breakfast from Joe, Keith immediately rolled his eyes and told me it was a lie. I’m new to the Death Race deception and acknowledged that he was right but inside hoping Keith was wrong. We had just 5 minutes to finish and clear up the wood and choose 4 pieces of wood to carry with us.

We ran down to the general store with our rucks and wood and were told to go in and place our breakfast order and then come back outside. I ordered pancakes and diet coke. Mostly because Joshua was right in front of me in line and that’s what he ordered and I couldn’t think.  I also hadn’t had a proper meal since Friday and pancakes sounded delicious. Once we were back outside, we were told to carry the sled that was buried in a snow bank. It was a full sized sled designed to be pulled by reindeers or something and we must have spent an hour digging it out. Once the sled was free, Joe broke my heart, no breakfast. Keith was right, everything is a lie. We carried the sled across the street to some trails, and dragged it like reindeer for what felt like forever.

We reached a house in a field where we left the sled. We then hiked up Joe’s mountain in the snow with no snow shoes, carrying rucks and wood. It was a hard and steep climb that didn’t seem to end. Keith, Josh and I reached the top in good time. We dropped off our wood and waited for the group. When the group had reconvened, we all sat in the snow like children while Andy told us an inspirational story about a Russian swimmer that will forever resonate. Then we were off again, back down the mountain and to the river where we had carried the planks of wood to the previous night.

Keith had brought heavy duty construction bags which we all put on our feet and legs in an attempt to keep our feet dry. Thankfully it worked for me. I don’t think Keith and Joshua had the same luck I did. I watched several people cross that river bare foot. We spent hours then trying to drag a 2000+lb metal beam out of the water. That felt defeating.

When we arrived back at the farm to warm up we were told we were going on a 10 mile run. A couple of people dropped out right there. So off we went, nine of us following Joe and Andy on a 10 mile run up and down a mountain. I took the lead and became separated from the group. Joe and Andy were miles ahead so I was running alone. This is when sleep deprivation really kicked in. I never stopped moving, not even for a second and I ran whenever it wasn’t a steep uphill. I knew I was alone, but I started to hear voices, people running and footsteps behind me but no one was there. I became confused, convinced someone was right on my tail, which kicked up my competitive mode and I was now racing with my imagination. I thought I was lost several times. When I was running the final stretch of road back to the farm I was convinced I was lost. Nothing looked familiar and the road was lasting forever. Then I rounded a corner and saw the glow of the greenhouse. I ran faster. I had to get there, I wanted to get there and be warm. Entering into that greenhouse as the first person back was an overwhelming feeling. I felt like a true winner, even though it wasn’t a race. I was racing myself and my doubts and I won.

It took some time for the rest of the group to arrive back. It gave me time to dry my clothes, destroy a jet boil, learn about sleep deprivation, eat a hot meal, and rest my tired feet. The longer I rested the sorer and stiffer my body began to feel. I needed to keep going, and soon. They announced the next task would be our final task and this would over. We had to drag back the four Spartan Race walls we had dragged out onto trails the previous night and put them back in the truck. Of course we did, we spent hours dragging heavy walls into the snow and through trails and the dead of night. Only for them to sit there 24 hours and have nothing done with them, just so we could then drag the back to the farm and load them back onto the truck. That felt like the hardest task we had most likely because we knew it was the last.

Then we were done. It was over. 27 hours after we began, it was finished.

I immediately felt sad. I realized I didn’t want it to be over. I had loved being here. The corner of that greenhouse had become my little haven. My gear box felt like the center of my universe. I didn’t give up, that resonated with me a lot. We had no goals upon our arrival and we were one of the last people standing. I had, no wait let me correct that, I HAVE more fight in me then I ever thought possible. I am mentally stronger than I thought. I am able to just focus and zone in on the task I am doing and see it through. Nothing got the better of me.

However, that was just a training camp….

I can write about how much I learned about myself this weekend and how difficult it was, but in reality that was the tip of the iceberg. February 1st 2013 will be the real test. I expect the Winter Death Race to be twice as long and twice as hard. We’ll see if I break then.

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Balloons: Holding firm and letting go.

Hey All.  Its been a long while since I have posted.  I have missed writing a great deal but since October I have had a lot on my hands.

When I woke this morning I had the image of a bunch of balloons in my head.  An odd thing to be thinking of when you wake up for sure.  Taking my littlest one in hand.  And then releasing the boy from his self inflicted prison of a crib, a prison he is fully capable of entering and escaping on his own.  I descended to the living room to feed and entertain my charges, leaving mom to catch up on some much needed sleep.   While descending the stairs the image of balloons returned, this time with some balloons escaping my grasp with each step down I took.

Parents aren’t given an awful lot of time to ponder anything in the first years of Parenthood.  Our children are our only prevailing responsibility.  Everything needs to be done secondary to our children’s needs and they need everything.  I don’t think you can truly say you are an adult until you try to raise a child.

With all this running through my mind, finding “one Thomas!” on the TV, and soothing the baby I was still pondering the balloons.  It occurred to me that the balloons were bright in color and seemed to radiate in the sun.  They were all different shapes and sizes.  But they are fragile. You need to be careful with them.  They are filled with gas causing them to rise and lift you up.  But if there are too many and you aren’t careful you will lose contact with the ground.

And thats when I got it.  The balloons are the contacts, relationships, commitments, friendships, responsibilities, goals, and aspirations in my life. They are everything I have done and hope to do.  Things I want to maintain and build.  Each one represents a little portion of my life.  Full of the elation to lift me up.  Bright, shiny and colorful.  But each with its own tiny string attached.  A little umbilicus tying me to it.  I’ve gripped so tightly to those strings over the past year that they are starting to separate me from the ground.  If I continue to go up too high, that ground won’t be solid enough to withstand me crashing back into it when I finally let go.  So the only thing left to do is loosen my grip on a few balloons.

I can’t just let go because those balloons represent everything, or nothing.  Some balloons are small but combined with 1 million other small balloons take up a lot of space and create terrible lift.  Some balloons are very large and will always provide the lift I need. The large cumbersome ones need to be held on to tight enough to be secure but not so tight that they would pop.

So where does this leave me and why did I blog this.  Well its really all right there.  I haven’t posted on fb for a while.  Haven’t been doing many of the training sessions that are going around like VD.  Haven’t been at many race’s and worst of all, on the personal level, I haven’t been training.  Its all about the balloons you see.

I went around this last year collecting balloons and making a nice big bunch.  All sorts of colors and shapes.  I attached a weight of worth to them.  Mostly that worth was attached to a medal or tee-shirt of some sort.  Some were weighted just by a day or an event.  The value I was assigning some balloons was not as much as I should have been assigning others.  The bigger and not so colorful balloons.  Balloons that were hugely inflated, more thin skinned, and required much more care than the smaller half filled balloons.

Obviously this problem has been wondering through my mind longer than today.  Longer than a single image of a bunch of balloons.  I suppose in the last 2 months or so I have subconsciously been doing exactly what I have been needing to do without an imagery concept.  I needed a metaphor, balloons and strings finally popped into my head and I finally knew what had to be done or more astutely what I was doing.  I had started to loosen my grip on smaller, brighter balloons.  I have seen friends give huge flowery  goodbyes on social networks.  Send cards, emails and texts of how they just need to escape and focus on the “important things”.  I didn’t do all that.  I just loosened my grip.  As much as I love following the trials and tribulations, highs and lows of so many people, love to give encouragement and inspiration, and most of all be part of a team which does that; I needed to and need to let a few balloons go.

It hurts a little to do this.  But my reality, my ground, needs a lot more from me than all my little balloons.  Nothing bad will happen to my balloons if I let a few go here and there.  They will just end up in someone else’s sky. They might become larger and more important.  They might even become attached to a child of their own.  And learn, like I have, that they too have balloons to let slip away.  There will always be a string attached to my balloons.  And if necessary and if time allows maybe I can go find some new shiny balloons or go looking for some that I have let go.  For a wonderful time however I enjoyed holding on to all the balloons I could.  But now I just need to hold on to a few precious few, and maybe borrow an old or new one  from time to time

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Team Gear: A review.

First off, it must be said.  The team Jersey:  WOW!!!  I am so freaking impressed by the color blended logo and personalization.   The logo, it goes without saying, is a home run out of any park.  Including Yellowstone.  Mike MacKenzie’s design is so tight, so professional it really just sets the tone and pace for everything to come.

Personally I’m about 5’9″ and about 190 lbs.  I fall more on getting fit than actually fit but still I opted for a medium Jersey.  Its a four way stretch material, supple and very comfortable.  True flat seams and ample neck room add to the comfort of the wear.  For my size I found the medium a little snug but not constricting.  Although I might have opted for a large I don’t know that it would make a huge difference.  The shirts design appears to intend for a snug fit.  The shirt is an interesting and purposeful cut.  Broader at the shoulder, trim through the torso/midsection, and a slight flare at the bottom.  I have read reviews about how the material is a much heavier weave than Under Armor.  This is true however I think much heavier is a bit of a reach.  It is heavier but only because it is intended as outer wear and not “under” wear.  I can’t wait to get a race under my belt in it.  This is a great shirt, and even though it looks like a show piece shirt it certainly begs to get muddy and wet.

Tech shirt, T-shirt, and Hoodie.  I had used someone’s suggestion to go a size down.  I don’t think this was a wise decision.  I typically wear a large.  On some specific Tech and T-shirts I can get away with a medium but not on a sweatshirt. For the Team Gear I would say order your regular size.  The Sweat shirt is nice.  A good weight for post race.  Not terribly heavy.  I have washed everything once.  I dared not dry the cotton sweatshirt and t-shirt for fear of shrinkage.  The embroidery is spot on!  It showcases very well and is very discernible as the team logo.  I might have liked to see it a little larger, or the Akuma logo a bit smaller.  I don’t have any issue with the Akuma logo on it.  I’ve seen enough real Football to understand sponsor saturation on a shirt.

The tech shirt was my only disappointment.  I loved the subtle mock collar instead of a a standard crew neck.  The color panels were excellent.  Again I might have liked blue with red panels instead of gray just to keep with the Team Jersey color scheme.  The shirt is only a two way stretch. So its more snug than I would like for the cut of the shirt. Had I purchased a large instead of a medium this wouldn’t even be an issue. I think the Tech top is an excellent all around athletic shirt and top notch for racing.

The t-shirt is a t-shirt.  I didn’t find the quality excellent but its fair.  The embroidery again, excellent.  And again my poor choice in sizing makes it a little more snug than I would prefer.  In the future I would like to see the Sweatshirt and T-shirt with a silk screened logo as opposed to embroidery but that is a personal style preference and nothing against the products.

I’m very interested to see how these shirts hold up over time, washing, shrinking, and racing.   Im quite confident that the Jersey will stand up.  Im positive the rest will too.  In the future I hope some personalization can be done to the Sweats, Tees and Techs.  Maybe even in time some Polos and trainer pants and racing shorts.

A huge thank you to Jessica for making this happen.  To Mike for the unbelievable designs, in marketing its all visuals and branding these are the strongest images I’ve seen.  If I were at a race and saw this shirt I’d buy one for sure.  To Paul for pushing and pushing.  And to Michael for his input and effort with Akuma.  Great things come from small beginnings.  Heres to great racing, great representing and building the best OCR team in the Northeast.