This must be a new special level of crazy, when you drive nine hours to NOT do something. After doing the Spartan Death Race in 2014, this year I wanted to show up and cheer. See others race. Help out. Provide water and hugs. But most importantly to see the event from the other side.
This would be my first time in Vermont, not actually racing. I must have done this drive at least half dozen times. I am starting to recall which coffee chains are present in which rest stops. (Hint – the first three service stations after Canadian-American border have Tim Hortons, after that, it’s all Starbucks).
The drive seems longer this time around. I love driving alone, yet somehow this drive seems longer than usual. I buy coffee every couple hundred miles, listen to audiobooks, take at least one nap, as my Subaru is chewing up miles. As I get closer, the sun is coming down, and I hit the green. Forest, forest everywhere. Forest and mountains, and I want to hug the whole view. So much green.
As the familiar road starts looping from Rutland to Pittsfield, I resist the urge to speed. Somewhat unsuccessfully. The road is smooth, and mostly empty. I flirt with a Scion for at least 20 miles, then finally drop him and pull ahead.
At the cottage, it is already full house. Gear bags, trail shoes are strewn on the floor, and trays of bacon are coming out of the oven. Lots of familiar faces, and even more familiar names – introductions and hugs follow.
The friendly chatter dies down, as the clock nears ten thirty. We are up bright and early tomorrow. The registration is announced to start at 6am.
Many experienced racers aim to head towards the farm no earlier than 8.30am. This is always a toss-up. The usual bet is that the best case scenario is that you’ll show up and be bored for few hours. The worst case scenario is that you’ll show up and start working hard right away.
Breakfast is, of course, at the Pittsfield General Store. The racers are loading up on breakfast egg sandwiches and French toast. This may be their last actual hot meal until sometime on Monday.
I sign the waiver as crew.
This year’s theme is The Explorer. This can mean that racers will need to navigate their way to certain checkpoints, and use a compass. Or, in true Death Race fashion, this can mean absolutely nothing.
At 8.50am, we hear general instructions about safety and guidelines for crew. “The race will begin in 10 minutes”, says Joe.
Out of the three hundred and fifty registered, the total crowd starting cannot be any larger than one fifty. That’s a pretty typical occurrence. “It looks like at least hundred grandmothers died recently”, quips Andy.
The Spartan Death Race is notorious for extra high DNS (Did Not Start) rate. The earlier you register, the more affordable the race, and many pay the entry fee as early as a year in advance. Twelve months seems like forever away, but before you know it, May rolls around, and you realize you haven’t really been training.
The first task is to hike up to the top of the mountain, check in with one of the race organizers at the top, complete 50 burpees (I think) and come back down for further instructions. The backpacks are to remain behind.
With five minutes still remaining to the announced start, Andy picks up the microphone. “So… guess what? The race starts in 4 seconds. Four, three, two, one!”.
The racers take off, and few crew members (myself included) follow. The hike feels amazing on fresh legs. Once we reach the top, we hang out, as racers start coming up for the second time, now carrying their backpacks.
This time, they are to continue on down to find a pile of rocks – pick out your favourite, and start dragging it down the path. Rule of thumb is – if you can carry it, it’s too small.
Most tie the rope around their rocks in various intricate combinations, and then drag the damn thing behind them. Some end up with a rock way too big to either carry or drag, and are stuck flipping it at a torturously slow pace. One flip at a time.
I jump in to help someone out – not because he actually needs physical help, but because he is getting angry. At a rock. Getting angry an hour into the Death Race is pretty much the surest way to not finish the Death Race. Let alone getting angry at an inanimate object.
We flip the rock together for a while tire style – deadlifting with the legs, as I play the role of the Death Racer Whisperer the best way I can. The guy I’m helping out is strong and fit, but the stone he has weighs at least couple of hundred pounds, and he gets flustered really quickly. He’s panting.
“Can you hear how heavy you are breathing right now?”, I ask. “Can you go like this for 60 hours?”. He nods, and slows down. Moderate effort 90% of the time. There is no hurry. And there won’t be any hurry for at least another 24 hours.
We see the first person drop shortly after lunch on Friday – a poor chap faints multiple times on the second trip up the mountain – dehydration. The second person walks off course few hours later – this one is smiling, as he is walking away. “Not for me”, he shrugs. He has never been on trail before today.
Most crew glance at each other with a bit of surprised shrug at that confession, but do not say anything. If trails aren’t for you, better to quit six hours in, while you are five minutes away from the farm, than to decide to do so, while trying to conquer Blood Root trail at 3am on Saturday.
In the early evening, the racers start running in. It is mayhem in the tent city for few brief minutes, as racers attempt to refill their water, get some food in, and change socks – all at the same time.
After checking in with their bib number, Death Racers Check in with your bib number, pick up a small slice of log with either an X or an O, and start heading towards Blood Root trail – a loooong haul of a walk. We won’t see them until morning.
I’m only sporting a bit of sunburn, and my feet are in pretty good shape for more hiking tomorrow.
As the sun goes down on Friday, I realize that this may indeed be a perfect weekend. See friends, hike the mountains, support fellow racers – do as much, or as little as feels right.
Hugging the forest,