Monday, March 21, 2011

My weekend at Camp in Pittsfield, VT

"I wonder how long before Joe realizes this is impossible, and changes the plan?"

That was my thought an hour into pushing a 200 pound tractor tire up the mountain. We were making very slow progress, compounded by the melting snow and running water underfoot. Sooner or later, I assumed, he would have to figure out that we had taken on a Sisyphean task. That just shows you how little I knew Joe Desena.

I had met Joe about 30 minutes earlier, at his General Store in Pittsfield, VT. I was in town for a training camp for this summer's Spartan Death Race, having driven 10 hours with only these instructions: "Bring an axe, a maul, snowshoes, food and warm clothing to the General Store in Pittsfield for 8pm". Apparently that email had been sent to the 20 people who said they'd be attending the camp. At "five to eight" it was only me and Jeff, an irrepressible adventure racer from Rhode Island. Joe arrived at 8pm on the button, offered a strong handshake and a friendly greeting and then simply said, "We are starting about a mile up the road. I will ride with Jeff. Follow us." As we walked out to the trucks we bumped into three more guys, all at least 20 years younger than me, who scrambled back into their vehicles to fall in line. As Joe climbed up into Jeff's truck I heard him tell his wife on the phone, "I am bringing some people back to the house but we will be out hiking all night."

Joe: "So what did you guys bring?"
Us: "Axe and maul and snowshoes."
Joe: "You'll probably need those later. I mean what else do you have? I want to take a bunch of stuff up the mountain."
Jeff: "I have a tractor tire that weighs about 200 pounds."
Joe: "Perfect. I will see what else I have in the barn."

Minutes later, Joe's lovely wife, Courtney, snapped a picture of the six of us setting out with the 200 pound tire, a 16 foot canoe, and a 38 pound brick. The only thing these three items had in common was that none of them served any purpose atop the mountain - we were taking them up there purely for the "fun" of it. As we rolled the tire up the road, pulling the canoe and passing the brick around, a Supermoon rose overhead in the crisp Vermont night.

So much for basking in the moonglow. After leaving the road for a snowpacked trail, we were soon deep in the woods winding our way up a steep path. Two would-be-Spartans were pulling the canoe by rope, three were trying to roll the tire, and one was carrying the brick. If you have never carried a 38 pound brick up a slippery hill in the middle of the night, you may not fully appreciate the observation that it was the easiest job by an astonishing margin. The canoe was just straightforward hard work - lean in, plant your toes and climb while pulling the rope. The inevitable three steps forward one slide back was par for the course. The tire, though, was another matter altogether. Refusing to roll in the snow, it also constantly threatened to tumble back down the hill - crushing us in its path. We tried carrying it on a treelimb that we cut, with no success. Then dragging it. Then, finally, settled on flipping its 200 pounds one width at a time. By now, we had one in front of the canoe. One under the brick. And four behind the tire. The only occasional break from the kneedeep snow was where the spring melt had washed sections of the trail out entirely, involving us slogging "upstream" through mud and numbing water. This was going to take all night.

It did not take all night. In fact, it was less than 4 hours later that we stood atop the mountain, under that gorgeous moon, looking out over sleeping Vermonters in the valleys all around. Lest our heads swell with our accomplishment, Joe pointed out the wooden spool TWICE the size of our tire that he had a world-ranked heavyweight wrestler push up the hill solo. 

"All right, let's start down. Bring the canoe and the brick. We will come back for the tire later." It was midnight and we were just getting started.

I won't attempt to get the chronology right for the next several hours as it was a bit of a blur. What I can say is that we did not stop. We ran down the mountain. We ran back up the mountain doing interval sprints carrying the brick overhead. We did 100 impromptu burpees on a wet section of ground (this was where I came very close to puking). We ran interval brick-carrying sprints back down. We were joined by two latecomers (including the first female). We pulled the canoe back up the mountain. We brought the tractor tire back down (a logistical challenge as it was eager to roll right over us and carve its own path - an admittedly tempting option until we envisioned dragging it out of a gulley way off course). We picked up yet another participant at about 2am - Katt, a petite but mighty woman who had driven straight from New York City and then hiked halfway up on her own. We went back up the mountain and brought the canoe back down. 

By now it was somewhere between 4am and 5am. Everyone was soaked right through and freezing cold. Joe seemed to pick up on this and showed a bit of mercy. "Why don't you guys get some sleep. The barn has a heated floor, so make yourselves at home. Matt will be here in the morning and we will have some more for you to do then."

Minutes later we had our clothes hung to dry and had each staked out our section of concrete. Closing my eyes had never felt so good.

"Alright campers! Let's get this day started!!"

What? How long have I been asleep? DID I even get to sleep?? The answer was "NO". As soon as they heard silence in the barn, Joe and Matt Sroka came in to get us back up. Matt was tagging in as our snowshoe guide. I'd love to believe that it was because Joe needed the break, but Joe had already planned a full day of karate and skiing with his kids (remember that he, too, had worked alongside us all night and had not slept).

Putting our wet clothes back on seemed unnecessarily cruel. At least I had packed some dry socks. We drove down the road from Joe's house to the Amee Barn, so as to tackle the mountain from the other side. By now the moon had set and dawn was not far away. I realized that it had started to snow, nature in synch with our finally strapping our snowshoes on. This was going to be an adventure for me, as my first ever snowshoe had been just two days earlier with my good friend, Karen Graham

Matt struck out first, stopping every so often to make sure we would recognize the trail back should anyone get lost (remember that point - it factors in shortly). Our group quickly spread out, everyone hustling to the best of their ability. A professor of Sports Administration at Castleton College and an avid ultra-racer, Matt is an enormously motivating, entertaining guy. He shared stories about the annual ultra-races on these same trails, and we marveled at Jason Jaksetic's recently completing the 100 mile snowshoe marathon on this very route. Matt also pointed out landmarks to remember as navigation points in June. And he didn't stop smiling once.

I believe this route took us about 4 miles to climb the 2000' to the same peak. By the time we arrived it was full, glorious morning. We dug into our packs for food, and waited as our group came back together. As soon as the last pair arrived at the peak, Matt started for the bottom again. Descending was a whole different experience - part running, part sliding. It probably took about 1/3 the time of the climb and by 9am (ish?) 4 of us were back down at the barn. 

As Jeff, Katt, Will and I took off our snowshoes, we each grabbed one of the eight wheelbarrows and headed across the street to the gorgeous Amee Farm Lodge, to load up with wood to be split. Walk, load, walk, split, load, walk, stack, repeat, walk, load, walk, split, load, walk, stack, repeat...

A few hours later, we couldn't ignore that there were still 4 empty wheelbarrows. Apparently half of our crew were still on the mountain. Finally, just as we finished the last of the pile, the first pair appeared - walking up the highway. They reported that they had become lost and emerged from the woods several miles down the road. While we'd been splitting wood, they'd been hiking back (snowshoes now in hand). The last pair were another 1/2 mile behind them.

With the logs split and stacked (awesome practice for a novice like me), most of us headed up to the General Store for food. The four stragglers were put to work restringing fence wire to make up for the missed chopping. Matt laughed, pointing out that nobody gets much sympathy for getting lost or finishing last - it usually just means extra work piled on.

As I drove home, sore and tired but very happy, I reflected on the most valuable lessons from my Death Race training camp. Obviously becoming familiar with the terrain is a plus. And hearing Joe and Matt's stories from previous races gave me some insight. Getting through 16 hours with the Death Race crew boosted my confidence (though the actual race will likely be at least 48).

But here is the most important thing I learned...

Joe did NOT say "Let's see if we can get this tire to the top of the mountain".

He said "Let's get this tire to the top of the mountain."

There is all the difference in the world between those two statements.

He did not know if it would take two hours or two days. He just knew we were going to do it.

Take a look at where you can apply that in your own life. Where do you say "I am going to try to..." or "Let's see if we can...". Because that will be where you fail. You have already given yourself the "out".

Instead, declare"This is what I am going to do." Period. No matter what.

I know that distinction is going to make an enormous difference for me - in the June Death Race and, even more importantly, in the rest of my life.

“Do or do not ... there is no try.”

Big thanks to Joe and Courtney and Matt and everyone else who welcomed us to Pittsfield and who created an extraordinary experience. I look forward to more adventures and life lessons with y'all in the future.


  1. Great story. I am excited to get any insight into the Death Race as possible. Joe wont really tell me too much, but I am just about signed up (for 2012, 2011 is already booked for that day)
    I definately need to learn to split wood and use an axe!! I have always been a city girl!!
    But I have done the marathons, Ironmans, ultras, and am always looking for a challenge. The camp sounds like awesome training

  2. I'm doing my first spartan (5K) at the end of april. I have no idea what I'm in for. . .care to share?! (;

    And I'm from the beautiful state of Vermont- love that the death race is there!

    Glad to have found your blog

    Good luck training!!

  3. @ Thisisme: You will have a blast. Don't worry about preparing too much for the 5km. It's a fun run with lots of enthusiastic people and the momentum will sweep you along. It will give you a perfect taste of obstacle racing. And you'll be hooked! This video will give you a good picture of that event ...

    @Michelle: yes, start chopping! Attending a camp is invaluable in that regard. And don't worry about not knowing what to expect. I learned that whatever you expect is bound to change on the fly anyway. Just come prepared to be unprepared, and be okay with that. :)

  4. hahaha!!!! Sounds like quite the adventure!!!! It also sounds like you were near the front of the pack!!!! The other thing I'm sure of is that everyone else you were with took a little bit of your entusiasm home with them!!!

    Keep at it till the end. No turning back.

    J :)

  5. Great read Man. I grew up in Vermont so I can fully appreciate a tough workout along with breathtakingly beautiful landscape!