Friday, August 12, 2011

A belated recap of Death Race 2011


"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Mark Twain


Someone stopped my Mom this week and said they were sorry to hear I had died. 

True story - really happened. It was Paul Abernethy, my first ever employer (IGA) and old windsurfing buddy. 

Fortunately she knew something was up by the expression on his face. Then he explained that I had promised to send a Death Race report as soon as I got back and, judging by its complete absence, he surmised that I must not have survived the ordeal.

This has actually been weighing on me for the past while - I received an incredible amount of support from people leading up to the race, including over 60 people making donations to POGO, totalling over $5,000.00. I promised those folks not just a report, but video and audio and holographs and fireworks (well, audio and video anyway). And here I am SIX WEEKS LATER just starting to put that together. What happened?

When I first got home I would not shut up about The Death Race. I kept becoming aware of my voice going on AGAIN about The Death Race! In my defense, I was asked about it a lot, but I really must have been a bit of a pain in the ass. Then, all of a sudden, I just shut up. I realized that I was talking a lot but not saying much at all. I was cataloging the tasks, more by way of bragging than anything, and reveling in my listeners' admiration. It was all a bit of an ego trip.

Once I finally stopped talking up and took a breath, I started to ask myself what it all even means. Why did I do it? What did I learn? What is worth sharing? I wish I had reflected on these questions before I did the round of radio and TV interviews, but they fell in the adrenaline fueled week after the race. Oh well - that is the beauty of local media. Nobody remembers it a month later, right??  ;) 

My first week back I thought I felt great. My feet were numb and I could not sleep - but I was on top of the world. Only now do I realize just how off-kilter I actually was. I had burns on my hands, open wounds on my shoulders and chest from my pack straps, and cuts and bruises all over my body. My feet are still somewhat numb, with pinched nerves in my still-sprained ankles. I have big, bad bunions that are here to stay. And I noticed about two weeks ago that, despite almost no exercise since the race, I was eating about 5,000 calories a day with no weight gain. My world seemed to be on spin cycle. With focused effort I am gradually becoming more balanced again. Eating healthier. Meditating. Running and doing my morning tabata workouts. Getting refocused on work and other day-to-day aspects of my life. And actually following through with writing my promised recap!

I am not going to give an exhaustive review here of everything we did in the Death Race. Mainly because others have done it very well already - and I can just link here to their blogs. Do read them - they are fantastic!
http://franksextremeadventures.blogspot.com/2011/07/death-race.html
http://blog.spartanrace.com/the-death-race-profile-series-spartan-death-race-2011/
http://www.facebook.com/notes/dennis-lesniak/2011-death-race/10150233305067752

My very short version is that we spent FORTY FIVE STRAIGHT HOURS lifting fifty pound boulders thousands of times, hiking then swimming in freezing water with full packs on, carrying stumps up a mountain, memorizing religious verses and symbols, carrying a 3 foot log for a full day and a half up and down 2 more mountains, crawling through ditches and culverts, climbing a waterfall, crawling uphill under barbed wire, chopping insane amounts of wood and much, much more. It stormed almost the entire time, scuppering our plans to capture video. Fortunately, there were some professionals there, so here is one small "snapshot" of some of the event ...



As we gathered to start the race I had my only doubts. Holy shit these were some big, fit dudes (and "dudettes", of course). Marines. Gym owners. Firefighters. I was nowhere near as strong as most of these racers. Plus I was starting injured - developing stress fractures in both feet and aggravating bone spurs in my elbow training in the months leading up to the event. Who did I think I was?

Well, it turns out that a "Death Race Finisher" is who I was. 235 had registered and paid. 80 didn't even start. 120 quit. 35 finished - including me. To be clear, this year's race had a huge twist. Whereas all previous years had ended at a physical finish line, this year was slated to go the full 45 hours, no matter what, and was truly an exercise in attrition. Death Race organizers advertise that "We don't tell you when it will start. We don't tell you when it will end. And we don't tell you what you will do. Show up ready for anything and don't stop until we tell you to." True to that motto, they did not inform us of this change in format. Instead they asked us repeatedly throughout the race if we were ready to quit, often making it seem like the only logical choice. The further along we continued, the more discouraging information they leaked about the horrors that lay ahead. Even 5 minutes before the mandatory 3pm meeting Sunday afternoon they let us believe that many of us had another full day of racing still to go and asked if we were still in. Several people opted out at that point, only to find out moments later that the race was done and everyone still "standing" had finished.


The winner was the one who had made it the furthest along. Once again, that was Joe Decker, Guinness' "World's Fittest Man" - and one of the nicest too (bib #80, chopping wood in the above video). Really, it was essentially a three-way tie for first, with two brothers, Bruce and Jeff Foster, working alongside Joe right to the end. It is my belief that these unassuming brothers (45 and 49 years old, btw!) were happy to defer to their mentor Joe rather than all three risk a balls-out sprint to the finish.

The top female finisher was Grace Cuomo Durfee, and she was beyond awesome. Grace is not big at all. In fact, you could say she is petite and, at the risk of my sounding old fashioned and sexist, she is very pretty and sweet. And she is also an absolute weapon. She is crazy strong and unbelievably intense. In fact, at the end, she passed the three guys and charged ahead up the mountain before they informed her that the race had already been officially called. She was that close behind! And that determined to win!! Here is a radio interview with Grace.

These four and two others, Don Schwartz (the only other Canadian finisher and another VERY VERY INSPIRING dude) and Nickodemus Hollon, actually shocked the organizers by finishing all of the tasks that had been laid out. No one had really been expected to finish in the 45 hours, so more was added on the fly to keep them going! The rest of us were spread out back on the course, with everyone coming in from their last checkpoint in time to make the 3pm meeting, and all expecting to head back out and continue.

Looking back I am very happy with my Death Race. Some thoughts ...
  • I could have gone a lot harder. I actually finished with some energy still in the tank. 
  • Most notably, aware that I was safely within checkpoint time limits, I chose to rest for a couple of hours late Saturday night, allowing the sun to start rising rather than head up another mountain in a pitch black thunderstorm. I knew there was a waterfall climb coming and didn't want to risk it in the dark. If I could do it over, I would head out immediately. I was still strong and could have finished much more of the course. 
  • My body processed the race food very well - lots of gel packs and trail mix and water. I was never dehydrated or cramped or bonked. My twenty minute nap at the 24 hour mark helped a lot, and I see value in plugging in another one or two of those.
  • I had an incredible support team. Mike Kitchen spent every allowable moment with me on the trail and was a strong, quiet anchor, never allowing me to doubt myself. Amanda Woodman, my most reliable training partner, joined us for the Sunday push and kept spirits up through some brutal terrain. James Waite was a logistical genius and kept everyone fueled and fired up and confident. Jackie Mussel pitched in anywhere and everywhere she was needed. My best friend, Bill McGill, came all the way down to cheer me on and keep everyone entertained. My favourite guy in the world, my son Jack, was a rock the whole weekend, inspiring us all by being his awesome, helpful, philosophical self. And Jackie's two girls, Zoe and Daisy rounded out our group and were bright and fun and eager.
  • I met so many truly incredible people. Almost every Death Racer was simultaneously both the coolest, chillest dude AND the hottest burning, most intense freak you could ever meet. I have told people, and consider it more and more true, I really feel like I have found my tribe! Several of these people I now consider good friends, and I look forward to competing alongside them in many more races for years to come. Here is a shorter, fun race that I was sad to miss last weekend. There was a terrific Death Race crew there, and this video shows the kind of stuff that we call fun!



So, what do I have to show for all that?


And I AM registered for 2012, AND The Winter Death Race :)

By the way ... I originally titled this "The Four Big Life Lessons I Learned From The Death Race". And then I got carried away writing and did not even touch on them. So, that will be my next post :)



PS ... There was some great coverage on ABC Nightline ...

Print Story - http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/spartan-death-race-survival-guide/story?id=13962390
Nightline segment - http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/surviving-spartan-death-race-13973215



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