Friday, August 12, 2011

Four Big Life Lessons I Learned In The Death Race

This is not a recap of my Death Race. I just posted one of those. This is a very concise explanation of four significant insights I had during this extraordinary event.

Twelve hours into the race, I found myself wading miles down a river I had trudged up several hours earlier. It was cold and treacherous and required tremendous concentration. Already I had lifted a 50 pound boulder over a thousand times, swam with a full pack across a freezing pond 7 times, carried a 90 pound stump several miles up and down a steep hill, chopped wood and memorized a bible passage verbatim. It was no wonder many racers had already quit, and most remaining were tired and miserable.
That is why it was my very good fortune to be in a group with Jack Cary. I met Jack in May when I was in Vermont doing Death Race training. I had "friended" him on Facebook at Andy Weinberg's suggestion, as Jack is a Death Race finisher and a very generous person. In the Spring he was happy to offer suggestions and support, and that was equally true during the actual event. So it was no surprise, but still an extraordinary moment, when Jack stopped midstream and turned to Patrick Walsh, Andy Bush and me and said, "I just want to let you know how glad I am to be here with you guys, and ask that we all think for a minute about how truly lucky we are to be doing this right now."
Suddenly I was acutely aware of the sun peaking through the ubiquitous storm clouds. Of the birds chirping, Of the hypnotic splashing of the water on the rocks. And I realized how very right he was. We were SO lucky to be here. To be able to do something so bold and unique. To be with likeminded people in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. And I was no longer tired or even cold. I was happy and energized and full of life. In an instant. Just by stopping to be consciously grateful.
If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice. ~Meister Eckhart 

22 hours into The Death Race, I was at the checkpoint where over half the field would ultimately quit. We had endured the night in the cold water, after first exhausting ourselves with boulder squat-cleans. And now we had hiked miles and miles of steep, slippery mountainside with 50 pound logs strapped to our backs! Led to believe the last hike would be an hour and a half, it turned out to be almost five hours of ankle-twisting, knee-skinning, slipping and sliding hell. And now, after doing an hour of work including piling wood and 100 pushups, we had to trek back out the way we came in. Beginning with a steep climb up a washed out hillside that was now pure mud. It truly seemed insurmountable, explaining the extraordinary drop-out rate. 
About 30 minutes into the return trip, I caught up with four guys I recognized as Death Race veterans. They had just decided to cut across the course on a logging road, reducing the next section from 2 hours of steep scrambling to 45 minutes of flat hiking, and congratulated me on my timing, as I had arrived just in time to join them. I asked if we weren't supposed to follow the same path as we came in on, and they answered that surely the organizers couldn't expect us to do that after all this rain.
I only had to think for a moment before replying, "Thanks guys but I can't do it. For whatever reason I feel that I have to do it this way. You do whatever feels right to you, and I will see you along the way." Then I turned and started up the hill. My progress was so slow that 5 minutes later I could still see them standing just below me, rethinking their plan - before they did, in fact, head out on the logging road.
When I arrived at the next checkpoint, only one of the four was there. The other three had bailed out completely. And the fourth was in really rough shape. I realized two things. One - as soon as you get to the point of taking shortcuts you aren't far from the decision to quit entirely. And, Two - even if I were to finish the race via a shortcut, I would always have an asterix in my own mind. By maintaining my faith in myself, I had arrived intact and now felt even stronger as that lesson sank in.
Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it.  ~David Star Jordan

While I never considered quitting the race, there was a moment when I did not believe I would finish.  Well over 40 hours in, I was starting into the barbed wire crawl up a section of Joe's Mountain. I had just climbed through the waterfall and was now through two straight sleep-deprived nights. The organizers had recently leaked the tasks that lay ahead and I knew that my reward for getting to the top of the mountain and back was another horrible trip back out the route described above, this time carrying a bucket of water as well. The barbed wire, now laying flat on the ground and needing to be lifted strand by strand as I slid under dragging my pack and log, was even more frustrating as I thought about the nightmare I still had to face afterward.
Then I realized I had an even bigger problem. I had to be back at the church for a mandatory 3pm meeting and that was suddenly seeming impossible. After all of the work and pain, I was going to time out, missing the checkpoint. I stopped for a moment while I processed this. Well, at least there is no shame. I hadn't - wouldn't - quit. And racers miss checkpoints. It happens.
At that moment I thought back to Jack's comment. I remembered how lucky I was to be able to navigate this barbed wire on this gorgeous mountain in this remarkable race. And I remembered my epiphany about not cutting corners, so I carried on strand by strand, forgetting about anything but navigating this thorny challenge. And, then I was at the end of the tangled mess. There was only 1/2 mile to the top of the mountain. And now the math looked entirely different. If I busted my ass, I COULD make it to the 3pm meeting. And I WAS still in the race. Maybe - there was still a mountain to get down.
Applying the same focus to the descent, I made spectacular time. In fact, I came out of the woods with 10 minutes to spare and had time for a quick garden hose shower and arrived at the church clean and even dressed accordingly. As it turned out, this was the end of the 45 hour race and I HAD finished. So much of the stress I had started to feel was groundless, as is so often the case in life. You never know what is going to happen next. You never even know how much longer life will be. And there is no better approach than focusing on, and enjoying, what you have in front of you, right here, right now. Because it is the one thing you can be sure of.
We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday's burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.  ~John Newton 

As I looked around the church at the 35 finishers, I thought, "What is the difference between us and the 125 who dropped out, or even the other 80 who did not even start?" There did not seem to be an easy answer. It certainly wasn't just physical strength, as I watched huge, chiseled Marines quit. And it wasn't just conditioning either, as there were phenomenal triathletes who fell by the wayside too.  
The next obvious thing to consider was mental toughness, but we all seemed to have that at the outset, and I know that some of the people who were no longer racing would have never ever ever imagined not finishing. Obviously they had demonstrated mental toughness in the past.
Not being able to see inside anyone else's head, I turned my attention to mine. What had kept me going? Well, my fundraising for POGO. I had promised a beautiful young girl that I would finish. I said "If she and her family can survive three years of cancer treatment, then I can survive three days of racing." Plus the 60+ people who had donated over $5,000.00 to that cause. Then there were Jack and Katy. I actually posted on Facebook that I wanted them to be able to tell people "My Dad completed the Death Race" and not "My Dad started the Death Race but quit when it got hard."
Speaking of Facebook, by broadcasting my training and my progress and my commitments online, I now had thousands of people who would want to know how it went. I could not just sneak back into town in the night and never really mention it again.
So, as I realized, all of this was leverage. Leverage on myself. I had thrown my hat over the fence, as the saying goes, and now had to go get it. No matter what. Reading some people's blog posts after the race, I found that they had left themselves loopholes - where there was still room to call it a success for having tried. I don't think I could have given myself that credit. I had bet the house. I can, however, think of too many other ventures where that wasn't the case. Where I had quit long before I started and then went through the motions. What if I only started things from now on that I intended to finish, no matter what. How powerful a perspective would that be to live from?
“There's a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstance permit. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.” 

So, now I have to take these lessons into the rest of my life. Fortunately, The Death Race is already very much a part of my being, and the incredible community that comes with it will help remind me of these lessons, and hold my feet to the fire when I forget what I have declared.

I am grateful for everything that happens in my life. I will do things right, not taking shortcuts. I will focus on the present moment. Now is the only time and here is the only place. I do not know what will come next, but i will be present for it as well when it does. And I will finish what I start. The first part of this is only taking on things to which I am truly committed, and then I will keep sufficient leverage on myself to see it through.

That is what I learned from the 2011 Death Race. And I can't wait to see what insights the 2012 Death Race brings!


  1. What an insightful, succinct summary of lessons from an extraordinary effort.
    Thanks for these John; they inspire me to live as well as I possibly can, in THIS moment.