Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Death Racer For All Seasons ...

So, it has been almost exactly one month since I finished the 2012 Winter Death Race. As with the summer race, it has been an interesting "recovery". While I returned almost entirely uninjured, my system has been subtly out of wack - and I am blatantly leveraging that as my excuse for not having written at all yet about the race.

The Winter Death race kind of snuck up on me. I had the date marked in my calendar, and never actually forgot about it, but all of my training seemed to be geared around June's race. As February neared an end, with the WDR just over a week away, I finally kicked into gear and started getting myself ready. The first step was to get a proper splitting axe. I had decided against the big 8lb maul, as it just seemed awfully unwieldy. In June, I had borrowed a 5lb splitting axe from Mark Buckland that did a decent job, but I figured that a returning DR veteran should probably have his own axe. The consensus on the Spartan Death Race Facebook page, seemed to be that the Fiskars X27 was a solid choice. But, assuming an X27 would be egregiously expensive and impossible to find, I headed to my local Canadian Tire to see what may be a reasonable substitute. So, I was ecstatic when the first thing I saw in the axe section was this ...

... for FIFTY FIVE DOLLARS??? SOLD! (This was actually my first real Death Race gear purchase - many of my DR peers have come to know me as a peasant-racer, choosing my 20 year old camping pack over something modern and more technical, and running in old sneakers rather than the newest, slickest inov8's. As will be detailed later, though, picking up this super splitter was a great decision!)

While it had been a mild, dry winter in Vermont, my friend - Margaret Schlachter - posted this weather map on February 28th ...

... calling for heavy snow in Pittsfield for the next few days. Ultimately, that same storm tracked north, ensuring that my "Death Race" would actually begin as soon as I left my driveway. I was driving through whit-out conditions the whole way ... Hwy 12 S, Hwy 401 E and the New York and Vermont Highways as well. What would normally be a 10 hour drive took me closer to 16, passing probably a dozen significant wrecks en route. Slow and steady seemed to be the best pace so far.

When I finally arrived in Pittsfield, it was about 11pm and everything was quiet at The Fleur De Lis Lodge Bed and Breakfast. I had called ahead to Elaine and Lou, warning them of my late arrival, so the porch light was on and the door was locked. I parked the car and went straight up to my room to sleep. Unloading could wait until morning.

I woke at 7am to the welcome smell of breakfast cooking. When I descended to the dining room I was greeted with "Welcome home, Johnny!" by the always friendly Lou. And then I got a big hug from Elaine. Talk about making a guest feel welcome. I enjoyed eggs and toast with OJ and coffee with a group of skiers who had traveled to meet one another from Montreal and New Jersey. A nice bunch who couldn't quite wrap their head around the reason for my trip. "You are what? Why?? How can that possibly be fun???"

After bringing my gear in from the car, I headed next door to one of my favourite places in the world - The Pittsfield General Store.

While enjoying a Green Mountain Coffee, I wrote this blog post, "Just Another Great Day In Pittsfield, VT". I won't recount that whole morning, except to say that I had great visits with Margaret, Matt Baatz, Ray Morvan, Andrew MacKenzie and John Stuppy. Rested and refueled, I headed into nearby Rutland to hit a grocery store to load up on food for the race.

One of the coolest, most serendipitous reunions happened mid-afternoon. While I was in the Fleur De Lis kitchen, making two loaves of peanut butter and jam sandwiches, I heard a fellow come in and have a conversation with Elaine. He was obviously checking in and I did not pay much attention to what was said. But as he went out to his car, Elaine exclaimed to Lou, "Oh, look at his great license plate - it says IRISHJOE!"

With that I burst out of the kitchen and through the front door. "JOE!", I shouted. "I am so glad you are here!!"

Irish Joe is someone who is larger than life in my eyes. He is an older fellow (I don't want to guess at an exact age, but he is well past retirement and has a white Santa Claus beard) who I met when he passed me in the 100 Mile Haliburton Forest Ultramarathon, as described in my September 2011 race report entitled "Humbled But Happy". Over the winter, we had at one point discussed by email the idea of travelling together to Vermont in March, as he was registered for the Snowshoe Marathon, but that plan had never gelled. So, it was entirely by chance that we were both booked into the Fleur De Lis (Joe shared with me that he usually stays at another inn down the road, but it was fully booked this time). Over the weekend, Joe and I crossed paths a number of times, cheering one another on in our respective pursuits.

Anyway, enough preamble ... let's get to the race! After a fun and relaxing day it was time to register. The meeting place was The General Store, which by 5pm was beginning to fill up, including some familiar faces. I met up with racing friends Daniel Cobera, Stephanie Manosh, Ray Morvan, Leila De Cori, Lisa Madden, Mark Webb, Bryan Selm and Chris Tidmore. Approximately 50 of us checked in, receiving a Peak Races shirt and hat and our bib number. There were some very interesting characters, especially a genuine cowboy (down from a ranch in Alaska) who must have been 60 years old. He had two buddies along as support, both equally rural, decked out in boots and stetson hats. As always, the people I met are one of the best parts of the race.

We were then told to meet down at The Farm at 6pm.

In the background of this picture, behind the barn, you can see a long plastic covered quanset hut. This became our "home" during the Winter Death Race. It had a dirt floor and was about 6' high at the peak. It was also about 60' long, making for tight quarters for 50 racers and their gear. I had dropped by earlier and unloaded my packs, strategically placing them closest to the door for easy access (this had a significant downside that will show up soon). Another bonus - while stashing my gear I also ran into the always awesome Michelle Roy, ultrachick extraordinaire, who was in Pittsfield for the Snowshoe Marathon!

At 6pm, just as dusk was setting in, Joe and Andy arrived and announced that they did not really have any set plan for the race. "We kind of expected none of you to show up, and there wasn't any snow at all until this week, so we didn't really put anything together. But we will just sort of wing it and see how it all works out." This was vintage Death Race psychology - just enough to start getting on the nerves of any thin-skinned racers. They then reminded us that the rule regarding gear is that it is all with you at all times. No swapping out gear during the race. If you start with it you finish with it. And if it isn't in your pack at the outset, it had better not be later. With that re-empahsized, we were all given fifteen minutes to ready our packs for inspection. There was lots of discussion and debate about what to include, with some opting to travel as light as possible and others gearing up for all possible eventualities. Soon we were all back outside with our respective packs.

"Ok, we have changed our minds about the packs. The new rule is that you are not allowed to touch your pack, or anything in it, for the rest of the race. Take out any food or medicine, but other than that everything is strictly off limits to you from this second on."

Wow. That threw some people for a huge loop. Many of the racers had spent months strategizing about their gear, and thousands of dollars to get the perfect set-up. All now for naught! The grumbling started immediately. I was beside Ray Morvan, who just grinned at this development. "Johnny" he said, "Notice they only said that your own gear is off limits. You are welcome to anything of mine. I trust you'll be okay with my using your stuff?" Ray is a true DR veteran, and knows Joe and Andy's minds as well as anyone. Over time, most racers realized this "loophole", but it was nice to work that out early and easily. Particularly fortuitously, Ray and I had identical Fiskar 27's, so neither of us lost our chopping advantage.

With this unsettling opening, they immediately put us to work. Whereas our summer race started with hours of lifting rocks, the winter one kicked off with nine hundred burpees. Yes. 900 burpees. Straight. Here what 100 burpees looks like ... 

So, just multiply that by nine. In full winter clothing. As fast as possible. Needless to say, not everyone got through the first challenge. In fact, Joe announced each drop-out for the whole group, reminding us that there was no reason any of us should expect to finish the race. He even assured us that there would be many more burpees to come.

When the first person reached 1,000 burpees we were all told to stop. We had to record how many burpees we had done (I was at 760), and then immediately set out on a run. Andy led the way, and the pace was not too fast. We stuck to the highway, passing The General Store, travelling in a pack with our headlamps cutting through the darkness. We had only gone about a mile and a half when we stopped in the parking lot of a yoga studio.


"Everyone down to your underwear and head inside."

I think it was around 9:15pm.

This was not just yoga. It was Bikram Yoga. Which means hot yoga. And very intense hot yoga at that. Bikram is brutal, especially for beginners. Normally, a Bikram yoga studio is heated to 105F and 40% humidity. Joe had ensured that it was hotter than normal (of course he had, because we had all been preparing mentally to be COLD in the WINTER Death Race), with a woodstove glowing in the corner and steam pouring in from vents near the ceiling. It was, quite literally, a sauna. Joe's sister (I think), Liz, was the instructor and was really quite wonderful, encouraging us through the difficult poses and making sure we all worked to the best of our abilities. I am not sure that it was a full 90 minute class, but it sure felt like it to me. By the end I, like everyone, was absolutely drenched in sweat and thoroughly exhausted. We were instructed to head outside and get dressed for another run.

This is where things went south fast. When we emerged from the studio, our clothes were no longer piled up on the deck where we had all left them. While we were being "tortured" inside, several of Andy's students had been recruited to scatter our clothing (including shoes, headlamps, gloves, etc) all over the snowbank across the parking lot. And scatter they did - anything in pairs was split up, sometimes 100+ feet from one another. There was no rhyme nor reason, except to make it as frustrating as possible. Here is a short clip of Andy "innocently" explaining to Margaret, camera-woman extraordinaire, what had happened ...

I was probably 10 - 15 minutes gathering all of my clothes and gear and getting it back on. I did my best to help others still searching and then, while the last people dressed, I knocked out another 80 burpees, anticipating that we would have to make up the rest of our 1,000 at some point.

Once we were all ready, Andy assigned us each a number (I believe there were 43 of us left at this point), and then he and Joe took off at a run, instructing us to fall in behind IN ORDER. This made for a bit of an interesting twist, as people closest to the front were forced to keep up with the pacesetters (who had done neither 1,000 burpees or an hour plus of hot yoga), while those near the back were held up by any stragglers in between. I was number 6, meaning no slacking for me. The good news was that we occasionally stopped to allow the pack to catch up, giving us forerunners a chance to catch our breath. The last few got no rest whatsoever, as we took off again as soon as they had rejoined us. We ran uphill, on a steep, winding road, for an hour or so (?? time becomes very elastic in Death Races...)

Gratuitous, but relevant, musical interlude (entirely optional, of course, though my recommendation is that you click and listen to some groovy tunes while you read on!)

The Death Race is not just about physical endurance. And it is about more than mental toughness too. Throughout the race, as in life, you are required to make many decisions, each of which carries a consequence. One of my early decisions was to start the race in big, waterproof hunting boots instead of running shoes. For some reason, I assumed we would be in cold water early. And in the summer race there was actually zero running. It was all hiking under a heavy load. So, now picturing me in big, clunky boots, rewind the race so far. A thousand burpees, and several miles running in these ...

... while most everyone else was in these ...

So, up to this point, I had made a very poor decision! As we continued to climb, my left hip flexor started binding like mad. It was a familiar pain, as that is my weakness late in a marathon, but this was much worse. I even found myself wondering how I was going to be able to continue for the many hours I knew lay ahead. For now, I just kept my mind on the task at hand and went "left foot, right foot, repeat" as automatically as I could. During this stretch, a young fellow right behind me mentioned that he was close to passing out from hunger. He had brought no food when we left the farm and was fading fast. I had my pockets stuffed with granola bars and gel packs so I offered him an energy bar. He gratefully accepted it and hung in for a while (I received an email from him a week later thanking me again, and informing me that had dropped somewhere later in the night. He is coming back to give it another try in the summer, likely much wiser for his experience with underfueling.)

What happened next made all of my clomping suddenly worthwhile. We we ordered to climb down a river bank and to stand shin deep in the icy flow while Joe and Andy did a roll call (now down to about 40) and gave us some instructions. They also reassured anyone who was feeling dehydrated (almost everyone, as we had started running straight from hot yoga and many people had not brought water bottles for the run) that this stream was as safe to drink from as anything we were going to find. I did not have to take that chance, as I'd refilled my water pouch (that I had carried in my hand the whole time) before I left the yoga studio. As I sipped my water I looked around and saw the growing discomfort on many of the other racers' faces as their feet grew colder and colder in the river. When we finally scrambled back up the icy bank, we continued running and soon struck out across a snowy field, breaking through up to our knees with every stride. My boots were no longer a liability but a tremendous asset! My feet were bone dry and warm, and the rest of the run was an hour or so of mostly downhill off-road. I can only imagine how awful everyone's feet must have felt when we finally arrived back at the farm. Again, my time estimates are essentially guesses, but I think we rolled in around 12:30am.

With no rest, our next task was to make 40 piles of 70 logs. Where these logs began the night was in a huge cluster behind a second barn. The pile looked a bit like this ... or I am sure it probably did when it was dumped there in the fall. Since that time it had been snowed on, and rained on, and frozen, and snowed on some more, and rained on, and frozen, and repeat repeat repeat. That left us to smash apart a massive ice block filled with logs, and then cart almost 3,000 of them about 100 yards to the open field to sort into piles of 70 logs each. We split the work up, with several of us climbing Log Mountain and chipping away from the top, throwing newly freed logs down to the bottom. There, a constant rotation of people picked up and carried logs over to the piling zone, where a final group created piles, separated by enough room for chopping and distributed as evenly as possible by weight, size and gnarliness. I believe we finally finished that job around 2am.

What came next was odd. We were told that we could all go to sleep for a while, and that Andy and Joe would be back to get us in the morning. We were instructed to go into the greenhouse/quanset hut and that there was to be no noise or light. There was much whispered conversation on the way over. Some people grumbled that this was a stupid thing to be doing and that you would never get a "break" like this in a real race... and I am pretty certain that none of those people finished this "real" race. Like so many other things thrown at you in a Spartan Death Race, this one was intended to break your stride, get you doubting and mess with your mind.

None of us actually believed we were going to get to sleep until morning, so most people sat awake the whole time waiting for the imminent "wake up call". Of those who did try to close their eyes for a bit, the common complaint that I heard later was that the ground was frozen and there was constant condensation dripping down on them from the plastic above. Not the most comfortable place to snooze.

I am extremely blessed, though, with an ability to fall asleep anywhere at anytime, and any shut eye at all helps me enormously later in the race. As soon as we got in, I organized my spare clothing beneath me in a makeshift sleeping pad, keeping me up on the ground, and put a blanket and my raincoat over me. I was cozy and out in no time - and was very grateful for this opportunity to rest my hip flexor. The only hassle was being right beside the door. The whole time we were in the hut, it opened and closed probably every minute, allowing a rush of cold air and then a big slam. I think there was someone outside doing this by design. Oh well, all part of the adventure. It was probably an hour before someone came in and shouted - "Everybody up and out. And grab an axe, but remember - not your own!"

Once we were all standing outside, breath steaming in the cold illuminated by our headlamps, we were lined up side by side and told to hold our axes above our heads. I think the story was something like, once we had all held them directly overhead for 10 uninterrupted minutes they would call Joe who would be back down to give us our next instructions. And then every few minutes the fellows assigned to supervise us would point out someone who was not holding the axe high enough and start the clock over. More psychology, and it was interesting to see some racers starting to come unraveled. Tempers started to flare up, with a few grumps yelling at their peers to smarten up and stop screwing over the whole group. Of course, this was all planned - there is no way we were only holding the axes up for 10 minutes. In fact, after about 90 minutes Joe arrived and asked why no one had called him. They told him that we still hadn't gone 10 minutes straight without someone messing up. So, we did ten minutes more and then moved on.

Still in the dark, we now each had to choose a pile and mark it as our own (I put my hat on top). Thinking we were about to start chopping, everyone was looking for the smallest-seeming pile they could find. Instead of splitting, though, we were each told to pick out the largest log in our pile and start carrying it down to the river. This turned out to be an absolute nightmare. Some of the girls had no possible chance to even lift, let alone carry the largest logs, and some necessary concessions were made. Mine was bad enough, but I saw some guys with nearly impossibly heavy loads. Rolling was not allowed, nor dragging. Some people used ropes to create slings. Others were trying shoulders and back and arms out front. Pretty much everyone needed to set their log down several times during the 3/4 miles to the river which, mercifully, was mostly downhill. When we finally got there, we had to cross a temporary footbridge (replacing one that had been washed away by Hurricane Irene) and set our logs down on the far side. Then we had a group task of building up a substantial snow ramp, which would allow the next day's snowshoe marathoners a smooth transition up the awkward bank. So, working all together again, we created the ramp over the next hour or so. Three of us stayed below, "catching" the snow dumped by everyone above and shaping the ramp. It really was quite impressive when it was finished and was actually lots of fun to build.

What came next, though, was no fun at all. In fact it may have been as brutal as any other part of the race. First, we had to cross the river in the water, with the log. Most people had just swapped their wet shoes for dry during the time in the hut - and had no intention of soaking these ones as well at this point. So they took off their shoes and socks and walked barefoot through the frigid water. I still had my dry boots on and decided to just strike out immediately. I was the third person out of the water, with my boots no longer dry at all. I ended up submerged well past my knees with the boots filling up quickly. Still, the water warmed quickly and I was comfortable enough. Now the hard part ... ROLL that huge, wet log all the way back up to the farm. In wet, packy snow. The only way to do it was to lean forward and push the log, rolling it as best as I could as it gathered snow and changed shape quickly. Every so often I stopped and knocked excess snow off with the axe, which I also use to brace the log from rolling back when I stopped to rest my back. At this point only Olof Dalner and Norm Koch were ahead of me, and Ray Morvan and I were lockstep the whole way back. Remember, this was 3/4 of a mile almost all uphill. I think it I was about another hour to get to the farm, during which time it became full daylight. The group work was over and the real race had now started. This first solo challenge separated the racers dramatically. Five hours later I still saw people straggling in from this trip!!

Back at the farm we were told to grab any pile of wood and start splitting.  (Remember that each pile had previously been claimed? Again, this was to fluster people who would feel "cheated" that others had claimed their plum piles.)

Smiling guy in the middle is DR founder and genuine madman, Joe DeSena

Norm and Olof are both chopping machines! Olof is a huge Swede who, I guess not coincidentally, swung a huge Swedish axe. Norm was Alaska-born and Vermont-raised, so he was also no stranger to a woodpile. They were the first two finished the woodsplitting. After they carted and stacked all of their wood (against the barn about 50m away) I saw them receive the next instructions - finish your 900 burpees and top up with another 100 (for 1,000 so far), then run a 6 3/4 mile loop to the top of Joe's Mountain and back, carrying four pieces of wood up with you. I was the third one finished the splitting and stacking (That Fiskars X27 was a dream, and I am so glad Ray had the identical one!) and dove into my burpees - 100 + my 60 outstanding. Heading out onto the trail, I know that Amelia Boone and Bryan Selm were not far behind me - and this group of five soon pulled away to form "la tete de la course".

At this point I did something rather stupid. I ran my mountain loop in my soaking wet hunting boots. Why? I have no idea. I didn't even give it a thought until I was about 2/3 of the way to the top. The trail had been packed very solid by hundreds of snowshoers and would have been easy in trail shoes. Not much I could do about it now. Fortunately, I had grabbed someones empty pack into which to put my wood and some food and water and I used the slow and steady climb to rehydrate and get some nutrition into me. Granola bars, gel packs and lots of sugary green tea (cold) with Ginseng. I passed lots of snowshoers along the way - a fun and friendly bunch doing anywhere from 13 miles to 100. Coming over the peak, I stopped briefly at the cabin and was confirmed to be in third place. I dropped off my wood and headed down the other side. While there are lots of switchbacks, this mostly downhill stretch was a nice break on the lungs and quads. I ran as quickly as I safely could, descending in well under half the time it took to get to the top. Coming back up the stretch from the river, there were still a few people rolling their logs up! 

When I arrived back at the farm I saw Olof and Norm chopping, amidst all of the people still working through their initial pile. They were not working their way through these logs nearly as quickly, and I soon discovered why. This challenge involved being assigned 5 "abandoned" logs, that others had given up on splitting. Anyone still racing would now have to split these 5 logs and then stack them across the street at The Amee Farm Lodge. 

So, smash your way through five ridiculously gnarly logs and then carry the split wood 200 yards across the highway and another 100 yards up a steep driveway. Yikes! There was no way but brawn to get through the chopping, but then I had a bright idea. I had seen Olof and Norm making the trip to the lodge and back with armloads of wood, and was not eager to do the same myself. There were only three wheelbarrows available (being the first three earlier, we'd each used one for our stacking). All of them were obviously now in use, with most people now splitting their initial piles. Knowing that they each still had to finish their first 1,000 burpees, I made a pitch to someone - "Hey. Could I borrow your wheelbarrow for just five minutes, during which time you can take a quick break from splitting and catch up on some burpees?". When they said "Yes", I quickly filled it up and after just two loads at jogging speed my wood was stacked across the road and I was now in the lead!

Next? Another 1,000 burpees! I took a few minutes to finally change out of my wet boots, and tend to my waterlogged feet. They were bluish-white and crazy wrinkly, but no real damage or blisters. I slathered them in my invented balm of Vaseline jelly  and Gold Bond powder (the best foot protection ever), and treated myself to fresh socks and light hiking boots. So great!

I started into my second round of 1,000 burpees and was soon joined by Norm and Olof. We were about halfway through when Bryan and Amelia joined us. The ground was soaking wet and we were all muddy and tired, but spirits were high. The sun was out and it was warming up - I am guessing this was around Noon. Olof was the first to finish, with Norm passing me as well, so we headed out on the next run in the same order as before. Olof, Norm, me, Bryan and Amelia. On my way to the trail, I saw the old cowboy packing up. He had come to the race expecting the running and the chopping, but another 1,000 burpees was past his limit.

Bryan catching his breath during burpees. Amelia showing
perfect chest-to-the-ground form. Olof rocking it shirtless!

This trip up and down the mountain involved carrying five pieces of wood with no pack. I had seen Norm ingeniously create a bundle of his and lash them with rope. I copied his idea and headed for the trail. Just after I crossed the river and was starting the climb, I caught up with Jessica Pineault.

I had not yet met Jessica, so I introduced myself and we started to chat. She is one of the funniest, coolest people you could meet, and I found myself enjoying this hike and being recharged by her company. I ended up sticking with her the whole way up, going much slower than I might have otherwise but likely gaining important energy for later in the race. Amelia would later acknowledge Jessica's awesome spirit in her great blog post "Race Ipsa Loquitor: 32 hours and 21 minutes"

Jessica and I parted ways at the top of the mountain as I knew I had to make up some time during the descent. But first I had to make an unexpected decision - the fellow tending the cabin asked me if I would like to leave my wood or bring it back down with me. I told him that I assumed I was to leave it at the top. He said that he could not tell me either way, but that there was a right and wrong choice. As I racked my memory for the exact instructions, he told me that Olof had left his and Norm had taken his back down. I could not remember anything indicating I should bring the wood down with me, so went with what seemed like common sense and left it there. For the second time in the race I cruised quickly down the mountain (pretty sure I heard Bryan and Amelia nearing the top as I started my descent).

Just before the final hill back up to the farm a couple of volunteers asked me where my wood was. My heart sank... "What??", I asked.

"You were supposed to bring your wood back down with you. You will have to go up and talk with Andy. I'm pretty sure he is going to send you back up to get it before you can continue. But why don't you just find some wood before he sees you?"

That last part seemed a bit incongruent but they suggested it seemingly in earnest. As I started up to find Andy, cheating was the farthest thing from my mind. Yet, somehow, that suggestion quietly started to fester just under my conscious radar, such that as I came into the woodsplitting area all I could see were perfectly sized pieces of wood everywhere with which I could quickly restore my load. And immediately I had an Angel on one shoulder and a Devil on the other.

Angel: "Come on, John! Don't even think about that! This race is as much about being honourable as it is about finishing."

Devil: "But seriously, no one said anything about bringing the wood back! That is ridiculous that you'd have to go back up the mountain because of poor instructions."

Angel: "Do the right thing. You have too much respect for this race to even be considering this!"

Devil: Think about it Dude! You are in THIRD place! If you go back up you probably won't even finish much less anywhere near the Top 3."

Of course, the Angel won out. I found Andy, planning to plead my case but also fully prepared to retrace my steps to fetch the damned wood. Instead, Andy greeted me warmly with "Johnny, you are absolutely crushing this! Are you ready for the pond?" ... There was no mention of the wood, and as I headed across the road I saw both Norm and Olof warming up by the fire - obviously having completed the icy plunge. I never did ask Andy about it, but I wondered if it may have been an intentional character test (telling us each we had made the wrong choice to see if we would stash/reload our wood) or, more likely, just another random frustration thrown into the mix.

The pond challenge is one of the few things that didn't change from last year's race. Each competitor had to walk into a hole in the frozen water and fully submerge him/herself for a cumulative 60 seconds before getting out. I told Andy that my strategy was 15 seconds, four times. He smiled as he got ready to start the watch. He later told me that everyone had a similar strategy and, instead, had the same experience that I did. After wading in to waist deep, I calmed myself and dropped under the water - for just under three seconds! My lungs contracted violently as soon as they were under the cold water! "That's two seconds!" reported Andy. I think I then went about 5,7,4,8,etc until he finally yelled out "SIXTY!" and I scrambled onto dry (ok, snow-covered) land. In total, I was in the water for about three minutes. In talking with other racers later, it seems that the shortest anyone took to get their 60 seconds underwater was two minutes and the longest was a hard-to-believe-but-true nine minutes!

We did not get any video of my "swim", but here is a slapstick recreation that my son, Jack, filmed a couple of weeks ago (in Lake Couchiching) of me "supposedly" talking to Andy. The thirty seconds I was in to film this somehow felt as bad as the three minutes in the actual pond. I guess that cold is cold is cold.

As soon as I was out of the pond I headed to the hut and dressed in warm, dry clothes. Andy suggested heading to the fire for a while. I asked what was next and he said, "Another thousand burpees." If you are keeping track, that is THREE THOUSAND now! I decided that burpees would warm me up faster than sitting by a fire, so I just dove in. Olof already had a couple hundred under his belt and Norm was just getting started. It was about 5:30pm and starting to get dark. Andy came around and told us that the next task would be to do another mountain loop ... BUT that we had to be back at this spot for 8pm no matter what, at which point everyone would record where they were at before heading for another group activity. Olof picked up the pace on his burpees, as he had decided to finish the mountain loop before 8pm. Neither Norm nor I figured that we had any hope of completing the burpees and the run before 8pm, so we took our time wrapping up this round of plyometric torture. And, sure enough, Olof blazed through the run and was back with a few minutes to spare - pretty much guaranteeing himself the win. By 8:00, Bryan and Amelia had started into their burpees and a few others had made it as far as the pond (now a much harder task, as it was pitch black and getting very cold).

Note: By now, my burpee form had gone entirely to hell. Nobody's were as crisp and sharp as at the start of the race, but mine were positively awful. "Drop to perfect pushup, spring into squat, leap straight up clapping overhead" had turned into "Collapse onto the ground, lay there for a second, clamber up to feet, bounce onto your tiptoes and do jazz hands." The "jazz hands" reference was made by Amelia Boone, and I am still laughing at her calling me on that! "Those were some epic jazz hands you were doing Johnny!"

I had not paid much attention to who was dropping out, but we now had 23 remaining in the race. So well under half of what we started with. We were given telephone pole sized logs and told to carry them, in groups of 4-5, down the road to The General Store. Our lead group stayed together, and lined up shortest to tallest. Amelia was at the front (not short at all at 5'9"), then me 5'10", Norm 6', Bryan 6'2" and Olof 6'4". We headed out first and made pretty easy time to the store. There we set down our poles and headed in, where we reported how far we had progressed in the race. We were all told to check in again when we got back later to the farm and that we would be picking up where we were at 8pm. We then picked up the poles again and carried them all the way back down to the yoga studio.

Round two of Bikram Yoga, but this time it was much different. It was even hotter than the first trip and, most notably, Liz was nowhere to be seen. Joe DeSena was leading this class. I was actually a bit surprised how well Joe knows yoga, as he called out the poses. What was not a surprise to me was Joe's approach to Death Race yoga. We were given the hardest poses and then told to hold them for the prescribed time. Of course, 27 hours into a race, with thousands of burpees and dozens of miles under our belts, not everyone was able to maintain the poses. And every time someone dropped out of the pose Joe barked, "Okay. So thanks to ______, we have to start the count all over again!" ... Again and again and again.

So, minutes (not seconds) into "Awkward Pose" ...EVERYONE was crying out in pain. My calves could not possibly have hurt more, going into awful spasms. My toes and feet ached and my back and arms were not much better. Like with the overhead axe drill (which now seemed like a cake walk), people started losing their tempers and yelling at one another. One guy who did not lose his temper was Ray Morvan. Only a few months back from major ankle surgery, Ray had to tap out during this second round of yoga. Making it many hours deeper than most, Ray was his usual inspiring self, and departed in good spirits and on good terms.

The highlight of this yoga session for me - okay the highlight of ANY yoga session for me! - was Joe instructing us to stand straight and lift one foot off the floor. Bringing it close to our chest, we were then told to grab under our foot, and ... "PULL UP LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER!" Yoga as could ONLY be led by Joe DeSena. After we completed the "class", we were told to lay on our backs, dead silent, eyes closed. Within minutes, maybe even seconds, everyone had collapsed into unconsciousness. At which point Joe unleashed the loudest airhorn I have ever heard (and felt)! "Anyone who is not back at the farm, with your pole, in fifteen minutes is disqualified. GO!"

We scrambled out onto the porch, where we were relieved to find our clothes right where we left them. Everyone dressed quickly and got under our logs to head up the road at a trot. This trip was mostly uphill, and we were dehydrated and exhausted from the yoga, but I was grateful to have such solid partners for the task.

As soon as we arrived at the farm, at around 10:30pm, Andy made an announcement. "There is a hard cutoff at 4am. That is when the course will be declared closed. Everyone knows what they are doing next, and some of you have some idea what you still have to do after that. I will just say that only about ten of you have any realistic chance of finishing, so decide accordingly if you are going to continue."

This was great news to me, because I knew that only three of us had finished our burpees, so if ten people were still in the mix I could not have much left beyond this last loop of the mountain. Flush with this realization, I took off at a run towards the river. Norm seemed to be busy doing something else, so I was now in second place. And I felt surprisingly fresh and light as I blazed through the downhill 3/4 miles. And that is where the wheels started to fall off!


Well, that explains what Norm was doing! He was intelligently preparing for the 2 1/2 hour run ahead. Unlike me who loped carelessly off into the woods like a complete idiot. I passed Norm on my way back to the farm. "Good on you Normy! Go crush that mountain!" I was legitimately excited for him - he is a much stronger runner than I am and would have caught me anyway. As I gathered my supplies I figured that Bryan and Amelia were about halfway through their 1,000 burpees, putting me an hour or two ahead. So, heading back out on the trail I figured I should have third pretty safely wrapped up.

The next few hours were surreal to say the least. The whole way up the mountain I kept hearing music, as though there were a loud party nearby. And I repeatedly heard footsteps crunching up behind me and turned to see who was catching up. There was never anyone there, although often I was sure I saw headlamps in the woods, sometimes close up and sometimes at a distance but always darting behind trees as soon as I looked. My thoughts started turning to my own headlamp. Earlier, people had been discussing their headlamps with some having spent in the hundreds. Mine was $15, purchased at a Home Depot just before the Death Race in June! Ha!! And it ran on three plain old AAA batteries that I had never even replaced. It had got me through DR, my canoe trip with Jack, the Haliburton 100, my overnight training sessions through the last few months ... uh oh.

Instantly, I became obsessed with saving my batteries, turning the light off anytime there was enough moonlight peeking through the trees. As it was a nearly full moon, that was much of the time - running up a mountain with no light so that I wouldn't have to run up a mountain with no light. That is the sort of logic that takes over the second full night with no sleep in a Winter Death Race - well, for me anyway.

I knew I was getting close to the top when Norm ran past me on his way back down. I cheered him again and asked how he was coming down this way. He explained that he had run the loop in reverse this time, feeling he would rather get the shorter steeper climb out of the way and cruising down the longer, windier descent. A pretty smart strategy, actually. Apparently his logic was still intact! I, on the other hand, just kept winding back and forth on the switchbacks, sometimes going up, sometimes going down. Until I realized that I had been going down for way way too long. In fact, I could see some sort of house ahead that could not be very far up the mountain. That is when I realized that not only had I taken a wrong turn (likely because of my obsession with saving my lamp batteries), but I had then basically fallen asleep on my feet and walked most of the way down the mountain on a snowmobile trail. I started back up the hill and then saw a trail that I gambled on, hoping it would get me back to where I needed to be. Several minutes later I came to a fork and took the path headed up. A few minutes later I saw a headlamp - a real one this time - coming down the hill towards me. It was Norm. Which seemed impossible. "John? How did you get here?? I passed you about 40 minutes ago way up there!"

So, I then had to reclimb the hill. I started doing the math in my head. Ok, I lost 40 minutes coming down. I have to go that far back up which will take me probably twice that. Hmm, that is about two hours. Now I knew there WOULD be headlamps behind me - Bryan and Amelia's. If they hadn't passed me already. At this point I just stopped thinking and reverted to "Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot...." Each time I passed a familiar landmark, I tried to not beat myself up over how long ago I had already come this far. But it did become discouraging. I noticed that I was no longer smiling, and certainly not laughing and singing. And I didn't even try to change that. At one point, on a particularly steep section, I just sort of leaned into the hill and closed my eyes for several minutes, feeling my forehead melting into the snow. Then I just looked up and carried on.

And then things turned around for the better once again. As I crested the mountain, and came into the clearing around the cabin, I was so moved by the beautiful scene. The cabin was empty, and there was not any sound at all. Everything shone silver in the bright moonlight. And off in the distance, in the valley below and scattered on the surrounding hillsides, I saw homes and cabins, some with lights on and some with lights off, but all with woodsmoke curling up from their chimneys into the crisp night sky. I remembered Jack Cary, nine months earlier as we hiked into the sunrise in the cold river, saying "Please stop for a moment and think how incredibly fortunate we are to be here." So, I did stop. And I did think. And I was incredibly fortunate and grateful.

On that blissed-out note, I struck back down the mountain. Again, I found it refreshing to have gravity on my side and made good time. It was a more challenging descent because the snow had refrozen, turning what had earlier been slushy footsteps into jagged traps, each trying to twist my ankles and send me sprawling. Still, each step brought me closer to the farm and to the end of the race.

As I came out of the woods for the last time I saw Joe's white Yukon truck with two people sipping coffee inside. As I came up to the window, Andy greeted me. "Congratulations Johnny. You finished third. Way to go pal!" I was thrilled. To have finished so well. To be done. And to be alive. He continued "Head into the loft and find a couch to grab a nap. At 4am we will have a ceremony for everyone who makes it to the end by then. See you downstairs then."

I looked at my watch. It was about 1:45am. I headed into the loft, put my wet socks in front of the fire and fell face first onto the nearest soft surface. About two hours later I heard Andy's booming voice. Obviously the awards ceremony was beginning so I headed down. Or at least I tried to head down. I could hear Andy loud and clear, and Joe, and other people laughing, but I could not figure out how to get to the room they were in. It felt like a weird maze, with each stairway leading to another dead end. Finally I went outside and found a separate way into the garage-like bay where I found them.

As Andy handed me my skull, the traditional finisher's trophy, he said "Hey, Johnny, I am sorry. We screwed up and you actually finished fifth. Congratulations, though, you crushed it. Only eleven of you finished. Well done."

I was still half-asleep, plus I trust Andy and Joe implicitly, so I just took that news in stride and looked around the room at the great group of people with whom I was celebrating a fantastic adventure. And it is an amazing bunch! We all joked about crazy moments from the last few days and exchanged handshakes and hugs and high fives and then headed for our respective beds. Before driving to the Fleur de Lis, I cleaned all my gear out of the greenhouse and loaded it into my car. Then, after driving down the road and walking up the stairs at about 5:30am, I lay down but didn't sleep. At 7am I heard Lou yell out that breakfast was ready, then had a quick shower and headed down for eggs and coffee. In addition to the hearty congratulations from Lou and Elaine, I was treated to a breakfast with Irish Joe! It was absolutely the greatest visit. He asked me dozens of questions about my race and was a phenomenal cheerleader. And, even better, he shared wonderful stories about his races - ultramarathons and snowshoeing. What an extraordinary guy, with whom I hope to cross paths with many more times over the years!

I headed next door to The General Store for a road coffee and some wifi to post my result to Facebook. There I saw Bryan and Amelia and a bunch more racers. Everyone looked tired but happy. I also got a chance to chat with Andy, which is always awesome. He is just such an inspiring, joyful guy.

I'm going to save the trip home and the post-race adjustments for another post, as this one is already far and away the longest I have ever written. If you are still here with me - thank you! You deserve a skull of your own.

One more thing to explain is the mystery of the THIRD-TO-FIFTH-PLACE-FINISH. I think I have it figured out. As best as I can figure out, I was the third person to cross the finish line. My skull even has a "3rd" scribbled into a "5th". And my time says 31:38, which is about 43 minutes faster than the 3rd/4th place finishers. But I was not robbed or cheated. In reading Amelia's race report, she and Bryan (and Olof and Norm) at some point completed a challenge involving carrying a bucket down to the river and returning with it full. I did not do that. Only because no one told me to. But I am guessing that when Joe and Andy realized that they had somehow missed giving me that task to complete, they made an adjustment for the time it would have taken me and that bumped me back to fifth. And that is absolutely fine and fair by me.

Especially because the 3rd and 4th place finishers were Amelia and Bryan. You may have noticed that every time I mentioned where they were on the course they were together. That was a conscious choice on their part. They did the entire race together, which had to have slowed them down. Bryan chops wood much faster than Amelia (by sheer virtue of their size difference), and she knocks out burpees at a much higher rate. In every case, they both finish each task only as fast as the slower one can. I am very clear that either of them, on their own, would have crushed me head to head in the race.

Add to this the fact that they are both hilarious, smart, kind AND 
look like this ... I'm not sure whether to love them or hate them?
(But you all know I ALWAYS CHOOSE LOVE!!)

Finishing 5th to only these four ROCKSTARS is absolutely fine by me ... and beyond my wildest expectations going into the race :)


One last note: My parents are the most wonderful people I know. They support me and all of my siblings in everything that we do. And I know that many of the things I do are the most difficult to actually support. So, I appreciate them even more than I am able to express. Recently, since the Winter Death Race, I was at a dinner at their home where they presented me with a bottle of Crystal Head Vodka (that cannot be bought in Ontario), in a clear skull shaped bottle. Better yet, it was personally signed by Dan Akroyd (of Blues Brothers fame) who they met in Florida the week prior.

WIth a sunset in the background!

So, this picture is what I call THE FULL SET :)


  1. You are an amazing dude Johnny. I honestly don't know what else I could say? You just rock.

  2. As usual your words captivate and inspire me. I'm so looking forward to doing the DR with you this summer. Even though I'll be far behind you, the memories of your previous experiences and the vivid details you share will be in my thoughts each time the going gets tough. Congratulations on killing the winter death race and you too are a rockstar!

  3. John; Excellent accounting of your experience. I was there with you the whole way in this post. In fact I was thinking about you while you were actually competing in the race and saw your finish post on Facebook as soon as it appeared. I have one question... Was the pond challenge completed twice? Or did you simply reflect on it once in the blog and write about it once? In any event... I am so proud for you and your tenacity and your courage. Thanks a million for sharing.

  4. Thanks for catching that pond stutter Dan! When I was editing, that paragraph went missing. Not realizing it had been moved to somewhere else in the post, I wrote it again. I guess that I really was reliving the fog of the WDR. I have deleted the superfluous account and the chronology is now correct :)

  5. Awesome write up Johnny!! Takes me right back to those two awesome days with all these great people! Can't wait to see everyone in June.

  6. AWESOME!!! As usual! Can't wait for June!!! J:)

  7. I bow to you, I was exhusted just reading about it. I have to say, although I am in the worst shape in my life right now, I know even in my best, I could never do any of this. I will aspirethe greatness through you my friend.

  8. Loved reading this post! Thanks for sharing your experience.