July 6, 2011 - Middlebury College men’s and women’s squash coach John Illig competed in the 2010 Death Race, one of the more physically and mentally grueling endurance events in the world. The Death Race is held annually in the Green Mountains of Vermont and  takes up to 48 hours to finish, with more than three-quarters of the participants typically dropping out. Coach Illig completed the 2010 race and shares his experience with DailySquashReport.com.

Death Race 2010 or 35 Hours Of Bliss
by John Illig, special to DailySquashReport.com

Here’s a race that reporters have dubbed “Survivor Meets Jackass”  - -  a race in which each event is kept secret and is revealed only at the moment you’re asked to accomplish it.  Racers move from task to task, never knowing what’ll come next or when it will end.  The organizers are ex-endurance athletes who’re bent on establishing this as this the hardest race in the world.  They’re happy if only a small handful of the entrants are able to reach the finish line.  I’m lucky to have been one of 19 finishers in this year’s DEATH RACE, out of 87 people who tried it.  Held annually in the mountains of Pittsfield, Vermont, near the Killington Mountain ski resort, this year’s 2010 Death Race was the fourth annual contest.  There’s mud involved, as well as crawling under barbed wire.  Oh, yeah:  and hauling sheep poop, too. 

Like bugs to a flame - -  or like mice to cheese in a trap - -  we’re drawn to this race.  Full disclosure is that I’d attempted (and failed to finish) this race back in 2008 when two of my colleagues in the Middlebury College athletic department convinced me to enter it along with them.  It’s an individual event, but knowing fellow contestants felt comforting.  That was the second-annual contest, so back then Death Race was in its infancy.  Only 45 people raced in 2008, and 9 finished.  The field has doubled since then.  Athletes who’ve completed Ironmans and 100-mile Ultra-marathons gravitate to this race, as they’re looking to test themselves and push their limits.  In 2008, I dropped out of the race after 17 hours, upon getting lost on the course.  I huffed off, angry over what I’d considered to be an error by the race organizers over marking the trail.  Many who don’t finish huff away angry over some perceived slight or another.  I know that now. 

My 2008 failure stuck with me.  I’m not saying that it ate away at me (my disappointment wasn’t  that  strong), but it left me questioning my conception about myself, at least just that little bit, for up until then I’d never failed to finish a race that I’d started.  I’m the squash coach at Middlebury, and I’m a racquets-guy;  however, I’ve dabbled with endurance tests.  I was 3-for-3 in finishing marathons;  1-for-1 in finishing 50-mile ultra-marathons;  and 1-for-1 in finishing triathlons.  More than that, I’d hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1993, the Pacific Crest Trail in 1999, and the Continental Divide Trail in 2005, logging over 8,000 trail miles in walking through a hell of a lot of forests, climbing a hell of a lot of mountains and dealing with a hell of a lot of discomfort.  Those hikes gave me months at a time in the woods.  I’m comfortable in the woods, and that helps in the Death Race. 

After finishing the 2010 Death Race last week, I got told by my friend and “race support crew chief,” Peter Lourie:  “YOU’RE A STUD!”  Well, I’m not a stud.  I’ve never been a stud.  But I’m tough.  And I’m hugely determined.  I didn’t enter the Death Race in either 2008 or again this time in 2010 (at age 46), in order to learn those things about myself:  I’ve already known them for quite some time.  I’ve known for decades that I’m able to push myself to my physical and mental limits.  That knowledge has come from a lifetime of sports including climbing in New York’s Adirondack Mountains as a child at summer camp, and through long years of competitive tennis and squash.  Also, for the past 19 years, I’ve been a college athletics coach, and it’s my JOB to motivate, instruct and help young men & women as they train, compete and strive to fulfill their athletic goals.  I love my job.  My players amaze and inspire me on a daily basis.   Almost everything that I do is for THEM;  so, at moments like these when they leave for the summer and a Death Race possibility rears its head, I’m happy to have a brief moment of my own.  Here’s a brief and delicious moment when it’s all about ME!  Yes, I’ve known for decades that I’m tough and that I’m a fighter;  but my having quit in the 2008 Death Race left me reeling just a bit.  I was unable to enter the Death Race in 2009 (and perhaps it did me good to have just a little more time to distance myself from 2008);  but, when I entered this year’s 2010 race, I felt nervous and anxious for weeks and months before it, eagerly hoping that race time would hurry up and arrive.  I had the goal of redeeming myself.  I had something to prove.

Mandatory Gear:
$50 in pennies
a post-hole digger
a 10-pound bag of onions
a knife with a minimum 3” blade
GREEK, An Intensive Course;  1978 Hansen & Quinn

The gimmick that’s DEATH RACE is that assigned tasks are kept secret.  When the race starts, they give us our first task.  Once completed, they assign us the next one.  On and on it goes:  complete one task and then learn about and start the next one.  We don’t know how many total tasks exist, so we don’t know when the race will end.  Recent tasks for the previous three years have included:  diving in a pond for cinder blocks and bicycle chains;  digging stumps;  chopping and sawing wood;  mixing and pouring cement;  crawling through ditches under barbed-wire;  and just generally endlessly carrying heavy and irregularly-shaped objects up and down mountains.  The race is the same for everyone, with each racer proceeding in the same order of tasks.  We go off up the mountains, or up and down the Tweed River, and we constantly loop back to the Amee Farm, which is RACE CENTRAL where the bulk of the race staff and volunteers congregate with their computers and walkie-talkies. 

The race organizers - -  Joe Desane & Andy Weinberg - -  give all entrants a list of mandatory gear that we’re to bring to the start [see above].  The race varies from year to year, so each year’s race has it’s own personality and unique list of mandatory items to bring.  They try to stay creative and unpredictable.  They don’t tell us what we’ll be using the gear for, or even IF we’ll be using it at all.  For instance, an example of a classic Death Race move that they pull on us is that one of the five mandatory items they’d assigned us to bring in 2010 was a post-hole digger, and while we had to carry it almost the entire race (35 hours, for me), we NEVER ONCE used it:  we never once had to dig so much as a single post hole.  What a mind scramble!  The threat that we  might  have to use it later in the race was always there.  They mess with our heads like that.  We’ll be half-way done with the race, and they’ll tell us that we’re one-quarter of the way done.  They play tricks on us and give disinformation.  If you have the right attitude, then you can actually come to view this as a fun part of Death Race.  If you have the wrong attitude then it’s toxic. 

I knew from Death Race 2008 that at some point during the contest, we’d need to drag our packs while crawling under a barbed-wire course;  so I got help from a colleague at work - -   Marcel Leduc (a creative engineer) - -   and we drilled holes in my external frame backpack to construct a chord and pulling system.  They allow us to modify our things.  That gives us the pre-race option of cutting down the arms of our post-hole diggers to make them more manageable to carry;  however, doing so would mean taking the risk of possibly being asked to dig hundreds of deep holes during the race, and shorter handles make digging much harder.  Having pre-race gear and pack system options causes us to puzzle over what might be asked of us, and how we should train.  That, in turn, causes doubt and anxiety, which could possibly partially account for the fact that 109 people paid the $400 entry fee for the race this year, but only 87 people showed up in Pittsfield.  Some of those 22 paid no-shows got COLD FEET.  I sympathize.  My friend Marcel kept me grounded.  He drilled holes through the arms of my POST-HOLE DIGGER, and with plastic cinch ties I devised an excellent system of tightly and efficiently securing my unwieldy post-hole digger to the side of my pack.  MANY thanks to Marcel for his pre-race help and ideas!  I bought a KNIFE on Amazon.com, but I wasn’t overly worried about having to use it.  I assumed we’d be cutting onions at some point during the race.  For my 10-POUND BAG OF ONIONS, I put two 5-pound bags into a mesh bag, wound duct tape around it and secured it in a nylon stuff sack.  The GREEK BOOK cost $45, used, on Amazon.com, and even in paperback form it was heavy at 850 pages.  I rolled it up in a clear plastic trash bag, and tucked that into another stuff sack.  For my $50 IN PENNIES, they weighed 30 pounds, and I had them in penny rolls.  My 100 penny rolls went into a clear plastic barrel with a water-proof screw-top.  Again, I knew from 2008, that I’d be best-served to make all my gear water-proof, as back then we’d had to walk a total of at least 5 miles up and down the Tweed River;  and this year we’d surely have to do the same.  The Tweed River rocks are slippery as hell, and I’d slipped and fallen often in 2008.  I didn’t want my Greek book, or my penny rolls, getting water-logged. 

During the race, we’re to have our mandatory items with us at all times, unless they specifically say otherwise for a certain task.  I also knew - -  both from racing in 2008 and from hearing about the 2009 Death Race - -  that besides carrying our mandatory items, we’d also have to carry additional crazy things which could include anything from stumps to tires to buckets of sand to bicycles to chords of wood;  so, the skill to be ready to improvise was important.  For that, I brought extra plastic ties, a belt, carabineers, a wrap-around Velcro strap, and OF COURSE a roll of duct tape.  For any surprise item that they’d assign us to lug up the mountains or drag through the river, I wanted to be able to wrap it, cinch it, strap it, sling it over my shoulder, and just generally have options on ways to secure it.  Finally, I had extra running shoes, extra socks, and rubbing alcohol waiting for me at the central race zone so that I could carefully manage my feet.

The two and only “clues” that Joe and Andy had given us via e-mail a few weeks before the race were sent in Greek.  In 2008, there’d been no mental tasks during the Death Race, thank god;  however, I’d learned that in 2009, they’d added a couple mental challenges.  As the Greek book was a mandatory race item, and a communiqué had been issued in Greek, it was certain that at some point during the race we were going to be asked to TRANSLATE GREEK.  Or, worse:  some Greek might be interspersed throughout the race that we might have to constantly translate.  Yikes!  Well, I plugged the Greek message into Google Translator and got these two clues:  1) “prepare to walk through the valley of darkness;”  and, 2) “know your competition.”  The first clue meant that we should be ready to compete at night;  so, we had to bring a headlamp flashlight.  It’s essential to have one.  But my interpretation of the second clue turned out to be wrong.  I now know that they’d meant us to interpret it figuratively, and by  “know your competition”  they meant that our competition was ourselves and so we had to KNOW OURSELVES.  But I took the second clue literally, and I went to the race web site - -   http://www.youmaydie.com/   - -  and spent hours watching and taking notes on the video-taped entry submissions that my fellow entrants and I had been asked to make.  Joe and Andy hadn’t told us WHAT to put on our video entries, so as a result these varied greatly in length and tone.  Some racers made brief 11-second videos, while others made videos as long as nine minutes.  Some displayed modesty and self-deprecating humor, while others were meant to intimidate, showing guys with their shirts off lifting weights in their basements, or dragging large slabs of weights across parking lots.  I laminated my video notes, along with some Greek cheat-sheets (NOT against race rules), to keep them water-proof.  I’d wrongly guessed that we might get asked questions about the others during the race.  


    6 PM Friday              registration    at Amee Farm, Pittsfield
    8 PM Friday               meeting        at Pittsfield General Store
    9 PM Friday             pre-race         at Ax Shop, in the mountains  (vans shuttle us)
    4 AM Saturday           RACE          at Amee Farm

I live just an hour away from the Pittsfield, Vermont, race site.  That’s convenient for me.  Other Death Racers didn’t have it so easy.  There were several entrants from Vermont (only THREE Vermonters, including myself, finished the race), but others had come from as far away as Australia, California, Texas, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere.  I’m nothing if not thorough and obsessive, so in the weeks leading up to the race, I took advantage of my proximity to Pittsfield and made three training trips to the Amee Farm, hiking up and down the mountains and walking up and down the river with my gear.  Those training trips (along with my 2008 experience), made me VERY comfortable in the race surroundings. 

I drove alone from my home in Middlebury, arriving at the Amee Farm in Pittsfield at 4 PM on Friday, June 25th.   Route 125 took me up and over the Green Mountains, through the Breadloaf Writers Conference campus, passed Robert Frost’s home, and passed the Middlebury College Snowbowl (yes, we have our own ski slope at the college:  how decadent!).  A crowd of racers was assembled when I arrived, and race REGISTRATION at the Amee Farm barn had a long and slow-moving line formed in the large dirt central race zone amongst tables, tents and chairs. 

Instead of parking at the rode-side Amee Farm barn on Route 100 - -  the lone road that bisects tiny Pittsfield (population 427) - -  I drove 1-mile back behind the barn and parked alongside a dozen other cars in the fields by the Tweed River.  There’s a footbridge down there, which is what we’d take to head into the mountains, so I figured that parking nearby it would give me good and timely access to clothes, drinks and food from my car.  Then I grabbed my gear and walked up to the central zone at the Amee Farm barn to sign in.  The registration line was creeping forward at a snail’s pace, and I didn’t want to waste time, so I dropped my gear and walked down Route 100 to the Pittsfield General Store and bought a sandwich and chips and drinks.  I walked back to the Amee Farm - -  eating as I walked - -  and registered.  Part of our registration was to enter the barn and in a back room sit for a video-taped interview, answering questions about why we’d entered the race, and what were our goals.  This was quite the sociological experiment, after all:  why does one put oneself though this?  All the racers were friendly.  At 5’ 10”, 175 pounds, I was one of the least-muscular contestants in the race.  That didn’t worry me.  Neither did my age:  only five others in the race were older than I.  Time flew by, and they told us to be at the General Store at 8 PM with all our gear to be ready for the pre-race.  I walked a second time to the store. 

9 PM -  4:30 AM

At 8 PM, vans shuttled us and our gear (backpacks, post-hole diggers, pennies, onions) from the General Store up a mountain road, dropping us at a parking spot.  From there, we climbed to the end of the dirt road to a wooden shack called “the Ax Shop.”  Beside us had stretched a 200-yard-long barbed-wire course which climbed through mud, stones and dense woods.  It’d be part of the race.  Posters along the barbed wire named the “Seven Deadly Sins,” and we all tried writing them down as we walked, just in case they asked us to spit out that information during the race (possibly even translated into Greek).  Then our assembled group of 87 racers sat on the ground by the Ax Shop while co-director Andy Weinberg spoke for thirty minutes about rules and procedures.  I knew that it was the calm before the storm, and that our imminent “pre-race” was going to be rough.  Back in 2008, I hadn’t even known that there was going to  BE   a pre-race, so it’d come as a shock.  That 2008 pre-race had lasted FOUR HOURS, from 10PM-2AM, as they’d had us in the dark with full packs and wearing our headlamps, carry logs up and down mountains, carry cement bags, mix cement, crawl through mud, and stand neck-deep in a pond.  One of the 2008 mandatory race items had been to carry a raw egg (it was left to us to devise a crush-proof egg-holding system), and if one’s egg broke during the pre-race then you had to re-do a climb or a task and still catch up with the others.  At the 2 AM conclusion of the 2008 pre-race, they’d given us one hour to sit at the barn and relax and change into dry clothes to be ready for the 3 AM race start.  So, I was  definitely  mentally prepared to have a challenging 2010 pre-race. 

It was 9 PM when they’d finished splitting us into groups of 8, with each group needing 2 women.  They never explained to us WHY we were doing a pre-race.  They never explained anything at all.  But they gave us the option of renting a bucket, in exchange for $2 in pennies.  We left our packs at the ax shop and carried with us, in our buckets, only our $48 in pennies and our Greek book.  Then, they gave each group a heavy and unwieldy 16-foot-long wooden bridge, and for the next SEVEN HOURS, in groups, we walked up and down the mountain trails carrying our bridges and buckets of gear.  It was like what I’d seen of military boot-camp training in the movies.  And just like in the movies, all night long a group of race staff in headlamps ran alongside us barking orders and generally constantly yelling at us all to “keep up.”  I tried to tune out that noise.  Early on in the pre-race, I almost fainted.  But then I removed my long-sleeve neoprene shirt and wore just my T-shirt, and then I felt better.  Carrying the heavy bridges and our buckets along narrow and sometimes steep paths was designed to break our spirits and expose injuries and weaknesses.  It also forced us to use teamwork.  It scared the shit out of anyone who hadn’t known there was even going to BE a session like this.  It’s totally unnerving, as you think:  “If the pre-race is THIS HARD, what will the race be like?”  It’s enough to make you want to quit.  Several people indeed dropped out during the pre-race.  Anyone without a pretty solid background in either athletics or the military was pretty sure not to make it through this.  I tried to keep my cool.  My group ended up one person short, so we had 6 men and 1 woman.  We were “Team 4,” and fortunately ours was a great group that worked hard and communicated well together.  The only rests we could take were extremely short.  The weather was PERFECT.  It wasn’t too muggy or hot.  It was T-shirt weather all night.  Still, I was severely dehydrated throughout the pre-race.  I can’t imagine what that pre-race would’ve been like on muddy slopes in a torrential downpour.  They’d have been carting us away in body bags.  

You have to be ready for major gaffs during this race, like my having gotten lost on the course in 2008.  Well, I experienced a MAJOR GAFF right away here in 2010.  The race started at the Amee Farm barn at 4 AM, but Joe Desane accidentally kept my team and one other (about 14 of us total) in the mountains too long and didn’t get us back to Amee Farm until 4:30 AM, thirty minutes after they’d started the race.  One of the women with us was livid.  We were already behind!  This felt awful.  Back in 2008, I’d been one of the front-runners early on, and that had felt empowering.  Still, that’d ultimately backfired when I got lost.  Back in 2008, the barbed-wire course began at the barn, and the absolute craziest thing happened when hyper-competitive me lined up at the front of the pack and blew through the barbed wire course to start out in first place at 4 AM, when quite surprisingly as I was hoofing down to the Tweed River, the only race worker on the course stopped me and said:  “Hey, when you reach the river, stop and wait for us.”  “HUH?!”  That had blown me away.  I mean:  wasn’t it a race?  In what kind of a race do they tell you to slow down and wait for the others?  Well, now just the opposite was happening here in 2010.  Instead of starting in first place, this time I was kept away from the starting line when the race began.  Well, I tried to relax.  I tried to consider it this way:  if the previous way hadn’t worked, then maybe this way WOULD!  It was a reminder that I had to stay calm.  In that regard, it was a blessing in disguise, for once I relaxed about that gaff, I suddenly seemed to understand or intuit something about the race that I hadn’t gotten before.  It was right then that I latched onto a relaxed, smiling, and slightly chagrined attitude and I held it for the next 27 hours, all the way to the finish line.  Yes, a goofy, laughing, roll-with-the-punches demeanor is exactly what this race calls for.  It’s hard to finish the race without it. 

When Joe’d finally realized that he was keeping us in the mountains too long, he hoofed us down to the farm as quickly as possible, taking a short-cut down an overgrown herd-path and walking through the Tweed River, upstream from the bridge.  My socks and sneakers were soaked when I got to the barn, and I was already thirty minutes late for the starting line.  There was no time to eat or change or relax.  I set out immediately upon getting told the first task from the race crew there at the Amee Farm tables.

Death Race  

Our race began at 4:00 AM (well:  at 4:30 AM for me and a handful of others), from the Amee Farm barn with TWO CONSECUTIVE ROUND-TRIPS climbing up and over Sable Mountain to the Ax Shop and back.  It was only on the return from the second trip that they made us carry our backpacks will ALL our gear:  post-hole digger, pennies, onions, Greek book and all else.  And it was only on the first of the two round-trips that we had to belly-crawl through the wet, mud-lined, seemingly endless 200-yard-long barbed-wire course at the Ax Shop. 

As bizarre as that previous night’s pre-race adventures had been, variety wasn’t proving to be the strongest feature of the Death Race thus far.  The tedious maze of mountain bike trails covering that wide range of the Sable Mountains west of Route 100 -  -   and west of the Tweed River - -  was positively labyrinthine.  Race organizer Joe Desane has bought 500 acres of land in Pittsfield and has created the mountain-bike course on the hillsides.  Joe is from the Bronx, is ex-military, and then he worked on Wall Street and managed a hedge fund and amassed a fortune.  Now he does this:  creates an empire in the quiet mountains of Vermont and hosts races for crazy people.  The pink ribbons that he’d used to mark the mountain-bike route to the Ax shop occasionally led BOTH ways at a few of the forks on the interweaving trails.  They’d painted pink question marks at the forks to signify that we had the option to take either route.  Most of us took what’s the “white” trail up and over the Sable Mountain summit and then a mile back over its north side to the Ax Shop, but a few Death Racers took a shorter “blue” route.  Punishment for having even once taken the blue route was having to go a SECOND time both ways through the mind-numbing, Ax Shop barbed-wire course;  but, I was with the majority of those who‘d always taken the longer, constantly switch-backing “white“ trail. 

Minor pleasures interrupted our pain, like when we caught sunrise on the first trip over Sable Mountain’s bald summit, offering us a panoramic view back, over the Wilcox Mountain range, which rises “across the street” on the eastern side of Route 100 (we hadn’t set foot east of the road yet).  The sunrise was beautiful, if underappreciated in our present sleepless and semi-comatose state.  I hiked (“raced”) with a few different people on those two round-trips, in part because it was more fun to have company, but also because I always wanted to be with someone on the confusing mountain-bike trail maze so that I wouldn’t get lost again, like in 2008.  And because I’d so thoroughly studied the video tape entry submissions of all the others, I could pretty much hike with anyone and know a good deal about them.  That was fun for me, and useful for building rapport.  Some people ran (jogged) up and down the mountains while others walked.  Another pleasure was that nobody was yelling at us any longer!  We could talk and even walk slowly if we pleased.  You could go at your own pace, and no one stops you from resting. 

After the first of the two Sable Mountain round-trips, I snuck a break at my car in the fields down by the Tweed River.  I changed into dry clothes and removed my wet sneakers and socks.  I was wearing running shoes for the race.  It greatly surprised me to find that some of the other racers were actually wearing various kinds of lightweight hiking boots.  On my three long hikes through deserts and over high snowy mountains, in walking 8,000 from Mexico to Canada twice and from Georgia to Maine once (Pacific Crest Trail;  Continental Divide Trail;  and, Appalachian Trail), I’d worn nothing but running shoes the entire time.  That trend has caught on, for now almost all “through-hikers” wear running shoes - -  straight off-the-shelves running shoes.  They’re perfect for so many reasons:  they’re lightweight, comfortable, quick-drying, and they’re excellent shock absorbers and give great traction on rocks.  Barefoot, I poured rubbing alcohol over my feet to dry them out.  I sat for five minutes on a folding chair and elevated my feet by propping them up on the back of my top-down convertible.  I popped three Motrin and ate shrimp cocktail from out of a mason jar.  I drank Gatorade and ate Snickers bars, too.  Then it was on with dry socks and a fresh, dry pair of sneakers and up for the second of the two Sable Mountain round-trips.  Proper foot maintenance is key!  Everyone’s legs felt Jello-y and numb, but people were dropping out of the race left and right because they were hobbled by sore feet or blisters. 

After the two round-trip mountain climbs (which had followed on the heels of our seven-hour pre-race mountain climbs), our next couple tasks kept us right at the Amee Farm central race zone for several hours.  There was a general bustle of activity.  It was mid-day and the huge area around the barn was sprinkled with backpacks, gear, racers and race “support crews.”  They’d written our race numbers on our foreheads, but they’d used some kind of low-grade ink and sweat and grime had rubbed everyone’s number away.  Thus, race support crew members who wore athletic gear (most) were more or less indistinguishable from the racers, except for these following few cases:  those visibly cut and bleeding;  the massively muscular;  those who hadn’t changed out of their muddy clothes;  and, those in action swinging axes or pushing wheelbarrows.  We’re allowed to have friends and relatives with us at the race.  They can give us food, drinks and clothing, and they can walk with us and give moral support and encouragement, but they can’t carry any of our gear or in any way help us with any of the tasks.  My amateur support crew was an author from Middlebury named Peter Lourie, and also a Middlebury College student named Mark Sorrentino.  Pete’s my friend from town (he‘s kind of my mentor who helps me with my writing, and I give squash lessons to his son), while Mark plays on my squash team and is spending the summer working in a college science lab.  Mark stayed only a couple hours then left to watch World Cup soccer on TV;  meanwhile, Peter lingered race-side for the day, taking photographs of everyone and chatting with the race workers, race volunteers, and other support crews.  Truthfully, this isn’t at all a bad spectator sport, because simply by hanging out at the Amee Farm central race zone, you could always see one racer or another covered in mud (or blood) coming in to sign off on one task and start the next. 

The choice at Amee Farm was either to chop wood or do some kind of unspecified “farm work.“  Some people were carrying axes during the race, and so of course they chose the wood-chopping.  A few other racers seemed to have somehow procured axes, and they chopped wood, too.  I didn’t bother to inquire about from where to get an axe because I was too busy racing away to do FARM WORK.  That latter option ended up being the easier of the two tasks because some of the wood-choppers got waylaid and bogged down by mean-spirited, nasty logs (in 2008 we‘d all had to chop wood and we‘d all had to saw wood).  The farm work task was simply to make 15 round-trips of wheel-barrowing sheep poop from one barn to another (less than half a mile for each round-trip).  It was yet more mileage for sore legs, knees and feet, but it wasn’t overly strenuous and the continuity of it enabled us to keep moving and to keep our flow.  An incredibly delicious light rain fell all through my 15 trips with the sheep poop.  It was a godsend.  A sunny and muggy day would likely have killed us.  We couldn’t possibly have gotten any luckier with the weather.

Diving into a pond for pennies came next.  Well, at least this let us rinse off the sheep poop!  Across the street from Amee Farm, on Route 100, is a grassy hill and a pond in front of a kind of wedding-ceremony, conference site.  Pete walked over with me.  I lay on the grass amidst other racers and we had to divide our pennies and separate amounts into Glad sandwich bags.  I was quick with my pennies.  Then a race worker threw one of my bags into the pond and I had to dive in and retrieve it.  It was easy, because the guy always threw the bags over near the perimeter of the pond and never right in the deep middle.  In bare feet and shorts, I swam over and fished mine out.  I swam back and handed the guy my penny bag, assuming that he would keep it.
“No, you take it,”  the worker told me.
“But I don’t want it.  I don’t even want to keep them.  I don’t want the extra weight.” 
“Well, you always have the option of donating pennies at the barn.” 
“Yeah, I know;  they keep telling us that, but nobody’s doing it.”
“Well, you can do it.”
“I want to.  Why shouldn’t I?  If I donate pennies then my pack will weigh less.”
“Well,”  the guy said:  “You can donate as many pennies as you want - -  but  be careful   because there might be a task later in the race when you’ll need your pennies.  You might need that money to buy your way out of something.” 
THEY WERE ALWAYS SAYING THAT!  They were constantly hitting us with that threat!  It was so great a threat that even now 18 hours into the contest (including the pre-race), not one of us had donated any pennies.  Along with everything else, I still had the weight of $48 in pennies in my pack. 

That pond penny-dive was the first time all race that we’d set foot across the street, on the eastern side of Route 100;  however, now we were about to spend the next 12 hours over there.  Back in 2008, the only time that we’d crossed to the eastern side of Route 100 had been during the pre-race.  And, on my three solo training trips to Pittsfield, I’d spent my time exclusively west of the road, on either the mountain bike trails or in the river.  So I was actually glad when they told us to set out following a trail (this trail, too, was marked by pink ribbons) up into the eastern-side Wilcox mountains.  It was new terrain.  New scenery.  Variety is the spice of life!  And in climbing into the woods back behind the wedding-ceremony conference site, we had no graded, switch-backing mountain bike trails, but instead our route led straight up hillsides, which is exactly as hiking is like on the east coast.  Our task was some kind of multi-staged thing where we had to carry our backpacks and all our gear - - in addition to carrying six pieces of wood - -  and hike up to a fire-pit, and from there hike to some far-away, deep-woods, mysterious sounding locale called “The Onion Shack.”  I wound duct tape around my six split logs, then hoisted my pack and set out.  Two other racers left with me, so we were a threesome.  One was a woman from New York City named Jessica Nathan (who was originally from Bogota, Columbia), and the other was a guy named Matt Jackson who was shortly due to enter officer’s ranger training camp in Georgia and had entered this race to test himself beforehand. 

The climb up into the Wilcox Mountain woods was steep and unnerving.  We’d heard rumors that this would be the longest leg of the race.  Our packs felt heavy because we hadn‘t worn them in awhile.  We’d been many hours without sleep.  Carrying wood in our arms left us unbalanced.  Jessica stopped at the base of a steep climb and told us that she was quitting the race.  Matt talked her out of it, and we all continued.  Shortly afterwards, the pink ribbons unexpectedly deposited us on a most-welcomed flat dirt road and we followed pink ribbons along it to its dead-ending at the outdoor fire pit that was our initial destination.  Joe Desane sat there before a fire.  Acerbic Joe was “bad cop,“ to peppy co-race-director Andy Weinberg’s “good cop.“  But Joe seemed to be in good spirits at the moment.  A very small house was there, and a few other trail crew workers sat chatting with Joe.  They told us to carry our packs (and wood and all our gear) into the woods and follow the pink ribbons to “The Onion Shack.”  Joe said it’d take us 2 hours to reach it, and he told us to hurry, so that we could tackle most of the hike before darkness fell.  He said that the route was a bushwhack, and that he and another worker had just come down that trail and had gotten mangled by the forest.  They showed us their legs, which were bleeding and ripped to shreds.  He said:  “You’re going to get torn to pieces.”  We walked just twenty yards into the woods when Jessica stopped and told us that this time FOR SURE she was quitting.  She was done.  Her legs had had enough.  Night was falling.  Her body was cold and she was shivering.  She wasn’t up for a leg-ripping two-hour walk in the dark carrying full gear up and down a bushwhack.  Not after all that we’d been through.  There was no pep talk from Matt this time.  She turned and walked back to the fire-pit house.  The race workers gave her a ride back to Amee Farm.  She was done.  That’s the way people drop out:  all of a sudden it just happens.  
It took us 4 hours to hike the bush-whack from the fire-pit to “The Onion Shack”  - -  that’s 4 hours, not 2.  It got dark and we’d inched along slowly.  The route led through dense undergrowth.  Matt and I overtook another guy, and then the three of us stuck together to make it easier to find the ribbon route.  We hiked through the dark with our headlamps.  The other two had very sore feet, so we took a couple rest stops.  We’d been the 12th-13th-14th place racers in the field when we’d left the penny-diving pond and set out for the fire-pit and then The Onion Shack - -  but quite strangely with NOBODY PASSING US, we signed in at The Onion Shack as the 22nd-23rd-24th racers on the list.  It’s the kind of thing that happens during the Death Race.  It’s the kind of thing that you have to just laugh about.  For Joe hadn’t let anyone else tackle the bushwhack route to The Onion Shack after he’d let in Matt and I.  After us, he’d let everyone walk there up a jeep road.  It was due to darkness and his not wanting to “lose” any hikers in the field.  We arrived at The Onion Shack to find that at least eight other racers who’d been behind us were now already there, settled in, and well into their tasks.  Well, I really had nothing to complain about, because we’d learn later that the first eight racers in the contest had had it the hardest of all.  Those first eight had been forced to take the “ORIGINAL” course route, which’d led them through a deep-woods pond and through a deep-woods barbed-wire course.  When one of those front-runners had nearly drowned in the pond, Joe & Andy had scrambled and created the re-routed, leg-ripping bushwack trail that I’d followed.  So:  I could have had it much better (Jeep road), but I also could have had it much worse (DROWING IN POND)!  It comes back again and again to the same thing:  in the Death Race, you just have to laugh and take shit as it comes. 

Roger, “The King,” at The Onion Shack, proved quite friendly in greeting us at his home at midnight.  We made 10 easy wheelbarrow trips of stacking wood, and then we sat and peeled our 10-pound of onions, separating them into 1-pound sandwich bags.  At The Onion Shack, we had to choose between either eating one of our pound-bags of raw, diced onions, or giving them $5 in pennies (“You might need that money later!”).   I, of course, gave up pennies.  I was always wishing that I could carry less weight - -  and now we were able to leave our chords of wood and give up some penny weight.  A few others ate the onions.  I quite definitely thought they were crazy.  More people dropped out of the race while at The Onion Shack.  They got driven back to the Amee Farm by car.  At that point, only 30 contestants remained in the field.  A whole 57 people had dropped out.  It was largely about the feet;  however, the duration of the race was causing frustration now, too.  You could hear a few grumblings from some who said that they hadn’t known it would last this long and that they’d have to soon leave in order to drive home in time to get back to their jobs.  Again, I didn’t care what time it was.  There was a guy in the race who’d seven times finished running Vermont’s 100-mile ultra-marathon, and he dropped out of the Death Race.  There was a young 22-year old named Lee Biga, with whom I’d hiked with for long stretches (I kept finding myself calling this a “hike” instead of a race), who’d driven in from Illinois and was one of the strongest guys on the course, and he dropped out from sore feet. 

Many of these Death Race entrants had Ironman and 100-mile ultra-marathon running successes in their backgrounds, and they were well-served here, along with those who were ex-military (no problem for them!);  but all those who’d merely spent loads of time lifting weights in a gym and hadn’t experienced long hours in the elements, were having difficulty now.  It’s something to stay out in the day, night, hot, cold, rain, dry, wind, dirt, sun, bugs and rocks for a long period of time.  It reminded me of an incredible article that I’d once read in Runner’s World magazine.  It detailed some Arctic scientists who’d raced AROUND THE WORLD.  They worked in an underground base at the north pole, and they had an outdoor track above ground in the ice and snow which looped around the pole.  So, one lap around their track was one time around the world.  They held a race amongst themselves to see who could be the first to run four times around the world.  The trick was that half the scientists trained by running up to 7 miles a day on climate-controlled underground treadmills, while the other half braved the treacherous elements and trained by fighting their way for a lap or two around the track in the wind and sub-freezing temperatures.  On race day, it ended up that those who’d trained in race conditions (albeit for far shorter distances) ended up faring better in the race.  Like that, the three long-distance hikes that I’d made earlier in my life gave me an advantage here.  My hikes had been back in 1993, 1999 and 2005, but those experiences stayed with me even now.  In my travels, I’d carried a backpack through the Mojave Desert, across the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming, over the red mesas of New Mexico, over Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and across California’s High Sierras.  Yes, I had a lot to draw from.  And I was quite lucky that my feet were holding up well.  Bad feet can take you out of the race.  Chaffing can, too. 

We didn’t know how much further we had to go.  They told us all to take the jeep road back to the fire-pit.  Wonderful!  I was glad not to have to re-do the 4-hour bushwhack.  Back at the fire pit house, we each had to eat a 1-pound bag of our raw onions.  Even the people who’d already just eaten a bag at The Onion Shack, now had to eat another bag here.  It was murder to have to eat even one bag.  I’m not sure that I would’ve been able to eat two.  The onions burned my tongue and the sides of my throat.  We tried warming, boiling and mashing them.  We diffused them with crackers and water and Gatorade, but it was quite difficult.  Several people vomited. 

Next, came a gimmicky-thing.  We had to take only our Greek books and hike down to the penny-pond and back to translate a line of Greek from off a poster that they’d taped to the underside of a bridge at the pond.  I teamed up with a new guy, Bryan Selm, from Philadelphia.  He was holding up well, and was serious and motivated.  It was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3 AM, and just for fun we pretended that we were starting to hallucinate - -  like seeing pink elephants beside us on the trail.  I told him that if we could just keep going a bit and make it until sunrise then we’d get new life and a whole new start in the race.  We hiked down and translated the sentence.  To tell the truth, by this point our race tasks had become increasingly communal, with racers aiding each other.  Rumors had been floating around about this translation.  The sentence under the bridge read:  “The Race is One-Quarter Done.”   We pretty much already knew what it said without even having to crack the spines of our books.  The message was meant to scare us, but we didn’t take it seriously.  We climbed back up the mountains to the fire pit home and gave the translation.  Our next assignment was to return to Amee Farm with all our gear.  We were DONE with the eastern side of Route 100. 

In constantly looping back to the Amee Farm central race zone throughout the race, we’d always had to step back into a video room in the barn to continue our on-going video interviews about how we were holding up and how we were liking the race.  But this time it was 4 AM on Sunday - -  our third day of the race - -  and the video tape guy was asleep.  My friend Pete Lourie was long since gone.  He’d been a wonderful help that previous day, and had even walked down to the river and got my car and re-parked it at the Amee Farm central race zone, because that turned out to be a more helpful spot.  Well, I was tired, but I was still actually feeling okay.  And there at the barn something amazing happened:  we watched three racers come in off the course and FINISH THE RACE.  So now we knew where the race would end - -  right there at the Amee Farm barn.  And we even knew HOW the race would end, for these three were dripping wet after having come in from off the Tweed River.  In their arms, they each held an inner tube and a life jacket.  They were wearing their full packs.  The sight of them finishing filled us with an overwhelming sense of hope and accomplishment because they told us that our next task was to inflate an inner tube and carry that and a life jacket and our backpacks and gear 1.5 miles north up Route 100 to the covered bridge that mark’s Joe’s house.  The Tweed River runs parallel to Route 100, and so we took this to mean that we simply had to walk back down the river from Joe’s house and we’d be DONE.  We were elated.  We knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that we’d made it and that nothing could stop us now.  We grinned ear-to-ear and gave each other a confident and knowing, albeit very minimalist fist pound.  Also at the finish line, we observed that the three racers had to drop and do a total of 100 push-ups before they could be considered finished with the race. 

Daylight on Sunday broke as we reached the covered bridge at Joe’s property.  We followed pink ribbons across a corner of his property to a pond.  We had to sit in the pond in front of a poster that had Greek words on it, and we had to translate a line (my word was “goat”).  Again:  the Greek translation component of the race had become communal, so there wasn’t much time lost in “translating” the word.  A young woman named Grace Cuomo was there at the pond, huddled with her family and wrapped in a blanket being hugged by her husband.  They were trying to warm her up.  She’d spent 30 minutes sitting in the cold pond, translating her word.  They had a fire going and she slowly warmed up.  Grace had been on my “Team 4” during the pre-race.  She’d been ahead of me the whole race (women in the race were carrying half the amount of pennies, and behavior in the pre-race could possibly be described as being just that tiny bit chivalrous).  Grace was SUPER tough.  I’d seen her on the course a few times those last couple days, running up hillsides while others were walking.  She teamed up with Bryan and I, so the three of us would finish together. 

They gave us a bag and a teaspoon and made us do a math problem to determine how many teaspoons of sand it would take us to fill our bags to within a proportion of our body weight, give or take 5 pounds.  If we were off by more than 5 pounds in either direction, then we had to eat a “round” (whole) raw onion.  My math problem ended up being 1,975 teaspoons of sand needed to fill my bag.  We sat with plastic spoons, counting out and dropping teaspoons of dirt into our bags, when Bryan suddenly stood and started scooping sand into his bag with his hands.  He said:  “I’ve lifted enough weights in my life:  I know what 25 pounds feels like.”  He closed his eyes and guess-timated the weight.  He did the same for mine.  My bag had to come in at between 26-36 pounds.  I told him that I needed mine to weight 24 pounds, when really that was my error, as I’d needed it to weigh 26 pounds in order to not have to eat a whole onion.  They put my bag on a scale and it indeed came in at 24 pounds exactly.  I smiled and raised a fist in victory, until the race worker told me to eat an onion because I’d needed 26 pounds.  I’d done the math right, but I hadn’t been able to think straight enough to keep track of the correct target number.  I ate an onion.  Bryan also had to eat an onion.  Then we had to leave our packs at Joe’s pond and carry only our sand bags up to the Ax Shop.  So, we were back on the mountainside mountain bike trails.  We were back where we’d started the race and where we’d suffered all through the pre-race.  It was fitting.  This time we didn’t have to take the “white” trail up and over Sable Mountain to get there.  And we didn’t have to do the barbed-wire course again. 

Grace, Bryan and I climbed to the Ax Shop together up the “blue“ trail.  Up there one final time, they took our sand and gave us each a shrunken yet life-like plastic human skull that said “Death Race 2010” across it.  It was their way of telling us that we’d finished.  They sent us down the dirt road back to Joe’s pond to retrieve our backpacks.  We knew that from there we’d simply have to walk down the Tweed River to finish at the Amee Farm.  We ran the whole 2 miles down off the mountain road (well, we JOGGED).  It felt incredible.  It felt empowering to know that I could jog after having come so far.  My feet were sore and tender to the touch.  And my hips were sore.  But I didn’t have blisters.  After the dirt road, we ran across a grassy field to Joe’s pond.  Here, we ran faster, and for a moment we even broke into a sprint.  We heard a race worker communicating over a walkie-talkie to the central race site that we were “Coming in hot.” 

We gathered our gear at the pond and carried our inner tubes and life vests to the river and began walking downstream.  This was it!  Grace and Bryan just started walking, but I told them to stop and create a system, because it was a VERY LONG river walk.  They just kept going, though, carrying their inner-tubes and life jackets in their hands.  I stopped and dropped my pack.  I grabbed a stick from the river bank to use as a hiking stick, because I knew that the Tweed River rocks are quite slippery.  And believe me, I know river walking and river crossings.  In walking from Mexico to Canada over California’s High Sierras during snowmelt in 1999, I’d crossed my share of fast rapids.  But this wasn’t crossing rapids, it was walking downstream in the middle of a shallow river.  It was worth it to take my time and create a good system.  I strapped up my inner-tube and life jacket and let them float on the water, and I carried my new-found hiking stick in my right hand.  I set out and soon passed Grace and Bryan.  I got so far ahead of them that they dropped far behind out of eyesight.  I overtook one other racer on the river, Jack Cary, and I reached the bridge and walked up towards the Amee Farm in 9th place.  Where it not for the upcoming push-ups, that’s where I’d have finished.  But then Jack instantly passed me on dry land and reached the Amee Farm barn before me, so maybe 10th is where I’d have finished. 

At the Amee Farm barn, I dropped my pack, inner tube and life vest at the push-up circle in front of the finish line.  I had to laugh out loud, thinking about how long it was going to take me to do 100 push-ups.  A handful of very friendly and supportive spectators was there, and I told them to settle in because this was going to take me awhile.  That made them laugh.  Everything was funny now.  Everything for the past 35 hours had been funny.  Still there, and finishing her push-ups, was Lisa Madden.  Lisa’s pre-race video tape entry detailed some of her past athletic accomplishments, including having finished the Leadville, Colorado, 100-mile ultra-marathon at high altitude, and having summit-ed the serious mountain peaks of Alaska’s Denali (the highest mountain in North America) and Argentina’s Cerro Aconcagua, in the Andes (the highest mountain in the world that’s not in Asia).  Jack overtook Lisa in the final throws by dropping to the ground and knocking out his 100 push-ups in an eye-blink before she could finish hers.  Jack took 8th place..  Lisa finished her 100 to take 9th place overall, and second place for the women.  Bryan soon came in off the river and knocked out his 100 push-ups before I’d even reached 50.  Bryan took 10th place.  Another guy named John came up and knocked out his 100 for 11th place.  I was gathering a crowd, because they couldn’t believe how slowly I was doing my push-ups.  I had somehow managed to fight my way to 80 push-ups by the time that Grace arrived at the push-up zone and dropped to the ground.  Grace is strong.  She’s a fitness model.  For push-ups, she went from 0-100 before I could go from 80-100.  That drew cheers.  I laughed and applauded her finish.  Grace took 12th place and when I finally finished my 100, I took 13th place. 

Merely 19 minutes separated us at those 8th-13th places.  Our finishing times were: 8) Jack Cary 35:20;  9) Lisa Madden 35:23;  10) Bryan Selm 35:26;  11) John Golden 35:27;  12) Grace Cuomo 35:38;  and 13) me, at 35:39.  After our group, it was another hour until the 14th-placed finisher crossed the line.  And BEFORE our group, the 7th-placed person had finished a full TWO HOURS before us.  The winner of the race was Joe Decker who finished in 28:05.  Joe runs a fitness studio in Los Angeles, and he’s in the Guinness World Book of Records as holding the title of “World’s Fittest Man.”  He’s an unassuming, modest and totally nice guy!  He’s a massively large weight-lifter, ex-military, who also runs ultra-marathons.  He’s run ultra races across deserts, and he’d once run the Marine Corps Marathon wearing full camos and wearing hiking boots and carrying a weighted pack. 

POST-  Death Race

What to do?  I finished the Death Race at 8:30 AM on Sunday.  My friend Pete had long-since gone.  I was on my own with sore feet and all my wet gear and belongings.  I hobbled around a bit and did my best to scoop up my scattered things and corral my junk over to my car.  My gear made a ring around my car, because I didn’t have the heart just yet to put all my muddy gear and junk into my convertible.  Then instead of driving straight home, I hobbled inside the Amee Farm barn and climbed stairs to the third floor (no elevator?) and tried my best to take a shower.  They had a few cots up there, so I lay down and closed my eyes.  I opened my eyes just a moment later and two hours had passed.  It was like rebooting a computer. 

I was a bit shaky upon waking up from my two-hour reboot in the Amee Farm barn.  Jessica (New York City;  via Bogota, Colombia) was still on site, and she drove us down to the general store for a quick to-go meal.   Then I got in my car and drove back to Middlebury, staying alert and being very careful not to crash.  I slept the rest of Sunday and all that night.  Had Pete come and take photographs of my bruises that covered my body.  Limped through Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday.  Got a massage on Friday.  And slowly returned to normal.  The bruises faded.  Eventually, even the onion taste in my mouth and the onion smell on my finger tips gradually, gradually faded, as well.  I kept waking up in the middle of the night all week, feeling WIRED are ready to go, expecting somebody to tell me to pick up and carry something.  That’s the Death Race.  It’s fun!  Part of the reason for entering this race in the first place was because I knew it would get me fit, as I HAD to get in shape because the race gave me something that I had to be ready for.  I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 23 years (I occasionally eat seafood, but I eat very little dairy and no other animals), and I always like the chance to show what a vegetarian is made of and what a vegetarian can do. 

There are problems in the world like war, starvation, child abuse, violence towards women, mental disorders, cancer, human trafficking, and for crissake even the BP oil spill.  So rolling around in the mud can seem frivolous.  But it feels like practicing yoga in that it focuses the mind and brings everything to the moment at hand.  That’s a gift.  You cannot read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  or read Tom Brown Jr.’s The Tracker series without realizing that sooner or later we’ll all have to face adversity.  The bizarre thing is that we 87 people in this year’s race just happen to be lucky enough that we’ve merely artificially created it.  We should thank our lucky stars for that, because for us, at this moment, it’s only a game.  We get it.  I don’t believe that any of us take it for granted. 

John Illig has been an intercollegiate squash coach for the past nineteen seasons. He currently heads the men’s and women’s programs at Middlebury College in Vermont.

A 1986 graduate of the University of Rochester with a degree in English Literature, Illig played #1 singles and doubles on the Yellowjacket tennis team, competing in the NCAA tournament.

He is the author of three books Pacific Dream, Man in the Middle and Trail Ways, Path Wise which chronicle his experiences hiking over 8,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

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