Death Race Truths*

*for me. (like I would proclaim universal truths. pshaw)

(1) The Death Race isn’t fair

Andy and Joe should really keep a running tally of the number of times racers complain “but this isn’t FAIR.” Newsflash, buttercup: NOTHING about the DR is fair. In fact, it’s designed to be completely and totally unfair, in every manner possible.

Easy wood to chop. Not pictured: young birch. Not easy to chop.
Easy wood to chop. Not pictured: young birch. Not easy to chop.

Sometimes you win with this unfairness, sometimes you lose. If Joe and Andy know your name, then sometimes you are screwed. Other times, it can work in your favor. I happened to have a number of “unfair” things that happened to me this race, and some of them were favorable. For example, my rock group – Group 8, got a SWEET section of the trail. Long, but gently sloping. We had smaller stones, and we had to carry them downhill, not up. In fact, a lot of our section was landscaping, and not heavy grunt work. I heard others were complaining about how easy we had it. Yes, it sucked that your section, Group 1 or 9 or whatever, was that much harder, and yes, it’s totally unfair. But it was beyond your control, and it was beyond my control. So you take these “gifts” when you get them, and realize that it may come back and bite you in the ass later. (such as, when I got stuck chopping green birch logs. Awful. Absolutely awful.) Or, as another example, Joe didn’t make me carry a massive rock over Bloodroot. He could have, but he didn’t. Was that unfair? Perhaps. But would I have quit had he give me one? No.

Because that’s where you put the nail in your DNF coffin -when you let the “unfairness” of the race get into your head and you mentally take yourself out of it.

(2) No one “wins” the Death Race

Or, depending on how you look at it, everyone who puts themselves out there and attempts it wins. Or, a third option – Joe and Andy are the winners. But I find it funny when I walk back into the office after a DR and people ask “did you win?” Little do they know that the answer is so much more complex than a yes or no.

Life vests are excellent barb wire protection
Life vests are excellent barb wire protection

While in the past, there have been places and “winners” at DRs. 2012 SDR, for example, they gave out first, second and third place kettlebells. But the idea of a winner is incongruous with the DR. I imagine if you asked each finisher to list what he or she did during the race, you’d end up with as many different lists as their are finishers. No two people run the exact same race, and no two people have the exact same tasks. For that reason only, the notion of having someone say “I won the Death Race” doesn’t comport with the entire idea of the race (see also, #1).

(And before you jump on me thinking I’m getting my panties in a twist, I say this as a previous “winner” of a Death Race – Winter Death Race 2012. I “won” because I was the only female to finish. woop-de-frickin-doo)

(3) The only person you are accountable to is yourself

The DR also believes in social responsibility: sometimes you will be asked to carry trash
The DR also believes in social responsibility: sometimes you will be asked to carry trash

For better or worse, much of the DR is on the honor system. “Chop 30 logs” – no one is counting. “Carry this rock in your hands (not your pack) over Bloodroot” – no one is watching. Sure, you could have turned your headlamp off and napped in the woods for most of the first night (and I’ve heard of such things happening), and no one would have been the wiser. You could take your skull, talk about how awesome race was, declare yourself a finisher, and sit back and lap up the praise and awe people bestow upon you for being such a badass.

But in the end, you are the one that has to live with yourself. And that skull can eat away at your supposed-clean conscience. In my first DR, I learned this lesson from a veteran. There will always be gamers, and, to some extent, we all do. But it’s much more fulfilling to take that skull at the end of the race when you know you were a team player, when you know that you contributed and did what was asked of you. Sure, you may not have won, or you may have had to go “the hard way,” but see #1 & #2.

How you conduct yourself at the DR is oftentimes representative of how you conduct yourself in life. Ask yourself how that is you want to be.

(4) There will be gossip and there will be haters.

I’ve heard multiple times throughout several Death Races, that “so

Rule #1: Always look cool while lifting heavy shit
Rule #1: Always look cool while lifting heavy shit

and so” wasn’t pulling their weight. Sometimes, I’ve been the subject of that gossip. It’s 99% bullshit, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect you mentally. That’s why you stick to #3. You are accountable solely to yourself, and if you pulled your weight, if you know that you raced with integrity and honesty, then everyone else can suck a big rock.

(5) Finishing and/or not finishing a Death Race is not necessarily a testament to your athletic abilities

This isn’t the Boston marathon, Olympic trials, Kona, or the Crossfit Games. Being an incredible athlete, and in peak physical shape, will certainly give you a leg up, but it’s not going to translate into a finish.

On the flipside, having to DNF is oftentimes no reflection of your athletic abilities. People DNF all the time and still feel great physically – it can be macerated feet, freak injury, frostbite, or (as almost happened in my case this year) scratched corneas that lead to an inability to see. Or a migraine (also happened). Trying swinging an axe with an aura. Not safe for ANYONE involved (thank you Red Bull for singlehandedly averting a crisis).

Year after year, I see people beat themselves up for DNFing. Hell, I’ve been there – I thought my world was ending. The funny thing is, you learn that no one judges you for that, and ESPECIALLY no one who has ever taken part in a DR. The ones who judge are the ones that sit behind the anonymity of their computer screens and social media, and have likely never even raced more than a 10k. Which segues into…

(6) Social media is a blessing and a curse

When the DR was initially introduced to me a few years ago, I Googled in vain looking for a write up or news story or some account of what ACTUALLY happened in these races. I think I found a single one. Now, accounts are a dime a dozen (cough, guilty, cough). But not just blogs about the race, detailed blow by blows of EVERY. SINGLE. TASK. (snooze) There were no Facebook groups several years ago where people traded gear tips or race strategies. Several years ago, you basically showed up with the packing list, and the rest was unknown.

That element of the DR has been forever changed. And I’d be willing to gamble my skulls on this also being the reason why it gets harder and harder every year for Andy and Joe to get people to quit. People know now that they just have to wait it out, just outlast. They’ve been told by numerous veterans, by numerous finishers to just “do. not. quit.” While it’s a great attitude, it makes the DR even less race-like, especially when you have people 12, sometimes 24 hours behind the leaders. Or when people are hurried through tasks so they can “catch up” (such as, not having to hit a certain checkpoint, or doing laps in a beaver pond instead of the 3 mile swim). They’ve created a monster. (but see, #1)

(7) You will be REALLY uncomfortable

I'm smiling but you can't tell from the amount of CRAP in my eyes
I’m smiling but you can’t tell from the amount of CRAP in my eyes

In the winter, it’s cold as balls and you fight off hypothermia and frostbite the entire time. In the summer, you are relentlessly attacked by mosquitos and horseflies and gnats and chiggers, all of which seemed unresponsive to even my 100% deet this year.

You will smell something awful. Your skin will itch. You will chafe in places you didn’t even know could chafe. You will pee in the woods so many times and in front of so many people, you just don’t care any more. And you’ll likely see a lot of naked people (and no, that’s not a good thing).

(8) 99% of Death Racers are the coolest people you’ll ever meet

But there’s always a 1%. Ignore those assholes, and focus on the

Peter showing me how heavy his pack was when wet. Peter is also one of the coolest people you'll ever meet.
Peter showing me how heavy his pack was when wet. Peter is also one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet.

other cool kids. You spend a LOT of time with a few hundred of the closest friends you never knew you had in Pittsfield, so you might as well make it count.

(9) You will experience the kindness of strangers, over and over

While the DR strips us down to our rawest form, it does so in ways both good and bad. And the good is so touching, so powerful. Kindness pervades through not only the racers, but the support crew and the volunteers as well. It comes in the form of offers of water or a Clif bar or a General Store sandwich (the holy grail), all from people you don’t know from Adam. Of a racer’s wife going back down to Amee to get me a dry pair of shoes since I was sans support crew. Of a volunteer sitting and chatting with me until I regained motor function after the swim.

And this is all from people who ask for nothing in return, who do it just because they love the race, and it touches something within them. And while I don’t remember many (or any) of those peoples’ names, know that I remember what you did. And I’m grateful.


Googles courtesy of someone's crew because my eyes got so bad. I subsequently lost them, and I owe you. I'm sorry.
Googles courtesy of someone’s crew because my eyes got so bad. I subsequently lost them, and I owe you. I’m sorry.

(10) The Pittsfield General Store is the coolest place in the world

For anyone who has ever been there, this really goes without saying. I dream of General Store breakfast sandwiches and hot coffee. Pre-race, you reunite with fellow DR vets and catch up. Post-race, you sit around devouring everything in sight, trying not to fall asleep on the table. And during the race, you pray for someone to bring you a sandwich from there.

And they have awesome soaps. And maple syrup. And penny candy. And everyone that works there is incredible. I’m in love.

(11) Bloodroot is awesome

No? Oh, that’s just me? I love Bloodroot. It’s about 92.4% of the reason why I do the Death Race. I really gotta move somewhere with mountains.

(12) The Death Race is a metaphor for life

Want to find out your weaknesses? Your character flaws? Come do the Death Race. Those little things about you in every day life that are your downfall? They will be amplified 100x during the DR. For example, I lack patience. I don’t always play well with others. I’m incredibly emotional (read – I cry ALL. THE. TIME.) Ironically, I like rules and order. So just imagine how the DR messes with my head.

So in the 24, 48, 72 hours that you race, each one of these shortcomings will rear its ugly head. You will be forced to face these inherent personality weaknesses and flaws. But you will take these lessons and apply them back in your “normal” life. And you will grow.

(13) You will tell yourself that you are never doing it again

I announced my retirement to anyone who would listen before the DR even began this summer. This was my swan song, my farewell. Been there, done that, with nothing left to prove to myself or to others. I maintained that all throughout the race, and for the first day or so after.

DR: Selective memory abounds
DR: Selective memory abounds

And the thought has already crept back into my head that maaaaaaybe I should keep doing them. The DR gets into your bones. It’s a community of misfits, a pack of masochists that form bonds over (literally) blood, sweat and tears. It’s a family that you can’t rid of no matter how hard you try. I hate you all. ok, I take that back. I love you all.

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