Race to win, or die trying

The Spartan Death Race, one of the toughest physical tests on Earth, attracts "lunatics"

Race to win,  or die trying

Caleb Kenna/The New York Times

While this year’s Spartan Death Race competitors included everyone from marines to doctors, firefighters and teachers, race co-founder Andy Weinberg says the 155 participants had at least one thing in common: “It’s a small, intimate group of lunatics.” They gathered in the forested mountains of central Vermont this summer to spend 45 straight hours testing the limits of their physical and mental strength, but only after they had signed off on a concise, chilling waiver: you may die.

While no one died on the course, there were plenty of broken bones, gashes and hypothermia cases. One woman was taken away in an ambulance after she was found knocked out in the woods. The range of injuries isn’t surprising given the tasks assigned: swimming in 10° C water, crawling under a maze of barbed wire, hiking upstream through chest-deep river rapids, doing hundreds of squats with a boulder and dragging a log up a snarled mountain trail, to name a few. Veteran adventure racers Weinberg and Joe DeSena say they conceived the Death Race six years ago to fill a void they saw in the endurance racing world. There are no water stations; competitors carry their own. And there is no start or finish line; every element of the obstacle course is a surprise. The race is designed to emulate life, they say. “They have no clue what’s going to be thrown at them the weekend of the race,” Weinberg says. “We try to frustrate them, we try to break them down mentally.” Most don’t make it to the end: Weinberg boasts a 10 to 20 per cent finish rate. The annual Death Race is part of a growing trend of fitness and adventure events that make marathons look like grade school cross-country runs. Others include the Antarctic Ice 100-km race and the 217-km Badwater Ultramarathon, which stretches from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, in California.

In the months leading up to the event, 29-year-old Montreal lawyer Dan Grodinsky chopped wood, attracted stares sprinting up and down Mount Royal with a backpack full of weights, and watched YouTube videos that taught skills such as how to pack a parachute, should he have to jump out of a plane. Since the race itinerary is kept secret, participants have to use their imaginations to prepare. “They think I’m nuts,” Grodinsky said of his friends and family, before the race. “I don’t think a single one of them really understands why I’m trying to do this. But I’m not sure I do either.” He registered after completing the Spartan Sprint and Super Spartan, which are sister events geared to more average athletes that take place several times a year, including in Canada.’

Finishers don’t walk away with much other than injuries to tend to. There’s no cash prize, and the cachet associated with completing a Spartan Death Race is negligible, especially compared to an Ironman triathlon or a big-name marathon. “We’re gluttons for punishment,” Grodinsky admits. “The human body is not made to be sitting at a desk 24-7. It’s made to be pushed,” he says.

Orillia, Ont., realtor John David Waite says he was a little bit disappointed after he finished his first marathon a few years ago. “It was still well within my comfort zone,” the 43-year-old says. So when he heard about the Spartan Death Race, Waite didn’t think twice before signing off on the sinister waiver. His training regimen included immersing himself chest-deep in 15° C water while doing a puzzle on a piece of cardboard he held in one hand. “You have two arms and two legs, and you use them to walk to the subway and type with a keyboard,” he says. “The race goes back to a time when everything was hard. The human body is capable of so much more than we give it credit for.”

In the end, only 35 of the competitors completed this year’s race. Waite was one of them. “I underestimated how difficult the race would be; it was beyond anything imaginable,” Waite says. Grodinsky says his breaking point came after 24 hours. He was already shivering and shaking from hypothermia when he began a treacherous mountain climb with a 95-lb. log. At one point, he realized he couldn’t keep going, so he walked back down. Despite the cuts, bruises and sores that covered his body after the race, he plans to try again next year. “If you’re able to find some happiness in the middle of that misery,” he says, “then you’re better off for it.”

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