The Sprint Down
…Each step landed with enough force to buckle my leg. Our rope-rung ladder design accomplished everything we needed (namely getting us on the course quickly), but unfortunately would not allow for the use of trekking poles that had been so crucial in helping us up and down this steep trail with the heavy team weight.Carrying it down the steep decline without the aid of poles was exhausting, but we forged on with an unrelenting pace, determined to make up time on this 5 hour hike and be back to the cabin with a few hours to spare before noon. On the main road through Pittsfield, we actually passed a few teams, most of which had much larger and heavier ladder designs. After just a few exchanges of the team weight, we saw a car parked on the side of the road. But no lights were flashing, and this was miles and at least an hour before we expected to hit the turn-around point. Regardless, we held out hope that this was it…
This blog is part of a series. In PART 1 we covered what happens before the race and Day 1.
DAY 2- Saturday
The New Guy
It was a little after midnight and now technically Saturday morning, roughly ¼ of the way into the race, and we needed a spark. Twelve hours, same trail, same lumber, it was getting to us. Fortunately Johnny informed us that a team had just dropped out, and that one team member was still here and waiting for a new team to join. We quickly welcomed Stephen aboard, perhaps somewhat selfishly to give us a break with the animal-weight, not knowing just how helpful he would be as a teammate, or the depth of friendship that would be formed over the next 36 hours.
Our next challenge was to run a 10 mile trail, carrying only the animal-weight, but with just three of us. One person would need to stay behind for a mental challenge of some sort. Carey stayed back, and the rest of us decided that to keep a quick pace, we would rotate the weight every 5 minutes or so to ensure we were running at top speed at all times. We descended to Tweed and took off on a new trail, invigorated by a new route as well as the freedom of running without lumber draped over us.
The trail markings disappeared after a few miles though, and we were forced to forge on in the hopes of picking them up again. Passing multiple teams doing the same thing, we ran a full loop of the trails in the area until we were back at the point we last saw markings. We felt lost. We were lost. Some racers actually slept at the trail intersection. It was here that I remembered at the end of the "Clip Clopping", we saw multiple single racers from teams that were already on the next challenge screaming their teammate's names as they wandered the woods. At the time I didn't understand how so many of them got separated. Now it made sense. "Carey is going to get sent out to look for us, let's retrace the trail we know is correctly marked back the other way." Matt and Stephen asked how I knew that Carey would be coming, and I explained about the screaming lost racers from earlier, and that this race has all been about teamwork, so this challenge is about losing a team member. If we wander further, deeper into unmarked trails, Carey will never find us and we will be wandering aimlessly screaming for each other. Content with staying on the trail we knew was marked properly, we doubled back and sure enough we ran into Carey coming our way. She explained her mental challenge was to recite info she learned about us, our hopes/dreams/aspirations from the pre-race email, and when she had given enough info she was allowed to come join us.
Hustling back to the top of the mountain, we realized we had moved from almost last place all the way up to second place! Our next challenge, along with some more quotes to memorize, was to take our animal-weight to the Pittsfield General Store and take a picture with it there. (As a side note: I have forgotten which quotes were assigned to which challenges after this point, and our group wasn't given a quote for one challenge so we had to double up later on, so the rest of the quotes are listed in a group at the end- they are definitely worth reading to further understand Johnny's race concept). The descent to Pittsfield town center is down the backside of the mountain, on the steepest section, over the hundreds of massive stone stairs that were placed and constructed by previous year's Death Racers. It was remarkable to experience a small piece of races from the past, and through the many ascents and descents this connection was never lost on me.
We advanced well in our descent, passing the team weight around to save our legs and shoulders. Once we re-ascended the mountain, Johnny's next challenge was to all attach the same body part to a piece of 2"x6" lumber, and work together to gather 50 pounds of burnable firewood while attached. With a bit more planning and strategy than we had been employing so far, we decided to take a 2 foot piece and tie one hand each to the lumber, allowing us all an outside hand with which to gather wood, to pile wood onto the board-strapped hands, and place wood in the team blue barrel we had with us. Armed with my hatchet, we made our way down the trail to find burnable wood, as in not rotten, that would fit in the small fireplace. This was no easy task, in terms of finding non-rotten pieces on the ground or chopping branches while tied together. I know my teammates were at least a little afraid of my flailing lefty hacks, so I deliberately did not tell them I was a righty. But I think they knew anyway.
We returned with our wood, and once again were given one chance to weigh both the wood and the team weight while standing on the scale, subtracting out our own body weight- no easy task just to balance it all. I stepped on the scale and after some quick math and delicately holding everything together; we made weight and were off on the next challenge. But only after we chopped the larger pieces into smaller chunks to feed the very fire that would almost ruin us 24 hours later.
Once chopping was complete, we retied ourselves to the board, picked up our team weight, and again marched the 6 mile trail together. This was significantly easier than it was with the lumber on our shoulders or our feet, and our teamwork had improved such that we set a 5 minute alarm for each person to carry the weight. At times people took an extra shift if they felt particularly strong, or if the rocks in the bag happened to be sitting nicely on our shoulders instead of stabbing into us. We were moving efficiently and easily in the early hours of Saturday dawn. We arrived back to Shrek's Cabin mid-morning Saturday, to an odd site of racers gathered around a pair of 40 foot trees, all staring towards the tree tops.
The Eggs and Water
After nailing a few quotes for Johnny, he told us that not only would we each be climbing one of the trees, but that we would also need to tie a string around a branch about 30 feet up. Just getting up it would be hard, let alone tying a knot around a branch while swaying in the wind. There were minimal branches to use as foot and hand holds, and the first person up would be free-climbing, as in no ropes. Once up that person could set up a belay system on a high branch for the other three climbers. Having free-climbed a tree of this height in a race before I knew I was capable, but certainly was not thrilled about the idea given how exhausted I was now 24 hours into this race.
Stephen jumped right in and offered to climb, saying he does this all the time, and practically ran up the tree. Matt, Carey, and I were thrilled, and shared a moment of appreciation and fortune that we acquired such a great teammate. I was second up the tree, Carey third, and Matt fourth, and we were all excited once we were back on solid ground. We took off down the stair-laden trail on our next challenge, this time again to the General Store, where we had to buy a dozen eggs and bring them, unbroken, back up to the cabin. This would be the first time we were in town during daytime hours, and the first time we truly realized how odd we looked. It must have been around noon, and we went charging into the store covered in dirt, blood, and sweat, asking for eggs. We bought two dozen in case we broke them, and on impulse I grabbed a Pastrami sandwich to ease my stomach's cravings for real food. Eating during ultra-events is a strange combination of healthy snacks and core calories, as well as binge foods that give you more of a mental boost than any physical nourishment.
Back up the mountain once again (which I breeze through for brevity's sake, but it was actually a lengthy ascent/descent each time) we began perhaps the strangest challenge of them all. Showing Johnny our unbroken eggs, we each took one, cracked the top open, and swallowed the egg white and yolk like a shot. It was 1,000 burpees if anyone didn’t keep it down. We all managed the task, not exactly gracefully, but to completion. Next we each grabbed another egg, and Johnny read us the following quote: "After your death, you will be what you were before your birth." While he read it, we each put a whole egg in our mouths, and without being able to say the quote aloud due to the egg, we still had to memorize it and EACH recite it back perfectly in 20 minutes. No writing it down like before. To top it off, we had to do squats for those 20 minutes, struggling not to break the egg, drop the egg, or choke on the egg. There's no other way to put it, we looked ridiculous, and the EMTs on site loved it.
After an agonizing 20 minutes, the first of us recited the quote, but missed one word. That meant the eggs went back in our mouths, we got to hear the quote again, and we had to do a continuous 5 minute plank without dropping or breaking the egg. One knee touching the ground meant a failure for the group, which would have resulted in another egg-based PT challenge. After a lot more almost choking and lots of drooling we finished the plank and the four of us perfected the quote, including Stephen who is native French Canadian and spoke just a bit of English. We set off on the next challenge, energized and laughing at the next team arriving with their eggs, and made our way to the covered bridge and river at the bottom of the mountain to await instructions on what to do from there.
The Cold Water
We all knew there would be a cold water element to this race, and the covered bridge over the river was telling. Arriving at the bridge, we saw the team in front of us shivering together as they hastily put on dry clothes. Seeing the end result of this next challenge was not ideal. We stripped down to our base layers, and began a series of water submersions (water temp 43 degrees) and PT as a team, including rolling in the rocky sand, cutting up our arms and legs in the process. We were also forced to take handfuls of sand and put it down the front of our underwear, and then another handful down the back, with clear instructions to "Get it all way in there!" That part really sucked. Not much else to say there. Covered in sand and feeling like a breaded piece of chicken, we did more PT, more cold water dunks, more sand rolling, until finally we were allowed to get dressed and leave. Before doing so though, we all had to get in the water to scrape every last bit of sand off our skin or else face horrifying chaffing the rest of the way. It was tough to crawl back in the water, but a necessary evil in the long run.
With dry clothes back on, we were told to march down the riverbed, sometimes with water hip deep and sometimes just ankle deep, but we were strictly told to never get out of the water and that we were being watched. The riverbed was lined entirely with algae covered rocks ranging in size from golf balls to soccer balls, so not one square inch of ground provided sure footing. Again we carried the 60 pound weight through this march, struggling to stay mentally sharp so as not to roll an ankle on the rocks. After two miles we finally saw race staff. Unfortunately, we were in for more PT and submersions, this time actually using the team weight. Numb from the cold, we actually managed to complete it in good spirits, and instead of warming up by the fire when we were finished, we sprinted onward, determined to get back up the mountain quickly and then fully change/eat/hydrate at our gear drop at Tweed.
We arrived at Shrek's Cabin atop the mountain in 4th place just after sunset on Saturday night, where Johnny presented us with the next challenge. A change of pace, we had to answer the riddle of the pre-race email clues. Our team had talked about this earlier in the race, and Stephen actually figured it out…the answer was The Sun. The translated quotes had the clues: "My life is a circle", "What rises must come down", and "that thing we would be looking for twice during the race" that we would get info on at the optional 6AM meeting…they all meant the sun/sunrise. Each sunrise is a well-known mental savior during the Death Race, often giving racers a surge of energy and enthusiasm after the cold dark hours of 2-5AM. Since we answered the riddle, we were allowed to skip 1,000 burpees that would have been the penalty for an incorrect answer. Johnny told us to head down to Tweed, change clothes if needed, get whatever food/water we needed, and then head to Mark Jones's farm down the bottom of the mountain, which was called the "The Stump Dump."
TO BE CONTINUED…Click here for Day 3 and the conclusion!
This is a guest post by Brian Lynch. Brian works in Wealth Management at UBS in Boston MA and has been involved in OCR since 2011. Recreation quickly turned to passion and then to obsession, and Brian now focuses his training on Ultra Distance OCR. Brian is a 2 time Worlds Toughest Mudder participant (finishing and completing 50 miles in 2012), a 2 time Spartan Ultra Beast finisher, and one of the 40 inaugural Fuego Y Agua Survival Run competitors. Brian's training focuses on body weight exercises for functional strength, high intensity circuit training for cardio and agility, and long distance trail running for endurance.