The Death Race: Bring Onions and a Greek Book

Extreme Events Test Athletes Physically and Mentally

How many races ask participants to show up with a 10-pound bag of onions, $50 in pennies, a large Greek book, a 3-inch knife and a post-hole digger?

Only one, and its called the Death Race.

Each year roughly 10 percent of entrants in the Death Race actually finish this test of mental and physical endurance, race organizer Andy Weinberg said. In past years, participants have had to chop wood, wade through rivers, cut a tree stump out of the ground and carry it for miles, and wrestle a former Olympic wrestler in the mountains near Pittsfield, Vt.

In past years, participants have had to memorize a list of 10 presidents' names at the top of a mountain and recite it at the bottom, only to be sent back up if they missed any names. Building a fire and then boiling an egg was not out of the question, either.

The Death Race is just one of many events across the country that seek to challenge participants in different ways than traditional races like marathons and triathlons. Others include the Tough Mudder events -- where participants run through fire and crawl through narrow tunnels -- and Newton's Revenge, a bicycle race up New Hampshire's Mount Washington.

Part of what makes the Death Race so unique is its unpredictability.

"A year ago, we told them to bring a bike," Weinberg said. "We took their wheels as soon as they got there."

Two-time participant Ray Morvan agrees. "Without knowing what the race was going to be about, it was pretty surreal to sit there in the middle of the night with a flashlight in my mouth hacking away at this four and half foot tall tree stump."

Predictability was the problem the organizers were trying to solve when they first created this race four years ago. "Everywhere you go for a marathon, it's 26.2 miles," Weinberg said. In this race, "you might feel like crap at 10 a.m. but you don't know what's left."

"We like the fact that they don't know what to expect," Weinberg said.

Nearly 100 people have signed up for this year's race, which takes place June 26. Unlike other races, there is no prize other than the feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing.

Weinberg says that creating a near-impossible challenge, which tested people's mental toughness as much as their physical strength and endurance, was one of their original goals.

"Let's come up with a race where we break people, where they don't finish," Weinberg remembers thinking.

Understanding that failure is not only possible, but likely, is part of the Death Race. "That's the whole job of this thing is to make you quit," Morvan said. He didn't finish his first attempt at the Death Race last summer, but was one of only two people to complete the winter race.

Participants often get extremely frustrated with the organizers for putting them through such a trying ordeal despite signing a waiver that reads, "I might die."

"We had two guys that literally wanted to kill me two years ago," Weinberg said. "They were mad at themselves because they couldn't push on."

Pushing people to their limits is the goal of the race, Weinberg said.

"Ultimately, we're just looking to challenge people above and beyond what they've ever done before."

Will Dean, founder of Tough Mudder, has similar goals for his events, which are very different from the Death Race.

"We don't try to compare ourselves to the Death Race," Dean said.

Like Weinberg, Dean was tired of races like marathons.

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