The Death Race: Bring Onions and a Greek Book

Tired of traditional races, athletes find new challenges in these events.

June 17, 2010, 2:48 PM

June 18, 2010 -- 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.

"The only thing people ever ask is you is what time did you do it in?" he said. "I was looking to build something that was more of an all-around test."

Tough Mudder events test participants with 15 to 20 military obstacles spread over a 7- to 12-mile course. At the first event in May, 5,000 participants ran through fire, climbed up a steep, muddy ski slope, and crawled through small tunnels.

For people like Patricia Alcivar, a professional boxer who ran her first New York City marathon when she was only 16, the physical challenge was not the toughest part of the event. She said she was forced to face her fears as she walked the plank and dove into ice cold water.

"It definitely played a bit of a mind game on me," she said.

Dean said that is one of the goals of these events. "Some of the obstacles we've got are pretty scary," he said. "Overcoming that, and getting through it is something you can feel immensely proud of."

Chris Ho, 22, a student from New York, liked the feeling of accomplishment he got from completing the course with a friend. When his friend was struggling to climb the slippery ski slope, they worked together to get to the top.

"I helped my buddy through it. He made it. We both made it." he said.

Dean wanted to foster this sense of community between the participants.

"It was very important that people were enjoying the teamwork and camaraderie element of it," Dean said. "If people want to do this event, they have to sign up to a set of values."

All of the participants take a pledge on the starting line that preaches values like camaraderie, challenging oneself and overcoming fears. The pledge appeared to work, too.

"People did not hesitate to stop and say, 'Can I help you?'" Alcivar said. "That's definitely a unique part of the event."

Tough Mudder includes a philanthropic element as well. At each event, they raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that works with wounded soldiers.

Dean's events are on a much larger scale than the Death Race. The first event included 5,000 participants, and Dean expects future events to have similar numbers. While the Death Race caters to a niche group, Tough Mudder appeals to a wider segment of the population, and each of the events takes place close to a major city to make it easy to get there.

Whether it is the 24-hour ordeal of the Death Race, or the military obstacles of Tough Mudder, people have new options to test their limits beyond marathons and triathlons.

Ray Morvan said some people will never understand why he does the Death Race."No one I know even in the gym will do it," he said. "They all think I'm nuts."

"Maybe it's just because I'm 46 years old and this is my red Porsche," Morvan said. He plans to compete again on June 26.

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