This is part I in a multi-part series about my journey to the 2015 Peak Races Summer Death Race, an extreme multi-day endurance event that’s designed to push racers beyond their limits and break all but the strongest. It’s not for everyone. And that’s why I’m going to attempt to do it. It also happens to fall on my birthday this year, assuming I can make it at least 20 hours into the race.
Do I Have What It Takes?
It’s early September and I’m on the registration page for the Chicago Super, Spartan’s 8+ mile distance obstacle course race. I’ve been here before signing up for one of Spartan’s many brutal races around the country, but this time, I’ve clicked on the HH12HR (12 Hour Hurricane Heat) option. Press ‘Continue’ to confirm my registration. 12 hours. I’m thinking that’s a hell of a long time to be doing anything, let alone burpees, sandbag carries and everything else Spartan plans to throw at you. That’s 36 back to back episodes of Modern Family, driving from LA to Vegas 3 times in a row, or 12 hour-long massage sessions. I figured I was in good enough shape to finish practically any Spartan Race, but pressing continue meant I thought I was ready to complete what Spartan considers a middle ground between one of their normal races and the infamous Death Race? You know the one with this url to their website: http://youmaydie.com.
Continue. Registration confirmed.
The HH12HR was created in 2014 to be a new qualifying event for the Death Race. Combining team-based missions and individual challenges, a limited number of finishers will qualify for the Death Race. So they say. Was this why I was signing up? “No way”. I’ve heard stories about the Death Race. 30 mile hikes with a pack filled with rocks. Standing waist deep in cold water for hours. Navigating through the woods and mountains of Vermont not knowing when the race was going to end. Last year, the race lasted somewhere around 70 hours. Out loud I said it wasn’t for me. Torture by proxy and a litmus test for the certifiably-insane. But inside my head, I did wonder whether I could do it. Maybe I could suffer for 70 hours. Maybe I could zone out and chop wood for 10 hours straight and then eat a bag of raw onions. Maybe. Only then to have logic and reason appear like a pair of skeptical mother-knows-best worry warts with their derisive questions, “Why would you put yourself through this?” “Does this even sound fun to you?” “Who do you think you are?”.
Still. Tucked away my heart, safe from judgment and any outside accountability, I kept the idea of it alive. Barely. First I’d have to see if I can make it through the HH12HR.
You Will Need A Well-Rotted Brick Of Horse Manure
It’s one week out from event, and I get an email from Tony Matesi welcoming the lot of us to the 6th class of the the HH12HR. There’s an introduction about the event, some general instructions and a mandatory gear list. I would be a part of HH12HR-006. Even that alone sounded cool.
All Athletes MUST wear a black shirt. Headlamp. Ruck/Backpack. Hydration Unit (I highly recommend you replace whatever hydration bladder you have with this Geigerrig Hydration Engine). Reflective Safety Vest. Standard stuff I had been expecting.
Enough food to survive 12 hours. That makes sense. Mutlitool. Paracord. Hand shovel. Ok. More survival stuff. One slice of Deep Dish Pizza. Interesting.
6 Pack of Rooted Flowers. Sure.
Brick of Well Rotted (at least a year) Horse Manure – Stored in Freezer Bag Wrapped In Duct Tape. This was a genuine little WTF moment, perhaps less questioning the why and more the how the hell am I going to find well-rotted horse manure once I land in Chicago.
And so the adventure began even before I did one burpee. I spend the entire day before the even tracking down every item on the mandatory gear list. Surprisingly, finding a single slice of deep dish pizza in Chicago, birthplace of the deep dish pizza, proved harder than expected as was tracking down the rooted flowers. I hit up a Wal-mart and a 2 Home Depots to no avail before finding a sad looking bunch of pansies at a Lowes.
As for the horse shit, I took the whole team-work thing to heart and arranged a trade with one of the other racers who had come into a healthy supply of the stuff. I knew full well that this was a risk, especially if this guy Steve decided to show up late or not show up at all. I would be shit-less, shit-out-of-luck, one-shit-shy-of-a-shit-parade. You get the point. Luckily, Steve ended up being one of the 17 people (out of the original 30 who registered) there the next morning at 6:15 am.
Let’s Start With
100 300 Burpees
It’s still dark when I park and I immediately recognize the other racers just from our uniform. All black. Reflective vest. Large rucksack.
“Are you Steve?”
“No. I’m Gary.”
“Oh. I’m looking for Steve. He has some poop for me.”
I find Steve a few minutes later and he is happy to be one brick of horse scat lighter. Tony Matesi, our ringmaster/burpee-assigner/suffer-guru arrives on time looking pretty roughed up (he was up late leading the regular Hurricane Heat). With very little instructions and a “don’t ask questions” policy in effect, we head into the festival grounds with our gear, just as the sun begins to come up.
“Let’s give a hand to our 12 Hour Hurricane Heaters. They are making their way into to festival area and they will be on the course for 12 hours today. AROO! AROO! AROO!”. With all eyes on us, it felt pretty damn cool.
There would be no easing in. “Let’s start with a 100 burpees”. Tony gives us our first challenge and joins in for this warm-up. “Count it off. You are one unit.”
“Alright, that’s one set.” If you hate doing burpees after failing an obstacle, my advice is to learn not to hate it. Did you expect more?. That said, after 50, you kind of just zone out. So 3 sets of 100 burpees later, I’m sweating but I feel pretty good. “Packs on!”
Team Frozen Nipples
Tony leads us over to a pond and tell us to get in and split up into two teams. It’s cold, but thankfully not freezing, especially since we had just worked up a sweat. “What is your team name?” We throw out a few lame ones like Team Badass and Tony tells us we have 5 seconds to come up with a better name. “Team Frozen Nipples!!!”. “Tommy Salami and the Lunch Meat Gang!”. Both accepted. I’m on the former. That was the easy part.
Each team would send one person at a time to climb up a rope and memorize a code next to their name, that we would need to remember for the entire 12 hours. There is immediate concern as several members of say they can’t do the rope climb. We decide that those able to climb would go up and memorize the code word for 2-3 other members who can’t. This plan fails as the first climber comes back and tells us that he couldn’t even remember his own code. I go next, eager to get out of the water.
I get to the top and get a good leg wrap so I can comfortably memorize my code. I could immediately understand the difficulty. Written in no bigger than a size 11 font on a laminated sheet of paper along with a bunch of other names and codes was my name along with this: 234JKI645Ginger. Back in the water, we consider everything from ripping the paper down to yelling out the codes. Not allowed. Not successful. In the end, we would have to take the risk of certain teammates not knowing their code.
It was only around 8 am and we were completely wet, cold and already suffered our first setback. Out of the water, Tony points to a giant log and tells us to put on our packs and pick it up. “1, 2, 3, UP!!!”. And off we marched behind Tony as he parades us through the festival area and into the trails. The telephone pole length log was extremely heavy. It also didn’t help that we were randomly scattered along the log with vary heights.
We struggled. That was the truth. We tried shifting, rearranging, resting it on our thighs, all while Tony was yelling at us to not drop his log and to hurry up. This whole ordeal lasted for about 30 minutes, but felt a lot longer than that. Would it have been easier if all 30 people who signed up actually showed up? Yes, absolutely. Did Tony care? Nope.
It’s less than 2 hours in and we have already been reminded to just STFU (Spartan The F*ck Up). Before we could celebrate the dropping of the log, we are told to get the entire Core Power team to join us for a set of 30 burpees. Here, we meet Tony’s partner-in-crime, Ron McHugh, whose name tag read “Grumpy”. First thing he does is ask for our code. I recite mine like an excited 1st grader who annoying knows the answer to every question. We head back to our home base and join Ron for some boot-camp style HIIT training. Let’s burn some energy before the next task.
Leading us in a duck walk, we quack our way to a patch of open field and are told to plant the flowers we brought alone using the brick of horse poo as manure. I was mildly relieved and disappointed. I really thought there would be a more sadistic use of the manure. Said fecal matter disposed of and no longer sitting next to my slice of deep dish pizza, we do a single file Indian Run around the field, until each person has sprinted at least once from the back of the line to the front of it.
Back to the pond, the water is much welcomed to cool off from the run. Our next challenge is to hold our breaths for a collective one minute under water, or really just an excuse to get completely wet from head to toe in the muddy water before the next set of challenges.
Packs on, we march over to a pile of bricks and each choose one that we would call our “baby”.
Baby will not get left behind as we trudge to thick mud, perform rolls, burpees, bear crawls, reverse bear crawls and an assortment of other drills through the woods and along the creek snaking through the course. Everything is done as a team. Every burpee is performed in unison and counted out. Your strongest and weakest link will be not distinguished.
Part ways through, Tony picks one of the largest members of each team and we are told to carry our “wounded” teammate the rest of the way.
You’d think being carried was easy than doing the carrying. You’d be wrong. Advice? Don’t be the a bigger member of the group? Moving on.
You’re Now On Your Own
When we make it back to home base, Tony tells us that from here on out, your own ability will determine if you make it through the next challenge and make the cut. The individual trial is simple. We would need to finish the 8 mile race course like everyone, but we’d be doing it with our 30 pound rucksack (20 for the ladies). Every mile, every obstacle, pack stays on. There will be a cut-off time, but we are not told what that will be. Make it back to home base and if you don’t see Tony, you’ve been cut.
Having fueled up with a peanut butter and jelly hot dog (nom nom), I’m pumped for this part, feeling surprisingly fresh. Standing at the head of the 12:15 pm race heat, I take off like I don’t have a pack on right through the first few obstacles before slowing to a more manageable 9 minute mile pace. I want to put some distance between the rest of the team to ensure that I don’t get left behind. 15 minutes in, I see Steve coming up and we match pace for the next couple of miles.
At each obstacles, I would pull ahead just a bit and then see him catching up. Halfway through the race, I decide that it’s more fun to have a race buddy than to push full-steam ahead. As long as we’d keep a good pace, we should be the first back to the base. This would prove to be a great energy saving strategy as we kept each other running and I got take a break the few times Steve failed an obstacle or dropped behind a bit.
Except for the mandatory safety vest we had to wear and that little ol’ 30# pack, it was just like running a normal Spartan Super. Most of the obstacles were no harder with the pack. The exception being the 8 foot wall and the rope climb. The former required a more focused jump and push to get over. The latter was the toughest rope I’ve ever had to do at a Spartan Race. With the thin rope feeling more slippery than usual, I can barely manage a grip while being weighed down by the pack that picked up a few extra pounds of water weight. I am one rung away from the bell and cannot get a comfortable enough foothold to allow me to take my hands off the rope to get higher. I hang there in desperation looking down at my friend Michael, who had been following us for most of the day (and would stay until the very end) to take photos.
I’m not sure if he saw that look in my eyes that indicated that I might just drop at any second, pack first into the water. With one last all out effort of, I pinch in as hard as I can with my foot and lunged for the top rung. In that split second, the tiniest give from my foot would have sent me straight down. And it nearly happen, but only just a half-split second after I had grabbed on. Triumphantly ringing the bell, I lower myself as much of the way down before I completely lose my grip and jump into the water. I could not have been happier to avoid the burpee penalty after that monster effort.
A couple of miles later, Steve and I jump over the flames, receive our medals and head straight back to the base. Even though we were the first ones through, there was no point in risking the cut-off. I honestly did believe that if we were all too slow, Tony would call it a day. But that wouldn’t be happening. We had made the 3 hour cut off by over 45 minutes and a good 30 minutes ahead of the next person in the pack. This gave me 45 minutes to relax, refuel and have a bio break before continuing through the last 3rd of the day. Once again, this would be invaluable for maintaining a high energy level to the end.
And Then There Were 7
We wait for a few minutes after the 3 hour mark, just in time for the last 2 of only 7 members of Team Frozen Nipples/Tommy Salami And The Lunchmeat Gang to make the time cut-off. Packs back on, we head back into a different section of the woods where Tony finds another nice little pond for us to sit in. In the shade, and having rested for 45 minutes, the water felt colder than I’d like and I only hoped this would be quick. It wouldn’t. Here, we are asked to reflect on the reason we were doing the 12 Hour Hurricane Heat. We are asked to think about integrity and perseverance. We are asked to meditate. And it was completely peaceful. The whole time I was marveling at the thought of being in the pond with my pack on…I was also engaged in a dead stare-off with a frog.
I could have been spending that Saturday comfortably eating my way through Chicago with my aunt or sitting on a couch watching college football. Instead I was here. Caked from head to toe in mud, 8 hours through this 12 hour challenge and completely confident that I would finish. In between the shocked look from random people walking by and seeing the lot of us with our eyes closed sitting completely still in a muddy trench of a pond, I let myself entertain the idea of possibly doing the Death Race, but only just for a little. It felt delightfully devious, so I put the thought away.
One by one, we get out of the water and tell Tony our reason for being here today. For me, it was simply the challenge of the 12 Hour Hurricane Heat existing.
We continue the hike with our packs over our head through the rest of the woods and weave back onto the course, where we bump into another member of the Spartan family, Angela Overstreet, who like Ron earlier, greets us asking for our code. I still remember my code and recite it back. No burpees. Yes! Wrong, since the entire group did not know their codes, we all have to do 100 burpees. I’d lost count, but I’m guessing we’d done somewhere between 600-700 burpees up to this point.
Heading to the Atlas Carry, Tony tells us we have 20 minutes to get the 110 pound stone ball back to home base. Not knowing how far or even the quickest way to get back to home base, we spend 5 minutes trying to use our paracord to tie up the ball to drag back. 5 minutes later with tangled mess of rope at our feet, we decide to pick a direction and just roll the ball back as quickly as possibly, taking turns as a team to keep the momentum of the movement going.
We luck out and find the festival grounds after just 10 minutes of rolling. As though we were transporting a live bomb, we asked everyone to clear a path as our dirty and rag tag group of 7 pushed that ball right back to home base beating the cut-off.
Back where it began, we see some of the earlier comrades that did not make the cut-off. Some looked dejected and a few were doing burpees. Ron had allowed 2 members who barely missed the cut-off to join back into the group, and 2 others members could continue with an official finish if they paid a 500 burpee penalty. Brutal.
What Is The Capital Of Illinois?
Our next and final (almost) challenge was a throwback to something Tony encountered in a previous Death Race. Marking a quadrant out in the field where we had earlier planted our flowers, we are to log-roll that same roughly 300 meter perimeter to complete a lap. At the end of each lap, we would be asked a trivia question. Answer incorrectly and the lap does not count. From a morale standpoint, things could go south very quickly.
As I speed through the first lap, I feel a slight onset of nausea from the repeated rolling. Every time this happens, I stop and stare at the sky, which felt incredibly good. For about 20 seconds at a time, I could forget that I’m in the middle of a grueling challenge. The afternoon sun was warm, the ground was soft and I was doing nothing but staring at the blue skies above. But before I’d get too comfortable, I’d continue on. Rounding back to Tony, I get my first question: “What is the capital of Illinois?”
Eff my life! I wasn’t from Illinois and I never bothered to learn my capitals in grade school. I struggle for a minute trying to even think of another city besides Chicago and Marseilles (where the race was being held). Nothing. “Peoria?”
And off I went. That entire lap of rolling for naught. I thought I’d be dejected from this, but instead it fueled me to go faster and I start to roll past the people in front of me. I wanted another chance. Roll roll roll. I’m back. “What sense is most associated with memory?” “SMELL!!!”. I was confident and I was right. 1 lap down. Who knows how many more to go.
Again, I speed past a few people stopping every so often to keep from puking. Not all of us would be so lucky.
“What position squats the most in a game?” I thought linebacker or center out loud before realizing that it had to be a more clear answer. “Catcher?” 2 laps down.
“What dish is consists of an English muffin, ham, poached eggs and Hollandaise Sauce?” Please. “Eggs Benedict”. 3 laps down.
“What is the capital of Illinois?” I’d ask this question while passing one of my fellow logs and gotten the answer I never would have known. “Springfield” 4 laps down.
“What sense is most associated with memory?” Really? Same question. I’m not going to look a gift-horse in the mouth. “Smell.” 5 laps down. Somehow by lapping everyone, I’d gotten a question that Tony thought hadn’t been asked to everyone.
On the last lap, I was hoping for an easy one. And it must have been because in the excitement of finishing, I did not care to remember the question at all. “You can take a break” Sweet music to my ears.
I eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, have some gatorade and some candy and chat with Michael for a bit watching as Tony and Ron decide to throw some smoke grenades into the field to get everyone to move faster. It did not look fun. Between the coughing, gagging and puking, I was happy I used the extra energy to move through quickly. As it started to get dark, I wondered how much was actually left, which Tony must have telepathically heard as he told me I would be joining them for my 11th hour challenge. Burpees. Spartan’s favorite and ever reliable burpee. 30 rolling burpees to start then a trip down the hill to the dunk wall and back for…more burpees. More specifically, a different variation of the burpee each time and then another trip to the dunk wall.
Instead of taking my time, I am so pumped at this point that I push through each set as fast as I can and even sprint to the dunk wall. It may have looked like showing off, but it was pure adrenaline and 5th wind of energy.
So here was the full set after the initial 30. 100 Monkey F*ckers. Dunk wall. 30 Super Burpees. Dunk wall. 30 Burpee Broad Jumps. Dunk wall. 30 Star Jump Burpees. Dunk wall. 200 Mountain Climbers. Dunk wall. 50 V-Ups. Dunk wall. 100 Burpees. Dunk wall.
Somehow I’m through with this entire set (and a bunch of fire jumps for the hell of it) before anyone else has finished the log rolls. I couldn’t help it. I am smiling so big. So big that Ron wanted to wipe that smile right off my face. I should have known that there would be no smiling during a 12 Hour Hurricane Heat. So Ron comes over and tells me that since I have a lot of energy left, “let’s help you burn some of that off”. It’s a repeat of the earlier high intensity interval session, but because all of his attention was directed towards me, there would be no breaks. I’m suffering at this point, but I have no intention of giving in. I was planning to go as hard as I needed until I collapse if necessary. I would not give Grumpy the satisfaction of seeing me give-up.
Lucky for me, Tony calls everyone together and tells them to head down to the dunk wall. “Do you want to me to stop all this?”
I tell Ron, “I’m happy to go as long as you tell me to”.
“Good answer. Go join the rest of your team.” So I do.
It’s completely dark now and we’re back in the water as a team. There’s 10 of us. 7 official. 3 unofficial. As a team, our last obstacle is an obligatory fire jump. They make the fire a big one. The biggest I’ve ever seen in a Spartan Race and it feels just right for this occasion. “On my count. 1. 2. 3”
And with that, my first step towards the Death Race comes to an end. I had earned my HH12HR patch and qualified for the Death Race. Will I answer the call when the time comes. Will I be celebrating my next birthday in Pittsfield Vermont at what is possibly the last Death Race? Let’s find out together. AROO!
To see the full set of photos head here: HH12HR-006 Full Album and a special thanks to my buddy, Michael Vo, who came out with very minimal camera training and followed us around for over 12 hours taking these amazing photos.