Every man dies, not every man really lives.
~ William Wallace
We’ve all got horror stories of the repair service scheduling an appointment “sometime between 10am and 4pm.” The uncertainty can cause aggravation, anxiety and frustration. Imagine those same emotions coupled with non-stop physical exertion and tests of mental acuity spread over three days outside somewhere on a mountainside in Vermont. Las Vegas resident and adventure athlete Rob Barger, 41, has been training to overcome those challenges and more as he prepares to travel to Pittsfield, VT this June to participate in the ominously named “Death Race.”
Often heralded as one of the most difficult races in the world, the Death Race was conceived in 2005 by ultra athletes Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg who felt that racers were becoming “soft.” “An ultra isn’t an easy race” says Weinberg who has completed dozens of ultra-marathons, most covering 50 to 100 miles, “but when you know it’s 100 miles you can train for that. You can prepare for that.” DeSena, who once completed the Vermont 100, the Lake Placid Ironman and the Badwater Ultra… in one week, had a more succinct rationale, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had an event that just screwed with people?”
And they do.
The goal of the race, which boasts of a completion rate lower than 15%, is to make you quit. DeSena says, “If you’re out for a marathon or you’re out for an Iron Man every mile or so there’s water, there’s Gatorade, there’s people cheering. My partners and I decided to put on an event where we would break people. We would physically, mentally and emotionally just break them. No water, no food, no cheering…matter of fact, we would find their weak spots and tell them to go home.” There is no start time. There is no finish line, no marked course or time limit. The race goes on for as long as DeSena and Weinberg want it to. Weinberg says, “We’ve had Olympians go home with their tail between their legs. The race beat them.” Out of the 344 competitors that began the 2012 Death Race, 285 had given up before the final finisher was declared nearly 68 hours later.
So how do you train for a race that is largely made up as it goes? The common response is, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” Barger has competed in several events over the past few years including 200-mile relay races, triathlons, 24+ hour military style challenges and obstacle courses such as Spartan Race, also founded by DeSena and Weinberg.
Rob Barger (left) at a 36+ hour S.E.R.E. Performance Challenge in Tucson, AZ
“My first introduction to obstacle racing was the Spartan Super in 2012 in Temecula, CA” says Barger. “I had been maintaining a fairly regular exercise program leading up to the event but I would find out that I was still horribly unprepared for the intensity that comes with Spartan Race. About halfway through the race I had cramps so bad I would have bruises for days after the event.”
Learning from his mistakes in Temecula, Barger modified his training and returned to Spartan Race two months later at Fort Carson, CO finishing 21st out of 2,567 in the Open class. The hook was set. “I began to train harder and run in other events as training for Spartan Races” he says. Preparing for 13+ mile Spartan Beast in November 2012, he ran a half-marathon wearing a 50lb weight vest, finishing in an impressive 2 hours 26 minutes, just 6 minutes slower than the average pace and placing 490th out of 1,115. “I trained hard for the Spartan Beast” he says, “I actually finished the 13+ mile Beast 15 minutes faster than the 8+ mile Super I had done earlier in the year.”
Even then, the Death Race is much more than just being fast. Different every year, past races have involved physical challenges such as carrying 100lb boulders several miles, chopping wood for hours at a time and crawling up frigid mountain streams. Mental challenges have included memorizing a list of US Presidents then reciting it in order several hours (and miles) later, or inspecting a small cube made of Legos then hiking several miles to be handed a bag of loose Legos and asked to duplicate the cube exactly.
There are very few constants when it comes to the Death Race but you can count on the fact that it won’t be easy and it will not be over quickly. When asked if he can imagine what waits for him on that mountain in Vermont, Barger said, “No, but I think that’s the point. I can try, but until I’m actually face-to-face with whatever demon the Death Race manifests itself to be in that sleep deprived, wholly exhausted state I can’t be sure I’m even close to duplicating it.”
For more information on the Death Race visit the website, aptly named www.youmaydie.com.