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You’ll Never Know Your Limits, Until You Test Them
"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." -- Helen Keller.
My body may have returned from Vermont, but my head is still spinning with thoughts about my Death Race experience last weekend. 2014 was the "Year of the Explorer", and it did not disappoint. This was my first Death Race, and what a wild journey it turned out to be!
My journey really began a few weeks after the 2013 Death Race, where I helped crew Daren de Heras along to an official finish and skull. Once I heard the new theme was “The Explorer”, I was in! What followed was several months of recurring nightmares and doubts, as my conscious and sub-conscious mind struggled to comprehend the enormity of the challenge of which I was about to partake. I would literally wake up in a cold sweat, from a dream where I was hopelessly lost in the woods at night. It felt like a form of PTSD from my experience crewing the 2013 race, and it really unnerved me, until my friend and trainer - Junior Nartea - changed my perspective on it. "That's just your brain getting you ready for the race," he assured me. "You'll be fine."
Comforted by this realization, I trained hard for the rest of the Summer, prepping for the 2013 Vermont Ultra Beast, which proved to be the toughest race I had ever done. I think we covered over 26-miles and climbed over 14,000-ft during that race. There were challenges during the event that really felt like Death Race, such as carrying an 80-lb log up a ski slope, under barb wire, and then back down again. After finishing that event, I began to feel like I could really handle a Death Race, as well. I had fought through the urge to give up, and I never quit, eventually crossing the finish line in about 12 hours, 30 minutes.
However, following the Ultra Beast, my body began falling apart. All the training and running had left me exhausted. I continued to train, but I developed pain in my knees, strains in my shoulder and neck, and sciatica in my lower back. I needed to rest and recuperate. I took a couple months off and lost much of the endurance and strength that I had built up over the Summer. The doubts began to creep up again. How could I do a Death Race, if I could hardly pull-off 10 burpees in-a-row?
When the New Year rolled around, I found my answers. I received an email from Peak, stating that each racer had to complete a media challenge, or face a horrific penalty at the start of the race. I submitted an article to my local city newspaper, which they loved and subsequently published. The local news caught wind of the story and asked if they could interview me for a TV story. My friend - Michael Ainis - helped me with the TV interview, and through the course of completing those two challenges, I really found my reason for WHY I wanted to do the Death Race. That provided me with the motivation to fight through the pain and dedicate myself to getting into the best physical shape possible for the race.
Over the course of the next 6 months, I committed to doing at least 30 burpees per day. I ran, went to the gym, hiked, and exercised with my friends - Daren, Dave Huckle, Louis Lopez, Rachelanne Gladden - on what we penned as "Beastmode Tuesdays". Having a group of friends who are physically active, and willing to exercise with you is key. Taking part in shenanigans, like a cold water plunge into a nasty duck poo pond in the middle of the night is an extra bonus!
My friends also teamed together - along with Dave Lokey and Steffen Cook - to help plan 3 long Death Race training camps for me, meant to help prepare me mentally and physically for the event. They put these on in their own free time, at their own expense, under the tutelage of Daren, who is a 5x Death Racer. I really learned a lot during these camps, and had so much fun! I gained confidence and skill, and learned a lot about what my body and mind was capable of. During this time, we also were planning and executing the SISU Iron event, which gave me a lot of insight into what goes into prepping for an event like the Death Race. I wish I could have been a participant in the event, but helping to direct and lead the event was so rewarding and inspiring. And it proved to be an excellent bonding event for all of us, creating a real TEAM feeling going into the Death Race.
I also attended workshops on wilderness survival skills, navigation, and orienteering. These actually came in very handy during the Death Race. I would also encourage just everyday campers and hikers to take these kinds of classes, as it builds a lot of confidence and could one day even save a life!
The final 60 days before the Death Race, I really zoned in. I wrote inspiring quotes on my bathroom mirror. I treated my feet with a special formula design to toughen them and prevent blisters. I meditated, prayed, and stuck religiously to a workout schedule I designed to physically ready me for "Year of the Explorer". During this time, I kept records of all my workouts. When it was all done, I figure that I completed (among other things):
Just getting to the start line of the Death Race is an accomplishment. Of all the crazies who sign up, 20% quit before the race has even started. I think it was Andy Weinberg who said it best, "There was an uncanny number of grandma-related fatalities within the Death Racer community in the months leading up to the race" [paraphrased]. It can be very intimidating, and the race staff there at Peak does not make it any easier, with their constant barrage of discouraging emails and "just give up now, you'll never finish" comments.
Traveling to Pittsfield was no easy task, either. We took a 5-hour, red-eye flight, lost 3-hours in the process (due to the time zones), then rented a car and drove another 3 hours. Then, we had to drive another hour into Rutland - the closest town with a Walmart and grocery store - in order to get some supplies for the race and food to eat. During the course of the trip, people also had to deal with flight delays, lost luggage, transportation issues...and on top of all that, there's Death Race registration that same night, and the uneasiness associated with that.
Assuming you can finish all this at a decent hour, then you still have to repack everything for the race. This includes loading up your pack in a reasonable way, so that it has all the essentials, but is not too burdensome or heavy. You also need some backup and emergency supplies, which go into a drop bin. You need to figure out what you're going to wear, and you need to talk strategy with your crew.
Foot care also starts the night before the race. I applied Nu-Skin to my feet the night before the race and the morning of. Before putting on my socks, I also rubbed Trail Toes (Vaseline also works) and Baby Powder on them. Then, I used silk sock liners and wool socks over those. I had already been applying Tuf Foot to my feet every night for the past few weeks, and based on training hikes, I knew where my normal trouble spots were, and applied mole skin over those to provide extra padding and protection. Your feet are key, so anything you can do to protect them during the race is well worth it. And my feet looked great during the entire race. Afterwards, they hurt a little bit, but I had zero blisters and could have easily put another 20-30 miles on them before developing any real injuries.
THE FIRST 32 HOURS
We arrived at the start corral about 10 minutes before the race was to start. Only the racers were allowed in the corral. All crew and spectators had to stay outside the corral, pretty much for the entire race. Joe Desena and Andy explained the rules of the event to everyone, while Don Devaney walked around and basically told people they'd fail. There were to be a number of time hacks that people would have to make in order to continue on in the race. The first time hack was at 4:00pm on Saturday, about 31 hours into the race. The top 100 would continue on. Then, at 12:00am on Sunday there would be another cut, and the final time hack was at 7:15am on Sunday. They said this year was going to be a real race, so it paid to be first. They also said that they expected only about 10% of the entrants to finish.
The race started with an all-out time trial up and down Joe’s mountain (about 2.5 miles, with 900-ft of elevation gain). At the top, we did 50 burpees and had to memorize a phrase. When we got to the bottom we checked-in, repeated the phrase we memorized, had to dig through a pile to find our packs, and then hiked back up with our packs on. Not sure how much mine weighed, but I’m guessing about 40-lbs (with water). I had the 60-L Osprey Aether, which worked pretty well for me. Once we reached the top of the mountain, we were told to head down the other side to Tweed River.
Once we got down to Tweed, we had to “grab a rock, bigger than you can carry”. Most of the big, flat rocks were already taken, so I grabbed three medium sized rocks (around 120-lbs), tied them together and began dragging them down a dirt road to a trail (Noodle’s Revenge?). These early hours were very difficult, and I used a lot of muscle and calories dragging those rocks over the hilly, muddy terrain. When I got to the bottom of the stone staircase, I unbundled my rocks and began carrying them up one-at-a-time. At that point, I met up with Dan Grodinsky and Rebecca Daniels-Hansen, who I worked with for the next several hours. At one point, Rebecca and I fashioned a make-shift “stretcher” to carry a 100-lb rock up the trail. After getting to the top, we worked for the next several hours on the stone staircase, basically making improvements to the trail. We were careful to watch our bags during this time, as Joe’s and Andy’s kids were hiding them and tossing them down the hill.
Around the 7-hr mark in the race, we were told to run down the mountain. After reaching the bottom, we were given instructions on how to reach the top of Bloodroot mountain via the “Long Trail” (approx. 20-miles round trip). We had to carry a small wood round with us, which we were told we’d need for a challenge at the top of the mountain.
Rebecca and I set out together for the hike. In accordance with the Lewis and Clark “Explorer” theme, we chose to partner together for much of the event. Rebecca pushed the pace on the uphills, while I exceled on the flats and the downhills. We made it up to the top of Bloodroot around the same time, about 3.5-hours after we started. Then, Don instructed us to make a bowl out of our wood and fill it “with the freshest of water” for him to drink. We toiled for the next half-hour, digging and chopping to create a small crater for some creek water. It was interesting to see all the different techniques people used to tackle this challenge, including fire and duct tape!
On the hike down the mountain, I felt great and took off at a fast pace. As the sun set over the Vermont mountains, I found myself alone in the woods, walking the path back towards Riverside Farm. It was peaceful and a little disconcerting at the same time, but I felt a lot better when I caught up with some other Death Racers, and we kept within eye-shot of each other all the way back. Getting lost during this part of the event, would almost certainly lead to a DNF, as several people discovered.
We got back to the Farm around the 14-hour mark in the race, at which point we were told we had approx. 30-minutes to sew a buckskin outfit, which we’d wear for the rest of the race. We also were given the challenge to pass a porcupine needle through the middle of our wood round, without breaking it in two. Both these challenges encouraged a lot of creative thinking and teamwork, which I really enjoyed.
After completing our outfits and the “porcupine challenge”, we were given directions to “Gilke’s Camp”, where we were to meet General Gilke for a challenge. This was a long (approx. 10-mile roundtrip) hike, up and over Joe’s mountain and into the woods. On the way, we passed an old cemetery, where we were convinced all the dead Death Racers are buried. FYI – nobody has ever died during the Death Race…or so we’re told! When we reached Gilke’s Camp (around 2am), we were told to make a primitive ax, using sticks and rocks, and then chop down a sapling tree. We were also told to haul 5 gallons of water up from the nearby stream, but if we didn’t have a bucket (which not on the required gear list), then we had to do 1,500 burpees. It took a while to get through the ax challenge, but it was pretty straight-forward. However, I didn’t have a bucket! Luckily, through some social engineering and teamwork, we were eventually able to hustle an orange bucket, and let me tell you I have never been so happy to see that Home Depot logo! Rebecca and I then made quick work of the bucket challenge and hiked our way back to Riverside Farm. On the way back, we saw the most gorgeous sunrise over the mountains. “Did you like that?” Andy Weinberg later said. “I scheduled that challenge just for that purpose.”
We got back to camp at about 6am, 21 hours into the race. When we checked in they asked for our primitive ax, which I had left at the camp. As punishment for not having it, I had to do 200 backward rolls. Even after taking the Dramamine® that Andé Wegner gave me, I still suffered significant motion sickness and got all wet from the morning dew on the grass. After this, I rested for a bit at our Team SISU tent. Matt Brunke checked my feet, which still looked great, and I got some much needed “sit time”. The only problem is that I began to get sleepy, and this made me very grumpy. But Daren quickly snapped me out of it by reading some motivational notes he had gotten from my girlfriend and family, and Dave Lokey accompanied me on my next task – another time trial up and down Joe’s mountain.
For this time trial, we had heard that you just needed to be faster on the way down, than on the way up. However, there were 100 burpees to be completed at the bottom before the timer stopped. Dave and I took our time going up, which was fine, because I was still feeling a little nausea. On the way down, I felt much better, and we made good time. When we got back to the farm, I was instructed to do me burpees, under the close supervision of one of the volunteers, who made sure my form was correct. I banged out ten sets of ten, using my pace beads to keep count, and finished the set faster than I’d ever finished 100 burpees before in my life! Then, I went up to Andy, and he gave me my next task – orienteering.
For the orienteering challenge, we had to find our way to several different locations on a map. Each location was worth a different number of points, based upon the difficulty in finding it. There were a number of strategies to be employed here. Do you go for the closest points, even though it requires a lot of climbing? Or do you go to the furthest points, on the flattest route? Do you go for easiest to find, which are worth the least number of points? Or, do you bet all your marbles on one really high value point, which might prove impossible to find?
Several of us racers and crew teamed together for this one, and got some general directions to the “Ravine” waypoint from Miguel Medina, who had been working around there all year, building his cabin. Patrick Walsh, another Death Race veteran, guided us along the way, across the river, up the hill, over boulders and steep embankments. Finally, we heard Ekaterina “Solo” Solovieva cry out that she had found it. We hiked up the hill (around 1300’ total) and stamped our scorecards.
Next, we decided to hike to the “Cemetery” to round out our navigation challenge. We had passed it before on the hike out to Gilke’s Camp, and we were pretty sure that the stamp would be easy to find once we made it there. Sure enough, with our trusty GPS and crew, it proved very easy to find. But the additional 600’ climb was punishing on the legs. At this point, I believe we had hiked about 45-miles (with about 9,000-ft of elevation gain), which was further than I had ever gone before.
We got back to Riverside Farm around 2pm, with plenty of time to spare before the 4pm cut-off. At this point it gets a little blurry, but I remember taking a caffeine pill and then foraging through our gear to find tools for fire-making. The next challenge was to hike to the top of Joe’s mountain and use a bow drill to make fire. After a short rest break, Rebecca and I climbed to the top, grabbed some hay along the way (for our tinder bundle), and then assessed the situation. Seemed like all we had to do was construct a bow, demonstrate how it SHOULD work, and then light a fire with whatever tools we had. A previous competitor had left a perfectly good bow drill behind, so we just grabbed that, assembled it, lit our fires with the matches, and headed back down the hill. It was such a relief to get back into the shade on the hike down. The heat from the mid-day sun on the top of Joe’s mountain was a killer. But the hottest part of the day was far from over!
Once we got back down from the mountain, we were told to weave our way through some fence posts, while dragging or wearing our packs. I actually really enjoyed this part. It felt good to be off my feet for a little while. I quickly finished this task, and then began making plans for the next task, which would turn out to be my last.
MY FINAL CHALLENGE
At about 4:30pm on the second day, Joe Forney, Daren, and I began hiking up the road to Tweed River. Daren had a few details, but I still wasn’t sure what was planned for us. I was carrying a small wood round up the trail, as instructed, but I had no idea why. Daren told me that there would be a mental test up at Tweed, and I got a little excited, because I’m usually very good at these. Daren also told me that he’d heard rumors that we’d be hiking Bloodroot again that night, and we had to make it back before the midnight cutoff.
When we got to the top of Tweed, we were instructed to turn-in our wood rounds, and clean up the area a bit. Some racers had already begun the task, and were doing push-ups and holding yoga poses. After a little while, we were told to empty the contents of our packs and our pockets into a big heap, and then wait in line to talk to Jack Cary. Jack gave us a 26-question matching test about explorers. He told us that we weren’t allowed to talk or get help from anyone around us. We could ask him a question about the test, if we wanted, but that required us to go hold a difficult yoga pose for 10-20 minutes and then wait in line. Any time you wanted to ask another question, you had to repeat the whole process. If you spoke, or messed-up the yoga pose too badly, you were out of the race. The only way to pass the challenge, we were told, was to answer all the questions on the test and get 100% right. But if you turned in your test to be graded, and you missed one, then you were out of the race.
Well, being a good student, I took a first crack at the test, and I guessed that I knew about 70% of the answers. I figured I could do a few more yoga poses, ask a few questions, and probably get the rest correct in a couple hours. I selected the “Dora the Explorer” pose (basically standing on one foot, with arms outstretched), held it for 20 minutes, and then got in line to ask a question. While standing in line I began falling asleep, and at one point I stumbled out of line. I was amazed to be so tired. The sun must have really taken a lot out of me! I got up to Jack after about 10 minutes, but had to take a few seconds to remember my question. Jack made me take my glasses off and said, “Look me in the eye. Have you cheated on this test?”
“No!” I replied, shocked that he would make such an accusation. Then, I asked him if one of my guesses was correct. He said yes, and told me I was doing a good job, giving me some confidence that I could probably pass this test.
I went back over to the side, where I stood for a while, silently working on my test. After a while, I was fairly convinced that I had a pretty decent chance of passing the test. I figured I could go through this cycle of yoga, waiting in line, trying to stay awake, asking questions, etc. for several more hours, in which case I’d eventually get all the correct answers, but might miss the midnight cut-off. Or, I could walk up, turn in my test, and take my chances. “Maybe that’s all they were waiting for,” I began to convince myself, “Someone to have enough balls to walk up and ask the question, ‘Can I move on?’”
I wrote a note to the volunteer, saying that I wanted to turn in my test for grading. She told me to do another yoga pose. This time I held a side plank for 10 minutes. It was the ugliest plank ever, and I thought for sure I’d be disqualified for it. But eventually they called my number, and I was allowed to move into the line.
Standing in line for the next few minutes was agonizing! I waffled back-and-forth between turning in the test, or continuing with the answer checking. In the end, I figured that I had made my decision, and I had just better stick with it. I thought I’m either going to:
Andy asked me, “Are you sure you’re ready to quit?”
“Well,” I said, “I turned in my test and missed a few answers, so I guess I’m done.”
“You just spoke, so you’re out anyway. Good job, though.” Then, Andy turned around and addressed the other racers. “Matt Trinca just turned in his test. He’s a very honorable person, and I commend him for his effort. But he says he’s tired and can’t go on.”
At that point, I grabbed my gear from the pile, packed my stuff, turned in my bib and began to walk away. Other racers, like Dan and Rebecca gestured to me. I later found out that they were trying to get me to stay in the race. But I really felt like it was over at that point, and my mind was already spinning. I had opened the gates to self-doubt and defeat, and the demons had rushed in to crush my dreams. If I had just kept my mouth shut and kept shuffling through the yoga poses, I probably could have lasted the next 6 hours, until the end of the challenge. But once you accept defeat in the Death Race, it’s extremely difficult to try and come back.
I felt like I left the race at the good time. I had really enjoyed myself up to that point, and I heard that after I left, the challenge got a lot uglier. I probably would’ve hated it, but physically I think I could’ve survived, and then who knows?
After the challenge, I hiked back down to the farm. Several crew and support staff joined me to get my thoughts and reaction to what happened. I didn’t cry, but I could certainly understood at that point why some people do. It’s hard to think about all the training and sacrifice that went into the event, and all the people at home who are cheering for you. It’s hard to think that you let them down, and harder still to think that you let yourself down.
I was thankful at that point for Louis Turnbull’s mom, who decided to hike down with me. She spoke with me and shared some of her story with me. It was good speaking with her, because it kept me out of my own head, where the demons were still playing around and wreaking havoc.
When I got back to the farm, I made the call to my crew, who was eating and resting. The plan was for them to be fueled and ready to go for a long hike, but that never materialized. I also called my girlfriend and my parents to let them know I was OK. Shortly after, my crew came to pick me up, Matt Brunke gave me a ride back to my place, and I crashed hard. I think I took a shower, and then passed out face-down on the bed.
Dave Huckle came and woke me up about 8 hours later, and I returned to the farm with him to watch the rest of the race. I’ll save that part for somebody else to write about, but suffice to say it was amazing. To go from being a participant to a spectator/crew was a weird experience, but it gave me a new appreciation for what the racers were going through. Actually, I think it might be harder to watch, than it is to participate, because it looks so awful. But when you’re in the race, you’re pretty much mindless. You just go along with the crowd, zone in on the task at hand, and get it done. Everyone around you stinks and hurts, same as you, but there are also encouraging smiles and helping hands pushing you to keep going. Part of me wished I was still out there, while part of me was just glad that I had survived 34 hours without any injuries.
DEALING WITH MY DNF
In the end, I failed a test about explorers. But what I didn't know is that the test wasn't really passable. It was a real “Kobayashi Maru”, designed to test one’s reaction to a no-win situation. It was a test of patience and tenacity, which I didn't realize at the time. But overall, I have no regrets. I learned a lot about myself out there and continue to push the bar (and the limits) of that which I am capable.
I learned that I need to be more confident in my abilities. Part of the reason I rushed so much was that I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle all those yoga poses, and that I would be too tired, too sore, and too slow to make the next time cut off. But in reality I was in really good shape, and in a good position within the race. I could have easily continued on without fear of disqualification. I just needed to DFQ (Don’t F**kin’ Quit)! Just 3 letters - it’s easy to remember, and it sounds simple enough. But when you are tired, in pain, and doubting yourself, it can be the furthest thing from your mind. Now, I have a much better understanding of what DFQ means and what it takes to be truly UNBREAKABLE.
I also experienced what Daren has been telling me about during training – that the darkness and pain come in waves. When it comes, you just need to recognize it for what it is – a temporary thing. They are merely signals from your mind and body to try and save you from injury, but they are also limiting factors that you can dismiss. Your mind will tell you 1,000 times to stop before your body finally gives in. You just have to recognize the demons when they come knocking on the door, and do NOT let them in. Again, this is much easier said than done, but I believe that if you purposely put yourself in those situations, then you can steel yourself, and gain the discipline needed to keep focused in future trials and tribulations.
For me, it truly was never about the skull; it was about the journey. And I was proud and honored to take that journey with my friends. It began back in the Summer of 2013. I was going to “toe the line” at one of the most difficult challenges in the world. And throughout the year, I changed and the people around me changed as well. I was lucky enough to inspire people physically, mentally, and spiritually. And in return I believe I received back that inspiration ten-fold. It was weird being the center of attention. I usually try to shy away from the limelight. I’m more of the silent role player on the basketball team, rather than the superstar phenom. But then, it was pointed out to me, “Matt, you’ve been giving and giving these past few years, seldom asking for anything in return. Now, it’s all coming back to you.” Truly it was an overwhelming experience, and I can honestly say it made me emotional. I get emotional just thinking about it now, and I am SO thankful.
I don’t even know if I can adequately express my gratitude here, but just know that everyone who took this journey with me – whether you “liked” a post on Facebook, trained with me, raced with me, wrote me inspiring notes, or “crewed” the race – you all hold a special place in my heart.
For me the journey really ended once I took those first few steps out of the corral to start the race. At that point, a new journey began. I am a “Death Racer” now. As Don said at the end of the race, “You’ve done some thing; now go and do SOMETHING.” I will continue to push my limits. I will not be complacent with who I am today, and I will “not go gentle into that good night”. I really believe that challenges like the Death Race have the power to motivate you to do extraordinary things with your life, but only if you let them, only if you will walk the journey and give yourself over to it completely.
I end this story with a few verses from one of my favorite church hymns, called “The Summons” by John Bell. I really dedicated this race “For the Greater Glory of God” (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam), and I feel like this song really reflects what it felt like to walk those trails with God by my side.
Written by Matt Trinca, 8 July 2014
Posted On: 07/11/2014
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