Thursday, July 10, 2014

Crewing the 2014 Death Race: Year of the Explorer

Me in my element!!

I had been struggling for a few months this winter/spring with whether I wanted to follow through with my commitment of participating in the 2014 Death Race.

I had been training hard, thinking and participating in all things "Death Race" since November 2012; I participated in two Death Race camps early in 2013, finishing unofficially the Summer 2013 Death Race, finishing officially the Team Death Race 3 months later, then DNFing the 2014 Winter Death Race 3 months after that.

FUCK. My brain was fried. I forced myself to train hard throughout the spring after the Winter Death Race, not enjoying myself even the though training program was awesome and got me in amazing shape for the upcoming 2014 Summer Death Race. A month ago, I paced my friend 70 miles during his bid for the Peak 200 miler and felt amazingly strong! Physically, I was ready.

Mentally, NO GAME.

I told myself to wait until the Death Race gear email/list came out to see how I would feel; excitement? anxiety? fear? let's get this shit done? NOPE. I felt nothing. I decided to not participate because my mind was not in it. No mental game means high probability of DNF and most importantly, no fun.

I was so confused as to why I was feeling this? Was it purely mental fatigue? How could I not want this race that had so profoundly changed my life?! I was hurting and could not make a decision. I spoke with my friend, Don Devaney, just after the gear list was emailed to us. He helped me sort through why I was feeling that way. He helped bring to light that I had entered the Summer 2013 Death Race with purpose and with a fire of wanting to move beyond this horrible grief that I was continually battling for 8 fucking years since my daughter died at birth. I needed to feel as though I was strong enough to get pass a hurdle I had been stuck way on top of, teetering. After pushing with all my might though that race last summer, being stripped down emotionally and physically, I came out on top, healed and ready to move on. I had risen up to where I needed to be and it was TIME FOR ME TO BE PRESENT. It all made so much sense.

So, I decided to crew my friend, Craig Pannell, with whom I raced the 2013 Summer Death Race. He officially finished that race. His wife, Sharon, usually crews him but she was not coming this time around so I jumped at the chance. Craig is one of the most mentally and physically strong people I have ever met and coached my mental game for my death races so I was excited to give back and  help him finish this race. Craig gets shit done. But, ironically, he would get eliminated from this Death Race not from the mental side of the game or being physically spent. Craig was asked a question by a volunteer during the "Jack Cary Test" and spoke and was immediately DNFd. Craig is not one for words, an introvert, and would have finished this no speaking test for 10 hours like nothing, but he responded to a volunteer when asked and it cost him his race. More on this later.

Craig, #339 talking with Josh Zitomor, 4 time Death Race finisher.

Craig flew in from California on Thursday and I met him in Pittsfield that afternoon. We stayed at the Amee Farm BB for easy access to Riverside Farm, where the Death Race would be based out of. Craig, Luke Kovacs (his partner for the race) and Mike Klunk, Luke's crew guy, and I drove to Trailside Inn for registration. People were wondering if the race was going to start then, was the dinner they were providing just a joke, if you showed up that night would you be penalized in some way, etc. Theories were being thrown around like crazy. After catching up with many friends who were racing or crewing, we headed back to Amee. Craig got his gear packed up and went to bed early. I decided to sit on the Amee BB porch for a bit and relax and think about what my role would be the next 3+ days. I had raced three death races but I had never crewed one. I had the advantage of knowing what racers experience, the amount of calories needed to sustain the exertion, hydration, sleep deprivation and the highs and lows one can go through, but taking care of someone else's needs for 3+ days and getting them through those highs and lows would be a new challenge! I was ready.

Alone the night before the Death Race.
Where is everyone!!? I was the only freak up still :)

I slept ok and we set our alarms for 6:30am. Racers were told to be at Riverside to park and unload any gear between 6am-9am. The race would start promptly at 9am. Again, racers and crew were speculating whether chores would be handed out if you got there too early, etc. So, I got up first, at 5am, got out of my sleeping bag since I was crashing on the floor, crawled over and kicked Craig's foot "wake up, fucker! It's Death Race day!" and he promptly said, "Jane, you are killing me! I am sleeping another hour and a half." LOL. So, I went to the General Store for 6am for eats while Craig got the full sleep until 6:30am. I saw racers filling up their bellies for the final time with real food until the end of their race. It was so nice to see everyone again! I was so happy.

I went back to Amee around 7am and Craig was up and ready. We drove to Riverside and parked our car. Final registration for those who could not show up the night before was being handled. I saw Joe and he tried to get me to race, one last chance to join in, as Peter and Andy had done the day before when I saw them at the General Store. "Nope....not this time," I said.

At 9am, the racers were instructed to get in the "corral", or the brown fence that was in the field. Crews were instructed that they could not go into the corral to help them out at any time during the race. We could pass stuff to them over the fence but that was it. We learned that that was a loose rule as we helped racers anywhere we wanted for the most part.

racers in the "corral"
Andy explained the time cutoffs for the weekend: 4pm Saturday, 12:00am Sunday, and 7:15am Sunday. STRICT cutoffs. First task was to drop all gear and do a time trial up and down the stairs on Joe's Mtn. and do 50 burpees at the top. When they got back, they had to do 200 backwards rolls in the corral. Then, they had to do go back up Joe's Mtn with their gear but were told when they got to the summit to go down to Tweed River Drive from there where there would be a large pile of rocks, rocks that looked like they would be used for MORE FRIGGIN STAIR MAKING. Ugh. I decided to hike up the mountain with them and be out there for the rock moving. So, everyone had to choose a rock and drag it, wearing their pack, down the road, then on to a trail that was about 1/2 mile long, then up the steep part of the stairs we had built last summer at the death race. They were going to use the rocks to reroute the stairs because the previous ones had washed out.

The race starts!
Time trial up Joe's Mtn without gear.
Top of Joe's Mtn
attaching webbing for dragging!
Luke and Craig figuring out the best plan to get that rock 1/2+ mile to trail
At around 2pm, I saw Marion Abrams on the trail and she asked me to do a video podcast in the woods....a few people were being interviewed and she asked me several questions about why I have done the death race, how it changed me, how did I get through those rough times during the race, etc. It was fun! After that, I ran down the mountain and went to the General Store to get Craig some food for when he came down next. I think it was around 4pm that all racers were back at the corral ready for their next task. Racers had to pick a small sawed piece of wood which had Xs or Os marked on them (the marks never mattered, but many were speculating about what they were marked that way) and to get all their stuff ready to hike to Bloodroot. At the top of Bloodroot, Don Devaney was there and they were told they needed to fill up his cup with 8 ounces of water which meant they had to carve a bowl or cup out of the piece of wood they carried with them. Some racers sat down and actually did hollow out their piece of wood, some thought out of the box and took a ziplock or other container out of their pack and used that to fetch water to fulfill Don's request. They thought this would give them an advantage of being way ahead of everyone when they got back to Riverside. Luke and Craig were in and out of the Bloodroot challenge very quickly.

Craig and Luke leaving the Bloodroot challenge
BUT! The next task at Riverside was to drill a hole with whatever tool you had through that piece of wood, keeping it intact, then dropping the porcupine quill through it. So, whatever advantage you had just brought you back to square one. Racers also had to take the 12 feet of buckskin they were carrying in their packs and had to fashion an outfit to wear of the rest of the race, with a minimum of 108 stitches. So, as darkness approached, headlamps were turned on and tired racers were digging a hole into the wood and sewing an outfit before they could move on to the night hike to General Gilke.

12 am Saturday, Craig cranking out the hole in the wood to drop
the quill into. Making the buckskin outfit was next.

After Craig finished this task up, he and Luke were off to General Gilke, wherever the hell that was. I decided to try to go back to Craig's room at around 2:30am and sleep a bit since they were going to be gone for about 6 hours. I could not wind down. I maybe got one hour sleep. I got up around 5am and was at the General Store at 6am to get some breakfast for Craig and I. Prepared, I got back just in time at Riverside at 6:30am as he was coming off of Joe's Mtn. I believe they had to do 200 more backwards rolls or 100 burpees or something when they got back (seems like they were rolling constantly!). At Gilkes, I learned they had to make a primitive ax which had to be approved by Norm, chop a sapling down with it which was approved by Debbie, then they were asked if they brought a bucket. If not, they had to do 1500 burpees. If they did have bucket, then they had to fetch 5 gallons of water about a 1/2 mile away and bring it back uphill to Norm.

Next up! Orienteering!! The 4pm cut off was now getting real. Craig and Luke were on target for having PLENTY of time (cutoffs were not an issue for them). Choices were a shorter yet steeper route to get the the 4 points needed to complete the task or a longer, "more gentle" hike. IE: a sure shot to the cemetery but steep approach and then steep approach to the Ravine OR walk up Lower and Upper Michigan Roads (less steep but probably more miles) to the Iron Mine and Hayes Brook checkpoints. After discussion, Craig and Luke chose Iron Mine and Hayes Brook. The weather was heating up and getting more humid and racers were getting tired after two long hikes to Bloodroot and Gilke. I took this time to get ice, load up on Gatorade for the millionth time, and get Craig an ice coffee. I went up and sat at the junction to see where they were at and I was told they were cruising along fine. I met them on their way down on Lower Michigan Rd, handed off the ice coffee, and went back to Riverside Farm for when they got back to see what the next task was and repack/refuel Craig.

Orienteering Map! (thanks, Ben Hamlet!)

Next task: take all gear with you, hike up to the top of Joe's Mtn and make a fire. I decided to hike up and meet Craig and Luke to watch. When I got there, Verna and Peter Borden were supervising and approving the fire making. They had instructions on the picnic table of what exactly was needed in order to be build the fire. See picture: You had to have 4 pieces of wood intact. Racers started to think outside the box. Craig and Luke made the bow, but like most racers, instead of following the picture exactly which would have taken all day, they pulled out matches from their packs, held the 4 pieces of wood together in whatever way they could and then struck the match and lit the tinder (hay/birch bark). DONE.

Fire making on Joe's Mtn

Next up: hike back down the mountain to Riverside and snake through the corral fence dragging your pack. This took a bit to do for racers....there is a lot of fence! I believe they had to do 100 burpees as well. Craig finished up, came back to the tent and refueled and packed up and was told to walk up Tweed River Drive to Upper Tweed where they had hauled the large rocks in the beginning. What the hell was going on there??! Could not wait to find out!


Jack Cary: Bringing his A GAME!!!

You had to get every answer correct or you were DNFd.
Not many took the chance.

Holy shit. This is when folks started to unravel. The first place folks who had worked so hard to stay up front all of a sudden were faced with a test that was almost impossible to finish because if you missed ONE question, you were disqualified from the race. Rules at this task: no talking, no eating, no drinking, if you asked a yes/no question to Jack, you had to pay in a 10-20 minute relaxation pose which were not relaxing at all. You could do burpees, etc, for a bite of food or drink of water out of the ravine. There was a steep hill where you could open your test and look at it and fill it in. Once you were ready, you could choose a pose and hold it for 10-20 minutes, in which a volunteer started your time for the pose, based on your bib number, and then would yell out the bib number when time was up. After this, racers got in a long uphill line to see Jack, in which there would be no talking and no looking at the test, which had to be closed and folded. First place folks got here at noon I think. This challenge went on until midnight. During these hours, racers were reminded of cutoffs and that they would not finish the race. People were quitting, pissed, angry, and folks spoke in error to each other. Some racers took the chance and passed in their test and were eliminated. No one ended up passing it. This was the perfect Death Race challenge to weed out the pack and frustrate the hell out of people. IT WORKED. I thought it was genius. I went up a couple times to check in on Craig but I could not do anything because crew had to stay behind a line and could not speak to them so I left. I had no idea it would be hours that he would be up there. No one was passing in the test for fear of DQ. I get a text from Craig around 11:30pm "COME GET ME!!! I am out!!"

WTF?!?!?!? The one person who could pass the no talking test in flying colors is pulled from the race because of talking!??!!??!!? I could not believe it. Josh Zitomer and I drove up to get Craig. (Quick shout out to Josh Z, who is good friends with Craig. I love that guy!! He helped me crew Craig as well and is such a calm presence. Thank you for everything, Josh!!! You are an amazing person!) Once there, we saw that everyone's gear was in a friggin' huge mess, like a tornado had hit. Racers were made to dump everything out of their packs. It was dark, people were pissed, gear was being crushed because people were walking on it. NOT GOOD VIBES. I found Craig, finally, in disbelief, and he explained he was standing up in the "relaxation area" waiting to get the attention of the Race Volunteer who would call out bib and start time. When another Race Volunteer came up from the side and asked him "why are both your feet on the ground"? He responded, "I'm waiting to get her (points to the other Volunteer) attention so she can start my time." She then said "you talked, your out. Give me your bib, I'm reporting you."  Needless to say, he was pissed. She asked him an open ended question, not a yes or no question one that is answered with a head nod. He answered her. His race was DONE. As Craig said to me and a few of the race directors later on during the time trials before the sun came up, "I understood the rules of no talking, I also know we have always been told be respectful to the Race Volunteers, she asked me a question, questioning me on why I was not doing a task, I responded." They agreed later that he should not have been pulled and apologized. But, Craig's race was over at this point. 40 hours. He was still strong and mentally in the game. I was bummed for him.

the final bibs that of DNFd racers

I picked him up and came back to Riverside Farm. We wanted to wait until 7am to see what the next task would be. I heard that 50+ racers bailed or were DQ at the Jack Cary Test. Race directors decided to end the test and brought all racers back to Riverside to do time trials up and down Joe's Mtn all night until 7am. At 7am, racers had an hour to clean up, put their adult diaper and tyvek suit on and wait for next instructions. Craig stayed up for a bit then went to sleep in my car for a few hours and I stayed up and cheered on racers as they went up and down the mountain. I believe the most laps someone did in those 7 hours was 9 laps. People were looking super strong still, while others needed foot attention and encouragement. The number of laps completed would help in determining who would get a skull they were told. Who knew if that was correct but people were working hard all night.

Around 4:30am, the sun started to come up and day three of the race was starting. As promised, you had to be back at Riverside at 7am so you had to time your laps appropriately to be back in time. Racers were back, the sun was heating up the day already, racers were cleaning up with the hoses provided, and they were instructed to get in the "corral" and do body weight exercises to literally warm them up. Then, two buses rolled up: a yellow school bus and a white premier coach bus. Racers were told to line up, with packs and head to the two buses. Once they got to them, they were told the yellow bus racers would take their gear with them; the white bus folks would leave their packs and phones and money at Riverside. I believe 26 people chose the white bus and the other 60ish packed onto the yellow bus. The buses rolled out and we had no idea where they were going. Andy then informed us that the yellow bus would be back within the hour to do tasks all day. The white bus was heading to NYC!!!

cleaning up before the buses came!
tyvek exercises!
Heading to the buses!
Two journeys.....
Two buses, two very different 16 hour journeys!
NYC racers at the hospice

The yellow bus rolled up back at Riverside after an hour of going to various fake stops through Killington. Racers were told to take off their tyvek suits and diapers and get ready to do tasks. This would include going to Peter and Verna Borden's home for uni-cycling, singing, circle activities, rolling in long grass/poison ivy?, writing letters to their loved ones that Verna would then mail out for them, sitting in the river, walking in the river down to Marion Abrams home with a rock in hand to build a rock wall along the riverbank, have time trials to get back to Bordens and the last 5 were cut from the race, a 30 minute no sleeping session, another race back to Riverside where more folks were cut from the race if they were last, then the final task of hauling a 80 pound sandbag up the Ravine to the cabin. Women had to carry the same weight! So, the yellow bus got hammered and 20ish additional people were cut for the race for missing time hacks.

"find a rock then hike 3 miles in the river to help build a wall!"
It was not 3 miles down the river but pretty close :)
The white bus folks had a crazy death racey scavenger hunt in NYC, visited a dying man in a hospice (a friend of one of the death racers), ate foods at the Explorer Club, etc. (I don't have a lot of detail on what they did...all I know, is their trip was super challenging as well, in a very different way!) They were told to choose one person to receive the skull and it was decided to give it to Joshua Swink, a racer who had lost his 10 year old son to cancer this year. Then, they decided they were all one team and that all would get a skull or no one. And, they chose that no one get the skulls. On the way back from NYC, they stopped in Killington, met up with Joe, and he told them that there were two skulls available. Michelle Roy responded that their decision was made that all or nothing and everyone was ok with that and they headed back to Riverside.

Craig and I had left mid morning to eat and shower and head back to Bordens to check out the activities and then later on at Riverside as people were getting back from hauling their cement bags. At around 6pm, racers were instructed to stay in the corral until the white bus came back and crew could not enter. They would have to stay there until 2am ish until the white bus returned from NYC. In the meantime, Andy set up a table of skulls in the middle of the corral. At this point, no one knew if they were getting a skull. Had they made enough time cutoffs? Did they race fast enough during the night time trials up and down the mountain? Racers were glad to be done but no one was happy until they knew when the race would be over.

One of my favorite moments of the weekend was when Johnny Waite, Death Race finisher and, now, race director and Death Race Spiritual Adviser (my term for Johnny....many would agree!), pulled together the yellow bus racers and gave a quick speech about the two different journeys the racers on each bus had those during those 16 hours. And, that to embrace the white bus racers when they returned as their journey was very different but challenging in different ways. Love is always the answer. It was a powerful moment for many and quickly put the race into perspective. Thank you, Johnny.

Johnny in buckskin! xoxo

Craig and I decided that we needed SLEEP and would not attend the skull ceremony at 3am. Before we left, Craig took some time to talk to friends and racers and wished them well. I hugged so many grody racers, racers with 3+ days of sweat and salt and cement dust. To me, they smelled of success, grit and beauty. Personally, I had witnessed greatness all weekend. I saw determination, fear, anxiety, pride, strength, weakness, racers pulling themselves up over and over again for 60+ hours. I did not need to see the skull ceremony because that was just a formality: I saw them persevere and I KNOW EXACTLY HOW THAT FEELS. The skull means "something" but I know those racers were going to walk away from The Year of the Explorer changed forever.

I woke up at 4:30am on Monday, said good bye to Craig. I was bummed because I would not be seeing him again for months.  I had to get back home to get Aida to get her to Art Camp and had no time to see anyone before leaving Pittsfield. I got coffee and drove to Riverside to kind of say goodbye and make peace with the weekend. I got there with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed with what I had witnessed for those 60+ hours. The skull table was empty, the sun was coming up and the DNF'd bibs were lined up on the tractor still. I cried like a baby, not wanting to leave what I experienced all weekend. I went back to Amee, woke Craig up (sorry, bud), and asked for one last hug and goodbye again. Leaving Pittsfield and those experiences kill me every time.

Sun coming up on Monday morning.
Racers gone. Skull table empty.
I cried like a baby thinking about all I witnessed that weekend.

I will be back next year for the Time Traveler Death Race 2015. But, I will be crewing Craig, again, not racing.

We have unfinished business.  :)

2015 Death Race, here we come.

100+ miles
66+ hours
15,000 foot elevation change
65 skulls awarded
250+ lives changed for the better

Gear List (for posterity):
Rope (40 Feet)
Tyvek Suit
Porcupine Quill
4 Yards of Buckskin
Sewing Kit (needle and thread)
Tape Measure
One Adult Diaper
$100.00 cash
Work Gloves

These folks I would like to point out as people I admire and loved watching throughout the weekend:

Joshua Swink lost his 10 year old son, Beydn, to cancer this year.
He was racing in his memory. I felt a connection to what Josh was working through
out there all weekend. I healed immensely last year via the death race, working through
the loss of my daughter. Much love, Josh.
Here is the blog in memory of Beydn

Amy Palmiero Winters
I raced with her last year at the summer death race.
I just love her spirit and strength. She came back from the final task of carrying the hellish 80 pound
cement bag up the ravine and her prosthetic leg was broken.
She finished strong.

My friend, Michelle Roy.
She finished 400 miles at the Peak Ultra a month earlier and came
in second for women at this race.
She declined the skull as she simply explained it is not why she races.
She found much inner peace while racing this weekend.

Stefanie Bishop.
Death Race veteran and came in first for woman.
Such a strong person and inspiration.
How does someone look so beautiful after that 60+ hour beat down? 

Robin Crossman.
I believe he is the only person to have officially finished 4 summer death races. 4 for 4.
And, he is 57 years old. A hero of mine!
And, he ALWAYS brings a bucket to a Death Race ;)

I love the Death Race. I love Peak Races. I love what the Death Race brings to our lives. Andy, you created a masterpiece, yet again.

I only hope every racer can take home the powerful message the Death Race offers. And, that message or connection is different for everyone. I hope you find it along the way, at 24 hours, 36 hours, 48 hours, if you DNF, if you are DQ'd, if you finish unofficially or if you finish officially. There is ALWAYS something to learn about yourself.


PS: Doug Kline and Marian Abrams, thank you for the use of some of the pictures I used in this blog. You are amazing photographers who continue to capture beautiful moments at Peak Races.