I was hesitant to write this race report because it seems silly to write a blow-by-blow account of an event which changes every year, is different for every competitor, and should remain a mystery. A couple years ago before I became a Death Racer, there were relatively few accounts of the Death Race floating around on the internet and there was still a sense of confusion and mystery surrounding the event. Now it seems like most participants post their experiences to social media and it’s becoming easier for participants to prepare for the event. However, I realize most people who read this report won’t do the Death Race, so I want to share the adventure with you guys. Here we go.
I was excited for this year’s Death Race because my friends Justin Avioli, Jeremy Jenkins, and fellow Houstonian Patrick Mies II were also signed up. Justin and Jeremy had a couple of their friends joining as their support crew. My 8-month pregnant wife Victoria travelled to Pittsfield with me on Thursday and my parents were joining us on Friday.
There was minimal communication about this year’s race. The gear list for the Year of the Gambler was:
- Life Jacket
- Hand Shovel
- 10 Foot Section of 1/8 inch rope
- Hand snips
- 5 lbs of hay
- 1 lb of grass seed
- Safety Goggles
- Swimming Goggles
- $5.00 in quarters
- Water Filter
This gear list sounded more like the Year of the Gardener. Most people were trying to decide whether to bring a 5-gallon bucket, a Death Race staple. I did not plan to bring one since I hated mine last year, but I ended up grabbing one on Thursday night because my 5 lbs of hay almost filled my entire backpack. Instead, I put the hay in my bucket and strapped that to my pack. We had to carry a notecard which listed all our gear and we had to have everything we started with at the end of the race.
Registration was from 6-9AM on Friday, considerably earlier than last year, when registration was around noon. I had the World’s Best Breakfast at my B&B and then showed up to registration after 8AM, like most others. We filled out some waivers, received our bibs, and received a white poker chip with a team number on it. It was sunny and beautiful at Riverside farm. We were grouped and led by a volunteer to Andy’s house to continue registration.
We hiked around a half mile, including a stop to cut the leaves off some trees, before arriving at Andy’s house. We had a gear check, then we had our first gambling game. Andy’s daughter gave us the option of rolling two dice or spinning two dreidels. Not surprisingly, everyone lost and had to do whatever number of burpees Andy’s daughter wanted to see. Afterwards, people were assigned to perform chores. Most people were breaking soft granite rocks into smaller rocks. All previous finishers were separated, I believe there were 19 of us. Our first task was 100 burpees. Then we were taken back to the trail above Riverside farm where the May Death Race campers had started building a rock staircase up the trail. We were told we had until 2pm to finish the staircase up the trail using the rocks that were piled at the bottom. We had some 10’ long metal rails that we used to pull the rocks up the trail. We also used our hand snips and saws to clear branches from the trail. After a couple hours, other racers arrived from Andy’s and we carried smaller rocks higher and higher up the trail.
At 2pm all the racers gathered at the bottom of the trail. Joe and Andy explained a major difference during this year’s race: time cutoffs. The first was 8pm Saturday night at our current location. We received another poker chip for performing the rock work and then we were split into groups based on the chip we received at registration. I was grouped with Patrick. Don had given Patrick a heavy pickax he had to carry the duration of the race. Our group got 4 metal rails and we hiked around a mile up the rock staircase trail. We stopped at a section of trail with large boulders that a backhoe had brought up the trail. We were told we had until morning to finish our section of trail.
We started out working uphill by setting two rails down and pushing and pulling the rock up to where we needed them. Two or three people were able to carry the smaller rocks to the top of our section of trail, where some of our teammates were digging and flattening the steps up the trail. During early evening I was surprised to see Victoria and my parents. Somehow they drove up and walked down the trail and found me. They brought me some sandwiches and then left when it got dark. We set up a great system of dealing with the larger rocks, which weighed 500+ pounds. We set up the rails and then slid the rocks down the trail to a pre-dug/flattened hole for it. We worked throughout the night.
Around 3AM we were securing the last rock when everyone was pulled away and we were told to hike to the top of the trail to Joe’s cabin. My team had used my bucket to move dirt and small rocks which we used to stabilize the boulders but after everyone left I couldn’t find my bucket. I ran up and down our section of trail looking for it but it was gone. I found someone’s else’s bucket and I took it, since I was the last one on the trail and everyone else had moved up. After hiking up the trail for a few minutes I found my bucket and asked the girl who was behind me if she could grab it and bring it to the top. I never saw her again. As I hiked up, I passed other groups which were sitting and relaxing on the trail. It seems they were told to clear the trail of branches and leaves.
When we reached Joe’s cabin at the top, we were told to sit and wait with our headlamps off. There were around a hundred racers sitting or napping. I think I was one of the last people to arrive at the top and I sat around for 30 minutes before Don woke us up and told us to move some more rocks into a half circle around the new fireplace on the cabin. A few of the rocks were bigger than any we had dealt with and we had to slowly roll them into place. Some people were told to clip the surrounding grass and branches. My team was gathered and told to take our 5 lbs of hay and 1 lb of grass seed down to the bottom of the rock staircase. I eagerly grabbed my hay and headed down the trail. We spread the seed around the new rocks and laid the hay over the seed. I was happy that my pack became 6 lbs lighter. I headed back up the trail as others were being sent down with their hay. At the top I was told to get my saw and clear some branches. As soon as I grabbed my saw, all the racers were called to help pull the last rock to the fireplace. I placed my saw on the side of the trail and someone must have moved it because I couldn’t find it later. I ended up grabbing another saw that someone left. The rock probably weighed close to a ton. There were three ropes attached to the rock and close to a hundred racers were trying to pull the rock. We snapped a few ropes and broke a carabiner but we got the rock in place. Struggling to move the rock 50 meters shed some light on how incredible the Egyptian pyramids are.
After we moved the rock, we were sent down to the top of Tweed River road. We were told if we had buckets, we had to fill the bucket with gravel and take it around half a mile up the trail. People who didn’t have buckets had to fill their packs with gravel. Although this was heavier, it was easier to carry than a bucket. I made one trip with the bucket, then two with my pack.
It was early morning on Saturday. After three trips with the gravel, we had to find a rock in the stream. After Joe approved the rock size, he gave us a green chip and told us we had to carry the rock in our hands the entire way back to Amee farm, a three mile hike which included bushwhacking. People really struggled with the rocks, but I loosened my hip strap and wedged my rock in there. This made it relatively easy to carry.
I arrived to Amee farm to the sounds of wood chopping. Victoria and my parents were there. Our next task was to split 30 peices of wood and to carry them across the street and then to stack them. I was one of the first 50 to reach Amee, so there still many good pieces of wood. I went to the furthest of three stacks of logs and grabbed one. A volunteer told me I was not allowed to use this stack of wood yet so I had to do 60 burpees. After the burpees I went back to the first stack and chopped four logs before everyone from teams 1 through 5 were called aside and told to do 500 burpees as a team. We had to do them together and one of the girls had a bad knee which required moving slowly. We went on her cue and I estimate we did around 70 burpees before the lady counting claimed we were at 500.
After the burpees I was told I had to carry my remaining 26 logs across the street before I chopped them. Don was at the street crossing and made us wait for traffic to pass before we were allowed to cross. Sometimes we had to wait in a plank position while the traffic passed. Each trip would take at least 5 minutes and in that time, someone else kept chopping my logs. Then Peter grabbed me and told me to move split wood across the street and stack it, so I started taking the wood other people had chopped and moving them across the street. I spent an hour or two doing this. I split a few nasty logs and ate a burger. After the wood behind the lodge had been chopped and stacked, I told Peter we had done all the work. He told me, Lee, and his girlfriend Michelle to tell Joe we are done so we could go to the barb wire task.
The three of us told Joe we had accomplished all our chopping task and he told each of us we had to chop a large log in front of him and take the split wood across the street. We dropped our packs and split the wood. Ten minutes later we went back to Joe and he told us we had to move some split wood into another stack, which another racer had to move elsewhere. Another ten minutes later Joe told us we had to clean up another part of the farm. After we finished that, we told Joe we were done. Fortunately, Junyong Pak came to tell Joe he was done with his chopping so Joe focused on Pak, gave us our poker chips and sent us up Tweed to the barb wire.
Lee, Michelle, one other racer and I changed clothes, ate some food, grabbed our rocks and then headed up the Stairs trail to Tweed. After a nice couple hours of hiking, we reached the barb wire challenge. We had to make five trips down a very steep, very rocky ravine. The entire ravine had low, droopy barb wire. We had to crawl under the barb wire, with our packs, including our rocks. I heard one of the volunteers saw we didn’t have to carry our buckets so I left my bucket at the top. I stuffed my rock into the bottom of my pack and put everything else on top of it. This was a really creative challenge because it was very crowded and there were a few choke points where people going down had to squeeze by people going up, while dragging our heavily weighted packs over rocks. It was slow and tedious. At the bottom of the ravine, a quarter mile down, there were two kids who would give us a card, always a six or less. We had to take the card back to the top, where we played a game of high low against Peter, who always “drew” an ace. The first two trips with packs took around 20 minutes round trip. For trips 3-5, we were allowed to leave our packs at the top. Fortunately, I finished my first two trips before the ravine became really crowded with racers. It was easy to move around people when I didn’t have a pack, and each trip took closer to five minutes. After my fifth trip I was told I was done and I could head back to Riverside farm where I could rest until the 8pm cutoff. I grabbed my pack and took out my rock. My pack had tons of holes ripped into it from the dragging. The rock had smashed all the food in my pack. I had also managed to lose my saw and hiking poles while doing the barb wire challenge. Even worse, someone had taken or moved my bucket. So much for having all the gear I started with. I had now managed to lose two buckets and two saws.
I hiked the thirty minutes down Tweed River road and arrived to Riverside around 7pm. There was a countdown to dusk, so I had around 80 minutes to rest and eat. Victoria and my parents were there and they brought me some dry clothes and food. Kristen and Whitney were also there and they brought me an extra bucket. Surprisingly, lasagna and beer was available for racers. Most racers used this time to lay down and change clothes.
Around 8pm Andy told us there were around 140 racers who made the cutoff. We were going to be grouped and we were going to hike over Bloodroot mountain to Chittenden dam. The hike is around 20 miles long and Andy discribed it as being like “Jurassic Park.” At Chittenden we would have to swim 3 miles before hiking back. He warned us that there was no turning back. Once we were on Bloodroot, we had to continue forward. People made their final preparations and then we were grouped. I was in a group with Justin and Patrick. We grabbed our rocks and started down Lower Michigan road. It started raining shortly after we started the hike.
Next, a fairly stupid series of coincidences made us take the wrong route. Around a mile down Lower Michigan road, we needed to take Crossover road over to Upper Michigan, which leads to the trailhead to Bloodroot. Just as we reached Crossover road, a man who lived across the street came out and told us we had to pay his toll; 50 pushups before we could continue. Later we learned he was not involved with the race but simply wanted to mess with us. We did our pushups and continued on Lower Michigan, because we missed the markers to turn.
After hiking a little further, we saw a trail with a sign that said Chittenden. We took that trail and worked our way up hill through the rain. Eventually we saw orange Death Race trail markers, so we continued along. We split off into a group of 4: Patrick, Justin, another racer, and me. We followed the markers for hours but we realized this wasn’t Bloodroot because the trail wasn’t nearly as steep. Either way, we followed the markers and continued seeing signs for Bloodroot so we continued through the night. Patrick entertained us with jokes about 12 inch pianists. Eventually we emerged on a road and followed that for 5 miles before Robin Crossman, 4 time DR finisher told us we took the wrong route and told us to follow him. It was around 4AM on Sunday.
Robin led us along the familiar road that I helped gravel last year. We got to the cabin on the reservoir and met up with the rest of our team. Robin told us we arrived too quickly. The Bloodroot hike should have taken much longer. We are not allowed to perform the swim until dawn, around 6AM. Robin decided we should all sit silently in the cold lake for 30 minutes. Afterwards we performed 50 burpees. Two of us had buckets, which we would need for moving gravel, and we were rewarded because we did not have to sit in the lake for a second 30 minutes and perform a second set of 50 burpees. I felt bad for the rest of the team, but I got to sit and relax.
The sky was starting to brighten so Robin gave us some more buckets and told us we had to make 7 trips with buckets of gravel to re-do the driveway. At this point the first of the Bloodroot hikers were starting to filter in. Andy and Joe arrived and I guess they decided our group only had to do 3 buckets of gravel because we spent so much time in the lake and performing burpees. The next task was going to be difficult: swim three 1-mile laps in the reservoir.
I wasn’t especially worried about this challenge so I stripped down to my underwear and my required life vest. I jumped into the refreshing water and swam at a comfortable pace for my first lap. During the second half of the swim I could feel my body temperature dropping. My fingers and toes were losing feeling. I estimate the water was around 60 degrees and I had spent around 45 minutes swimming my first lap. I emerged from the water shivering uncontrollably. I asked if I could go warm up near the fire like last year but Robin told me this was a DNF. I walked up and saw Andy and told him the water is freezing. He responded with a phrase that helped push me over the hump for the remainder of the race: “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to.” Joe told me to do 30 burpees so I knocked them out and instantly felt warm. As I was going back into the lake for my second lap, another racer finished her second lap and got to spin the wheel of fate, a roulette wheel where half the spaces meant you had to swim a 3rd lap, half meant you were done swimming, and two spaces meant you received a DNF for the race. The shivering racer spun the wheel and was told she was done swimming. Last year I brought a wetsuit but we only swam 200 meters so I decided I wouldn’t need it this year. I wish I had brought it!
I jumped into the lake and swam as hard as I could so I would stay warm. I passed other racers who told me to pace myself but I ignored them. I tried to move my arms, legs, and hips as much as possible and I ended up swimming much more efficiently and quickly. I was out of the water after around 30 minutes. I got out of the lake and spun the wheel while Matt B. Davis from Obstacle Racing Media snapped a photo. The wheel landed one spot after the DNF and I had to swim a 3rd lap. I didn’t hesitate or think, but ran right back into the water and knocked out another fast lap. I emerged dizzy and I could barely walk after the effort of swimming. I received the important yellow poker chip and I told Joe I was ready to continue. He told me I’d have to hike over Bloodroot on the way back if I wanted to continue. It was around 8:30am and I was feeling refreshed from the cold swim. I was grouped with Kevin and two other racers. We were told we didn’t have to bring our rocks. We set off back through Bloodroot after getting the directions.
We had a 6:00pm cut off back at Peter’s house in Pittsfield and we were crossing other racers who were hobbling down Bloodroot. It had been a 12+ hour hike for others. Everyone we crossed warned us about the muddy trail. We wished them luck on the swim. There isn’t much to say about the hike except it was exceptionally muddy. We got to the point where I stopped bothering trying to go around the mud and I walked right through it. Around halfway up the steep climb, Kevin and I split off and pushed uphill. We made it to the top and I stopped to rest for a few minutes while Kevin continued down with two others. I started jogging down the trail to try to catch them. I made it to the bottom of the trial and emerged on a gravel road where two ATV riders were waiting. I asked them how long until we get to Upper Michigan and he said five miles. My feet were feeling pretty worn down at this point so I was not happy to hear that. I managed to catch up to Kevin’s group and we made it down to Crossover road together.
Then we turned onto Lower Michigan and we saw another pair of racers who were in the lead and headed to the next task. Then my parents pulled up in their car and Victoria got out and started walking with me. It was getting close to 6pm so I asked if we were done yet and Victoria said no, there were still tasks to complete. This was demoralizing since the race had been going for around 57 hours at this point.
I was one of the last racers to arrive at Peter’s since most people took the shorter hike back from Chittenden. The first task was to dive under a wall through muddy water, grab a log, dive back under the wall and split the log. We had to split 8 logs but there were only two left by the time I arrived and they were terrible, knotty pieces that would be impossible to split. I grabbed one of them and got to work, thinking there was no way I would be able to split the wood and I was correct. Other racers finished splitting their wood while I hacked away accomplishing nothing. A thunderstorm rolled through that soaked me and made me cold again. I put on my rain jacket but the zipper was broken because the rock had smashed it during the barb wire crawl so it didn’t help at all. I asked my dad if I could have his jacket and Peter gave me a Peak tshirt. After the rain and lightning stopped, I changed into dry clothes and kept working on the log. Once all the other racers finished, a volunteer told me I could quit on the log, which was around half the size it was an hour earlier. I had to help clean up the farm so I stacked wood and raked up splintered wood. I later found out I could have gone into the woods and sawed down some easy-to-split logs but it was too late now.
The next challenge was to have our feet zip tied together, then we had to hike up a trail and memorize the instructions to a game. We had to return to the bottom without breaking the zip tie and then answer questions about the game or else we’d have to return to the top. Victoria said many racers had answered incorrectly and had to make a second trip. I met Patrick and he told me to duct tape my feet together so I wouldn’t snap the zip ties and he gave me his duct tape. I duct taped my feet together and then used two sticks as hiking poles to help me hop up the trail. The trail was around a mile long and I got pretty sweaty on the way up so I took off my dad’s jacket and left it along the trail. It took around 30 minutes to make it to the instructions on top. The volunteer told me to memorize every small detail, including the color of the thumb tacks holding up the instructions, the shape of the paper, the website where the directions were printed from, etc. I wrote everything down and hopped down. It was dark by this point and I couldn’t find my dad’s jacket, so I lost yet another item. During the descent, Junyong jogged back up because he missed a question. He told me to make sure I knew everything. I reached the bottom and answered all the questions correctly.
Peter told me my next task was to hike to the Iron Mine, around three miles away. I don’t remember what time cutoff he told me, but it was in 50 minutes. I started jogging but quickly reverted to walking. I walked for what seemed like much more than three miles but I don’t trust my distance perception at that point. I passed the end of the road and started climbing a jeep trail. After passing a few bridges and confirming with descending racers that I was on the right track, I reached the last bridge and followed the markers down to the stream. The volunteer grouped nine of us together and explained we’d have to navigate through a cave with our lights off until we reached the back wall. Once we reached the back wall, one racer could turn on their head lamp and we’d have to memorize a written phrase and recite it when we exited. We had to sit with our lights off and we waited around fifteen minutes while the group ahead of us emerged.
Eventually we entered the cave and inched our way along the wall with one hand on the person in front of us and one hand on the cave wall. The leader seemed really annoyed that we had to go through some ankle deep water but after ten minutes we decided we were at the back wall and turned on a light. There was a piece of paper that said “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” We passed around the headlamp, memorized the phrase, then recited it when we exited. We received two more poker chips and were told we had to be back at Riverside farm by midnight or 12:30, I can’t remember. Last year the race ended at Riverside farm, so I was optimistic we were done. Some racers started jogging, I decided to walk with Solo, another racer. After a couple miles we emerged back on Lower Michigan road and Victoria and my parents were waiting. They told me this seemed like a real cutoff so we took off at a run. We ran for around fifteen minutes and then reached Riverside farm. There was a line outside of the boat house so we got in line at what seemed like the end of the race.
Racers who arrived before us were told they had to draw 13 playing cards and perform the exercise associated with the card and suit. Racers were doing pushups, burpees, and cartwheels. I waited in line for at least 30 minutes before a volunteer told us we were done for the night and we need to return at 6:00am dressed in our tuxedos with all our gear for the skull ceremony. I wasn’t excited about having to wake up in four hours but I went to the hotel room, showered, and went to sleep.
I returned to Riverside at 6AM and lined up with the other racers. The night before I realized I had lost the first two of the eight poker chips we received. We needed all eight chips to receive a finisher skull so I was fortunate to borrow Justin’s chips just in the nick of time. All the racers who reached the finish were lined up. Many had done a shortened course because they missed cutoffs, so the directors had to determine who was a finisher and who wasn’t. After waiting in line for around an hour, I entered the boat house. Since I had all eight chips I was eligible to become a finisher. Peter told me I had to gamble my yellow chip, which I received after the swim on a game of high low. If I won, I was a finisher. If I lost, I had to re-do the hike over Bloodroot and the three mile swim. He shuffled. I pulled a Jack, he pulled a four. I received my skull and got to keep my race bib, which other racers had to turn in when they quit.
I went outside and congratulated some other finishers, including Patrick Mies II. The race was over and I could finally relax. If you count the race as continuing until 7AM when I received the skull, it was just over 70 hours long. The Death Race is a great way to spend a weekend in Vermont! Try it sometime!