Doubtful You’ll Finish

Posted May 21st, 2010

If you’re a glutton for punishment, the bad news is that registration for the annual Pittsfield “Death Race” on June 26 is completely filled up. Well over 100 people are actually eager to take part in an event which features a waiver form of just three words: “you may die.”
Joseph DeSena came up with the idea of the Death Race five years ago. DeSena started his athletic career with what he terms “conventional” events: 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons, ultra-marathons, and triathlons. “I needed a different kind of challenge to motivate me to train,” he says, “and I thought other athletes would migrate to something like this because it’s real. You use survival skills and you get in touch with nature; it’s real life.”
The web site for the Death Race describes the event as “a challenging race that might kill you.” DeSena’s creation combines athleticism, mental acuity, and good old-fashioned manual labor. DeSena won’t divulge what 2010 racers will encounter, but no doubt the course will bear some resemblance to the 2009 version, which began with racers crossing a field and finding a stump with their bib number on it, no easy task at 4 a.m., well before the first rays of sun hit the field. Racers had to dig up their own stump and carry it with them for the remainder of the race.
Two-time ski Olympian Doug Lewis didn’t realize what he was in for when he signed up for the race in its inaugural year. It wasn’t until he had to face a video camera for the liability release which included the words “I might die,” that he had an inkling of what was in store for him. When he learned that his first task was to move an eight-foot long, twelve-inch diameter, freshly cut pine log 75 yards across a field before sawing and splitting the piece, he recognized that it would be a long day. After moving a yard of sand with a five gallon bucket across the same field, Lewis realized he was two hours into the 10-mile race and only 75 yards from the starting line. Sandbags, cinder blocks, barbed wire, and crawling through a 100-foot culvert were yet to come. Still, Lewis believes the challenge is more mental than physical. In 2007, he finished first, one of only four who completed the course.
In 2009, 18 racers made it to the finish line. Tom Bevins of Jericho completed the race in just under 16 hours and is coming back for more in 2010. Bevins says he enjoys challenging himself; a useful trait in a race for which no true preparation is possible. Ten days before the 2009 race, competitors were told to bring a mountain bike, a chain brake tool, a compass, a piece of string, and an axe, but given no other instructions. The night before the race, all entrants were asked to meet on top of a hill at 10 p.m. with their mountain bikes, which they then dissembled. They had to carry the frame with them for the duration of the race. Bevins was disadvantaged by the frame geometry of his bike, but he did have one other advantage.
Upon learning that he had to bring an axe to the race, he had also brought a small handsaw. He used the saw to cut his stump, which he also had to carry, to a more manageable size, making the rest of the course slightly easier.
Other physical parts of the 2009 course included digging holes, crawling under barbed wire, chopping wood (making firewood for DeSena’s neighbors seems to be a regular part of the Death Race), assembling a wheelbarrow to carry the chopped wood, and hauling gravel, but there were mental tasks thrown in. For Bevins, the hardest part of the course was an uphill hike (with his bike and stump) followed by repeating a list of presidents, which he had memorized. One mistake and the hike would have had to be repeated. A similar task required the reconstruction of a Lego structure. Rather than even attempt to do it by memory, Bevins took a penalty lap and headed back to the prototype with his pieces, figuring he would have had to return no matter what.
Bevins was clever enough to find ways to complete other tasks well under the time frame expected. For example, racers were given one match and sent to find eggs hidden on the back of a mountain. The instructions were to build a fire, boil water, and eat the egg. Bevins realized there was no mandate to actually boil the eggs, so he saved time by only boiling an eighth of an inch of water and eating the egg raw.
Lewis describes the race as the hardest thing he has ever done physically while pushing his mental and emotional limits as well. DeSena believes it is important to include mental exercises in the event to mimic life. “It’s another way to test people,” he says. This year’s course is almost set, but DeSena is not above making last-minute changes. One year he required competitors to carry an egg with them for the entire course. When he saw that many arrived with their eggs in specially designed protective cases he promptly confiscated the cases. Roughly three-quarters of the racers are male, but in 2009, a 26-year-old woman was the winner, surprising DeSena who had expected her to drop out at the four hour mark.
“All my life I’ve been looking for the one-percenters,” says DeSena. “ Ninety-nine percent of the people on the planet are sleepwalking. This is a way to find those other people because they are inspiring and they are leaders.”
DeSena claims the name Death Race was coined because the race emulates life. “I wanted to create a race where anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” he explains. The name may dissuade people from signing up, but that doesn’t bother DeSena, who expects people to drop out before the race even starts. “It’s as dangerous as you want it to be because you can quit at any time,” says DeSena. “It’s just like life; you can take the challenge or you can sit on the couch. Once you realize that time will pass with or without you, you might as well take part in it.”

Phyl Newbeck

Phyl Newbeck lives in Jericho with her partner Bryan and two cats. She is a skier, skater, cyclist, kayaker, and lover of virtually any sport which does not involve motors. She is the author of “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.”