The Mountain Times

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Death Race is back with a new "life" challenge / The Death Race: A veteran’s perspective on pushing physical limits

Death Race is back with a new "life" challenge
By Christina Kumka

PITTSFIELD - The Death Race is back Friday and while there's a new life challenge this year, the motto "You May Die" remains the same.

Founder Joe Desena, an Ironman, extreme athlete and co-founder of Peak Races that created the Spartan Race, once again boasted his 50-mile Death Race as not for the faint of heart. He even told a reporter that she may die if she published this year's race secret.

"If I told you, I would have to kill you," Desena said jokingly last week when describing this year's race theme as he plans to have competitors "gamble with their lives."

In typical Desena style, he wouldn't say anything more than that.

Each year, extreme athletes from around the country and around the world, many with military backgrounds, are expected to crawl under barbed wire, tunnels, chop wood, dive into deep water, run, carry heavy loads and much much more. Crying, screaming, and sweating, will all be part of the multi-day competition, according to the race website.

For a registration fee of anywhere from $400 to $900 depending on registration time, competitors choose to put themselves through a grueling 60 hours of physical and mental tasks that challenge the participant's strength, mental clarity, patience and stamina.

This year, the ninth year of the race, 1,000 people wanted to participate. The Peak Races team qualified only about 325, the highest participation rate since it was started in 2004 with only eight competitors.

And 25 percent of those people are repeat customers, according to Desena.

All have to sign a waiver that they run the risk of dying because of the challenge.

And there's always that wrench that Desena and partner and race organizer Andy Weinberg throw into the mix, from an unexpected direction.

"Doubtful you'll finish but be proud of yourself for trying," according to the race website.

The race starts at day break Friday, at the Pittsfield General Store, and continues through the weekend.

For more information, visit

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The Death Race: A veteran's perspective on pushing physical limits
By Polly Lynn

Robin Crossman is a veterinarian at the Rutland Regional Vet Clinic and a life-long Vermonter who resides in Chittenden with his wife and five children. He has competed three times in one of the most challenging races in the world: Pittsfield's Death Race. Crossman holds the record for the oldest finisher at 55.

However, due a lingering lung issue, he will not be able to compete this year. "A few weeks ago I tried running the Peak 50 mile ultramarathon and made it to mile 45. My lungs will not be able to rise to the occasion this year," Crossman said. "Interestingly, I have been asked to design part of the course and officiate... It will cause some commotion with my fellow racers," he added.

The Mountain Times caught up with Crossman to get his perspective, as a veteran competitor of a race intended to break it's participants and, perhaps, glean some insight into this year's events.

Q&A for newspaper

1) What makes the death race appealing for you?
The Death Race is appealing to me because of its unique style. It attacks you on so many levels that if your not careful you start attacking yourself and hence failure ensues. It is like playing a three dimensional chess game with mind, body and soul as players.

2) How many similar competitions have you done? How many Death races?

There is nothing similar to a Death Race. To date I have competed in three and have finished three.

3) How do you train physically and mentally to prepare for death race challenges? Have you learned better ways to train over the years?
I try to train efficiently due to my lack of time. Honestly, I have never been in top shape for any of the three races. The secret is knowing how to suffer. There is a saying: "It's like swimming with no horizon." Each race has been so different from each other. It is hard to say this is the formula that works for the DR.

True suffering comes during the DR. You can't train yourself for that. That's the unknown variable. Until you face it you won't know how you will respond no matter what shape your in.

4) During past death races have some tasks surprise you? Have you ever felt unprepared?
The tasks in the DR are subtly sinister. I remember counting $50 of pennies into groups of $5.  Why? Such an easy task? Well sitting there you start to chill, get stiff, fatigue sets in and then the foggy mind can't hold to task. I passed out three times and forgot my place in counting.

Last year at the end we had to roll a 1/4 mile loop six times. It was a deal breaker for a lot of people. Major vertigo with accompanying vomit.

Of course standing chest deep in freezing water deciphering Greek, also ranks right up there.

Needless to say I'm never prepared for these. It's all how you process the situation that gets you through.

5) How do you think this year's theme of Gambling will play into the challenge?
I know how the gambling theme plays out this year. Remember the odds favor the house ;)

6) What helps you get through the toughest moments and keeps you going?
It's simple; my wife. Melissa has an uncanny knack for showing up at the right moment in all three races.

7) The eight participants who finished the most recent Death Race camp learned a lot about packing light and efficiently. Do you have a secret ingredient that you always bring with you? What is your most important tool?
Traveling light is key. I have learned to go long intervals with chia seeds, salt tabs and water. Fit nicely in your pockets if one ever gets separated from one's backpack. Not that that would ever happen… The most important tool is an axe. Don't leave home without it.

8) How do you feel when you complete a death race?
Finishing a Death Race is life changing. Extreme sense of accomplishment... then I pass out for 24-36 hrs. By the way, not finishing a DR is also life changing.

9) What advice do you have for a first time death racer?
My advice for a DR newbie, in general, is keep moving forward. Advice specifically for this year, avoid my task at all costs! There will be a high newbie failure rate this year.

10) Is there anything else you think readers would like to know about you or the competition?
My number four DR is still in my sights! To get a good sense of this race come out and watch. It's eye-opening.