PITTSFIELD – There are millions of running races, thousands of marathons, hundreds of triathlons and dozens of ultramarathons, but there is only one Death Race. Held annually since 2005 in the small town of Pittsfield, Vt., the 2014 Death Race is scheduled to begin on Friday, June 27. Only 300 elite endurance athletes were accepted to the race and are now given the chance to test their mental and physical prowess like no other such event does.
Last year, just 10 percent of the registered participants were still standing after the event ended – after nearly 70 hours.
The theme of the 2014 Death Race is “The Explorer.” According to race organizers, competitors can read the exploits of Sir Edmund Hilary, Shackleton, and Lewis & Clark to prepare for their journey. (Editor’s note: such tips are often intentionally misleading, as many past competitors have come to discover.)
Past themes have included; gambling, religion and money. Competitors are also provided a gear list with more than a dozen items weighing in excess of 50-pounds in advance of the race.
The obstacle and challenge-driven race requires competitors to complete numerous grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 40-mile course that runs through the Pittsfield woods. During the Death Race, competitors may be asked to chop wood for two hours; complete a 30-mile hike with rocks and weighted packs; build a fire from scratch; cut a bushel of onions; or after 24-hours of racing, memorize the names of the first 10 U.S. Presidents or a Bible verse, hike to the top of a mountain and recite them back in order – miss a word and you get to do it again…and again… and again.
Unlike other endurance races that offer a detailed map, Death Racers have no idea what to expect next as the course map and list of challenges are kept top secret. This provides competitors with one of their biggest challenges – the unknown. The length of the race can range from 48-72 hours.
“Just like life, the Death Race is designed to push and aggravate people to such a point that even the most stoic eventually fail,” said Joe De Sena, co-founder of the Death Race and the Reebok Spartan Race founder. “Only those people possessing incredible discipline under the most insane and even delusional circumstances can call themselves a finisher. These athletes are willing to complete the journey at all costs. The fact that people endured it for 70 hours to see what they are made of, is just remarkable and awe-inspiring.”
For a taste of the Death Race, aspiring endurance athletes are encouraged to test their mettle at the Reebok Spartan Race Series. The 60-event series, developed by the creators of the Death Race, offers competitors three different obstacle race courses including: the Spartan Sprint (5K), Super Spartan (8 miles) and Spartan Beast (10+ miles). The Vermont Spartan Beast will be held in Killington again this fall on September 20.
For a complete schedule visit www.spartanrace.com. For more info on the Death Race, visit www.PeakRaces.com.
Robin Crossman attempts to finish his fourth Death Race
By Polly Lynn
Robin Crossman of Chittenden, Vt., has participated in three of the last four Death Races held in Pittsfield. He’s completed all of them: 2010, 2011, 2012. (He took last year off and helped run that race.) In 2012, he also held the record for the oldest Death Race finisher. This year he hopes to break his own record. Crossman is 57.
The Mountain Times has followed his story over the years chronicling only a fraction of the adventures he’s pursued. Again, this year, we are thrilled to learn of his most recent feats, as well as the obstacles he’s had to overcome while training for this year’s ultimate challenge, the Death Race.
1) Mountain Times: What does one have to do to qualify for the Death Race? As a past finisher are you automatically accepted to attempt the feat again each year?
Robin Crossman: You do not have to prequalify for the Death Race. You are your own barrier in this regard. Many want to, but feel they are not ready. Ultimately the race directors have final say.
2) MT: What do you think the primary difference is between those that succeed at finishing and those that do not? Most, we assume, have the physical strength, endurance and stamina – so then, does it come down mental endurance?
RC: The difference between those that succeed and those that don’t is the ability to adapt to ever changing conditions and push beyond what in your mind is your physical limits. “Keep swimming even though there is no horizon.”
3) MT: How do you train for the challenge mentally? How do you do to prepare for the “unknown” and for the challenges that require mental clarity after physical exhaustion (like memorizing the U.S. Presidents, a bible verse, or counting pennies, as were required in the past)?
RC: It is hard to train for the mental part of this race. My job as a veterinarian with constant long hours, emergencies and on the spot decision making helps. Mental clarity during racing is hard to maintain. People start seeing things in the woods at night: green dragons, taxi cabs, etc. The race is designed to wear you down and a lot of mental challenges are thrown in late in the race.
4) MT: After completing so many Death Races what makes you compelled to prove yourself again? Is it still a challenge or do you know, at this point, that you have what it takes to finish?
RC: The challenge for me is that each race is unique unto itself, no race is the same. Finishing one race is no guarantee that you will finish another. I would learn as much about myself not finishing as well as finishing.
5) MT: They say the challenge begins the moment you sign up. In the past, messages have been set out that are intentionally misleading. Can you share a few things they have told the group this year that may mislead the novice competitors?
RC: This year I haven’t noticed any misleading yet. The racers themselves start creating rumors by the questions they ask. Novices should realize that a lot of misconceptions are generated by the racers themselves so you sort of get a double whammy.
6) MT: This 2014 Death Race theme is “The Explorer.” How do you think they will use that in the challenges? Is it a helpful hint or something others will “waste” time/effort trying to interpret?
RC: The year of “the explorer” I think is real. I envision finding points with a compass probably in the dark. I could envision having to find our race bibs with our compasses and the race not starting until you do. That would be very fitting for a challenge in the Death Race.
7) MT: Your gear list has over a dozen items on it, if you could choose just six, which would you prioritize? Why?
RC: Priority water. food, axe, 5 gallon bucket, compass (this year) extra clothes
8) MT: What do you eat on the course? In the past, you told us a bit about your special chia seed mixture, is that still your go-to food for endurance races? Are there other foods that “pack the right punch” for an endeavor like this? What qualities do you look for?
RC: Food chia seeds, yes. Basically easily digested food, electrolytes. Carry enough food with you for at least 24 hours so if separated from support you can still function.
9) MT: A few weeks ago you embarked on the Peak Races 200 mile ultra in Pittsfield, but had to bow out after 50 miles due to a hairline fracture in your toe. How is that going to affect your performance at the Death Race this year?
RC: Injuries can be a part of life. I do have a fracture in one of my toes. This means I need to switch out my shoe system. I am a barefoot minimalist runner so adding a padded shoe may be cumbersome for me. Its all about adapting even before the race starts!
10) MT: I heard that all six in your family also race? Tell us more! Many would call you “crazy” for embarking on such extreme endurance challenges. Do you think “crazy” is hereditary or do the members of your family follow in your footsteps for a different reason?
RC: My whole family does Spartan races. My wife, Melissa, and my children, Brendan, Noah, Isabel and Sarah. (I also have two older children, Lauren and Scott who don’t live at the house. Lauren just had a baby, so this is my first time competing as a grandfather!)
My wife and I belong to an organization called “The Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” This group is made up of athletes who have a common goal of bringing the word of God to other fellow competitors. The Spartan races, including the Death Race, are a great venue for our family and for instilling solid values. It allows great learning opportunities like striving together to face obstacles and ultimately achieving your goal.
“Crazy” doesn’t really exist when you think outside the box. You hang around these Spartan events and your set point for what you think you can and cannot do starts to change. My children watched and then started feeling they could do this “crazy thing,” too. Now it’s second nature.
11) MT: Do you have any advice you’d like to share?
RC: My advice to our community is to take advantage of these Spartan races. We have world class racing in our back yard; The Death Race, Ultra Runs, Snowshoe races in Pittsfield and The Beast in Killington, Vt . Everyone should come out and watch and maybe even change their set point on “crazy.”