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Breaking Point

Tough Mudder has pushed endurance-challenge events into the mainstream. But what makes the toughest tick?



A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

– Robert Heinlein


Breathing is no longer shuttling enough oxygen to the muscle in the legs. The glucose in the blood begins to metabolize, the resulting buildup of lactic acid burning underneath the skin. The abdomen throbs from a heightened heart rate. Back and shoulders barely hold up the body anymore.



What do you feel when your body is pushed to the brink?

Some say they would rather die than willingly go through such an ordeal. For others, there is nothing that makes them feel more alive. And somewhere in the middle ground, there are a considerable number of people who think they probably can. These curious human beings are the reason that mass participation endurance events such as Tough Mudder have spread to all corners of the developed world in just a few short years with millions taking part in the new sport culture of mud, sweat and beers.

In a quest to find out more about the psychology of suffering and why so many choose to endure it, Pique caught up with local Death Race competitor Don Schwartz. While the races he takes part are more extreme than the Tough Mudder taking place this weekend in Whistler, all who participate share the same sense of exhilaration when tasked with the physical and mental challenge of a competition.

Schwartz didn't have a track record of any endurance racing or competition when he was first invited to participate in the Death Race.

"A friend of mine phoned up from the States, a guy that went through army ranger training and had worked for the FBI," explains Schwartz

"He said 'I've got this racing coming up called the Death Race. You have to check this out on youmaydie.com.' He said he made a list of all the people that he knew that he thought could finish the race with him — when I asked him why he didn't phone them instead, he replied, 'you're the only one on the list.' That was when I realized I had to give it a go, to see what I was made of."

This weekend, while Whistler Olympic Park is flooded by thousands of Tough Mudders, Schwartz will be plodding his way through the Vermont hills — most probably with an obscene amount of weight strapped to his back — on his way to the next gruelling challenge. The 2013 Death Race starts at 5:00 a.m. on Friday, Schwartz is hoping to finish some time on Sunday.

The Death Race is no place for the typical weekend warrior. Obstacles are just one part of the challenge with surprises at every step. All details of challenges are kept secret allowing organizers to toy with the minds of the racers, who never know how close or far they are from the end. The first challenge of the 2009 Death Race involved participants crawling through a 200-metre barb wired mud trench, digging out a tree stump with an axe then crawling back through the trench to the next challenge.

It only got worse from there — each year only around 10 per cent of racers are expected to finish.

"It's one of those things I always knew I should be able to do, but had just never been tested to find out," says Schwartz.

"It was a curiosity thing on the first race of what am I capable of, what can I do, how far can I go?"

As he began to prepare for his first Death Race in 2010 Schwartz read a slew of motivational books including The Long Journey, a story of seven men who escaped a Gulag camp in Siberia and walked to India through the Gobi desert and the Himalayas.

"I looked at that and thought 'My goodness! Our ancestors were so much tougher than we are.' They crossed the prairies in wagons, spent a winter in Saskatchewan and then hit the Rocky Mountains and didn't stop. It's embarrassing how soft we are now."

But soft is not a word you could use in the same sentence as Don Schwartz. He completed his first Death Race in 2011 and returned the following year, learning a lot about his physical and mental limits.

"The first year I went into the race, 24 hours in, both my quads seized solid. I had 100 pounds on my back going up hill and couldn't bend or flex my legs. I did a duck waddle for about 20 minutes."

People passing him told Schwartz that he needed to stop, that he needed to sit down and rest. He shrugged off the comments and told the other competitors that all he needed was some more water and food, and asked if they could assist him in getting it out of his pack.

"Sure enough, 20 minutes later the legs started working again and off I went. But if you stop at that point, you probably won't recover. When you've hit the wall, keep going down the side of the wall until you find the opening and go through it. It'll be there."

During the same race a fellow competitor broke down to the point of becoming completely unresponsive. His eyes were wide open but there was no response to sounds, sight or pain. He was carried off the course. He later attempted to get back into the challenge about several hours later but he soon gave up.

"These races break you physically, you're done," says Schwartz.

"It destroys all of your physical capability and then you find out how far you can go on mental power believing you can go on. To me, that's when you find out who you are, what you're made of, what bothers you, what makes you think about turning back. You learn more about yourself in a 48-hour weekend than you would in 10 years of therapy."

In many cases those who perform the best in gruelling events, like the Death Race, have suffered hardships in their lives, hitting rock bottom then bouncing back. Two-time Death Race champion Joe Decker overcame a drug and alcohol addiction before fitness became central to his life. Schwartz hit his own low point 23 years ago after barely surviving a helicopter crash. Spending six weeks in a burn unit with two shattered elbows, a broken wrist and weighing 50 lbs lighter than his usual 190, Schwartz had nowhere to go but up.

"I figured that I'd found the bottom, everything is easy after that. Being cold, wet dirty and tired doesn't seem like that big of a deal."

There is only one Death Race for good reason — there is a very small community of determined souls who are willing to subject their bodies and minds to such torture. There is little business associated with the event and there is no extravagant prize for winning. The reward is completely intrinsic to the participants, who generally only number in the dozens. But among those elite who can overcome the many barriers of the Death Race, there are few other ways they can show themselves that they can do anything.

"In these horrifyingly long races, anybody who makes it anywhere near the finish line you have total respect for," says Schwartz.

"You know what they've gone through, you know what you went through and you realize those people... nothing in their life can phase them. They're iron."