For the first 12 hours or so of the Vermont-based Death Race - an infamous two-day contest through the wilderness surrounding local farms - Don Schwarz wasn't racing at all. At one point, freezing cold and sitting in mud, he realized that the first challenges of the race were all about weeding out the weaker competitors who weren't up to the task at hand - which nobody knows because the course and challenge are a closely-held secret. You can only make guesses as to what's going to happen based on your gear list.
"A huge part of it is the mental challenge and your toughness in dealing with the obstacles and challenges - and the destruction of your physical fitness as well," said Schwarz, who finished in fourth after all was said and done. He called the Pique from the Montreal airport this week, muscles sore and arms and legs ripped to shreds by rusty culverts, devil's club and other obstacles from his 40-plus hour ordeal.
While it sometimes felt like the race was a cruel hoax, a way for a devious farmer to get his wood chopped and stacked, Schwarz understood that it was all about testing your limits - including your patience.
"Everywhere we went on course there were cameras, which helped me. They would ask me why I kept going, the answer would always make me feel better," said Schwarz. "I said that my daughter has had two rounds of open heart surgery and she's only six. She has half a functioning heart, and I always told her there are no excuses, you don't ever get to quit. If I came home and told my daughter that I quit because I was tired, or cold, or dirty or cut myself, that was no excuse. Short of a debilitating physical injury, I told myself I wasn't going to quit."
Of the 200 people who signed up, some 155 showed up at the start on Friday night. By the next afternoon there were 50 people left, and by that evening there were 40. Only 10 people would endure to the finish.
The first test involved lifting rocks off the ground chest high, from 10 to 65 pounds, then moving onto the next rock. They did this 1,500 times over about six hours, from 6:30 p.m. until just after 2 a.m. when the rain started coming down.
Then, backpacks full of gear that including a splitting wedge axe and handsaw, they went for a mile-and-a-half (2.4 km) walk up a creek. Usually the creek would be about ankle high, but with the rain it was up to their chests in some spots.