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Death Race Challenge lives up to its billing

Don Schwarz survives three-day Vermont Challenge



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.

Schwarz was fourth out of the water, he said, but then the finishers had to wait an hour or so for people to catch up.

Then the competitors had to stand up to their waists in a freezing pond, about six degrees Celsius, for five minutes before pulling themselves across a 50-yard (45 metre) rope strung over the pond. Then they climbed up a hill, where they had to walk 200 metres around a farmyard with a little candle, without the candle going out. They did this seven times.

"After two laps the hypothermia starts to set in," said Schwarz, which made it almost impossible to hold the candle. There was a bonfire to tempt the racers, but anybody who stopped to get warm would be disqualified. Schwarz was one of the first 10 to finish, then was told to sit in the mud until the rest of the field caught up.

By the time this field had shrunk to about 50 people, and the race hadn't even started yet.

The next test involved following pink ribbons through the woods for three miles and chopping up and stacking 10 pieces of lumbers. Then they had to grab an 80-pound log and get it 300 metres up a mountain where they had to memorize a Bible verse. They came back down afterwards and had to recite the verse perfectly or go back up.

The were told to walk a mile-and-a-half back to the farm that was the staging area for the race, where they had to take a tape measure and cut off a 30-inch piece of wood with the handsaw. They had to carry that log back across the street to the next checkpoint in their packs, doing 100 burpies along the way while carrying another 50 pounds of wood on top of their 35 pounds of gear - they didn't know it then but they'd be carrying that chunk of log for the rest of the competition.

By now it was 7 a.m. on Saturday and they had already been going over 12 hours - and the race hadn't started yet. The sun did come out to help dry and warm the competitors, but the nice weather didn't last.

Next up, they had to hike eight kilometres over the side of the 600-metre mill and then back down the other side to the next checkpoint, bushwhacking the whole way while following a line of pink ribbons. On the other side, competitors had to throw their logs into the pond and then crawl through a narrow, 35-metre highway culvert with 25 centimetres of cold water flowing through it. Schwarz said he scraped he knees and elbows on the rusted bottom. After that it was back to the pond with swim goggles to fish out their logs. After that, they pointed to another mountain and told competitors the checkpoint was on the other side.

To make things more interesting the participants followed a creekbed the whole way, then had to crawl under barbwire that was stretched two feet off the ground over 400 metres of the course. The heavy rain started, and it took around 45 minutes for competitors to pull themselves under the barbwire, pushing their packs ahead of them. They got to the top around 5 p.m. on Saturday night, where they were told to turn around and go back to the farm - back under the barbwire and down the creek.

Schwarz was in the top group and was back at the farm around 9 p.m., where the next task was chopping and stacking two cords of wood. Luckily, Schwarz opted for a heavy splitter, which made the job easy - though it still took five-and-a-half hours.

Once complete, competitors were told to head up a trail in the dark about three kilometres to get a bucket and then come back to the farm to fill it up with water. They then had to go back to the bucket checkpoint with the full bucket - about 20 kilograms when filled with water - without spilling more than eight centimeters off the top.

"I got smart and cut up a rain jacket and used an extra piece of climbing rope to tie it over the top of the bucket so it wouldn't spill out," said Schwarz. Was it cheating? "The one thing in this race is you don't ask questions. At the start when we were picking up rocks someone asked if we could take our packs off, and they said 'no, you leave those packs on!' But if we just started to take off our packs without saying anything it would have been OK."

Moving the bucket was hard work. Schwarz would pick it up with one hand, walk 10 steps, set it down, and pick it up with the other hand to walk another 10 steps. It took over an hour to get back to the top of the hill, where the course marshall just dumped it out. It was about 6 a.m. on Sunday.

They were at last able to ditch their logs, cutting them in half with their handsaws and chopping the pieces up with their axes, before hiking about 8 kilometres back to the farm.

At this point Schwarz said there were about 40 people left in the race, and people started to drop off like flies.

After heading back to the farm, the competitors were exhausted. Schwarz estimated that he was eating about 10,000 calories of food every 12 hours just to be able to stand on his feet. He was eating pure coconut oil, and put about a quarter of a pound of butter on a hamburger.

At that point they were told there was one more challenge. They had to wade through the now neck-high river with 10 cucumber plants and an innertube, plant them in a field, and they float back to the farm.

Schwarz thought the competition would be over around then, but they brought out a 160-question quiz full of religious questions, then said that competitors would have to carry the quiz to the other side of a mountain to have the answers checked - but it was already past noon there wasn't time to do that and attend a mandatory meeting at 3 p.m. Schwarz thought that he might have another five or six hours ahead of him after the meeting, but when the competitors arrived at the meeting place they were informed that it was over.

Schwarz wasn't surprised - the entire race was one big mental game.

"They mess with you," he said. "For example, at the start of the race we were given these punch cards with 20 numbers on it, which were supposed to be the tasks we had to do. By Sunday morning only three of the numbers had been punched. They didn't want people to see how many things they had done and how many they had left before they were finished. The mental game is very interesting, and how they try to demoralize you. So much of the stuff was there for no reason at all, and it kept you guessing."

Another example was the religious symbols from all the world religions that were placed along the course. Schwarz tried to memorize each one in context, but in the end they didn't have any impact on the outcome of the race.

Every competitor can have a support person or group to help with food, water and encouragement, and at one point the support workers were told they had to climb a 600-metre mountain to find information that was crucial to finishing the race - only to find out later that it didn't matter either.

This year's course was probably one of the hardest in the history of the race. Last year's only took 29 hours for the top athletes to complete, while all of the athletes this year were going over 40 hours.

Schwarz said the Death Race Challenge is impossible to describe. The only analogy he could come up with would be to hike the Grouse Grind up and down 15 times in two days with 80 pounds on your back - although that doesn't come close either because of the whole mental aspect.

While he doesn't imagine himself doing the race again, Schwarz said he would be there next year to support his own crew - snowboard coach Christian Hrab - who will be doing the event.

"It was something I was really excited about doing, I trained for the better part of five months to get ready for this - everybody in my neighbourhood of Alta Vista knows me as the weird guy who runs around with 32-kilogram weights in the rain all night long," said Schwarz. "But I don't feel the need to do it again next year."

For more on the event, visit the website -