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Don Schwartz returns to the Spartan Death Race

Whistler athlete looking to win battle of physical and mental endurance



Don Schwartz is going back to The Death Race. Even stranger, he's actually looking forward to it.

The annual Vermont suffer-fest is famous for pushing athletes well past their physical and mental limitations, but Schwartz has already proven he can take it. What he wants now is to win.

In his first year he placed fourth overall as the rain and cold took a heavy toll on the field, and just 10 athletes out of 155 at the start line made it to the finish. Last year he was actually in the lead along with two other veteran athletes, but all three opted to drop out in protest after the organizers didn't declare them the winners — despite the fact they had already been going for 54 hours straight at that point, and had a four-hour lead on the next athlete. Most of the athletes still in the race were over 12 hours back at that point.

(As redemption the three athletes teamed up at the end of last summer to win the Vermont Ultra Beast, another Spartan event.)

While the Death Race doesn't seem like an experience you want to repeat, Schwartz is actually fascinated by the combination of physical and mental challenge.

The physical component has athletes chopping wood, lugging heavy objects up and down steep Vermont mountains covered in bushes and stinging nettles, wading through mud and cold water, and more. But in Schwartz's mind, those challenges are not the toughest part of the weekend — it's the mental challenges, the head games and false trails set by the organizers, that make the race so compelling. Schwartz said his experiences dealing with that side of the event are an advantage going into this year.

"There's a huge advantage in understanding what the organizers are going to throw at you, and their game of disinformation," he says of his decision to return this year. "Anything that comes out of their mouths is meant to confuse you or send you in the wrong direction."

The theme for the 2013 Death Race — which starts on Friday, June 21 and should end sometime on Sunday — is gambling. Schwartz has no idea what that means (the 2010 theme was religion and in 2011 it was betrayal) but he's heard that the focus this year will be more on solo challenges. Some of the challenges over the previous two years have required teamwork.

Knowing that the theme is gambling, Schwartz has already made peace with the idea that it's not going to be fair.

In previous years he's watched athletes get waved through challenges he struggled to complete and organizers change the rules. In an email to athletes this year, Schwartz had an epiphany when he came to a line telling athletes not to quit, even if they think other competitors are cheating.

"Nothing in the race is about being fair," he said. "There could be a section (this year) where you flip a coin and you have to go over the top of a mountain while another guy gets sent on an easy trail to the same destination. And no, it's not fair. The whole idea is to frustrate you and try to make you quit."

Getting ready for the Death Race means taking an unusual approach to fitness. For example, Schwartz has just had a load of wet, soggy wood delivered to his backyard so he can practice his wood-chopping — a common challenge in every Death Race. He's been doing up to three workouts a day to simulate the non-stop nature of the event, doing things like hauling rocks up and down the side of a local mountain or running around his neighourhood wearing a 50-pound weight vest or lugging a 100-pound medicine ball. He's also a regular at CrossFit, and recently went head to head — and beat — a younger athlete training for CrossFit Regionals.

"My wife actually bought me a nice early Father's Day present," laughed Schwarz. "It's an eight-foot long piece of irrigation pipe that I can fill with water — it weighs 200 pounds. I fill it halfway so it sloshes around when you pick it up and it's a nightmare to carry. That's the kind of thing you have to do for this event."

And while most people at the start line will be hoping to endure, Schwartz is looking to place first this year.

"The way I look at it, I didn't spend an entire year training to finish in the middle," he said, admitting that it was a strange way to look at this kind of event. "Most people don't have that thought process at the start line, they want to finish, to endure, to make it to the end in the timeframe. I want to go in and be the guy that's in front and the guy who wins in the end."

It's strictly a personal goal, he said, as there's nothing in it for the winner.

"There's no money in it, it's really expensive and at the end you get a pat on the back and the respect of the 20 people in the world that actually care. The entire race is not much about winning, it's about finding out what you're capable of, what's truly deep inside of you... and when you're at the limit and next to broken physically it becomes about how far you can go mentally. About 10 per cent of this race is physical, the other 90 per cent is all your mental state."