The Death Race in Vermont packs more pain into two days than practically any other race in the world, but it's not the physical challenge that wears competitors down as much as the mental beating. Last weekend, Whistler's Don Schwartz proved he could handle both, though in the end Schwartz and the other two first-place athletes made the decision to quit.
It's not something Schwartz imagined he would do and if either of the other two athletes kept going he probably would have gone, too. But enough was enough. At the time they were four hours ahead of the next person, and six hours ahead of the person after that. Most of the field was at least 12 hours behind at that point — those that didn't drop out as a result of heat, hunger, dehydration, injuries or other complaints.
The official record shows that only four of the 200 starters finished, or just two per cent. Except that isn't exactly right — Schwartz found out later that some of those athletes didn't have to do certain challenges along the way, or were given easier tasks. But then again the theme for the 2012 was betrayal, and in that sense all bets were off.
He doesn't regret pulling out.
"At that point we were 54 hours into this race," he said. "It was a horribly hard decision to make on my part, given what I said about wanting to finish, but my feet were in bad shape and it was at the point where continuing on would have been stupid and ruined the rest of my summer.... It was time to stop and be a smart person, rather than come home with destroyed feet. I have a world champion barefoot waterski event to attend to defend my gold medal this summer, and I need my feet to work.
"It's probably the first time in the history of racing that the three leaders have pulled out."
The other two leaders, P.J. Rakoski and Ken Lublin, also made the decision to call it quits. They expected that the organizers would look at the gap and the time remaining and call the event, but they wanted the three athletes to go back over a mountain they'd climbed over several times already.
"We thought the organizers would look at the gap and everything we've done, and think that it was a perfect place for the race to end," said Schwartz, adding that it was already the longest race yet in the series.
A blow-by-blow of the race is astonishing. They started with a hike to the top of a mountain for the weigh in and registration, followed by three hours of work on the farm leading up to the 6 p.m. start. They were sent out to float in a cold swamp in life jackets while getting briefed and were then made to form groups based on what ping pong ball they pulled out of the water. Teams of four then had to work together to carry heavy objects including 200-pound pipes full of water up and over the other side of the mountain, a 20-mile (32km) distance that took about 12 hours.