Inside the Mind of a Spartan Death Racer [INTERVIEW]
Nowadays it seems that the elementary school gym class obstacle course—a time of crawling through tubes, riding tricycles and jumping in a potato sack—is no longer considered a challenging feat. The Spartan Race, as a series, is a course/race varying in length—depending on the chosen race—designed to challenge its contestants both mentally and physically in a way similar to the training of an American Gladiator or Navy SEAL, though it’s been proven that sometimes even they cannot finish the races.
The Spartan Race is a competition not only compounded by that of ones drive to succeed but also their athletic ability, their control and mental resilience. In order to complete a particular race one must be prepared to crawl under barbed wire, jump over flaming bails of hay, climb greased forty-five degree angle walls, run through mud, carry cinder blocks, drag themselves and heavily weighted down gear through dirty waters and think on their feet all the way to the finish line. And depending on the race sleep is not an option, having one that lasts over twenty-four hours.
The term ‘comfort zone’ is a fleeting one left behind the very moment you choose to sign up. Physically you might find yourself in top-level shape but trust us, the courses are designed for much more. If, by some chance, your body is not being beaten and weathered, the race—or more so the obstacles you face—will undoubtedly take an emotional and mental toll on you. As one winner put it, “I wish I could lie and say these things are easy and don’t affect me at all but they friggin’ crush ya!”
Ultimately you have four races to choose from, three of which are held throughout the country at various times. Tackling the first three is known as the Ultimate Spartan Challenge. It’s the test taken to determine whether or not you are a true Spartan at heart. The Spartan Sprint is a three—often more—mile race to merely see how quickly you can get through. Call it an off-road variation of a marathon, if you will. Secondly, there is the Olympic Super Spartan, which is an eight-plus mile race consisting of not only running but also a dozen or more obstacles. Completing those leaves you but one more to complete in order to accomplish the Ultimate Spartan Challenge. The Ultimate Spartan Beast is the final push in the quest of three. It is ten to twelve miles of racing in and out of mud, rocks, barbed wire, cargo nets and various other hurdles—all designed to test your will, the will of a Spartan.
If by now you have for some reason chosen to go even further in the Spartan races, first, we suggest going to see a doctor… you might be clinically insane. But should you thrill-seekers defy doctors’ orders and yen for a challenge then allow us to introduce you to the Spartan Death Race, held in the small town of Pittsfield, Vermont. The Spartan Death Race is a race like none other, set to give its athletic competitors the chance to test both their mental and physical skill. It is not only a distance event but an ultimate evaluation of ones endurance. Being truly mentally, physically and emotionally draining and challenging, the Spartan Death Race has the tendency to break over 80% of those who attempt it.
Joe Decker—two-time Spartan Death Race winner and owner of Gut Check Fitness —certainly doesn’t fall into the majority of contestants that drop out. No, in fact, he’s part of the 20% that lasted as well as a member of the even fewer percentage of people who decided to go back to try again. He explains, “The toll is pretty much 50/50 mentally and physically. To try and be competitive out there you have to put in months and months of training with many nights spent in the woods.” Having completed the Spartan Sprint, the Super Spartan and the Spartan Death Race—actually starting with the Death Race and moving backward—Decker trains for the Death Race just as the event itself is pursued. “I grab a heavy pack, hit the wood line at midnight and do the stupidest stuff I can imagine throughout the night and into the next day. It’s not rocket science. I own the voted ‘Hardest Outdoor Fitness’ company in San Diego—Gut Check Fitness—and also take others out overnight to train plus have classes that meet daily. This training has been the key to my success the last couple of years.” He was the 2010 Spartan Death Race Winner, and if that wasn’t enough decided to go back again in 2011 and win the race for a second time. “I’ve competed in the Death Race twice. Does it get easier? Hell no, but always worth the pain.”
So what exactly goes into the Spartan Death Race? Well, let’s look beyond the fact that the course spreads over forty miles of Vermont woods—most of which is on an uphill climb scaling twenty-two thousand feet—and take a peek at some of the other challenges. During the race, which you are always on the move, one might be asked to stop and chop wood. Yep, chop wood—for roughly two hours. You might even have to carry a twenty-pound stump around for a while as you move on throughout the course. Or perhaps after the bulk of the race is over you’ll need to stop and memorize some states and Bible verses, only to be asked to recite them in order once you reach the top of the mountain. There’s also the little things of lifting 30 pound rocks for a few hours, crawling through confined spaces and mud under low-hanging barbed wire, or eating an onion should you fail at one of the particular tasks. “I love the challenge,” Decker says. “We’ve got one life, one body and I feel one chance just to see what the hell this thing can do.”
Normally, the backpacks that hold the gear range from fifty to seventy pounds, sometimes consisting of ten pounds of onions, fifty dollars in pennies, a Greek textbook, a posthole digger and often more. And unlike the other endurance races that offer a map of the route, the Death Racers have neither a guide nor an idea of what to expect to be their next challenge. This lack of knowledge in the race is enough to make nearly anyone go insane, and proves to be one of the sheerest forms of torture the event offers up, especially considering that the Spartan Death Race lasts anywhere from twenty-four to forty-eight hours. “The unknown is always a factor. Not knowing what’s around the next corner or where the finish line is located. That’s the hardest part,” Decker tells us. It seems that getting lost off the beaten path happens—it’s just all in the game.
Many might have been turned away in fright from the races at a sheer glance of the descriptions but not Joe. His drive is higher than ever. Admitting to once being overweight, out-of-shape, and a drug abuser at one time, he sees his moments in life as precious ones. “For me personally, it’s just the power of knowing that I’m 42 years old, not getting any younger, and can still get out there and complete in these types of events along with some of the toughest men and women in the world! It also just makes me feel pretty good about myself to know that I was able to turn it around, be a good guy and not end up face down in a gutter someday. My motto is “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’!”
So if you think you’re tough enough to withstand the races and somehow eke your way through to the other side we suggest you forge ahead. Life is short and you might as well try all you can before death comes knocking its eerie hand your way. But first, as with everything… give it some practice. Take the advice from Joe, “If you want to give it a try, go for it! Life is short! Not only will you have a great time but after the pain subsides and the wounds heal you might just come away with a better understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses. Plus a beer will never have tasted so good in your life than after 30 non-stop hours in the woods.”
“There’s no machine more amazing than the human body,” explain Decker. “This is my Nintendo or PlayStation!”
Learn more about the Spartan Races at SpartanRace.com.