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Expect the Unexpected: ‘Death Race’ Poses Odd Challenges

Sunday, February 09, 2014
Norwich — This was the year Mark Harvey planned to complete all of the Pittsfield, Vt.-based Peak Races. He’s been training every day, all year long, for the mountainous task. But last weekend, after just one race, the 44-year-old Vermont State Trooper had to reset his sights.

Harvey, a former powerlifter, arrived at the Winter Death Race with the tools he’d need, including an axe, a saw and a plastic bin jammed with 50,000 calories’ worth of food. But just hours after the start, a fluke accident forced him to drop out.

“It was very disappointing,” said Harvey, who lives in Norwich. But the setback won’t stop him from tackling the remaining events.

“There’s nothing you can do. You can’t dwell on it,” he said. “You just get yourself up for the next race.”

Preparing for the events is a challenge in itself. Death racers never know in advance what tasks they will face, and that’s part of the allure, said Andy Weinberg, co-founder and director of the Death Race.

Marathons, Ironman competitions, “are all the same,” said Weinberg, who started the races with Joe DeSena, a fellow ultra athlete. “You know what to expect, when it starts, when it finishes. We thought it would be cool to come up with a race where nobody knew what to expect.”

And the competitors seem to agree.

“The athletes that have shown up embrace the race,” he said. “They like the fact that we keep them guessing.”

That spirit was in play at the start of last weekend’s event, a grueling affair that lasted 28-36 hours, depending on the athlete. Most chopped wood for two hours before the race began, although as it turned out, that wasn’t required. The official event comprised about 10 different tasks, including three hours of ballet training and trekking about 60 miles, some of it while carrying 70-pound sandbags, with elevation changes totaling 40,000 feet

Harvey had finished chopping wood and started hiking when he stepped off the trail and slipped on a patch of ice, whacking his forehead on a tree.

“I just wasn’t paying attention,” he said. A big, bloody bump formed on his head, but he motored on, finishing that leg of the hike — and the ballet training that followed — but the light bothered his eyes, he couldn’t focus and he felt nauseous. Harvey has had concussions before and soon realized he was suffering from another. He tried waiting it out, but after three hours felt even worse and left the race. He wasn’t the only racer unable to finish the event due to injuries; one person slipped on the ice and ended up needing stitches, and another was treated for hypothermia, Weinberg said.

Of more than 40 people who started the Winter Death Race, just 23 finished it. It was the highest rate of completion yet in a death race, Weinberg said. He chalks that up to the sort of people the events have been attracting.

“These particular athletes don’t like to quit,” he said. “They are very stubborn, very persistent, very fit. They are able to deal with adversity and the mental and physical challenges that we provide.”

The Peak Races have attracted competitors from 40 of the 50 states and some from Europe, Asia and South America. Technically an adventure race, last weekend’s event drew athletes from California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Minnesota. For Harvey, the races serve as the spine of his fitness regimen.

When he was a competitive powerlifter, Harvey had found himself troubled by nagging shoulder, back and bicep injuries. Then, in January 2012, he hit what was probably his heaviest weight, 285 pounds. Soon after, he decided he needed to slim down.

“I could barely pass the run for the state police,” he said. Using a workout program, he lost 60 pounds in a few months. By July, he had started training for the 2013 Peak Ra ces. Last year, he entered all but one of the races and finished all but two. Lack of proper gear, not to mention missing toenails from a previous event, led him to drop out of the Winter Death Race, and a calf injury kept him from finishing the Summer Death Race, he said. This year, he hopes to turn that around.

Harvey does three 30- or 40-minute workouts a day, and once a week heads to Pittsfield for a five-hour workout, which includes burpees — basically a squat thrust — and lots of hiking.

“All you’ve got to do is have a … heavy pack and keep going up and down the mountain,” said Harvey, who trains with about 100 pounds of gear in his rucksack, including a 70-pound sandbag.

By Tuesday, he was bouncing back, looking ahead to the other Peak events, including a 100-mile ultramarathon and the Summer Death Race, which is, on average, a two-day race. Next up for him is the 100-mile snowshoe race, run on a 6.5-mile loop, starting Feb. 28. Between laps, he’ll take breaks to eat, drink and check his feet. But with just 34 hours to cover 100 miles, a nap is out of the question, he said. “There’s really no time to sleep.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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