Survival of the Fittest

Monday, May 26, 2014
By Jared Pendak

Valley News Staff Writer

South Royalton — Back in 2005, Rebecca Schubert took part in the inaugural Death Race. She lasted just four hours. This year, she’s hoping to “survive” a lot longer.

Schubert, 37, is one of 300 athletes preparing for the 10th annual Death Race, a grueling test of physical and mental endurance with challenges bordering on sadistic.

Staged by Peak Races, the format is frightening in that there is no real format.

There’s no finish line or end destination in a 40-mile course through the woods of Pittsfield, Vt. Typically running at a length of 48-72 hours, the race concludes whenever organizers feel like declaring it’s over. By then, most participants have been “killed off” — just 10 percent of the competitors in last year’s 70-hour Death Race lasted until the final horn.

“That’s the worst part about it... the unknowing,” said Schubert, a Royalton resident who also participated in the Vermont Ultra Beast Marathon endurance race at Killington Mountain last summer. “You don’t know how long it’s going to last, and you don’t know what they’re going to make you do.”

The Death Race’s most widely circulated promotional images depict participants climbing through barbed wire — sometimes with blood tricking down their faces. It looks gruesome, but the race itself is so much worse.

The mental aspects of the challenges are typically the most trying. Participants might have to chop wood for several hours or walk in a river carrying a 50-pound tree stump. Then it might be time to cut a bushel of onions or build a fire from scratch. The most arduous tasks combine the physical and mental, such as being asked to memorize the names of 10 U.S. presidents, then climb a 2,000-foot mountain and recite them back, in order, to an organizer. One misspoken word could mean going back down the mountain and doing the whole thing all over again.

Death race co-founder Joe De Sena obviously enjoys torturing his customers.

“Just like life, the Death Race is designed to push and aggravate people to such a point that even the most stoic eventually fail,” De Sena said in a news release. “Only those people possessing incredible discipline under the most insane and even delusional circumstances can call themselves a finisher.”

Schubert, a health coach at Central Vermont Medical Center, has been trying to prepare herself mentally as much as possible. “I tell (patients) all the time that mental training is important, and that’s certainly the case for something like the Death Race,” Schubert said. “Your running ability and your strength is going to be whatever it is, but the only way to stay in a race like this is to slow down your mind and truly be in the moment.”

Not that Schubert is skimping on the physical training in the slightest. The soon-to-be-38-year-old engages in pre-dawn training most every morning, utilizing rocky dirt roads near her home. Last Wednesday, she woke up at 4:30 a.m. and dragged a weight sled amounting to half of her own body weight for four miles. It’s one of many workout regimens she’s created for the roads, many involving intermittent sessions of exercises such as push-ups.

Schubert is even more rigorous on weekends, often taking to New Hampshire’s White Mountains for endurance training.

“I do a lot of speed distance hiking,” she said. “The Pemigewasset Loop is 11 peaks over 32 1/2 miles. Most people do it in 2-3 days. I’ve done it in 13 hours.”

A native of Upper Saddle River, N.J., Schubert exercised primarily in aerobics training while growing up. In 2004, the University of Vermont graduate attended a weight-loss retreat staged by De Sena and partner Andy Weinberg in the same area where the Death Race now takes place.

“I wasn’t overweight, but I just wanted to see what it was all about,” Schubert recalled. “They made us exercise a lot and eat nothing but apples for two days.”

She returned to Pittsfield the following year for the first Death Race, but the then-28-year-old wasn’t prepared for its challenges.

“There were just too many mind games for me that first time,” she said. “After the barbed wire, we had to dig out a tree stump by its roots and carry it for two hours. Then we had to run through a river for two miles carrying a bicycle. ... I dropped out pretty quickly.”

Schubert’s endurance has built steadily over the last decade. She proved as much last September as one of only 15 women to complete the Spartan Ultra Beast race, a 26-mile mountain race on Killington featuring military-style obstacles.

“I think I came in 14th of the 15 women, but it was still pretty good,” Schubert said. “Less than half of all entrants finished.”

Schubert recently attended a day-long Death Race preparation camp, where some of the exercises included splitting and stacking wood, hours of calisthenics, quote memorization and climbing through 24-inch pipes.

Schubert plans to do whatever it takes to complete this year’s Death Race, provided a couple of nagging injuries aren’t exacerbated too drastically. In part because of her relentless training, she’s developed tendinitis in a hip flexor and one of her Achilles.

“If it comes down to a situation where if I don’t stop then I might not be able to do anything else the rest of the summer, that’s about the only way I’ll bow out,” she said. “I really think I’m prepared this time.”

As for those who think athletes like Schubert are “crazy” for taking on challenges like this, she disagrees. “It’s just about changing your frame of reference,” she said. “To me, it’s crazy to sit on the couch all the time.

“Sometimes, setting goals for yourself and pushing yourself might sound crazy, but for me, that’s what life is all about.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at, 603-727-3306

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