MIDDLEBURY — The Death Race, a multi-day physical and mental challenge created five years ago by Middlebury resident Andy Weinberg, is designed to be the final word in extreme racing. Competitors are told when to show up but not given any specifics on the unique mix of grueling challenges scattered across the mountainous and forested terrain they will face.
The man behind the race
Learn more about the Middlebury man behind the Death Race and its unique mix of mental and physical challenges by clicking here.
Armed only with the knowledge that the race, which kicks off June 24 in Pittsfield, may take up to 48 hours, competitors find themselves truly training for the unknown.
For Don Devaney, who is training for his first Death Race, the unknown serves mainly to motivate, rather than intimidate.
“The unknown is the biggest motivation for me,” the Middlebury 47-year-old said. “The willingness to begin is the single hardest piece for people ... the willingness to step over the line. Not necessarily the finish line, (but) the start line.”
According to Weinberg, Devaney, like all 200 competitors, really can’t know what he’ll face.
“This particular race is totally different (from any other),” Weinberg said. “We try to get the athletes to break, either mentally, physically or emotionally. And usually we see all three during the course of the race.”
Though many endurance athletes may be able to withstand the physical demands of the race, the mental trials are designed to frustrate and aggravate, and can often be the breaking point for athletes.
In a previous race, for example, before hauling a wheelbarrow full of logs up a steep hill, competitors had to first assemble the wheelbarrow themselves. Explained Weinberg, “Putting something together when you’re tired, muddy, hungry and being attacked by bugs isn’t easy.”
And competitors shouldn’t expect the race organizers to do them any favors.
“We (also) didn’t give them any tools,” Weinberg added. “We had a designated area miles away with tools.”
Devaney, unlike a significant portion of his competition, has never run an extreme race of any kind, nor would he consider himself to be an endurance athlete.
“I think the real endurance race that I run is really just (living) an active, exciting life,” said Devaney, citing swimming and hiking as two long-time hobbies that have contributed to his physical vitality. Acknowledging the pedigree of his competition (two former Olympians have signed up for this year’s race), Devaney knows that he is “the guy who has gone out there and worked hard, all his life, (and) always been on that good side of fitness.”
So he isn’t messing around with his training regimen. It includes trail running, day or night, with 60 pounds of weights in his backpack; hill intervals on Mill Street in downtown Middlebury; bike training in the gym; even purposely denying himself sleep to get used to the feeling of exhaustion that he anticipates during the race.
“How can I perform the best, when I’m mentally at my worst?” seems to be the question driving Devaney’s training, which he says has him in the best shape he’s been in in 25 years. He’s tried incorporating yoga, Zumba, spinning — anything and everything.When he’s in the gym, he tries to be always moving, in order to best prepare himself for the vast number of possible physical tasks he’ll be asked to complete on the mountain.
“I’m at the gym, and I’m doing this kind of dance with weights, and people are like, ‘What’s that about?’” he said. “I say, ‘Well, I want dynamic muscle movement ... because I don’t know what they’re going to throw at me.’”
Beyond the draw of the unknown, Devaney was inspired to run the race this year by his best friend, Frank, who last year was diagnosed with the disease ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“(He is) in a real death race,” said Devaney.
The Death Race, according to Devaney, would have presented no problem for Frank, who “wouldn’t even necessarily (need to) train, he would just do it ... that’s the kind of person he is.”
Seeing what the neurodegenerative disease has done to his friend has inspired Devaney to make the most of his physical ability.
“It sounds a little hokey, but we need to enjoy what we have today, because we can’t make any assumptions about what’s going to be around for us tomorrow,” he said.
Devaney is so inspired that he has also signed up for a eight-mile Spartan Race at Killington on Aug. 6 and is seeking recruits for his team in support of ALS. To learn more about ALS or donate to ALS research he is directing people to visit http://webnne.alsa.org.
While Devaney will be a first-timer at the Death Race, Middlebury resident John Illig, 47, is a veteran. He said having some idea what you’re walking into is helpful to a Death Race competitor.
The Middlebury College squash coach has run the Death Race twice, getting to the finish line only on his second try. Illig got lost on the course during his first attempt in 2008, and admits that his anger and frustration at what he felt was a poorly marked trail led him to quit the race 17 hours in, despite feeling physically capable of finishing.
Two years later, he was back on the mountain with renewed determination to finish, and more importantly, a different perspective on the race and its unique challenges.
“(The second time around), I grasped the simple fact that it’s all a big joke,” Illig said. “It’s very physically tough, but the contestants who finish laugh the whole way.”
On his second attempt, Illig refused to let the frustrations of the race break his “mental calm,” which proved essential and allowed him to finish the race in 36 hours.
“(Over) that many hours, and on a course that’s (so) spread out, you’re gonna have things that go wrong, like getting lost,” Illig said. “And if you treat them like life and death, like I did, and get angry, and feel things are unfair, then you get in your car and go home, and you’re one of the people who doesn’t finish.”
Weinberg, who has had relationships damaged when friends took the race too personally, echoes Illig’s sentiments.
“The race isn’t personal at all ... if you look at it from a personal side, you’re not gonna do well. You’ll struggle a little bit. You have to figure out what the race means to you, and then push yourself accordingly.”
Devaney thinks he is ready, but he won’t really know until sometime during the two-day challenge.
Besides inspiring him to take the step over the starting line, the attitude of his friend Frank toward his own death race has shaped Devaney’s mindset in preparing for the race in Pittsfield.
“The way he’s going through his life now — it’s fearlessness,” Devaney said. “And fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, it’s going beyond fear ... understanding fear. Understanding the realities of what we all have, and feeling that fear, and then going beyond it.”
Reporter Ian Trombulak is at email@example.com