The New York Times referred to the Death Race as part "Jackass" part "Survivor" and it has been hailed one of the most extreme endurance events in the world. With a finish rate of around 25 percent (and some years it is as low as 10 percent), participants of the Death Race expect to race non-stop for over 72-hours, although there is no set finish time, through a chain of physical and mental tasks.
I quizzed WWP John Chambers for his story on completing this transcendental adventure.
What is the Death Race?
“It is pain; It is suffering; it is transformation. An ever-changing challenge. Nothing else will challenge you, both mentally and physically, quite like the death race. It is everything I look for in a race, and so much more.
Originally the brain child of Ultra athlete and Spartan Race founder Joe Desana, the idea was to be more challenging than a standard race. Ironman and 100 mile running races are ‘easy’: you only have to swim/bike/run far and fast enough to reach the finishing line. The Death Race is different.
Unlike ‘normal’ races, nothing is certain from the outset of a Death Race: what activity will be required, where is the start of the race, is there even a finishing line?
Everything about the Death race is designed to make you quit. This year some of the tasks I undertook included: finding wild mushrooms, calisthenics, yoga, orienteering and even listing to a lecture that we were then assessed on.”
High and low point of the event?
“For me, the lowest point of the event came at the end of the 3rd day, just as night was falling. Myself and two team mates had to carry a slosh pipe up and down Joe’s Mountain. The 12inch thick pipe, was 4 feet long and filled with sand. It took us most of the night to reach the top, as the route was scattered with obstacles such as roots and rocks. I remember one of my team mates muttering, ‘this is such a stupid idea’ over and over and over again. It was a tremendous physical challenge and it also tested my mental strength. I had to fight hard not to let the pointlessness of the task get into my head. I kept reminding myself just to take it one step at a time.”
Of course, there was also high points. On the second day, one of our tasks was to look at a lego model for 20 seconds, and then recreate it from memory at the top of a hill. As we were walking back up to the top of the hill, I saw in the middle of the trail the most wonderous object- a moment I will never forget. There was an ice cold can of Coke, already opened, sitting invitingly in the middle of the trail. My team mate Clay and I looked at each in wonder, just the day before we had been talking about how good a soda would be. Without any hesitation we drank the delicious icy cola. It was so damn good!”
What the story behind the tattoo?
“Last year, I took part in the Death Race and unfortunately did not finish. During that race, for every uncompleted task, as a penalty, orange cue cards with the words ‘Apparently I wasn’t Ready’ written on them would be attached to you. I acquired many. I was looking for something to remind me of the pain of not completing something I had thrown my whole self into. Something to remind me to push myself even harder. Something to remind me I could be so much more. So I decided to have the words of the cue card tattooed on my bicep. For the next 12 months whenever I didn’t feel like putting the work in, it was there as a stark reminder that I had to keep pushing.
Now, having completed the race. I returned to my tattooist victorious, to have an addition to the tattoo. To show that I was READY this year. I chose not to cover the whole tattoo, since our stories are made up both of our failures and our successes. I wanted to show not just the victory, but the journey to get there.”
What sort of preparation did you do for this year’s race?
“There were two major elements to my training this year, to prepare me both physically and mentally for the Death Race. I ran, I lifted and I carried heavy things. I ran in 3 major races throughout the year. Most weeks, I would try to complete 3 runs of about 20km/ 2 hours. Sometimes I did this whilst weighed down by a rucksack or a weighted vest. I also went to the gym to build up my core, leg and shoulder strength and incorporated mobility training with yoga, rolling and stretching. The physical side of my training was the easy part.
Preparing my mind was much more challenging. My wonderful friend Graham, from Ispire Motivational Coaching, developed a programme to challenge and test me mentally. This programme was based on three themes: Endure, Sustain and Learn. Each task was designed to teach me something about myself, or to give me a skill that would benefit me in the Death Race. In my opinion, it was Graham’s training that was most beneficial to me in the Death Race. Although it is great to be the strongest and faster person in the room, if you can’t keep your mind focussed then it all counts for nothing. You are only as strong as your mind is.
About 4 months before the Death Race, I realised I wasn’t actually particularly fussed about taking part. It turned out, this was all part of Graham’s plan, to give me the freedom from obsessing about completing the race. I was able to go into the Death Race, able to embrace the moment and enjoy spending time in the Vermont woods with other like-minded people.”
What was the most valuable thing you learned/gained?
“The most important thing I learned is that no man is alone. In order to achieve our full potential, you need to have people round you willing to commit to your ideas. I also fully realised just how important having the right mindset is. The new mental strength I have found this year will help me, not only in races, but in my everyday life. Someone once said to me, ‘The body is capable of amazing things, but the mind must be willing.’ I know now, more than ever how true that is.”
Same again next year?
“I’m not quite sure what is coming up in the next year, but I’m sure it’s going to be a good one. I’ll keep trying to find the edge of the envelope and keep feeding the rat. I’m going to try and run a 100 mile Ultra, and maybe take part in the Leadville season in Colorado. Apart from that, I’m just keeping my eye open for whatever crazy races next take my fancy. One things for sure though- no more Death Race. That rat has been fed and I don’t need to go back.”
It’s worth a note that days after completing the Death Race, John also ran the Vermont 100k - because he ‘was around and it was just a running event’!