If I was going to vacation in Mexico for the first time, why not make it a Death Race vacation? Rumors of it being the last DR, and after Tough Guy's hypothermia incident, I was craving another event before The Gauntlet at the end of February. It was guaranteed to be an experience very different from any Death Race in VT – unfamiliar terrain, altitude and the lost luxury of being able to locate safe(r) drinking water – and a race I had yet to attempt.
I packed the bare minimum; only the items I expected to use that weekend and nothing more. I planned to board the plane back to New York in the clothes I raced in, and had zero issues with that, though I anticipated the Delta passengers on my return flight might not have been too pleased. My nutrition consisted of a stack of Exo bars, Honey Stinger gummies, jerky, 2 oranges, a banana, mini Snickers, a bag of crushed tostatos (space efficient) and a Red Bull I hid in the bottom of my pack so I would forget its existence until I was desperate for a serious pick-me-up.
After arriving in Mexico City, I congregated with my fellow racers at the Angel of Independence, where we were instructed to get on one of two buses. If you were at the 2014 summer race, there was probably one thought that went through your head: choose wisely. In my mind, I decided that wise wasn't getting on what I thought would be a more rewarding race, but rather getting on the bus with familiar faces. There is a comfort in being with other Death Race veterans, and it lightens the mood.
A few hours later we were out of Mexico City and in the mountains. We turned off the main road, climbed up multiple switchbacks, drove through a forest and finally arrived at our drop point: a parking lot in Iztaccihuatl-Popocatépetl National Park . We were sandwiched between two volcanoes, Popocatépetl, which was very active, and would actually erupt the following week, and the dormant Iztaccihuatl.
Our first task was to be completed in our groups from the bus: locate our bibs. Easier said than done. My Death Race paranoia kicked in when I had to choose a bus and was now in high gear, so part of me had a hunch that the moment they sent us out into a massive field that our bibs would magically appear in the parking lot we once stood in. Surprise. [Insert sarcasm.] They were.
Unfortunately, before we were able to acknowledge this, both bus groups had split up into multiple groups and some people were well out of view and calling distance. Well over an hour later, everybody had their bibs and were lined up ready to start the real fun.
We stood in 4 lines with ceramic hand painted skulls we just unwrapped in hand. We were already given our skulls. The race did not even officially start. What I love about the Death Race is finding yourself in deeper levels of your mind, heart and soul. Usually somebody has a story why they are there. Mine has developed into a different story with each race, and my focus here was on my energy left out in the Killing Fields at Tough Guy. Additionally, there is usually an underlying race theme. In 2010 it was money; carrying $50 in pennies was no simple feat. Did you need it? Were the pennies worth their value in weight?
So the skulls...
From the outside, many people comment on the $5 plastic skull you receive after putting yourself through torture. “You're serious? That's all you get?!” Any Death Racer knows that this skull holds a lot more value than the $5 price tag, and that even if you leave without one, you're still going home with a life altering experience. I actually keep all of my skulls tucked away in a dresser. I don't look at them much but I know they are there for inspiration if I'm searching for it. The skulls that we cradled were the nicest DR skulls I ever saw, but they were still skulls. Everybody had their skull. That's what we all came for, right? Nope. Nobody was going to walk off the line just because they had their skull. In fact, I was more nervous that I had to keep it protected in my pack, hoping that when I eventually took it out, that it would still be in one piece. I also found myself more motivated knowing it was sitting with me at all times.
Time to get moving.
Everybody grabbed a dead fish from a bucket to carry until further notice. A stray dog was roaming the area when we arrived, and was still hanging around. I don't blame the pup; we each carried 2+ days worth of food, and now, a dead fish. We packed up the fish and skull and headed out. I was ecstatic to see the pup join, as when I was following the Adventure Racing World Championship last year, the now infamous stray Arthur joined Team Peak Performance. This stray became our Arthur.
I really don't have much to say about the surrounding landscape except that it was stunning. We hiked up Iztaccihuatl, surrounded by grassy fields, leaving Popocatépetl behind us. It was already late afternoon and between the setting sun and the wind, the fields of long grass were dancing in gold. Total Gladiator moment. If we weren't so pressed on time, I would have had no choice but to run through the grass and spin around with my arms outstretched, just for kicks.
We hiked as a complete group through nightfall, pup included. As expected, the temperature drastically changed and the altitude was starting to catch up with me, as well as some of the other racers who lived at much lower altitudes. Unfortunately some of the racers decided it was the end of their journey shortly after we reached our peak altitude – 13,996ft. I was cold and doing my best to ignore the throbbing headache that I had for over an hour.
As we descended, we were led through a barbed wire fence and into thick brush. Emergency whistles were being blown every few minutes as people were having difficulty navigating the lack of trail. I was shocked that I made it out of that portion unscathed, considering I'm currently looking at divots on my knuckles from smashing them into scaffolding the other morning from running down a completely empty NYC sidewalk. Just another day...
After reaching a checkpoint, they let us run down to the next checkpoint at our own pace (preferably a quick one). I headed off on my own, through what I wanted to believe was a misty cloud, but it turned out to be a massive cloud of dust. Every once in a while I would see two glowing eyes off in the distance – the pup – and smiled. I could have run like that for hours. I was in a peaceful state; I started to feel better coming down from altitude, and knowing that the pup was nearby, I felt surprisingly safe running alone through the darkness in a foreign place.
Upon reaching our next checkpoint, we regathered into four groups and were greeted by Joe Desena, who led us through a gorge-like area to a pile of intertwined fallen trees. Each team had to maneuver one of these trees, weighing a few hundred pounds and measuring anywhere from 10ft to 15ft+, to an unknown location.
Hours later, after navigating down a ravine and through a stream that was broken with deep pools, treacherous rocks and fallen debris, we hit a dead end. There was no choice but to evacuate us straight up and out of the ravine.
I love being outdoors during the night. Your surroundings take on very different characteristics with limited light and your imagination, especially when sleep deprived. I have a tendency to let my imagination take over and have a free-for-all during events like the DR; I don't let my focus escape me too much, but in a event that is just as stressful mentally as it is physically, I find a balance in having some fun with where my thoughts may take me.
Shortly after our evac, we arrived at what would be our final destination, a compound which we later found out was the location of a children's camp. The race was far from over and actually had yet to officially start. Three of the four teams were told they failed the task, including ours (the final team was diverted from the stream entrance because their log was too wide to even get it through the first section), therefore diverted from their places in the race. We took off our bibs as instructed and walked over to a lawn to begin our penalty – 500,000 jumping jacks as a group. It's a lot, but it's actually do-able. The 4th team came back to join us, having honorably given up their bibs so we could all get a chance to finish. The sun finally began to rise (new day = new energy!) from behind the mountains in the distance as we jumping jacked the morning away and shared some subtle laughs.
We collectively completed a few thousand before being told that the race was finally starting. The actual race was brutal. Our first official task was fishing our bibs from the bottom of the stagnant pool that we were eying during our penalty. I've been submerged in some nasty water before (my favorite being the mighty Hudson River on multiple occasions), but standing next to floating dead mice and birds in a confined space has a shock factor. If that wasn't bad enough, we immediately ran off to a cement trough, where we were directed to belly crawl a few hundred feet through more questionable water and mud.
A quick run through another ravine and up a rock wall led us back to the main area where we began a triathlon of sorts. We each carried a log around half a mile up to a shooting range where we had 3 shots, provided that you didn't lose your bullets on the way up. Depending on where you hit the target, each racer was given a penalty upon bringing their log and target back to the compound. Unless you hit the target spot on with all three bullets, you had to do at least one lap in the pool. The worst part? Your face had to be submerged. I was penalized both trips to the shooting range. After accepting that the odds of preventing myself from getting sick were not in my favor, the laps became easier to complete.
The following task was yet another ravine walk, carrying cumbersome bags of firewood. It was interesting going back into the ravine where we were supposed to come out with the massive logs the previous night. Even though we were in a slightly different location, we were able to now see the eroding walls of dry earth that surrounded us, with large trees half rooted in them. The trees weren't going to fall, but it certainly added to the drama of the task, and flashbacks of the previous evening intensified knowing what we were in. At the turn around point, we had to complete a rock climbing task. It was a quick task, but I enjoyed the obscurity of the location – a bare, windowless and roofless structure in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. We headed back through the ravine with the wood and onto the longest task since the race officially began.
Welcome to summer camp.
It sounded simple. Complete a round of each of the following exercises:
- Rotations around a pole sitting in a swing (a manual version of the swinger ride you find at an amusement park)
- Step up log posts of various heights
- Dual rope traverse
- Lateral traverse across three swings
- Tire or log flips
- Log drag (10 feet)
- Sideways rolls
- Burpees with a rock or sticks
25x, 50x, 75x and finally 100x.
It was not simple. It was horrible.
Thankfully, I did not vomit on the swings like some people did, but I was fading fast. Dehydration was catching up to me, as nausea and that throbbing headache came back with a vengeance. I calculated that I drank a little over 3L of water over the course of the 20+ hours going into summer camp before I was able to get some more. It was too late to fully recover, but I was able to pull it together enough with the ongoing support of those around me, both racers and spectators, to complete summer camp with enough time to finish the course before the time cut-off.
Surviving summer camp within the time restraints was a huge relief. I knew I had less than a handful of tasks to complete before the finish, as other racers were already relaxing after finishing, including the pup who had earned a solid meal and rest. I was able to solve a riddle, sparing my body 100 thrusters upon return from a reverse run through the ravine and belly crawl through the now dry trough.
All that lay before me and the end was the fish.
Oh, the fish.
Oh. The fish...
We had to cook the fish that we packed up more than 24 hours prior and take a bite. I threw mine directly into the middle of the fire with not a care in the world, except cooking that vile rotting carcass of a fish as fast as possible and getting it over with. With three minutes to spare before the final cut-off, my fish was cooked, I took a bite and spit it right back out as we were permitted to do. My race was completed.
At first, I was slightly disappointed that they planned a short, intense race. I was looking forward to hopefully watching the sunrise from somewhere on top of a mountain, or even one of the volcanoes on the second morning. Those feelings didn't sit long because unlike any other Death Race I've participated in, we all sat down after the race like a big family, enjoyed dinner and shared stories before retreating to our bunks. Yes, we were spending the night in beds. The simple things... Not only were we treated to a shower, proper meal and a bed, but the race directors arranged a visit the following day to the ruins of Teotihuacan, which dates back to as far as 100 BC. My Death Race vacation turned out to be quite the action packed weekend, complete with a stop at a major tourist site.
It felt great to go home unexpectedly clean and in one piece, though still very dehydrated, as I knew that in a few short days I was flying back out of New York for yet another 24+ hour race called The Gauntlet... created by a fellow Death Racer, who was racing by my side in Mexico.
And the pup? He was adopted by one of the staff at the compound.
**Photos courtesy of Tony Matesi