Less than 5 days after returning home from the Mexico Death Race, I was back in the airport, this time en route to Georgia for my next adventure. With the exception of a few items on the required gear list that I planned to pick up before the race, I took practically everything I cleaned from Mexico and threw it into my backpack. I was pretty exhausted, having worked all week and only sleeping 3 hours the night before my flight, due to last minute packing.
Landing just before noon on Friday, February 27th, I had budgeted a few hours to run some errands before the race and make the 75 minute drive to Macon from Atlanta. The Gauntlet is a new extreme endurance event, and I was honored to be part of the first one. Matthew Waller, the race organizer, is a fellow Death Racer, so I knew I was in for a treat of sorts. He actually also raced in Mexico the weekend prior. It takes a lot of energy to race back-to-back 24+ hour races, as I later found out, but I cannot imagine racing and then directing a race the following weekend. Props.
I was the one of the first people to arrive at Paradise Offroad Park, where the race was taking place. Check-in was between 5 and 7pm and I knew I could use all the time I could get to organize the mess of gear in my bag. I also wanted to leave some time to socialize. This was the first race in a very long time where I did not know any other racers prior, and I was looking forward to meeting new like-minded people. What I found out was that almost every racer was trying their first 24+ hour endurance event. There was an enthusiastic, maybe somewhat nervous energy, and I was excited to be racing aside so many first timers.
The race was structured with both team and individual tasks. Not all of the tasks counted towards your final score, and we were to be told which tasks would offer points and how many. “The Gauntlet” was a head to head competition where the last competitors standing would complete an individual challenge for points.
I showed up to registration around 6:45pm, finally ready to go. First task: name the 5 languages in the race emails. I had skimmed through every email sent before the event very quickly, so I knew I was already screwed. I managed to rattle off 2 of the 5, resulting in a 300 burpee penalty. Upon completing the burpee penalty, we had to retrieve a cement bucket and carry it along a trail around a pond. I was one of the last people to begin my burpee penalty, but having had plenty of experience doing burpees, I was able to complete both tasks pretty quickly.
Our first task for points was a time trial around a 1 mile motocross track. I started with about four hours until the midnight cut-off to complete as many laps as possible. I decided to complete it as a very slow ultra-marathon. Knowing I could get in a solid 12-15 miles without taxing much energy, I comfortably jogged off on my own around the track. Approximately halfway into my first lap, I followed what I thought was one the race markers. It was one of our race markers, but it was not the one I needed to follow at that time.
I continued to run for another 10 to 15 minutes before it really set in that I was not where I was supposed to be. Sleep deprivation may have influenced my decision, stubbornness certainly did, but I kept on moving. Being a motocross park, with hundreds of acres of trails webbed in the forest, there were many other markers, and it was difficult to distinguish ours from the others in the darkness. I assumed that I would have to pop back out to a familiar place at some point. At this moment, I had already crossed through a vast, space-like field of multi-colored clay and was deeper into the woods than I thought. Another 15 minutes or so passed and I knew it was time to turn around. I could not hear anything. I was getting cold, and I had no water on me because I was allowed to get food and hydration in between mile loops.
When I finally made the decision to get over my stubbornness and turn around, I got lost in the web of trails. I passed over the same place twice, and as I came around it a third time I heard something moving about 12-15 feet from me. I stopped for a few seconds. This animal moved again, but not in a sudden way that it was scared of me, even when I turned my headlamp in its direction. I couldn't see the actual animal; I could only hear what sounded like it pacing. That was enough of a warning for me. In those few seconds I had already picked out a tree to climb up if it was a wild hog (which it wasn't), and then proceeded to scream at the top of my lungs and run.
I was desperate. I was tired. I was calling for help and nobody could hear me. I wanted to get out of those damn woods and run laps around that mile track until my legs wouldn't work. Anything was better than where I was. I finally came across a main trail/dirt road and followed it to where I could spot the registration table light far off in the distance. About an hour after I went out for my first lap, Waller, who was just about to head out on a search for me, was greeting me at the edge of the woods.
What an exciting way to start off the race. My plan was to make up as many loops as I could in the remaining time. I completed 10 more loops of the course and stopped with about 30 minutes to spare, to reorganize myself before the next task.
The next event turned into an unexpected nap time for me. We sat in two lines for a safety briefing. Having experience in races of this sort, I suspected that I should probably retain some of this lecture, but I was sleepy... and comfortable... and I accidentally dozed off in short bursts, missing about half of the lecture. Oops.
The briefing ended and we were instructed that the next event – a tractor tire carry – was to be completed as a team from the line you sat in. I was surprised by the cohesiveness of the teams. Usually team events are instant disasters, but there was an immediate flow; it was impressive.
Upon completion of this event, we were back to individual events. Over the next few hours I found myself doing many leg blasters (squats, jump squats, lunges and jump lunges), dragging a SOLID cinder block back and forth a few miles along a dirt road and through the muddy motocross track, and memorizing a sentence on a sign for a pop quiz.
After my unexpected forest adventure and unintentional nap, I finally felt like I was settling into the event. Then, the following question hit me as I was dragging this cinder block along:
“It's Friday night. I was lost and close to possibly being attacked by an animal, I am covered in clay and mud, exhausted and dragging a solid cinder block along a dirt road. Why am I doing this?”
I laughed to myself and without hesitation answered my own question: “Because this is absolutely crazy... and fun. So, why not?” I found myself once again among a kickass group of people, who wanted to test their boundaries and do something out of the ordinary. I continued smiling...
We were later tested on our knowledge from the lecture and sent out to complete a community service project involving the moving of a massive rock pile around somebody's property.
Upon return to base camp, we circled up with one of our required gear items, a sledgehammer, for an overhead hold – everybody simultaneously held the one in front of them for three minutes, passing it to their right during a 30 second break, repeating the process until your sledgehammer made it back to you. This turned out to be a great half hour, getting to know everybody and cracking ridiculous jokes after being up all night. There's no better way to let the time pass than with laughter.
I wasn't laughing for long though, because we soon found ourselves lined up facing away from a pond. I was 4th in line and it didn't take much to figure out what was happening. One by one, we walked up to the pond's edge where we watched our sledgehammer be thrown into the water at least 15 feet away. Those who brought “mini sledgehammers” (2-3lbs) we faced with a more difficult retrieval.
Unable to locate my sledgehammer, as it probably slid down into a deeper section of the pond, I took the penalty and laid in the water for about 5 additional minutes. Cue the Tough Guy flashbacks. After my penalty was over, I put on the dry clothes I took off and hustled back to base camp. There was no way I was leaving base camp until my leggings were almost dry and I was warm; the last thing I wanted to succumb to was hypothermia... again. (Always take advangtage of fire if you have the opportunity.)
I was happy with my decision after discovering that our next and almost last task was a 10 mile hike along the trails I was lost on at the beginning of the race. I started off this hike by myself, but ran into another racer, Colin. We continued on together, passing the exact spot where I had the animal run-in, finding fresh coyote tracks in the surrounding mud. I'm pretty certain that was the animal that was pacing in the trees, and I was happy that I was unable to see it with my headlamp.
Colin and I ran into another racer, Radostina, and the three of us happily hiked our way to an unknown checkpoint. As we approached a hill, Devin was on his way back from the turnaround. Devin is a strong athlete and was rocking the competition up until we ran into him. He appeared to be teetering on his breaking point now in the race. As he was explaining this to us, a small tire that he picked up from the checkpoint we were headed to rolled down the hill in front of him, hit a stump, turned 90 degrees, rolled down a much larger hill and hopped into a pond. It was comical, but at the same time this appeared to be the final straw for Devin. So holding off any laughter for later, we told him to wait for us to come back, and that we would all hike back as a team.
We soon found out that little tire weighed at least 35lbs. Devin didn't have a way to strap it to his pack, which played into his sudden change of heart. As we crested the hill where we met him, we only saw his pack on the side of the trail. We instantly assumed that he decided to stop and left his pack and all of his gear in frustration. A few more steps would reveal that we were completely wrong. We found Devin on the side of the trail in the brush, curled up in a ball shivering and slurring. He developed hypothermia after fishing his tire out of the pond, and we were gone long enough for it to set in.
Instantly, with not a hint of panic, the three of us gathered spare clothes, exchanged them with the wet ones, warmed him up and gave him nutrition. I didn't even realize that we spent almost an hour between warming him up and walking with the race staff who rushed over to check on him. They tested him and gave him the OK to continue the race by our sides
That final hike back to base camp was special. We didn't care about how fast we were moving or where we may have been in the rankings. We all shared a solid laugh about the tire flying into the pond. We relived the frightening moment when we discovered one of our own in critical condition, and how we all came together to his aide.
We exited the woods at the peak of the motocross course. The four of us screamed out in joy looking down towards base camp, realizing not only did we make it, but we made it together. It was a lot more meaningful to complete this journey as a group.
We arrived at camp and were told that we could relax for a few hours. There was a time cut-off before our final task, and five racers were still out on the course. As exhausted as everybody was, when the final two arrived literally minutes before time expired, the energy just exploded.
Our final task was not physical or mental. It was purely emotional. Two of the items on our gear list were oranges and olive oil, which we proceeded to learn how to make a candle from them. We were then linked to one another with rope and took a lap in the darkness around the 1 mile motocross course. We reflected on everything, and I'm sure it went deeper for many people than just what happened out on that course. I have never done anything like that during a race. It was beautiful.
My overall impression of The Gauntlet was extraordinary. I thoroughly enjoyed the balance between team and solo events, and endurance and strength events. A massive factor in the success of the event was the organization. Matthew and his partner, Tanya Bickham, executed a flawless race. Their wonderful support staff was readily available and played a large part in keeping everything and everybody in check. You can have the best race course laid out, but if you don't have great people behind it, it can quickly change the outcome. Thank you and congratulations Matt, Tanya and The Gauntlet crew for an epic inaugural event! I'm looking forward to the next one!