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A Race to the Death (or Close)

by Valerie Matena, BA’08 No Comment

I didn’t finish the race. Forty hours into the Death Race and a mere five hours from the end, I quit. In my four years as a Vanderbilt athlete, I had never failed to make it to the finish line. I had faced disappointment, failed to meet goals, even finished last, but I had never simply stopped. Now that the haze of physical and mental exhaustion has worn off, I’m left to question what happened that Sunday morning and to somehow reconcile everything leading up to those last few moments.

The Spartan Death Race is a 48-hour endurance competition that takes place each year in Pittsfield, Vt. The organizers are notorious for keeping the race details secret until the last minute and challenging competitors with unexpected and extreme physical and mental feats. They boast that only a miniscule number of competitors complete the event. Its website is www.youmaydie.com.

Everything would soon become a tangle of mind games and physical pain.

I have always enjoyed pushing myself. I majored in economics in the College of Arts and Science while also running track and cross-country at Vanderbilt. I learned to balance the high-pressure demands of being an SEC athlete while thriving academically, challenged by interesting professors and subjects while competing as both an individual and team member. I now know how to defend my thoughts on a case (thanks, Professor Damon) as well as how to surge in the final lap (thanks, Coach Keith).

That mindset did not disappear upon graduating. So one day in June, I left work without explaining why I was disappearing for the weekend. Using precious vacation days to suffer would be seemingly illogical to my peers.

Tangle of Mind Games and Physical Pain

After a wood splitting exercise (bottom photo), Matena (No. 44) and her race teammate hauled logs up and down the mountain.

The Death Race began on a rainy Friday night in Pittsfield. I was one of 155 participants who filed into the town church for a race debriefing. No one knew what we were about to endure. There was no course map, no set distance and no defined finish line. Tasks were given as the race progressed and everything would soon become a tangle of mind games and physical pain. The possibilities of what might lie ahead were limitless and the anxiety of those in the Pittsfield church tangible; I found myself excited and eager for the race to begin.

After the debriefing, racers were divided into groups and given a circle of large rocks to lift. One clean lift was getting the rock up to your chest and lowering it to the ground. Once around the circle, or 13 clean lifts, was one lap. I was to complete 150 laps, repeating the lift hundreds and hundreds of times for nearly six hours.

The rocks were only the beginning. Sometime during the early morning hours, I was sent walking miles upstream in a cold river, pitch-black except for the headlamps of racers dotting the darkness like fireflies, and silent but for the rush of the current and the occasional splash of a racer losing his footing.

Pushing Through

Sunrise found me swimming seven laps across a freezing pond, carrying a lit candle around an open field between laps, silently praying that my body’s violent shivering wouldn’t extinguish the flame and force me to add a penalty lap.

After splitting a stack of wood, I was sent up a trail carrying a log so heavy I could barely hoist it onto my shoulder…only to carry it back down again after committing a Bible verse to memory. After other tasks, including an eight-hour hike carrying my full pack plus a small log, night set in again.

I was 24 hours into the race. Fatigue, both mental and physical, began to take its toll. A sudden storm rolled in. I faced another mountain hike, marked only by small orange flags hanging in the woods. I plodded along, focusing only on moving forward one step at a time. Then I reached the barbed wire. I remember shining my light ahead and seeing the barbs strung across the path for probably 400 meters. I remember sitting down to rest for a minute before having to maneuver through the spikes.

And then I don’t remember much. My friend and teammate for the race later told me that I stopped responding to him, barely speaking and only inching forward as he coaxed me under the wire. I was somewhere in the early stages of hypothermia. Crawling along the dark trail, face inches from pools of mud, I had no choice but to keep moving forward.

I eventually struggled to the top, and after some time warming up at the checkpoint, made it back to the base of the mountain just as the sun rose for the second time. I pressed onward, tasked with cutting down trees, moving more rocks and slowly trudging forward. Fewer than 50 racers, strewn across miles of trail and hours of competition, remained on the course.

Ending with Integrity

Then late Sunday morning, I stopped. I had been competing for over 40 straight hours and was in 12th place. The race officials told me I had more than 15 hours left of the competition. I knew I’d have to sleep before continuing for that long. Monday’s workday loomed in front of me. Enough. I shared a congratulatory hug with my teammate and we headed home, confident in our decision and proud of our accomplishment. It was not the finish, but for us it was the end.

I got the call that night.

Competitors and organizers talk about the 2011 Death Race experience.

The race had ended at 45 hours wherever you were on the course, and those remaining 35 racers were told they finished. The finish line was yet another trick.

I was devastated, and for weeks wished I had slept in the rest tent for five hours, essentially tricking the race directors instead of letting them trick me. But that’s not the philosophy with which I toed the start line when I wore a gold V on my chest. Nor would it represent the values instilled in me over my Vanderbilt years, during the Arts and Science classes that were my academic barbed wire, when I didn’t think I would pass or the easy way out seemed tempting.

I didn’t finish the Death Race, but I competed with integrity for 40 hours and pushed my body harder than I thought possible, and I can say that with my head held high.

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