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Tortuous race felt like a near-death experience

West Allis participant survived event, which says something

Spartan Death Race participant Jeff DeSmidt lugs the pack that he carried all through the race and a chunk of wood through a parking lot, one of many tiring tasks the racers were required to do before the race even started. A life jacket is wound around his backpack and a bucket is over the top. All was required equipment.

Spartan Death Race participant Jeff DeSmidt lugs the pack that he carried all through the race and a chunk of wood through a parking lot, one of many tiring tasks the racers were required to do before the race even started. A life jacket is wound around his backpack and a bucket is over the top. All was required equipment. Photo By Photo courtesy of Jeff DeSmidt

July 25, 2012

West Allis - Jeff DeSmidt of West Allis had held the up position of a pushup for five minutes and every muscle was screaming.

He and others in the "plank" position were waiting for trailing participants in the 2012 Spartan Death Race to catch up. DeSmidt was ahead, but at that moment, it didn't feel like it.

"It was torture to watch those people down the road walking," DeSmidt said.

In fact, the whole race would be torture to most people. Although organizers of the annual summer ritual in Vermont say nobody really died, it's a wonder why not.

Survivor, but not the fittest

The 344 healthy and strong athletes raced to exhaustion, lugging 75-pound pails of rock, running to the top of a mountain along narrow paths, stacking hay bales, doing 1,000 pushups from standing starts, chopping wood, surviving a 2-mile body roll through a sheep paddock, and carrying a 50-pound bag of cement for at least three hours to the top of a mountain.

None of the racers knew what horrors awaited them because the 50-mile race is different every year. Normally, only 15 percent of those who enter actually finish.

And this year was no different. Only 51 of the 344 survived to the end. A total of 344 all started at 6 p.m. June 15, in Pittsfield, Vt., but only 51 finished at 10 a.m. three days later - a total of 67 grueling hours over.

DeSmidt lasted almost into the second night, leaving the race at 28 hours. Perhaps amazingly, the field of competitors was already almost down to those who would eventually finish. Hundreds had already dropped away.

Early obstacles

While the entire race was designed to test athletes' physical, emotional and mental toughness, DeSmidt could easily have been out of the running event before the race began. To wear them down before the race, the competitors were put through some physical obstacles.

One of them was crawling through an 80-foot long drainage pipe that was only two feet in diameter and pitch black inside. Only someone with claustrophobia as DeSmidt does knows the horror of crawling through at that pipe. Making the feeling of closed-in panic worse is that as soon as a racer entered the pipe, another was crammed in behind.

DeSmidt said he looked at that dark pipe and decided that he had to go into it. The decision was simple but excruciating.

"I flew all the way out there and trained for months. I could not let an 80-foot tube ruin all that," he said.

So he crawled in and was jammed up against the racer ahead and felt another racer crammed in behind him.

To fight off panic, he knew he had to take his mind off being in that small dark tube.

"I counted one lurch after another," he said, recalling how he made his way 5 inches at a time.

It took only seven minutes, but it seemed like an hour, DeSmidt said.

His undoing

In the end, it was the lack of food and water that betrayed DeSmidt, who pushed until his body screamed for fuel and there wasn't any - because the rules wouldn't allow him to refuel.

He said he should have suspected that the racers wouldn't be allowed to go back to their packs to load up on more food and water since the theme of the race was "betrayal." He had understood from those who had been in the race before that they normally could go back to restock. The lack of sustenance knocked many other competitors out, also.

When looking back on the 28 torturous hours, DeSmidt decided that the worst part was the hunger.

"It wasn't the pain," he said. "It was that you could feel yourself weakening slowly but surely and seeing your end - that was a bummer."

The unrelenting physical challenges left the strapping and strong 28-year-old so wobbly he needed a cane. He had lost 20 pounds and had no feeling in his feet. A month after the ordeal, his left foot was almost back to normal but two toes on his right foot were still only at 50 percent sensation.

Gains from the loss

Despite the sometimes horrific aspects in the Spartan Death Race, DeSmidt said he gained something: mental strength. He had plenty of that going in, but now he said he can look back and know from experience how powerful he can be.

Ever since being in the race, when he's up against something he doesn't want to do, he finds himself saying something like, "I did this for 28 hours and it was pretty tough. I can do this for 20 minutes."

He gained something else, too.

"There's only a handful of things you do every year that you're never going to forget and this is one," DeSmidt said.

He even said he is leaning toward doing the Death Race next year.

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