By Amber Avalona/ParaglideApril 15, 2011
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Something about the warrior mentality seeps into the ordinary life of a Soldier. Send a grown man to Mountain Warfare School and the next thing you know, he's jumping from a 100-foot cliff because it sounds kind of insane. He can turn a holiday meal into a thrill-seeking fest and make plans to test his own mortality.
David Lowder has deployed to war zones but when his brother-in-law, Ian James, brought a personal challenge to their Thanksgiving get together, it was an offer neither could refuse.
This summer, Lowder and James will surrender the battle-buddy mentality of their National Guard days for a chance to outwit 'the undertaker.' In years past, this meant gathering at a small Virginia farm at 4 a.m., donning a headlamp and gear pack and bellycrawling through a barbed wire streambed to begin 24 hours of mental and physical anguish.
In layman terms, it is the Death Race. For those who sign their names in sweat, it's a punishing competition where grown men and women grunt, cry and grimace their way to the finish line. Only 10 percent of contestants finish. The rest surrender somewhere between tasks like stumping (chopping a tree stump from a field) and a one-mile river run (hefting a bike the whole way).
"Ian and I have a very similar mentality, we will help each other if we can but it's an individual race," added Lowder, a Fort Bragg Soldier and outdoor enthusiast.
Death Race 2011 is expected to lure nearly 200 men and women to the small town of Pittsfield, Vt. Very little about the race has been released, but the date is set for June 24, with a 48-hour cutoff. So far, over 215 people have registered for the unconventional competition, ranging in age from 17 to 64.
Registrants are prone to the "pre-race dropouts" (last year, 43 people paid $200 to stand up the starting line). This year, the entry fee is a steep $900 for those who register late between March 16 and June 1.
The registration form welcomes applicants with the words, "You will not like this race and there is a strong possibility that you won't finish."
"I'm supposed to say that we will finish," responded Lowder. It's one of the rules of the game, but not the most absurd to hit his e-mail inbox. Contestants were challenged to get published in a local paper or face a penalty - either drop out of the race, shave all body hair or carry a hay bale up and down a mountain before the race (in case you were wondering, Lowder would've gone for the third penalty; he assumed a hairless body was against Army regulations).
"I've thought about trying to do an Iron Man. Those events you can prepare for but this you can't - even strong athletes, it'll mess with their heads," said Lowder.
For many, death is the ultimate mystery ... but a Death Race supply list comes a close second. Racers have hefted an odd assortment of equipment such as $50 in pennies, a 10-pound bag of onions, a posthole digger, a wooden footbridge and an 850-page Greek textbook which were formerly required items for the competition.
The race has been called an extreme match of "Survivor" meets "Jackass," and is often a mental spiral into the strange minds of those who designed it. From diving into deep waters for a bicycle chain to assembling a lego house according to spec, absurdity breeds part of the excitement.
"The kind of person who signs up for the race is someone who has no limits, they're just basically a lunatic," said Joe DeSena, founder of Peak Racing. "The kind of person that finishes is an extraordinary person," he added.
DeSena co-created the race after a successful run of milder triathlon and adventure races. The mental and physical tests are designed to push contestants to the brink of rationality ... to see if they'll leap into the unknown. Those who leap often find an inner reserve of strength which, until that moment, lay repressed under the normalcy of life.
"I've done a lot of really challenging things in the military but I don't think I've ever done anything that's pushed me that hard before. I'd kind of like to see what my real limitations are, I'd kind of like to know if I'll reach them or not," said Lowder.
The motto of the Death Race is "you may die", although participants traditionally drop out before they drop off. They do, however, sign a death and dismemberment waiver form as a sign of taking full responsibility for the strenuous tasks they'll undergo.
Whether it's trudging through knee-deep mud, carrying 20-percent of their body weight up a steep slope or building a fire in the rain to hard boil an egg, these hard-core enthusiasts are primed to expect the unexpected. Many tasks must be completed to perfection - like listing the first 10 presidents by memory after descending a mountain - or either re-attempted by those who refuse to suffer defeat.
"I wanted to see what I was made of," said Lowder, who began extensive training for the competition four months ago, often hitting the crossfit gym or rucking around Fort Bragg.
"One of my friends just passed away overseas, and that is kind of a motivation to experience all you can. It seems like the ultimate challenge and the ultimate sort of test that you can do without actually dying," he said.