THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
In preparing for an upcomng endurance race, Dave French had just received his list of essential items to pack.
An ax. Ten feet of climbing rope. One pair of goggles. One No.2 wooden pencil. A live fish.
All the items might sound strange. But ... a live fish?
"Yeah, one live fish," said French, 42, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard from the Cleveland area. "They don't really elaborate on anything, and I think that's what frustrates a lot of people about this race."
French's fish - any kind he wants as long as it's still breathing - is the first of many curveballs he can expect at the Spartan Death Race. Two hundred competitors, including four Ohioans, will start the race on Friday in Pittsfield, Vt., but no more than 20 percent have ever reached the finish line in any given year.
"We think it'll be closer to 5 or 8 percent this year," said Joe Desena, the mastermind behind the adventure marathon.
Course specifications and length are often hazy, ranging from 10 miles to 100.
"It's as long as we want to make it," Desena said.
Past Death Races have lasted between 24 and 48 hours, but that means nothing when discussing this year's trek though wooded ravines and up steep mountains. Race organizers sometimes don't set the final course until the racers are on it, and the runners won't know what they're running into until it happens, Desena said.
What they can expect in the backwoods is that there will be a dozen obstacles to overcome. In the past, that has included chopping wood for multiple hours, hauling a 20-pound stump up a mountain face, navigating barbed-wire infested mud trenches and translating ancient Greek.
"If you couldn't translate it, you had other options," Desena said. "But that could entail hiking a mountain for four hours."
That's the aim for Desena and his crew - constantly keep racers guessing.
"Humans have been on this planet for 1 million years, and 999,700 of those years were very trying," Desena said. "You had to fight to survive. Our goal with the race is simply to bring you back to the roots."
Training for the unknown is a tough task. French, an outdoors enthusiast since his childhood in California, thinks he has an edge on the other athletes. Growing up with a wood-burning stove means he already is well-acquainted with chopping wood.
Still, physical conditioning was needed to fully prepare.
French has been in training mode since winter, lifting weights and wearing a 50-pound vest during runs. He said he thinks he's in good enough shape to survive the Death Race.
But it won't come down to that. Mental strength is where the race can be won, French said.
"I'm kind of used to the unknown," he said. "In an endurance race or any type of challenge where you have to stay sharp for a number of hours, the military background helps."
It was during deployment last summer to the Gulf of Mexico that French first read about the race. He decided then that he would enter, despite a $400 registration fee and a meager $2,000 of total prize money.
"You don't enter for the money," French said. "The prize for me is crossing the finish line."
And he's prepared to do anything necessary to finish, even if he's delirious by the time that happens.
"If I'm there, using the last bits of my fingernails to get across, then that's what I'm going to do," French said.
For anyone to get near the finish line, Desena said, they're going to need that kind of determination. And likely a little bit of luck.
"It'll take an extraordinary person looking to show themselves that anything is possible," said Desena, who once completed a Death Race and now happily works behind the scenes.
Finishers must be willing to take their bodies within a breath of death, Desena said.
And he's mostly serious.
During registration, entrants check a waiver form on the race's website, YouMayDie.com. The waiver is just one line:
You may die!
The warning is all part of the atmosphere of the Death Race, Desena said. He and the other organizers don't want contestants to literally perish in the Vermont woods.
"We've been close on a couple," Desena said. "We obviously don't want to actually lose anyone, but when you're pushing yourself to these limits, you could have things happen."
The only death French is likely to encounter on the course might involve his fish, he said. Though he's still not sure what the fish is for, he said he has a hunch that protecting its life over the course of the race could be the first challenge.
"I'm thinking of all kinds of crazy contraptions to keep this fish safe and alive and not crushed," French said. "I'm pretty creative."