Perseverance pays off for Don Schwartz 

Whistler athlete hangs in to win infamous Death Race Challenge in third attempt

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If you've read any of the previous stories in Pique about Don Schwartz's experiences at the Death Race Challenge in Vermont, you know it's no picnic. Participants are often made to do a full day of back-breaking busy work before the race even starts, purely to frustrate them and narrow down the field, while the race itself is completely unfair — you might do the full distance in one stage, only to have the organizers decide it took too long and make it easier for the next racer .

At least with this year's event, Schwartz knew going in that the race was going to be unfair. And with a theme of gambling (his first year it was religion, the second year betrayal) he suspected it would be less fair than ever before.

And so he persevered through 60 hours of hell, and managed his goal — placing first overall in a race that few people (about 20 per cent this year) even finish.

He doesn't have all the numbers, but he guesses that he ran or hiked about 95km, mostly off-road, climbed over 8,000 vertical metres of Vermont mountains with a 30-pound pack and (for the first part of the race) a 30-pound rock strapped to his chest, and swam close to five kilometres in cold water, without a wetsuit, that he said was about the current temperature of Alta Lake. He crawled through mud, split dozens of rounds of wood, did 500 burpees in the hot sun before the race even started, lugged gravel up and down a mountain, built a rock staircase up the side of another mountain and, at the end of more than two-days of labour, did a full CrossFit-style workout with 13 challenging exercises.

Schwartz finished in a three-way tie with PJ Rakoski and Ken Lubin. They had raced together before and last year all three quit in protest when they weren't declared the winners after the longest event in the race's history — despite the fact that they had four hours on the next racer. The three reunited to win their category in the Spartan Ultra Beast at the end of last summer and agreed that if the Death Race was close this year then they would cross the line together.

In the end, only 41 of 200 starters, and just four women, completed the course.

Schwartz said he was sorely tested, but trained properly for the event. For example, one of the make-work exercises at the beginning of the event involved backpacking loads of gravel up the side of a mountain — something he trained for while walking up Blackcomb Mountain with a 50 pound weight vest and additional weights in his pack. Another exercise had competitors hopping up the side of a mountain, roughly the distance to the top of the Magic Chair, with their feet zap-strapped together — something he prepared for by doing box jumps and double-under skipping at CrossFit.

There was even a three-mile swim (two miles if you got lucky on the roulette wheel), which Schwartz's wife, a swimming instructor, had fortunately prepared him for. A lot of other competitors bowed out in that stage with hypothermia.

But most of all, Schwartz had experience doing the race and knew that A) almost everything he would be told by organizers was a lie, and B) that nothing about the race would be fair. He brought the right gear, down to the right kind of splitting axe, and did the least amount of work he could before the race got underway.

"They told us we had to register between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Friday, but I knew that whoever showed up would end up doing a bunch of menial farm tasks for three hours, so I registered at five minutes to nine," said Schwartz with a laugh. "A lot of guys showed up three hours earlier and they put them right to work."

Even worse, the previous day the competitors were told that you had to show up for a five-hour work session on the farm to get a poker chip you needed to win the race, but Schwartz knew better and skipped the event.

"I know their little games by now," said Schwartz. "Again, a bunch of people showed up, and were put to work moving railway ties and stacking logs. They got halfway through the race and were told that the casino went bankrupt and those chips were useless. Five hours of work the day before the race, all for nothing."


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