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Be prepared for anything

For Mr. Canino and Ms. Cunningham — the latter an avid cyclist who bikes about 100 miles a week — a typical Wednesday morning goes like this: The alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Ms. Cunningham puts on her running shoes. Mr. Carino puts on a weighted vest, then grabs his ax and tree stump.

The couple — or trio, if you count Larry the Log — then embark on a 10-mile hike, often at Scott’s Run Nature Preserve in McLean.

“It’s a pretty walk for me,” Ms. Cunningham said with a laugh. “But a tough workout for him.”

Two weeks ago, they came across a partially fallen tree that was blocking a hiking trail. Mr. Canino decided to clear it himself.

“I’m standing there wondering if he’s going to bring the tree crashing down on my head,” Ms. Cunningham said.

“The usual assumption by other hikers is that I’m involved in some sort of trail maintenance,” Mr. Canino said. “I’ve actually had people thank me. This isn’t really normal. Normal people don’t stop and split logs in the state forest.”

Mr. Canino’s abnormal behavior is by design. Six years ago, he was out of the Army, getting divorced, 30 pounds overweight, financially and emotionally stressed, on the verge of a full-blown midlife crisis. He wondered: Is it all downhill from here? What am I actually capable of?

Mr. Canino began running. Five-mile races became 10 miles. Ten-mile races became marathons. Marathons became ultramarathons. Last year, he volunteered at the Death Race, helping set up obstacles and watching competitors for signs of hypothermia and serious injury.

Following a pre-race orientation briefing, Mr. Canino found himself talking to Joe Decker, a two-time Death Race winner.

“I’m doing this race next year,” Mr. Canino said. “Have any hints?”

“There’s no way to prepare,” said Mr. Decker, an endurance-sport champion dubbed “the World’s Fittest Man” by Guinness World Records. “The best thing you can do is carry a lot of really heavy things through the woods, and often.”

Mr. Weinberg and Death Race co-founder Joe DeSena wouldn’t have it any other way. Both are extreme athletes who enjoy unusual challenges: Mr. Weinberg once biked from Chicago to Vermont for a job interview; Mr. DeSena once ran from New York City to Pittsburgh … just because.

In 2005, the pair decided that marathons, triathlons and the longer, harder variations of each race had become too predictable. Difficult, sure. But also rote.

In response, they created the Death Race, held on and around Mr. DeSena’s farm in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Competitors are not given a course map. They don’t receive a list of obstacles. They aren’t told exactly when the race will start and have no idea when it will end. Instructions are given during the event, and often change.

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