- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mike Canino’s girlfriend thinks he’s crazy. Unprintable bad-word bonkers, to be precise.

Not because he’s about to participate in a multiday wilderness race that typically includes fire, barbed wire and ambulances.

Not because he encouraged organizers to add a live insect pit, you know, for fun.

Not because he has spent the last six months training for the event by running around the suburban Washington woods wielding a hand ax and carrying a 20-pound tree stump across his shoulders.

Not even because he gave the tree stump a first name, Larry.

No, Lisa Cunningham thinks her significant other is nuts for one very good reason.

Larry has his own Facebook page.

“It’s bad enough that the log has a name,” said Ms. Cunningham, a biologist at the National Institutes of Health. “I tease Mike about being bat-[expletive] crazy. He says there are shades of that. I think he’s a little crazier than most.”

For Mr. Canino, crazy is a relative term. A 45-year-old informational-technology manager from Falls Church he is scheduled to compete in this weekend’s Spartan Death Race, an annual extreme — read: utterly masochistic — endurance contest held in Pittsfield, Vt.

Founded by a pair of triathletes who found their run-bike-swim-repeat pastime to be both too easy and, well, too boring, the Death Race is the premier event in a series of outdoor obstacle-course competitions that combine elements of “Survivor,” Navy SEAL “Hell Week” and “Jackass” and have become increasingly popular in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom over the past decade.

The primary ingredients? Pain. Fatigue. Frustration. Sleep deprivation. Blood, sweat and tears. Diabolical puzzles. A liability waiver that reads, simply, “I may die.” Plus mud. So much mud. Endless mud. Mud in your shoes, your socks, your eyelids, mud in every crevice and orifice.

Previous Death Races have required participants to traverse roughly 45 miles over at least 24 and as many as 72 hours; to lift 30-pound rocks for five consecutive hours; to memorize the names of the first 10 U.S. Presidents in order, race to the top of a mountain, and then hike down and recite them.

Organizers advise racers to prepare by having teeth pulled without painkillers and “checking into a state prison and getting into as many fights as possible.” On average, only 15 percent of people who start the race actually finish. The point? That is the point.

“In every other race, we pat you on the back, say, ‘Great job, you can do it, you look good,’ ” said Andy Weinberg, co-creator and director of the Death Race. “The main goal of this race is to make you quit. ‘You can’t do it. You’re wasting your time.’

“It’s not for everyone. But there are some sick people like us that enjoy the race. The person who can push through is extraordinary.”

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.

One year, participants were told to bring mountain bikes. Many racers trained for a long, punishing ride. At the start of the competition, they were told to remove their bicycle chains, throw them in a lake and carry the frames for an entire day while racing on foot.

“Every race you go to, they tell you everything,” Mr. Weinberg said. “When it starts. When it finishes. You know exactly what you’re doing and how to train. You know that if you get to 20 miles in a marathon and are struggling, there’s only six miles to go.

“We thought it would be unique to come up with a race where you have no clue. We wanted to find athletes that were able to deal with adversity. The race is a lot like life — things suck, and you have to deal with them.”

Mind and body games

According to Mr. Canino, last year’s Death Race went partially like this: Competitors lifted rocks for five hours. In the dark. During a rainstorm. Next came a one-mile upstream wade through a flowing, frigid river, followed by carrying a lit candle around a field for seven laps — if the candle went out, racers had to start over.

At the bottom of a slippery mountain trail rigged with electrified cattle wire, competitors were given tree stumps. They were told to ascend the trail without allowing the stump to touch the ground. At the top of the mountain was a Bible verse; racers had to memorize the verse and recite it to a volunteer after scrambling back down.

“If you did the verse right, you got to split your stump to firewood and keep going,” Mr. Canino said. “If not, you had to do it over. I saw one guy have to do this four times.”

Mr. Weinberg and Mr. DeSena cobble together each year’s race from a self-compiled computer database of more than 100 challenges that test participants’ physical and mental mettle. “We do test them ourselves,” Mr. Weinberg said, “and it’s a lot of fun.”

During winter editions of the Death Race, competitors have submerged themselves in freezing water to the point of uncontrollable shaking, stepped out to guzzle nausea-inducing gallons of milk and then fired guns at targets or put together delicate birdhouses with sticky glue.

Another year, racers who already had been awake and running for 24 hours were required to count out 1,250 pennies — exactly — and place $5 worth into a plastic bag. The bags subsequently were tossed into a lake, where racers had to dive in and fetch them.

Mr. Weinberg and Mr. Desena’s most fiendish challenge? Perhaps when they had participants — 40 hours into the race and well past the point of exhaustion — crawl under barbed wire to reach a bridge. Under the bridge was a sentence written in Greek.

“We told them to bring a Greek translation book,” Mr. Weinberg said. “So they spend an hour translating it. It says, ‘Congratulations, you’re almost halfway done.’

“We just do crazy stuff. We can’t really use taser guns. No branding. And we don’t make them get tattoos. We’ve considered making them get tattoos on their foreheads.”

Mr. Canino has tried to prepare. Per a set of pre-race instructions from Mr. Weinberg and Mr. DeSena — some of which likely are bogus — he has a backpack stuffed with his ax, a bow saw, a personal flotation device, chopsticks and a pair of dress shoes. Because competitors are allowed to bring anything else they can carry, the pack also contains a headlamp, bandages, work gloves, duct tape and body glide.

The latter, of course, is for chafing.

“You need to wear compression shorts, too,” Mr. Canino said. “I went for a training run out on Long Island, and I thought, ‘Who needs this? The ancient Greeks didn’t run with compression shorts.’ By the end of my run, I was so amazingly chafed I could barely walk.”

A death race for life

A few weeks ago, Mr. Canino woke up on a Friday morning. Worked out. Went to the office. Came home and completed a 23-mile hike. Didn’t sleep. Spent Saturday with his daughters; spent late Saturday night and early Sunday morning alternating between walks around his neighborhood and attempts to solve simple math problems.

The next afternoon, Mr. Canino — who ultimately forced himself to remain awake for 62 consecutive hours — drove his daughters to a movie theater.

“Dad,” one of them asked, “are you going to crash the car and kill us all?”

Despite its name, Mr. Weinberg insists, the Death Race isn’t about death. (The event has a detailed safety plan, and competitors in serious physical peril are removed.) It’s about life. The kind of life we no longer live, an existence fraught with danger and discomfort — but also meaning and exhilaration.

As Mr. DeSena once put it, the Death Race is for “the hunter-gatherers in society, the few who can still deal with risk and uncertainty.”

“Go back thousands of years,” Mr. Weinberg said. “If you were cold, you had to figure it out, go find wood and start a fire. Hungry? Go catch an animal. You couldn’t just hop in a car and get McDonald’s.

“We’re so soft now as a society. We live a sedentary lifestyle. Everyone is catered to. We’re all told we’re winners and we can do it. People just kind of sleepwalk through life. With the race, we’re trying to re-create that everyday life struggle.”

Mr. Canino concurs. The Death Race costs $900 to enter. Competitors who complete the event receive a jacket. Which isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

“When you stop growing mentally, when you’re no longer seeking to expand yourself in some way, that’s when you start to age,” Mr. Canino said. “That means you’ve stopped. It’s easy to stop. But you can’t.”

“The thing about everything hard is that it ends. That hill? It has a top. That swim? It has a shore. You just have to get there.”

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