You may die... Well, at least that’s what organizers say to participants of what they bill as the world's most difficult endurance race. Competitors in the Spartan Death Race can look forward to at least 48 hours of excruciating pain and challenges designed to push them to their limits. Murray insurance agent Ryan Walker is training to be one of the few to complete the endurance challenge next month. Walker now trains for a race in which the obstacles ahead of him are largely unknown.
It’s 6 am on a cold and rainy Tuesday morning. It’s been pouring all night and everything is soaked. When the rain stops Ryan Walker starts to run up the 150 feet of wet stairs, wearing his 50 pound weight vest.
"You know we don’t have any big mountains but I’m lucky enough to have this football stadium that I can train at."
The race tagline "You May Die" may be an overstep by the race’s organizers (no one has ever died in the race), but after watching Walker descend the nearly vertical steps at Murray State’s Roy Stewart Stadium they might not be not far off the mark. As Walker makes his way down the stairs for the tenth time he stops at the bottom to tell me about his comrades across the country who are preparing for the race.
"A lot of the racers are ultra-marathoners, ironman/triathlon competitors, you know very elite athletes. A lot of the people are special forces; Army Rangers, Navy Seals…now they can add nerdy insurance agent to the list of competitors."
The annual Spartan Death Race is held each summer at the base of Vermont’s Green Mountains. Willing participants look forward to 48 hours of constant, excruciating challenges designed to push them right up to their limits. Unlike all other endurance races, like ultra-marathons or the ubiquitous Tough Mudder, Spartan Death Race competitors haven’t a clue of the obstacles ahead of them once the race begins nor are they told when the race is scheduled to end. The only thing the competitors know other than the start date and location are the stories they glean from previous races.
"I know I’ll have to make several trips up and down the mountain with heavy weight. I know I’ll have to chop a lot of wood, I know I’ll have to carry heavy objects for pretty long distances. I know I won’t get much or any sleep, and I think last year’s was about 115 miles, give or take."
Challenges in the past have included carrying tree stumps for hours, slicing a bushel of onions in one sitting, lifting 30 lb rocks for five hours, memorizing the names of the first 10 presidents before scaling a mountain and reciting them perfectly when they come back down.
"People will get so broken down, they’ll be sleep deprived and they get to the point where they have a difficult task ahead of them. No matter how bad they wanted to finish the race in the beginning, they’re so broken down that they don’t even care anymore."
Entrants can expect to face 15 to 20 of these challenges before the race’s end. And even in a field brimming with some of the most seasoned endurance racers in the world, many will never see the finish line.
"So out of the several hundred that attempt it only about 15 percent finish."
Walker is training not just to compete, but to be among the elite percentile that finish. His weekly training regimen includes stair running twice a week, at least four trips to the local cross-fit gym, and a seven mile run while wearing 50 pounds of weight. He says while he feels up to the challenge it’s hard to know exactly what to train for, so he looks strengthen his resolve as well as his body.
"My whole strategy is not to say I already feel miserable and I’m only 12 hours in and it’s probably going to be a 70 hour race. I’m just going to keep asking myself when I get tired and broken down can I take one more step and as long as that answer is yes I’m going to keep on stepping. "
Walker still has one month before he leaves for Pittsfield, Vermont and tackles the world’s most difficult endurance race. He looks forward to the chance to prove his grit and to face the challenge head-on.