Death Race in Vermont

Andrew Haas, BA’09, took part in an extreme endurance race that is not for the faint of heart.

There was a point in the race when Andrew Haas was ready to quit. He and his racing partner, David, had been awake for nearly 48 hours, and had no idea how much longer they had to go. Day and night they had chopped wood, climbed mountains, deadlifted boulders, traversed icy rivers, and squirmed through barbed wire, all in the company of thunder, lightning, and monsoon rainfall.

"My hands were completely destroyed," says Andrew, BA'09. "They were covered in blisters. My muscles were exhausted. Saturday night was the worst, and when the sun came up I wasn't feeling any better. David wasn't feeling any better. We were just miserable."

They could have been forgiven for walking away. This was, after all, the Spartan Death Race, Vermont's annual weekend of self-imposed torture that attracts athletes from around the globe -- 90 per cent of whom, according to race organizers, fail to complete the course. More than a physical endurance challenge, the Spartan is a test of will in which competitors are given little information about what they will face -- just a starting point, a list of items to bring, and a complimentary fishing hook. (During the river portage they were told catching a fish along the way could help them in a future challenge. This was a lie, and the competitors spent most of the race carrying a hundred pounds of gear and a dead fish.)

Ominous weather

So when Sunday morning dawned, Andrew and David had no idea what lay ahead of them, or how many more hours or days they could push themselves. After a stormy Saturday night of splitting wood, they were ready to lie down with their axes. "We had finished stacking our wood. I was ready to quit,” says Andrew, “but just then Joe Decker, the Guinness World fittest man, comes peeling in. He had just finished the task we were supposed to start." Only one challenge behind the world's fittest man, Andrew and David found the courage to continue.

Andrew had been recruited to race by David, his high-school friend, who was unable to finish the year before. They decided to tackle the course as a duo to keep each other going. "Honestly I think that made all the difference," says Andrew, "to pick your spirits up when you are low." But since David still lived near their hometown of Burlington, Vermont (only two hours from the race site), Andrew had to train in Vancouver alone. Although he skied, rowed crew, and played ultimate Frisbee, he didn't consider himself an athlete and was at a loss as to how to ready himself.

"I had no clue how to train for it because essentially it's a race with no definition. They don't tell you anything before the race, and what they tell you during the race is often misleading, so there's no good way to prepare. When I asked the race organizers, they said ‘climb steep mountains and carry heavy things.’ I did a lot of that. I went down to Kits beach, found the biggest logs I could muster, threw them on my shoulders, and ran back and forth on the beach until I was done."

For eight months, Andrew improvised a haphazard training regimen, including overnight hikes through the North Shore mountains and running daily from Kitsilano to UBC with a heavy pack. "I started a blog and asked all my friends to give me the most harebrained ideas they could come up with for physical, mental, spiritual challenges, and then I would go out and do them. So it started out as testing my limits, then I realized I just needed to get myself in good shape."

110lb pack and five gallons of water

A month before the race, Andrew tested himself with a local version of the Death Race called the Spartan Sprint, a 5k obstacle course in North Vancouver that included a river run, climbing a wall, dragging cinder blocks, jumping over fire, and carrying buckets full of rocks up and down the hill. Andrew competed in the "elite athlete" category, finishing the course in just 25 minutes. Though encouraged by his results, he knew a far greater challenge lay ahead.

"You have to be in great shape, but 80 per cent of it is mental. You have to be able to train your mind to not give up and to be there for you no matter what -- not let it betray you. I ended up doing a lot of work just talking with friends and solidifying who I am as a person. When I walked into the race, I said 'I'm going into this, and I'm going to finish.'"

So when Joe Decker bounced by on a stormy Sunday morning, Andrew and David mustered their courage and trudged on, climbing a mountain they had already scaled twice that weekend, returning in time for a Sunday church service that had been arranged for all competitors, offering the pair a chance to sleep during the sermon. They were surprised when a race organizer took the podium and announced that all racers who had managed to last this long had officially finished the race, no matter how many tasks they had completed.

"We were elated. At the same time, David and I were always the types who want to be the best. So we looked at each other and we said, 'We didn't finish. We still have tasks left.'" The duo returned to the course to complete the remaining tasks: planting cucumbers and tubing down the icy river. "We were the only two to go back and finish."

Finished! Andrew (L) and David

Race completed and spirits rejuvenated, they rejoined the family members that made up their support crew. David returned to work the next day. Andrew ate and slept for the next week before returning to his job at the UBC Athletics program. "I love being in shape and having my body be so able. I run faster, climb harder, and my resting heart rate is at 46 beats per minute. I don't want to lose that, so I'm going to sign up for other races -- probably a couple of marathons, try a triathlon." Physical conditioning aside, Andrew knows the real win is spiritual. "I came out of it with a clear delineation between body and mind. My body was ravaged. I had been carrying a 100-plus pound pack for days -- I thought my shoulders were bleeding they hurt so bad. But it was really powerful to see how far I was able to push myself. I could have kept going for longer had I needed to. I was committed to myself, to David, and everyone I enrolled in the possibility I would finish the race. It was amazing to come out the other side still standing."