Interview with a Death Racer

I had the good fortune to interview a death racer earlier today…

What’s a death race? It’s the most extreme of the latest adventure racing fads… the web address is YouMayDie.com. As per Alexey Sokolin, a Death Racer who reached out to me and passed some info along from the organization,

“The death race is the top level event in the Spartan race hierarchy. It is comprised of mud runs, obstacle racing, trail racing, physical challenges and mental challenges all in a 48 hour plus adventure race. 90% of competitors do not finish the race. It is held in Pittsfield, Vermont. The hurdle and challenge-driven race requires competitors to complete a series of (15-20) grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 40-mile course that runs through the Vermont woods. During the Death Race, competitors may be asked to chop wood for 2-hours, carry a 20-lb stump around for hours, lift 10-30 lbs rocks for 5-hours; build a fire, cut a bushel of onions, crawl through mud under barbed wire, or after 20-hours of racing, memorize the names of the first 10 U.S. Presidents or a Bible verse, hike to the top of a mountain and recite them back in order. Unlike other endurance races that offer a detailed map, Death Racers have no idea what to expect next as the course map and list of challenges are kept secret. This provides competitors with one of their biggest challenges as the length of the race can range from 24-48 hours. For an endurance athlete, not knowing where the light is at the end of the tunnel can be sheer torture. Last year the race was nearly 60 hours.”

Wow.

I asked him a few questions… read on.

Alexey: “I am doing the summer Death Race on June 21st. This is the event run by the Spartan founders on their private torture farm up in Pittsfield Vermont. Check out the website… the event itself is a mix of obstacle racing, trail running, cross-fit type work, and about 50 miles of mountain hiking, revolving around obstacles that involve natural tasks. For example, you may need to cut a log into two and then split it into sixth to carry 8 miles through a river while holding an egg that cannot be broken, or you go back to get another egg. Or you have to roll through a field for 40 minutes and answer a trivia question at the end, and then repeat this 6 times.

The race used to be about 80 people and 30 hours, but has grown to 300 people last year and lasting 60 hours. There are no structured breaks for sleeping, so it is a test of mental, as well as physical, endurance. I believe the fail rate is somewhere around 90% and the field consists of ultra-marathoners, ex-military, and other nutty survivalists. You bring what you can carry (shoes, food, medicine, axe) and that must last for the full three days. Here’s a good overview:

My athletic background started when I was on the varsity crew team at Amherst College, rowing for 4 years. That got me used to taking punishment in all sorts of weather, and provided a base from to build. After school, I came to NY for a job in finance and switched to a 4-day routine, with 2 days lifting and 2 days cardio. In 2008, I participated in the Urbanathlon and became interested in these active adventure races. Since then, I’ve done 3 Toughmudders (NJ, PA, VT), 2 Goruck challenges, and a few other things here and there. I do some running as well, mostly 5Ks and half marathons.

Eric: Why on earth are you doing this?

Alexey: We are all animals living in boxes – boxes of fear, rationalization, jobs, insecurities, and expectations. I had set up myself to be pretty much on rails since college: job in finance, ivy league gradschool, etc etc. During school I became an entrepreneur, starting www.nesteggwealth.com, got engaged, and started doing this set of adventure races. I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel more and more how artificial our barriers are. I feel like a lot of the things that we are supposed to do, or think can and cannot do, are just mental. They are just limits we put on ourselves. In the last few years, I have been pushing on those limits and feeling more and more disconnected from the safe path. I guess I am feeling around for what I can really accomplish without the handholding we are so accustomed to. I don’t have any particular awe of the military, but really fondly remember the Goruck Challenge for taking me to a new place mentally. I don’t romanticize survival or peak fitness, but want to know what it feels like to be there. It’s almost as if I want to fail, and am seeing where that point will be.

Eric: No, really — doesn’t there have to be more than that to compel an otherwise sane human being to subject himself or herself to this?

Alexey: Yes. I have a really good support network, and a close friend that has my back. We both rowed crew, although at different colleges; we both worked at Lehman, and went through that collapse, we did 2 Urbanathlons, 3 Toughmudders and 2 Goruck Challenges together. I have a great fiancé that supports me challenging myself in this way. And that is why I am not afraid to fail. I think most people that look at this challenge think about the pain, the distance, the mental challenge and say that they can’t do it. I think that failing is a really useful learning tool, and if I am outmatched here, that’s a fair trade. But at the same time, I will never find out if I don’t go for it, and I will never learn how to get better unless I make mistakes. You know this as an entrepreneur – sometimes you just have to raise your hand and say that you are doing it, and people will follow.

This answer is ending up a lot more existential than I thought it would be!

Eric: You seem like an Average Joe, albeit an athletic one — what makes you think you can pull this off? Is there anything to keep you from just dropping out?

Alexey: You know I think I am fit enough. Though I’m not an ultramarathoner or habitual triathlete, I’ve put myself through the ringer many times before. So I know how to use my body to finish something. My goal is to finish, and I think that will not be a matter of amazing fitness, but of mental acuity. My priorities are (1) prevent injury, by taking care of feet and otherwise being dumb, (2) find a way to refuel, by eating, drinking and maybe catching sleep, and (3) focus on the next task and be mentally focused. So even though I’ve put in the endless miles, burpees, deadlifts, etc, I think the main obstacle is how my mind will behave 45 hours in with no sleep and a hard task comes up. I have to rely on my friends to get me through those moments. I’ve “quit” crew countless times when things didn’t click, but the team aspect always pulled me back.

There it is… let’s send mental support to Alexey as he preps for his race!