Battle Damage: The feeling is returning to my fingertips although my toes are still numb. I have peeling skin all over – my shoulders were the pack dug in, my fingers, my shins, my feet. My muscles are still a bit stretched but definitely getting better. Overall, I seem to be on the mend.
*****Disclaimer: This is my account of events as best as I can remember. The nature of the race precludes the recount of things exactly as they happened without the omission of some details and the distortion of others. I only hope to convey the misery and the glory of my time in Pittsfield, Vermont, and to not misrepresent any other persons that may be named in this blog.*****
I’ve already been told by Dawn that one blog account of me seeing her was actually someone else, so who knows what actually happened from here on out but this is what I remember:
It’s late night Saturday when we get back to Amee. I’ve been up since 7 or 8am Friday morning so it’s been +36 hours since I last slept and +28 hours since we started the race. Rebecca and I find out from Joe that we have more wood chopping awaiting us. We separate in order to change into dry clothes, get some real food in our stomaches and gather up what we need to finish this thing. I go back to the tent, eat, change for the millionth time and remember that I need to get my card punched. This will be punch number 2. 18 to go. When I get to the check-in table, the volunteer punches my card and tells me I’m ready to go up the mountain. I correct her by saying that Joe told me I was on wood chopping duty and she calls to confirm. When Joe comes back down, he tells me that I need to go up the mountain as long as there’s someone to go with me. Me and the crew send Roger to find Rebecca and the staff try and wake another racer who was waiting for a group to join. Meanwhile, Joe directs me to throw my log in the pond by the farm. Once that’s done he gets Daren and Yesel to time my 5 mins under the rushing water of the culvert.
Earlier in the day, they had people crawling through the culvert with their packs but by now, whether because of the dark or the rising waters from the rain, I was to just lie at the exit and freeze to death. Yesel was worried that I wasn’t wearing the right clothes (which I wasn’t) and gave me her thicker jacket. This is the second time a racer has given me the shirt off their back; thank you, Yesel! I get as comfortable as I can on the rocks, lay down in the water without putting my head in (which pretty much equates to doing that ab exercise where you raise your legs 6″ off the ground) and wait for the clock to release me. An eternity later, they tell me that my time is up and I have to go get my log out of the pond. I had thrown it close to the bank but still had to wade in a little to retrieve it. And, yes, it still floated. One more clothes change later and Roger couldn’t find Rebecca and the napping racer was not ready to go, so Anita and I started for Joe’s mountain.
Something things you need to know about Anita are that she’s Dawn’s sister; she drove up from the NY to be on my support team; she has only seen me in person once or twice; and she is wearing galoshes, tights and a jean skirt (this will be important later). Same thing for Roger – Dawn’s brother, drove from NY, I pretty sure I met him only once before seeing him at the DR, but that’s where the similarities end because he was never seen in a jean skirt. So it’s amazing to me that they were 1. there in the first place 2. so confident in my ability to finish this race and 3. willing to do these crazy mountains with me!
We start up the mountain and pretty soon into the incline, come across a log and a pack laying in the trail. Immediately, both of us get worried. It’s dark, it’s late into the race so everyone is tired and we don’t see or hear anyone. We call out for a few minutes and then keep going up. Not too far away, we see a headlamp across a little footbridge. Anita runs ahead and the racer tells her that he’s having hallucinations and plans to quit but can’t get across the bridge. She helps him across and I yell at her to get his name and race number. Several other times during the race, I’ve gotten to check points and have had to tell the volunteers, “yes I saw that guy. It was about blank hours ago. He was around blank and looking tired.” Just in case someone was looking for this guy, I wanted to know his name. She catches back up to me (I didn’t stop, just kept moving forward slowly) and tells me what he said and that he was going to go sit at his pack for a while and head back down. She tells me his name is Ray and my heart drops in my chest. For the months leading up to the race, I had been in the Facebook group, kinda keeping tabs on what was going on, but being too busy to interact too much. About the only person that stood out was a guy named Ray who posted all the time and was generally really excited about this race and really friendly with all the other racers. I hated that he wasn’t going to continue on after having spent so much time preparing and keeping all the people of Facebook excited about coming to Vermont.
The mountain ends up being a lot bigger than it looked from afar. We go up and up and up. We’re following pink arrows that have been spray painted on the ground, but by this time, the rain had washed away most of the rocks. When we came to what used to be an arrow, what remained was a scattering of pink-colored pebbles. Mostly, we could discern some sort of a heading and just kept going up. I’m sure it was more than a few times that we were made to backtrack and after a couple of hours we ended up in someone’s driveway. We both knew that this was wrong, but couldn’t figure out where we took an incorrect turn. Anita runs back and forth looking for more flags but after seeing none, we’re only left with one option, go back. The only good thing I can say about Joe’s up to this point is that it is a definite path and there are no trees to climb over. That’s where the positives run dry. My knees hurt, the trail is steep, we don’t really know where we’re going and I’m dead tired. Anita encourages me by saying that the sun will be up in 3-4 hours and I’ll feel better then. I look at my watch and focus on the new goal: seeing the sun.
Finally, we get to a crossroads and while we’re trying to figure out which way to go, we see 3 headlamps in the darkness. The guys coming down say that they took the wrong route too, went up the mountain but had to come back down because there was no check point. We head up the only direction untraveled and discover the Gaza Strip. Here the racers are met with several lengths of barb wire strung over a small rocky stream. Soon we will be at the top. I worry about messing up Laurel’s nice borrowed shirt in the barb wire and Anita gives me her t-shirt (she’s wearing 2); this is time #3 I got the shirt off someone’s back. Crawling under the barb wire that’s 8 inches off the ground and stepping over the ones any lower, I make it through and meet some racers coming back down. I ask them if they stepped over any and they said only the strands laying directly on the ground so I make a mental note to go under all the wire coming back down. They also tell me that they are allowed to descend on the other side which is just twine…no barbs. I tell Anita that on the way back, I’m crawling under all the barb wire because I want to do what the guys did and feel like I stepped over too many wires. This is also the point where I found out that we took the wrong way up. Everyone else came up via the waterfall: a stream that stepped up the mountain. One guy says that originally they were making everyone stay in the water but after it got dark, they were worried about people cracking open their skulls so were telling racers to stay close to the water. This explains our inability to get up the mountain – we took the wrong route. We vow to find this waterfall on the way back down and continue upward.
From the Gaza Strip to the Abandoned Shack, things get crazy. We are no longer on a trail; we’re back in bushwhacking country. Again, I can’t recall specific details, but it’s much like, if not worse, than the trek from Colton to Roger’s. The ascent is steep, the ground is still slippery with mud, there’s no definite route, and the pink flags have us zigging and zagging like the creators never learned in math that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It’s getting closer and closer to dawn and Anita remarks how cool it would be to make the summit at sunrise. A rocky slope of some sort of stinging plant (which thankfully had been trampled back by previous Death Racers – I think the only time I was grateful to be in the back of the pack) marked what looked like the last portion of the climb. Surely enough, as I’m clawing my way up, I hear a guy’s voice say, “you better hurry or you’re going to miss this.” Anita and I are standing on the top just in time to witness this:
The volunteer at the top lets me take off my pack, catch my breath and get some fluids before getting on with it. He asks me my name and race number and walkie’s it in to Amee. He asks me where my log is: in my pack. He tells me that there are free pancakes and real maple syrup waiting at the farm for anyone who wants to quit. And quitters get to take the shorter, easier way down the mountain. Upon hearing that I was continuing on, he recited a few things that I needed to remember (and which I wrote down):
Name: Anthony Kessler
Has 6 brothers and sisters.
Parents are Angela and John.
Born in Pennsylvania.
Was attacked by a bear.
And has chewed through a tree.
Got it. The only other thing he tells me is that I have to go down the way I came up. Anita and later have a little pow wow on whether or not to go down the waterfall. Anthony told me to “go down the way I came up” which sounds much easier than going down a waterfall! But, my little voice prevails, telling me that if everyone else came up that way, the least I could do it take it on going back down.
We get back to the Gaza Strip and I have to wear Laurel’s long-sleeved shirt through the barb wire this time (sorry, L!); the mosquitos are swarming like crazy and though I have bug spray in my pack, they still come for blood seeing as how I’m a slow-moving, easy target. Anita refuses to use my big spray and later will have a million angry red welts all over. Down I go, in the mud, in the water, over the rocks, dragging my pack behind me as I clear each wire. It’s tiring, but rewarding and as I’m coming out, we run into some other guys on their way up and Ray is with them! Anita chats with him a little and he tells her that after seeing us, he regrouped at his pack and decided to keep going! This makes me so happy and I’ll smile every time I see Ray from here on out, all the way to the finish.
Those guys tell us how to get to the waterfall and we follow the flags down what seems to be the entire mountain and then back up what seems to be the entire mountain. The little burst of energy I got from seeing daylight is long gone, I’m moving like a snail and Anita can’t get me to eat. My jaw is tired, the food she has sounds completely unappetizing and the thought of chewing wears me out. I take 2 or 3 5-Hour Energies and they do nothing for me. I don’t get even a hint of the promised energy. Maybe I’m so far past the point of caffeine being able to help, but in any case, I can’t get ahead of my utter tiredness. I’m talking to Anita about Everest (I spent the previous month reading and watching everything I could about Everest to fuel my obsession) and I can’t tell if she’s being polite or is genuinely interested, but I feel if I stop rambling, I may also stop moving. I also tell her that coming up the mountain, I knew that I COULD do this race, but that it was going to be a matter of wanting to do it that would tempt me to stop and now I’m questioning whether or not I physically CAN do this. I don’t know that my body will keep going. Anita saves the race for me at this moment. She tells me that, yes, I can do this race. I can finish. And that we’re going to get back to base camp, get some dry clothes, get some hot food and see what the next task is. From this point on, I don’t doubt myself, I keep plugging on no matter how bad I feel or how impossible it seems. I never let it enter my mind again that I can’t finish.
We run into a couple more people heading up and one of them is Rebecca. She tells me that she was worried when she couldn’t find me but is glad that I’m okay. I’m sure that I look a mess, but she looks great! This is a true testament to endurance athletes owning the Death Race. They tell me that they just came from the waterfall and it’s not too much farther. When we finally get to the waterfall, my jaw drops. It’s not a stream that people were calling a waterfall, it is a gushing, steep-stepped, menace of a torture-chamber. Had Andy and Joe looked at this thing? If they had, were they thinking that the mere sight of it would cause people to drop out – the entire goal of the race design? I can’t fathom how people climbed up this, especially in the dark. And I can’t fathom how we are going to get down it in my deteriorating state.
Much deliberating later, we decide that to stick to the bank. The guys said that Joe told them to stick close to the water and if that’s what they did then I don’t feel bad doing the same. Unfortunately, we quickly discover that the bank is not much better that the water itself. It’s muddy (what’s new?), falls right off into the water, and most steps are spongy causing me to lose balance under the weight of my pack and fall. I’m falling a lot. I’m crawling on my hands and knees to prevent falling a lot. I’m getting physically tired as well as nearly falling asleep on my feet. And I seem to be worrying Anita because she stops, looks dead at me and says, “I need you to dig deep.”
We spend a lot of time along the water and some time in it before it gets too dangerous to keep going. The falls drop make a dramatic drop, we can’t get to the water and the ground ends. We have to veer way off course and can’t get back. Eventually we run into a trail. This is new territory and we wander round and round. We are definitely lost. All we can do is head down. Anita seems worried about me because I’m moving in inches but I tell her that I’m okay, even if it takes us another 8 hours, I know we’ll get off the mountain and we’ll be okay. Yes, I’m tired in all different ways but one thing that prevents my pace from picking up is that I’ve got some wicked bad chaffing going on. When my pants got wet in the barb wire they became heavy and baggy and had been rubbing my thighs raw. An epiphany hits Anita, and she tells me not to think she’s crazy but that I should wear her jean skirt. I do think she’s crazy, but when I get the skirt on, I feel a million times better and we start moving faster.
Everything before me is in a haze but the lack of concentration is also a gift because I’m no longer thinking about how much longer I have to race or how much my shoulders, back and knees hurt. It’s kind of like being in a dream, or an out of body experience. There have also been points on this mountain when I knew that I was in pain, but couldn’t necessarily feel it or it just didn’t bother me.
When we get down the mountain, finally, it has been 10 hours. Coming into Amee farm, I declare to some people that I’ve had a wardrobe malfunction when they look at my skirt in disbelief. The energy at Amee is infectious, or Red Bull is a miracle drink, but in no particular order, I get changed, check in, eat some real food and find out what the new day holds for me.