Surviving the Spartan Death Race: A Marathon of Masochism

Twenty-four hours into my first Death Race, in 2018, I was hacking away at poison ivy and tick-infested brush on a Vermont mountain vista. As the hours passed, I found myself repeating, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ with every tedious swipe.

Zack Zeigler clears brush during the 2018 Death Race
Erica Schultz


The Unlikely Zen of Extreme Landscaping

I had been warned the Death Race would test mind, body, and spirit. Still, I couldn’t figure out how gardening fit the description, especially after my fellow Death Racers and I had already spent hours crawling through rocky streams and climbing trails with (and without) shoes while we each carried 60-pound sandbags.

Nightfall Epiphanies and the Art of Faceplanting

The answer came after nightfall. Once we were done tidying up the thicket, a few hours after my water supply ran dry and my morale was gutted, I faceplanted midway through 3,000 burpees near the trail we spent the evening tidying up. I stumbled to a seat by a nearby firepit, attempting to regain my composure, only to start quivering uncontrollably—akin to a jackhammer’s vibration. The medical staff noticed my agony and informed me that my first Spartan Death Race was finished.

Spartan DeathRace 2019 Tag
Erica Schultz

Chasing the DNF Dragon: A Tale of Tenacity

Since that first DNF (did not finish) in 2018, I’ve returned to summer Death Race twice more, compiling an ambitiously unimpressive 0-3 record. So why would I repeatedly subject myself to such self-inflicted suffering? Each time I’ve worn the Death Race bib, I’ve come to appreciate every agonizing moment and each lesson I’ve been fortunate to extract.

Zack Zeigler and partner are blind-folded in the 2019 Death Race
Erica Schultz

Method to the Madness: More Than Just Suffering

Underneath the orchestrated chaos of the event lies a method to the madness. Beyond its goofy and mindless aspects, the Death Race is engineered to give athletes an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of themselves—especially how to get comfortable while being extremely uncomfortable.

I understand that some might find such self-discovery in a weeklong, wheatgrass-fueled wellness retreat or from self-help gurus on TikTok. I can’t.

The Diabolical Dance of the Spartan Death Race

For me, that’s the magic of the Spartan Death Race. It’s a diabolical, almost-anything-goes challenge created in 2007 by its founder and Spartan CEO, Joe De Sena. The race format changes each year—the only constant being its location on De Sena’s Vermont farm and the vast Green Mountains surrounding it.

Pittsfield, Vermont
Courtesy of Spartan

Adding to the mayhem is the Krypteia (aka Death Race staff), who are there to maintain order and plant seeds of self-doubt and browbeat. As the hours grind on, the psychological warfare ramps up as the Krypteia begin targeting weaknesses aimed at breaking athletes into submission.

Don Devaney: The OG of Verbal Ass-Kickings

Perhaps most gifted in this role is longtime “Death Race enforcer” Don Devaney – Santa-bearded, barrel-chested, with a drill sergeant’s bellowing voice. Don excels in creatively berating the racers, making even the biggest and toughest competitors feel insignificant.

Death Race enforcer Don Devaney
Courtesy of Spartan

Three Strikes and I’m Still Swinging

So, how did I end up with a three-race winless streak? In 2019—my second attempt after my DNF debut—nutrition and hydration flubs caught up to me at around Hour 33, abruptly snuffing out my race. (Or so I’m told: I regained full cognition at the medical tent.)

Training Tribulations and the Five-Week Countdown

As for 2023, I hadn’t planned on competing this summer. A family trip was already on the books. But an email from De Sena inquiring if I was attending was enough to pull me back in.

Spartan CEO, Joe De Sena
Courtesy of Spartan

The Mental Gymnastics of Pre-Race Prep

I increased my training volume and intensity, incorporating more bodyweight and functional movements from past Death Races into my sessions. I used my Plunge cold tub daily, mainly as a mental tool to help control breathing and adapt to physical discomfort.

Unpacking Prep Work: A Sunny Disposition vs. Reality

During Death Race, the mental aspect is everything. While you can get eliminated for missing a cutoff, medical reasons, or failing a challenge, most who fail to finish lose their sense of purpose. As De Sena once told me, “After 24 hours, it becomes mental.”

Summer Death Race 2023
Courtesy of Spartan

In my first two races, I’ve wondered if I could’ve rebounded by staying mentally sharp. This time, I refused to fall into any mental trap. However, I still wasn’t immune from being ensnared by negativity at times. And my lackluster packing prep also didn’t help me keep a sunny disposition.

Finding Ways to Embrace Discomfort

I tried forcing smiles and box breathing—inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds. Usually, those were enough to shake off any Death Race irritation. However, there were moments when the discomfort became inescapable, like roughly 10 hours into Night 1.

The group struggled to navigate a 10-foot, 400-pound wooden wheel a few miles up a narrow mountain path—and then back down. My sopping wet clothes left me chilled to the core on that breezy mountain, as temperatures dipped into the 50s. Desperate to find warmth, I even wore another racer’s spare undies to ditch my waterlogged pair. I never asked if they were clean—I don’t even think I cared at that moment.

2023 Death Race Night 1
Courtesy of Spartan

From Sunbeam Highs to Krypteia-Induced Lows

That seven-hour cold snap drained me, both in spirit and body. When dawn broke and I was still standing, the feeling of the sun on my skin was enough to yank me out of my funk and revive my confidence. I couldn’t possibly feel worse than that, right? Wrong.

The Don Takes the Stage

Later that afternoon on Day 2, Don took charge, quickly upping the ante. After a sun-roasted morning spent four-leaf clover hunting, eating family-size cans of beans, and forward rolling hundreds of yards (dodging several vomit piles) to memorize tongue twisters, I was one of fewer than 20 left of the starting 42.

2023 Spartan Death Race
Courtesy of Spartan

When the Cold Plunge Doesn’t Cut It

We were ordered into the Tweed River to compete in head-to-head burpee competitions, create a giant human dam, and perform countless group head dunks in complete synchronization. I thought my cold plunge training would help me adapt to the cold river water—again, I was wrong.

Tweed River 2023 Spartan Death Race
Patricia Canas

The Fire Starting Challenge: Where Scouts and Campers Excel

In that state of mind, I swear I could have stayed in the water until I turned to ice. When we finally exited the water and I thawed out, my confidence again shifted into high gear. What could possibly stop me now? Turns out, a combo of awful packing technique and rudimentary outdoor skills would be my downfall this time.

Fire Making 2023 Death Race
Courtesy of Spartan

Round 4: 2o24 Is My Years … or Not (But Hopefully!)

Just four finished and earned the coveted (and admittedly cheap) Death Race skull—a token that signifies membership in an exclusive club of ultra-endurance whackos. My reward is more intangible. Yes, there’s always the hangover of disappointment at falling short again. But the lessons I’ve learned—seeking reasons to smile when things feel bleak, finding solace amidst discomfort, and pushing past perceived limits even when every fiber of my being screams to stop—will stick with me and drive my preparations for 2024.

Zack Zeigler 2023 Death Race
Courtesy of Spartan

Redemption awaits…

For more information on the Spartan Death Race and how to enter Click here!