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The Boston Globe

Sports

On Second Thought

Vermont’s ‘Death Race’ a test of mental, physical strength

Like snowflakes, everyone’s bucket list is of a different shape and size. Bucket lists are a late kick at living, framed by the fact that death is around the corner, be it a protracted final chapter played out along a meandering curve or perhaps shortened by a rude, abrupt smack.

The Death Race, which begins a week from Friday in Pittsfield, Vt., won’t make it on my bucket list. First off, I never had the kind of physical or mental stamina it takes to compete in it. Beyond that, the Death Race begins with the finish line unstated, competitors starting their journey with no endpoint in sight.

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So, yes, it’s like a bucket list, like life, only it’s full of crawling through mud, foraging for food, creeping under barbed wire, chopping a few tons of wood, staying up around the clock, or maybe slithering through a pipe.

I’m good here, thanks. Scratch the Death Race off my bucket list before it even gets close to it. While you’re at it, stick an extra tiny umbrella and a big chunk of pineapple in my piña colada.

“I’ll give you an example,’’ said Andy “The Undertaker’’ Weinberg, one of the Death Race’s founders when it began with a humble field of 14 in 2005. “One year, competitors had to bring a pile of cinder blocks to the top of a mountain. We gave them their choice: carry the blocks by hand or take them up in a wheelbarrow. Once they made their choice, they couldn’t change. Most of them picked the wheelbarrow.’’

Bad choice. According to Weinberg, a professor at Castleton State College, competitors soon learned that the wheelbarrows were unassembled, still sealed in their Home Depot boxes. Absent tools, competitors were forced to load the blocks into their oversized “handbarrow’’ to cart them to the top of the mountain - a hard job made even harder, and ever more frustrating.

“Our goal is to break people,’’ said Weinberg, brimming with the spit-polished pride of a Marine drill sergeant eyeing first-day recruits. “Emotionally, mentally, physically, that’s the goal. But we tell them that from the start.’’

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Yet, they keep coming. This year’s Death Race is oversubscribed, with a record field of more than 300 entrants, approximately a quarter of them female. Next year’s race is already filling up. If you’re nuts enough to be interested in signing up for 2013, go to: youmaydie.com. Of course.

“There’s an extensive waiver,’’ said the 42-year-old Weinberg. “You have to read it, then click on ‘I May Die’ to accept it. That’s what it takes . . . along with a credit card for the $300 registration fee.’’

Michelle Roy, a 42-year-old middle school science and math teacher in Holliston, is a repeat Death Racer. A 1988 graduate of Chelmsford High, she will be in Pittsfield for the start next Friday and is fairly confident the race wraps up the following Monday, after more than 48 hours of competition.

But again, no one is sure how long they are supposed to compete, or how many events they must complete. It makes it tough to cheat death when you don’t know what it has in mind. All anyone knows is that Father Time is out there, lurking, in camo.

Last summer, Roy was 27 hours into the competition when she was forced to call it quits.

“I fell, smashed my head on a rock, and my ax hit me on the back of my head,’’ recalled Roy. “I got up OK, but I passed out at the next checkpoint. I was done. When I woke up, I had all these people around me, trying to put an IV into my arm. It was really a bummer.’’

Typically, 80 percent of the field doesn’t make it to the end, the competitors thinned out by fractured bones, lacerations, exhaustion, broken spirit, the sudden onset of rigor mortis that comes when staring death in the face.

Roy is petite, only 5 feet 4 inches and 106 pounds, and she has learned that size and physical strength typically matter less in this race than mental toughness.

“I’ve seen huge, big dudes quit before me,’’ she said. “I’ve seen these guys in their 20s, with their Greek Adonis bodies, quit before me.

“When you’re in the middle of a lake, freezing your tushy off, it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are - it’s all about mental toughness and heart. And when you’re at it for, say, 20 or 25 or 30 hours, and you have to quit, that sticks with you. It gets under your skin - it’s what brings you back.’’

Joe DeSena, a former Wall Street guy from New York City, founded the race in 2005 with Weinberg and three fellow sadists, initially posturing it as an alternative event to a 50-mile race held the same day in Pittsfield.

“So people had the option to sign up for the 50-miler, or what we advertised as this 10-mile death race,’’ said Weinberg. “But we didn’t tell them they’d be chopping wood, crawling under barbed wire, or that it would be at least nine hours before they could cover the 10 miles. That ticked a few people off because they had no idea what they signed up for.

“You have to buy into the mind-set, and every year there’s a percentage of people that just can’t do that. Some of them get mad.’’

The Death Race his anchor event, DeSena has gone on to build a Spartan race brand that conducts similar but smaller events around the country. On Nov. 17, one of the Spartan races will be staged at Fenway Park, a place accustomed to quirky mind-sets, loads of frustration, races gone awry.

For all the demands of the Death Race, Weinberg is happy to report (so he says) that Father Time has never gone home a winner.

“We push people, or they push themselves, sometimes to the point where they are delirious,’’ he said. “They’ll begin to speak in different languages, drool on themselves. That’s what this race does to people.

“But on the same hand, hey, even though we are the Death Race, the last thing we want to do is lose somebody.’’

Maybe not my bucket of fun, but everyone’s list is different. Like, say, long-drive competition, top deck, cruise boat, Mediterranean. Just keep the deadly 2-iron away from me.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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