Three short weeks after the freezing temperatures of Pittsfield, VT, I found myself on a flight into Mexico City. Another passport stamp, and a new way to figure out how to smuggle items from the gear list across the border without going to jail. Who knew you could get in more trouble for taking a carrot through Mexican customs than a knife and a brick? The rest of the list was a breeze, well if you could easily find a marble statue, shark’s tooth on a leather necklace, sand bags (not so easy to find in the south), a photo of “the Virgin”, a red shirt, backpack, hand shovel, $6 in one dollar bills, 2 carabiners, and a marble sculpture.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, I met up with Ben and Brandon to go for Pizza in Mexico City with our fellow death racers and DR staff, Tony, Heather, and Angeline. Nothing like another group of death racers to make you smile, these fantastic people that get your personality and think you are completely sane for the shenanigans you get yourself into. Yes, I ate the food, and yes it was delicious pizza. The cab rides were interesting and we asked a lot of questions in some seriously broken and terrible Spanish, but we were able to figure out the distance to the Angel of Independence, where we were meeting in the morning, and determine about how many Pesos we would all need. Just needed to figure out if we could all catch a van together to the statue, as many of us were staying in the same place…oh and to find carrots some where in the airport while waiting for Luke and Anna to arrive. I will never forget the word for carrot in Spanish “zanahoria”. Surprisingly, you can buy them at smoothie shops in the airport in Mexico City for a small cost.
We spent most of the night, until about 12-1 am packing and making sure we had the minimum we needed to carry. No crews for this race, and we were unsure if there would be water available to us. Packing complete, we all added about 6-8 liters of water to our packs, in addition to our water filters and purification tablets, bringing packs to about 40-50 pounds when all items (food, required items, many pairs of socks, medical and snakebite materials) were packed. So much for light packing. For this race I used my Osprey Kyte 46 liter pack. As I go through this recount of my amazing journey, you will have a new respect for all things Osprey, this little pack went through hell and back and came out the other side only slightly beat up, but fully functional. Clothing laid out – Columbia hiking pants, sports bra, Prosoks, Kerrits cooling/warming arm sleeves, under armour tank top, inov8 Roc Lite 286 GTX boots, and an inov8 buff – sleep.
Everyone does food differently in death race, some of us eat a small breakfast and plan things out, others…well we stuff our face with as many calories as we can and hope that we can stay on top of what we eat throughout the race. At times we find we cannot eat much during the night and toward the end. Early morning breakfast buffet in Mexico, absolutely delicious and filled with just the right carb/protein options and amazing coffee. Luke, Anna, Ben, Sarah, and I enjoyed the last meal while we all planned the trip over to the Angel and where to find Brandon, Pete and Jonathon. All of us deciding this may be the most exciting race we have ever done, it is completely unknown. You can speculate, but the truth is you have no idea where we are going, what we will be doing, and how it will all turn out with no crews or support. We are our only support, other death racers, and we take care of our own.
We all take a van to the Angel, arriving about an hour early, where we meet some of our fellow racers (and where Mark Webb lets me try the strongest Starbucks blend I have ever had – the real secret to completing DR). We happen to notice Andy is across the street at the statue already. I am the first of my group of people to head across the street, aka I was the frog in Frogger. We are asked to sign in and Andy puts us in order, so the fear begins, and yet the relief, knowing you were not the last to sign your name. As we wait for the busses to arrive, and we met the Mexican athletes, the Policia inform us that we cannot have the large crowd on the steps of the monument. I assume all the people and backpacks were making them nervous and we were told we would be arrested if we did not move off the steps and go across the street. We cross the street, load our packs into the bottom of the bus, take a few group pictures and get to know one another, and then load the bus. Andy informs us that we are taking a 2.5 hour bus ride to our venue. The bus ride made us all hot and sore, but it was really the most amazing experience. It gave us all time to get to know our fellow athletes from Mexico, names, stories, etc. We also got to see parts of Mexico City and also the rural outskirts, beautiful and sometimes entertaining. I will say the size of fast food restaurants are triple the size we have here, like complexes…HUGE.
After about 1.5 hours of bus riding time, Rodrigo (in charge of Mexico Spartan races for Joe), comes to our bus from the other and plays a video for us. This video shows bull fighting gone wrong, with men being impaled through various body parts. In addition, it shows not only all of the meanest, nastiest poisonous spiders, insects and snakes…it shows the effects of begin stung or bitten by one of these lovely residents of this area of Mexico. Not long after, our bus stops at a gas station because it is “lost”. Then we stop once more at this small building in a tiny town, where we see a truck drive up with lots of dead things in the bed. Our last stop on the bus journey ends at a gas station, where we see police and cattle trucks. Immediately, we know we are going in those for the duration of our trip. As we step off the bus, Andy hands us a dead, freeze dried cricket and tells us to eat it because we will be needing the protein. Of course I tell him how much I love those things…what?…I have had them before and they are rather tasty, kind of like a dried pumpkin seed. We chew these lovelies and then we are to fit 6-7 people and packs inside one of these small cattle truck holds. Our little slice of heaven has 2 males and 4 females (Luke, Anna, Sarah, Jill, me, and another Mexican athlete who did not speak English). We were told we would be in these trucks for the next two hours, it seemed more like 45 minutes to the venue. We all had our heads out of the vents at the top of the truck while we drove and tried to stretch our legs, eat and hydrate a bit before we got there. As we got closer, the truck kept slamming on breaks, sending us all over the place and slamming into one another (my boob took a beating on Jill’s elbow). The last thing I said before we stopped was that I bet they would hose us down, concentration camp style (not meant lightly at all) – just before the water came over the top of the truck.
When the trucks stopped, they opened our door, in line with a ramp into the bull corral, all the while spraying us with water. Everyone was placed in one large corral, while Joe, Pablo and Andy made the announcements about the race. What to do when we encountered the many snakes that hide in the rock walls we would be next too for the duration of the race, and last but not least…how to handle ourselves when they released us in the ring with the bulls to find our bib numbers and bibs. The first group went out, and the rest of us patiently waited. All of the sudden, the screaming began, and the look on Andy’s face was one of pure joy, shock, and complete comedy. He proceeded to give us a play by play commentary of the events taking place in the ring…Mino had just been tossed like a ragdoll, Alex is in a standoff with the bull and cannot move, Mark Webb got clipped, and Mike had wrestled the bull to the ground while his hands were zip tied together. One group before us, and after they go in, we find our hands being tied with string and then zip tied by Joe himself. We wait anxiously, I guess you could say we are all sick for being excited instead of scared. Andy then yells to Joe to untie our hands, because it is just too difficult for the racers to defend themselves and get their bibs, especially when they bring in a fresh bull. At this point, we have no idea what size bull we are talking about, but when we are released we realize they are juvenile bulls, however no less aggressive due to their size.
Peak photo: Anthony Matesi
We all shoot out in different directions once released into the bull ring. The bulls do not bother with color as many believe, but rather movement. I see from across the way that one of the red walls is the one they told us had our bib numbers. The bibs have been gathered by other racers, from the center of the ring to the safety walls. People are calling out numbers for those who entered the ring. Sarah ran over and was calling out my bib number and hers, this after she got clipped by a bull horn on the arm. I have never sprinted so fast before. We all have our packs on, which makes it impossible to get behind the safety walls, and I reach one with the bull behind me and push my arms and legs into safety. The bull’s horn snagged the mesh pocket in the front of my Osprey pack and left a nice little hole and then it trotted off after another death racer. We toss off our packs and continue to run looking for our bibs, all the while calling out the bib numbers we find so we can help others. Once you are done, you leave the ring until the rest have found their bibs.
Photo: Anthony Matesi
Immediately, we head out for a little hike. We grab out sandbags and fill them with rocks until Joe gives us the thumbs up, men and women weights differ. As soon as we get the go ahead, we start our trek through knee high creeks with loose and slippery rocks, carrying our packs and the sandbags full of rocks, which I rest easily on the top of my osprey pack so it sits just behind my head and gives me full mobility. In the water, out on to rocks and sand, back in the water. At one point we hit a set of rocks that require you to almost side step with back to the wall, there is a deeper section of water below us, and this is where we spot our first snake. Going to throw this out there, but when snake has bright blue colors on its back and a shiny silver head, I am will guess its poisonous. Those will snake fears are shaken, but those of us in the south with constant interactions with water snakes are crazy enough to not care. This only made worse by coming down from the rocks and right back into the water. Once we clear the water area, we rope climb up the side of hill, made of stone carrying our bag of rocks. Many of us work together to get our rocks up the rope so we can climb. As I am toward the top, my trek poles get caught on a tree and I have to detangle them before I can move my pack. When we reach our destination, some of us are directed up the hill to a quadrant of land and given a DULL machete, with which we are supposed to clear our plot of all vegetation but those marked sacred by yellow caution tape. After a few goes with the machete that could not even scratch my skin (yep, I tried), I decided to use brute force instead. I put on my Youngstown utility gloves, and they prevented the thorns from digging into my hands. I started tearing away at the dry and dead trees/brush, and with the living trees, I broke limbs and twisted them until they could be pulled off. I was able to clear my area remarkably fast with this method. At this point, Andy comes to see us, and tells us later we will have to worry about the mountain hikes ahead of us, the altitude was an issue even for the staff.
Photo: Anthony Matesi
Once we were given the okay to leave our quadrants of land, we were sent to fill 5 large sandbags (4 full, and 1 half for men – 4 half and 1 quarter full for women). The sandbag weights for women were roughly 80 (half) and 40 (quarter), double that for the men. We had until it got dark, as Joe yells that we will DNF otherwise, to fill the bags. We all search for loose soil, some of it wet, making the bags a bit heavier. I fill mine to what appears half, as I look at others who have filled their bags and were carrying them up the hill. Nope, re-open and fill to the line they came to mark. We are in such a hurry we barely even pay attention to the spiders, centipedes, and other creepy crawly things that are being shoveled into our bags. When checked, we have to carry one bag at a time to the top. When finished, we are given a bracelet, told to move our packs and our quarter (or half for guys) sandbags off to the side and help the others…if we all did not finish, none of us finished. I have just enough time for my only sock change (prosok) prior to meeting with Joe and Pablo about going up to see the “devil” on our first mountain hike.
Photos: Anthony Matesi
We are put into groups based on our bib number, and we all start the hike in that order, following Joe up the road to the trail point where Angeline and Heather are waiting to check us off as we go up. I pull out my trek poles, Leki corklites, and stupidly have trouble adjusting them, and with no time, I keep moving on. We start this steep hike to the top of what seems like an endless mountain with our packs on our backs and our sandbags, which I nestled on the top of my pack and behind my neck. First low tree branch we encounter, I smack my head really hard. Mark Webb stops to check that I am okay (thanks for that!), and we continue on. We find ourselves having to vertically climb to reach parts of the trail, and this is very slow going. My trek poles were in one hand and got caught, and I pulled a muscle in my shoulder at this point. A few people passed me, but you could hear others waiting at the bottom of the climb. There are points in which we check in with volunteers as we have to crawl under beams in what looks like a water runoff area. There is bull shit everywhere, and all I can think is “how the hell do these big animals get up here”. Each time you think you have made it to the top, you look up and see headlights ahead of you. Finally, after a brutal climb/hike, you have to climb over a stone wall, drop the sand out of your sandbag and climb over a set of boulders to find the trail for the descent.
The brush on the ascent was not nearly as bad as what we had going down. We had to follow markings that stayed along the stone wall, down this steep slope. Pete and Ben were with me on the way down, and we took turns leading ourselves down, as the brush would smack you in the eyes or face and disorient you when looking for the Spartan streamers marking the trail. My shoulders and face were taking a beating from thorn trees, so I was thankful for the sleeves I wore on my arm. At some point ben took a thorn to the eye, and I took one to the corner of my mouth (where it promptly stuck). As long as the trip up had been, the trip down seemed just as tedious. Trek poles were a tremendous help in maintaining my balance on the way down, but also to move the trees and branches out of the way. Once we reached the bottom, we take a water and food break, though very short. We get our bracelets, and Joe then tells us to climb in and out of this silo looking concrete structure with three holes from the bottom to the top. We then pick a rock (pink markings for females, orange for males). The female rocks weigh about 30 pounds, give or take. Everyone has to turn in their picture of the virgin. Ben told Joe that the mountain had been the hardest most of us had experienced, and made Vermont’s look like hills. Joe laughs and tells us we will LOVE the next one.
The hike up to the virgin, or to see the angel as we were told, was without the vertical climbs, but came with a more painful challenge. We had to hold the rocks in our arms the entire time, could not put them in our packs. As I discovered when we would hit difficult terrain, it did not sit on the top of my pack well either, and I dropped it on my arm a few times…so no more of that. In addition, the trees and brush that we were led through on the trail, were so low, that we had to bend over the entire time we walked through these sections. Thorn trees catching our packs made it a little more difficult and we found ourselves detangling each other. The loose rocks and dirt sections, both up and downhill, made this an exhausting hike. Jill, Ben, Rob, Crupi, and I made several rest stops along the way in order to get water and food, but to also take a break from the weight we were carrying. At some point, I had to dump water out of my pack in order to lighten the load of the 80 or so on my back. Unlike the Devil, this did not go straight up, instead there were sections were we went up, then over, then down a slope of loose soil that was impossible to walk on, therefore we all slid down the hill. Jonathon kept referring to it as the Mexican bobsled team training grounds. Trek poles were no use and we used our sand bags to toss rocks down before us. Another section had a crawl under in the fences, and yet another where the volunteers checked the color of our rocks to make sure we had the right ones as we crawled under the piping in the water runoff area. At the top, the hike became a climb up rocks, where there were volunteers with a fire pit. They told us to leave the rock and our sand bag and continue on the descent. Jill, Ben, and Rob ended up moving quickly down the hill. Crupi and I went carefully down the hill under the low lying brush and through the loose rocks until we reached the bottom, where we were directed back to the ranch.
Once at the ranch, we were placed either in the inner circle, or the outer circle along the wall of the bull fighting ring. Those on the outside had finished both the hike up the devil and the virgin. Those on the inside only completed he hike up the devil. While we waited for the rest of the people to return, Joe had us go around the ring ten times (for those on the outside) doing burpee jumps. We had also learned that 5 had officially DNF’ed, including Kenny when he tore his ACL. Volunteers then asked us to remove the required gear items from our packs. Andy took the carrots, and the rest we placed back in our packs for the last few tasks. We were told that we would be leaving at 7 am, and there were two tasks we must complete. A swim, and harvesting 100 boulders/stones. Everyone had until 12 noon to return to the bull ring. We all must return, or none would finish. At 7 am, everyone was told to leave the bull ring, but we could not use any doors, we must all climb over the walls. Everyone scrambled to help each other over the walls, and then set off. We walked/hiked through fields, climbed over stone walls, and then reached an area where Brandon, Jill, Sarah and I saw ground hornet nests. We thought we heard them buzzing and took a different path, it turned out to be the go pro remote control plane thing. The next area was a climb down into a gully where there was a lagoon like water area. You had to go 20 meters to the rock and back, either swimming or pulling a rope. The water was insanely cold – muscles immediately cramped, and at this point, I could not put my chest in (asthma) and was unsure if I had my inhaler in my pack with me. I punked out and was given a 40 burpee penalty on the rocks before I could leave (only because of a medical condition). That makes two death races with hysterical sobbing, I am woman enough to admit it. Jill and Sarah waited for me at the top, we agreed to finish this together and make sure we all got back on time.
Photos: Anthony Matesi
Our next task was to walk to the pasture that contained the stones we would dig out of the ground, supposedly for use in building the walls. Joe and Andy wanted us to see what it was like to work on a ranch, and how these men built huge and long sections of wall each day on their own. We were given a tool, and told to find 100 stones. If we carried extra large stones, Joe would count them as two stones. “Cowboy Juan” was in charge of making sure we had all the stones before we could continue on to the finish. We started gathering, helped each other, and were thankful that the volunteers from the ranch were able to help many of us unearth the stones around us. Joe and Andy told us that we had approximately 30 minutes left, after I had been there 10 minutes, to gather stones and then carry a medium size stone up the hill. If we took any longer than this, we would not be back to the ranch in time for the noon cutoff. We worked fast and picked up any we could find, grabbed our medium stone, and headed up the hill. At the top, Jill, Sarah, and I walked together to collect our “skull” (hand carved stone medallion), greeted Tony Matesi, took our pictures, and headed back. On our way out we saw Annabella finishing up her last bit of collection, and we told her she could do it and make it back!
Photos: Anthony Matesi
The road back to the ranch seemed longer, but we had good company and we spent time discussing whether we really were finished when we returned, or if there would be additional tasks. We had met nearly 24 hours ago in Mexico City to start this venture, and we were sure we would have more to do. We spent time carefully coming over the stone walls on our way back, and clutching our medallions carefully. We had to return with them intact, or we were out of the race. The three of us got to ranch with 40 minutes to spare on the time cutoff. Upon return, we were immediately told to put our packs down, return to the bull ring and chisel our numbers in our medallion as quickly as we could. That was it. We had just completed the first Traveling Death Race, Mexico. I had just finished two back to back death races, 21 days apart, and finished 3rd overall female. It still seems remarkably unreal. Volunteers and friends handed us cold beers, swag, offered hugs and congratulations. All of us waited to cheer the last of the athletes on as they entered the ranch. The women from the ranch made the most amazing food, and we all ate together and shared stories of the adventure we just shared, enjoying the new friends we had made in our fellow athletes from Mexico, knowing we were the first to accomplish this feat. It is a feeling that none of us can really explain to anyone outside of this group, not and do it justice. If you want to know what we experience, join us out there next year, because most of us will be going back. In fact, many of us have already registered to return in 2015. If you want to know, join us…www.youmaydie.com.
Photo: Omar Carrera