They swam through a freezing cold pond, braved a raging river, and hauled tree stumps up a mountain, but Daren de Heras and Yesel Arvizu were finally done in by a bible verse.
In the Death Race, a , contestants are asked to complete tasks that test both mind and body. One minute a racer has to split giant wood stumps into little pieces, the next they have to memorize a passage from Corinthians before descending a mountain.
When the time came, De Heras memorized the bible verse--Corinthians 16:13--and recited it perfectly: "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong."
Arvizu forgot one word. "The."
When Arvizu missed the word, she had just finished an hours-long trek up and down the mountain while carrying a log that was nearly half her weight (she weighs 106 pounds). But that was no matter to race organizers, who immediately told her to start the journey all over again to make up for her mistake.
By then, about 19 hours in, she'd had enough. And de Heras had too.
"It just took you to a different place spiritually, emotionally, physically, and we just got broke," he said.
Neither local racer , but they're hardly alone: organizers make it their sole mission to make contestants fail, and only 15 percent of people ever cross the "finish line" every year.
"The whole race they're telling you to quit--'Drop out now and we'll give you some hot coffee and oatmeal," de Heras said.
The starting line
De Heras, a former wrestling coach at , and Arvizu, a special education teacher at , flew into Vermont in late June and drove to a farm where the Death Race kicks off every year.
Since the race is two days long, de Heras brought his cousin and a wrestling colleage to help out. A crew can help with certain tasks during the event and, more importantly, feed the racers. The preferred method of dining for de Heras and Arvizu was to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches shoved in their mouths as they ran.
The race began when racers were ordered to set up their own course. They hauled around bales of hay, rocks and wood stumps. They cut and connected PVC piping. And then they sat down for one-on-one interviews with the race organizers.
"You go into this creepy little area in the farm with this one-way mirror with this guy basically mocking you," de Heras said. "Later we realized that he wasn't playing around with us."
Racers were split into groups, and the powerlifting began. Wearing 45-pound backpacks full of supplies, contestants were told to deadlift rocks for hours. The sizes varied, but by the time they were finished, organizers estimated each successful racer lifted about 16 tons in aggregate. Already, some of the 170 contestants began to give up.
"A lot of people had puked and dropped out at this point," de Heras said.
Water, lots of water
Next, racers marched through the woods to a roaring river with depths between ankle and head high. De Heras and Arvizu had to cross it any way they saw fit, and they chose to brace each other and do it together. At several points each lost their foothing and at least once each thought they'd get swept away.
"If I didn't have someone behind me, that would have been it," Arvizu said.
The racers were then asked to catch a fish in the river. Since neither had a fishing rod, Arvizu pulled out a Zip-Lock bag from her pack and decided to scoop up fish.
"To my amazement, she caught two little minnows," de Heras said.
By the time the two had caught the fish, organizers had sent a search party to look for them. Most contestants skipped the challenge, an example of the whimsical nature of the Death Race. When Arvizu and de Heras showed organizers that they'd actually caught two fish, the men just laughed.
Many of the rules of the Death Race are made up as it goes along, and there is no real finish line. The racers who "finished" were able to keep going until organizers declared the race over, a fact de Heras and Arvizu said they learned only after they quit.
Once de Heras and Arvizu caught up with their fellow competitors, they had to pull themselves across a freezing pond by a rope strewn across it. One woman had to be transported to the hospital after falling ill with hypothermia while trying to complete the challenge, Arvizu said.
While Arvizu and de Heras managed to make it across relatively unscathed, their packs didn't. The 45-pound bags became drenched and frozen, adding even more deadweight to their backs, which were already in pain.
The racers then made their way to a farm, where they were handed a candle and told to walk "the distance of a football field" without letting the flame die.
"If the candle went out you had to do it all over again," de Heras said. "I didn't know if we were going to be able to continue because of the cold."
Intermittent rains didn't help, but the racers trudged on and made it to the next challenge where they had to split "huge logs" into seven smaller pieces and then neatly stack the wood. Their reward was a tree stump of their very own, which they then had to carry up a mountain.
Demise in the Death Race
It took hours for each racer to get the stump up the mountain. Arvizu's stump was about 45 pounds, de Heras' maybe twice that, and they didn't have strapping mechanisms to fasten the wood to their backs. So they went very slowly.
"We would pick it up, carry it about 20 footsteps and rest, and repeat the cycle," de Heras said. "That's when my back had really started bothering me."
Muscles locked up, the cold made their whole body ache, and the race was really beginning to weigh on them mentally.
"A lot of this is like a blur," Arvizu said, recalling the end of her run. "You're so tired you're just like robotic. You're not even thinking."
Arvizu got poison oak around her neck from lifting the tainted log to her shoulders, but they made it up the mountain, wrote down two copies of the Corinthians passage that was posted there, and then made their way down. That's when Arvizu slipped up.
Told to recite the verse, de Heras read his perfectly and was allowed to proceed. But Arvizu's copy--written in pencil because the wet paper wouldn't take ink--had smudged against her clothes. She missed the word "the," and she was told to hike up the mountain with her stump all over again.
"I was so upset because I missed it by just one word," Arvizu said. "I just got so angry with myself, I was in tears. At this point I quit. I let it get to me mentally and it shouldn't have."
De Heras quit along with Arvizu after the verse slip-up, but each said they regretted giving up. Had they known that there was literally no finish line, each thought they could have endured the race for the entire 48 hours.
"If we had just hung in there for another 24 hours...," she said, drifting off.
Both Arvizu and de Heras intend to race again next year, and they're confident they'll be more prepared. They said they'll be ready for the extreme cold, will bring along more useful gear, and will mentally prepare themselves for the psychological aspects of the event that they attribute their failure to.
"If anything, it's just a mental thing," Arvizu said.
After their race was over, the two partners went for a 4-hour run in the rain to let out their frustration, ascending the same mountain that led to their downfall.
"We just kind of got up there and screamed at the race, screamed at everything and then vowed that we're going to finish this thing no matter what," de Heras said.
Next year, Arvizu and de Heras will bring Tom McFadden, a teacher at who has also qualified to join in the fun. Despite the result, de Heras said he has "fallen in love with the race."
"We have to go back and try and finish," he said. "It's just something that we have to do."