At just 5-foot-4 and 107 pounds, Michelle Roy, of Framingham, Mass., is small by most standards. But her size has proven to be strength for Roy in her sport: ultra mud-running.
Roy, 41, a middle school shop teacher in Holliston, Mass., says her size often leads other participants to underestimate her. Last March she finished second overall in the Winter Death Race, a sadistic cold-weather event held in Pittsfield, Vt., that includes a trail marathon navigated on snowshoes while carrying logs, a 60-second submersion in an icy creek, and other torturous tasks designed to make participants quit. Roy did not quit, and ended up beating just about everyone. "It was me and 17 guys out there," Roy said. "I'm small and fast, and a lot of these guys were huge. After a while, hauling all that bulk around, they get tired, but I can go forever."
In late June, Roy returned to Pittsfield for more punishment. She was one of just 30 women who signed up for the Spartan Death Race, an annual midsummer event at Amee Farm that has been challenging -- and torturing -- ultra athletes since 2005. The race started the evening of June 24, and took more than 45 hours to complete. Only four women finished; Roy was not among them. She slipped on a muddy incline and hit her head, 27 hours into the event. She was rushed to the hospital unconscious.
"I am sad that my race ended like that, but I said I would finish this race, and the only way I wouldn't is if they pulled me off the course," she said. "So a trip to the ER counts, I guess."
The Spartan Death Race prides itself on this exceptionally low completion rate, as directors Andy Weinberg and Joe DeSena have purposely devised it to be too difficult for most competitors to finish. Of the 155 athletes who started, only 35 completed the event. Grace Cuomo Durfee, 27, of Fair Haven, Vt. was the first woman to finish. She placed fourth overall among the 35 finishers.
DeSena and Weinberg started the Spartan Death Race to provide athletes with a unique racing experience, one that "not only pushes you physically, but also mentally and emotionally," Weinberg said. The Spartan Death Race is the crown jewel of the Spartan Races, which include a series of shorter mud and obstacle runs.
The hallmark of the Spartan Death Race, which requires athletes to run distances of up to 50 miles on hilly trails in rural Vermont, is the assortment of challenging, quirky, and sometimes absurd tasks required of its participants. The race's tasks center on a theme, and this year's theme was religion. The prerace meeting -- actually a sermon outlining the world's major religions -- was held in a church. The 14 tasks assigned were each intended to highlight some aspect of religion. The second challenge was an interpretation of the parable of the loaves and fishes: racers were required to slog three miles up a fast-moving, rocky stream and catch a fish which would feed the multitudes. Challenge 11 saw racers hiking five miles to the top of a mountain with a burden -- in this case a log, weighing 50 pounds for the men and 25 pounds for the women (the only concession to gender in the event). The last half-mile of that hike, a mud-soaked 40 percent uphill grade covered with barbed wire, was affectionately dubbed "The Gaza Strip."
Competitors had no idea what particular challenges they would face until the tasks were revealed during the race. "We reserve [the] right to make it as long as we want. We reserve the right to lie, to shorten or lengthen it, to change our minds. That's life," DeSena said.
Life may require adaptability, but it is the specter of death that hangs over this event. Weinberg says that the name "Death Race" was originally coined as a way to "draw the hard-core ultra-extreme endurance athletes."
"Some people take the race less seriously than they should," DeSena said. "You obviously don't want anyone to die. But with life, there is death, so it is what it is." To date, no one has died while participating, but Roy, like others, has experienced the reality of just how tough the event can become.
Despite the clear warnings that "you may die," the Death Race is fun for Roy, and for many of the former military personnel who make up the majority of participants. "I can't explain it to you," Roy said of the event's appeal. "I'm up there [training] on a Friday night and no one else is on the mountain. The mosquitoes are biting, and there are fleas in the bale of hay I just hauled up [the mountain]. I'm covered in bruises. Then you stop for a second and it smells gorgeous, the sun is coming down, and you're showing yourself that you are pushing yourself to a level that nothing can take you down from" -- an observation and vital lesson that Roy takes back to her students.
"I teach 600 new kids every year, and I want them to see that there isn't just one way to be powerful or beautiful. It's beautiful when you feel good about yourself, and that beauty comes from within," Roy said. She started running five years ago after a fellow teacher died of a fast-moving melanoma.
"I had a class full of kids who were devastated. In an effort to focus them on something else, I decided I would run a marathon, and have the kids sponsor a mile," she said. At the time, Roy didn't even own a pair of running shoes and hadn't trained properly. "It was horrific. It was the toughest thing I'd ever done, and it took me seven and a half hours." But the event changed Roy forever. She kept running, whittling down her finish time by three hours. Eventually she found the Death Race, which only gave her a new life in sports.
"When you finish it, you just feel reborn," Roy said. "I have a sprained wrist, a headache, cuts and bruises and a huge grin ear to ear. I'm already signed up for 2012."
For more on the Spartan Death Race, go to their aptly named website: youmaydie.com.