Jesse Stanley of Easthampton trains for days-long ‘Death Race’

Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

EASTHAMPTON — Jesse Stanley, 34, admits that his idea of fun is unlike most other people’s thoughts on the matter.

The Federal Street resident, who works as an occupational health technician for the Army National Guard in Windsor Locks, Conn., competed in his first obstacle race in 2011 at Mount Snow in Vermont. The 10-mile Tough Mudder event involved, among other things, running up a long, steep slope that he had skied down years before. While that would feel like torture to some, Stanley loved it. He was hooked.

“Most people think I’m crazy,” he said. “They say, ‘Why would you ever pay money to do that?’”

This year, he will compete in more than 20 similar events, including a few 24-hour events around the Northeast. But he said none will be tougher, longer or more punishing than the Death Race.

Spartan Death Race, Stanley said, is renowned in the obstacle racing community as the most difficult of its kind. It starts June 27 in a wooded area of Pittsfield, Vt., can last up to three days, and involves both mental and physical challenges that are not revealed in advance. Usually only 10 percent of the field finishes.

Stanley said he first learned about the Death Race a few years ago through friends he met at races and through online blogs and groups. “It sounded really, really insane and I said, ‘I’ll never do that, that’s crazy,’ ” he recalled.

But when registration opened last summer, he paid his $300 and signed up.

Doug Drotman, a spokesman for the event, said a small group of obstacle racers headed by Joe De Sena and Andy Weinberg dreamed up the first Death Race in 2005 or 2006 (he said record keeping wasn’t their strong suit then) and it has been held every year since.

“They were sick of the old events they had been doing and wanted something better,” Drotman said. A few dozen people took part that first year, and it has grown to include about 300 competitors.

Drotman said the Northeast is always well represented, but competitors come from all over to take part. In 2013, 37 states and four other countries were represented, he said. Among the competitors, 31 were Massachusetts residents, he said.

Peter St. John, a former Northampton resident and alumnus for the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech and Northampton High School, competed but did not finish in 2011. The Cambridge resident told the Gazette at the time that 20 hours into the race, he could not complete a hike up a mountain lugging an 80-pound log.

Mental and physical

What makes the Spartan Death Race popular among obstacle racers is its reputation as the hardest challenge out there, Drotman said.

“People in this world are always looking for the next challenge,” he said. “The athletes we get have done it all and they’re looking for something different, and Death Race is different in that it has both mental and physical challenges.”

Competitors’ biggest mental challenge is not knowing what they will face on the course, because it is different every year and obstacles are a secret until the event. And once they start on one obstacle, whether it is a hike up a hill or digging up stumps, they do not know when it will end. “Not knowing is really brutal,” Drotman said.

Obstacles at previous races have included chopping wood, building fires from scratch, diving for cinder blocks, cutting bushels of onions and memorizing and recreating Lego buildings.

“You might have to do a low crawl under barbed wire for a half mile, then memorize a passage, and if you get one word wrong you have to do it all over again,” Stanley said. “You might have to go find a 30-pound rock and then carry it for 30 miles, then do a two-mile swim. And you never know what’s going to happen next.”

“As much as it will be physical — and it will be horribly physical — it’s also extremely mental,” he said. “At times, they will just tell you, ‘You can’t finish. You have to turn in your bib and stop,’ ” but it’s just a trick.

Despite all the horror stories he has heard about the event, Stanley said he is visualizing success and will not quit until he has crossed the finish line — even if he is delusional from sleep deprivation and bleeding through his third pair of shoes.

“I think people who enter these types of events have to want to suffer in some way,” he said. “After 40 hours you might be crying in the fetal position in the woods, then you get up and do it again.”

Gaining popularity

Obstacle races like the Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Rugged Maniac have become more numerous and more popular in the last few years. Spartan Race has been around since 2001, while most other obstacle races cropped up near the end of the decade.

Stanley said he thinks the races have become so popular because most of them — unlike the Death Race — are accessible to the masses. Someone who is an experienced athlete can compete aiming for a fast finish time, while a non-athletic person can feel accomplished just to get to the finish line.

“I like that you can dial in the challenge at those events,” he said. “And then, they’ve all achieved something.”

‘Personal challenge’

A Connecticut native, Stanley does not have children and is spending about 15 hours a week training for the Death Race in June. He expects to increase that time as the race gets closer, he said.

He has kept fit by hiking and running, but now he is working out daily at either Easthampton Crossfit or the gym at his workplace in Windsor Locks, he said.

When the weather warms up, he plans to do a lot of late-night hikes on Mount Tom with a weighted backpack.

“Mount Tom is going to be my playground,” he said. “I’m going to get home from work, give my girlfriend a kiss, get my bag and go for hikes out there until my legs fall off or a search party has to come find me.”

He said his girlfriend, Stephanie Sawyer, is his “drill sergeant,” keeping him from skipping workouts.

Sawyer said she thought Stanley was crazy for entering the race, but now she is confident he can finish. “I still think it’s a little crazy,” she added.

“He’s a really upbeat person, and part of the race is dealing with the mind games, so I think he has the focus to get through it,” said Sawyer, 26.

The theme for the race this year is exploration, so participants are encouraged to read up about Lewis and Clark and other famous explorers. Many participants are betting that they will have to use compasses and maps for at least one challenge, Stanley said, and he has done a lot of that in the military.

The longest competition he ever completed was 14 hours, he said, but he will be doing 24-hour-long races later this year. He said his secret to getting through tough obstacles at endurance races is to tell himself, “Eventually, it has to end.”

A few times during Death Race, competitors can meet up with supporters who will refuel them with food, water, fresh shoes and encouragement.

Stanley said he heard that some participants were lucky enough to grab a nap during the competition, but he has heard far more accounts of the delirium that sets in from sleep deprivation and exhaustion. “I’ve heard people compare the hallucinations they’ve had,” he said.

“There’s no prize money, there’s no reward other than, when you finish, you get a skull that says Death Race on it,” he said. “You do it for the personal challenge. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re doing it.”

Stanley blogs about his races and training for Death Race at

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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