A black, military-style backpack weighed down by 30 pounds of bricks rests rather comfortably on the broad shoulders of Wall Street private banker Greg Jones as he warms up for an intense Sunday workout.
This will be the first stage of a nearly three hour session as the towering 29-year-old prepares for the ominous-sounding and grueling Death Race on Saturday, June 21 in Pittsfield, Vermont.
The bricks will ride on Jones’s back for about a quarter mile on a brisk jog through New York’s Central Park, and will be placed to the side for the next stage of the grueling workout.
A series of military crawls up a steep embankment are followed up with deep, soil-touching lunges up the same hill, with 25 rep sets of “burpees,” a hybrid of the jumping-jack and push-up, in between.
Much of this may sound like a lighter form of training U.S. Marines undergo at Parris Island, and may scare off some dedicated cross trainers, but each rep and exercise is like a domino set up along an elaborate track that must be knocked down if Jones hopes to complete his first venture with the harrowing Death Race.
Based off research from previous race incarnations, Jones is applying a concoction of different training regiments for an obstacle race known for its unpredictable and sadistic nature. Part survival skills, part marathon, and part torture chamber, last year Death Racers had to roll along the ground in a huge field before taking a whiff of rotting animal intestines, according to Jones.
The official race website, the alarming youmaydie.com, lists the start time of the race as 5 a.m., but according to Jones the actual time is unknown. It could also last upwards of three or four days in the middle of a Vermont forest and Jones will have only his training and supplies to rely.
Jones doesn’t know if any of his training will even apply, much less help him complete the race, but he loves the inherently mysterious nature of the Death Race.
“I try to do a mix of functional training and distance training,” Jones said. “One of the biggest things I need to work on is distance and staying on my feet. The hardest part for me, I can go out and run 10, 15, 20 miles, but it’s not necessarily running 15 or 20 miles. The race is 60 hours. You’re doing other things in that time that require you to stay on your feet.”
Jones will bring an ice-climbing backpack, a six-and-half-pound axe, six changes of clothes and socks, and as many energy bars and electrolyte-infused drinks as he can carry. He also has patella tendonitis that his first-aid kit won’t be able to help, so in the two weeks leading up to the race Jones will focus on more light-impact drills.
An athlete in mostly team sports, Jones has taken on the personal challenge due to his natural competitive nature, and to prove to himself he can complete the race. Although he’s already in tremendous shape, Jones says he’s noticed a slight decline in his athletic prowess since his crew days and wants to prove to himself he can tackle a race that has forced Marines and even the toughest ultra-marathoners and triathletes to tap out.
Under the umbrella of leading obstacle race circuit Spartan Race, Death Race requires physical and mental endurance, and according to one of its founders, its purpose is to push each racer to their limits, and force them to dig out of a deep hell that not even Dante could have imagined.
“Testing their will,” Spartan Race co-founder Joe DeSena said, via email. “This is all about ‘Who am I as an individual, and how do I act when my world is upside down.’”
As an example of just how far DeSena and race officials thought of going, they conjured up the idea of throwing participants out of a plane to a drop zone 100 miles out from the starting line. That idea was abandoned after talks with Vermont state officials, said DeSena.
Obstacle racing has carved out a niche across the nation, in various lengths and degrees of difficulty, and it seems to attract lots of white collar workers.
Like many of his Wall Street brethren, Jones has participated in a number of obstacle races like Tough Mudder, the military-inspired GoRuck, and shorter Spartan Races over the past three years.
“This was back when Tough Mudder wasn’t as big,” Jones said, as he describes his first encounter with obstacle racing. “We didn’t know what to expect.
“We just heard that there was fire and barbed wire, and freezing waters, and just be ready for a crazy fun race. We just got a group of guys together, and went out and did it and loved it. And then from there we were hooked. We were in the cult.”
From there Jones competed in two more Tough Mudders, two “Men’s Health” magazine Urbanathlons, three GoRuck Challenges, a 5K Rugged Maniac, and an eight-mile long Spartan Race.
A December story from the New York Times pinpointed the exponential growth of Tough Mudder, Spartan Race’s biggest competitor, to countless Wall Street titans looking to get dirt under their fingernails. Since its start in 2010, Tough Mudder went from three events to 35 last year. The number of racers has also jumped to more than 460,000, many of them from the financial world.
“Sitting in front of a computer for a Type A personality is a train wreck,” Desena said. “So we all want to get out and do what we were meant to.”
But Jones is not a soft-handed, white collar money pusher itching for callus on his hands. Much of his competitive edge comes from a desire to push himself beyond his limits, and challenge himself before he hits 30. All explainable reasons, according to Linda Keeler, an assistant professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at Western Washington University.
Keeler points to the ideas of self-determination and a sense of community for why obstacle racing has taken off, and why racers like Jones keep upping the stakes with electrified fences, ice baths, and barb wire.
“You’re seeing people, especially with social networking, they get to post pictures of themselves going through the electrical field, and they become part of the crowd,” she said. “The harder they get, the more elite that club is, that they get to be a part of, and that would drive someone and be a part of their goals.”
There is no more elite club than those who have managed to finish the Death Race.
Jones is preparing for any possibility, and considering the success rate it’s easy to understand his cautiousness. According to Spartan Race, 1,400 people have attempted the race over the years, including 300 last year. Roughly 15 percent of the field completes the race.
Back in the park, Jones is now working on feet strengthening exercises. He’s jumping rope at a lightning pace, with sets of burpees in between again. Jones heard as many as 3,000 burpees had to be completed throughout the Death Race one year.
Another mile and a half jog, and it’s on to throwing 20-pound rocks across a mulch patch roughly half the length of a football field. The same with a long tree branch thrown over head.
Held on the 40-acre Amee Farm, the whole race is designed to break or force every participant into a quivering submissive puddle through oft-times anguishing physical and mental obstacles.
Participants were asked to bring a bike one year, only to learn its only purpose was to carry it over head through a mile-long creek. Another time they had memorize a list of the first ten U.S. Presidents at the bottom of a hill, run up, and recite the list perfectly, or run the risk of heading back down.
Previously racers were asked to push a wheel barrel for miles, chop fire wood, complete a Rubix Cube, or fetch a sandwich bag stuffed with coins out of a lake before moving on to the next challenge. Sleep is only allowed at designated times.
Desena spoke to “60 Minutes Sports” in a story that ran in March, and touched on the complete psychological tear down that he intended his races to be.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we had an event that just screwed with people,” Desena said. “That just got them down to their basics, and brought out that animal in them, and then we got to watch who survived and who quit.”
The exercise of reducing people to their baser instincts is what makes Death Race more unique from the typical Tough Mudders.
According to Chief Culture Officer Alex Patterson, at its core Tough Mudder aims to challenge racers, but also unite them together rather than break them.
“Tough Mudder is a live, in-person event where you’re getting muddy like fifth graders again,” Patterson said. “Rather than being Alpha male, it’s about everyone finishing these events.”
However Jones’s goal doesn’t involve team building. His is personal conquest.
After throwing stones like an ancient Scotsman, Jones runs another half-mile and then tries to find a log. He finds one roughly 15 feet long, and at least 90 pounds, and carries it through narrow paths in the park.
The log discarded, and another brisk run and the workouts are over. But this was just one of Jones’s sessions that he hopes to translate into success next week.
“I think I can complete, and I think it’s going to be my hardest race, definitely to date,” Jones said. “But I think that’s part of it. If you say you can’t complete it from the get go, or say that you just want to go out there and give it your best shot, you shouldn’t set yourself up for failure, or you probably shouldn’t sign up for the race.”