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Spartan Death Race: Masochistic marathon for a ‘soft society’

Extreme competition is part ‘Survivor,’ part Navy SEALs, part ‘Jackass’

Mugshot

Mike Canino of Tyson’s Corner, Va., straps a log he has named “Larry” to his backpack and hikes up and down steep terrains while training at the Scott’s Run Nature Preserve for the Spartan Death Race, a tortuous combination of forced hikes, obstacle courses, sleep deprivation, and mental strain that is held annually in Vermont, McLean, Va., Sunday, June 10, 2012. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)

Mike Canino’s girlfriend thinks he’s crazy. Unprintable bad-word bonkers, to be precise.

Not because he’s about to participate in a multiday wilderness race that typically includes fire, barbed wire and ambulances.

Not because he encouraged organizers to add a live insect pit, you know, for fun.

Not because he has spent the last six months training for the event by running around the suburban Washington woods wielding a hand ax and carrying a 20-pound tree stump across his shoulders.

Not even because he gave the tree stump a first name, Larry.

Mike Canino of Tyson's Corner, Va., cuts down and clears a fallen tree while training at the Scott's Run Nature Preserve for the Spartan Death Race, a tortuous combination of forced hikes, obstacle courses, sleep deprivation, and mental strain that is held annually in Vermont, McLean, Va., Sunday, June 10, 2012. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)

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Mike Canino of Tyson’s Corner, Va., cuts down and clears a fallen ... more >

No, Lisa Cunningham thinks her significant other is nuts for one very good reason.

Larry has his own Facebook page.

“It’s bad enough that the log has a name,” said Ms. Cunningham, a biologist at the National Institutes of Health. “I tease Mike about being bat-[expletive] crazy. He says there are shades of that. I think he’s a little crazier than most.”

For Mr. Canino, crazy is a relative term. A 45-year-old informational-technology manager from Falls Church he is scheduled to compete in this weekend’s Spartan Death Race, an annual extreme — read: utterly masochistic — endurance contest held in Pittsfield, Vt.

Founded by a pair of triathletes who found their run-bike-swim-repeat pastime to be both too easy and, well, too boring, the Death Race is the premier event in a series of outdoor obstacle-course competitions that combine elements of “Survivor,” Navy SEAL “Hell Week” and “Jackass” and have become increasingly popular in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom over the past decade.

The primary ingredients? Pain. Fatigue. Frustration. Sleep deprivation. Blood, sweat and tears. Diabolical puzzles. A liability waiver that reads, simply, “I may die.” Plus mud. So much mud. Endless mud. Mud in your shoes, your socks, your eyelids, mud in every crevice and orifice.

Previous Death Races have required participants to traverse roughly 45 miles over at least 24 and as many as 72 hours; to lift 30-pound rocks for five consecutive hours; to memorize the names of the first 10 U.S. Presidents in order, race to the top of a mountain, and then hike down and recite them.

Organizers advise racers to prepare by having teeth pulled without painkillers and “checking into a state prison and getting into as many fights as possible.” On average, only 15 percent of people who start the race actually finish. The point? That is the point.

“In every other race, we pat you on the back, say, ‘Great job, you can do it, you look good,’ ” said Andy Weinberg, co-creator and director of the Death Race. “The main goal of this race is to make you quit. ‘You can’t do it. You’re wasting your time.’

“It’s not for everyone. But there are some sick people like us that enjoy the race. The person who can push through is extraordinary.”

Be prepared for anything

For Mr. Canino and Ms. Cunningham — the latter an avid cyclist who bikes about 100 miles a week — a typical Wednesday morning goes like this: The alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Ms. Cunningham puts on her running shoes. Mr. Carino puts on a weighted vest, then grabs his ax and tree stump.

The couple — or trio, if you count Larry the Log — then embark on a 10-mile hike, often at Scott’s Run Nature Preserve in McLean.

“It’s a pretty walk for me,” Ms. Cunningham said with a laugh. “But a tough workout for him.”

Two weeks ago, they came across a partially fallen tree that was blocking a hiking trail. Mr. Canino decided to clear it himself.

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About the Author
Patrick Hruby

Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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