'Death Race' just another adventure for Carol Stream man

It's billed as a challenge "like no other event on Earth": a 40-mile obstacle course shrouded in the woods of Vermont where competitors drop like flies, and the end is never in sight. But not even the name - Death Race - would deter Anthony Matesi of Carol Stream from signing up. "Maybe I have a few screws loose," he says.

Matesi, 26, is one of 300 athletes training for this summer's Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vt.

Built on unpredictability, the grueling endurance contest keeps competitors guessing about everything from what obstacles they will encounter to when the race will be over.

It can last up to 48 straight hours, and typically just 15 percent of those who start actually finish.

There will be barbed wire. There might be blood.

"Our goal is to break you mentally, physically, emotionally," said race co-founder Andy Weinberg, formerly of Peoria. "We tell you to quit."

Matesi, a longtime gymnast and martial arts student, made his foray into obstacle racing with the Chicago Men's Health Urbanathlon about two years ago.

He didn't consider himself much of a runner at the time but said he got a thrill jumping taxis and scaling walls.

"It was only a couple of obstacles, but it was enough of a taste where I was like, 'Oh, this is a little bit interesting. This is fun,'" said Matesi, a marketing specialist at Handi-Foil in Wheeling. "I started looking for races with more obstacles I could do."

Since then, he's run a mile and a half up Wisconsin's Black Diamond Hill, repeatedly climbed the stairs at Soldier Field, and trudged through a pond carrying a tree stump - all in the name of adventure racing.

He signed on for the Death Race after placing 32nd out of 3,500 participants last year at the Spartan World Championship in Texas, where he did a front flip over a bed of fire.

"One friend constantly tells me I'm an idiot, basically," Matesi said with a laugh. "People do think it's a little bit nuts, but it's my thing. I'm always looking to push myself a little further."

For the record, no one has ever died at a Death Race. But Weinberg warns it is not for the faint of heart.

"It's called Death Race, but it's really about life and pushing yourself beyond your limit and finding out what your limits are," he said. "We try to expose everybody's weaknesses."

Participants have few guarantees about what to expect.

They know they will split wood, run in a river, and crawl under barbed wire. Beyond that, they know only that they must arrive in Pittsfield by June 15. The race could start any moment. There is a finishing point, but runners don't know it until they get there.

"It's a mind game because there are times they won't even know if the race is actually going on," Weinberg said.

He said organizers can add to the psychological stress by forcing runners to switch backpacks, for example, or to stay up all night before hitting the course.

Entrants also must memorize and recite random lists - from presidents to TV characters - in the heat of the competition.

None of this seems to faze Matesi.

"I actually prefer not knowing (what to expect) because then it leaves it up to the moment," he said. "In the moment, I'm more willing to do something than if I'm aware of it and thinking about it ahead of time. I embrace the uncertainty. I think it helps."

Weinberg, a coach and high school teacher, launched the event with fellow race enthusiast Joe DeSena of New York in 2005 as a way to break the monotony they experienced with marathons and triathlons.

In its first year, Death Race drew 20 contestants, three of whom finished.

"Some people are very upset with us when they quit," Weinberg said. "We've actually lost friends."

For Matesi, a 2004 graduate of Glenbard North High School, quitting is not an option.

For months he's been training for a worst-case scenario, lugging tires and rocks around his subdivision and tackling makeshift obstacles at Mallard Lake Forest Preserve near Hanover Park.

Matesi, who is documenting his experience at his blog, said he decided to give the race a shot after plans to join the Marine Corps' Officer Candidate School fizzled out amid college and, later, a full-time career.

If nothing else, he said he wants to learn something about himself.

"It's one of those experiences that helps you develop as a person," he said. "You're discovering a whole part of yourself, and by doing it you can kind of move forward with that knowledge."

Weinberg said the race is fully staffed with trained medical professionals, and - for the first time - a medical helicopter will be on standby. Entrants also can bring their own support crews to help with basic needs as the competition unfolds.

All participants must be "willing to suffer," Weinberg said.

"I hope Anthony is ready," he said, offering Matesi an ominous warning: "Tell him we're taking his shoes as soon as he gets here."

  Anthony Matesi of Carol Stream trains for the Spartan Death Race in June by practicing his crawl at Mallard Lake Forest Preserve near Hanover Park. Paul Michna/
  Anthony Matesi of Carol Stream trains for the 2012 Death Race in Vermont at Mallard Lake Forest Preserve near Hanover Park. Paul Michna/
  Anthony Matesi of Carol Stream is in training for his first Death Race in Vermont on June 15. Paul Michna/
  Anthony Matesi of Carol Stream practices splitting wood, likely to be part of the Death Race competition. Paul Michna/
  Anthony Matesi of Carol Stream runs laps at Mallard Lake Forest Preserve near Hanover Park as part of his training for the Spartan Death Race in June. Paul Michna/
A contestant crawls under barbed wire — one of the many obstacles thrown at her during the 2010 Spartan Death Race. Courtesy of Cronin Hills Photography
The 2011 winner, Joe Decker, hoists a log as he traverses the Death Race course last year. Courtesy of the Spartan Death Race

Death Race 2012

About 300 endurance runners are taking on this year's Spartan Death Race. Some of the obstacles competitors have faced in years past:

Ÿ Split wood for two hours

Ÿ Carry a 20-pound stump

Ÿ Build a fire

Ÿ Cut a bushel of onions

Ÿ Crawl through mud under barbed wire

Ÿ Lift 10- to 30-pound rocks for five hours

Ÿ Memorize names of the first 10 presidents, hike to a mountaintop and repeat the names in order

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