Athletes from suburbs survive Death Race

Death race not for faint of heart, say suburban survivors

Near the 37th hour of the Spartan Death Race, Anthony Matesi had a hankering to quit.

He had just carried a dozen logs down from a mountain in rural Vermont. He hadn't slept. His shoulder hurt.

“My negative thoughts were getting the best of me,” the 26-year-old Carol Stream man said.

That's when he and a fellow competitor made a pact: “She said she would keep going if I continued on. And it was like, ‘Let's do this thing.' That changed the race for us.”

Nineteen grueling hours later, an exhausted Matesi still mustered the strength to jump up and down when organizers told him he had finally reached the end.

“It was amazing,” he said.

Matesi was one of only 59 athletes out of 344 to finish this year's Spartan Death Race — an extreme endurance competition that keeps its sleep-deprived racers in near-constant motion for the better part of a June weekend.

For Matesi, the event was as much psychological as it was physical. He said keeping his spirits up was a serious challenge as he tackled unforgiving obstacles such as a steep, 25-mile team hike in which racers carry a water-filled plumbing pipe over their heads and a 2-mile log roll through a sheep paddock.

This year's theme was “betrayal,” which encouraged racers to quit when organizers fabricated a story that contestants wouldn't be able to finish because of technicalities. Those thinking of quitting also were cruelly tempted with beer, burgers and pizza at times. And there were racers secretly planted by organizers with the task of getting others to cheat and be disqualified.

All this, while participants had no idea when or where the end would come.

“It really messes with your mind more than your body,” said Matesi, who was listed as an “unofficial” finisher because he missed a couple of obstacles. “I don't think you need to work out as much as you need to have a very strong, solid mind. If you can ‘Zen out' and take things as they come and realize this is all part of a game, that's what you need to train for — if there is a way to train for that.”

Joining Matesi on the 50-mile course — though they didn't run into him — were two Army buddies, Matt Dyer and Matthew Robinson, who room together in Chicago and both work at Lawrence Foods in Elk Grove Village.

Dyer, an Airborne Ranger, said he was on more than 300 combat missions in Iraq, but in terms of endurance and conditions, none of them compared to what he experienced in the 57½ hours it took him to finish the Death Race.

“I would have to say the race took the cake,” he said. “It just came down to pushing myself. You either find it deep inside you and keep going or you don't and you quit.”

At one point after 24 hours of being awake, thirsty and exhausted, Dyer and Robinson were sat down and given a two-hour exam filled with brain twisters, they said. Later, Dyer, 27, had to memorize how to put together an origami swan.

Dyer, Matesi and Robinson all reported being so sleep- and food-deprived at times that they experienced mild hallucinations, which were only more frightening when some of them saw other racers seeking medical attention.

A serious knee injury put Robinson out of commission about 37 hours in, but he vowed to return next year, even though new rules will force him to gamble his finisher's trophy from last year's Death Race to compete again.

“After carrying 150 pounds of firewood down a mountain, it was just too much,” said Robinson, a 29-year-old explosives expert who grew up in a military family. “I fell several times on the way down and was in excruciating pain. I decided it wasn't worth a permanent knee injury.”

Yet all three participants said they accomplished something important and would like to go back.

Matesi, who blogged about his experience, gained new perspective on teamwork, he said, and learned that his limitations are only in his mind.

Dyer and Robinson, meanwhile, managed to raise nearly $9,000 in pledges from supporters for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that helps injured soldiers transition back to civilian life.

Looking back, Robinson — though still “torturing myself” about his performance — said the event clearly isn't for the faint of heart:

“They don't call it Death Race for nothing.”

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Contestants in the Spartan Death Race carry a water-filled plumbing pipe as they embark on a 25-mile hike. courtesy of Spartan Death Race
Anthony Matesi of Carol Stream “unofficially” finished in the Spartan Death Race with fellow racer Morgan Mckay of Canada. courtesy of Anthony Matesi
Matthew Robinson, left, and Matt Dyer are pictured when they were stationed together in Iraq. Now co-workers at Elk Grove Village’s Lawrence Foods, they ran in the Spartan Death Race to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Courtesy of Matthew Robinson
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