A part of Matt Garrett died in the Green Mountains of Vermont in June. But he lived to tell about it.
The 32-year-old endured more than 70 consecutive hours of brutal physical and mental tests and sleep deprivation in the ninth annual Death Race, but returned to St. Petersburg without a trophy. He says he isn't disappointed.
“The name Death Race is foreboding … but I think I get what it means to me,” he says. “A part of you dies on that mountain. … I left behind my lack of confidence. It's back on that mountain.”
Garrett is an unofficial finisher, a “non-quitter,” based on information on the race's official blog. His name is not on the list of 35 official finishers, or on the list of people who quit or were disqualified. A total of 400 people originally registered.
He says he was among a group of about 20 people who lasted the entire race but didn't cross the final checkpoint in time. While some people screamed at officials when they learned they wouldn't earn the race's coveted plastic skull trophy, Garrett says he was fine with it.
“It was at that point I started thinking, 'Did I accomplish everything I came to do?' I wasn't there to win a skull. I was there to compete,” he says.
Garrett says he tapped into every bit of his obsessive six-month-long workout routine, which included 22 hours a week of Cross Fit training, stair climbing, endless wood chopping and meditation. His pre-race regimen was featured in 4you in June.
“The race was exactly what I wanted. I went to the absolute edge” of what the mind and body can do, he says. “It was an absolute tug of war.”
The mix of physical and mental preparation was particularly essential to his survival, since the race assignments were more malicious than he expected, says Garrett, a marine biologist and experienced adventure race competitor.
Some competitors lost their cool as they built a massive stone stairway up a mountain the first night, he says. He watched others, including firefighters and Marines who thought they had trained sufficiently, physically crumble after the first 20 hours. Dehydration and exhaustion were constant concerns, he says.
Garrett says he repeatedly saw competitors fall asleep while standing, and paramedics hauled off racers with injuries that ranged from pulled muscles to broken bones. Others just hit a breaking point and handed their race bib over to officials.
“Right next to you, a guy would say, 'Boom, I'm done.' You try talking to him … but then you also know you have outlasted one more person,” he says.
Garrett says he nearly broke the second day, while climbing into and out of a steep gully of jagged rocks blanketed waist-high with barbed wire. Like other racers, he was exhausted and frustrated, and found himself screaming uncontrollably. Having the ability to step away for 10 minutes of meditation breathing exercises made all the difference, he says.
“I was pulled into everyone's chaos. You don't think straight,” says Garrett, who has a razor-thin scar along his right shoulder as a reminder of the experience.
Another frustration: His months of chopping wood in training were for naught. Garrett was penalized just before the task, for setting down on a river bank a 30-pound stone he had hauled for hours. His decision to stop and refill his water jug resulted in a session in “purgatory,” performing other manual labor.
Now that he's a few weeks removed from the physical pain of the Death Race, Garrett says he's not sure he will sign up for another. He and some friends have registered for a local adventure race in November, and he's whittled his workouts to 10 hours a week.
It also would be nice to get a social life again; a girlfriend would be nice, he says. There's new value to it all, now that his has new perspective about racing, and about the bigger adventure of life, she says.
“I like that there was no finish line because it's not done.”