How do you prepare for the three days of extreme physical and mental challenges that are the ominously named Spartan Death Race? St. Petersburg's Matt Garrett consulted with a nutritionist, a sports medicine physician, a lumberjack and his bodybuilding brother to create his regimen. His routine — 22-plus hours each week for the past six months — includes: Daily: 30 minutes of yoga, 10 minutes of meditation. Time: 4.7 hours weekly Monday and Friday: CrossFit-style training, wearing a 32-pound weighted vest. Time: 1.5 hours/3 hours weekly Tuesday and Thursday: Endurance and weight training at the USF St. Petersburg gym. Time: 3.5 hours/7 hours weekly Wednesday: Split wood for Eckerd College Art Department kilns: Time: 3 hours Saturday: Run three miles wearing 70-pound ruck to USF St. Petersburg parking garage. Climb 196 flights of stairs wearing 40-pound weighted vest, spend one hour weight training at gym, run home three miles wearing 70-pound ruck. Time: 5 hours Tribune staff
Each time Matt Garrett reaches a finish line, the same thought crosses his mind.
That's great. Now what else can I do?
It's been six years since the St. Petersburg marine biologist quit smoking and laced up his running shoes for the first time in years. That day, the 9/10-of-a-mile loop around his neighborhood lake was more than he could handle.
“It was incredibly painful … I struggled,” he says. “But then I found I could do a little bit more.”
Moved to get fit after losing his father to a hard-fought battle against cancer, Garrett ran his first 5K, then another, and discovered he was pretty fast. New distances and new extreme obstacles were added: mud, barbed wire, rappelling walls, electric shocks. Still, he wasn't convinced he'd reached his physical zenith.
“I always know I can do more,” says Garrett, 32. “I've never realized my potential … I'm still trying to find that limit.”
It's possible he will finally meet his match this month at the Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vt. This extreme extreme race is as much a mental challenge as a physical one for the estimated 340 competitors expected to race this year. The race website, aptly dubbed “youmaydie.com,” has a 15 percent completion rate.
The multiday mountain trail run's physical and mental challenges are aimed at breaking the body and mind. “It's 80 percent mental — and the remaining 80 percent is mental,” says Joe DeSena, the Death Race co-founder.
One year, racers hauled $50 in pennies to a river, watched as the coins were tossed in the water and then learned they had to retrieve each one. And there was the time racers got a Greek dictionary at the starting line; it would be used to translate a reading they found after hours of mountain hiking.
About six months ago, Garrett devised a six-day-a-week training schedule he felt addressed all of his needs. His 22 hours of weekly exercise varies CrossFit workouts with three-hour wood chopping sessions and hours on a stationary bike solving a Rubik's Cube. The puzzle solving is down to three minutes.
His five-hour Saturday workout is the most curious, as Garrett hikes through downtown St. Petersburg carrying a pack that includes his trusty ax and 40-pound weighted vest he dubbed Yoda. He climbs up and down a seven-story parking garage stairwell, hoping to quell curious glances with a handwritten note on his pack that reads, “I'm not crazy. I'm training.”
“It's cliché, but I'm really learning about what it's like to deal with a mental challenge,” he says.
This kind of race isn't for your average recreational athlete, says Barbara Morris, program director at the University of South Florida's Sports Medicine and Athletic Related Trauma Institute. Runners able to handle cardiovascular challenges may not have enough muscular strength; powerful athletes may not have the agility to persevere, she says.
And the physical risk isn't limited to injuries. Researchers are discovering there is a danger underneath all the good that exercise offers. Last year, for example, the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research published findings that “chronic, excessive sustained exercise” is associated with cardiovascular problems, including artery calcification and stiffening of the artery wall.
Although Morris acknowledges the incredible adrenalin rush of the incredibly popular extreme races, it can be dangerous and deadly. In April, a 28-year-old man drowned during a “Tough Mudder” competition in Maryland, and more than a dozen others were treated for injuries including heart attacks and hypothermia, the Baltimore Sun reported.
Tough Mudder, with 750,000 racers nationwide, is far shorter than the estimated 50-mile, multi-day challenge Garrett is taking on. Death Race organizer DeSena says emergency crews are on call at the race site because serious injury is extremely likely.
So far, all participants have survived, though there have been several “near death” experiences.
“We've had a couple of close calls, but thankfully no one has died,” DeSena says.
The hardest part of these races, however, may be the mental challenges that resemble military training, says Morris, a former bodybuilder and police officer. Sleep deprivation will be an issue, as well as malnutrition and dehydration if racers aren't careful.
“People think they can go out on occasion and do this … it's not normal to do these things,” she says.
Garrett does much of his day-to-day training solo, squeezing it in between work at the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and part-time graduate studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He credits a significant support network, including a nutritionist, his body-building brother, a lumberjack friend and a sports medicine physician, for keeping him sharp.
“I'm trying to do this smarter,” he says.
He's prepared for curveballs, such as last year, when race officials removed the finish line. Instead, they eventually announced the race was over — after 67 hours.
Garrett has been sleep deprived before, on 36-hour scientific excursions at sea. But he's hoping the 30 minutes of yoga and 10 minutes of meditation he added to his daily training routine will help him stay calm come race time.
“Running a marathon, you know how far you have to go,” he says. “When you have no gauge how far you have to go, that really is mental torture.”
Unlike other races, Garrett says he's feeling far more accomplished as he heads toward the June 21 start of the Spartan Death Race. He's already reached a high point he never before thought possible.
He's amazed by the physical focus and mental power he has discovered he had within himself. That is a victory greater than crossing any finish line, he says.
“Look at what I've done the last six months. … That alone is a success to me.”