Crew from Norwich embraces
the sweet agony of the Death Race © Oct. 16, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich Cadet Chris Prybella splits wood. It was one of many tests of body and will he underwent during the Death Race endurance contest in June 2009.

photo by Caleb KennaNorwich Cadet Chris Prybella splits wood. It was one of many tests of body and will he underwent during the Death Race endurance contest in June 2009.

Searching for a way to describe the Vermont Death Race in Pittsfield, Vt., Peter Bue, 20, a Norwich University cadet, kept it simple. “It was a blast,” he said.

The same question put to fellow student Chris Prybella, 22, brought a very different reply: “You have to be insane to do it.”

The two cadets were among a half-dozen students and a few alumni from Norwich, the country’s oldest military college, who competed in the third-annual Death Race in June 2009. Long, arduous tests of endurance are nothing new to group members, who have trained, encouraged, traded information about races and commiserated with one another through a number of jaw-dropping events. This ordeal, however, justifiably bills itself as one of the country’s toughest, if not most sadistic, endurance challenges.

Most people can’t grasp how difficult this can be.

~ Thomas Worthington,
Class of 2009

“It is the hardest thing I have ever done,” said Prybella, of Philadelphia. “It is torture; it is like going to hell and back.”

The race this year took members of the informally-organized group up hills, along rocky paths, through streams, under barbed wire, and even along the bottom of a pond. Participants at various times carried buckets of rocks, a tree stump they had dug from the earth and a bicycle frame. Participants are forewarned the race may take 24 hours; that they will sweat, scream and cry and probably wouldn’t finish.

A “blast,” or “insane?” Why not both?

The co-winner of this year’s Death Race—which attracted some 60 participants, about a quarter of whom finished—was ’09 Norwich graduate Thomas Worthington, 22, now a U.S. Marine second lieutenant training at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

He too chose the word “blast” to describe the race, but also said: “Most people can’t grasp how difficult this can be.”

Worthington staggered over the finish line after 11 hours and 32 minutes with Richard Lee, a British Royal Marine. The two crossed paths at the top of a hill in the final segment of the race and, in a show of military solidarity, crossed the finish line together.

The race trail is only 10 miles, but along the way there are surprise tests of strength, comprehension and resourcefulness. At one station, athletes had to quarter 20 logs using an ax they carried. At another, they had to memorize and recite the first 10 U.S. presidents. Those who messed up had a long run back to relearn the names. At another stop they had to build a fire with a single match, cook an egg and eat it.

They clambered from station to station, never knowing how they would be tested next.

For Worthington and Prybella, a pond presented the toughest challenge. Participants were instructed to dive for bicycle chains that had been removed from bikes they were carrying. The chains, in plastic bags, were tossed into 10 feet of water still cold from spring snowmelt.

“I made nine attempts in 45-degree water, and was on the verge of hypothermia, and was about to give up,” confessed Prybella. In what was to be his final attempt he spotted the chain. “It was like a miracle,” he said.

Worthington was so cold his body started seizing up. He had great difficulty putting the chain on his bike. “Man, that was really horrible! I was frustrated; it was such an easy task made so difficult by conditions.”

Once chains were on, competitors rode the bikes for just a few moments, then put them in a nearby shed. There would be no coasting downhill.

The Norwich competitors, all ultra-marathon athletes, have an unofficial coach and mentor in history Prof. Rowland Brucken, himself an ultra-marathoner. There is a bond among these extreme athletes, and they come to him for advice and inspiration.

Brucken said he would consider the Death Race daunting. “This is unlike anything I’ve seen, and I’ve done 50- and 100-mile races,” he said. “I can’t imagine going into this race and not knowing what you will have to do.”

Brucken said athletes who compete at this level share four qualities: a high threshold for pain; mental discipline; a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. “You have to know that there certainly are more important things in life and that what you are doing really is silly. ... That helps you deal with the downsides.”

Bue resorted to some silliness, singing Jimmy Buffet songs along the route, he said.

Cadets said endurance tests like the Death Race have career applications. “A big part of being in the military is being physically fit,” said Worthington. “I am not yet in a leadership position, but when I lead men in combat, I want to be the best Marine I can, and being physically fit is a big part of that.”

Brucken, asked how anyone could consider the Death Race “a blast,” added another trait extreme athletes share. “They have short-term memory loss.”