By KATE LUDLOW
“It’s a game, and they want you to lose.”
That’s how Ella Kociuba describes her experience at the recent Death Race, a grueling two-day event that is part-obstacle course, part-mental challenge, and the pinnacle of extreme racing.
Ella traveled to Pittsfield, VT, to compete in the race, where she was one of 230 competitors.
“I landed in Vermont at 2 a.m. We had a hints meeting at 10 a.m. where they would give you hints about the race. At 1 p.m., we hiked up a two-mile trail for our weigh-in. It was pretty much a straight incline. Then we hiked another three miles to registration. Immediately, there were four people asking, ‘Do you want to quit now?’ Then we were told that we had to sew on our bib numbers, and we were handed black t-shirts, and bright blue thread. They were supposed to be numbers three inches wide. Then we hiked a mile, and we were told it was supposed to be four inches wide.”
Ella sewed on her number, and made sure the 47-pound rucksack she was carrying was in place.
That’s when the race began.
“We then had to crawl through a culvert about the length of a football field. It was underneath a five-lane highway. At the end, we had to chop pieces of really hard wood for two hours. It was the worst piece of wood ever. They were screaming at us the entire time,” she said. “Then we had to pick up PVC pipes filled with rocks, or pick up kayaks and carry the things across the road to the pond.”
Racers put down the pipes and jumped into “freezing cold” spring water. For an hour, more race rules were explained to them, while they sat in the pond.
“It was on a duck farm, so all the ducks would come down paths to the pond,” she said. “The pond was just filled with duck poop. It was so disgusting.”
Race organizers then took a bucket of numbered ping-pong balls and threw them into the water. Whichever number you grabbed, corresponded to your new team. The teams assembled, and they went back and picked up the heavy pipes and kayaks, which would accompany them for the majority of the race.
The race was chaos, she said. Ella’s team ran up and down a mountain all the while rotating who would carry the heavy pipe. Frequently, they were required to stop and do hundreds of burpees at a time, essentially, a squat down, then a leap up, over and over again. Race organizers hurled insults at contestants. Originally Ella’s team had 20 people. By Hour 20, they were down to 14.
“At a certain point, you’re just not thinking. I was on auto-pilot,” she said. “We were doing well. So we were rewarded. With a 300-pound tractor tire. The theme of the race, and for us, that tractor tire was the ultimate betrayal.”
As they embarked on the next part of their race, the Blood Trail, Ella felt that the tire would “be the death of me.” It was too narrow to carry, so the team had to roll it up a mountain that was a nearly a straight incline.
“It almost knocked me down a few times.” says Ella.
By the time they completed the Blood Trail, they had missed three challenges. They arrived at their destination to find everyone running toward them. The race had now shifted, and the team had to turn around and run back.
By this point in time, Ella was suffering from trench foot — a condition where there were cracks in the skin of her feet. Her team finished the run, ending at a swampy area, and immediately had to do 100 more burpees. By the next morning, Ella was one of 190 contestants remaining. They were out of water, and the natural water was unsafe to drink. Luckily, one of Ella’s teammates had iodine, and was able to cleanse a bucket of water so they could all have some.
Then came the hardest challenge yet.
“We had to do two trips up this mountain. You had to fill a bucket with rocks, and go up a mile. We had to do jumping jacks in the mud before we started. At this point, I had blisters on top of blisters, and my shins and knees were quivering. We had to take the buckets of rocks to the top of the mountain, find a hole with a numbered stake in it, fill the hole with the rocks, and bring the stake back down,” she said.
When they reached the top, there were no holes, and the only stakes they could find were not numbered.
“I saw people writing numbers on them and carrying them down. So I told our team that’s what we should do,” she said.
They went down the mountain and began their next task – log splitting.
“We had to split a log that was about five feet long. Then we had to split that three more times, for a total of twelve logs,” she said.
While doing that, Ella saw the race directors coming toward them. They had been caught for the trick with the stakes.
“They were yelling, go ahead and confess. I knew we had been caught, so I stepped out and confessed. They were screaming at me that I was a cheater and a coward, that I was going to do 5,000 burpees. I really felt like a coward at the moment,” she said.
And though the race was designed so that contestants would have to cheat in that moment, they were still punished brutally for doing so.
“There were so many high and low moments, and it was hard to come out of the lows. I was hallucinating at this point. I would see a twig, and think it was a squirrel,” she recalls.
If the theme of the race was betrayal, Ella was feeling it, in herself and in the race.
Ella began to hike back to the farm in the dark to accept her punishment.
“My shins and my body just kept falling down. I hit my shin on a log. I knew that I was done. But I still had four miles to hike just to get back. I was rubbed raw everywhere. I got to Amy Farm, and I told them I was done. They said to me, ‘Do you realize that you’re in first place for females, and the youngest racer left?’ I just started crying. My mind wasn’t done, but my body was. I went back to the bed and breakfast where we were staying, and just slept. I’ve never had that good of sleep.”
When Ella dropped out, there were only 70 competitors left.
Ella ended up with a stress fracture in her right shin. In the end, she completed approximately 55-miles, 33-miles with the tire, nearly 2,000 burpees, treks through freezing waters, and more.
“They don’t want finishers,” said Ella. “They are really proud of their 10 percent completion rate.
“The crazy thing is, even with how bad I hurt, and how awful my body felt…I’m almost intrigued to do it again. But I have a lot of other goals, and I would need to do a lot more training,” she said. “When I think about what I did, I don’t know how I did it.”
Recovery has been somewhat slow. It took Ella nearly a week to be able to walk normally again, but her athletic training has resumed. She has a sponsorship deal lined up with Flag Nor Fail apparel.
Reflecting on her experience in the Death Race, Ella can almost pinpoint what did her in.
“That 47-pound bag. It was a killer.”