Don Schwartz: Diary of a Deathracer

By Vince Shuley

You may have heard of the various endurance and mud run challenges that tour the globe. You may have even suffered through a Tough Mudder yourself and earned the orange headband and bragging rights that you finished a gauntlet of 20 military-style obstacles. But have you heard of the Spartan Death Race?

The annual Vermont suffer-fest only attracts between a few dozen and a few hundred people. That’s because there is only such a small minority of people in the world willing to subject themselves to such physical and mental torture. Obstacles are just one part of the challenge with surprises at every step. All details of challenges are kept secret allowing organizers to toy with the minds of the racers, who never know how close or far they are from the end. The first challenge of the 2009 Death Race involved participants crawling through a 200-metre barb wired mud trench, digging out a tree stump with an axe then crawling back through the trench to the next challenge. And it only got worse from there.

Don Schwartz from Whistler, British Columbia, crossed the line in first place at the 2013 Death Race together with fellow racers PJ Rakoski and Ken Lubin after 60 hours. This was the third Death Race for  Schwartz, who has admitted he will probably never attempt it again now that he has won it fair and square. His tolerance for pain far exceeds that of many professional athletes, yet he pursues this type of physical challenge for no one but himself.

Just what makes this tough guy tick?

Vince Shuley: How did you get into competing in events like the Death Race?
Don Schwartz:
A friend of  mine phoned up from the States, a guy that went though army ranger training and had worked for the FBI. He said ‘I’ve got this racing coming up called the Death Race. You’ve have to check this out on’ He said he made a list of all the people that he knew that he thought could finish the race with him, when I asked him why he didn’t phone them instead, he replied ‘You’re the only one on the list.’ That was when I realized I had to give it a go, to see what I was made of.

VS: What is your motivation to put yourself through such an ordeal?
These races break you physically. You’re done. It destroys all of your physical capability and then you find out how far you can go on mental power believing you can go on. To me, that’s when you find out who you are, what you’re made of, what bothers you, what makes you think about turning back. You learn more about yourself in 48 hour weekend than you would in 10 years of therapy.”

VS: During three years of running the Death Race, what was a point where you thought you couldn’t go on?

DS: The first year I went into the race, 24 hours in both my quads seized solid. I had 100lb on my back going up hill for hour number 24 and couldn’t bend or flex my legs. I did a duck waddle for about 20 minutes. Sure enough, 20 minutes later the legs started working again and off I went. But if you stop at that point, you probably won’t recover. You’ve hit the wall, keep going down the side of thee wall until you find the opening and go through it. It’ll be there.

VS: When you are on the brink of breaking down, what keeps you going?

DS: At that point it’s all perspective. You can tell yourself it’s the most miserable experience ever. And it will be, it will suck beyond belief . You can talk yourself into anything. At that point I talk myself into enjoying it. It’s the middle of the night , the quads have seized and I say to myself ‘Wow, what a beautiful night out here in the forest with the rain, no one ever gets to see this.’ It’s all perspective – you can either turn that into a really good time or choose to make it the worst time of your life. At that that point it’s all up to you. There’s nobody else there, no one is doing it to you, at that point there’s really no one else that cares. You’re in charge of your own destiny so you’ve got to find your happy place there and realize that it’s OK to enjoy what you’re doing.