For seven years, action junkies who are dissatisfied with the limits of normal competition have flocked to the town of Pittsfield, VT, for the Spartan Death Race.
Conceived as a marriage of pain and brotherhood, the competition lasts more than 40 consecutive hours, spans a variety of environmental conditions and boasts an 80 percent failure rate.
The most compelling part? Contestants have no idea what they will be asked to do until the day of the race—lug a cinderblock up a mountain, dice a barrel of onions, recite lines of verse flawlessly from memory.
You might hear those details and ask, "Why would anyone do this?" Collingswood's Bryan Selm hears them and wonders, "How could anyone pass this up?"
As a prerequisite to entering the June 15 Spartan Death Race, entrants are tasked with finding a media outlet to publish an article about the competition. Failure to do so earns the penalty of a 12-mile swim on the eve of the contest.
In the spirit of neighborly goodwill, we at Patch indulged Selm—for this year, anyway. Maybe next time we’ll devise some thankless task for him to do before we chip in. He seems to like that sort of thing.
Patch: What's your athletic background? How did you first become interested in the Spartan Death Race?
Bryan Selm: I've always been athletic and played all the normal sports growing up, like football, baseball and track. I started to run triathlons in 2008 and became hooked on my first Iron distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) the next year. I quickly became bored and wanted something different.
I found out about the Death Race from a friend on my local triathlon team. He knew that I was looking for a new challenge after finishing my first Ironman in 2009. I think he sent it as a joke, but I made a video and got accepted to the race in 2010.
This race really appealed to me. I like the idea of the unknown and the fact that they don't pamper you. You have to be tough physically and mentally to compete in this race.
Patch: What's your training regimen like for this? How long have you been preparing yourself, and in what ways?
Selm: Since my failure at the Death Race in 2011, I've started training at Crossfit Tribe in Pennsauken. Crossfit is an intense workout program designed around functional fitness. This works great since the challenges in the Death Race are unknown.
A big challenge for me is climbing the mountains of Vermont. Being from New Jersey, there aren't too many hills to train on; it puts me at a major disadvantage.
I train a lot with a 50-pound weight vest, and often run the [Philadelphia] Art Museum steps with an 80-pound sandbag to strengthen the legs. Plus, I try to hit the trails in Wissahickon once a week to get used to running off-road.
Patch: What kind of support do you have for this challenge? Will you be traveling with friends, coworkers, a significant other?
Selm: I'm competing with friends I've made from all over the country, but I'll be racing totally self-supported. We'll have an area to keep extra food and water, but we will need to have enough food and water in our packs to support us for 10 hours at a time.
Patch: Spartan Death Race, ultra-marathoning, MMA, the World's Strongest Man…who comes up with this stuff? Why do we compete in these challenges?
Selm: Ultra-endurance sports are blowing up. I remember when I heard of the Ironman from a health teacher in middle school. It sounded stupid, impossible and just flat-out ridiculous. Now they seem like no big deal.
I have friends running triple Ironmans and it's getting insane. The athletes are amazing and are pushing themselves harder than ever. It’s all about seeing what you are capable of. When everything inside of you says “quit,” do you give up or push on? That's what makes these sports great.
Patch: Race organizers say that only 20 percent of entrants complete this challenge. What chance do you give yourself to be there at the end? By what measure will you consider your efforts a success?
Selm: I have competed in the 2010 and 2011 summer Death Race and also the 2011 and 2012 winter version of the race. I've finished all but the summer 2011 and that's what's driving me this year.
I plan on being a finisher this year at all costs. I've felt the joy of surviving the challenge and I've felt the misery of giving up. Quitting isn't an option this year.
Patch: It’s advertised as a 40-plus hour race. Are you supposed to break for sleep/food? Who is watching you to make sure you don't die or tap out?
Selm: There are no breaks to sleep during the race. You can refuel and change clothing at the staging area, but after that you must keep going. They don't pamper you in this race. You check in at different checkpoints throughout the mountains, but in between the checkpoints you are on your own.
Some racers choose to team up, some go solo, but you'd be lucky to see any race crew hiking out there. In 2010, I was part of a search party looking for a lost racer who was passed out against a tree with his headlamp shining straight in the air. It was less than 10 hours into the race.
Patch: What will you do if you win?
Selm: To me, this race isn't about winning. I hate even calling it a race; it's more of a challenge. As long as I finish and I feel like I gave it everything I have to give, then I'm happy. It's such a difficult race that your goal is just to survive.