Bruce Allentuck wants you to know he is a regular guy. He is not a Navy SEAL. He is not a physical trainer. He is a 45-year-old married father of three, owner of a small landscaping business, resident of a pleasant middle-class neighborhood in North Potomac.
Except that he is compelled, for reasons he explains in simple terms, to determine how much punishment he can inflict on his body and mind. That is why he was crunching through six miles of ankle-deep snow in the woods recently, lugging a three-foot, 50-pound length of solid oak. Why he recently ran a third of a mile in nine minutes carrying two 40-pound buckets of gravel. Why he runs five miles in a creek with a 60-pound truck tire slung over his shoulder.
It is why he is the only person from the Washington area headed to Vermont in June to run the 2011 Death Race, the sixth year of a competition so unimaginably cruel that the organizers require the 200 carefully selected entrants to sign a three-word waiver that reads simply, “You may die.”
“I just want to see if I can push through and do it,” said Allentuck, who has completed seven marathons, four ultramarathons, three Ironman triathlons, a 4.4-mile Chesapeake Bay swim, and 30 to 40 other triathlons of various lengths.
“I’ve done all kinds of things,” he said. “It’s the next thing.”
Allentuck’s personal journey roughly parallels the evolution of adventure racing itself. As the sport’s popularity has surged over the past decade, the core disciplines of trail running, biking and paddling are increasingly combined with wades through mud bogs, leaps over fire pits and knee-scraping crawls under barbed wire.
Jack Raglin, who studies the connection between the psychology and biology of exercise at Indiana University, says Allentuck does not exhibit any of the classic signs of exercise addiction: diminished family and social life, loss of interest in anything but exercise, lack of interest in his job.
Instead, he is driven to see what he is capable of.
“It seems to be something people are either born with or develop very early on their own. It can’t be coached or taught,” said Raglin, a professor in the university’s kinesiology department. “They have this need or desire to find out where that limit is. It’s obviously very rare.”
The Death Race, the diabolical creation of veteran adventure racers Joe De Sena and Andy Weinberg, prides itself on messing with competitors’ minds. It is, De Sena says, more “obstacle race” than adventure race. Entrants are not provided food or water. They are not told exactly when the race will start, when it will end, how long it will last or what their tasks will be. They know only that they will be so physically and mentally exhausted that just a small percentage will even finish.
In 2009, racers began at De Sena’s Pittsfield, Vt., farm by slithering through mud under barbed wire at 4 a.m. to find their race bibs pinned to tree stumps. They had to hack the stumps out of the ground and carry them for most of the 24-hour race. There were countless hours of running, climbing, bushwhacking, log-splitting and lifting. After a 2,000-foot climb, they found a list of the first 10 U.S. presidents, which they had to recite correctly after running back down the mountain. One mistake and they were sent back up again. The following year, some pre-race instructions arrived in Greek.
“The race emulates life,” said De Sena, 42, who bluntly acknowledges that he does everything he can to persuade competitors to quit. “It has no beginning and no end — or at least not a beginning and end that you know of. You don’t know the tasks at hand. It’s gonna frustrate the hell out of you.”
The Death Race entrants are predominantly, but not exclusively, men. In 2009, one U.S. and one British Marine strolled across the finish line in first place together, ahead of a field of opponents with trashed feet, knees and quads and bloodied skin. Last year San Diego’s Joe Decker, dubbed the world’s fittest man by the Guinness Book of World Records, came in first.
On the race’s Web site, www.youmaydie.com, organizers list nearly 50 “survivors,” or people who have finished the race, ranging in age from 18 to 53.
Already, De Sena is sending Allentuck and other entrants e-mails urging them to back out. “The thing that drives any business owner nuts is the quitters,” said De Sena, who made his money on Wall Street. “I want the kind of person who will finish the race.
“What if you’re in an Ironman and you come out of the water and there was no seat on the bike?” De Sena said. “What are most people gonna do? They’re gonna quit. I want to find the people who would get on and ride 112 miles without the seat.”
Given the uncertainty of what they will face in June, how can entrants train for the Death Race? Allentuck has studied videos from previous years and, aside from working with a swim coach to improve his stroke, he said he follows a regimen of his own design.
In addition to regular runs, bike rides and swims, it includes running six miles wearing a backpack filled with 30 pounds of sand; throwing a 45-pound block of concrete for three miles; and pushing a wheelbarrow filled with 120 pounds of sand on trails for three miles.
He also said he is running 4.5 miles to a five-level parking garage, then sprinting up the ramps, doing 50 push-ups, scampering down and back up the stairs, doing 50 crunches and running down the ramps, a circuit he repeats six to eight times before running home.
Allentuck is 5 foot 4 inches tall and 155 pounds of muscle. He trains about 15 hours a week in the winter and more when the weather warms up. He eats what he wants, works full-time and tends to fall asleep by 8:30 p.m. He is up each day in time to take one of his three daughters to her 5 a.m. swim practice.
Sweat pours from beneath the cap on his shaved head, runs down his face and stains his gray sweat shirt as he trudges through the woods carrying the 50-pound section of oak limb. He never sets it down or drags it as he negotiates hills, streams and snow-covered trails. Every 10 minutes, when his watch alarm sounds, he drops the log and does 50 push-ups on it.
He is soft-spoken and given to short sentences. He began his athletic career, he says, as a 120-pound rugby player at North Carolina State University. After graduating, he eventually turned to marathoning, triathlons and now adventure racing.
“When I was thinking about doing my first Ironman, someone told me it would change my life forever. He was right,” Allentuck wrote in an e-mail. “When I crossed that finish line, I had the instant feeling that I could accomplish anything. I have shared this with other Ironman finishers and they get it. I think finishing Death Race will be the same way.”
Allentuck’s route to the Death Race is not uncommon, though Troy Farrar, president of the U.S. Adventure Racing Association, says more competitors come from trail running and mountain biking backgrounds. When the Adventure Racing Association was founded in 1998, it sanctioned perhaps 15 races that involved a few hundred people, he said. Last year it oversaw more than 300 competitions with half a million participants.
Many are professionals who seek relief from their office-bound work weeks at the same time that they challenge their own limits, he said.
“Ten years ago, I knew very few people who had run a marathon,” Farrar said. “Nowadays, everyone’s grandmother has run a marathon.” Adventure racing offers more of a challenge, he says.
Allentuck does not hope to win the race or even come close. His goal is to finish, uninjured. In one winter Death Race, competitors had to jump through a hole in a frozen pond, De Sena recalls. One woman became trapped beneath the ice until a race official leaped in and hauled her out, hypothermic but alive.
Asked how he keeps racers safe, De Sena says: “You don’t. You try your best. We hope no one dies. But it’s that level of commitment.”
(Update) Read Allentuck’s blog about the experience: My Death Race Adventure