‘The Ultimate Challenge’

Photo by David Stuck

Photo by David Stuck

While most of the expected 300 participants would be happy just to finish the Summer Death Race, which starts on Friday, June 2, in Pittsfield, Vt., Harrison Lessans, 23, of Pikesville is training for this ultimate challenge with the intent of being in the top percentile of the usual 15 to 20 percent of the entrants who finish.

The Summer Death Race is a grueling 48-hour event that presents numerous obstacles in the hilly terrain of the Green Mountain State.

Lessans, who has participated in other challenging events, such as the Spartan Races, says this event is tougher than that or the average Tough Mudder or Warrior Dash. He explained that the specifics of the upcoming race are not known, but previous challenges such as carrying five pounds of pennies up a mountain or bear crawling with a 60-plus pound pack for a mile uphill on rocks under barbed wire have been part of the race previously.

“I expect to be carrying large, heavy objects, splitting wood, not sleeping and not being comfortable,” said Lessans.

Andy Weinberg, one of the race founders and organizers, said, “The challenges are year to year and athlete to athlete. You never know what to expect, and I think that’s one of the hardest things. It’s really challenging every year, and we have different mental, physical and emotional challenges.”

The race’s website states, “The Death Race is the ultimate challenge, designed to present you with the unexpected and the completely insane. Nothing else on earth will challenge you like the Death Race, both mentally and physically.”

So what would motivate someone to compete in a killer event like this? After all, there is a $600 entry fee, plus the expense of traveling to New England, and there are no cash prizes. Lessans, who has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Towson University and works as a personal trainer at the Baltimore JCC, says it’s all about learning more about and improving himself.

“I’m always attempting to self-actualize myself and how much of my own potential I can bring out in myself,” he explained. “I think when people shy away from challenges or shun risks or wait for challenges, they are actually unprepared physically or emotionally to handle adversity when it hits them. If you try to hide away from the world, then you are in for a rude awakening when life doesn’t go according to your plans.”

Of the lack of a cash reward, he added, “The biggest prize is being able to meet myself. You can’t put a price on that.”

As part of the competition, Lessans will be partnered with David Mick, a 32-year-old lawyer from Virginia Beach. Lessans believes that working with another person will be beneficial.

“Strength will come when you take your eyes off yourself and put it on someone else,” he said. “You refocus your efforts to make sure the other person’s needs are met. I’ll get more strength trying to help someone else.”

Despite its intimidating name, no one has actually died in the eight-year history of the Death Races, but Lessans points out that in Mexico in March they started the race by placing all of the entrants’ race bibs in a live bull pit. Lessans explained that the participants also bring their own food to the race.

“I will have plenty of energy bars, liquid nitrates and electrolytes,” he said. Lessans’ parents, who are usually supportive, do not yet know about his entry into this race.

“They don’t exactly share the same enthusiasm for this,” he said, noting that he hopes his Jewish upbringing comes into play during the contest.

“I hope [God] is on my side for this,” he said. “Let’s just say I need the big guy.”

Lessans intends to finish the Death Race and derive one other benefit.

“I want to find out what my strengths and weaknesses are,” he said.

Last year he finished 27th out of 300 entrants in a Spartan Race in Killington, Vt.

According to Lessans, obstacle-course racing is rapidly growing.

“I can run anytime and anywhere I want,” he explained. “I don’t have to pay anyone to do that. Adding carrying and other challenges bring diversity to the race.”

Lessans’ passion for this kind of activity is motivating him to start an obstacle-course training class at the Owings Mills JCC.

“This will get people out of the controlled environment of the gym,” he said.

In reflecting about the upcoming Death Race, Lessans said a large part of this event is mental: “It’s hard to be prepared for this. No one is.”

Stacy Karten is an area freelance writer.

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