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Sports Outdoors and Recreation

Spartan Death Race may be 'brutal,' but it gains in popularity

Katy McCabe spent six years in the Marines, including a 13-month tour in Iraq and two shorter stints in Afghanistan. So when she signed up for last year's Spartan Death Race, McCabe didn't think it would be more difficult than being in the military.

"I really did think it would be a lot easier [than the Marines]," said McCabe, 32, who grew up in Aberdeen and lives in Ellicott City, where she works as a consultant. "I look at it differently now. It was brutal."

That is exactly what Andy Weinberg and Joe DeSena want to hear. Seven years after it began as the unofficial "championship" of other endurance events in their Spartan series, the race in and around little Pittsfield, Vt., has grown in the number of competitors it attracts as well as its own national profile.

This year's event, scheduled to begin June 15 and expected to last up to 48 hours, will draw some 200 participants from around the country to the Green Mountains. There is bound to be some sort of media coverage that in recent years has included ABC's"Nightline"and CNN.

"It used to be pretty secretive, catering to a small breed of people — marathoners, ultra-marathoners, triathletes and those with a military background," Weinberg said last week. "But we've attracted all types the last couple of years."

Though a number of this year's Maryland entrants have a military background — aside from McCabe, Mark Hutchinson served seven years in the Marines and Michael Pavlisak is a major in the Army — Weinberg said that only "about a quarter" of the competitors fit that category.

"You would think that the military training would help, but a lot of the military [people] don't finish," Weinberg said.

Last year, McCabe was one of them.

Initially, McCabe looked at the Spartan Death Race to get over a relationship gone bad. When McCabe found out that her boyfriend was dating another woman in California, she contacted Laura Svette with an unusual request.

"One of the organizers [of the Death Race] said he would give me a 2-for-1 deal, so I called her," McCabe recalled. "She said, 'Sign me up.' We became known as 'The Glamazons.' We also became best friends."

Both women eventually dumped the guy and bonded even more when they met up in Vermont. Unfortunately, the 5-foot-9 McCabe and the 6-1 Svette — thus, the Glamazons — didn't make it to the end of what turned out to be a 45-hour event.

They quit together after 33 hours.

They were going to try again this year, but Svette ruptured her Achilles tendon in February. McCabe will be going it alone.

"I have a score to settle with that race," McCabe said.

McCabe said that while she was in "pretty decent shape" going into last year's competition, "there's not any way to prepare for the unexpected." Though Weinberg and DeSena choose the individual events from an extensive database, some of the activities have typically been repeated with slight variations.

There is always wood-chopping — "That's the one I wasn't ready for," McCabe conceded — as well as one activity that includes trudging through the icy-cold waters of the Tweed River in the dead of night, usually on very little, if any, sleep.

Then there's the yearly crawl — under barbed-wire fences or even through a field of manure.

"We have them crawl through some crazy things," Weinberg said. "It's pretty humorous at times."

John Wall, a 40-year-old electrical designer from Pasadena, said he can now look back at last year's race and laugh at some of the things he was asked to do, but it wasn't much fun going through it.

"It was pretty painful," said Wall, who was planning to compete this year until finding out that his 7-year-old daughter's dance recital was the same weekend. "What helped me get through was not knowing what was coming next."

Wall said he considered quitting a couple of times, once when he was in the midst of crossing a "freezing pond" for the third or fourth time and again when he had trouble figuring out how to carry a 3-foot log on his back.

Finally, when race organizers announced at a local church after nearly two full days that everyone who was still participating was considered a finisher, Wall said, "I was confused because I knew I had some tasks left. But it was a relief."

Many insist the mental aspect of the race is what separates those who finish from those who quit. The mental part could include reciting a verse from the Bible, as happened last year when there was a religious theme, or listing the first 10 presidents of the United States in reverse order.

"When you're sleep-deprived and your strength is depleted, all these [activities] are hard to finish," said Weinberg, who teaches at a local liberal arts college.

Hutchinson, who joined the Marines three days after graduating from high school in upstate New York and was left with the rank of sergeant last year, is looking at his first Spartan Death Race as a way to challenge himself.

"I think it's going to be more mental than anything else," Hutchinson, 26, said recently. "The Marines have set me up for something like that."

Hutchinson spent the past few months challenging himself in another way, as a first-year graduate student in chemistry at Johns Hopkins. He said he has prepared for the physical aspects of the Death Race by running up to 12 miles a day with a backpack carrying 40 pounds in weights, throwing 30-pound weights into the air or trying to exercise on very little sleep. He also went without food for a day to see how his body would react.

When his final exams are over next week, Hutchinson will begin to gear up even more for the Spartan Death Race.

"I'm going to try to be as well-rested as I can going in," Hutchinson said.

So will Pavlisak, a 32-year-old West Point graduate from Havre de Grace who believes his own military experience, including two tours as an infantry officer in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, will come in handy once he reaches the Green Mountains next month.

"In the military, you're expected to finish your mission," Pavlisak said. "I don't know what they're going to throw at us, but I can handle the unknown."

But can he handle a little manure crawl?

don.markus@baltsun.com

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