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The Death Race pushes former Glenelg runner to the extreme

Scott O'Donnell has lived a nomadic and eventful existence. "That is a good way to put it," said his mother, Josie.

After growing up an only child in West Friendship, he attended Catonsville Community College and Frostburg State before graduating from University of Maryland University College with a degree in business administration.

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The 1989 Glenelg High graduate worked on Capitol Hill, was an actor in Los Angeles and a featured extra in two notable movies. He taught deaf students in Florida and Texas, and is now in theU.S. Armyas a combat medic stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York.

So it should come as no surprise that O'Donnell, a cross country runner at Glenelg, was curious when he ran across information about The Death Race on a website, http://www.youmaydie.com.

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"How could you not click on a link that says Death Race? It has death and race in the same sentence," recalls O'Donnell, who was living in Texas at the time, in 2009. "The more I read about it, the more I wanted to get involved."

So the next year, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound O'Donnell entered an event that includes this description on its website: "The hurdle and challenge-driven race requires competitors to complete a series of (15-20) grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 40-miles course that runs through the Vermont woods.

"During The Death Race, competitors may be asked to chop wood for two hours, carry a 20-pound stump around for hours, life 10-30 pounds rocks for five hours; build a fire, cut a bushel of onions, crawl through mud under barbed wire or after 20 hours of racing memorize the names of the first 10 U.S. presidents or a Bible verse, hike to the top of a mountain and recite them back in order."

O'Donnell was one of 200 competitors at the event in 2010 and one of only 19 who finished; he ended up in 17th place.

"Finishing The Death Race takes a lot of courage," Andy Weinberg, one of the event organizers, wrote in an email. "You have to be willing to push yourself mentally and physically and you have to be willing to go places you've never gone before. Participating in the event is very challenging. Being able to push to the finish requires you to step out of your comfort zone on many different levels."

'I love a challenge'

"I love a challenge," said O'Donnell, 41, who admits he has a penchant for the unconventional. "I entered the Army when I was 41. I was not just a teacher: I was a teacher for the deaf. I was an actor."

Last month, on June 15, O'Donnell entered the two-day Death Race for the second time, again in the unforgiving mountains of Vermont, near Pittsfield.

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This time, the ending was not as successful.

"I did not finish," he said matter-of-factly. "I stopped at 40 hours and 50-plus miles."

O'Donnell said he was in the midst of carrying a 60-pound bag of cement, along with about 20 pounds of personal supplies, up a mountain when he stopped. "When I quit, I was in fifth place," adds O'Donnell, who estimated that he was a few hours from the finish.

O'Donnell used the experience to reflect, much as he has built on previous life events.

"I cannot stand the words 'can't' and 'quit,' "he said. "I walked off that (expletive) course. I was with the first and third-place guys. Maybe six more hours, and I would have been done.

"I was close. I was at the end. I had that weakness."

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But O'Donnell, who entered the Army early in 2011, took away lessons from the experience.

"I did my best. I challenged myself. For five minutes I was a quitter," he added.

"I only see it as a failure if I don't learn from it. In the middle of the night, I learned a lot about myself. It was a journey of self discovery.

"I wanted to see what I was made of: In our normal life we don't get to do that."

Mental toughness

What type of person becomes an extreme athlete?

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O'Donnell played football, and ran indoor and outdoor track at Glenelg under veteran head coach Roger Volrath. "He was a big influence on my life," O'Donnell said.

"He got interested in track and field when he was in high school," said his mother, who has lived with O'Donnell's father, Bill, in West Friendship since 1977. "He got bit by the bug and he has never let go."

But it takes more than an athletic person to complete the Death Race. Like many sports, it requires a mental toughness and perhaps a cerebral view on life.

"He has always thought outside of the box, if you want to use one of the more modern terms," said Josie O'Donnell.

Scott O'Donnell spent about four years in California early last decade. During that time, he was a featured extra in "Hart's War" (2002), starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell; and "Down with Love" (2003), starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

After he received his master's in deaf education through a program at the University of Southern California, he taught in Florida and then at a school for the deaf in Texas.

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During that time, he remained committed to an active, physical lifestyle — one that goes beyond that of the normal weekend warrior.

"Even in high school and college sports, I was never an outstanding athlete. I was average, at best, at football," said O'Donnell. "At Catonsville, I started to take the running seriously, and I almost qualified for nationals."

O'Donnell said he got into martial arts in 1994, and, a few years later, extreme sports.

Texas boot camp

"When I was living in Austin, I was looking for boot camps to train in," he added. "I found a really good boot camp in Austin where I was paying $150 per month. If I am going to pay that much, I am going to show up every day. I found a running shoe store website that had links to various races around the country."

And that is when he came across The Death Race. O'Donnell had never run a marathon — he still hasn't — when he entered his first Death Race.

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His mother did not know the exact name of the race until she was contacted by a reporter earlier this month. "How do you spell it? Is that death, as in d-e-a-t-h?" she asked.

"We did not know much about it, just what Scott told us."

O'Donnell hopes to compete in another Death Race, perhaps in 2013. But a possible tour of duty in Afghanistan with The Army could delay his third appearance in the mountains of Vermont.

"I am proud of how far I got," he said of his second Death Race. "I can use that as fuel for the next time, when it really does matter.

"In my profession, there is going to be a time in your life when it really does matter."


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