Franklin Regional graduates find Spartan Death Race a 'discovering-yourself experience' in endurance

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The title of the extreme adventure race pretty much sums it up -- the Spartan Death Race.

Held in Pittsfield, Vt., in June, it is a grueling test of physical and mental endurance that can last for 48 to 60 hours.

"It is the pinnacle of the adventure races," said Nicholas Lieb, 26, of Swissvale, who will compete with his brother Adam, 27, and cousin Chris Bertini, 26, of Peters.

Mr. Bertini, who graduated from Peters High School and Temple University, ran in the Vermont race last year but had to quit after 28 hours when blisters on his feet forced him to stop. The Liebs graduated from Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, and Adam currently lives in Austin, Texas.

All three predict they will complete the race, but the odds are tough. Only about 10 percent to 15 percent of those who begin the race finish it; last year, 40 of the initial 300 finished.

"It takes a weird person to want to do this," said Mr. Bertini.

"After 20 hours my feet were destroyed last year -- after being on a trail that was really in a stream. I had rocks in my shoes and that caused me to get blisters all over my feet, on the bottoms and everywhere. I couldn't walk for a week."

"The Spartan Death Race is really a discovering-yourself experience," he said. "I learned that I could work a lot harder than I thought I could ... four hours in, you want to quit, and you go through constant highs and lows, but you keep going.

"It's more mental than physical," he said. "It's about not letting your brain quit. And it's challenging -- hiking in the dark for a long time, even though you wear a headlamp. It gets depressing, but then all of a sudden it's morning and the sun comes up."

"A lot of it is mental," said Nick Lieb, "because you don't know when the race is going to end, so you have to keep pushing yourself."

Participants don't know in advance what the challenges will be, either.

They may have to lift 1,000 pounds over five hours -- by continuously lifting 50-pound weights -- before the race even begins. Then, they might hike 12 miles through the woods, and have to carry large objects like logs. They may have to walk through a muddy creek during the next leg, and climb a mountain, memorize the first 10 presidents and have to recite them to a person at the bottom. The race usually requires chopping wood for several hours.

"You can't rely on what they did last year," said Mr. Bertini. "They try to break people, that's the whole point."

But racers know that the event, no matter what the obstacles, will push their bodies to their limits -- because there is no sleeping. It is an individual race, not a team race, so there's no passing the baton off to a teammate.

"I realize now how much more difficult it was than I thought," he said. "The pace is so high, there is no time to stop, you eat whatever you have in your backpack, and you don't really notice you are so tired until you sit down."

Why would people want to put themselves through such punishment?

"The drive for me is to see what the human body can do," said Nick Lieb.

"In society today, we're not challenging the body to its full maximum that you can reach. So we're pushing the envelope to see what people can achieve. This race takes us back to our most primitive state. Today, we're working in an office for 40 hours a week, and that's how our society has evolved. But this goes back to our more basic society, when people had to be more physical."

"My cousins really got me into the adventure races," said Mr. Bertini. "We did the Men's Health Urbanathlon in Chicago, but that was really just running through the city and climbing over obstacles like taxis."

The three had wanted to run last year's Spartan race together, but Nicholas and Adam were busy with school.

"This summer is the right time for us," said Nick Lieb. "I'll be finished at Pitt Dental School, before I go into the Air Force. And my brother will be done with business school."

And mentally, Mr. Bertini thinks having that support and camaraderie will be important. "It will really help to have someone else there this year," he said.

Obstacle races, similar to basic military training, have become popular across the country, and are held in most major cities.

"These obstacle adventure races have really taken off in the last five years," said Nick Lieb. "It's crazy how quickly they took off. There are three companies that do it, the Tough Mudder, the Warrior Dash and the Spartan Death Race.

"The Spartan race is always held in Vermont, that's where the creators live. It started among friends about five years ago and has been growing bigger each year."

Many of these races involve getting muddy -- one more way to make participants uncomfortable.

The cousins are already training hard for the race, which is four months away.

Nick Lieb has played sports -- he was on the tennis team while attending Allegheny College. And he is a runner. He is training in Frick Park, by jogging with a 50-pound weight vest and stopping to carry heavy objects along a trail. He also will run the Pittsburgh Marathon, a 26.2-mile race, in May.

"I still go to the gym and run, but it's the unconventional training that will prepare you," he said.

Mr. Bertini ran cross country track in high school, and is doing a lot of strength training and chopping a lot of wood.

Participants bring their own ax and their own food tthey carry in a backpack.

"I'll probably take a lot of power bars, beef jerky and other things with protein," said Mr. Bertini. "Some people brought baked potatoes last year and I think I'll take some of those."

The Spartan race costs $600 per person, but Mr. Lieb said some of the proceeds go to charity each year.

The race will begin Friday, June 21, and end sometime the following Sunday.

"Everyone who finishes this race is a winner," Mr. Lieb said.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer:


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