Gene Collier: Only the 'crazy' ones need apply to this race

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Plenty of people work out, or so I hear, and this being the weekend, plenty of those plenty kick it up a notch, extending the length and intensity of their workouts for the greater benefit of what the pros sometimes call wellness.

Well.

That's not exactly what Ross DeFalle is doing this weekend.

"I just wrote up a couple of different workouts," Ross was telling me this week. "I'm gonna be up from Saturday morning until Sunday night, putting in a 36-hour session. While I do this, I'll wear an 80-pound weighted vest. I'll do it for 36 hours, with no food."

Because Ross DeFalle is crazy?

"It's crazy," he said. "I'll openly admit that."

But he's got to do it, because he's getting ready for something even crazier, something called the Spartan Death Race, which goes down June 27 in Pittsfield, Vt. The 29-year-old from Economy Borough competed last year, but got pulled from a Vermont reservoir by medical personnel after 55 hours.

It's not so much a race as a brain-bending marathon of obstacles designed by, um, what's the word, sadists.

"The Death Race is designed to push and aggravate people to such a point that even the most stoic eventually fail," said Joe De Sena, the Spartan's co-founder, in the event's official literature. "Only those people possessing incredible discipline under the most insane and even delusional circumstances can call themselves a finisher. These athletes are willing to complete the journey at all costs. The fact that people endured for 70 hours to see what they are made of is just remarkable and awe-inspiring."

And, c'mon, what else?

Crazy.

Ross sent me a YouTube video about the 2010 event. It was 13 minutes long. I was exhausted after three. Without getting out of my chair.

Participants in that 2010 race were required to carry 10 pounds of onions, $50 worth of pennies (weighing 27 pounds), a post-hole digger and a Greek textbook (Isn't this exactly what O.J. had with him in the Bronco?).

Organizers generally mislead the participants about the start time, fail to even designate a finish line, alter the prescribed tasks in the middle and award a semi-delirious handful of finishers with absolutely nothing.

"There's a skull," Ross corrects me. "But come Halloween, you literally could get the same thing for $10 at Party City. It's just that on this one, they write 'DR Finisher' with a Sharpie."

Oh, well, now you're talkin'.

And how did Ross qualify?

"The waiver said, 'You understand that you might die,' " he remembered. "As long as you were OK with that, they were gonna let you race."

It's pretty obvious then that entrants in the Death Race bring with them their own intricately calibrated motivation, and that's probably the bigger part of the story regarding Ross DeFalle. A baseball player and boxer at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina who took a masters degree from Arizona State, his athletic interests began to decline in his mid-20s, and that took him to a somewhat depressing place.

"Right at the end of 2011, I had a pretty big hiccup, just in life, for one reason or another," he said. "I pushed friends away. I was selfish. I wasn't there for people when they needed me. I was just me not acting right. From the end of 2011 through most of 2012, I didn't touch the gym.

"I ate, like, garbage, drank a lot of beer."

What, like me?

"Oh ... "

Yeah ... none taken.

"Really, I just wasn't a person I was proud of. Then I got a wake-up call toward the end of 2012 when Karl Shaginaw was putting a fitness program together through the Economy Volunteer Fire Department. I'm not a trainer, but I knew I could help him out with that, and I kind of got back in a groove."

So now, inside of 18 months, DeFalle has trained and grooved his thick 185-pound frame so relentlessly that he's capable of the most ferocious assaults on both his stamina and his will. He's already survived one Death Race, now he wants to be standing to hear somebody say, mercifully, blessedly, that it's over.

"I'm just kind of following through on a commitment and keeping a promise, a promise to me," he said. "For most of 2012 I sat on my tail and didn't do much of anything. Some friendships I had were well beyond fixing. What type of person can ruin something so quickly? Instead of powering through, I sank down. Now I just want to start doing things I never thought I'd be able to do. I'd give up racing and everything else to make things right with old friends. But I never thought I'd be interested in anything like this."

So in little more than three weeks, DeFalle heads off again to New England, but he swears he would never have gotten close without his training partners, Shaginaw, Christin Jamery, Chris Cerci, Mike Russell, Nicholas Sohyda, Bill Gaughn and Ed Dursi.

"Also my parents," he said, "who very easily could've turned their back while I did my best to self-destruct."

That Vermont mountain and its uber-demanding conspiratorial tortures have a purpose and a place in the right kind of life for Ross DeFalle. When you think of it like that, it's not quite crazy after all.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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