By Pete Chiodo
Just packing for the Death Race can mess with one’s head.
“We tried to get five pounds of hay crushed into a bag (with a vacuum seal), but it’s still giant,” said Meadville native Amy Palmiero-Winters, who will be one of the competitors at this year’s Death Race, which begins today in Pittsfield, Vt.
“Five pounds of hay is huge,” she said. “We wanted to try to fit it inside a backpack. But it’s still bigger than the backpack. So, somehow it’s going to have to go on top.”
Five pounds of hay is just one of the items that competitors must carry with them during the 50-mile, obstacle-heavy, mind-bending Death Race, which turns out to be just as sinister as the name would suggest.
Other needed items include an axe, a hand shovel, 10 feet of rope, 1 pound of grass seed, $5 in quarters, safety goggles, a life jacket and a tuxedo.
What are all these items for?
The runners don’t know. The details of the Death Race — the map of the course, the obstacles, the mental challenges, the very duration of the event (48 hours? 72 hours? More?) — is kept secret until they unfold during the competition.
In past versions of the Death Race, athletes were tasked with challenges like chopping wood; cutting bushels of onions; digging up a tree stump and then carrying it around for the rest of the race; hauling buckets of gravel to fill potholes; even memorizing the names of 10 presidents, hiking up a mountain, and then reciting those names back in order.
Many of the events serve as a back-breaking form of community service for the small town of Pittsfield.
“Usually when I go to a race I know where I have to start and where I have to finish,” Palmiero-Winters said from her current home in Hicksville, N.Y. “This one is a completely different ball game. It’s all about deceit, betrayal, about how the mind plays tricks on you when you don’t get to a specific point but you’ve been out there for so long.
“The race directors and crew, everyone out there, is all playing games in order to break the person.”
According to the Death Race website — youmaydie.com — 90 percent of the competitors will not finish the event.
This is not your typical marathon.
Then again, Palmiero-Winters is not your typical athlete.
For the past 16 years, overcoming monumental obstacles has kind of been Palmiero-Winters’ thing.
Her left leg was amputated three inches below the knee following a motorcycle accident in 1997. An avid athlete at the time, she was told she would never run again.
Boy, was that prognosis off.
Palmiero-Winters went on to become a renowned figure in the world of running. Within a decade of the accident she was back in competition and setting new standards for amputee athletes.
In 2006, she set a new world record in the marathon for a female below-the-knee amputee (3:04.16 at the Chicago Marathon); was later the first below-the-knee amputee to finish the Western States 100-miler; and was the first female below-the-knee amputee to complete the Badlands Ultramarathon, a 135-mile trek through Death Valley in the heart of the summer.
She’s a winner of the James E. Sullivan Award for the top amateur athlete in America and was even nominated for an ESPY Award — an accolade presented yearly by ESPN to recognize individual and team athletic achievements. Her exploits have been reported on numerous television shows, magazines and all over the Internet.
In between her odds-defying athletic endeavors, Palmiero-Winters is also raising two children — 9-year-old Carson and 8-year-old Madilynn. And she helps others overcome their own obstacles both as a motivational speaker and as program director for A Step Ahead Prosthetics, a company that provides prosthetics and other kinds of care for amputees.
In fact, earlier this month, Palmiero-Winters was a guest on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show to discus A Step Ahead’s mission to provide prosthetics and support for the children who lost limbs in the recent Boston Marathon bombings.
‘An amazing adventure’
As the first amputee to take on the Death Race, she views the event as another opportunity to prove that nothing is off limits.
“It’s going to be an amazing adventure,” Palmiero-Winters said. “It going to take a lot of things from who you thought you were and pull them all out.”
She has a specially designed prosthesis she uses for running. However, for the Death Race, with its unknown challenges, she’ll be using a more versatile walking prosthesis.
“The foot shell, we filled that up with a specific kind of foam, that way water and mud won’t seep into there,” she said. “If water and mud get in there it makes the leg a lot heavier.”
For other ways the prosthesis could come into play this weekend, she’ll have to wait and see.
The only thing that is known beforehand is that it’s going to be a tough few days.
And that’s just the way Palmiero-Winters likes it.
“This kind of race is about reaching your limit and knowing that you can give more,” she said. “In my mind, I feel that’s where my strength is at. If we’re running 135 miles, the first 40 or 50 are a struggle. Nothing works right, nothing feels right. After that, once I get past that 40-mile or 50-mile mark, everything works well together, everything smoothes out and I feel better, I feel relaxed. When other people start to break apart, I can hold together well.
“I’m happy with that.”
You can follow the race
Live updates from the 2013 Death Race in Pittsfield, Vt., can be found at vermontsoriginalstore.com/pittsfieldrace.html.
Pete Chiodo can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.