GREENFIELD — Devon Brown stood in the middle of Vermont National Forest half-naked, dripping wet and sleep-deprived.
He was off to a good start.
The Greenfield fitness enthusiast/personal trainer and obstacle course racer was 10 hours into crossing off an item that had only made its way on to his bucket list in the past couple years.
He was competing in a Peak Death Race.
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For those uninitiated to the death racing ways, it is an extreme endurance event designed for a singular purpose: to break its contestants, physically, mentally and spiritually. Put simply by the race’s Web page: It’s creators “want you to fail and encourage you to quit at any time.”
Entrants know very little about the race before it begins. They know what day — this year, it was June 26 — to be on the Green Mountains in Pittsfield, Vermont; they find out what gear is required to compete; and they discover they must sign a fatality waiver before they are allowed to begin.
All Brown and his fellow 90-plus competitors knew is that they were in store for a great deal of a pain for a long period of time.
A death racer’s mission is clear: survive. For that, each participant must give themselves to the race without letting it overwhelm them. They have to be willing to sacrifice blood, sweat and likely tears but remain in possession of their spirit.
The first challenge of this year’s race began around 2 a.m., after the competitors had been duped into staying awake for nearly an entire day.
Their first task, army crawl up a mountain and barrel roll back down with 60- to 70-pound packs on their backs, endured for about three hours.
They were then taken to a cold stream, where they were told to stand in chest-high, and the rules and theme of the race were outlined. The inspiration for the competition’s construct was, aptly, “life.”
“And in life, you’re born with nothing,” Brown said. “They made us unload our packs, which had enough supplies for about 70 hours, down to about 24 hours. They also made us strip down to our underwear and nothing else. No shoes.”
From there, after a birthing ceremony involving a sleeping bag and the creek, they marched on.
For nine hours.
With no clothes protecting their bodies and no shoes guarding their feet, they walked along old logging roads littered with hazards for their exposed extremities. For Brown, who had never trained barefoot, because, “why would you?,” the pain was excruciating.
“I felt like the bottoms of my feet were going to fall off,” he said.
Adding to his hoofed torture was a burn imprinted on the back of his neck after hours of friction between it and his pack rubbed the skin away — the scar is still visible more than a month later.
There also were Peak company employees to worry about. They, without warning, attacked from within the forest trying to pop the untied balloons the competitors were charged with carrying as part of the kindergarten stage of the life challenge. If they managed to puncture a balloon, the competitor and his team of nine other competitors (walking in a group was a national park mandate) suffered the penalty: 500 burpees.
After about 16 hours of constant punishment, Brown had enough. He resolved to quit.
However, in the death race, competitors are strongly encouraged — usually at the threat of severe penalty — to only stop at dropout points.
So, in order to not induce further penalty on he and his fellow competitors, Brown continued hiking for three more hours.
Finally, after nine hours of hiking, he reached a dropout point, where he proceeded to turn in his bib and call it quits.
In all, he endured 19 hours of punishment.
Brown doesn’t know what place he finished in, but he does know there were six champions who lasted 54 hours.
However, a month later, Brown does not look at the death race as a competition filled with those who won and those who didn’t.
It all depends on perspective, he said, and what each person went there to accomplish.
In his opinion, Brown came away victorious from the death race. Though 19 hours broke him physically, he emerged psychologically and spiritually stronger.
The Greenfield resident and Change Fitness owner said he put himself through that and other impediment-filled agony — he competes in about 35 obstacle races per year — for a purpose. Yes, he says with a smile, there is a logic behind the insanity.
The first purpose, as one might expect, is to challenge himself both physically and mentally. A college basketball player at Taylor University, and a fitness enthusiast, Brown has long desired to push himself to his limits. He prides himself on his endurance, but endurance untested is not a quality worth having, hence his fanatical obstacle racing schedule.
The second purpose, though, is infinitely more important to him.
The races, he said, make him a better man. They make him a better father, a better husband and a better trainer.
His healthy lifestyle, his wife Allison said, is an inspiration to their 2-year-old son, Dominic, and soon will be to their baby boy, Gabriel, (Allison is less than a week away from her due date).
“I love that my son loves to be in the gym with his dad,” said Allison, who has competed in a couple of obstacle races with Devon, though usually prefers more “normal” workout regiments. “I love that when everyone else seems to be on their iPads and iPhones, (Dominic) loves to be active.”
Devon also said the races have taught him patience when he and his wife disagree.
“When we argue about these sort of first-world problems,” said the IUPUI graduate, “it helps that I can think back on times where not (getting a chore done) was the least of my worries. I was more concerned with where my next source of food or water were going to come from. … It gives you a whole new perspective.”
That gained perspective, Devon said, is at the root of his excursions. The best part of competing in events like the death race is finding a perspective that has allowed him to relate to his clients.
Working it out
Devon, who trains clients out of his house but is willing to work with them at any time and any place, said he can now look into his trainees eyes, and say truthfully, that he has felt their pain.
When he has a 300-plus pound client who wants to lose 100 pounds, though he has never taken up that particular cause, his pain in the Vermont forest enables him empathize with the struggle to come.
When he is pushing one of his obese, elderly or physically impaired clients to run a 5K, and they look at him and say, well of course you think it’s easy; he can respond by saying I’ve pushed myself to my limits, too.
His own battles, he hopes, have made him more compassionate and more approachable.
He knows that his accomplishments, including competing in a death race, finishing 50 miles at the World’s Toughest Mudder and a world ranking of 371 in the Elite division of Spartan racing might sound intimidating to prospective clients looking to get in shape, but they should have the opposite effect, his wife said.
He doesn’t compete to show anyone up, she said. He does it to show others what they can achieve if they put their minds to it.
“His personality is … very accommodating, very understanding of others’ physical conditions,” Allison said. “He’s very encouraging. The people that work with him see that. They see that he truly wants to help. He’s not interested in judging. He’s compassionate.”
Merely to encourage others to obstacle race, Devon created a free team called the Champion Chasers that includes more than 400 members from Indiana down to Florida. He and his members have a near 100 percent completion of rate at those races because Devon is determined that, as a team, they never fail.
That is who Devon is and what his life has become. He is constantly encouraging others to be better versions of themselves.
“It’s like going into the gym and you see a super fit person,” Devon said. “Not to say that I’m super fit, but you look at them and say they’re unapproachable. And maybe they are at the beginning. But if you spend enough time at the gym, (you’ll see) those people who are around the most are usually the ones most willing to help.
“I think that’s what people end up seeing with me. They say ‘Hey, he really does care about me. He’s not this crazy workout guy. He’s genuinely interested in helping me.’ And that’s true.”
Name: Devon Brown
Family: Allison (wife), Dominic, 2, and soon Gabriel (about a week away from being born)
High School: Greensburg High School
College: Taylor University and IUPUI
Major: Physical education health
Job(s): Fitness enthusiast/personal trainer and owner of Change Fitness
Qualifications: Certified Personal Trainer; Fitness Nutrition Specialist
Hobby: Obstacle course racing
World rank: #371 in Elite division at Spartan Race
Recent accomplishments: Lasted 19 hours at Spartan Death Race; completed 50 miles at World’s Toughest Mudder; four-time Trifecta finisher in 2014.
For information about what fitness enthusiast Devon Brown does, to join his Champion Chasers obstacle course team or to talk to him about personal training, visit his website at ChangeYourFitness.com, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 317-674-3327.
Brown also is opening a gym in Greensburg, with his first camp scheduled for Aug. 10. Contact him for more information.