WEST BOCA RATON — Firefighter Joe Falcone puts his life on the line every day for the community of West Boca Raton and the Palm Beaches, but even his time off is spent risking it all. He’s packing up for a vacation from hell in February to compete in a Winter Death Race.
Signing up for a New Year’s 5K knowing you’ll have to wake up the morning after New Year’s Eve takes a special kind of person. That’s a “death race” in its own right.
It takes someone a little more extreme to sign up for a race with a waiver that literally reads: “You May Die.”
Yep. You read that correctly.
When putting pen to paper ahead of his first Death Race in 2012, Falcone recalled wondering, “What the heck did I get myself into?”
Four Death Races later — and alive — Falcone said his wife has yet to find the slogan “very entertaining.”
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Nonetheless, Falcone will be racing again Feb. 9-11 in and around the Green Mountains of Pittsfield, Vermont, the site for all ultra-endurance events organized by host Peak Races.
The company website warns potential participants: “We provide no support. We don’t tell you when it starts. We don’t tell you when it ends. We don’t tell you what it will entail.”
And from what limited information on the race can be found, not one participant has died.
Not yet, at least.
How to win a Death Race
Beyond the motivation provided by, “We want you to fail and encourage you to quit at any time,” the website reveals no “distance ‘minimum’ …or a discernible finish length,” only that races can last upward of 70 hours and the terrain to be encountered is “unexpectedly challenging.”
It’s impossible to know exactly what trails Falcone and other participants will be trekking. The only pin drop provided is Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport.
To get an idea of the “unexpected” challenges Falcone and friends may face, Vermont’s Long Trail — the oldest long-distance trail in the United States located in the Green Mountains where the races are held — offers a host of them.
Among “special considerations” to take according to the Green Mountain Club, founders and maintainers of the trail, are bears and “alpine zones” at the summits of Camel’s Hump, Mount Mansfield, and Mount Abe, which have some of the country’s only alpine tundra.
With no knowledge from the website or prior experience on what to expect in a harsh winter, Falcone offered a short video with a handful of potential scenarios.
The first clip, after a vast landscape of snow-doused alpine mountains, was a participant carrying a 2-by-4 down a hill only to slip and drop the wooden plank on the head of another competitor. Another featured racers working together to move 900-pound blocks of ice.
One of the last scenes was a shivering athlete lying atop what looked to be burning brush, fighting to avoid hypothermia.
“The human body is controlled by the mind,” Falcone said, calling training for the race the hardest part. Especially for someone living in always sunny, mountainless Florida.
Preparation ‘You May Die’ for
Sugarloaf Mountain is Florida’s highest point, a 312-foot summit 15 minutes from Clermont, about four hours from Falcone in West Boca Raton.
Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, which Falcone could find himself climbing, peaks at a whopping 4,393 feet.
“There are no specific skills to train for other than chopping wood and hiking with heavy things. So I train by running, hiking with a weighted backpack, dragging a tire on the levee for miles, lifting weird heavy things like rocks, carrying buckets with weight, chopping wood, and a lot of HIIT workouts,” Falcone said. “I have been participating in extreme cold races for the past few years building up my experience and cold-weather racing resume.”
In February, Falcone finished a 135-mile winter ultra-marathon in northern Minnesota, pulling a sled stocked with all of his gear for the entirety of the race in deep-freeze conditions.
“Cold weather requires a ton of gear and the knowledge of how to use everything in an emergency situation,” Falcone said, calling his biggest fear a scenario that requires action to prevent “serious consequences” from hypothermia.
Falcone said he practices using his gear before he goes and tries to have a plan “A, B and C” in case the “You May Die” slogan becomes too real.
Essentials like insulated jackets, mittens, layers, a first aid kit, fire starter, hand warmers and an “emergency bivvy,” a small bivouac shelter to climb into for warmth, will be in tow, plus food, a headlamp, a camp stove and an axe.
According to Falcone, Death Races are also “BYOB”: bring your own bucket — 5 gallons for “various reasons.”
“There is also a required gear list but I haven’t received it yet. Usually a month out from race is when that comes out,” Falcone said. “I’ll have a pack I wear and that can weigh anywhere from 30 to 40 pounds.”
Although he doesn’t fully know what to expect in his first winter Death Race, Falcone’s question of what he got himself into before his first summer Death Race was answered by 62 grueling hours of obstacle-riddled physical activity, highlighted by hallucinations, sleepwalking and extreme fatigue.
“But I was able to push through all of that and finish the race,” Falcone said. “That experience set the tone for many years of endurance racing.”
Only 10% to 15% are said to complete the race. Those who make it to the end aren’t called winners but “finishers.”
Falcone’s only DNFs came in a Summer Death Race and Team Death Race with three other firefighter-co-workers back in 2013.
“I honestly don’t know how you would win a Death Race,” Falcone said. “The rules change all the time and most are out there to just finish.”
“I suppose if you finished all the tasks first you would be declared a winner, but I think they would just give you another task and wait for you to quit.”
Where the drive to survive began
Falcone was inspired to compete in Death Races when a friend at the fire department showed him an Outside magazine article feature in 2011, but his side gig as an ultra-endurance athlete began three years earlier with his first Ironman race — a one-day event consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile run in that order.
That was the kiss of death, if you will, for Falcone.
“I had already done a couple of Ironman triathlons and some ultra-running but the idea of this crazy race just struck me as something I had to do,” Falcone said. “Once I started down this path of multiday races there was no turning back.”
Acknowledging the absurdity of the events, Falcone said the best part is that endurance races keep him mentally and physically prepared for the chaos that could occur while on duty as a firefighter.
“One thing that resonated with me when I first learned of this race was that most races will give you support, tell you how far along you are and encourage you to finish,” Falcone said. “Not this race — they tell you nothing, encourage you to quit and change the rules frequently.”
“Just like life, nothing is fair, constant and/or guaranteed,” Falcone said of the series. “Thankfully I have a supportive wife and kids that support me heading out on these crazy adventures.”