Bruce Foster loves an adventure. The tougher, the better.
In past years, Foster has rode his bike 300-plus miles from his Lincoln residence to the Canadian border and back a few times. He’s also participated in the Sunday River Mountain Epic trail running challenge, a handful of Odyssey Adventure Racing multi-day expedition adventure races, and a few other over-the-top challenges to test his personal boundaries and push himself to the limit.
But none of his past experiences came close to measuring up to the challenge he endured two weekends ago.
Foster and his brother, Jeff Foster, were put to an extreme test at the 2011 Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vt., a 45-hour ultra-endurance test through a 40-mile course that runs deep through the forest and throws several physical and mental challenges at those who are brave enough to try to conquer them. It’s the featured event of the Spartan Race Series, and one that’s certainly not for the faint at heart.
How difficult and grueling is this race, whose web site is appropriately tabbed www.youmaydie.com ? On the event’s first night, on Friday, June 24, at 6 p.m., it began with 155 participants from 29 states and Canada. On the final day, Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m., only 35 of them (four of them females) ended up as finishers, and six crossed the finish line before the 45-hour time limit.
Bruce Foster, a 1980 graduate of Lincoln High, and Jeff Foster, an ’84 LHS graduate and Cranston resident, were not only two of the six who finished before the curfew, but they and defending race champion Joe Decker of San Diego, Calif. actually finished the race together in just under 40 hours, more than 4 1/2 hours than the next three finishers, including the top female finisher, Grace Cuomo Durfee of Fair Haven, Vt.
“The director of the race came up to us and said, ‘You guys decide who wins,’ ” said Bruce Foster. “Joe has his own fitness company and does physical fitness and boot camps and stuff like that, so we figured we would just let him (win) because he could benefit more from it than either my brother or I would. We said he could have first if my brother and I could tie for second, and the (race) director said fine.”
Bruce Foster, who works at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, took some time out of a quiet, relaxing Saturday morning at home to talk about his wild, adventuresome weekend in what seemed like the middle of nowhere in Vermont and recall the different trials and tribulations he and his brother encountered on their way to their remarkable finishes.
“The funny thing about this race was that we started out in church and ended up in church,” Foster said with a laugh. “The whole theme of this year’s event was religion, and every year, it’s a different theme. Last year was money, and next year will be betrayal.”
Everyone was equipped with a backpack that contained 20-25 pounds of gear that were necessary for the long race, such as drills, a headlamp, tape measures. a small ax, a couple of sections of climbing rope, and a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil. Competitors also carried a change of clothes and an extra pair of shoes and socks.
The group of 155 then went to Amee Farm, which served as the headquarters of the race, and faced their first challenge. For nearly half of those participants, it turned out to be the only one they would do.
“They had us put 13 rocks in a circle with a bale of hay and a PVC pipe filled with water in the middle, which weighed about 200 pounds,” recalled Foster. “And then they broke up everybody into groups of 13, so if you were in your group, you stood behind a rock and you had to pick up the rock, put it down, and move to the left until you came back to your rock. Then everyone stepped to the middle, picked up the bale of hay and the PVC pipe together, and that was considered one lift. And you had to do that 150 times.
“People were dropping out at that point. There were a couple of broken feet because people were dropping rocks on their feet. I think (the race directors) were thinking that it was going to take about three or four hours to do the whole thing, so after 5-5 1/2 hours, they said, ‘All right, everybody put your rocks down. Put them in a pile. We’re moving on to the next thing.’ ”
By that point, Friday night turned into the wee hours of Saturday morning. It was 12:30 a.m., and after the participants ventured down a trail, they faced their next challenge.
“We had to get into a river, which was flowing pretty good,” said Foster. “I’d say it was Class 1, maybe Class 2 rapids. We had to hike against the water for 2 1/2 miles and get to a pond known as Spring Bed, which I think maintains a water temperature of 41 degrees year round. They were volunteers there who had fires, but we weren’t allowed to go near the fires. If we did, we’d be disqualified.”
The shivering participants finally got out of the cold water and next to some fire, but it wasn’t the kind of fire they hoped would warm their bodies.
“We went to a big field, where somebody then handed you a candle,” said Foster. “There was an obstacle course, and you had to keep your candle lit as you went through it, If your candle went out, you had to start over. You had to do the whole routine seven times, and once you gave them the candle back, you went back into the water and you started hiking all over again.”
And that wasn't even the start of the race yet.
“The race started probably a couple of hours after that,” said Foster. “They made you hike to another section, where you picked up a 50-pound log, and you had to carry it to the top of a mountain. At the top, there was a religious message that you had to memorize, so you memorized it, carried your log back to the bottom of the mountain, and recited it for somebody there. If you got it wrong, you went back up the mountain with your log and had to memorize it again.”
At that point, there was a group of 8-10 competitors that were jockeying for the lead. Then came the real challenges.
“We had to cut a log in half, in a three-foot section that was about 30-40 pounds, and we carried it for next 30 hours -- up one mountain, down that mountain, up another mountain, down that mountain -- and all that time, whenever you got to a certain point at that mountain, you had to do a task.
“One time, we had to go to a place called Roger’s Onion Shack and take our log, throw it into a pond up there, and stack five wheelbarrows full of wood, When you were done, you had to run back, jump into the pond, find your log, because your (race) number was drilled on the log, and bring it back with you on the mountain.”
Some of the other tasks called for the competitors to:
-- Do 100 burpees, which was each comprised of a push up, quick jump up, and a jumping jack.
-- Crawl through a drainage pipe (that was 100 feet long and a little more than two feet in diameter) with their backpack.
-- Crawl under 100 feet of barbed wire.
-- Carry a 10-gallon bucket full of water and their log up a mountain. The water had to stay within two inches of the top of the bucket. If it didn’t stay that high, they had to start over.
-- Take a 175-question test to recall information given to them at the start of the race and throughout the course. This was a good way to see how mentally drained the competitors were.
-- Go to a table full of cucumber plants, take 10 of them, go a couple of miles down a road, and plant them in a field on a farm.
And once everyone was done with all the tasks, the participants jumped back into the icy river, hiked a couple of miles down it, and returned to Amee Farm for the finish.
“Wherever you were on the course, at 3 p.m. on Sunday, you had to make sure you were in church and showered and clean-dressed for service,” said Foster. “People were coming off the course in the middle of the race and planning on going back out into the race after the service and finishing it. The race directors asked the other 29 before church if they planned on definitely going back onto the course, and if they said, ‘Yes, we’re definitely going back out,’ then they considered them finishers and they told them that in church during the service.”
What were the Foster brothers awarded for their finishes?
“We got a little plastic skull for a trophy and a ‘good job, we’ll see you next year,’ from (the race directors),” Foster said with a laugh. “And we also got a t-shirt.”
But earning the small trophy and the t-shirt wasn’t the reason why Foster wanted to compete in this insane competition.
“It’s just another reason for me to keep training hard,” he said. “A bunch of us just went out for a bike ride and we were talking about how you always have to have something planned. That gives you a reason to get up and just keep training. Otherwise, if you really don’t have a reason to train, it’s really easy to sit here and say, ‘Forget about it.’ I’m always trying to compete against myself, and I like to try and say, ‘I wonder if I could make it to here in this amount of time?’ ”
How does one train and succeed in an adventure race as treacherous as the Spartan Death Race? To Foster, there’s really no set schedule of training that you would normally find in a manual or online.
“My brother and I split wood constantly, and I have big backhoe tires, the rear ties, and we’d carry them, flip them, and do everything,” said Foster. “We have a bunch of people who come with us and train, and we’ll take them to Lincoln Woods or Chase Farm, and we’ll just flip the tires, even if it’s in the snow. We also carry buckets of sand, and we just keep challenging each other. Every other week, it will be my decision to make up the training and Jeff won’t know what it is, and the other week will be my brother’s week and I’ll just have to show up and do whatever.
“But a lot of it is a mental challenge. You just have to be able to mentally put the pain and what you’re doing aside. You can’t look at the race as a whole and worry about what you have to do in the future. If they tell you to take a log and bring it from Point A to Point B, worry about just doing that. Don’t worry about what you have to do next.”
But what does Foster plan to do next? There are a handful of competitive bike rides in his near future, as well as a few more adventure races, including a winter (and a lot shorter) Death Race back in Vermont and next year’s Expedition Idaho, a 600-mile race over seven days that highlights his to-do list. And there’s the 12th annual North American Wife Carrying Championships in mid-September in Newry, Maine that he plans to do with his wife, Sheri.
And as for another go-round with the Spartan Death Race?
“I’ll definitely be back,” said Foster. “I’m turning 50 next year and I plan on winning it. This time, we’re not giving this win away.”