Since pulling free from a bout of Hodgkin's lymphoma five years ago, Cleveland firefighter Mark Sahley has been looking to put himself through the most extreme physical challenges legally available to a thrill-seeking maniac. He found a perfect home in the Spartan Death Race held last month. The yearly Vermont event straps participants in for a 50-plus hour slam dance of body-wrecking challenges and mental torture. To get an idea of the ordeal, consider how Sahley and his friend and training partner T.J. DiDonato reached their moment of glory: After falling behind, the pair were told they'd been disqualified and could quit or unofficially finish the race — meaning they wouldn't take home the coveted trophy, a plastic skull. The two pressed on, punching through an event where they had to roll on their sides through a grueling six-mile course. Once done, the metaphoric champagne popped: The disqualification had been a trick. In truth, they had completed the race and were among only 59 of 260 participants to finish.
As if finishing the race wasn't enough, you did it in this dramatic fashion — they mindfucked you by saying you were disqualified and you could quit or finish just to finish. After plugging on and completing, they said you'd actually finished.
I'm actually more proud of that. There were eight out of the 59 finishers who finished under that falsity that they had been disqualified. And I'm proud of being in that minority because that's a little more of a challenge to continue on for your own reasons than for the people who will get the skulls in the end and be an official finisher.
What was the lowest point of the race?
It had to be the rolling challenge. Had that challenge come sooner in the race, it would have been different. It was the last challenge, but we didn't know it was the last challenge — you don't know when the end is. But also doing it thinking we were disqualified, and we were just doing it to do it. It was some 50 hours into the race. I was thinking, "Why am I still doing this when it doesn't even matter?" I was so exhausted, and it was so hard to tell myself it was worth it, but I had said that I was not going to quit no matter what ... they'll have to drag me off this mountain.
You trained for many months. Did you overdo it, or did it all help?
Everything that I did was great preparation for this race just because it was such a wide variety of things. It was such a complete full-body test. I was working out my whole body all the time. It's tough to train for something when you have no idea what you'll be doing. You've got to just cover all the bases. SEALFIT and CrossFit are full-body workouts. I did a lot of cardio, overnight hikes. I chopped wood, I swung sledgehammers and hit this big truck tire for hours at a time. I did lifting and tons of burpees. I did everything I knew they could possibly throw at me from past races. It was all helpful.
You must have been banged up after the race.
I just healed up in the last few days to where I'm going to start working out again. I thought I had bad injuries in both legs. I literally made a doctor's appointment right when I got home. I thought I might have torn ligaments in my left knee and a stress fracture in my right leg. I was lucky. There were a lot of injuries just like those. Mine ended up just being overuse. Other than that, my feet were pretty blistered up.
You had some pretty compelling reasons for doing this because of your past illness. Did you get everything out of it you wanted?
Absolutely. Ever since I was sick and got better, man, I'm just trying to do so many things. Anything that I can think of I've ever wanted to do or that I see that looks fun, I'm going to do it. This race kind of came out of nowhere, but once I saw it I thought I'd love to do that. I'd love to test myself to see if I'm still as tough as I think I am. And it became such a journey and obsession once I got into it.
Would you do it again?