Airman's inner Spartan shines during 'Death Race'

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Adam Orton is far from the ultra-endurance athletes, military special operators and seasoned adventure athletes typically found at the starting line of the annual Spartan Death Race.

The 20-year-old aerospace propulsion journeyman with the 74th Aircraft Maintenance Unit has yet to even compete in a half-marathon. But, a 5'11", 165-pound frame hides his disproportionate strength, endurance and determination. Orton endured 30 hours of arguably the world's toughest race. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the competitors will even cross the finish line.

The Spartan Death Race consists of more than 48 hours of running through Vermont's mountain trails carrying 50 pounds of gear and more than 15 mental and physical challenges. These challenges range from chopping wood for hours at a time, to, in previous races, translating Greek phrases or reciting the names of U.S. presidents.

"They don't tell you how long or how far the race is, and that's one of the things that appealed to me," said Orton. "It's all about mental and physical endurance. How far can you go? I just kept telling myself to get through one more event.

"I think I did about 2,000 burpees throughout the whole race," he added. "At one point, we did 700 within a two-hour period. It was just stupid."

But the man who endured 2,000 burpees and countless other feats of endurance and strength comes from humble beginnings.

It was a small, Virginia town where Orton remembers competing in the Great Train Race as a child. It was this one-mile loop around the train station where he first showed interest in running and endurance events. He said he never ran any big races when he was younger and still doesn't like to run more than 10 miles.

When Orton got to Moody, a supervisor noticed his interest in working out. She asked Orton if he would be interested in running a Spartan Sprint, a three mile run with obstacles.

"I never heard of it before, but I liked the idea of it so I said let's do it," said Orton. "I finished in the top 10 percent for my first race, so I started looking for what other events they had. I saw the Death Race, and I just wanted to try. I didn't think I would finish, but I really wanted to see how far I could go."

Unlike many other races, the Spartan Death Race doesn't offer detailed maps, water stations or final distances. The competitors don't know what events to train for or even how long the race will last. The theme for this year's race was betrayal.

The competitors and even support teams were betrayed from the minute they registered. Competitors were sent emails with false information, told to fill out forms that didn't exist and given information that was completely irrelevant. The organizers even created a fake Vermont Parks and Recreation website to confuse competitors.

During the first portion of the race, the competitors were divided into teams of 10, 15 or 20. Orton's team of 10 carried a kayak weighing 300 pounds for 15 miles over their heads. Then, they switched to a 12-inch PVC pipe about seven feet long filled with water, weighing 300 pounds, which they carried for another 25 miles.

"To train, I would chop trees for this guy," said Orton. "I would chop trees for often times six hours and walk up and down the street carrying a log. It's great for upper body strength. I also lift weights, run and do a lot of cardio. But you can't train for a race like this."

One person who helped Orton increase his strength was his workout partner, Donald Gibbs, 23d Maintenance Group Air Force Engineering and Technical Services.

"I met him when he first got here, while he was working in the back shop," said Gibbs. "I know he used to wake up early, do his own workout, and then do the normal PT. We started talking one day, and he asked me about my workout partner. I told him I didn't have one, because they are unreliable and always have an excuse not to be there. He asked me if I wanted to workout with him, and I told him to be at the gym at 4:15. He showed up that day, and has been there ever since.

"It's his drive," he added. "Even when working out with me, he pushes himself and doesn't stop. I'm a good bit bigger than he is, but he tries to match me pound for pound."

But for Orton, it wasn't meant to be this year. After 30 hours, 50 miles through unforgiving terrain, suffering from dehydration, sleep deprivation, bleeding feet and total exhaustion, he dropped out of the race. Of the almost 300 people who showed up to compete in the death race, less than 100 people remained after 30 hours.

"My feet soaked up so much water they stared cracking and bleeding," he said. "I tried walking for more than an hour with my shoes off to dry them out. It helped some but not really. This is where will to keep going came in, because every step was so painful, it felt like I was stepping on broken glass.

"I kept running until I literally couldn't run anymore. My feet were so torn up I couldn't run, so I decided to be responsible and drop out. We had to take the loser's way out and walk back. We weren't allowed to get a ride back. When I was walking back, I could see people scattered all over, passed out from exhaustion.

"After the race, I told my dad he would have to make all the decisions for me for the next day," Orton added. "I was so exhausted and dehydrated, I couldn't think straight. He ordered me some food, and I literally passed out while eating."

Despite limping away after not finishing, Orton said he enjoyed the experience and hopes to compete again.

"I love the people," said Orton. "When I competed in my first Spartan Race, I met some great people. Everybody just wants to finish, and everybody goes through the same things. Nobody has an advantage, and everybody starts out even. That's what appealed to me most.

"I would love to do it again," he added. "It was a great experience actually being able to push yourself until failure. The people were some of the most inspiring people I've ever met. They came from all around the world to compete in a race where they most likely wouldn't even finish. Their determination was so astounding it even kept me going."

Orton said there was a diverse group of people who competed in the Spartan Death Race, including teachers, lawyers and a team of U.S. Navy SEALs. He said there were people who did well in the race who didn't look like experienced, well conditioned athletes.

As the old saying goes, "don't judge a book by its cover."

"A lot of people look at his size and don't expect much," said Gibbs. "But, it's not the size of the dog in the fight. It's the size of the fight in the dog. Don't misjudge him or his will."