Living the life at Death races: Midlands woman proves her toughness, endurance

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 16, 2014 

Well past exhaustion after 30 straight hours of physical exertion in the mountains of Vermont, fighting through the pain of a toe dislocated six hours into her quest, Amie Meyer begins to hallucinate.

She sees things in the snow. She begins to see things in the trees.

She’s so out of it she scares the friends accompanying her on the final climbs up and down a frozen Vermont mountain in late January.

Crew member Mellisa Warden balances the need to push her friend with concerns about Amie’s health. Amie screams at her in a voice that sounds like something out of “The Exorcist.” The words are hard to decipher, but there’s some reference to putting spikes of her shoes up Warden’s butt.

A few minutes later, Amie stands up and keeps going, because that’s who she is.

Her foot is throbbing. She knows she has to make the last trip up and down the mountain in less than an hour. Her best time so far, when she was fresh, was 55 minutes. Deep down, as she makes that final push down the mountain, a part of Amie thinks it would be easier to collapse and die on the spot.

But then she hears them, dozens of others who had tested themselves through the same 36 hours of endurance and pain. They stuck around at the finish to encourage the last competitor with a chance to beat the time limit. They see her headlamp through the cold, night sky and start to cheer.

She rides that emotion to the finish line, just before the cutoff time.

And when she finishes, Amie collapses in the snow. She had earned the skull emblematic of finishing one of the Death Race series.

Testing physical, emotional limits

The Peak Death Race series, among the toughest in the growing field of endurance challenges, was created by ultramarathoners Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg to test racers mentally and physically. Death Racers have no idea what challenges await them when they arrive at the race site or even as the race unfolds. All they know is they want that plastic skull awarded to everyone who finishes under the time limit.

Amie, an Irmo-area personal trainer, crewed for another Death Racer last year and decided to try one of the races herself. In typical Amie Meyer fashion, that goal grew to include all four of the Death Race series events in 2014.

“My husband looked at me and said, ‘You know I think you have a disease. You’re sick, but go ahead,’” she says with a laugh.

This year’s Winter Death Race started with four hours of ballet-oriented workouts. Then, racers had to stand on one leg for 10 minutes with their other leg and their arms raised high. Then 20 minutes of frozen squats. Then 500 toe taps. And that was just the warm-up to start 36 muscle-straining, sleep-starved hours.

They ran from their base camp barn to a nearby farm carrying sand bags (35 pounds for women, 70 for men). That extra weight threw Amie off balance when her foot began to slip on an ice-covered trail. She tumbled, badly scraping her knee and dislocating a toe on her right foot.

“I’m pretty sure I hurt myself, but you just keep going,” she says.

A mom full of surprises

Now that you know a little about Amie, imagine her as a suburban stay-at-home mom in the car pool line. Of course she isn’t your typical stay-at-home mom. She and her husband, Wayne Meyer, had a gym built in their home, and Amie works there with her AIM Fitness and Training clients. That allows her to take her children, 7-year-old Vince and 9-year-old Maia, to school and pick them up.

She gets in some of her own training while working with her clients, and she mixes in late-night or early morning workouts. She’s on the road many weekends, competing in running and endurance events. If the events are close by, the entire family goes. This winter, Wayne has stayed home with the kids when she’s been to events in Vermont, Arizona and Florida.

Wayne understands. They met at running events. He’s not into “the extreme stuff,” but he appreciates why his wife and others do it.

“Getting to know all the people who do this, you come to appreciate where people channel their drive,” says Wayne, who pours his passion into satellite mapping technology in his job at SCANA. Warden is an ultramarathoner, and she lured Amie into the endurance world. Still, she isn’t so sure about these Death Races. “People think I’m crazy for running ultras,” Warden says. “But these people in the Death Races, they’re all absolutely insane. I’m sorry, but the idea of not knowing where the finish line is drives me nuts.”

Amie hurt her foot about six hours into the Winter Death Race. Next came a 14-mile jaunt up another mountain trail, followed by 100 burpees (an exercise in which you go from a standing position to a push-up position, and then back up). Because of her injured foot, she did one-legged burpees.

“I’m crying to my crew,” she says. “If it’s broken and this bone is protruding and it comes through the skin, my race is over. Luckily it didn’t.”

An impressive level of enthusiasm

Almost daily, somebody comes into The Backpacker in Columbia’s Vista and chats up store managers seeking sponsorship for an outdoor-related endeavor. The small, local business would have gone broke long ago if it agreed to every request, says Courtneylove Gowans, one of the store’s managers.

Every once in awhile, however, somebody walks through the door with just the right mix of needs, goals and enthusiasm to merit some help. Amie was that person. She needed advice selecting cold-weather gear for the Winter Death Race. While assisting Amie, Gowans was so impressed with her quest and her attitude that she decided Amie would be an ideal representative for the store. In return, the store would provide the winter gear at cost.

“I don’t care anything about adventure racing, but I got psyched up just talking to her,” Gowans says. “She came in and the first thing I thought to myself: This is the kind of person who can be an ambassador. She was enthusiastic, she needed help, and we were about to help her with a lot of the clothing she needed.”

Now, they have a mutual fan relationship. Amie tells people looking for expertise on outdoor gear to forget the internet and head to The Backpacker, and Gowans follows Amie’s progress through the Death Race challenges.

“She has the perfect amount of bravado and humility, and of kindness and toughness,” Gowans says.

A penny for good race karma

On the mountain in Vermont, race medical personnel examined Amie’s toe and determined it was dislocated. But they couldn’t easily reset it, so they taped it to the adjoining toe for support. At one point, Amie was concerned enough about the injury to call her husband to say she was considering quitting.

Wayne knew better. He’s not allowed to accompany her to the most grueling of her events because “if she sees the look in my eyes, I’ll be more concerned about her (health) than about her finishing the race,” he says.

So his advice on the phone call was simple. “If I tell you to quit, or if you just quit, you’re not going to be satisfied,” he told her.

So she kept going, and the Death Race karma came through. One of the more unusual tasks in the event was finding 30 pennies among the hundreds buried in a huge yard covered in snow. For some racers, the search lasted forever. Amie hit the jackpot almost immediately.

“I dug through one spot, and it was like finding the Mecca of pennies,” she says. “I had too many. I had to throw some back out in the snow.”

Before the penny task, race organizers had told her she wasn’t going to be able to finish the event in the allotted time. After her quick penny pinching, she had a chance.

The last portion of the event consisted of climbing the mountain multiple times, building fires and collecting puzzle pieces. After hallucinating on the mountain, Amie found an addled brain turns a children’s puzzle into a Rubik’s Cube.

But she finally got the puzzle together and made that one last trek up and down the mountain. In the end, she was one of three women and 20 men to finish, out of a starting field of more than 50.

Read Amie Meyer’s blog posts on the events at trailstoskulls.wordpress.com

Always looking for challenges

Amie, 34, ran track and played volleyball at Clover High School. She got into ROTC and entered the Army after high school in part to later help pay for college. When she returned to civilian life, she did a year at Midlands Tech before completing an undergraduate degree in experimental psychology and a masters’ in teaching at the University of South Carolina.

She taught at several local schools and loved helping her students learn and progress. Her immersion into fitness, nutrition and training began after a difficult pregnancy with her second child left her weighing 218 pounds. To lose weight, she started running with friends and progressed from 5K to 10K to marathon.

Before long, she picked up enough knowledge that she was helping others with fitness and nutrition advice. That grew into her personal fitness business. In 2012, she made the painful decision to leave teaching to go into fitness full time.

Looking for different challenges, she ran mini-Ironman triathlons and obstacle course events such as the USMC Mud Run. Warden talked her into her first ultramarathon last year. Intrigued by the concept, she crewed for a friend in the Summer Death Race in Vermont.

“I’ve always loved challenges and physical activities and seeing what I’m capable of,” Amie says. “But really truthfully, it’s the people and the bonds you get. Everybody thinks you’re crazy except these people.

“You’re accomplishing what so many people can’t. Some of the strongest athletes go out there and they break. And then there are some like me, the average mom who just works out a little.”

Amie’s being modest. She works out a lot, and she’s extremely athletic. At 136 pounds, she’s powerfully built, though not muscle-bound. During the Vermont race, she lost 12 pounds in two days. “It’s the Death Race cleanse,” she jokes. “Want to fit in your wedding dress? Do the Death Race.”

Her children tell her they like that she’s so strong, so different from most moms. She uses her quest as a lesson for them.

“I try to tell my children – impossible is just a word people use when they’re afraid,” she says.

Nowadays, her children are seeing more of these strong, iron-willed moms and dads.

“We’ve started vacationing with these people,” Wayne says. “She meets them on the mountain, and the next thing you know we’re at the beach with them.”

Less than a month after completing the Winter Death Race, Amie was one of three women and 21 men to make it through the Mexico Death Race in late February. The Mexican event involved dodging a bull in a ring, running up rattlesnake-lined trails and climbing up and down wild mountains and sheer rock faces for 24 hours at high elevation.

“It wasn’t as hard as Winter (Death Race), but it was more intense,” Amie says.

She’s the only woman to complete both the Winter and Mexico races. She’s halfway to her goal, with the Summer Death Race and the Team Death Race to come. She can’t wait to continue.

“It breaks you and it makes you stronger at the same time,” Amie says. “You’re able to go through so much more than you ever thought you could. Those are life lessons. They prepare you for things that are not so easy in life. I jokingly said it’s like getting 20 years of therapy on a mountain.”

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