Marysville U.S.A.F. captain makes 2nd Death Race try

It was tough. That’s how Josh Clifford remembers his first year at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“It was my first time away from home,” said Clifford, 26, a 2004 graduate of Marysville Pilchuck High School.

Now a captain in the U.S. Air Force, Clifford was physically ready for basic training at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Still, that first year was a challenge.

“There’s lots of stress,” he said Wednesday. “You’re at the low end of the peg. There are all kinds of rules. You’re very isolated. It’s a tough time for six months to a year.”

As hard as it was to be a first-year cadet — called a “doolie” at the Air Force Academy — Clifford has faced a tougher test. And he’s about to try it again.

On June 15, he plans to be in Pittsfield, Vt., for the 2012 Spartan Death Race. Part obstacle course and trail race, part mental trial, it’s an extreme endurance test. It was founded in 2005 by Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg, who met through their interest in running ultramarathons, including the Vermont 100.

The Death Race — not part of the military at all — is the most extreme challenge run by Peak Races, which holds other Spartan Race events. Extreme? More like crazy.

Both physical and mental prowess are tested, as Clifford remembers well from last year’s competition.

“One challenge was to go up a hill carrying a log,” he said. “You get to the top, memorize a Bible verse, come back down with the log and repeat that verse. If you got it wrong, you went back up the hill and tried to memorize it again.”

Racers may be asked to climb through barbed wire. They slog across the chilly Tweed River. The race is 40 miles, and competition can last more than 40 hours.

Last year’s first goal was to pick up rocks, to chest-height, then put them down without dropping them. “They weighed about 15 to 70 pounds. It was six hours doing that. That tires people out,” Clifford said.

He started the 2011 race with two friends. They chose to stick together. After 25 grueling hours, they quit before finishing.

“The entire time, it was raining off and on. It was not only cold, the trails were pretty bad,” he said. One hike lasted six hours, the final couple of hours in a thunderstorm. “We were drenched. There was thunder and lightning. One friend had had knee surgery, and torqued up a knee,” Clifford said.

Racers carry their own supplies, and Clifford said they weren’t prepared with enough food. “We were absolutely tired and hungry. It was dark, the trail was getting worse, we were banged up and beat up. It was unsafe. We were done.”

And yet, a week from today he’ll try it again, this time with a female friend who’s in the Army.

According to the event website,, about 15 percent of competitors finish. “Last year, about 150 started and 20 finished,” Clifford said.

Mind games add to the difficulty. Race leaders don’t reveal specific challenges, and participants receive cryptic email messages about required supplies, start times and other details.

Why in the world do it?

“For me, it’s really pushing your body mentally and physically. I learned a lot about myself,” Clifford said.

Despite its title, the race has claimed no lives. “Not yet,” Clifford said, “but it’s a legitimate danger.”

An aircraft maintenance officer, he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2008. He has served in Afghanistan. Until this month, he was based in Florida and lived at Fort Walton Beach. There, he’s been training for the Death Race at a CrossFit gym.

Now home in Marysville visiting family, after the Vermont race he’ll be off to Korea for at least a year’s duty.

This graduation season, Clifford’s mother remembers the year her son was a senior in Marysville. It’s a bittersweet memory. Because of a teachers strike in 2004, Marysville Pilchuck’s graduation ceremony was late — so late that Josh Clifford missed it. He was already at basic training.

“Before he left, a counselor did a little ceremony for him with a cap and gown,” Jean Clifford said.

She has seen footage of the Death Race, which was featured a year ago on the ABC News “Nightline” program. Her son toughed out basic training, but she can’t imagine why he wants to suffer through this endurance test — again.

“This year he wants to finish,” Jean Clifford said. “He’s nuts.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

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