The "Death Race," a 24-hour obstacle-course competition that began Saturday in Vermont, is advertised as so difficult it "will make giving birth seem like a walk in the park."
Typically, fewer than a quarter of participants are able to finish, The Wall Street Journal reported today.
This year's 200 competitors were set to include accomplished triathletes, military special forces and a person who has been called the "world's fittest man."
The race's organizers, though, were focused on Hobie Call, a 34-year-old father of five who installs air conditioning for a living.
When Call learned that owners of a series of obstacle-course races were offering a $100,000 prize to anyone who can win 14 of them in the US this year, he announced he was going to pull off a sweep.
"I didn't believe him," said Joe De Sena, co-founder of the Death Race. "There just are not that many people who have that drive."
But so far, Call has won six in a row. Now, the race owners are intent on stopping him, saying that if he wins Saturday's Death Race, they will give $20,000 to anyone who can beat him in the future.
The Death Race is part of a circuit of obstacle-course competitions in the US, Canada and the UK known as "Spartan Races." They are as frustrating as they are physically grueling. Details of each Spartan Race course are kept secret so competitors cannot specifically train for them.
Organizers force racers to do just about anything, including crawl through muddy troughs covered in barbed wire, jump through flames, solve puzzles, chop wood, carry water and learn Greek. It also helps to be very fast.
The Death Race, the longest of the Spartan races, usually covers 45 miles. It lasts at least 24 hours, but has gone on for as long as 72. (Participants will not know exactly how long until it's over; they are given instructions during the race.)
"It emulates life," said De Sena. "Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong."
In February, Call left the suburbs of Salt Lake City in a 10-year-old Dodge Caravan and drove 11 hours to Temecula, Calif., to compete in his first Spartan Race. Call, who has the fastest known time for lunging a mile (24 minutes, 56 seconds) and has run marathons, thought it would make for a fun vacation. He packed his own food and slept in his car. The next day, he blew away his competition in a race that involved climbing a slippery wall, running through flames and solving one side of a Rubik's Cube.
Since then, Call has gone to extraordinary lengths to win six Spartan Races in a row. He sold his TV, he said, to buy a plane ticket to a race in Austin. Thanks to a cult following, fans and competitors helped cover some expenses and offered up their hotel rooms so he does not have to sleep in his car.
Race organizers are looking for someone to defeat him. De Sena, an institutional trader, said he invested his life savings in the series and will have to pay $100,000 out of his own pocket if Call reaches the goal.
"We were told we should get insurance," he said. "We laughed and said no one could do this."
Spartan Race staffer Jason Rita has been charged with finding the perfect athlete to beat Call. He has asked everyone from mixed martial-arts studios to the Navy SEALs to send someone. All have declined. In one race, Call nearly lost when he was asked to drag bricks using a rope. A competitor caught up to him, but Call out-sprinted him to the finish.
Call looks nothing like the hulking Spartans in the Hollywood film "300." He has the stature of a distance runner, wears glasses and has a quick smile.
"I don't have that rough look, but when it comes time for the race, I have that rough mentality," he said.
He said runners do not have the upper-body strength to beat him, and the buff guys are too slow.
"It's my combination of strength and speed," he says. "Good luck finding somebody."