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Death becomes Rob Barger—death racing, that is

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Rob Barger, 41, is going to put his body—and sanity—on the line when he competes in the Spartan Death Race in Vermont.

Google Spartan Death Race, and the first link that comes up is an ominous one: Youmaydie.com. “Built to break the weak of body and mind,” the race is a 48-plus-hour, land and water, all-weather, endurance challenge designed so that 85 percent of its participants will fail. Before they give up, they may be asked to chop wood for hours, memorize the names of presidents, cut a bushel of onions and hike for miles carrying 30 pounds of rocks. Worst of all, there’s no finish line or hour marker to shoot for. The course map is a closely guarded secret, and the competitors have no idea when the torture will end.

What kind of person signs up for something like that? Meet Rob Barger: a freakishly fit 41-year-old Las Vegan heading to the woods of Vermont to test himself on one of the world’s toughest stages June 21.

What’s your fitness background? Have you always been an athlete?

I was horribly mediocre. Baseball, soccer, basketball—I wasn’t very good at it, so they put me on defense. In retrospect, I wish I had joined the cross country team, one of the less glamorous sports. It would’ve been more fun for me.

You’ve been doing Spartan’s regular obstacle race series for a while. How did you train for your first race?

For my first race in Temecula in 2012, I was horribly unprepared. I was doing P90x and Insanity in my garage, thinking, "Oh I’ve got the cardio; I’ve got enough strength." And I forgot about the hills. I had cramps in my calves so bad I would have bruises for days after the race.

Was there ever a point when you thought, "Maybe this just isn’t my thing?"

I’m stubborn. So even when the cramps set in, my decision was: I can turn around and go 4 miles the other way, or I can continue 4 miles to the finish line, and I didn’t come here to quit. It was a mental battle to keep going, but I wasn’t leaving 'til I got the finisher medal.

And you were hooked. What did your family and friends say when you started intensive training and wearing elevation masks?

I, of course, posted to Facebook the photo of my elevation training mask, and there were a lot of comments about what it is and what’s going on out there in Las Vegas. For anybody who wears the original model, you usually get some weird looks, if not the police called on you. I don’t wear it out and about, but I know people who’ve had the police called on them. You’re in the middle of your training run and the cops show up. Especially if you’re wearing a weight vest, you’ve got this gas mask and what looks like it could possibly be a bomb vest. Holding your iPod is even worse, ’cause you’ve got the wire going from it.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to train?

I ran the Really Big Free Half Marathon wearing a 50-pound weight vest. And I did 15 push-ups at every water station. I actually felt pretty good. I finished in 2 hours and 26 minutes.

You’ve also done SERE training. What is that?

It’s based on boot camp-style military movements, but SERE has an educational component to it where they actually teach you survival and evasion techniques. SERE in the military sense is Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape. The desert portion of the challenge I did, they went through a little instruction on how to find water, how to build shelter, how to signal for help, how to build a fire. So it’s camping survival, as well as get your butt from point A to point B and fast.

What do you get out of these extreme challenges?

(I want to) see if I’m actually as mentally tough as I think I am. To a certain extent, it’s a bravado thing, but it’s not just a manly thing. It’s prove it to yourself.

The Spartan Death Race is a month away. How have you gotten ready?

Well, for the (Las Vegas) Spartan Race (in April), I actually strapped on a 65-pound backpack, and I rucked from (Sunset Park) to Lake Las Vegas, which was 17 miles. Then I ran the Hurricane Heat at 6 a.m., which kept us on the course for about three hours. Then I ran the course again. I actually ran the first mile of the course at 9:30 a.m. eating a buffalo chicken sandwich. Had to fuel up.

How did you feel at the end of all that?

A little stiff in the legs.

The Death Race is about taking top athletes and making them as physically uncomfortable as possible for an extended period of time and seeing who caves. What do you expect to see in Vermont?

Last year, they were rolling in the grass stirring buckets of rotting cow guts. A little disgusting, but that’s the gross factor. There’s going to be wood chopping. There’s going to be carrying heavy things for long distances. There’s going to be lots of cold and wet. As far as the disgusting factor, at the winter Death Race, there was a frozen beaver that everybody had to worship. A little odd, but you just go with it.

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Sarah Feldberg is the editor of Las Vegas Weekly magazine. A veteran journalist, Feldberg previously worked as the Weekly's web ...

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