Unloading her grief: Middlesex woman pushes through Death Race
By STEVEN M. Pappas
Staff writer | July 22,2013
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Jane Coffey, of Middlesex, participated recently in the Death Race in Pittsfield.
Jane Coffey carried the grief of losing a child for years. This spring, during a 76-hour Death Race in Pittsfield, she allowed that grief to carry her.
Those people who know Coffey, 41, of Middlesex, speak of her focus, positive energy and love of life. During a recent interview, Coffey gracefully and enthusiastically recounted the emotional and physical struggles she had to endure — a quixotic yet daunting personal journey that got the attention of news outlets and amazed and inspired her friends and family.
A month since the physically grueling event that tore up her small body and even caused her to hallucinate, she looks back on it with pride at pushing herself to the limit.
Because despite the fact she failed to make a race deadline, or cutoff, and had her bib pulled days into the competition, Coffey pushed aside race organizers, even wrestling one of them to the ground before it was over, and finished nearly every task put before the 200 or so competitors.
She had been told that she had failed, but she would not quit.
“Having gone through both (losing a child and the 2013 Death Race), I have this perspective today that I can do things, I can push through anything,” Coffey said. “I almost feel invincible.”
Faye and Aida
“It was a perfect pregnancy, absolutely nothing wrong,” Coffey said. “It was an umbilical cord issue.”
The technical term is velamentous cord insertion, indicating the umbilical cord is not inserted into the center of the placenta. A day before her due date, Coffey went to the hospital when there were signs something was happening, but it was not labor. Something was wrong.
She was rushed to the operating room. Before Coffey was put under anesthetic, she was aware from the monitors around her that her baby had no heartbeat.
In three hours’ time, Coffey went from “normal pregnancy” to grief. Around her over the next four days of her physical recovery were several mothers and their newborns.
“It was really hard to walk out of (the hospital) with nothing,” she recalled.
They named their baby Faye.
Coffey said she tried to let her grief out, not repress it. She did not blame herself, but she struggled with what happened. “Loss is tough,” she said. “I reached out to (other mothers) who had lost children as well.”
There was lots of compassion and support for her but few of the profound answers a mother needs after losing a child.
“I didn’t believe it when people said ‘things happen for a reason,’” Coffey said. But that ended up being one of the answers that allowed her to move forward.
Then, eight months later, Coffey miscarried, and the loss all came back, now with added stress and burden.
“I said, ‘Please, please, what is going on?’” Coffey said.
Months passed. She was pregnant again — this time, with much more fear mixed with her joy. The pregnancy again was normal.
“I was scared,” she said. “So scared.”
Six years ago, Aida Mae was born, healthy and strong.
A new life began.
‘Time for me’
When Aida was 3, Coffey decided it was time for her to start doing things for herself other than mothering and work.
So she started running.
“I knew I was so lucky to have what I had,” she said. “I decided it was time for me again.”
Coffey grew up in the heart of Maine. With her friends roaming the farmland, fields and woods around Sidney, Coffey found her love for both the outdoors and athleticism.
“We were always outside, riding our bikes, doing whatever, no fear of being away from the house all day,” she recounted. “I grew up very confident.”
She became a field hockey player in high school, then went on to the University of New Hampshire, where she found hiking. (She and her husband, Seth, are working to climb all of the New England peaks taller than 4,000 feet.)
“I’m always trying to be active,” she said. “It’s a big part of my life.”
Coffey studied health administration in college but has turned her efforts toward conservation, working first for the Green Mountain Club and now the Vermont Land Trust, where she is the development coordinator.
She needed her athleticism back.
A friend suggested she do a Spartan Race, which is an obstacle-based course, also put on by the Death Race organizers. While there, she saw a small woman competing with two large men. “I said, ‘That’s it, I’m in.’”
She consulted others who had done such races and signed up for training workshops. She competed on snowshoes in winter and did other rigorous training to better understand the task put before her, including carrying a pack full of rocks or carrying logs for miles.
“I had to do a lot of dumb things that are just aggravating,” she said of the training.
She was determined to earn one of the coveted skull trophies — the symbol of the Death Race.
For months, Coffey posted about her training and her anticipation of the June 21 race on social media and in a blog called Vermont Scrubnut. She developed a following, including many people who became active as they saw her writing and tapped into her motivation.
But that was just the beginning.
To many Death Race competitors, the event is about ego. But race organizers weed those people out, giving them additional tasks and even changing the rules to force them into a disadvantage to break them down. Coffey saw it happen a lot. “They break them; they try to break everyone ... but if they see you getting ahead, they make sure to put you behind.”
About 200 people started the Year of the Gambler Death Race. Nowhere close to that finished.
There were challenges of trail building, wood splitting, all-night hikes (while carrying a rock), swims, climbs and lots and lots of yelling and rule changes. There was not a moment of peace or rest. (The one moment of rest was a ploy to get the competitors’ muscles to stiffen up before the next challenge.)
Coffey’s strategy? “Each task may have seemed impossible, but I just stayed in the present. ... I did what I had to do, I fed off the energy of the people around me. ... I stayed away from people who were being negative.”
It was not the actual tasks that ever had her worried. “I realized I could do those,” she said.
It was making the deadlines, or cutoffs, at each stage that haunted her throughout the lingering days of the race.
“That was the biggest challenge for me,” she said. “I knew I was slower.”
She made friends along the way, some who had their own stories of inspiration, including a woman who competed with a prosthetic leg. Coffey wrote her daughters’ names on her arm and carried a black Sharpie to refresh them once they had faded from sweat or swimming, or they had been covered in bloody scratches from carrying rocks.
“It was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “Losing my daughter was the most mental (challenge) I’ve ever dealt with. (The Death Race) was second. Two big events.”
From the get-go, “I wanted to push myself. I wanted to see if I would quit. I wanted to put myself through something so horrible, would I quit if I had a choice?” she said. “I didn’t want to quit.”
But along the way, Coffey fell behind. She knew the cutoffs were getting close. She swam two long lake laps and was supposed to do one more.
She was ready, but the organizers told her it was over. She was done. She was ordered to hand over her race bib.
“When they told me that, I realized I was not going to get that skull (trophy) for my daughter,” she said. “It was the lowest point for me. That was all I could think about. I was sobbing in his face.”
In the past, Coffey knew, sometimes race officials handed out skulls to unofficial finishers anyway. But not this year.
She did not know that until long after she pushed aside organizers and kept competing. When everyone realized that Coffey was going to keep on, organizers and competitors kept up their support.
“It was a crazy part of the race,” she said.
Finally, with another cutoff blown, race organizer Joe Desena blocked her way and begged her to stop. She refused and grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to finish, but if I get by him ... ” she said. But there was no end to the thought.
Her race was over after 76 hours. She was blistered, cut, scratched, exhausted and swollen from head to toe.
“It was a really great way for it to end,” she said of fighting Desena. “I did not quit. He had to stop me.”
Upon reading her story, endurance athlete Frank Fumich, whom Coffey had met in March in Pittsfield at a training event, wrote and asked for her address.
A few days later, Coffey received a box in the mail. Inside it was a Death Race skull trophy Fumich had earned in 2011. With it, a note: “Jane, massive effort at the DR!! ‘She’ is my only one, but happy to give to you. You earned it! Frank.”
“I can’t tell you what that meant to me,” she said, admitting that daughter Aida finds it “really cool.”
As for letting go of that grief? “Yes, I did that out there. I proved so much to myself,” Coffey said. “There were so many ways I tested myself and found I could let go.”
Her blog post sums it up: “And memorializing Faye? Her memory was carried through that race. I feel as though I did some major healing out there ... that I finally moved beyond a massive wall that I was not brave enough to crawl over for years. When I got home from the race, I was able to finally put away her tiny urn and incorporate her sweet pictures with all of the other family photos on our wall. She is now one with our family, no longer this separate entity that I felt I had to hold special ... holding her separate from our family for 8 years was heavy and tiring. More heavy than the rock I carried for 40+ miles over the weekend.”
Coffey is already looking forward to the 2014 Death Race.
And, she said, the rocks she has to carry next year will be much lighter.
Read about her Death Race experience in all of its gory detail at http://vermontscrubnut.blogspot.com.