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Mass. woman thrives on grueling races

By Lauren Carter
The Sun Chronicle / May 27, 2012
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PLAINVILLE, Mass.—Ivana Peterkova probably has a breaking point. She just hasn't been able to find it.

She's trudged through mud, crawled under barbed wire, competed in overnight challenges, placed among the top finishers in grueling events with names like "Rugged Maniac" and "Spartan Ultra Beast," and still, she can't find her limits -- physical or mental.

That's why the 32-year-old will compete in her first Spartan Death Race on June 15.

Yes, a death race.

It's an extreme endurance test that pushes competitors to the brink for 24 to 48 hours.

According to the race website at http://www.YouMayDie.com, contestants will endure between 15 and 20 mental and physical challenges through a 40-mile course in the Vermont woods during the one- to two-day event.

While the exact race itinerary is top secret, those challenges might include chopping wood for two hours, lifting 30-pound rocks for five hours or memorizing the names of the first 10 U.S. Presidents, hiking to the top of a mountain and reciting the names back in order. In short, nothing is off limits.

"The Death Race is designed to present you with the totally unexpected, and the totally insane," says http://www.YouMayDie.com. "Please only consider this adventure style race if you have lived a full life to date."

Since the death race launched in 2005, only 15 percent of its competitors have actually completed the event. Peterkova doesn't even know if participants will be allowed time to sleep or eat. But don't think she's daunted.

"You never know what they're going to throw at you. You pretty much go until you find your limits," Peterkova said during an interview at Gymnastic Academy of Boston in Plainville, where she serves as general manager. "I think everybody should test their limits. I see a race, I see a challenge I've never done before, and I'm like, `Hmmm, is this going to break me?'"

Peterkova is a relative newbie to the obstacle race circuit, but so far, limits have been hard to find.

A native of the Czech Republic who now lives in Berkley, Peterkova competed in her first obstacle race in June 2011 after spotting a post on Facebook with the subject line "What idiot would do this?"

"I'm like, `Now, that looks like fun.' I was the idiot that would do that," Peterkova said with a laugh.

That first competition not only tested her physically -- it served as an emotional wake-up call, breaking the spell of a nearly eight-year marriage she called a "complete disaster."

"Prior to the first race, I wasn't living at all," Peterkova said. "My marriage kind of killed me. But in that moment, I was back. That race brought me back to life."

Peterkova got divorced just three months after that first race. And she moved on with no regrets.

The happy, active go-getter -- the single girl who came to the U.S in 2000 with two suitcases and $37 in her pocket, who was soon working four jobs, working out five days a week and going to school full-time -- was back.

"I have not cried once," she said of the divorce. "I feel like I replace that sadness with such a drive and motivation from the races."

Since her first race, Peterkova has hired a personal trainer and competed in eight more obstacle races -- the longest spanning more than 30 hours and 27 miles.

She's been scraped, bruised and bloodied. She's seen fellow competitors suffer broken legs and come down with hypothermia.

She's run through mud wearing military gear and headlamps -- so much so that students at the gym see pictures and think she's in the Army.

She's lost track of how many "death waivers" she's signed.

"We don't even read them anymore," she said of the waivers. "If you worry, you won't be finishing it, so you just go in there and do your best."

In every race, Peterkova said she's hit the proverbial wall, when her body has told her to quit. Every time, she's found a way to keep going.

"It's all mental," Peterkova said. "I find I have no mental limits right now. Whatever I start, I finish."

So how, exactly, does one prepare for a contest whose registration coordinator is also known as "the undertaker"?

Peterkova certainly hasn't adopted a special diet program -- she happily indulges in pizza, cheeseburgers, ice cream and the like, with no plans of stopping.

Her workouts should more than make up for her free-for-all diet.

She runs trails several times a week with her two dogs, Britta and Raven. She also chops wood, lifts weights and endures grueling, one-hour CrossFit full-body routines three times a week.

She recently completed her first 24-hour Death Race Training Camp at Outer Limits Fitness in Lincoln, and if that race was any indication, she just might be among the 15 percent who actually finish the death race -- out of the eight people who made it through the 24-hour training camp, Peterkova was the only female.

"I never know if there's any prize," Peterkova said of her motivation. "I just do it because of the way I feel when I finish. It just makes you feel good. It makes you feel powerful."

If Peterkova seems supremely driven, she is. It seems to be a quality instilled from childhood, when she says her mother often doubted and discouraged her.

Peterkova used the naysaying as fuel for the fire.

"I'm thankful to her to this day," Peterkova said. "Whenever somebody says `You can't do it,' I prove them wrong. You only can't if you don't try."

Some might cringe at the idea of a one-mile run, let alone a death race, but Peterkova promises that she's not crazy for seeking out and overcoming challenges most would actively avoid.

She said the feeling of completing a race designed to make contestants drop like flies makes everything else worth it.

Peterkova says she's looking forward to the death race. And she's hoping this one won't be her last.

"Everyone has a choice," Peterkova said. "Most people make the choice to sit on the couch. I made the choice to get up and go out. I always say, `My crazy is healthier than your lazy.'"

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