What Was He Thinking?

An ultimate survivor takes another stab at death

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It's been five years since Mark Sahley cheated death. Now he figures it's time for another round.

In November 2005, the Cleveland firefighter learned he had Stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma, a deadly form of cancer that did not bode well for recovery. Almost a year later, after a battle that whittled his body down to a gangly bag of bones, he was declared free of the disease.

So when Sahley's wife asked him recently what he wanted for his 38th birthday, his reply came quickly, if oddly: He wanted to be entered in the Spartan Death Race, an annual two-day ritual of physical and mental abuse held every June in the wilds of Vermont. Each year, exactly 200 people pay $900 to be part of it. Only 1 in 10 actually completes it.

"It's designed to make you quit," Sahley says cheerfully between bites of chicken salad in the ramshackle kitchen of Engine 26, a hotbed of action at the corner of East 79th and Kinsman. "They say they just do it to get people off their asses and get you out of your comfort zone. They peel away your layers like an onion."

Indeed. And they say as much on their website, which can be found at youmaydie.com. "Please only consider this adventure-style race if you have lived a full life to date," it implores, adding: "Death sounds cool until you're dead."

For Sahley, facing death on his own terms sounds pretty cool about now.

In four decades on earth, he has yet to compete in so much as a 5K race, though he brings a broad swath of other credentials to his quest: A gymnast since he was four and a wrestler at Lakewood High, he was later part of a Naval search-and-rescue unit. After the service, he nearly joined the touring cast of Cirque du Soleil before settling in to a career with the fire department. An unapologetic gym rat, he boasts a compact and chiseled frame, his protruding pecs a somewhat glaring departure from the classic Cleveland firehouse physique.

Next summer in Vermont, Sahley will be forced to tote timbers up a mountain, or carry a bicycle he'll never actually pedal, or shimmy on his face through barbed wire and stone. Or perhaps none of that — each Death Race is distinct from all others. In a way, it's just like each emergency run he and his crew of four make from Engine 26.

"It sounds nuts," Sahley freely admits, the glimmer in his bright gray eyes matching the shine of his bald pate. "Everybody I tell says, 'Dude, why don't you give me 900 bucks and I'll kick you in the balls for a couple days.'"

Now it appears the time for that has come and gone.

When Sahley's $900 ante went through, he was greeted with an e-mail of congratulations from Spartan HQ — and a challenge along with it: Each Death Racer must get published in a newspaper or magazine. And not some sissy blog or running-club newsletter, mind you.

The point — apart from fabulous advertising for the Death Race — is to force each contestant to shore up his own commitment, according to the race's co-founder, Andy Weinberg.

"It's a challenge to get the article written and published, but life is full of challenges," he says. "And the Death Race is much like life."

And given that Scene is much like a newspaper — one with a soft spot for nutbags on idiot missions — Sahley has chosen his mark wisely.

Besides, it's not as though he didn't have options: In lieu of an article, all participants were granted the option of showing up to the Death Race one day early to complete a 12-mile swim. ("You have to be serious or you'll drown," the e-mail in Sahley's inbox helpfully notes.)

So yeah, this one's on us, pal.

"I definitely don't want to do a 12-mile swim," Sahley says.

Come to think of it, neither do we.

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