Helping lives through a Death Race

Fire­fight­er John Stankiewicz trains for the ÒDeath Race,Ó a com­mando-style com­pet­i­tion in Ver­mont on June 24. Stankiewicz will be rais­ing money for a loc­al fam­ily with dis­abled chil­dren. 06/06/10. Sarah Schu.

John Stankiewicz spent four years in the U.S. Mar­ine Corps about two dec­ades ago, but the 37-year-old Pine Val­ley res­id­ent still hasn’t shaken boot camp from his sys­tem.

Fel­low North­east res­id­ent Gina Cap­uto didn’t play or­gan­ized sports as a teen­ager in her nat­ive Yard­ley, Bucks County. She al­ways seemed more in­ter­ested in her stud­ies than earn­ing varsity let­ters.

But now she’s mak­ing up for lost time with a ven­geance and for a worthy cause.

To­geth­er, Stankiewicz, who is a vet­er­an city fire­fight­er, and Cap­uto, a med­ic­al stu­dent, have cre­ated Philly Fire, a group of fit­ness fan­at­ics who spe­cial­ize in chal­len­ging footraces that gen­er­ally ask com­pet­it­ors to climb, crawl, push, pull, jump and en­dure obstacles that seem more ap­pro­pri­ate for com­mando train­ing than a bit of week­end out­door fun.

On June 25, in fact, Stankiewicz will vie for glory while try­ing to sur­vive what is con­sidered in the ex­treme run­ning world as per­haps the toughest com­pet­i­tion of them all, the Spartan Death Race in Ver­mont.

“They have it ranked as the num­ber two [event] in the world be­hind the Tour de France in terms of tough­ness,” Stankiewicz said. “It’s fifty-five miles in two days and there’s a [vari­ation] of twenty-two thou­sand ver­tic­al feet from start to fin­ish.

“It has trails, swim­ming in lakes and ponds, and men­tal chal­lenges. What they are, I don’t know. They try to keep it secret. And there’s a ninety-per­cent fail­ure rate.”

In oth­er words, nine out of 10 starters don’t reach the fin­ish.

He’ll run the event to raise money for the fam­ily of Lt. Dave Meskill, a fire­fight­er who passed away from can­cer at age 45 a few months ago, leav­ing be­hind his wife and three preschool-age chil­dren.

The fund-rais­ing ele­ment is typ­ic­al for everything that Philly Fire does. Last month, the team traveled to the Mead­ow­lands in North Jer­sey for an event called the Metro Dash, hav­ing sold spon­sor­ships on their race T-shirts to be­ne­fit Darryl White, a fire­fight­er who was para­lyzed from the chest down in an off-duty mo­tor­cycle ac­ci­dent.

Cash re­ceived in ad­vance of the May 14 race and at a sub­sequent beef-and-beer fund-raiser at the new Katie O’Don­nell’s Ir­ish Pub out­side of Frank­lin Mills mall will help off­set the cost of ac­cess­ib­il­ity modi­fic­a­tions to White’s home.

Stankiewicz and Cap­uto, who are co-cap­tains of the team, say that they already have a “tax ID” num­ber from the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice and are in the pro­cess of gain­ing full non-profit status. Judging by their highly mo­tiv­ated ap­proach to fit­ness, nav­ig­at­ing the IRS’s red tape should be a piece of cake.

The duo de­veloped their team after meet­ing at the North­east Rac­quet Club in the Krewstown Shop­ping Cen­ter. Stankiewicz, a mem­ber of the fire de­part­ment’s ul­tra-skilled Res­cue 1 unit, leads a boot camp-style train­ing pro­gram there a couple days each week.

Cap­uto is an­oth­er self-de­scribed “workout fan­at­ic” who likes to run half-mara­thons for fun.

“It’s hard find­ing people to mo­tiv­ate you, so we got to­geth­er and came up with ideas of dif­fer­ent ways of chal­len­ging each oth­er and keep­ing it in­ter­est­ing,” she said.

Dur­ing the winter, they drummed up in­terest among fam­ily, friends and fel­low gym rats. And they surfed the In­ter­net for com­pet­it­ive out­lets.

“We star­ted put­ting to­geth­er a sched­ule of dif­fer­ent runs we wanted to do,” Stankiewicz said.

They found no short­age of op­tions. Thanks largely to the World Wide Web, in­form­a­tion about these unique and once-rare events is read­ily avail­able to pro­spect­ive entrants across the coun­try and around the world. As a res­ult, the buzz has grown as have the events in par­ti­cip­a­tion and fre­quency.

“It seems like the num­bers are in­creas­ing,” Stankiewicz said. “I think it’s be­cause of so­cial net­work­ing and be­cause it’s a chal­lenge. People want to chal­lenge them­selves, and they want to try them all to see what’s the toughest.”

A hand­ful of Philly Fire rep­res­ent­at­ives began the spring with a Metro Dash in Cam­den on April 30, fol­lowed by a so-called Mud Run in South Car­o­lina the very next day.

The Metro Dash races are like ul­tra obstacle courses in which com­pet­it­ors move from sta­tion to sta­tion in rap­id suc­ces­sion climb­ing ropes, flip­ping tires, crawl­ing through tun­nels and jump­ing over bar­ri­ers. Typ­ic­ally, they’re less than a half-mile from start to fin­ish.

Mean­while, Stankiewicz and Cap­uto say, the Mud Run is more like a long-dis­tance foot race with obstacles spaced farther apart. And, as the name sug­gests, run­ners usu­ally have to trudge through deep mud over sev­er­al miles.

Stankiewicz has a feel­ing that the Death Race will be the worst of both worlds. He ac­tu­ally had to ap­ply to enter the event and demon­strate through pri­or ac­com­plish­ments his suit­ab­il­ity for its chal­lenges.

“I have to go in there with an open mind like, ‘I’m go­ing to get beat up, and that’s what it’s all about,’” he said.

Cap­uto also was ac­cep­ted to com­pete, but she op­ted out. She wants to keep train­ing hard, get­ting stronger and gain­ing more ex­per­i­ence so that she’s pre­pared to fin­ish be­fore she starts.

“You can’t quit. That’s my motto,” Cap­uto said.

“No, that’s my motto,” Stankiewicz said. “I will fin­ish it. I have to fin­ish it. I’m not [say­ing I’m] bet­ter than any­body else. I can’t tell you their state of mind when they’re do­ing it, but I can tell you mine.”

For in­form­a­tion about Philly Fire, vis­it the team’s Face­book page. ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

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