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 bkenny@phillynews.com