HAMPTON -- Inside a tidy log cabin at the end of a narrow dirt road, Grace Cuomo Durfee sat on her sofa, wide-eyed and beaming as she recalled a harrowing tale of grit and endurance from almost a week earlier.
The Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vt., from June 24-26 had left her sore, but after an overdue massage on Sunday morning, the 27-year-old said she was feeling pretty relaxed as she flipped her long blond hair behind her feathered earrings.
It wasn’t easy to picture Durfee, a 5-foot-7 mother of one, completing arguably the most extreme race in the world. Not only had she finished the 40-plus-hour event, she was the first female finisher and fourth overall in this year’s Death Race.
Out of 154 people who started, 35 finished, five of which were women. She estimated that the next closest female had been about eight hours behind.
A 2003 Whitehall High School graduate and four-time track and field state qualifier, the then-Grace Cuomo was known as a sprinter. She had set eight school records in the hurdles and short distances, she said, but nothing compared to the nearly two-day survival test she put herself through for the first time last year.
While pregnant with her daughter, Quinn, more than two years ago, Durfee resolved to get fit. She said she ended up in the best shape of her life. In 2010, Durfee was the third female finisher and 12th overall in Pittsfield’s comparably easier 35-hour Death Race. But it was harder for her at the time.
"Last year, I don’t think I was emotionally as strong," Durfee said. "Different things bothered me. ... You have to keep a smile on your face. ... I kept telling everybody, ‘My back doesn’t hurt, it feels awesome,’ after carrying a 40-pound log with me for 20-plus hours."
She said the same thing after six hours of lifting boulders to chest height. A member of the smallest group for the first of about 14 tasks, Durfee and seven others had to rotate through a circle of rocks ranging from 30 to 80 pounds. Moving from one rock to the next, they each had to complete the circuit 175 times.
Because her group was so quick, the race directors assigned more repetitions. They finished around 2 a.m.
"They want you to quit," Durfee said. "They want to get in your head. They want to break you down."
They also make up the rules as they go, she said. Courses are never the same, the obstacles are always different and racers never know what to expect — not even on race day. They follow tags on trees and listen to instructions at each checkpoint.
After the rocks, six hours of splitting wood, a 3-mile hike up a waist-deep stream to a pond of 48-degree water (which Durfee crossed in the dark seven times by holding onto a cable), there were raging rivers to go down, waterfalls to climb and streams laced with barbed wire to crawl along. Durfee carried a log for at least half of the race, and by the time she had reached one of the final checkpoints at 11:30 a.m. that Sunday, she was ready for it to be over.
After about 45 miles of trails had badly blistered her feet, Durfee dissected the final task. She had a choice: repeat a climb that took her four hours at the beginning of the race and make it to the church (where the race started) by 3 p.m., or go up after the church service. If she chose to go right away and didn’t make it by 3, she would be disqualified.
"My trainer taped my ankles and I took off running," Durfee said. "I was on a mission to get it done. They said, ‘You could win the whole thing. ... But we know you can’t do it,’ So I was like, ‘ ‘F’ you! I’m going to go for it!’ "
An hour later, after climbing the same waterfalls and barbed-wire streams with her heavy pack, Durfee was met by the race directors, her husband and a camera crew. It had been a test. The race was over.
"Nobody else took the challenge to think they could get this done in time," Durfee said. "So everybody joked around and said I should’ve won, but it wasn’t a big deal."
The organizers brought her back down to pretend she failed the last challenge. With a 40-hour time limit in mind, the organizers stopped others on the trail and awarded them for finishing. Durfee said she was one of seven to complete every task and ended up with a skeleton trophy.
In her toughest moments, Durfee said she never considered quitting. At one point, her husband, Seth, hiked with her and talked about their 2-year-old daughter.
"The whole purpose of me doing really good and the whole motivation is I want her (Quinn) to be proud of me," Durfee said. "I want her to realize if you set goals for yourself, that you can do them, and there’s nothing wrong with being a strong woman."
But after risking her life in a race, what’s next? Maybe triathlons, Durfee said. On Aug. 6, she’ll take advantage of her free entry in the Spartan Beast Race, a 10-mile challenge in Killington, Vt. She was told ESPN will be there following her.
"I’m like, ‘Oh my God, nothing like putting added pressure on me,’ " she said.
Sportswriter Alex Matthews can be reached at email@example.com.