We go into the great outdoors for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we are content seeking solitude and refuge, other times, we want to find a challenge, an obstacle we can rise above, and to learn the lessons that can only come from challenging ourselves beyond all reason.

How’s this for a challenge: take the distance and endurance of a high-mileage race in mountain terrain and mix in the obstacles and stunts of the newest breed of extreme races. You’d have something like the Death Race: a 40 mile marathon packed with 15 to 20 different mental and physical obstacles ranging from a barbed wire course to Greek translations. The race’s slogan, “You May Die,” is hyperbole, we hope.

Scott O’Donnell, cousin to Charlotte staffer Amanda McGuire, is a veteran of the Death Race, and will be returning to Vermont to compete this year. Scott has made a lifestyle of challenging himself to his limits and beyond; he’s been a Hollywood actor, a Deaf educator, and, at the age of 41, is now an Army Combat Medic. Most recently, he participated in the US Army’s Special Forces Selection and Assessment at Fort Bragg, an experience he describes as the closest to the Death Race that the military can offer.

Last year’s race challenged participants to rise above over 24 hours of grueling, spirit-breaking endurance. Out of 250 who started the race, only 19 finished (Scott came in 17th). He aims to improve on that this year, but more importantly, he hopes to find out something about himself in the process. “For me, [it] is a learning experience. I want to see what I am made of. Am I a quitter? What are my limits? Can I surpass them? Every challenge is another opportunity to yourself and it’s a never-ending process. I want to be 80 years old and still testing myself.”

Last year, Scott prepared for the race with overnight hikes, but had little idea what to expect on the race course. He showed up with a change of clothes and spare pair of Vibram Five Fingers tucked into a school bookbag, along with the “required gear:” a knife, 10lbs of onions, a post hole digger, $50 in pennies and a Greek textbook. Over the next 24 hours he found himself building trails, splitting wood, eating onions, and diving in ponds for pennies, in addition to bonding with his fellow racers and covering 40 miles of trail.

Somewhere between the barbed wire and his last hundred push-ups before the finish line, Scott also learned something: “I felt like this race was a lot like life. Hard work, luck, good choices and some help from friends really determined how successful you finished. The definition of success in life is another matter I suppose.”

Pictured Above: Scott O’Donnell, who once challenged his cousin to eat her brussel sprouts in exchange for a turkey drumstick on Thanksgiving. Much to her surprise, she learned to love them.