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Life-long bond inspires ‘Death Racers’

June 7, 2013

Friends Andy Souvalian, Jeff Foster and Roupen Bastajian are pictured during the Spartan Winter Death Race last February in Pittsfield, Vt. The trio are planning a return to the summer version of the event later this month.

LINCOLN – Andy Souvalian had been trying to complete his usual business as an assistant administrator at Amica Insurance Co. headquarters on the afternoon of Monday, April 15 when he heard the horrifying news, that someone had exploded two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

His immediate thought: “Oh, no! How's Roup?”

His best friend, Rhode Island State Police Trooper Roupen Bastajian of Greenville, had been running in the grueling 26.2-mile race from Hopkinton to Copley Square, and he wondered if his pal had suffered any injuries.

“I couldn't get in touch with him; I tried calling him and texting him, but there was no response,” Souvalian stated. “I didn't know if he was OK, if he was one of the injured – or worse. I was like, 'This can't be happening! You've got to be kidding me!'

“When I didn't get anything from Roup, I decided to text his wife (Roubina), and she responded back pretty quickly,” he added. “He evidently had called her from someone else's cellphone to tell her he was OK, that he was helping out some of the injured. He wanted to put her at ease.

“When I got the message from Roubina, I just thought, 'Thank God!'”

Souvalian saw him a couple of days later, and he tried to explain to his buddy and fellow marathoner the gory, heartbreaking details of the scene of the crime.

“He said it looked like a war zone, that there was blood everywhere,” Souvalian explained sadly. “He told me there were body parts everywhere he looked, and had just tried to get to the people whom he could help; that is, the worst-case scenarios. He said he was trying to place tourniquets on the limbs to prevent more bleeding. He tried to help those so they could survive.

“I just told him I was glad they he was all right, and that he was there at the time,” he continued. “After all, he's a first responder by profession. For him to be there, that was, like, divine intervention. I just said, 'Thank God you weren't hurt, and you were able to bring aid to others.'”

Before the marathon, Andy and Roupen had decided together – and with another friend, Jeff Foster, also of Cranston – to compete in what most people would consider the insane Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vt.

On the weekend of June 21-23, the trio will embark on a grueling trek through the mountains of Vermont, partaking in events in which even the most ardent and disciplined athlete would deem improbable, if not impossible.

According to Foster, who owns the Gut Check Fitness Northeast satellite gym in Cumberland, the Death Race offers only 300 competitors the chance to test their mental and physical prowess like no other organized event in the world – even the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon.

A year ago, only 15 percent of the participants remained standing at the finish, 67 hours after it had started. The hurdle- and challenge-driven race requires racers to complete a series of psychological and physical dares through a 4-mile course that runs through the Pittsfield woods.

Those crazy enough to try may be asked to chop wood for two or three hours, haul 20-pound stumps, build a fire, cut a bushel of onions, crawl through mud under barbed wire and more. They also may be asked – after 15 hours of accomplishing each feat – to memorize the names of the first 10 U.S. presidents, or a Bible verse, then climb a mountain, then recite to officials standing at the top the said names or verses.

Unlike other endurance races that deliver a detailed map and list of items to accomplish, “Death Racers” have no clue what they're in for, as everything is kept secret. Even the length and time of the race is unknown, except it could last from 24-72 hours.

“We were working out together at Jeff's gym when Roupen came up with the idea of helping the One Fund Boston,” Souvalian noted. “He said, 'Let's try to make this a fundraiser for the victims.' Roupen said he wanted to do more than he already had.”


Souvalian, 38, had known Bastajian, 35, since they were young, and they carried that friendship through two years together at Cranston West High and beyond. Both had entered the military, Souvalian the U.S. Navy and Bastajian the Marine Corps.

Upon returning home, the state trooper who loved competing in marathons and the Amica administrator who adored the nearly two-mile Save the Bay Swim teased each other about trying the other's passion.

“Ironically, I've done four or five marathons, but I hated running,” Souvalian laughed. “He asked me to do the Ocean State Marathon with him in 2002, and I told him, 'OK, I'll do it, but you have to do Save the Bay with me.' He agreed.

“We did the swim in either late July or early August, and the marathon in, I think it was September,” he added. “We've been doing some of the same events ever since. The reason I didn't do Boston this year is because I didn't qualify; I needed a previous time of 3:15 (three hours, 15 minutes).

“I thought about doing it as a 'bandit,' someone who just jumps on the race course and isn't official, but I knew I'd have to take time out of work; it would've been too much of a hassle.

“Boston is a daunting marathon even before it starts. It's impossible to find a place to park, there's a ton of people there, and the start line is a madhouse. Ever since we were young, and especially after we came back from the military, we've been like brothers.”

He paused, then promised, “What happened at the marathon, and what could've happened to Roupen, it still boggles my mind, but he's still here.”

He claimed Bastajian and Foster had been planning on competing in the Spartan Death Race this summer, since February. How Souvalian became a part of the Spartan Winter Death Race in Pittsfield is now sort of a “running” joke between the three.

“I hadn't even thought about it, but we had been working out at Gut Check the day before the race, and Jeff and Roupen talked me into doing it,” Souvalian grinned. “That was the first one we did together, and it was really challenging but exciting as well.

“I have to say it was 43 hours of misery,” he continued. “It started with us sawing and chopping wood for four or five hours, then we had to carry the wood up a mountain and back down. After that, we had to remove a steal beam from a river, one that had been frozen into a small island in the river. It was frigid in there.

“That in itself took hours. We had to dislodge it by cutting it out of the island and the ice, and then we had some simpler things, but we were still lugging around our ruck sacks (i.e. backpacks) with our food and water and a change of dry clothes around. We eventually would hike back to the home base to replenish our food and water before we set out on other challenges.

“It finally ended at Hour 43; we were told to climb a mountain, a different one this time, then basically hike a 28-mile route. (Officials) said, 'OK, we're going to do the Blood Hike. Anyone who wants to can quit.' Roup almost lost his toe to frostbite, but he kept saying he wanted to continue. They eventually told him he wasn't cleared medically, and he was forced (to retire).”


Souvalian and Foster ended up battling through the excruciating pain, intense cold and frozen muscles and joints to complete the race, and the former indicated the satisfaction was unlike any other.

“People have asked us, 'Are you nuts?' and we just reply, 'Nope. We enjoy the challenge,” Souvalian chuckled. “When people say that it's something we couldn't possibly do, we say we're going to try anyway. It's something so extreme, we want to take it on. I guess it's just because we like to defy the odds.

“We decided to do the Spartan summer race on our way back from the winter (competition),” he added. “Roupen and I haven't done this one upcoming, but we're really looking forward to it. We have a whole new motivation to complete it, and it's because we want to raise as much as we can to help the One Fund.

“This is a thrill not only because so many say, 'You can't do it,' but also because you meet so many quality – and like-minded – people. We're all driven by a good challenge.”

The trio is now asking anyone interested in donating to the fund to sponsor them. They're asking for people or businesses, etc. to donate $1 for each hour they “remain alive” in the competition.

“It's supposed to last about 60 hours, so that would be $60 for us as a team,” Souvalian stated. “You know, we don't have to do this, but we want to. This is our way of contributing to those injured in the bombings, or their family members who were hurt.

“Jeff has told us about past Death Races he's done, but he also said you can't assume anything, as no race is like another.”

When asked if there's any solace in knowing at least he won't freeze this time, as it's a summer event, Souvalian laughed, “Who knows what they'll ask us to do at 3 a.m. on top of a mountain?”

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