Monday, April 21, 2014

Carnage at the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race

One thing can always be counted on at the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race : Chaos. Photo Laurie Lizotte.
I am not a paddler. I have very little business even sitting in a canoe, never mind at a competitive level. My role in a canoe race involves providing dead weight in the bow of the boat to help trim it out so Lani, who is a professional canoe guide, can glide it down the river smoothly. I don't mean to sell myself short; I am make a decent motor for someone willing to tell me what to do and have enough experience as a whitewater kayaker to be a little dangerous to myself. With that said, competitive canoe racing is not exactly in my comfort zone. As Lani always says to me "if you're gonna be stupid, you'd better be strong". And so we headed off for another round of the insanity of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race.

In the usual style, the Kenduskeag began with a little insanity and a whole lot of fun. Competitors dressed in wetsuits, costumes, denim, or next-to-nothing flooded the tiny town of Kenduskeag for the race start. Boats ranged from whitewater kayaks to 10-man war canoes and everything in between, although most were 2-person recreational canoes (recreational means no Kevlar race boats). Water craft were sent out in waves of 5 boats every 60 seconds until the entire field of 407 boats were launched down the 15.5 mile course to Bangor (the course had to be shortened this year due to high flooding and high tides at the usual take out). The river was swollen with nearly twice the volume of water passing between its banks of in a typical year. Trees rose from the middle of the river like statues creating swirling eddy lines and brush normally on the river bank created some snotty looking strainers even in the middle of the river. Having looked at a few of the rapids the night before, including the class III multi-drop rapid at Six Mile Falls, I knew the word of the day was going to be carnage. Although we were hoping not to be casualties ourselves Lani and I decided that while the rapid was big and mistakes would not likely be forgiven, we were going to run the falls. We agreed we'd rather go down with the ship than portage. It was certainly runnable with a good amount of skill, a little luck and a whole lot of courage. Did I mention I know nothing about canoe racing?

Lani and I had bib #207, which meant we would be starting in the middle of the madness. We were in the first wave of the women's C2-W field (canoe 2-person- women). At the line, Lani and I darted out in front of the field with a quick pace that no one could match. For a short while, we could hear the calling of another team as they synchronized their paddle strokes and exchanges from left to right, but their calls became more and more distant as we pushed the pace a little harder. We settled into a strong rhythm passing dozens of boats, staying in the fastest moving water we could. I navigated while Lani steered and we both felt strong, fast and light. The first 10 miles or so of the race would be a mix of flat water, gently moving water and small rips but no whitewater to speak of. The whitewater would begin at Six Mile and we knew that we needed to use the flat water to our advantage if we wanted to be competitive. About two miles in, we could hear the voices of another all-female boat making ground on us from behind, presumably the voices we heard at the start. We couldn't believe that we hadn't dropped these girls with the blistering pace we had set- but alas, the voices were getting louder, not more distant. Soon, two young ladies appeared at our side, despite our best efforts to hold them off. Their craft a beautiful Wenonah canoe that eclipsed our Dagger Passage in efficiency, their strokes were flawless, their cadence unmatchable. As they started slipping ahead while we paddled furiously, we pushed. They responded. We pushed harder. They again responded. For the next eight miles, we would pass back and forth, pushing ever harder and harder trying to break them. I may not be the most skilled paddler, but I do know a thing or two about pushing. This was not going to be an easy day for any of us.
Whitewater of the Kenduskeag. Even if you don't flip, the river has a nasty way of taking hostages....
Charlie Smith Photography

In the approach to the big drop at Six Mile Falls, chaos was in the air. In the distance, I could already see a large war canoe wrapped around a tree near the entrance to the first drop of the technical river left route we had planned.
What not to do when the river takes you as a victim. Note the legs attached to the seat in the stern of the boat.
Bill Knight Photography

Lani's husband and daughter overtook us (from a 5-minute deficit at the start) as we entered the rapid and I noticed our of the corner of my eye that our battle companions had opted to take the safer option and portage the Six Mile Falls rapid on river right. If there was ever an opportunity to go up in flames, this was it. As we dropped into the first set of holes and waves, it was clear that this run was not going to be the one we had planned. Sunken crafts, the ever changing nature of the water level and obstacles made the line we scouted impossible. Fortunately, Lani and I always make a plan "B" and plan "C" and even plan "D" for this rapid.
Plan A thwarted by capsized boats everywhere in the left channel in the
first few ledge drops. Charlie Smith Photography.
We didn't, however, put them in such an order. As we dropped into the first hole, Lani hollered "draw, draw!" I crossdrawed still fixed on making the original line. She then yelled "now crossdraw. DO it." As you might have guessed, I drawed. "Jesus Shelley, paddle!" I looked down and my left hand was clenched to the gunnel of the boat. Argh, I thought. I knew it, I messed up. This would be the only time we would break rhythm the entire race. I quickly fixed my left hand back on the T-grip where it belonged, dug in and we boofed a couple of ledges, dodged the remaining pour overs and by the time we hit the final 7-foot man-eating ledge drop, I was back in the game. Taking the final drop, we could see the Wenonah putting back in at the bottom of the falls. We bailed the excess water and paddled with abandon the final miles of the trip.  Lani's rhythmic chant of "one-two-three-four-five-hup" seemed to be on repeat as she kept me on pace as we dug deeper and deeper. The gals chasing us would have to work as hard as we were if they wanted to catch us again.
Chip and Czari (Lani's husband and daughter) in the final drop of Six-Mile-Falls. The look of horror and thrill on Czari's face is priceless. Photo Bill Knight Photography.

The stretch from Six Mile to the improvised finish line is relatively steady class II. Navigating waves, hole ducking, and avoiding capsized craft was the game. Despite the whitewater we took chances, found the fastest paths and charged down river while the sounds of the other women faded further and further in the distance. My shoulders ached for a moment of rest. I regretted tossing a water bottle in the boat rather than wearing my Camelback as thirst was becoming intolerable, but there had
Me bailing after Six Mile. Note that I am NOT drinking the water.
Photo Bill Knight Photography
been no moment to grab a sip from a bottle since the start. I later learned Lani and taken several swigs of grungy river water as she bailed from the rear of the boat. Somehow this didn't surprise me. As we approached the final stretch to the finish, we realized that we were uncatchable with nearly a 30 second lead. We approached the final small drops with a little more caution, a little more confidence, and crossed the line. As we swung into the eddy at the takeout, I inhaled all 16 oz of my Hammer Heed and Endurolyte electrolyte mix like it was the first water I had seen in weeks (oh, the irony).
Lani and I headed into the 7-foot drop of Six Mile Falls.

Our moment of triumph never came, however. About 30 seconds after we pulled into the eddy, our new rivals crossed the line. It was only then that I actually saw their bib- it was #212. Although competitors were supposed to have a bib on the bow of the boat as well as the person in the front, their # was visible only on the left bow of the boat, which we had not seen. This meant that they were not, in fact, the boat that we had heard in the beginning and dropped near the start. This was a boat had started in the wave 60 seconds behind us. Our 30 second lead turned into a 30 second deficit and we would lose in the narrowest margins of all categories (despite being one of the top 15 of nearly 300 recreational canoes at the start).

A hard fought second place at the Kenduskeag.

Taking a loss when you had allowed yourself to believe that you had won a tough battle is always a tough pill to swallow, but it is also one of those lessons in life that we all need. Humility, sportsmanship, and attitude are essential components of sport. Sammi Nadeau and Kailey Schmidt earned this victory. These two girls are tough and they had us in their scopes from the start of the race. Turns out, they have one heck of a paddling resume to boot as the 2013 C2-W National Champions. Next time girls, we aren't taking anything for granted.

Kailey and Sammi winning the National Championship on the Nantahala in the 2013 season. They are both cute and sweet. Did I mention they are only 18?

Chip and their 17-year-old daughter Czari raced to a commanding victory in the C2-Mix category. It was wonderful to see Chip in his element have Czari baptized into this madness, although it was evident when the 5-Hour Energy wore off that Czari would sleep well that night.

Chip and Czari after their victory. Chip won this race with his father, Warren Cochrane 40 years earlier. Pretty cool.
Special thanks to Charlie Smith Photography and Bill Knight Photography for allowing me to share some action photos from the race.

Thanks to Hammer Nutrition for your amazing sponsorship and also Reload Fitness! If you are interested in learning about Hammer Fuels, please contact me and I'd love to chat about them.

And here is a cool article about Chip and Czari from the front page of the Bangor Daily News.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon!

 Destination- Beautiful Tuckerman Ravine
This winter's off season was a long one for me. Sustaining a nasty concussion in September laid me up for several months and the long, cold winter that followed did little to pull me out of the den that I crawled in back in November. Coming out of hibernation for the Tuckerman Inferno was certainly a formidable task even under normal circumstances.

The Tuckerman Inferno is a 5-stage pentathlon- a 8.3 mile run (with two miles straight uphill), 6 mile whitewater kayak (class II/ III-), 18-mile bike (with a 2,000 ft elevation gain), a hike up Mt. Washington (with ski gear) and a GS race down to the bottom through Tuckerman ravine. I had heard of the race several years ago, but this was the year Lani and I decided to give it a shot. Here's a racp of how it went down.

The run began at Storyland in Glen, NH and ran through the surrounding communities over an 8.3 miles course. The course was well-marked and included one steep grueling climb that brought many runners to their knees. Lani and I agreed that the only strategy for the run was survival. The pack went out at what felt like a blistering pace (to someone who lives where 4 feet of snow still covers all of the running trails for good training anyway). It became clear very early in this event that those people who come to participate in races straight off the couch simply for a fun day in the sun were not in this race. They were still in bed. I felt good, and with the exception of the two-mile excruciatingly slow mountain climb miles, maintained a pretty steady 8 minute/mile or so pace. Faster than I had planned, but not debilitating it seemed.
Looking like 1980 in my kayaking garb. The water here was a little chilly.

I arrived at the kayak transition to realize that we were pretty far back in the pack. In a field of a little over 70 teams and Tuckermen (equivalent to Ironman division), there were only about 20 boats left at the transition. As I wiggled into my kayaking gear, my sunglasses fogged over and I slipped on a patch of ice on the river's edge and stubbed my newly toenail-less big toe on a rock. Rough start to the kayak leg. Lani and I had noticed earlier in the morning while dropping off our gear that we were  amongst just a small number of racers that didn't have the faster downriver boats: instead we had smaller whitewater boats. Lani's was a playboat that she has had for many years; mine a larger, faster boat borrowed from a friend of a friend. Both left us feeling a little retro and unsure of how our slower boats would play out in the event. Rounding the first two bends I encountered the first of what would be well over a dozen swimmers I would pass in the icy water of the kayak leg. The course was peppered with rescuers both on shore and in the water- clearly they had been having a busy morning. My concern over my boat choice quickly dissipated, especially once I realized the water level had risen significantly since we pre-paddled the course with friends Friday afternoon. I later learned nearly 1/3 of the field took at least one swim during this leg.

Jon Erickson and I just pulling out of the bike transition.
 Where are the brakes on this thing, I wonder?
Entering the transition to the bike leg, I felt great. As I pulled away from the transition, my friend Jon Erickson pulled alongside me and we headed out together. For many racers, this day would be their first of 2014 on their road bikes. For me, this would be my first ever- unless the 10-speed that sat for years in our woodshed when I was a teenager counts? I started out ridiculously cautious, vowing to stay in the saddle for the entire leg as to not risk jerking on the handlebars and crashing.

Within the first mile, we hit a hill that must have been bigger than Mt. Everest. Ok, so I am exaggerating a tad, but it was big. Even downshifting into my grandma gear did little to propel me up the hill, and panic started to set in. I watched another rider ahead of me and studied his technique for ascending in a standing position. Eventually, I was forced to choose between getting off the bike or riding my bike like the big boys and girls. After a few wild swerves and screeches, I gained a little confidence and upped my cadence. I soon felt like Lance Armstrong on the L'Alpe d'Huez- minus the drugs- until I got to the top, that is. From the top, my brakes squealed and smoked during the entire decent as I squeezed them until my hands could squeeze no more. Jon had cautioned me about the potholes and sand as we left the transition, and I wisely chose a path right down the center of the road. Two bikes whizzed by me during this stretch like I was standing still. I would later pass one of these two riders vomiting as he rode up the final hills to Mt. Washington. I was glad not to be vomiting during this stage because it clearly took skill to wretch and ride.  I have heard people say they felt a ride was all uphill with a headwind in jest. In this case, it was, in fact, all uphill with a headwind.
Finally at the top of a long, long climb.

All in all, the bike was a great first ride. I passed a few riders up the final foothills up Mt. Washington and learned a thing or two about road biking. As a side note, I had a  sizable lock of hair stuck in my mouth for the entire ride. I swatted at it on a couple of occasions to no avail, but ultimately was too afraid to release my death grip of the handlebars long enough to fix it.

My awesome kids digging out
Hammer Gels from my transition bag while I change my shoes.

My family met me at the bike-hike transition and my kids handed me Hammer Gels, fixed my hair and cheered me on while I changed my shoes and grabbed my ski gear. After a couple of smooches from my cheering squad, I headed out of Pinkham Notch toward Tuckerman Ravine.

And they each sent me off with a kiss..

The snow was slushy and difficult to navigate with a heavy pack. I popped a few extra Hammer Endurolytes to help prevent my calves from cramping, which seemed to do the trick. The weather was bluebird and if I had any intentions of a quiet, peaceful hike into the ravine, I would have been hugely disappointed. There were thousands of people on the trail to Tuckerman's. I wove my way in and out of shirtless college kids with snowboards, skis, sleds, dogs, etc. It felt like Spring Break 2014. Under normal circumstances, I always try to acknowledge fellow hikers or racers while overtaking them, but this would have been impossible. The stream of bodies was continuous from the Pinkham Notch parking lot for three continuous slushy miles uphill. The scene at HoJo's, a forest service cabin nestled at the base of the ravine, was total insanity. After taking a moment to process the all of it, I finally lifted my head and looked up into the bowl of Tuckerman Ravine. For the first time in the race, my stomach fell into my sneakers. The ravine walls felt so steep that I could reach out and touch them. I could see a few hikers and skiers scattered about here and there, but generally the bowl was devoid of the activity and chaos of the lower slopes. This is when I first saw Hillman's Highway peppered with Giant Slalom gates disappearing skyward. This was my destination. I took a moment to question my own sanity and found a nice rock to perch on and boot up for the final ascent up the ravine.

HoJo's in the foreground and Hillman's Highway the diagonal line in the middle of the shot from center to the left. 

Knowing my own fear of heights, I never once looked behind me as I climbed. Placing one foot in front of the other, I followed a narrow boot pack path up Hillman's Highway. I moved steadily, stopping to lean into the hill a few times as the breeze grabbed my skis on my pack causing my weight to shift. At the top, I came to a little flat spot dug into the snow for putting skis on and after waiting for three or 4 other skiers to drop into the course it was my turn.

The funny thing is, in every fear I had about this race I never considered how tired my legs would be trying to descend such a steep slope and long run out. By this time, I was over 5 hours into a pretty consistent effort and my quads were shot. Having only telemark gear in my quiver, I had no choice but use what I had to race. The decent was unexpectedly grueling. The GS course following by a 4 mile decent in variable slush, ice and moguls brought me to my knees- so much so that I actually stopped near the bottom of the ravine (shamefully still in the GS course) to have a little rest and encourage my quads to stop shaking. I laughed at myself, continued on, stopping three or four more times before reaching the finish line at the base of the mountain, grateful to not take a telemark face plant along the way.
We made it!

All in all, this event was one of the most exhilarating, unpredictable, fun, challenging and diverse events I have done to date. The race organization was impeccable, complete with the National Guard at road crossings stopping traffic for cyclists, ski patrol covering the entire ski leg and safety boaters fishing swimmers out of a cold, icy river in seconds. I would put this one on your must do events if you are on the fence about giving it a try (I should add that most racers do this event as a relay format with up to 5 team members, so you don't have to go solo to be part of it).

For me personally, this event was a personal high. I couldn't be more proud of our 3rd and 4th place overall finishes (Tuckerwoman division) in an incredibly talented and accomplished field. I saw old friends, made new friends and laughed a lot. Maybe more than I should have.

Tuckerman Inferno, I think we'll be seeing more of you in the future.
A picture says it all. This is how Lani and I both felt in the end....

A special thanks to the folks at Hammer Nutrition and Reload Fitness for believing in me and being part of my adventure. I also want to give a shout out to the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine for pulling this off for all of us crazies.
Hammer Nutrition was well represented on the women's Tuckerwoman podium.
Nina Silitch 1st and me 3rd. What a cool woman she is!- photo Nina Silitch

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds."- Edward Abbey

This finish deserved a fist pump.