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.


  1. I was a kayaker on a women's team at the race this weekend (holy hellraisers), I saw you on a couple of legs, you rocked it! Your blog come up when I was looking for the race results, your awesome skirt is memorable. My husband also did the whole thing, he was ahead of you on the bike but he said you passed him on the hike like he was standing still. Excellent!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and your kind words. This was such an awesome event. Great people, fabulous adventure and one of the best locations for such an event imaginable. This was my first time, but I will be back just to be part of this again... and I'll certainly be rocking the skirt when I do!

  2. Having participated in the much tamer Wildcat Wildfire race a few years back, I can truly appreciate your experience. Fantastic story, you should be proud of your achievement, thanks for sharing.

    1. I certainly will never use the word easy in any sentence that involves the Inferno, but I loved every minute of it. I'll bet the Wildcat race was fun too- its too bad that they couldn't run that one this year too.

  3. Hello!

    I have a quick question for you, could you email me when you have a chance? Thanks! –Heather