Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Part III of III - Untamed New England, the final days.

Our group making our way through the Kennebec gorge. Note the person in the raft pointing and talking and distinctly not paddling. Yep, that's me. Photo Vladimir Bukalo.
" When there is an element of the unknown and questions of probability of success you tend to attract people that are not driven by ego but rather by a sense of adventure and an internal drive that requires little or no external recognition." - author unknown, but perfectly spoken.

The scene at Harris station was pure chaos. Throughout the night 20 or more teams arrived and camped out for whatever time would remain of the blackout before the dam release at 10:30 AM on the Kennebec. Tents popped up everywhere, bodies filled the bath house of the campground; some even slept in the empty U-Haul staged to transport our bikes to the next transition. It was here that my GI system decided to revolt and I spent several hours with an unhappy colon. I normally don't feel like eating during races, so staying fueled and hydrated was going to be exceptionally difficult for a while. I doubled my intake of Hammer Endurolytes hoping to maintain some sort of electrolyte balance. It proved to work OK and when it was time to gather my stuff the agony seemed to have passed.

We ran the upper gorge of the Kennebec with Mark of Northern Outdoors as our guide. Even though we were given specific instructions not to "race" the gorge or pass other rafts, Mark's competitive spirit was evident. He wanted to catch the elite pro teams in front of us and even voluntarily jumped out of the
My friend Kim Lyman prepping her crew, the eventual winners, for their trip down
 the gorge. No pressure there Kim. Photo Untamed New England.
raft at the Carry Brook eddy instead of having us bring him to shore. We all agreed he was pretty awesome. From there, it was up to us to navigate the lower Kennebec down to the town of The Forks with remaining sections of whitewater of class II/III. I have kayaked the Kennebec several times and have a sense for whitewater, or at least a sense for why a raft guide would refer to a particular part of the river as "unemployment rock" so I was happy for an opportunity to give guiding the raft a shot. Full disclosure: it was a little therapeutic having an opportunity to order people around. We made good time to the next checkpoint where we received our maps for the next section of trekking up and packrafting the Dead River.

This is a photo taken of us by my family. I thought I'd include it to give a sense
of my clear lack of any sense of class at this point in the race. 
Photo Dave Koenig.

While the trek up the Dead River appeared to be only 5 miles or so on the map, it was a long, long 5 miles to the first of 3 checkpoints which would be hidden off the side of the trail somewhere. We stopped often to make sure not to overshoot the target and the mosquitoes descended upon us in vicious swarms. I tried whenever possible to be somewhat helpful with navigation but it seemed at this point that I was a little useless, so I just kept my head down. Without a word, I felt James push me up a couple of the hills with one hand while he read the map with the other. We alternated between walking in silence and chatting about life outside of adventure racing. Somehow after a couple of days in the woods with casual friends you feel like you have known one another for years. No real boundaries seem to exist. After a few false starts, we eventually came to the checkpoint and from there bushwhacked as we descended into the steep gorge of to the Dead River. 

We inflated our two pack rafts, loaded our gear, and piled into the river. Almost immediately, our crafts begun to sink. Our combined mass of bodies and packs of over 400 pounds was clearly more than the recommended capacity for the "2-man" rafts. Combined with the lack of a self-bailing feature, we were highly unseaworthy for the class II/III rapids of the Dead River release. Having become accustomed to ignoring my better judgement in the previous days, I saw very little reason to start listening now and we proceeded to the next checkpoint only stopping to dump water from our rafts once our gear started floating out of the boat.
Here is the Columbia team in their pack raft. I suspect they had the same rafts
that we did, which were more like submarines in the rapids of the Dead River.
Photo Untamed New England.
A rescue helicopter hovered over us several times to make sure we were ok, I suspect even from the air it was evident that we were a sorry sight. We continued on with smiles on our faces, shivering feverishly, ducking holes and pour overs down the river until a sizable gash in PJ and James' raft made for an easy decision to skip the 6-foot drops of Poplar Falls. We packed up the rafts and continued on foot back down river to the third checkpoint where we reinflated our functional raft, ferried over to the checkpoint, and headed to the transition on foot. As we made our way down the trail, it appeared that there were some other groups upstream in serious trouble. We saw a yellow unmanned pack raft pass on the river followed by all sorts of gear. Rescue and first aid providers whizzed up the trail behind us. Air temperatures were starting to drop rapidly and we were grateful to be warm and drying out. It was easy to see how someone could get into trouble and the notion that someone could be in danger was unsettling. (Spolier: in the end, a little hypothermia and some scrapes were the worst of the injuries on the Dead River.)

James and PJ working on some navigation before leaving the checkpoint. Photo Vladimir Bukalo.

We arrived at our final transition and picked up our bikes for the final leg of the race. We knew the trail would gain 1,000 feet or so in elevation in less than the first three miles. Much of these three miles were loose scree and sand, ultimately unridable for most, if not all teams. Honestly, I was happy to push my bike up as long as it meant that I didn't have to ride down over the treacherous loose rock. After the steepest portion of the climb, the trail leveled out and we rode the miles to our final checkpoint swiftly and effortlessly despite the wet loads of gear in our packs. While at one time the event had been about competing against the clock or other teams, I think we all would agree that this was about taking it to the end with our best effort for one another. For me, the last leg on the bike was a little bittersweet. Of course I was excited to see the finish line of this epic journey, but there was also a part of me that wasn't ready for it to end. Some moments you can never get back, not matter how hard you try to replicate them. For me, breathing in the moments of finishing Untamed New England with some of the best people on earth was a little surreal.

And then, we hit the final descent. In an instant, I found my mountain bike tumbling down over loose scree and sand reminiscent of the first 2 km of our climb. I tried to control my speed, but at this point I was completely committed to taking the first pitch through hell on my bike. I passed up one opportunity to abort the mission into a second pitch that was snottier, nastier and steeper. Then a third. As my bike bounced from rock to rock, my eyes teared from my irritated contacts and my bike light flickered on and off. In my opinion, it was an absolute heroic effort on my part to avoid a horrific crash. I stopped and gathered myself where the boys were waiting for me, knowing that the finish line was only 100 m away or so. Per their typical consideration, they let me lead the rest of the way down the hill which continued to be loose and steep. And there, two turns from the end of the race, it happened. I ate shit. 

The boys put me back on my bike as I laughed and cried and we continued our pursuit of the finish. I heard Ken crash off the side of the trail in the last 50 m on the bike. Seems fitting that we ended this one in the same manner in which it all begun.

Ken, PJ, me and James celebrating our finish. In the end, we wound up placing 21st  - although the final place says very little about the experience we shared. Photo Kim Lyman
Ben Franklin once said "Never leave that till tomorrow what you can do today". This is the same guy who discovered electricity, so it seems as though we might give pause to what he was trying to tell us. Why wait to seek the adventure we have dreamed of since we were kids? What if after all of our waiting and planning there is no tomorrow? Are we paralyzed by the idea that we might fail or sacrifice our dignity so much that we'd rather never try? I think it is time to start listening to what he was trying to tell us. Don't waste your minutes waiting for tomorrow to present you with adventure, love or answers to life's mysteries. Go after them. And when you fail, it just means you get to try them again. Do the things that terrify you most with people who inspire you to be a better person.

Photo Untamed New England.

Click here for a great video put together by the race organizers of the 2014 event. It captures the race beautifully (and even captures our finish).

A special thanks to Hammer Nutrition for great fuel for this event as well as Reload Fitness and my awesome tights from Spandits!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Part II of III- Untamed New England- The Epic Bike Tour (days 2 and 3ish)

Our team descending from the mountains toward Moosehead lake. Photo credit Vladimir Bukalo

"The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life come from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."
- Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

If I forgot to mention it, mountain biking is not my forte. I don't like crashing (which I do quite often), and I tend to stiffen up causing my insides to shake up to the point that I convince myself that internal organ damage is inevitable. To top this off, I had deliberately failed to mention to my teammates that I suspected that a crash on my bike taken about 10 days before the race may have created an injury that might reveal itself sometime during the race. With so little time remaining before the race and the possibility that my hypochondriacal ways were at the root of it all, I made a trip to the chiropractor and determined it was best to just suck it up.

We headed out on the mountain bike about 8 AM hoping to make up lost time, both on the clock and also to catch up to the other teams. Failing to make the 7 PM cutoff would mean that we would be diverted off the pro course on a shorter course and miss the orienteering relay and the bushwhack through the Abenaki Lost World. James did a great job navigating a route conferring with us regularly to be sure we were all in agreement with route choice. We hustled along to get back into the race. I did everything in my power to keep up with the group, especially up the longer hill stretches, but after about 60 miles or so on the bike I must have started to drag a little which was confirmed when James offered me a tow up several of the hills. Normally, I would be put off by such an offer and insist on doing it all on my own power, but in a team race there is no "me" or room for ego or dignity. I am not going to lie, getting a tow was awesome. Not only did it give me the boost I needed, but also forced me to stay on his wheel to catch a draft. I know at first I must have been a horrible drag since I put on the brakes whenever I got too close, but I eventually became more trusting and confident and allowed James to dictate the pace while I did what I could to pitch in on the effort.
Most of the mountain biking wasn't all that technical. Here is one of the Canadian teams on
course. Photo Untamed New England.

Apart from one bike bushwhack section up part of a small mountain and through a pass, the mountain biking was really fun.  There were some epic crashes, mostly by PJ, including one in a waist deep puddle. If PJ were to do another adventure race, I might recommend that he practice using clipless pedals. "Bikewacking" in dense forest with small saplings grabbing at our bikes and packs was a bit of a test to our spirits, especially since we took a bit less direct path than we had hoped for. I think the worst part for me was when my pedals would catch on a sapling and swing back and crash into my leg. In the same spot. Over and over. We emerged from the bikewack no worse for the wear, chose a great route and headed to the checkpoint at the AMC Gorman Chairback Hut. Despite passing nearly 10 other teams in the woods somewhere and regaining about 7 hours of our lost time, we arrived at the checkpoint with only a half hour to the cutoff, which would be insufficient to complete the 1.5 hour orienteering relay. This meant we would be directed back to the Transition at Lily Bay (which was also transition 3). This also meant another 5 hours on the mountain bike...
Checkpoint flag along the mountain biking course. Photo Untamed New England.

The nighttime temperatures in the Moosehead area were near 40 degrees at night which felt really cold on a mountain bike when wet and tired. We made our way through the darkness and for the first time ever in a race I began to lose my focus a little (what I really mean to say is that I started losing my mind). In the previous two nights, I had slept a mere 2-3 hours and 90 miles on a mountain bike was more than I have ever dreamed of doing. James had the presence to hook me onto his tow several times on the longer climbs of this trek. The flashing disco taillight on PJ's bike became a hypnotizing force that I could do nothing but fixate on for hours. Of course it was inevitable in our tired state that we would make a wrong turn, and we did, costing us an additional hour or two of riding before arriving at the transition at about 2 AM. Upon arrival, we learned that the course had been changed due to unsafe wind conditions on Moosehead Lake and all teams would be re-routed by bike in the morning instead of canoe. The clock would not stop however, so any advantage we gained in the amateur race (short course) would be lost during the night. We hunkered down in the tent for another cold night in the Maine wind. I'm certain that I did sleep for 3 hours this night because I have a distinct memory of a dream where the race directors asked me if I wanted a blanket. I woke up to find an empty sleeping bag next to me and curled it up around me. Poor PJ had gotten up to pee in the woods only to return to find there was a thief amongst us.

By 8 AM Friday, we were back on course and headed to Greenville. From here to the end of the race, we would have no access to our paddling gear bins so we had to carry our paddles, PFD's and pack rafts as well as personal gear on our backs for the remainder of the race. On this ride, Ken surpassed PJ for the title of "most horrific crash", but he shook off the road rash without even as much as a complaint. 

Now routed on the short course, we were with the leaders who had completed the full course and were surrounded by so much media it felt like we had our own paparazzi. At first it was unsettling, but as we encountered the same photographers at checkpoint after checkpoint, it became entertaining being chased by cameras. We made quick work of the Greenville urban orienteering leg, made great time up Little Moose and Big Moose Mountains and descended to the old Big Squaw ski lodge, which has been closed for several years. On our journey over these two summits, we were overtaken by the top 3 teams in the world- I now understand why.
Me, PJ and James at the top of Big Squaw as taken by the paparazzi. Photo Untamed New England.
They flew along the trail at breakneck speeds with very little rest to support their efforts. I was particularly impressed by the French team who were very pleasant and driven, and I was floored to see their 120-pound woman towing one of the boys up the steep ascent to the checkpoint. 
Ken and PJ descending Moose Mtn. Photo Vladimir Bukalo

At the transition, we were given maps to our next two checkpoints, which were absolutely nowhere near one another on the map. In Maine, there is a reason for the expression "you can't get there from here." In this case, adequately phrased. The most straightforward option was to take a 40 or maybe even 50-mile route back to Greenville. Another was to take a more direct route of ATV trails that may or may not exist through the forests. Without too much debate, we opted for the more direct but riskier route. There were a couple of route options: we chose the one that involved the least amount of climbing to try to save some energy. Unfortunately, as is true in life, the path of less resistance is not always the best path. This one was a dead end. The map indicated a possible short bushwhack to a reconnection with active trails, but after an hour of carrying our bikes through logging slash and near waist-deep swamp in places, we realized it was futile and retraced our steps through one of the most mosquito infested swamps imaginable at dusk. Nothing was spared here- I was even bitten on my eyelids. 

After deciding that the smart option would be to return via the long road to Greenville, we decided instead to take the higher path of parallel ATV trails to see if we could circumnavigate the dead end swamp to the trail on the other side. Navigationally, this journey was one of the most brilliant choices of our trip. If you had asked me before this race if I thought it was possible for someone to ride a mountain bike in the dark while reading a map, I would have laughed. James absolutely killed this. He followed every drainage, monitored our elevation and we covered 30 miles of ATV trails through the cold night without a single wrong turn. It was about 1 AM when we rolled into Harris Station, the dam at the head of the Kennebec gorge where we would begin the whitewater legs in the morning. Here we would encounter yet another blackout; however, this one would finally stop the clock as all racers would be held until the river release in the morning. James and I used the floors of our pack rafts as an air mattress.  It only made sense since we had carried the rafts all day.
It appears that we weren't the only ones to decide the best use
of a pack raft was for sleeping. Photo Untamed New England.
I had wisely grabbed a few more long-sleeved layers at the transition on Big Squaw and was slightly less cold and uncomfortable through the early morning hours, but only marginally.

Part III - Untamed New England, the final leg.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Part I of III- Untamed New England- Day 1

The lead groups head out on Moosehead from the start. Photo Untamed New England

"The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends."- Tom Brown, Jr.

The 2014 Untamed New England Adventure Race is the first adventure race that I have had the privilege of being part of, but even as I sit here on my deck covered in bruises, sunburn, scrapes and a swollen ankle, I think it is pretty safe to say that it won't be my last. I normally don't struggle for words when putting together a race review, but this race was so much more than a race simply to be reviewed. This race was about a journey as part of a team into the Maine wilderness.

A little overview:
The Untamed New England Adventure race is a 4-day expedition length event that is part of the Adventure Racing World Series (one of only 2 such races in the US). A total of 41 teams came from 8 countries, most being teams of 4 including one female team member. The race is series of checkpoints that unsupported teams must navigate to by map and compass on mountain bike, on foot or by pack raft and includes orienteering, whitewater, and a ropes section. Our team of 4, Executive Athletes, was put together by my friend Ken Lubin and included the following list of characters. 

Ken Lubin- Ken is a businessman outside of Worcester, MA. Ken has an impressive resume including a Death Race win, a member of the World Champion Obstacle Racing team, and winner of the Tuckerman Inferno. He is as strong as an ox, a killer former mountain bike racer, and a really great motivator. He has a wonderfully supportive wife who comes to most of his crazy races to make it possible for him to keep finding ways to push the boundaries and dig deep within himself and encourage others to do the same.
Left to right: Ken, James, PJ and me wearing my sweet Spandits tights on day 3 of the race. Photo Lani Cochrane.

PJ Rakoski- PJ and Ken have worked together both informally and formally as a team several times, including finishing a Death Race as co-winners and together as the World Champion Obstacle Racing team. PJ will be competing in his first Ironman a few weeks after this challenge and I have no doubt that he is going to crush that too. PJ is fearless, up for any challenge and is a quick study at almost anything he tries. PJ's resilience, adaptability, and positive attitude make up for any experience or fancy gear he lacks (I should add that I do believe he raced the entire race with a broken front derailleur on an old, retired bike of Ken's). I imagine some of PJ's patience comes from the fact that he has 4 children under the age of 8 at home. His wife is a saint for sharing him with us.

James Kovacs- I wouldn't know where to start to overview James' athletic accomplishments and strengths, so suffice to say that there isn't much that James can't do. He has podium finishes in several multi-discipline stage races and adventure races in both individual and team events. It was pretty obvious that James would be our leader and we were lucky that Ken persuaded him to join three rookies the Maine woods for 4 days. I didn't know James before Ken put together our team, but with his experience and skill I was surprised by James' humility and complete lack of arrogance. His mild-mannered and kind nature combined with complete selflessness would become one of the reasons this race will hold a place as one of my favorite adventures of all time.

Me- I suspect many people who read this blog already know a little about me, so I'll just add a little about how my experiences fit into this race.  I am not fast, particularly on a mountain bike, but after a day or two in an endurance event I generally find my stride. I am stubborn and stupid enough to endure suffering long after most people would stop. I had never rappelled while not on belay before this race and am scared of heights, hitting my head, or drowning in the middle of Moosehead Lake. Oh, and I have never done a team sport. Ever.

The Race Day 1:
I could actually write a whole blog post on the race preparation- maybe someday I will- but for now I will say that it was an adventure in itself. We received our maps at about 7pm on Tuesday night and by the time we had a chance to plot our course, fill gear bins for the transition points and discuss our plan it was 2:30 AM the night before the race. We were up at 6 AM to for the final pre-race briefings. So much for a good night's sleep before the race...
Swamp donkey waiting for the racers to arrive. If we hadn't discouraged him, I am pretty sure PJ would drink this water. Photo Untamed New England.

Our first day on course didn't start as we had planned it. Before the race even begun, there was an orienteering prologue designed to spread teams out before heading out on the waters of Moosehead Lake. At the gun, racers were given maps of terrain surrounding the Birches Resort on the shores of the lake to navigate to 3 land checkpoints. Within seconds, teams were sprinting away from the starting line reading the maps as they disappeared into the woods. Reading maps while running? The boys hustled up the road with 50 pound backpacks strapped to their backs and I struggled to keep up with the pack with my lighter bag. It wasn't 3 minutes into the race before Ken scooped my pack off my back and we hustled into the woods. We opted to take a route different from the masses of sheep following the leaders in hopes that our way might provide a sneak route to the checkpoint. Of course it turned out that there was a reason that all of the teams followed the leaders, perhaps because many of the best adventure racing teams in the world were there with navigational geniuses at the helm. We emerged from the prologue about 30 minutes behind pack of teams ahead and headed off for tactical error #2 on Moosehead Lake.

The next set of checkpoints were several miles away across a major section of Moosehead Lake. I was feeling a little humbled by the level of competency of all of the teams ahead of us (which was most) and declined James' suggestion that I paddle in the stern with Ken in the bow of our canoe because I had never really paddled a canoe with a kayak paddle. Steering seemed like it would be much more difficult without access to the classic J-stroke used as a rudder and I felt Ken would be better since he is stronger. Once we were out on the middle of the lake, it was evident that this would be the second blunder of the day, only two hours into a 4-day race. With Ken's 200+ pounds in the stern our bow was continually caught by the swift winds coming out of the northwest pushing us southeastward. Even with the packs up in the front of the boat, there was no way to trim out the canoe and avoid incessant slapping of the bow over the 3-foot waves with any efficiency. Realizing our error, we switched our canoe positions once we reached the eastern shore and finally hit a stride of efficiency regaining momentum on the pack ahead. We transitioned from the canoe to a jog up little Kinneo perfectly- despite a somewhat disastrous start, our ability to laugh at ourselves superseded our disappointment. We would catch up, no doubt.

We arrived to the next checkpoint to our next challenge. The challenge here was not what I had expected, however. I knew it involved a 250-foot rappel down the cliffs of Little Kinneo. I knew that I would be terrified but PJ and James had enough climbing experience that I was confident that they would talk me through it. What I didn't know was about the bottleneck that we were now behind. What started out as 8 lines for simultaneous rappelling rapidly turned to 2 as safety from loose, rotten, crappy rock falling became an issue on 6 of the lines. Although we arrived only an hour behind the leaders, we would wait for over 3 hours for the teams who arrived before us to take their turn down the two remaining lines. Spirits in the back of the group sagged a little as time wore on and the line seemingly didn't move. There would be no time bonus awarded for those who waited here: just a consequence of circumstance. 
One of the lead teams heading down the rappel. Photo Untamed New England.

The rappel was snotty, loose, wet and scary. I am not going to lie: I was terrified. Having lost so much time at the top, I didn't bother to go through the normal grieving process I generally do when I override my better judgement. I just went- one hand, one foot at a time over the cliff. The boys came down without much splendor as the guides were clearly exhausted from the increased pressure of getting the teams down safely using only 2 of the planned lines. We bushwhacked back down to our canoes and set out back on the lake to grab a few checkpoints on Mt. Kinneo and head to the Transition 1 at the south end of Moosehead.
South side of Mt. Kinneo near Pebble Beach. Photo Untamed New England.

Darkness set in on the end of Day 1 and we prepared our lights for a night navigation of the lake. Headlamps only created a glaring reflection off the water and paddles, so we made our way south using the light of the stars and our glowsticks. It was eerily beautiful making our way behind the mountain in silence. 
The other side of the island, however, was an entirely different story. As we approached Pebble Beach on the south side of the island for a short portage, the winds began to gust with such ferocity that the waters were quickly whipped up into whitecaps which surfed us from behind in the darkness. We paddled on hoping to seek calmer waters, but it was evident that a lake traverse in the darkness with howling winds was too dangerous without hope for rescue. I do wonder if the boys might have considered continuing on otherwise, but we seemed to be in general agreement that we would be windbound until daylight arrived. We popped up our 2-man tent and piled in. I laid awake for the next 5 hours shivering in the 40-degree Maine night listening to the wind howl and moan in the trees above wondering if our race was already over.
The fire tower stairs from the top of Kinneo. Who knew this would be the only thing that would frighten Ken Lubin? Photo Untamed New England.

Just after 4:30 am we were up and on the lake. The choppy waters added a little excitement, but we paddled the 10 miles or so to Lily Bay without incident to Transition 1 where we would pick up our bikes for the mountain biking leg. We learned here that most teams on the lake after darkness had made a similar choice- but we were nearly last of all teams. At this point, we had lost 8 hours due to waiting and were looking at a 7:00 PM cutoff to remain on the "pro" course. It might seem like this first day was nothing but disappointment, and I am sure we all felt some of it, but the energy in the group was incredibly positive and light. 

Part II- Mountain biking the woods of Maine.
Photo Vladimir Bukalo.