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!


  1. Shelley:
    I enjoyed reading your blog and over the summer would love to get your personal insights into ways it might be possible to grow Adventure Racing in the western mountains. Clearly, a race such as Untamed isn't for everyone, but what are the "entry points" into the sport?
    Would love your opinions.
    Maybe we could meet for coffee in Kingfield to discuss.

    1. Absolutely Russell, I'd love to! I am in CO for the next two weeks, but then will be available back home most any time after July 16 or so. Coffee in Kingfield sounds great. My direct email is

  2. Great job guys, making it to the finish is the greatest accomplishment. Hope to see you guys again on a race course.

    1. Thank you Alexandre! Congratulations to your team for a great job. You can count on seeing us out there again- what an awesome adventure.

  3. finally finished these blog entries about your race, shelley!!
    What a great team.
    congrats on your finish!! xoxox

    1. Thanks Jane. I have to agree, I had the best team in the world. Learned a ton this time around and am already looking forward to the next one!

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