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.


  1. Love the blog, Shelley. Can't wait for the rest of the installments. Love you, Mom

  2. This sounds like an awesome race, definately something out of the ordinary.
    I'm not sure I could do the rapelling down the side of a Mtn - I also HATE heights. Always have. You must have done a lot of cross training so your arms and shoulders were ready for all of that heavy paddling.

    1. It was really great. I would do it again tomorrow if I had the opportunity! I think carrying my bike was the part I needed to train for a little more, or get a lighter bike! Thanks for reading Andy.