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.


  1. Hi Shelley! That is so badass! I've never heard of this before, what an adventure! Very happy to be a fellow Spandits Ambassador with you - Jen from Running With The Girls. I don't live that far away from you...... ;)

    1. Thanks Jen! I am thrilled to join the team since I already wear my Spandits! everywhere. Would be great fun to get together with the few of us in Maine sometime!