Thursday, September 11, 2014

9 Stages of The North Country Endurance Challenge

Ken and PJ bathed in early morning sun. Photo Jo M. Wood Photography

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."- T.S. Eliot

Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the North Country Endurance Challenge in Pittsburg, NH. The event is supported by Untamed Adventure Racing and is directed by the same race director of the 4-day Untamed New England Adventure Race I competed in earlier this summer, so it didn't take too much convincing to pique my interest. This event is multi-sport 9-leg mountain race consisting of mountain biking, kayaking and running covering around 70 miles (and over 7,000 feet of elevation gain) of the Balsam Wilderness area of northern New Hampshire. Athletes have the opportunity to compete solo or as relay teams with as many members as they want.
Race Start. Photo North Country Endurance Challenge.

Despite the fact that only one female completed the full premiere course in 2013, I opted to register for the premiere course as a solo racer with a little encouragement from Ken, one of my teammates from the Untamed New England event in June. As it would turn out, all three of my teammates from our Executive Athletes team would be competing (Ken, PJ and James), although we would each be racing as individuals this time. While I knew the boys would all have their sights on competitive finishes, my goal for this event was to avoid the time cutoff after the 6th leg of the race which would result in an alternate short-course to the finish. Having been short-coursed on the pro-course at the Untamed event earlier this summer, I knew too well the dissatisfaction of the "what ifs?" in the aftermath of those two little words. Short course.
And with an early morning firing of a cannon (yep, really a cannon), we were off. Photo 
Dave Koenig

While the weather forecast doomed us to eventual thundershowers, the 6:30 AM race start brought a beautiful sunrise and glassy start on First Connecticut Lake where a 4-mile kayak leg would start off the race. Most athletes had sleek, fast, kevlar flat water racing boats 20 or more feet in length. My 13-foot plastic sea kayak would make for an interesting start. I knew that the overall time loss would be relatively small, on the order of minutes, but I also was pretty aware that the overall toll
taken on my energy levels might be a little more significant. One of these days I might get more serious about getting fancy gear for these races but until then I have a lot more to work on before it really makes a difference.

Leg 1- 4 mile kayak on First Connecticut Lake
The leaders coming into the first transition area. Photo Dave Koenig

Leg 2- 3-ish mile run through Saint Francis State Park. The trail here was rooty in places and footing a little questionable, but otherwise a pretty straightforward trail run. I felt pretty good through these first two legs.
Finishing leg 2 of the event. Another female solo racer, Tamela Swan, is also
in this photo with me. She is a veteran adventure racer and is really, really tough.
Photo Jo. M. Wood Photography

Leg 3- Leg 3 brought us back in the kayak for a 5-ish mile paddle on Lake Francis. It was on this leg I felt a bigger difference between my boat and the other faster boats as the wind was beginning to kick up. Most of the paddle was at a slight angle to the headwind and not having a rudder made the effort considerably more work. Any difficulty that most of us competing at this point may have experienced was overshadowed by the beauty of the late summer sun on the water and hint of fall in the trees. It was truly breathtaking.

Coming into the transition after the paddle on Lake Francis. Clearly, I have issues tying a bib.
Photo Dave Koenig

At each transition area, my husband was one step ahead of me with whatever gear, food, and hydration I needed to get me to the next transition. In all, support crew would lug gear from place to place 8 times, filling hydration packs and refueling snacks. Some legs involved up to 45 minutes of driving just to hand off a bike and pick up a pair of shoes. As I left transition area two, my husband called out "I love you, honey." As I peddled off out of transition, I heard several volunteers yell that they loved me too.

I have told Ken (left) and PJ (right) that if they should ever find themselves taking their wives for granted, this photo should serve as a reminder of how awesome they are. Photo Dave Koenig

Leg 4- 9-ish mile mountain bike. This was the easiest of the mountain biking legs. It included just under 1,000 feet of climbing, but wasn't technical at all. Initially, I had some trepidation about having an average mountain bike for the event but realistically, a new mountain bike is not in the budget in the near future, so a bit of a moot point. I pushed to a point that I felt I could maintain and tried my best to hydrate before the next leg, which would be a running leg. I opted to reduce my hydration pack for the running legs to save my knees from the extra impact. Coming into the 4th transition area, I was now about 45 minutes behind the leaders of the race, which felt pretty good to me.
Coming into Transition area 4. Photo Dave Koenig

Leg 5. - 7+ mile Trail run (1,000 feet of climbing)?
On the maps we received before the event, this leg was advertised as a 7-mile trail run. It turned out to be something entirely different for me, however, and the low point of my race. First, the term "trail" is only one I can use loosely. There was flagging tape, that is. Trail? Not so much. At least 6 miles of this leg would be better described as a vertical swamp. Trail "run". Hardly. See my previous point. Not much running was happening for me here. Seven miles? Nope. Turned out to be 10.5. What is a 50% difference amongst friends, right? I say these things in jest mostly because in all of the adventure racing I have ever done, nothing is ever as it would appear on maps or course descriptions.  There is always a catch. I honestly wouldn't want it any other way. It just so happened that this leg of adventure commenced with a self-inflicted face plant into the mud and twisted ankle to boot. I won't deny that this provoked a little pitty-party-for-one that would cost me time. Additionally, for the first time in the race I would lose sight of Tamela Swan, with whom I had been exchanging positions with for much of the first 4 hours of the race. I would complete this leg alone, run out of water and food, and fail to emerge from the deep grassy trail for over two hours. Arriving at transition area 5, I could even tell that Dave was a little annoyed with my mid-woods frolicking. I changed my shoes and hopped on my bike determined to finish the leg before the 2:00 PM cutoff (initially it was a 1:30 cutoff, but it was extended due to the added length of leg 5).

Leg 6. 9 miles (about 1,800 feet gain)
I'd love to say that in leg six I rebounded and found my second wind. I was looking for it, that's for sure; until I turned off the pavement and began the climb up Sugar Hill one mile into the leg. The trail up Sugar Hill consisted of a series of switchbacks progressively steeper than the next climbing about 1,800 feet in under two miles. This climb was a venomous ascent. By the second pitch I was attempting to suppress any thoughts of misery or suffering by convincing myself that I could see the summit just over the rise in the distance. It was clearly a lie and I wasn't in the mood to be tricked. By the third pitch, I had given into peddling exclusively in grandma gear and as the 4th pitch came into view I was off my bike pushing. Up, up, up. Somewhere along this hike-a-bike, a group charged down the hill on ATV's and a man in the final ATV stopped to ask me if I was on a relay team or solo. I breathlessly replied "solo" and he started his engine and replied "well, you've got a loong way to go." I knew this meant I looked like I felt: not good. Turns out, he was right; I did have a long way to go. Fortunately, many of the pitches above this one were (mostly) rideable. I climbed on and off my bike 4 or 5 times more before reaching the summit, and descended the steep, loose, rocky trail down the other side with increasing confidence and speed. The surprise of leg 6 would be the trail network that followed Sugar Hill. While not very technical, the trail followed some of the most spectacular rolling single track and beautiful terrain encountered thus far in the race. It was fun. It was fast. It was spectacular.
I can't say I have ever changed this many times in one day.
Photo Dave Koenig

I arrived at the TA 6 at 1:15, a full 45 minutes before the time cutoff. I grabbed my running shoes and pack, ate a Snickers bar, and headed up the trails of the abandoned Balsams Ski Resort for leg 7. Having made the cutoff, I would be afforded the opportunity to complete the premier course as I had hoped, provided that my body was on the same page, that is.

Leg 7. Leg 7 was a 3.6 mile hike/run up the ski trails of the abandoned ski area that continued to Table Rock before descending back down into Dixville Notch. I enjoy mountain running and hiking, so this leg was one I had looked forward to. Although my legs didn't have the "ups" that I had hoped for, I climbed steadily and followed the trail as it wove in and out of the forest above Dixville Notch. The trail followed mountain streams and pine forests that carried the smells of fall. By this time, the predicted storms arrived and moderate downpours would become more continuous for the remainder of the race. I finished my descent just before the roots and rocks became too slippery for running, grateful to make it as far as I did before conditions deteriorated.

I arrived to the transition to find that another racer on a relay team had been evacuated due to dehydration and heat exhaustion. This was a little disconcerting to me, but it was evident even then that he would be fine, so I continued on. Sometimes stuff just happens.
James Kovacs descending from Table Rock into 
Grafton Notch. Photo Jo M. Wood Photography.

Leg 8. Legs 8 and 9 would would both be mountain bike legs completing the premier course. Leg 8 was a 14+ mile bike up through Kelsey Notch with another 1,700 feet of climbing and leg 9 an additional 10 miles and another 1,000 feet of climbing. By the time I began leg 8, the rain was coming down pretty hard and conditions were becoming increasingly slick. As I ascended into Kelsey Notch, the slick mud turned into sticky slime that coated my derailleur and filled the knobs of my tires in such a way that many pedal strokes up the hill were complete spin outs. Mulligans. Water poured off my helmet into my eyes coating my sunglasses with slime as the mud from my tires spun up into my eyes. Despite the mud, I opted to stuff my sunglasses into my sports bra to allow me a better chance at seeing the rocks and mud holes that made up the Kelsey Notch trail. With a compass, map, whistle and now sunglasses all stuffed into my bra, my glasses would bounce out into mud puddles more than once for me to retrieve. One of the most frustrating aspects of this climb (and soon to be descent) was that racers who had passed through Kelsey Notch before the downpours would not have experienced these conditions. In fact, as I understood it, the descent would have been fast and fun. For me, even the downhill sections would be a wheel caking, brake clogging, derailleur disabling grind.
It isn't unusual under these circumstances for me to have some kind of epiphany. In fact, I tend to seek out this type of fatigue simply to appreciate the beauty of each step, every colored leaf, and every smell of the forest during an endurance event. This day would be different. I became angry. With every pedal stroke more angry than the one before. Not angry at the mud or the difficulty or the course. I became angry with myself. In a moment of clarity between the rain drops and eye crushing mud I found an indistinguishable mixture of rain and tears streaming down my face over my inability to find tears over the tragic loss of a friend back in January. Why is it that I can't cry when I want to?  All sorts of emotions and questions churned about in my head. The mud felt good, almost as if a cleansing of the guilt that had sat deep in my stomach for all of these months. The harder I rode, better it all felt. In fact, for someone who admittedly stinks at mountain biking, I rode quite well. I picked good lines and committed to them. When I picked bad lines, I trusted my instincts and rode it out. I didn't crash. I didn't hike. The more I pushed, the better I felt. Kelsey Notch came and went; by the time I arrived at the final transition my muddy grin was undeniable.

Leg 9. Ironically, my husband Dave was down at the transition worrying about me. When Ken arrived at the transition, he had specifically told Dave "Shelley isn't going to like this." I am pretty sure Dave was convinced I would be tossing my mud-caked bike into the woods and calling it quits at any time. I, however, was having way too much fun embracing the absurdity of it all to remember that I am not a mountain biker.

The final 10 miles of mountain biking was more challenging than I had expected, but really fun. The terrain varied and brought us around beautiful tree farms, (wet) grasslands, forests and muddy 4-wheeler trails. It was a total hoot. I passed a few racers looking pretty ragged, but for the most part cycled the last 25 miles alone. The hardy volunteers still on-course in the rain cheered me to the finish in the town of Colebrook where I passed under the finish banner after 11 hours of racing.

At the finish. I would be extracting gobs of mud from my contacts for the rest of the evening after this. Photo Jo M. Wood Photography.

In summary, I would say that this race is not for sissies, but was beautifully run and executed by a great race director and volunteers. One of the great things about it is that athletes can choose to make a relay team or go solo. There is also a 4-leg sprint distance for those looking for something a little shorter or just getting started. Great views, great terrain and great people. I couldn't ask for a better opportunity to support my habit of self-inflicted suffering or better race volunteers to enable me. I think I just might be a junkie.

Men's and women's solo "podium" for the premier course, as well as the winning relay team. My friend James (far right) wound up 3rd for men and I was 2nd for women. I am honored to be in the company of these other two great women who finished this event this year.
Gotta love the wet hair shoulder stain. Photo Dave Koenig
"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks."- John Muir

Thanks to Hammer Nutrition for Heed, Endurolytes and Sustained Energy that got me through this one. There is no way I could have make it without the help of the best fuel out there. Hammer Nutrition Seat Saver was also a life saver. Having wet shorts for the duration of the race required a little extra help! Use this link to save 15% off your first order.

Also thanks to Spandits! for the great training shorts and skirt. If you want to try a pair for yourself, use code SPANDITSLOVE and tell them Shelley sent you for an extra 10% off your order!