Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Part II- ACA Whitewater National Regatta on the Penobscot- Race Time!

Photo Tim Nutt
For anyone who reads this that hasn't paddled whitewater, I want to start by explaining how whitewater is classified, or at least how I see it. If you missed part I where I explain how I got myself into this, you can find it in my earlier post here.

Whitewater class system: Generally, there are 6 classes of moving water. Here is how I very unofficially define them.

Class 1- Moving water. Minimal hazards include some rocks or obstacles and eddy lines easily avoided. No real "white" water, although I've seen lots of canoes flip in class I water.

Class II- Hazards and obstacles include rocks, waves, and eddy lines... both can easily flip a canoe. With a relatively small amount of maneuvering, they can be avoided or paddled safely with correct bracing or bow angles. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated class II+. 
Class III- More technical maneuvering is required to avoid hazards (strong hydraulics I will refer to as "holes", pour overs, etc.) that will definitely flip a canoe. Additionally, waves large enough to completely swamp a boat are likely and must be avoided. A failed maneuver will likely result in a swim- sometimes a lengthy one- for paddlers. Should only be run by experienced canoeists.
Class IV- In my opinion, class III and class IV are quite similar. The main difference here is about the consequence. In class III, a failed maneuver will likely result in a swim that will carry the paddler through more similar hazards as the ones described above. Self rescue is possible, but a total pain in the butt. Most class IV rapids have a class III line, you just have to stay in it. A class IV swim often means that the paddler will likely be carried into intense, powerful nasty hazards that can cause serious injury. Think Deliverance. Swimming through class IV is a pretty bad idea and your boat will likely be wrecked or banged up.
Class V- Violent, intense rapids where clean lines generally don't exist. Swimming through class V is a really, really bad idea. I've seen it happen, and it isn't pretty.
Class VI- Generally considered unrunnable. If you survive, you are one of the lucky few.

The ACA downriver event we would be participating in covered a 9-mile stretch of Class I/II water with 4 distinct sets of larger rapids. The first rapid was a short Class II+/III- section of whitewater, and the final three were Class III rapids. Prior to the event, Lani and I made practice runs of the entire race course 3 separate times to scout the river, devise a strategy, and get some idea exactly what we were in for on race day. Knowing the duration of the race would be well over an hour, we agreed that those who did well in the race would be the ones who had a solid strategy, stayed dry, and kept the boat upright. With my encouragement, we devised a conservative but smart plan for each of the 4 significant rapids. We agreed that small amounts of time might be bled by choosing conservative, safe lines, but we felt pretty confident that we could make up for our lack of whitewater prowess in the other river sections. After all, we reasoned, the chances that the margin between a podium or non-podium finish was unlikely to come down to seconds.

Penobscot tribal elder Butch Phillips leading the smudging ceremony blessing the river, the land and all of the racers before the first day of racing. Without the passion of the Penobscot Nation, none of this would have been possible. Thank you all.

We arrived on Wednesday night to attend the opening ceremony, which included traditional drumming and singing of traditional Wabanaki songs from members of the Penobscot tribe followed by a smudging ceremony conducted by tribal elder Butch Phillips. Before we knew it, the ceremonies and celebrations were over, Friday had morning arrived and we were making our final preparations at the river's edge for our race.

Boats anxiously waiting for heats to begin on Friday morning before the downriver start (Lani and I are in the center of the photo- red boat and Lani has a red life jacket). Photo MaCRO.

The race began below Indian Island in Old Town. Racers were sent off in heats every 2 minutes by class; ours was the OC-2W class (meaning open canoe- 2 women), the fourth heat of the day. The first rapid, the very spot where Lani and I took a humiliating swim during our first training run, would be only about 400m below the starting line. The entire class of female competitors charged toward the first set of waves, jockeying for position in the fastest water, shortest distance to the first bend in the river, and out of the path of hazards that could slow the pace or put water in the boats. While a few boats broke away from the pack by a couple of boat lengths, the entire pack remained tight and the intensity of race mode was evident in the first few paddle strokes. With two boats on our right side and another immediately in front of us, our plan to run the first rapid near river right was already thwarted. We adjusted to another course and continued through the rapid at a furious pace.

We entered this rapid at the same time as lots of the male OC-1 competitors from
the heats before us. Photo Cheryl Daigle.

The first major rapid would be at the site of the former Great Works dam, about 2 miles downstream. While we hoped to distance ourselves from other boats before the approach into the rapid, instead as we neared the rapid we found ourselves steadily approaching more boats from the men's heat released 2 minutes before ours. Additionally, despite the river being 400 yards wide in places, we found ourselves repeatedly colliding with the black Old Town canoe of Ander Thebaud and Tammy Kelley.  For the most part, I am pretty sure the collisions were inadvertent. Both boats were trying to stay in the fastest moving current while avoiding small obstacles and hazards along the way. As we began to overtake more of the men's boats, however, we found ourselves being pushed into the other crafts by the same black boat, time and time again. After a dozen or more collisions, two of which jammed the pinkie finger of my left hand between the gunnels of both boats, we had all clearly had enough of one another. From here forward, in my mind the black canoe became known as the pinkie-squishing Death Star.**

Other racers navigating Great Works. Photo Tim Nutt

Of all of the major rapids, the Great Works rapid was the longest and most difficult to prepare for, consisting of 3 or 4 drops separated by several holes, large waves, strong eddy lines, cribs and other industrial debris from the former dam. Having run it during our  3 training runs, two things were clear to me- 1) There really isn't a clean, dry line through this rapid, particularly the last drop and 2) The best line down the rapid changes even with small fluctuations in the water level. We paddled furiously toward the rapid in pursuit of the craft of Laurie Spraul and Kathleen Friday, Death Star at our heels, knowing full-well that we would be making decisions on the fly as to how to best negotiate the rapid. While our run through Great Works wasn't completely clean, I resisted my urge to grab onto the gunnels, close my eyes, and scream hoping Lani would paddle me to safety. We maintained our position through the drops while paddling with a quick, strong, clean cadence. In the last drop, we took on a small amount of water from a few large waves requiring some quick attention to bailing before resuming the furious pace set early on by the leaders. Lani and I both gasped for breath from the intensity of the chase, finding ourselves digging deep much earlier in the race than we possibly could have anticipated.
Lining up for the second drop of the Great Works rapid. I think this photo may have been taken on the second day of racing (the Sprint). Photo Tim Nutt.

The next 3 or 4 mile stretch of river was mostly moving water with class I/II whitewater. It was in this stretch where we made our first, and probably only, mistake of the race. Unable to lose the Death Star despite our best efforts, still ramming gunnels (I am pretty sure the men we were overtaking at the time found this pretty entertaining), we seized an opportunity to break off into a channel of water moving down the center of the river while the Death Star chose the flow on river right. With the slightly lower water level from our training run on Wednesday, this proved to be a bad choice. We found ourselves flailing against a swift current rather than being carried by it (not whitewater, just shallow ripples). We emerged a few hundred yards downstream now several boat lengths behind the Death Star. This deficiency we would never make up.

Despite an exhaustive pace, our positions on the river maintained relatively unchanged as we charged downriver toward the class III Basin Mills rapid. Basin Mills is a funny rapid. While short, the consequences of a bad choice are pretty unforgiving. The entry to the rapid consists of a ledge-hole about 100 yards wide in the center of the river (no, 100 yards actually isn't a typo). To the immediate right of the hole, there is a clean line of fast-moving water; however, just below the hole is a nasty, munchy, 6-foot set of curling, frothing, diagonal waves a few feet to the right. While the clean line was wide enough for a boat, an attempt to slide between the hole and the waves would have to be perfect or the consequence would likely be a boat full of water or a swim. During our practice runs, I felt this was the best of all of the options. The idea would be to set up above the waves further to the right than would otherwise seem prudent to ensure our bow was already pointed to the left below the hole. As the waves approached, we would thread the boat between the two hazards.

Here is the MaCKRO arial shot of the Basin Mills rapid. Fro above, it looks pretty small, but for perspective use the trees for reference. Those little ripples are actually big waves! Photo MaCKRO

Probably the hardest thing about the Basin rapid is that from the position on the river, none of the rapid is visible. The enormous ledge pour-over creates a horizon line that almost appears as a low-head dam would. It requires a tremendous amount of trust, commitment, and confidence in whatever approach you choose. As the rapid neared and we dropped to our low position in the boat to allow for better bracing, we were coming in a little further to the left than the from-the-right-approach we had planned. "Where is the freaking hole???" Lani demanded. "Right, further right." I insisted. I attempted to indicate where the hole was, but decided it was best to indicate where I wanted us to go, not where I didn't want us to be. I noted a kayaker further to river right. "Kayaker. The kayaker is on the line we want" I gasped. The Death Star disappeared out of view over the horizon line on river right. Further to the center, the other female boat still in front of us appeared to be headed right for the ledge. While I was certain this was a crazy move, it had also become clear that Laurie and Kathleen were extremely skilled and knew how the river fluctuated at different water levels better than we did. I could see them emerge a few seconds later below the drop, upright, and paddling downstream. If it was possible to run the hole without disaster, I knew it would be faster than the line we planned. It was time to take some risks if we wanted any chance of a place any higher than third.

"Change of plan." I said. "The hole is a better line." I knew Lani could only partially hear what I was yelling through the increasing roar of the river. "Left. Go left now."
"Are you crazy?" Lani hollered. "Honestly Shelley. Normally, I would never do this" she insisted with a very matter-of-fact tone. Not having said no, I knew she was not going to veto me. I continued paddling forward, now driving the boat towards the ledge drop and straightening it out in the final approach. Anyone who knows Lani and I knows this is a complete role reversal. "Oh, Jesus. You'd BETTER paddle hard" she said, hoping to avoid being flipped by the violent hydraulic directly below the ledge. And paddle hard we did. 

We emerged on the other side of what seemed like a black hole upright, dry, and smiling. The kayaker I had referenced just moments before was recirculating in the eddy below out of his kayak. "This totally sucks" he said, waving the rescue boat away to avoid a rescue-disqualification. With a now smaller margin ahead of us, the Death Star was furiously unloading gallons of water. "Let's get out of here" I announced in my best cliche-Hollywood-action-movie-voice. "We've got some boats to catch." 

Here are our friends Fiona and Emmanuel running Basin Mills during a training run. This photo is not race day- Basin is hard for spectators to access and photograph. Fiona Hamilton photo.

Shortly after the Basin rapid, we moved into second place, slowly gaining ground on the Death Star. The final set of drops would be at the site of the former Veazie Dam. During our training runs, we had chosen a conservative sneak-line on the righthand side of the wing dam that remained after removal of the larger dam. We knew this line would likely cost us 20-30 seconds from a more aggressive mid-river line, but circumnavigating the ledges and large wave trains would ensure that we would keep ourselves in the boat and the water out. We weren't in this to show off, we wanted to be smart. With our limited experience paddling against athletes of this caliber, we had never imagined that seconds would matter. 

Long before we arrived at the Veazie rapids, our well-laid plan was scrapped. In a language of broken sentences, gasps, and desperate grunts we agreed that we were headed for the more turbulent waters and ledges of the main flow of water. We'd figure out exactly what that meant as we went along. Unfortunately, only one time had we run the ledge during our first training run; that day we had found ourselves in a communication stalemate forcing the bow to swing out wildly sending us over the final drop backwards. We weren't hoping to repeat that. 
Veazie rapid. There are several canoes in this shot (they
look like little fish) that add a good frame of
reference. photo MaCKRO.

I selected one of the routes I knew other paddlers had used along the left side of the wing dam. Despite the hard, strong paddle strokes that caused my shoulders, back, and quads to ache (? don't ask- I have no idea why) and now beginning to seize up, paddling down the Veazie dam felt more like paddling in molasses than water. "Don't quit" we reminded one another every few strokes. No matter how hard we paddled, how hard we dug, the Death Star just wasn't getting any closer to us. In fact, throughout the rapid they actually appeared to have gained a few seconds on us, despite our more aggressive line and exhaustive paddling. The rapid came and went, as did the remaining quarter mile of river below the final waves and turbulent waters of the final class III whitewater. We laid it all out there on the river. In the end, we came up 24 seconds short.

Or, you could say, we came in 29 seconds ahead of third. Only eight minutes ahead the last boat. In the past, we have done races where a close margin between 2 boats was 10 full minutes. As we swung into the eddy and laid in the boat to catch our breath, it became clear just how awesome this field of ladies had actually been. Nearly all boats in the field were visible in the small section of river that could be seen upstream of the finish line. Never in my life could I have imagined a race could be so close. Or so hard. Or so fun.

Women's second place in the downriver race! Thanks always to Spandits! and Hammer Nutrition for your support for my adventures. Anti-Fatigue Caps and Hammer Gel at the start and Recoverite at the finish was the perfect combination. 

At some point, for those who are actually interested in the stuff, I'll tell you about the Sprint that followed on the next day (the race was just the Great Works rapid). Spoiler alert: we were second again. I know what they say about second place, but I have to say, I couldn't be more excited or feel more accomplished.

**Note- I mean no disrespect when using the term Death Star. In fact, we actually chatted and joked with Ander and Tammy after the race and they both seemed like really nice gals.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Who Wants to Take up Whitewater Canoe Racing??

"Winning has nothing to do with racing. Most days don't have races anyway. Winning is about struggle and effort and optimism and never, ever, ever giving up." Amy Burfoot- The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life.
Arial shot of one of the rapids of the Penobscot paddled in the whitewater regatta. What look like little ripples are up to seven foot standing waves!

It is safe to say that I find whitewater intimidating. Very intimidating. Back in 1997, I had my first real encounter with whitewater when I learned to kayak at the School of Hard Knocks. My well-intentioned now-husband Dave introduced me to paddling, and often swimming, in big water in Idaho. For the most part, it didn't go well. Having swam through violent whitewater, enormous crashing waves, and the churning pour overs and holes of both the Selway and Salmon rivers during our summers in Idaho, I was forced to master the art of self-rescue in class IV rapids. Needless to say, long ago I learned to develop healthy respect for what the power of moving water can do to the human body. Upon moving back east in 2000, I turned my whitewater kayak into a flower pot.

So, fifteen years later, it is clear the logical thing to do would be to hop in an open canoe and sign up to race through whitewater. At Nationals. Seems about right.

The Whitewater Nationals Regatta is a 4-day event put on by the American Canoe and Kayak Association that is held annually on various rivers throughout the nation, most recently being the Nantahala River in North Carolina. When Lani and I heard that the event would be making a return to the state of Maine, we were curious about the possibility of registering a boat to see how we might fare. Besides the caliber of canoeists who would be competing in the ACA Whitewater Nationals, one of the more exciting aspects of this event was the fact that the race was to be held on a stretch of the Penobscot river that has only recently been open to paddlers. The waterway has been home to the Penobscot Indians for thousands of years and was used by tribal members as a travel route until the 1800's when the river was blocked by two large dams. In the last three years, the Penobscots have purchased and decommissioned the dams, returning the waterway to a free-flowing state that hasn't existed for hundreds of years. For the paddling community, the restoration work of the Penobscots and the class III whitewater that now stands in the place of these dams has been a much appreciated gift.

A training run on the third drop at the site of the former Great Works dam. I am pretty sure this is our friend Fiona paddling. -with Fiona Hamilton.

We knew that without a doubt we would compete against paddlers with years (or decades) of experience that we lacked in whitewater canoeing. We also knew that our inexperience working as a paddling duo would not work in our favor. Nevertheless, our desire for a new kind of adventure surpassed any real common sense that would otherwise dissuade us from registering. We immediately signed up and made our training plan.

The physical conditioning was the easy part... actual on-water training time? Not-so-much. Schedules, families, work, and sheer distance to moving water from our homes made it difficult for us to get together more than a dozen times from April to July to come together on the water to prepare ourselves for what was to come. When we couldn't paddle together, we made time on the water separately.  During our on-water outings, we worked on cadence, paddle strokes and technique, reading whitewater, and most importantly, communication. Having been close friends for years who have talked about just about anything imaginable along our adventures, it would seem that this would be where Lani and I would have an advantage. For anyone who has canoe-raced in a tandem boat, you must know that we were terribly mistaken. Instead, we were in for a steep learning curve. If we were going to survived this event, here are some things we would need to consider...

1) Who is in charge of making decisions? Who picks the line? If one person wants to go right around a hazard and the other wants to go left, the compromise is going straight over it. That kind of compromise is bad for everyone. Don't ask me how I know that.
2) How do you execute the plan once you have it? Who makes the corrections? Draw from the bow while the stern maintains forward momentum, or are correction strokes made from the stern? How do you make these adjustments while maintaining speed?
3) Here is my favorite one. "Left!!". What does that really mean? Does that mean to go to the left of a hazard, or watch out for what is on the left? Should I keep the hazard to my left, which would really mean to go right? I can't begin to tell you how many hours we spent working that one out.
4) Decisions in canoe racing are made on-the-fly in split seconds, involving more than one brain to execute a plan, albeit sometimes a questionable one. How do you keep both teammates in synch? How do you learn to trust someone else?

Our little team. A finely tuned machine....

So after some experiential learning, we determined that from he position in the bow, I would pick the lines. I would find the safest, fastest water on the river at all times. Lani learned to trust me (which I know was probably difficult, especially in the beginning). I would make the call, Lani wouldn't question or argue. From the stern, Lani was otherwise the captain. I learned to respond to commands like "draw", "cross-draw", "brace", "PADDLE HARD", "lean back", and "goddammit Shelley!" like a golden retriever waiting for a ball. And thus, our little team was born....

Once the preliminary training work was done, we headed over to Old Town to pre-run the race course, build our confidence, and make final adjustments as needed. Turns out, adjustments were much needed. Within about 400 meters of the 9-mile downriver route, we were out of the canoe and in the water. Swimming. 

From the looks of it, Lani and I weren't the only ones figuring things out as we went along. - Photo Tim Nutt.

Coming soon.... Part II: The Regatta.....

Thursday, June 18, 2015

(Pre) Summer Solstice and the Bigelow Range

" It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we had nothing before us, were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."- Charles Dickens 
Ok, so maybe my choice of quotes for this adventure is a little dramatic. While that is likely true, it carries some truth in describing our weekend adventure: conquering the Bigelow Range. The Bigelows are literally steps from our front door and I have had my eye on conquering the range for nearly 20 years. Turns out, you don't conquer these mountains. If you are lucky, you are granted permission to pass. While I have had aspirations of taking on the entire ridgeline in one outing for a long time it has proven to be my kryptonite. My first attempt was about 20 years ago... 

Sometime around 1995, my then-boyfriend Jeff and I set out to go the distance. We hiked up Little Bigelow and set up camp somewhere around mile 8. The verdict: too much stuff. Despite my brother having completed the length of the Appalachian Trail that same year, we were relatively inexperienced in the ways of long distance hiking. We packed it all. We had all of the camp chairs, deluxe sleeping pads, kitchen gadgets, lanterns and a water filtration system that we would need to survive the apocalypse in our poorly-fitting backpacks. Needless to say, foot-care was not on the extravagant packing list and the result was a mission aborted after the first morning of sliding leather boots over badly blistered feet. 
One of the first views as seen from Little Bigelow. Flagstaff Lake in the distance.

Flash forward about 15 years, a time period in which I gained some pretty significant experience in long distance hiking and trail running. My husband Dave and I set out for a 24-hour assault on the same ridge line. We had lightweight tents and supplies for an overnight, but aspired to start the trek early in the morning and finish late into the evening of that same day. After the first few hours brought an onslaught of bugs, the rain took over in torrential form. Buckets of water cascaded from the sky and flowed down the trail like waterfalls. By the time we reached the Safford Brook Trail, our spirits were as soggy as our feet. On the summit of Avery Peak, our escape plan down the blue-blazed Firewarden's Trail was hatched, and we had our thumbs out on the highway by dusk. Mission aborted.

This would be my third attempt to traverse the 5-peak range of mountains that make up the Bigelows. Having now competed in several adventure races and multi-day events, I proposed this adventure to Dave with a new twist. We would spend an overnight on the ridge, but not in tents. Instead, we would begin our ascent in time to catch sunset on the first summit and then continue along the ridge in the dark of night to reach the trailhead in Stratton before daylight. We would then jump in a canoe and paddle the return 16 miles by lake and catch the sunrise. While this may seem like an unusual plan, if you have ever hiked at night, you understand how keen the senses are in the darkness and a world only rarely seen is revealed. So, we left the tents at home and packed our bug jackets and only the emergency supplies we would need to complete the trek in a single effort. 

Stanely and I taking it in from the top of Little Bigelow. At this point, Stanley was going 2-3 miles to our every one. He would continue to do this for at least 10 miles of the journey.

We began the hike around 5 pm and enjoyed a beautiful evening hike up into the thinner air of Little Bigelow. On our way up, we encountered the only three people we would see for the entire journey. We munched on fresh cookies and beef jerky that I picked up from the local gas station and chatted about things to do, the summer ahead, and life. We reached the summit well before sunset and decided to continue on and enjoy the golden evening sunlight as we made our way toward Avery Peak, hoping to catch the final colors of sunset. 
The golden sunlight through the trees was surreal. One day, I'll get a camera that can capture how beautiful the light was.
In usual Koenig fashion, we misjudged the timing of the sunset and found ourselves climbing to Avery Peak as twilight approached. First civil twilight, then nautical twilight, and finally astronomical twilight approached as we reached the final steps of the climb. We enjoyed two or three minutes of the final colors of the day on the horizon before the complete blackness of night set in. We pulled out our headlamps and cracked open a couple of glowsticks that I attached to Stanley's collar in fear that he might wander too close to some of the insidious drop offs along the ridge line. From here forward, we would call him "disco dog" as he bounded through the night air.

Summit selfie. I appear to be really excited to be on the Summit of Avery Peak.
My best Marilyn Monroe imitation as the wind gusts grabbed my skirt on Avery. 

We made our way down off of the summit of Avery Peak in what was now complete darkness. Here was where I learned my first lesson of the night. As it turns out, dogs can't see in the dark. At least mine can't. In an attempt to hijack some of the light put off from my headlamp, Stanley now stuck so closely to me that I nearly tripped over him. When he wasn't in front of me, he was beside me squeezing me off of the side of the footpath.

We descended down past the Avery Col campsite and passed a few tents of sleeping hikers. In an odd twist, one of these hikers was our friend Waylon who we later learned had hiked up a blue-blaze trail with his dog to catch the sunset on Avery Peak. Unlike us, he would capture the breathtaking summer sunset on film from West Peak.

Sunset from West Peak, with North and South Horn in the distance. Photo Waylon Wolfe Photography.
West Peak came and went quickly (it is only a mile from Avery), and we continued on along the ridge line to South Horn. During this stretch of trail, we noticed that severe erosion had taken its toll on the trial. In an attempt to keep our feet (mostly) dry, we rock-and-root-hopped for much of the next 3 miles of trail. We were quite surprised to see that for much of this stretch of trail erosion had worked the trail down 12-14 inches below the earth's surface, making passage slower than anticipated. By the time we made it to the fourth summit, South Horn, the early-morning hours were upon us. It was here that we were first able to glimpse the glorious spectacle of constellations, planets and satellites shimmering in the sky. The panoramic view of the night sky felt like we were in a planetarium gazing at the worlds beyond us. We paused on the summit to enjoy the serenity of night, the stiff and cool breeze made us shiver as if to remind us that we were alive.

We descended another rocky outcrop of boulders and roots toward Horns Pond. Stanley and I had created a system where I would climb down over a few boulders and turn the light backwards to illuminate a path for him to follow. He seemed content with the arrangement and we continued on in silence through the night. I was grateful that he no longer insisted on deflecting me into the trees that lined the trail. We passed the Horns Pond campsite in the dead of night, knowing that this would be the last possibility of encountering other humans on our adventure.

Feeling a little blurry at South Horn. Good thing my Spandits! still look good.

It was at this point that conditions began to deteoriorate. What started out as occasional blowdowns from the winter storms quickly turned into a tangled mess of debris obscuring the trail completely. Downed giant hemlocks with thousands of branches tangled in several smaller trees made forward progress nearly impossible. Dozens of times we found ourselves searching the night air with our headlamps looking for a blaze, broken branches or any evidence of human passage. This would continue for the next three miles of trail. It appeared as though a tornado had ravaged the forest and no one had passed through since, although we knew the damage was the result of storms from the previous November. Our pace slowed to a crawl.

A typical section of "trail" from Horns Pond to Cranberry Pond.

While the terrain was difficult for us, it took the biggest toll on Stanley. He convinced me to give him $10 of jerky and we continued on, climbing around and (mostly) over debris for miles before coming to a section of trail that had been cleared by a trail crew. I desperately wanted to know who had cleared the trail so that I could express my gratitude.

While I normally find Cranberry Pond to be one of the most scenic portions of the trail, in the darkness it came and went without much notice. The ascent up the backside of Cranberry Peak was also surprisingly washed out, rendering the trail nearly unrecognizable as the trail I have come to know. It was now nearly 3 am; the dog began searching for a mossy bed pleading with us for sleep. Fortunately, his loyalty drove him to follow along despite his better judgement. Dave and I also shared his disinterest in hiking at that point... until we reached the clearing of the summit of the final peak of the journey. The view from Cranberry Peak was another breathtaking display of all that summer in the mountains has to offer. The stars were spectacular and the air clean and cool. We celebrated with a summit snack (most of which the dog also scammed) and photo opportunity before beginning the final descent.
Getting loopy on the summit of Cranberry Peak.

While hours of 3am to 4am are usually the most difficult for me, they are also my favorite hours of the day. As we descended the Cranberry Peak trail, the chirps of tree frogs and the metallic songs of birds announced morning's imminent arrival. As we descended, I felt keenly aware of how the darkness heightens the senses and awareness of one's place in nature. In between the twisted ankles, barked shins, and superman-style clumsy wipeouts that sent me cascading several feet off of the trail, I felt increasingly grateful for the opportunity to be present in this place. How lucky am I to have the privilege to live somewhere that has not been conquered by humans? How lucky to be free to explore, to be, in this moment?

As we made our way to the car parked at the trailhead, the first few hints of morning light began to illuminate the distant sky in a deep hue of blue. As it would turn out, we would never have the chance to watch the sun rise over the waters of Flagstaff Lake. What I though would be a quick detour at home for a cup of coffee turned out to be a snooze fest for both Dave and Stanley, ultimately ending our adventure a little prematurely. I am OK with what we accomplished; Dave and Stanley were great sports to come along with me as long as they did. The Bigelow Adventure, however, continues to elude me. I am pleased to say that I did not conquer this mountain range, nor do I intend to aim to conquer it again, for conquests such as that are just an illusion anyway. I only hope that I will be presented with the opportunity to experience the range in its entirety and perhaps watch the sunrise over Flagstaff's waters someday.

Until then...Maybe next year?

Monday, April 13, 2015

2015 Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon

"The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark." - John Muir
Wiseguy Creative Photography
I will try most any race once, but a race has to be pretty awesome for me to come back for round 2. One of those races is the Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon. This race consists of a 8.3 mile run, 5.5 mile downriver kayak, 18+ mile road bike up to Pinkham Notch, a hike up to the top of Tuckerman Ravine (or as high as safety will allow), and a giant slalom race back down to the parking lot at Pinkham notch. Racers can compete teams of up to 5 or individually.

Reflecting on last year's race, a few of my memorable take-aways included the following:
1)  Normally, you'd expect a huge spectrum of athletes at a race like this. This simply isn't true. There are no lazy people in this race. No people ripped of the couch by their buddies. This was evident to me when the gun went off on the first leg and the entire group tore out of the Storyland parking lot. Despite the long, cold winter, everyone has been training.

2) While this race in its infancy was once a race of a bunch of crazies on alpine gear running up Mount Washington, people today spend a lot of money on gear. Last year, I saw downriver kayaks worth 2 or 3K, 10K road bikes (yep, for real) and ski mountaineering set ups totaling 5K or more.
Ready to go. Taking off the puffy jacket
is always the hardest part.
Photo Dave Koenig

You could spend a whole lot of money getting fast, lightweight, energy efficient gear. Most, if not every leg, had some athletes capable of competing at the pro level (and many did) in their respective sport and have the equipment to support it.
...Or, you can show up with what you can get your hands on and hack your way through it.

3) Last year, in lieu of skinning up Mt. Washington, I opted to strap my skis to my pack and hike. Although the jury is still out, I felt last year that skinning would have been a faster option as the snow was slushy and I lost quite a bit of time slipping and struggling to find solid purchase.

Disclaimer (or, as it may be, excuses):
Running, kayaking and cycling have been challenges to training in our never ending winter climate here in Maine. I've tried to force myself out in subzero weather or to spin on the trainer in the basement with limited success. Instead, I made training substitutions knowing full-well that the vast majority of my success would fall on my mental fortitude anyway. So, I showed up on race day one-year-seasoned in my camo Spandits! looking to beat myself up a little.

Race Day:

The start of this year's Inferno. No one charges the start of a race better than Ken Lubin (right, blue ss top).
 Photo RDL Studios.
The running leg of this race is all on pavement. The first 3-4 miles go up a steep grade (and back down) and the latter portion is mostly flat. Before the race, I had a lot of anxiety about a flare up of
This guy, Ryan Place, won the run portion of the event running
 8 consecutive 5-minute miles. What is most impressive is that this
includes a hill that brought 1/3 of the field to a walk.
Photo RDL Studios.
my ever-present plantar fasciitis, but it remained relatively quiet for the duration. A direct comparison to last year's effort- my time was nearly identical (2 seconds faster). Despite being near the back end of the pack, I felt good coming out of the run and opted to skip taking the time to layer-up before the kayak leg at the first transition zone.

Adding a dry top for the 33 degree waters ahead. Photo Dave Koenig
(most awesome support crew ever).

This year's kayak would be interesting. While the river flow was about 700 cfs (cubic feet per second) last year, when we ran it the day before it was running at a mere 92 cfs. Rocks and gravel bars were constant and strategy would include figuring out a way to simply get clean paddle strokes without banging on rocks. During our practice run, my friend James put no less than 3 good-sized holes in the beater-kayak that he bought for the race. He would spend the better part of the evening repairing it with duct tape. 
Rockin the 25 year old blue Dancer. Wiseguy Creative Photography
On race day, the water level came up a little- but hazards and rocks were still going to pose a challenge- especially for anyone hoping not to destroy a nice kayak. While an old whitewater kayak was a slower option than a longer down-river boat, I was happy with my choice to borrow an old-school Perception Dancer from a friend (thank you Jeff Strunk). It was nimble and maneuverable, and I also knew that if needed it, my old combat roll would keep me out of any trouble that I might get into. During this leg of the race, I passed 15-20 paddlers, many hung up on rocks or swimming. Here, the wind would also pick up blowing up river, pushing boats off-course and slowing progress considerably. My outcome- 6 minutes lost from last year. Considering the conditions, I think that adds up to a better performance for me here.
Kovacs in his newly duct taped kayak. Photo Justin Deary.

There were some nice bikes in that heap. Sadly,
mine is not one of them. Photo RDL Studios.
I didn't feel cold until I got out of my kayak and started running to the bike transition. The sky looked ominous, the wind gusts picked up considerably and the clouds spit sleet down upon us. After peeling off wet kayak gear, I layered up with every item of clothing in my bike bag. Extra jerseys, bike shorts, hat, ski gloves. All of it. After a few failed attempts at remembering how my cleats fit into my pedals (I have only ridden a road bike one other time- last year's race), I pedaled off into the wind. In all fairness, I did ride my mountain bike significantly more last summer than any summer before- so I think I have become a better cyclist. The wind became so fierce that at times I was downshifting into grandma gear while pedaling DOWNhill just to fight it.

Twice, my bike skipped laterally across the pavement and once the wind almost grabbed my handlebars and threw them 90 degrees. Fortunately, my death grip at the time prevented certain disaster. I arrived at Pinkham Notch with my legs feeling pretty spent, but overall, still handing the fast pace of the race pretty well. Three minutes slower than last year. With the headwind, definitely an improvement.

Temps dropping. I am now wearing every layer that I have and making an
 exceptional fashion statement. Wiseguy Creative Photography.

At the Pinkham Notch parking lot, I changed into my ski boots with the plan to skin up Mt. Washington. Having hiked last year, I knew slush would create difficulties that I figured I could overcome with skins, and thought it would be nice to have the weight on my feet instead of carrying it on my back. Race directors had already made the call that we would not be able to safely ascend up the ravine on race day, so skins seemed like the logical choice. This was my first mistake of the day. The
Last year's setup with gear on my back
and running shoes for the hike.
This year I would try using the same gear
 but with skins on my feet.
Photo Dave Koenig.
second was that I got lost looking for the trailhead. I knew that we were not supposed to head up the traditional Tuckerman trail that most visitors were using,  but I just couldn't find a sign, a cone, or a volunteer anywhere to indicate where the trail was. In a sea of people, poodles, cars, and chaos, I finally decided to bookpack up towards the finish area to ask someone affiliated with the race to point me toward the trailhead. A few minutes and a couple of inquiries later, I was headed on the right trail up toward Tuckerman Ravine. It didn't take very long for me to realize that skinning was my other mistake. Conditions were firm, not slushy; perfect for boot packing. Additionally, my quads and hip flexors were absolutely spent from the effort on the bike. As I slogged up the hill, my quads took turns seizing up which was  excruciating. The bright side was that they appeared to be perfectly alternating: a beautifully synchronous symphony of suffering. I put up my heel risers to take off unnecessary stress and stopped to pop a few extra Hammer Endurolytes that I had tucked away for emergencies like this. Thankfully, surprisingly, they did the trick and cramps subsided within 10 minutes. The underlying problem remained, however. My legs were done. Put a fork in them done. Without a lightweight Ski Mountaineering setup, there would be no gliding effortlessly into the clouds for me. Only a festival of pain. It was a slog with what felt like lead-weights of telemark gear designed for descending, not ascending, attached to my feet. I yearned for any opportunity to move the weight off of my feet and onto my back, but alas, my shoes and ski-compatible backpack were left in the transition zone below. After what seemed like an endless snail-pace slog up Mount Washington, I crawled into the final downhill transition something-over-an-hour after leaving Pinkham Notch (interestingly, 5 minutes faster than last year, but I am pretty sure the leg was slightly shorter- so probably similar result to last year. Still lots of room for improvement here. Lots).

As I popped off my skis and began peeling off my skins, another racer overtook me for third place overall solo female. She bounded by on a Mountaineering setup like the ones I had been dreaming of for the last hour (OK, year, but who is counting?). She needed almost no transition- the skins can even be peeled off virtually without stopping. I would have loved to have chased after her. But alas, my gear was spread all over the ground and my hair was stuck in the partially peeled off skin of my left ski. Nope. I finished up my business of going nowhere while transitioning (which I thought was pretty speedy considering the flipping, peeling, clicking, and whining involved in getting on the trail). Quads ablaze, I headed down the Sherburne trail to Pinkham Notch. I arrived at the finish line with a 2-minute deficit to third place for women.

All-in-all, not a bad effort for a first race of the season. I have no complaints: this was a race of me vs me. A few kinks to work out, but 2015 has officially begun.
Camo girl rocking my thermal Spandits! Photo Wiseguy Creative Photography

So, my takeaway for 2015.

1) It was evident that the $1,000 winner-take-all cash purse (solo male and solo female) brought up the level of competition another notch from last year. Both men and women came in force, brought their A-game, and spent a little coin along the way on equipment. I have few choices to make about where I want to go in the future. I could choose to start saving, searching for deals, taking to the right people, and item-by-item put together a somewhat compatible set up to low-level elite racers. I could also choose to keep it old-style and keep things real with affordable, versatile, gear that I use everyday. In truth, paddling that old Dancer rocked my day. The jury will have to be out on this one for a while. After all, taking it to the next level requires commitment and brings a certain level of intensity. I can't say I won't look into it. I have nothing against nice stuff. James gave me a pair of lightweight adjustable poles and I haven't stopped marveling at them since I arrived home. They are so pretty I wonder if I should just hang them on the wall?
Less carbon boats this year and more sea kayaks. Photo RDL Studios.

2) I'd love to see The Friends of Tuckerman Ravine find a way to attract more recreational-level racers to this event. It is so well-put together, exciting, and fun. It is truly one of the best natural venues on earth. On the running leg, I passed two friends running together taking selfies with their phones of themselves laughing with the mountains behind them. They both finished the entire race. I'd love to see more people feel like this is an event they want to try. How often do you get to run, kayak, bike, hike and ski Tuckerman Ravine in one morning? Really, it is like a vacation in a day. 

Back to my point in takeaway #1... at what point do we get too wrapped up in competition that we forget to have fun? Sometimes you need someone there to laugh with you when you have your hair stuck in your skins.

besides....the coolest races always have the coolest swag and prizes. 
3) Any event I come back to for a third round of punishment has to be awesome. Looks like I'll see you all in 2016, with or without those upgrades I have been dreaming about.

Thanks to Hammer Nutrition (readers may feel free to use my code for 15% off of your first order) for making the best fuels and supplements on earth and saving my quads. Also a huge thanks to Spandits! for your awesome support (earning me the name "camo girl" this year) and also donating to the prizes at this year's Inferno. For readers, use code SPANDITSLOVE and tell them Shelley sent you for 10% off of your order at SPANDITS!

The next adventure on tap will likely be my first Spartan race in nearly a year in June (my first Super ever). There are lots of new venues this year, so there are lots of chances to get involved (check out the map below, wow). I'll be raffling off a free Spartan entry soon, so stay tuned.

Red means Sprint (3-5 miles), blue is Super (8+ miles) and green is Beast (12 miles). Lots of new venue options
to choose from. Click here to go to Spartan Race

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Five good reasons to check out Spartan race- including a free race giveaway.

Looking for a different kind of challenge and goal for 2015? Here are some reasons to check out Spartan Race.

1) A chance to go somewhere cool. 

How about a Spartan Race cruise?

Sand, surf and obstacles await you on this one of a kind Spartan adventure. Join fellow Spartans March 6-9, 2015 when you'll be taken on a cruise liner from the Port of Miami to Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas for a first of it's kind Spartan Sprint! Can you say, "Best. Vacation. EVER!?" Don't Miss the Boat - Cabins are SellingFast!

2) They have something for the whole family. Click here to Register for a race near you.

Mission – At Spartan Kids Race, our mission is to inspire children to develop a love for fitness at an early age. We provide age appropriate obstacle course race venues and race arenas will allow participants to build confidence while enjoying a robust outdoor three-dimensional setting. Our races are for children aged four (4) to thirteen (13).  We have two age groups within our races acknowledging that Kids are at very different stages in their growth across that span of nine years. Our "Jr. Spartan Kids” obstacle course races are intended for kids 4 - 8 years old and are about a half-mile in length.  Our “Varsity” Spartan Kids races are intended for older Spartans Kids aged eight (9) to thirteen (13).

Each child will receive a T-shirt and Finisher's Medal. 100% of the proceeds from Spartan Kids race benefit the Kids Fit Foundation. As a leader in the movement to help children learn life-long health and fitness habits, the Kids Fit Foundation strives to raise awareness and develop programs that educate, empower and inspire kids to become and stay fit.
So remember, Spartan Races are not only limited to adult fun! Bring your kids ages 4 - 13 and they can participate in their very own Spartan Kids Race. Just like you, they will enjoy the thrill of the obstacle course racing similar to the adult race but with appropriately sized obstacles and challenges. 
 My whole family had a blast the Pennsylvania sprint

Why Spartan Racing for Kids – Our Ethos?
Spartan Kids is about a return to the childlike sense of adventure that we’ve lost while getting sucked up into "normal life" of over-scheduled and over organized activities. Spartan Races wants to keep this sense of adventure alive in our kids BEFORE they lose it.

Today, a typical child devotes an average 7.5 hours each day to entertainment media: TV, video games, cell phones, and movies.

Physical activity is essential in helping children control weight, build lean muscle, reduce fat, and develop strong bones, muscles and joints let alone developing healthy life sustaining habits. The challenges in a Spartan Kids Race are ideally suited to building a fitter, stronger, and healthier youngster.

More importantly, the sense of fun and camaraderie inherent in our races will help instill within your kids a sense of excitement and respect for fitness producing - in time - a more invigorated child.

Spartan Races are about building a healthy and active community of people. Spartan Kids Race allow us to help build stronger families, a foundation for all vibrant communities.
Fenway was an awesome family day with the kiddos.

Spartan Kids Race FAQs
Q: As a parent, do I have to pay a spectator entry fee?
A: No, if your child is racing, or if you are the guardian of a child racing, you do not have to pay the spectator entry fee.  Each family will receive 2 free spectator passes.
Q: If I have children attending that aren't racing, do they have to pay a spectator fee?
A: Children 13 and under are free, and as a family member of a child racing, they do not have to pay a spectator fee.
Q: Is the Spartan Kids Race a timed event?
A: No, the Spartan Kids Race is an untimed fun run.
Q: Will my child receive a medal?
A: Yes, upon completion, your child will receive their very own Spartan Kids Race medal.
Q: What are the heat times?
A: 1 mile: 10 AM, 12 Noon, 2 PM
    1/2 mile: 10:30 AM, 12:30 PM, 2:30 PM
Q: What are the suggested ages for each heat?
A: ‘Varsity Kids’ > 8-13 years old, Jr. Kids > 4- 7 years old.
Q: Can my children run together if they're different ages?
A: Yes, we recommend children running together in the 10:30 / 12:30 / 2:30 JR. Kids heat if they are different ages.
Q: If my child's age puts them in the jr. varsity heat, can they run in the varsity heat?
A: Yes, the heat times are suggested due to age, but if your child is athletically able to run a mile, they can run in a varsity heat.
Q: Will my child get muddy?
A: If you are racing a non-stadium event, we recommend bringing a change of clothes as most venues do have mud obstacles.
Q: Will my child have to swim at any point during the Spartan Kids Race?
A: No, we do not include swimming obstacles at the Spartan Kids Race.
3) Lake Tahoe for the World Championships? Heck yes. Need I say more?


4) Joe Desena, founder and CEO of Spartan Race, and NY Times best-selling author, travels the globe seeking answers from experts like Sir Richard Branson, Steve Pressfield, Barbell Shrugged, and many more win his new podcasts. Joe interviews authors, academics, athletes, adventurers, CEOs on a mission to find the secrets to success in all aspects of life. 
Podcast linked here.
5)  A free entry. Everybody loves to win great free stuff.
So, if you're interested in challenging yourself and trying a new adventure, why not register for a free entry through Filthycleanliving. Just click here and adventure awaits.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Life, Death, and All That Falls Between

"There is no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

Disclaimer: This post might read more like a rant than a neutral blog post. For that, I apologize. Not really, but if you read on you have been forewarned.

It is a sad but indisputable fact that in extreme sports there is both glory and tragedy. I guess that is why we call them extreme. Really, this is true for everything though- life has it's highs and lows. This week was a real low for the US ski racing family with the loss of two young US Ski Team athletes, Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, in an avalanche in the mountains of Soelden, Austria. While I didn't know either of these boys personally, I know many just like them, and feel the pain of loss that their families and friends are feeling. Additionally, I am saddened by the lack of compassion and
Ronnie Berlack
judgement that the general public expresses to their grieving families. I find it utterly inexcusable that people take to their keyboards to pass judgement regarding this tragedy as "avoidable", a "waste of talent" or blaming the
victims for "irresponsibly skiing off the prepared terrain" as suggested by several news outlets. Even those who appear to be trying to console the loved ones with statements like "at least they died doing what they loved" appear to be missing the point.

First of all, these boys who died in the avalanche were the best of US skiing's youth. They pushed hard, lived hard, and played hard. They didn't become the best by sticking to the groomers. What I mean by this is that you don't become a great racer by only skiing in gates. The kids who rise above the masses are the kids who do it all: they ski the groomed terrain, they ski the bumps, they train gates, they take jumps, and yes, they ski off piste. In this case, these boys were skiing in-bounds at an Austrian ski resort in untracked powder. Did they make a tragic error in judgement descending the slope that triggered the avalanche? I would say yes. Do their families need to be told that the accident was avoidable or that their lives were wasted? Hardly. This is why we call them accidents, rather than
Bryce Astle
"on-purposes". Should they have done snowpack tests and had avalanche beacons and shovels? Of course the armchair expert in all of us would say yes now that we know the outcome. Haven't most of us erred in judgement in a way that could have ended in disaster? Let me count the ways I have....

I've skidded on the ice before putting my snow tires on my car....
I've hiked alone in the woods in the winter without a cell phone...
I've walked on ice that may have been too thin...
I've driven my car on days when the road conditions were terrible...
I've climbed 30 feet up a banana tree before making a plan for how I would get down... (OK, so maybe that one doesn't apply to most of us).

... and these are examples are things I have done as an adult (as in, very recently). I don't care to think of the "avoidable" risks I took at age 19 and 20. Maybe the moral is that I am lucky. I AM lucky. We make decisions everyday that can end in disaster. Most of us get lucky when we make the wrong one. We hope that with each decision we are still here and better-prepared to make the next one. Ronnie, Bryce, and all of the others who have been lost under similar circumstances aren't going to get that chance.

Which brings me to my final objection to the cliche' way that the public often react to human tragedy with statements like "at least they died doing what they loved", as though that should provide comfort. I can guarantee you, almost without exception, that people who have been lost in avalanches, falls, crashes, or other accidents would have chosen to stay home if they knew what the outcome would have been. No one says "wow, at least the powder up top was awesome. Totally awesome ride" as an avalanche overtakes them. No one. Their families all know them well enough to know they would rather be here sharing stories and laughs with the ones they love. They took a risk. It wasn't the first one they had taken. They made the best decisions they could at the time. It was a terrible accident. They will be missed by all who loved them. Period.
If our time on earth is indeed limited, I have no intention of wasting any of it.

If I should ever die before the ripe old age of 95 in some sort of accident, please don't do this to my family. Instead, please tell them the following:

1) I will be their biggest cheerleader as they go through life, wherever it is that I am. Tell them that if there is any such thing as an afterlife, I will be waiting there for them with open arms.

2) Please tell them I always tried to make the best decisions I could. They day I died was no different. Maybe I made a decision that resulted in my death, that doesn't mean I carelessly wasted my life. Instead, I was living my life.

3) Grieve for me, but don't be afraid. The only greater tragedy of my death would be that my loved ones spend their lives afraid to live passionately because of me. Use my accident as a lesson to help you make good decisions. Learn from me. Live for me.

4) If I had known the outcome of the day, I would have stayed in bed.

5) Know that I was grateful for every person I loved in my life. Be happy that we shared the time, love, and experiences that we did. Life isn't measured in years- it is measured in moments.


"Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away."- Anonymous.