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

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