Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Scrambled Legs & Aching and the Bitter Pill

It has been said that getting lost will help you find yourself... Photo  GMARA..

My husband Dave has been the best supporter of my adventure racing lifestyle over the last several years. Kid duty, photographer, race crew, tolerator of all things... just to name a few. I have tried many times to convince him to join me, but it wasn't until this year that he finally conceded. And just like that, team Scrambled Legs & Aching was formed for the 12-hour GMARA Bitter Pill Adventure Race held at Bolton Valley, VT.

Looking a little terrified during our pre-race official photo. At least we are in it together. Photo GMARA

Both Dave and I have a fair amount of experience in the disciplines of sport that would be included in the Bitter Pill. We are both experienced paddlers, are avid hikers, and ride mountain bikes all summer (admittedly, Dave much more enthusiastically so than I). We were both also well-prepared for some swimming or a ropes component, but those would not end up being part of this year's event. Orienteering, on the other hand, is an area where we are both inexperienced. I mean, I have watched other people navigate using a map and compass for whatever that is worth. Successfully navigating to the required checkpoints using a map and compass while biking, hiking, canoeing, etc. could prove to be an incredibly interesting challenge. There would be a good chance that much of our day could be spent lost in the woods. So, at 4 AM, we showed up at the pre-race meeting with our gear packed and compasses slung around our necks ready to learn what our fate would be.

The race began with a 35-minute bus ride in the darkness to the start location. At 5AM, we were led to a field of canoes and kayaks (with no water source apparent anywhere), handed our maps (made from data 30 years old), and instructed that all racers who arrived at the finish after 5PM would face a checkpoint penalty in accordance with how many minutes late they arrive. There was a loud and clear message in that directive: DON'T BE LATE! I wondered if we should just start looking for the finish now...

A cool photo of team Strong Machine snagging a
checkpoint on the paddle. photo GMARA

With first light illuminating the sky, we portaged our canoe overhead toward the first checkpoint about 1km away. We scrambled through long grass, over a barbed-wire fence, and finally roadside toward the muddy put-in on the Winooski river, which was running unseasonably low due to the dry summer conditions. The paddle to the first few checkpoints began in a pretty uneventful manner, and Dave and I settled in and started thinking that perhaps it was going to be a good day. The reality is, that things are never quite that simple. Not two seconds after Dave commented how his paddle was feeling unusually flexible in the water I heard the unmistakable crack of plastic snapping followed by several expletives from Dave. Gleaning over my shoulder, I could see there was clearly a problem; Dave only had 1/3 of a paddle blade attached to a cracked shaft. In all fairness, the paddle now made an excellent pole to push the canoe over the shallower sections of river. With a cracked shaft already, this didn't seem like the smart thing to do, however. So we paddled on, with the blade of Dave's paddle sounding like it had a sneaker attached to the end each time it punched into the water. Kerplunk, kerplunk, klerplunk. As the early morning fog hung low over the the river, the stillness only broken by the riffles of the current, we forged on, a little embarrassed that we were the only team of over 50 that managed a broken paddle in the first kilometer of the race. Kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk...
Paddling down the Winooski. It appears that we still have two complete paddles at this point in time. That portage totally destroyed my braid, but the way.  Photo GMARA

By the time we reached the next portage around a large dam at checkpoint #3, the race directors had caught wind of the rumor that a couple of suckers were paddling a canoe with only half of a paddle and a new paddle was ready and waiting. I began to wonder if we told them that we were missing a qualified navigator, they would have provided us with one of those too? I forgot to mention (yeah, forgot, let's go with that), that we missed the third checkpoint during this portage and had to run back to punch our passports.
Here is a funny picture of me trying to make sure that Dave stays up on his nutrition by forcing him to take his Endurolytes and Endurance Aminos. Eat it!! Photo GMARA.

The next several checkpoints were easily found along small tributaries, islands, or footbridges along the Winooski River. I was really grateful that they were all pretty easily navigated to, because paddling upriver for a missed checkpoint would be a real bugger. It was actually a beautiful and enjoyable paddle, and we arrived at the first transition area feeling great and in high spirits.
Punching CP #6 on the footbridge of the Long Trail. Ironically, Dave and I spent hours lost on the Long Trail with the kids near Smuggler's Notch this winter. We have since re-named it the Wrong Trail. Photo GMARA
TA 1 waiting for racers to arrive. Photo GMARA

The next leg was a mountain biking leg consisting of a small amount of paved road, to gravel road, to trail. We started out with a navigational mishap early on in the leg (oops, missed a turn), but found the checkpoints without too much trouble after that. This leg was around 27km in total- my estimation is that at least 24km of the leg was climbing (and lots of hike-a-bike). You might think this is impossible... that exaggeration is in my genetics.... I'll deny it. It IS entirely possible. Having just converted my mountain bike drivetrain to a 1X, I was definitely missing the existence of true grandma gear for the steeps. Let me tell you, that downhill was pretty exciting though (I might have yelled yee-haw once or twice, but I'll deny that too).
Headed out of TA 1 on the beginning of the bike leg. Photo GMARA

Dave on his way out of TA 1 Photo GMARA

We rolled into the second transition area (best guess at 11:30 am), dropped some gear and took a few minutes to plan our navigation for the next leg of the course. While the paddling and biking legs required checkpoints to be collected in order, this section was an orienteering section where eight checkpoints could be collected in any order. We made a plan to punch checkpoint (CP) #13 first and them make our way up the mountain to collect the checkpoints along a ridgeline and summit route afterward. We departed with Kate, Cliff, and Grey of team Strong Machine who were headed to the same checkpoint in search of a tributary intersecting with the drainage of Joiner Brook. We chatted along and probably were a bit distracted just long enough to
Headed out to CP #13 from the transition area with team Strong Machine.
misinterpret the scale of the map (which was made using 30-year old data), putting us further upstream than any of us realized.  After about 30 or 40 minutes of scouring several drainages (both dry and with flowing water), we all agreed that we were not near the checkpoint. Dave and I returned to the transition area and re-thought our scale, and resumed searching for drainages that appeared to match the drainage shown on the map further downstream (here is where I remember specifically being told not to rely on river drainages for navigation by one of the race directors the night before). Having lost nearly an hour, we decided on a different approach. We decided that we would not look for the drainage from the brook, rather we would take a bearing from a snowmobile bridge that seemed to appear on the map. We followed the bearing, only to wind up in the exact spot where we had been 20 minutes earlier. Still, no sign of the orienteering flag.

Here is a Google Map of CP #13. The CP was shown on our map (looked like this one, but much smaller scale) to be a little ways up the drainage shown as the southernmost E-W drainage intersecting with Joiner Stream. This is also likely based on 30 -year old data.

Here is a current GoogleEarth image- same scale. The drainage doesn't appear to be here at all any more. Furthermore, the character of the river is also entirely different from the GoogleMap above. I blame hurricane Irene for this chaos. That is my story and I am gonna stick with it.
Here is one reason to always question streams shown on 30 year old data.

Here is what I have learned that has been confirmed by other adventure racers since then: some check points just aren't meant to be found. At least, not by us. At least not on this day. Our difficulty on this day was that we weren't willing to admit that. Two hours later, we returned to the transition area once again, empty handed, baffled.

We now had around 3 hours remaining to search for checkpoints on foot before getting back on our mountain bikes for the final leg of the race. All of the checkpoints in this section were complete bushwacks- no trails, no significant drainages, and in most places the foliage was so thick it was difficult to see benchmarks like mountain tops or ridges. We decided to reverse our plan and approach the checkpoints in the opposite order, beginning with CP #14 and climbing the mountain from the other side, gathering as many as checkpoints as possible in the allotted time. The climb was steep, the vegetation thick (thanks for the souvenir, poison ivy), and the navigation was challenging, but we collected 4 more checkpoints in the next two hours. After a particularly thick section of bushwhacking reminiscent of our search for lost AT thru-hiker, Gerry Largay, in 2013, we approached checkpoint #18 around 3:15pm. After a pretty hasty search, we made the difficult decision to abandon the search for the checkpoint to return to the transition area, hoping to gather CP #19 on the way down the mountain. There would be no sense snagging checkpoints only to lose them in a penalty for arriving to late to the finish line. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, neither of those checkpoints would be punched on our passport either.

Nothing like rolling up to a finish line in grandma gear on the bike. I suppose that is better than pushing it though, right? Helmet with a hat? Really it IS a thing. Photo credit: GMARA

We made it to the transition area and hopped back on our bikes to ride up to the finish, collecting the final two CP's on the way up. It turns out that a volunteer at the transition area had given Dave a map that would show the current location of nordic trails that we needed for the remainder of the course. That map somehow never made it out of the transition area with us. Oops- rookie mistake #5 (or is that #6- but who is counting?). Luckily, the larger, older map would suffice since the journey was not too tricky (just peddle UP). All in all, we could collect 17 of the possible 21 checkpoints along the way and finish with 15 minutes to spare.

Maybe there was, after all, time to go back for CP #13? Not a chance.

Team Scrambled Legs and Aching at the finish after a great day of racing. Photo GMARA.
Thanks to the ladies at Spandits! (check out their awesome new prints! If you use code SPANDITSLOVE and tell them I sent you you'll receive 10% off your entire order). Also a shout out to the great folks at Hammer Nutrition (use this link to Hammer Nutrition for 15% off your first order) for fueling us through another great adventure. We felt great all day thanks to Hammer's awesome fuels (Heed, Sustained Energy, Endurolytes and Endurance Amino).

Finally, thanks to Shawn, Chris and the volunteers at GMARA for putting on an amazing event and generously letting me share their photos!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

50 Years of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race

Lani and I at drop 2 of Shopping Cart Rapids. Justin Russell Photography

One of my favorite things about competing in different events is what I learn about the event's history and the people, culture, and communities that host the event. This weekend, I had the privilege of being one of nearly a thousand participants to take part in the 50th annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. In lieu of a lengthy race report, I think that a few interesting facts about the race and some great photos will suffice. This race speaks for itself, and a good picture says a whole lot of words!

Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race tidbits: (if someone has additional tidbits or photos, please let me know, I'd love to add them!)

  • First run in 1967, the inaugural race was put on by Sonny Colburn and Lew Gilman.  There were 32 canoes and fifty thousand spectators. No, that is not a typo. Reports suggest that seven of the boats never made it to the finish. Sonny Colburn was present at the race this year to kick off the 50th anniversary of the race.

  • The Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race is the largest canoe race in New England. Over the event's history, over 30,000 paddlers have participated. There were participants in attendance who have raced the event more than forty times. 

It is astonishing to see what thousands of people in the tiny town of Kenduskeag (population of about 1,300) actually looks like.

  • The race covers a 16-mile stretch of the Kenduskeag that includes 9 miles of flatwater and 7 miles of class I to III whitewater with two mandatory portages (and one optional at 6-mile falls).

Lani and I making our way down the Kenduskeag. Photo Chip Cochrane.

  • Canadian kayaker Trevor MacLean won this year's race in a field of 493 boats (921 participants). This is his 12th win, tying for the record of most times won.

Trevor MacLean paddles one of the narrow, sleek kayaks seen on the river. 
My guess is that most of these fragile boats portage the 
bigger rapids.
Photo Michele Barker Photography.

  • Not all competitors are as serious, however; many teams come dressed in costume. The Gumby boat, for example, has been paddling the Kenduskeag since the early 1990's and was once featured in Sports Illustrated. We also saw Minions, Ghostbusters, zombies, superheros, bananas, ducks, and bubble machines traveling downriver. Some folks come to the Kenduskeag in traditional canoes ("recreational boats"), others kevlar race boats, and some war canoes.

I am pretty sure when we passed these gals, Lani yelled "who ya gonna call?". How original. Photo Whittling Fog Photography

I have no idea how the guy in the stern can see over Gumby. Lani complains about not being able to see over my big head. Photo Michele Barker Photography.

  • The best place for viewing the carnage is at six mile falls, but by no means is this the only place where boats flip. In 2010, Hank Garfield of the Bangor Daily News did an informal count of vehicles of "river vultures" (a term used for spectators who follow the race by car to watch the carnage) at six-mile falls. He quit counting at 700 vehicles. Another popular viewing spot for river vultures is the rapid known as Shopping Cart, named aptly after several shopping carts mysteriously appeared on the riverbanks several years ago.

  • WABI also covers the carnage on channel 5 for those who can't get out to watch the fun. This includes a full two hours of coverage from six-mile falls. My children were glued to the event from home.

I love this sequence of these two fellas trying so desperately to stay in their boat. I am not sure how things ended up for them, but I think I have an idea. It is worth noting that many people who take a dunk in the river get back in pretty quickly and put in a solid finish time.
 Photo Michele Barker Photography.

  • I attempted to uncover statistics on the Dump Rate, DNF statistics, or some data on lost/destroyed boats each year. Obviously, data would vary depending on flow conditions, but it turns out, that there is no such data. On this search, I got distracted on a 2007 lost-and-found thread where people were posting information regarding lost boats. I stopped after reading about at least twenty lost boats from that year.

I can honestly say, I have never seen this before. Whittling Fog Photography

A z-drag rescue for an unlucky boat wrapped around a rock below six-mile falls this year. This would be an example of how people DNF this race. Photo Michele Barker Photography

As for our part, Lani had an awesome run this year! After losing our division in 2014 by a margin of just 31 seconds, we came ready to put it all out there. Putting in the 18th fastest time of the day (amongst all crafts- first in our division), we had our best day paddling yet!

Thanks Michele Barker photography for a cool action sequence of Lani and I in the final drop of six mile falls. I always look so serious in these photos. Photo Michele Barker Photography.

Super big smile for an awesome effort. The wooden canoes are the coolest prizes of any race! Photo Lani Cochrane.
Thanks to Michele Barker Photography, Whittling Fog Photography and Justin Russell Photography for catching fun action shots of the event. Also thanks to Hammer Nutrition (use this link for 15% off your first order) for great fuel and Spandits for my awesome tights and hat (use code SPANDITSLOVE and tell them I sent you for 10% off)!
This is my "I wish I wore a visor" game face. Whittling Fog Photography

Monday, April 11, 2016

Round 3 - The 2016 Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon.

A racer headed over the headwall in the 1939 Tuckerman Inferno. Photo Winston Pote.

"The first time you do something it's science. The second time it's engineering. The third time, it's being a technician. I am a scientist. Once I do something, I want to do something else."- C. Stoll.

Those who have raced with me know that I'll try most any race one time. If it seems like an adventure and there are good people there, why not? A second time go at the same event? Maybe. Unlikely. Unless it is pretty awesome. There are only a few events that have made this standard. Truth be told, most events aren't as much fun the second time around, particularly the difficult ones. Once the sources of suffering are known, the Fun-O-Meter never reads as high for me. A third time? Well, never. I simply don't do that. 

Until this weekend, that is. This weekend's Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon will be the first time I've had a go-around with the same event three times (in a row even!). Here is the thing about this race; every year it brings something different. In a nutshell, the event consists of a 8.5ish mile run, a 6-mile whitewater kayak, an 18-mile bike ride, a hike up Mt. Washington, and a climb and ski somewhere in Tuckerman ravine. My friend Ken Lubin, who has done this race over a dozen times, agrees that no two years are ever the same. Variable ski conditions in avalanche terrain, river levels, and the challenges that mother nature conjures up ensure that you can always expect the unexpected. 
A little final warm up before the start. Cozy and
 warm in my Spandits!- Dave Koenig photo.

So, despite my love 'em and leave 'em ways with races, I found myself rolling out of bed on Saturday morning (way too early) to hit the starting line at the crack of dawn, ready to start my 3rd Tuckerman Inferno (yet, no less nervous at all).

Of all of the legs, the run leg is the most predictable. For me, predictably difficult. Having struggled with plantar fasciitis for the last two years, I can no longer describe myself as a runner. In fact, I can no longer describe myself as someone who likes to run. Unfortunately, as I have experienced in other years of the Inferno, everyone else on the starting line IS a runner. Those participating in the running leg of a 5-man relay team have identified themselves, above other things, as the team's runner. The other Elite athletes (Elite is the term given to those competing in all 5 events), as I have learned, are no less of runners, they just aren't ready to stop when the running leg is over. Where, might you ask, are the middle-aged off-the-couch weekend warriors that make up 75% of the pack for most road races? They are still home, snug in their beds. There is no back-of-the pack at the Inferno. 

In the first three miles of the course, over a mile of it is straight uphill, gaining 600 feet in elevation (which feels more like 6,000 feet first thing in the morning). I generally like hills, so the first few miles are somewhat pleasant for me in a masochistic way. Where I run into trouble (no pun intended) is the downhill sections. My knees and feet detest the pounding of long-strided downhills, so my cadence is reduced to small shuffling steps. Waves of runners flock by me while I am helpless to keep pace. The miles go by and the wind picks up and I remind myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually the run comes to an end, and I couldn't be happier to see my kayak and the beautiful glistening water of the Saco river ahead.
Making my way down the Saco. Photo Wiseguy Creative
The kayak section is one of my favorite parts of the race. The river is clean and cold, and pine trees hang over the river banks in a way that would invite my 12-year-old self to grab hold of one of the many rope swings that hang from the branches of the 100-year old trees. Some of these trees have given in to the river's summons, creating river hazards that provide a poignant reminder of the wild and unpredictable nature of flowing water. The whitewater is not too difficult (class II+ maybe?), but turbulent and challenging enough to catch an unexperienced boater off guard resulting in a chilly, disparaging swim. This year, the moderate water level poses some hazards, waves, and holes but is deep enough to prevent most boats from getting hung up in shallow water. Hoping to gain more ground lost during my run, I am disappointed when the kayak leg is over despite the 25 degree air temperatures.

Bike leg 2016 Inferno. Photo Dave Koenig

The jog to the bike transition in wet kayak gear is long enough to provide a jarring reminder of the cold, swift, April breeze. I add a few dry layers and snacks and head out on my bike: a bike that I ride exactly one day each year (I am thinking perhaps I should do something about this deficiency). The bike route begins by retracing the 600-foot climb of the run loop before heading up toward Pinkham Notch at the base of Mt. Washington. Despite the early climb, I am cold. My tights dry out quickly and my gloves help thaw out my frozen fingers, but my feet continue to get colder from the relentless wind that badgers me at every turn of the road. By the time I begin the 1400 vertical ft. ascent to Mt. Washington, I am already in grandma gear. In and out of the saddle, I stagger up the final 6 miles of the climb and arrive at Pinkham Notch, where my husband Dave is waiting for me with encouragement, a smile, and my ski gear. 
The hike up towards Hermit Lake. Shout out to Hammer
Nutrition for supporting these crazy events!
Photo Dave Koenig

I am pretty sure this is where things start to get sloppy. Or perhaps better to say that this is where they progress to super-sloppy. The hike up to Tuckerman Ravine gains about 2,500 feet in approximately 3 miles. On fresh legs, this would be a fun hike with the kids. With 35 miles behind me already, ski gear strapped to my back, Huckleberry Hammer Gel smeared across my cheeks and hair (bike mishap), and fogged sunglasses, it is already clear that the ascent to the ravine won't be a walk in the park for me. Dave sprightly makes quick work of catching me on the climb with a backpack of goodies for the finish line for us. He cheerfully tries make conversation until it becomes clear that I only have one-word answers for his inquiries. There is no way around the reality of the situation: I am bonking. I try to take in more calories, but spit out most of what I put in. This is one of the frustrating parts of racing for me; if I go into an anaerobic state for too much time, I lose my ability to take in the calories I need. Even the best nutrition plan can be derailed when this happens. I slow down a little, hoping I haven't waited too long. I think it is harder on Dave than it is on me that I am passed by another Elite racer during this climb. At this point, I don't care.

Tuckerman Ravine beginning to come into view
on the hike from Hermit lake up.
-Dave Koenig photo
As Tuckerman Ravine comes into sight, I am reminded of the humility that is required to venture into mountains such as this. The walls of the ravine appear near vertical and give the illusion that they could be touched by simply reaching out. Exposed rocks along the headwall paint a majestic contrast to the white walls of snow and ice that now surround me. My momentary gasp of exhilaration and awe is interrupted by the sounds of metal edges scraping against the ice in the ravine above.
The line is a little interesting with shrubs in the way. Photo Wiseguy Creative.

I arrive at the ski transition feeling a little better and ready to make a final push to the finish. Due to the unusually low snowfall and considerable risk for long sliding falls (2 inches of rain the day before followed by a hard overnight freeze), the ski leg is modified considerably. There would be two laps of an "adventure GS" set in Left Gulley of Tuckerman Ravine. Adventure GS means that there will be rocks, water ice, and trees as well as the giant slalom gates that would normally be expected in a race course. I snake my way up the bootpack trail to the top of the course, grateful to have recovered from my earlier near-bonk status. While the GS is... adventurous... and icy, it is actually quite a bit of fun. I am able to overtake another racer during my second decent of the GS course (who would have thought you could pass someone in a GS course? Only on an Adventure GS!) and arrive at the finish line greeted with hugs and doughnuts. 
Approaching the "wooded portion" of the adventure GS- photo Wiseguy Creative.
The "adventure GS can be seen winding up from the main ravine to Left Gulley. Top of
course is just where Left Gulley bends out of sight. (I am the speck about 10 gates from the finish in the bushes)
 - Photo Dave Koenig

On a typical snow year, the race finish would be at Pinkham notch where spectators only get a momentary glimpse of racers as they cross the finish line. With the finish line moved up the mountain, the atmosphere of racers and cheering spectators made for a really exciting experience racing down Tuckerman ravine. In an increasingly more competitive field of 20 and 30-something racers, I am happy and honored to still be able to pull off a 4th place Elite female finish. Maybe there is some truth to the third time being the charm? 

L to R Allison, Erin, Dave, Harry, Me with my Hammer Recoverite, Ken, Damian- photo Allison Lubin.

Now, about those 3+ miles back to the car after the race....
Moonrise over Tucks after a long day of playing.- photo Dave Koenig
A huge thanks to Friends of Tuckerman Ravine for making this event possible. They are a great organization and are always looking for donations. Thanks to Dan Houde at Wiseguy Creative for sharing some great action shots of the event. Also thanks a ton to Spandits! for my cozy thermal tights and Hammer Nutrition for continued support and great endurance fuel!

For a discount code for Spandits! apparel use code SPANDITSLOVE and tell them I sent you for 10% off.

Use this link for 15% off of your first order at Hammer Nutrition (shop directly from the link for the discount).