Adventure racing is an endurance sport which involves travel on foot (trekking or running), mountain bike and by water (canoe, kayak, raft, occasionally swimming).

What differentiates AR from other racing sports is the inclusion of wilderness navigation using a map, compass and common sense. There is no set race course; participants must find their own route from one checkpoint to the next. The checkpoints (CPs) are marked on maps which the racers receive shortly prior to or at the start of the race. AR also differs from other sports in that racers are part of a team of 2-4 people who travel together the entire time.

The races can last from several hours to many days and are unsupported, for the most part, which means that the racers carry what they will need (food, water, gear) in backpacks for the duration of the race.

To succeed, racers will need athletic endurance, navigation skills, mental toughness, good pre-race planning, strategic decision making as well as a strong and supportive "team" mentality.

Sound intimidating? While it's true that longer races can test even the toughest outdoor athletes, AR is a very open and inclusive sport. Beginning racers will feel welcome at nearly every event. Most races are organized so that anyone at any level of experience and fitness can participate. You can find a race near you on the calendar at the USARA website.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Untamed New England 24 hour race 6/22/13, Western Maine

Untamed New England is a race organization with a long history of putting together successful multi-day adventure races.  Untamed's director, Grant Killian decided to throw together a "quick" 24 hour race in western Maine this summer. This race was a must-do on our calendar this year as we were eager to: 1) experience an Untamed NE wilderness race for the first time, and 2) to race for the first time in Maine.  We would not be disappointed on either count, as Untamed put together a punishing course that would test our limits.

The race was to begin Saturday AM at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. We arrived Friday afternoon, checked into an off- season ski condo, started organizing our gear and picked up a few last-minute needs at the local grocery. At the evening meeting, we had a few minutes to do the official check-in, chat with some familiar faces and hear for the first time some specifics of the race. We also received the maps, well in advance of the race start, which was a new wrinkle for us.  This gave us a couple hours to pore over the maps together prior to bedtime and draw up a tentative game plan.

At 8:00 the next morning we boarded buses and traveled from Sugarloaf about 1.5 hours northeast to the confluence of the Kennebec and Dead Rivers. Paddling was the first discipline, so we strapped on PFDs, assembled our paddles and, at the starting gun, set off at a run to the canoe put-in about .5 km away.  Everyone is nervous at the beginning of these races, so naturally all the teams set off at a run to the canoes. It's kind of silly; if you sprint to the canoes, you might gain 20 or 30 seconds on your rivals, which is totally insignificant in a race of this duration, but, at the same time, you definitely don't want to be at the end of the line if there is a bottleneck at the put-in. So, like everyone, we were off and running.

Starting line.
There were no checkpoints or navigational challenges on the paddle, just a straight southern 13 mile trip to CP 1 down the rivers and into Wyman Lake. This leg was pretty uneventful... with the exception of a major event. We were 3 people in a 2-person canoe, so someone had to sit in the middle of the canoe, where there is no seat. There are various approaches to dealing with this, complicated by the fact that you had to carry whatever middle seat you chose until the next TA, which was an additional 13 miles on foot after the paddle. We elected to bring along a compact folding camp stool, which worked well, but it was a couple inches taller than the canoe seats, making us a bit topheavy. Combine this with some little rapids and random lurches caused by striking underwater boulders and we suddenly found ourselves in the river next to our capsized canoe. Luckily no gear was lost, but we had quite a few minutes of struggling in the river to get our water-filled canoe to the opposite bank while getting dragged downriver by the current. We received a number of sympathetic but pride-erasing inquiries from the numerous teams that passed us while we got our act together and resumed forward progress.
On the paddle, post-event.        Photo: Vlad Bukalo
Now we were motivated to get back in the race and some strong paddling ensued for the next 2 hours. There was also a period of drenching rain, so we weren't the only soaked team. Rob counted 22 boats we passed from the flip to the finish of the paddle, and we ended up in the top 1/3 of teams after the river leg. We then stowed our paddles, PFDs and other paddling gear and started on foot for a few CPs in the lightly settled land between Wyman Lake and Flagstaff Lake. Compared to most other races we have done, Untamed NE had very few CPs and the focus was definitely on grinding out the miles between widely-spaced CPs (hours apart usually) rather than fine navigation skills.  We had 3 CPs to find on foot until the next TA at CP5 and we would cover this ~13 mile portion in about 4:45. Much of this trekking section followed the route used by Benedict Arnold in his ill-conceived march on Quebec in 1775. An endeavor doomed by many factors, including the nature of the terrain, "swampy tangles of lakes and streams". Yep.

CP2 was an easy find after a moderate climb of ~800 ft on singletrack with plenty of rocks and mud.  This was followed by descending on more of the same and then following some gravel/dirt roads around East Carry Pond and Middle Carry Pond. Then we linked up with some more trail, gaining and losing another 250 feet over 2 more km and reaching the eastern shore of West Carry Pond to find CP3 in a "marshy area". We could see the flag a couple hundred feet away, but it would require fighting through some nasty vegetation to get there. We eventually made it to the flag, stepping on a beaver dam to reach it.

Rob. I think this was between CP 2 and 3.

NIck and Mason punching CP3. Western Maine is marshy.
We then had to travel from about the 3 o'clock position on the shore of the lake to the 10 o'clock position. We had made the decision the night before to do this in a counterclockwise direction. There was some initial concern because of the slow, dense nature of the forest in this area and our consequently poor speed, but soon enough, we found a rough intermittent trail that led to an occupied property. The owners had no problem with us traversing their yard and continuing on the rough trail but suggested that we might want to try the "road that's right over there". "Oh yeah, I think we'll go ahead and use the road. Thanks."

3 km of road running/shuffling brought us around the northern tip of the pond, close to where we would need to leave the road and climb to a 1860 ft summit to find CP4. There was some indication that there may be a logging road or other route up the mountain that would not require bushwhacking the difficult forest terrain, but we were not able to find any such route and ended up taking a somewhat circuitous route up the mountain, fighting conifers, other thick vegetation and a few uneven clearcuts. There was a ton of moose scat in this area, but, alas, no actual sightings for us. We made it to the summit at the same time as a few other teams and were treated to some beautiful views of Flagstaff Lake before fighting our way downhill to a dirt road that would eventually take us down to CP5 at 1200 ft.

View of Flagstaff Lake from CP4.
Rob calibrating altimeter at CP4.
The face of complete navigational confidence.
CP5 was a transition area (TA) which meant switching disciplines. In this case from trekking to mountain bike. This was also the only point in the race in which we would have access to our gear bins. We unloaded the paddling gear we had been carting around and put on our bike gear. We also took several minutes to refuel from the food and drink stowed in our gear bins. Gels and bars are handy but it is nice to fill the tank and know that you have staved off bonking for more than an hour.

Nick riding some singletrack. His appearance does not deceive you, the man is a stone cold badass. Photo: Vlad Bukalo
A couple miles on road and then we turned onto some singletrack trail maintained by Maine Huts and Trails. From this point on, the humidity became a major factor for certain hot sweaty team members (Mason, and to a lesser extent, Rob)  This was pretty cool single track, a little muddy and moderately technical but fairly fast overall. CP6 was an easy find off this trail. Rob also spotted someone's (turned out to be the Mad Athlete rep, Mike) large Light and Motion battery pack in the mud along the way, so we stowed this in a pack to drop off at the next TA.  Soon we left trail, crossed Poplar Stream, and headed northwest on smooth dirt roads and then west on less smooth dirt roads for a moderate climb (~800ft over ~4km), picking up CP7 along the way. A little more dirt road flat and descent followed and then we transitioned to some doubletrack trails which were difficult to reconcile with the map but we used our Mantracker skills and chose to follow some recent tracks which led us to the base of a STEEP 300ft climb up to Maine Huts and Trails' Stratton Brook Hut at 1920 feet, the site of CP8 and also the site of a gorgeous sunset view over the western Maine mountains.
Mason and Rob looking crazy near the Stratton Brook Hut.
Sunset. Time to fire up the Light and Motion headlamps.
There was a lot going on at this Hut. First we checked into CP8. Then we got our maps for 2 "orienteering" checkpoints off the nearby forest trails (CPs 9 and 10). Then we got to try out some Light and Motion headlamps for these CPs (sweet!). Then we checked into CP11 back at the hut. Then we ate a bunch of pancakes at the hut - what? Yes, the hut was also the site of the Pancake Paradise - a mid race chance to load up on plenty of calories of "real" food. This was a real luxury in the middle of an adventure race. I had at least 10 blueberry pancakes with syrup.

After that stop, it was back onto bikes to head down some mildly technical trails to Narrow Gauge Trail and zoom south on pavement for a couple miles before turning onto a dirt road which quickly turned into a rocky jeep road and climbed over Owl's Head Pass. This road climbed 1200+ feet over 5-6 km and was a real grind at this point in the race. The definition of what constituted rideable terrain (versus hike-a-bike) became progressively narrower as the climb continued. One steep rocky ascent led to another longer steep rocky ascent. Rob was also having trouble reliably shifting into his smallest chainring, which, for this section, was  very useful ring to have. Finally, we gained the top of the pass and punched CP 12. What followed was some level and downhill terrain which eventually led to a steep loose rocky descent that really kept you on your toes at 1:00 AM.

At the bottom of the descent was CP13, where we would transition to trekking for the final leg of the course. In the pre-race meeting, the difficulty of each leg of the race was represented by the Bunny Scale, where more bunnies = more difficult. This metric is certain to become the accepted norm for grading AR races. The bike leg we had just finished was a 2 Bunny section and the one we were about to start was a 3 Bunny (most difficult) section.  This section consisted of only 2 CPs. CP 14 was up on a mountain face 1330 ft above our current location and 8 km away and the final CP (15) was atop Sugarloaf at 4237 feet, the second highest mountain in Maine.

Reaching the vicinity of CP 14 was not difficult - fording Rapid Stream and then a long moderate climb on trail. On the map, the trail ended at 2200 ft, but on the ground it kept going. The map showed the CP to be about 700m off the trail at a stream junction. We were reluctant to leave the trail and enter the woods. The forests on the course so far had been dense and brushy and very unpleasant to traverse. This section was no different and morale was low as we mustered the willpower for another nasty bushwhack. In relatively short order (a little sooner than expected) we came to a small stream in a pretty deep ravine - the sort of re-entrant that would be expected to be on a topo map. The map showed no other stream between this one and our target, so we spent a long time (close to an hour probably) fighting through the dense forest up and down the ravine in the rain in the early AM darkness. No CP found and no stream junction found. Continued low morale. We followed the stream north and ended up back on the same trail we started on, which was now headed due west. So we continued on this trail and soon came to another larger stream (!). A quick inspection showed some recent foot traffic emerging onto the trail from around this stream and morale spiked as we crashed back into the woods and found the CP after 5-10 minutes of bushwhacking. This CP14 was a pivotal portion of the course with several teams spending hours in the woods looking for it and dropping down in the rankings.

Now the sun was up and we had one CP between us and the finish line. Our next task was to reach a trail on the map which would take us up to the ridgetop. We were dreading a steep uphill shwack to get there but we were able to find a decent trail/track to follow up the 800 feet to the base of Spalding Mountain. Next was climbing Spalding - another, much steeper 800ft up. These climbs were really taking a toll on our energy reserves and stamina at this point, and there was little intra-team communication happening, as we all just dug deep and continued forward and up as fast as we could muster.

Once near the top of Spalding, we switched to the ridge trail which would take us eventually to Sugarloaf. 3 km of up-and-down on the ridge brought us to the base of Sugarloaf.  We had also been watching the clock during this section.  It had previously seemed that making the 10:00 AM cutoff time would be easy, but we had underestimated the scale of the 3-Bunny section, and it was going to be close. Approaching Sugarloaf on the ridge trail, the mountain looked really big and far away in the AM fog; it didn't look like anything that we were going to be on the top of very soon. Missing the cutoff would mean that all our efforts would be in vain, as far as the final standings. That thought propelled us again forward and upward as we reached the base of the Loaf, 1 km and 700 vertical feet from the summit and the CP15.

The trail up Sugarloaf
Our ascent was strong and we gained the eerie treeless foggy summit with 1:45 to spare before the 10:00 time cutoff. Our remaining task was to cover roughly 5km while losing a staggering 3000 ft of elevation and reach the finish line at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center.  This downhill route may sound easy, but for those experiencing significant knee or lower leg pain, a long steep descent like that is the last thing you want to do. But it was what it was and we made our way down the mountain, trying to stick to the blue square and green circle slopes when possible and avoid the black diamonds. Not much else to say about this stage - long, painful descent to XC trails and then a short level hustle to the finish line with 26 minutes to spare.

At the finish line we very much appreciated a chance to sit down (inside - away from the *&^%$ mosquito hordes) and enjoy a little pizza and a cup of beer while taking in the fine feeling of being DONE, as well as chatting with some other racers. We ended up in 10th place overall out of 41 teams. We were proud to be one of the 10 teams that cleared this grueling course. The winners of the race were the "home teams" of Untamed New England who turned in their usual top-notch performance. We would like to give a huge thanks to Grant Killian, the rest of the Untamed crew (including Grant's parents and wife), all the volunteers, sponsors and regional and safety coordinators for successfully pulling off this great event.

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