Entering the Pain Cave in the Wilds of New England

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The invitation came exactly 11 days before the big event. I got an innocent-enough sounding message asking if I was interested in joining a U.S. team to race at Untamed New England, a well-known American adventure race. I was immediately interested, but also scared. Untamed is traditionally a multi-day race, and although I’d always wanted to tackle it, I wasn’t sure 11 days was enough prep time! However, this year, the race was actually being run as a 24-hour event instead of multi-day. For that reason, it didn’t take me long to respond in the affirmative that I’d join the roster! I was to be a last-minute replacement for an injured team-mate, and was recruited on James Galipeau’s recommendation (ironically, he was another replacement racer). All I knew was that I’d be racing on THE Untamed New England team (there were 2), and it would be a fast team looking to podium! What follows is the tale of that race, a tale of struggle, suffering, and success. Read on!

Pictures from the Race

Before getting this call, my schedule didn’t actually have any overnight races in it. Due to scheduling issues, I had to skip Wilderness Traverse, my favourite overnighter. As a result, this would be my ‘big’ adventure race of the season. My fitness level was certainly there, and my motivation was high. The only wildcard in the mix was my ankle, which is still in a fragile state after last year’s break (I’ve been bad about caring for it). As a result, in the days leading up to our drive to the start line, I did buy a few new pieces of gear to try out (all of which came in extremely handy, as you’ll learn). I bought a nice speed wrap / tape for my ankle, I bought pain killers, I bought calf sleeves (meant to help legs stay fresh longer), and finally, the piece de resistance, I bought a really nice set of carbon fiber trekking poles. You see, the race headquarters and terrain was all centered at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, the 2nd highest peak in the state. We were quite sure we’d be doing a fair bit of trekking up and downhill!

To make it to the race registration on time, I had to take the Friday off, which luckily wasn’t too big a deal for me. I was also driving down with 2 others, James, who was also going to be on my team, and Nathalie Long, who was racing on a team dubbed “Untamed Canada” for this race. There were actually going to be 3 total teams racing as “Untamed”. Two american ones (Coyote and Moose) and Nathalie’s team. My team had the distinction of being Team Number 1 (Coyote). A very auspicious number to be given. Nothing like putting pressure on an already stressful position of joining an ‘elite’ team for me, right? My overall plan was pretty simple. Pull my own weight, don’t drag the team down, and keep up! For me, that would mean constantly feeding and watering my machine, and let others figure out how to get from A to B. Navigation would not be my bailiwick this time.

After reaching registration (after a slight delay thanks to the thoroughness of the US border agency), James and I learned that in fact, the two U.S. Untamed teams would essentially be racing as one. 8 members, 2 navigators, and lots of energy. I was a little perplexed at that, but it certainly wasn’t my place to question that. Besides, it had the possibility of making our overall speed / efficiency better, improving podium chances. it was my first time meeting the 6 others, and they all seemed quite friendly, if not pretty focused on the race preparations. We also all ended up sharing a condo, so there were a total of 9 of us staying together before the race (the 9th was one of the injured who had come out as a product rep).

Course Overview

Course Overview

Elevation Profile

Race Elevation Profile

Maps were distributed Friday night, with Jason and Dave acting as the 2 navigators and captains. They pored over our 8 waterproof maps planning out the route and checking Google Earth for old trails, etc to help us along. Meanwhile, the rest of us (James, Molly, Meghan, Erik, Phil, and I) went about eating, and packing gear. We’d learned a couple days earlier that the race would feature a single transition point in the whole race (see picture above). It also featured an opening leg where we’d be trekking about 21 km and paddling about 21 km, meaning we’d be trekking with all of our paddle gear. This posed a bit of a challenge as far as packing light goes, and ensuring you had all the mandatory and extra gear you’d want. In a nutshell, we were expecting to race 6-8 hours on the opening leg, then needing to carry everything required for the remainder of the race. That meant lots of food, biking gear, lighting gear, clothes, etc. Water would be ‘purified’ en route from streams / lakes we’d find. The only other saving grace was that we’d get to drop off our bikes at one point, and could leave our helmets / shoes with them. Pretty handy considering the final leg would be a giant trek!

During the race briefing, Grant Killian, the RD, unveiled a new system of indicating the challenge leg of particular legs. The bunnies! Cute, innocent bunnies. Single bunny for easy, 2 bunnies for harder, 3 bunnies for hardest. This course was designed to progressively get harder as we went. A true expedition-style race taking place in a 24 hour period. I was quite excited to get things underway when we finally turned on on Friday. Weather was calling for a mixed bag, and I was pretty sure we’d be wearing rain gear for at least some of the race. In the end, the order of events was this: Quick 1.5k run, then into boats for a 21 km paddle. From there, a 21 km trek using a mix of roads and trails, with a touch of bushwhacking. From there, grab the bikes for a long bike section sticking to ATV / snowmobile trails mainly. During that leg, we’d also tackle an orienteering section (2 CPs) at the ‘pancake stop’ where you could buy food. Finish the bike leg, drop the bikes, and tackle the BIG trek, including lots of tricky route finding, bushwhacking, and elevation gain / loss to get to the top of Sugarloaf, then bomb down to the finish line. Using a cliche overused word: EPIC.

Opening Paddle Leg

To get to the start line we had a 1.5 hour bus ride. Ironically, it took us almost all the way back to the Canada / US border. Given how much everyone was drinking and eating (to pre-hydrate), we were all but ready to explode out of the bus for a nature break! We lined up at the start, and awaited the starting gun. Our teams had situated ourselves at the very front of the field. At the signal, I took off running, and stayed pretty much at the front of the pack. I think 4 of the first 6 people at the boats were from our 2 teams. James and I then went about picking a boat, but ended up in a traffic jam. Our other teammates had been more successful, hopping in boats and paddling off, literally leaving us behind :-(. We had opted to put our bags in dry bags before leaving. We almost weren’t allowed to go, as we had to put a wrist band on the boat to mark it as ours, but our team-mate had ours and was already gone! Quick explanation, and we were allowed to go. We couldn’t even tell where the others were in the fray, only realizing they were NOT in earshot! Oh well, I guess that would set the stage for us. We were more or less on our own.

Luckily, we were a pretty efficient paddling team, we put our heads down and just focused on the task at hand. I had opted to put on full rain gear, with both pants and jacket, due to the imminent rain and fact that paddling is inherently a wet pursuit. I was warm! But not overheating luckily. We soon picked our way through boat after boat, until we finally caught up to the others. From there, we just kept pushing at our rhythm, ultimately finding our way pretty much to the front of the pack. At the far end of the paddle, we were the first of our 4 boats to pull out, and 5th boat overall to finish the paddle leg. It had been a pretty quick paddle, owing to the swift current. We ALMOST went over once, as there were some class 1 rapids to navigate, and we went over a rock a bit close to the side forcing us to quickly compensate. James did a great job in the stern controlling that situation, but it was tight!

Stage 2: Trek 1

At the pull-out, it was a tight space and a lot of pandemonium. We had to re-pack all our paddle gear into our packs in order to trek. We probably got set in under 5 minutes, and our entire group was ready to go at pretty much the same time. We took off at a jog / light run, which once again foreshadowed how this leg would play out. It turns out that if you want to win at the elite level, there is no relaxing. You are putting nearly max effort out all the time. It was fine at that time, but later, it would prove rather difficult. This section was about 21 km in length, and was on secondary roads for a lot of it, meaning we kept a hard pace up. We started with a steady climb up on a trail, eventually flattening out on a network of roads. There were a couple more climbs to tackle, but all in all, not super hard. At this point, there were no trekking poles being used.

In generally, James and I hung more towards the back. James normally does nanny duty at the back, meaning he makes sure whoever is at the back is okay, and helps by taking weight whenever needed. I was hanging back not due to speed, but more just for the company. The other team-mates were actually a pretty serious bunch, focused on racing more than socializing. Fair enough. I was an outsider anyway I suppose. At the back of the pack, however, we soon realized that one of our fellow racers wasn’t having a great time physically. They were feeling like crap and starting to struggle a bit. Amazingly, they kept their speed up, but there was a concern how that might play out later as the race wore on. James chatted them up, and tried to keep spirits up, which I’m sure helped out. At the other end of the spectrum, in front of our 8-pack, 2 of the other guys always seemed eager to push the pace and dangle out in front of the navigators. It was clear that there was no great desire to stay as a tight group and check in on each other very much. Personally, I prefer a more cohesive unit that takes care of itself, but perhaps doing it this way helps drive forward. Either way, we were still at the front of the race and doing well, so no complaints there.

We finished the leg by jogging into transition as the first 2 ‘premiere’ teams (that is, 4-person co-ed), and I think we were 3rd overall, followed closely by another team. This was our one chance to stock up on food, and change clothes from our gear bins. Everyone was very focused, and once again, we had a very quick transition. I had fresh clothes on, and also packed another change for the last trekking leg. Bikes were ready to roll, and off we went. Latter teams would take over an hour there, but for us? Under 10 minutes. Again, that’s life at the front. A punishing existence.

Stage 3: The Bike

The bike, as you probably guessed by now, was another case of relentless pacing at the front. Happily for me, I think my bike fitness is the highest it’s been in years, and I felt no discomfort at all. There was a great mix of biking too, so when we hit the more technical stuff, I was having a blast. That is, until I lost pressure in my back tire. Sidewall cut! Damn. We ended up needing to remove the tire and put a tube in ( I normally run tubeless). We lost precious time, but were not overtaken (yet). Sadly, not 2 minutes up the trail, another teammate had a flat! This 2nd bit of bad luck allowed another team to pass us. We patched up quickly, and went into pursuit mode.

The teammate that had struggled a bit on the last trek was unfortunately still having a challenging day. They let me know that it was the worst they’ve ever felt in a race, thinking it may be a diet issue. They were having problems eating / drinking / and hadn’t had a ‘nature break’ for hours. Not a great sign. Reluctantly, they accepted the offer of a tow whenever we hit roads. However, the best part is that as we were a group of 8, when we did hit nice roads, we were able to get a really good paceline going, and keep the average speed quite high. This helped propel us forward to the ‘night orienteering’ section.

Lucky for us, due to our speed, we made it in and out of the night orienteering section in full daylight :-). Orienteering seemed a bit of a misnomer, as it was really a balls-to-the-wall sprint 2 km downhill to find 2 CPs, only to turn around and spring back UP a mountain. It was about this time that I started wishing they’d let up the pace just a touch. Perhaps lucky for me, because of our ill teammate, we did finally slow a bit, which gave me time to be a bit more proactive in my eating. So far, all systems were firing well, as I was taking in enough calories, water, and electrolytes. I will felt great overall. Once back on the bikes, it was finally time to bust out the headlamps. We were past the halfway point of the bike leg, with about 30 km to go.

Obviously, we’d been doing some climbing on the bikes, and the final section involved a tortuous series of climbs in the dark, but were followed by equally impressive downhills. I was thankful for having a bright headlamp, as the final series of steep downhills were rock-strewn with a lot of loose walnut-sized and above rocks. As you may know, this can make for pretty tricky descents. Luckily, we all emerged unscathed, and happily, after the initial two flats, the rest of the ride went smoothly (mechanically-speaking). Other teams were not so lucky. Broken pedals, broken frames, etc.

Stage 4: The Crux, Trek 2

Finally, we made it to the bike drop-off. This signified the start of the final trekking section. A 3-bunny challenge involving numerous mountain treks, lots of elevation change, and about 25 km of total distance. In the dark. And the rain. And the fog. And the cold. Yup, welcome to the crux of the race, and my unfortunate undoing. We were still racing from the front here, and aimed to keep our lead. It was immediately obvious that this would be a tough trek. We started out following a river bed, navigating our way around massive boulders and making numerous water crossings. So much for dry feet! We were having a tough time finding what we hoped would be an old trail up the mountain. So, the decision was made to cut into the bush, and just head out on a bearing till we hit a known feature.

The Rice Krispies Effect

Well, THIS was a bushwhack. Probably one of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered. The trees and brush were so tightly together that at points you had to physically throw yourself into them to break through. Even in the dark, with bright lights, if a teammate got even 10 feet ahead of you, they all but disappeared! It was intense, to say the least. The footing was also quite suspect. Lots of deadfall, tangled branches, and holes to watch for (but in the dark, remember?). Sadly for me, I soon had a ‘rice krispies’ moment. Snap went a branch covering a hole, crackle went my foot into it and POP went the ankle. White-hot pain shot immediately up my spine and I collapsed in a rather loud obscenity.

I *couldn’t* move at all. I just lay there in pain. My immediate thought was that I had just re-broken the ankle. It was that bad. I held back tears as I tried to self-assess. James and Molly were with me, with the other 5 up ahead waiting somewhere in the dark for news. We realized we had quite a predicament. There really was no way out from where we were. It would take just as long to back-track for help as to go forward. There were NO roads, so rescue was impossible. My verdict? I would have to go on. Slowly, but surely. Out came my ankle brace and painkillers. The ankle was swelling up, but luckily, no bones were sticking out, and no strange discolourations. I immobilized it as much as possible. My pack was split between James and Dave, and I relied 100% on my trekking poles. Best investment ever.

There were legitimate worries that this was it for the team. We’d press on, but may have to give up. Luckily, the human body is an amazing machine, and survival instincts are strengthened when put in a position like this. The next hour or so was the worst of my racing career. You see, we were still in this deep, thick, tangled shit, and I had no choice but to push on. Every other step was excruciating, and I kept getting frustrated as the team seemed to always dangle just out of my reach. Luckily, James and Molly stayed with me the whole time, encouraging me and empathizing. Of course, I may be a touch obstinate myself, so I was going to keep going until it killed me. Amazingly, we finally pushed through a final section and emerged on an old trail / road. Things suddenly seemed 1000% better. We paused for a few minutes there, congratulating our perseverance in that terrible bushwhack. Now the serious question was posed to me. Keep racing, or use this road to find a way out. By now, I was nicely drugged, and had gotten through the worst part, so I immediately responded we should press on. As it was a trek, we had no idea where we were in the standings now as a result, but we HAD to press on. I came to race, and I was GOING to finish!

Happily (sort of) the next part of the trek was simply overgrown trail. A few tricky bits, but I could much more easily pick my way along. We had to go off trail again to grab a checkpoint, but lucky for us, our navigators had actually found the trail that ran closest to is, so it was a relatively quick bushwhack in and out before being back on trail. We also seem to have lucked out and stumbled across a backcountry ski trail leading to the top of Spaulding Mtn., and ultimately the Appalachian Trail, which we could follow to the summit of Sugarloaf.

Once on the Appalachian trail, I actually ended up taking the lead. Seeing as I was essentially setting the pace, when I suggested I could go a bit faster, Dave said it would be easiest if I led them at my pace. With newfound gusto and the pressure, I set what I considered a pretty good clip on the rocky trail with my trekking poles supporting me. The equalizer was the fact that they all had to carry their packs. Oh, and did I mention the rain? At this point, the skies opened up and we were being showered. We’d all gotten our rain gear on in time though. This ridgeline carried on for miles, but eventually, we hit the branch that lead up to Sugarloaf.

I’ll always remember breaking out of the trail and hitting the barren top of Sugarloaf. It was surreal. The fog was super-thick. The wind was howling, and the rain was pelting us. I mused to James that this must be what it was like in Scotland. We could barely hear each other up there. Luckily, the peak is punctuated by a tower with lights on it, and we used those as a beacon to find the final CP, where we also found a photographer sleeping in a tent! We ALSO noticed (and heard) another team at the peak. At the time, we didn’t realize it was the current 1st place team, and that we were in 2nd and 3rd, in spite of my ankle!

The guys took a bit of time to double check the maps before choosing a route. It may sound easy to follow a ski hill to the bottom, but a hill the size of Sugarloaf has MANY trails, and one can easily screw up here, which is apparently what happened to the team last year. However, once they did choose a course, they took off at a blistering pace, apparently no longer aware that I was a limping gimpy in the back! It was frustrating watching them slide out of sight on the steep scree-like gravel slope. This was absolute hell on my ankle, as it was really hard to control my descent. However, once again, James stayed with me the entire way, letting me bitch and encouraging me on.

At the bottom, we noticed only our 2 teammates waiting. The other team apparently decided to push the last 5k to see about winning the race. So much for racing as one. But I completely understood and was glad they made that decision in order to contest for the win. Jason had re-checked our strategy on the maps, and we were ready to go. We saw people ahead, and I thought it was our team, but he said it was Checkpoint Zero, and they were in 2nd. I verified “You mean they are CURRENTLY in 2nd”….”as in, if we pass them, we’ll be in 2nd?”. When the answer came back affirmative, I said I would do whatever it took to beat them to claim 2nd overall. So with that, we took off at full steam.

I believe this final section is where I patented ‘double poling’ on a trek. I used the sticks almost as crutches now, swinging myself at ever-greater speeds forward. I was no longer the limiting factor, as I could see the fatigue starting to creep up in others. We played cat and mouse with the other team before finally choosing a different path, and leaving them. I had no idea whether this was a shortcut, longcut, gamble or what, so for that reason we ran flat out the entire way. No mean feat after over 19 hours racing. It was just getting light out, and the rain had let up to a drizzle now.

We rounded a final bend, and promptly scrambled up some rocks to cross the finish line, triumphantly coming in 2nd place overall! Our other team was quite amazed to see us emerge before Checkpoint Zero. So in the end, we accomplished exactly what we set out to do. We captured 1st and 2nd overall, triumph in the face of adversity. I have never been so simultaneously exhausted and elated as I was at that finish line. Beer was offered and accepted, photos were snapped, then it was all over! We had finished 9 minutes after our friends, and 7 minutes before the next team. AMAZING!

The Wrap-up

When all was said and done, gear sorted, pizza eaten, prizes awarded, goodbyes shared, and journeys home completed, the final stats came out. The race had started with 39 teams. Of those, 11 teams didn’t finish at all. A further 7 didn’t get to do the final trek (so finished on bikes). Finally, another 11 teams didn’t complete the entire trek (skipping final 2 CPs). If you’re doing the math along at home, you’ll see that leaves only 10 teams that officially completed the entire course! The 10th place team finished nearly 4.5 hours after us! If you really want to see the full stats, just check out this pdf. To say we were at the top of top here is very accurate. I have now raced at the leading edge, with the fastest and best in a 24 hour race in the U.S. In spite of everything, to be able to finish so strong is something I will always be proud of. I can’t tell you what motivates me to do these things, but that feeling at the finish is a pretty good reason!

I know this post is incredibly long, and I’m not sure if anyone will read it all, but I had to put it up and spell it all out, if for nothing than to give me something to revel in when I hit my twilight years ;-). Thanks for sticking with me, now if you don’t mind, I have some ankle rehab to tend to, and some training to tackle to prepare for the Leadville 100!

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