Success! The 2014 Tuckerman Inferno is in the bag and I, bib #11, finished it. Hillman’s Highway and all.
Carrying Amani’s stuff almost turned out to be a horrible idea. I loved every minute of turning out the second half of the race with little man, but the extra weight and lack of experience on the climbing skins for my skis nearly ended me. The 1pm hike to ski transition cutoff drew closer and closer while we, really I, stood still on the hiking trail. I was out of gas in an awful way. Amani was rock solid, fresh as a daisy, and will certainly be carrying his own ski boots if we ever try this stunt again.
We managed to hit the hike to ski transition area by 12:30. Tearing off my ski skins and getting Amani’s gear off and settled took 12 minutes. At that point I wasn’t rushing. The cutoff was the goal to avoid disqualification. Or so I thought. The climb up Hillman’s was really steep. Yeah, the hike to ski transition tag is a bit misleading. The real climb had only just begun. I have never been afraid of heights, but then I have always had very good balance. 6 hours of racing and carrying extra gear completely zapped me of any self-assurance and ability I ever relied on in situations like this. I started counting 10 steps to 5 resting breaths just to give myself something to think about besides falling backwards or how much my legs hurt. My quads wouldn’t stop doing that wobble, wobble, wobble thing that ruined me in my first triathlon so many years ago in Montauk.
Anyway, before we get to the dramatic conclusion of the race you already know I completed, let me recap the early stages of the pentathlon. Pre-registration the night before was quick and came with a coupon for a free pizza next door at Flatbread. We sat next to the 1,000 degree ovens. They even put the brownie for our sundae dessert in there. Pretty cool and very delicious. Prior to registration we stashed the kayak down by the river. Locked to a tree of course. Apparently the river rose overnight last year and a few boats washed away. 30 extra seconds to unlock a boat sounds super quick compared to that recovery mission.
The race started with an 8.3 mile run out of Story Land in Glen. We stayed the night at the Golden Apple Inn about a mile away so the morning was mostly convenient. We had to drop the bike off before heading to the start. The gates were down at the Glen Ellis Family Campground serving as the transition area so I had to bike in to the transition with my bag. 200 yards or so. A little goofy, but no big deal. Back to the start.
Most of the action at Story Land revolved around the port-o-potties. Otherwise things were quiet. Too quiet. The starting line structure was obvious enough so there was no confusion, but announcements were few and far between. “7 Minutes to the start.” “Two minutes to the start.” “Goooo!!!!!!!” No “take your mark” or countdown of the last ten seconds or anything. On the plus side no one was crammed in jockeying for position. We just started moving our feet and had plenty of room to operate from the get go. After a rousing bout of “try to catch Daddy” in the parking lot with Gracie, I was plenty warmed up.
The climb through the neighborhood where every street has Ledge in the name slowed me a bit but the run back down to Route 302 evened things out. Eight minute mile pace or so throughout the 8.3 mile course to Thorne Pond across from Bear Peak at Attitash. Passed a few people for good measure just before the transition.
Heather was waiting with Gracie and my bag in the parking lot. Amani had carried my lifejacket and paddle down to the boat about 200 yards away. A veteran of the course changed in a camp chair that his wife brought while I sat on the ground. Lesson learned. The transition went quick enough either way. A quick jog to the water in lots of neoprene to meet Amani where I unlocked the boat. Stood in line at the launch for about 30 seconds before Amani shoved me into the Saco River.
My sit-on-top Hobie equipped with its seldom used thigh straps balanced like a champ. Lots of people getting spun around and dumped over the 5.5 mile course of rocks and rapids. Mostly Class II from what I could tell. Nothing too crazy, but cold as cold gets. Glad I opted out of the wetsuit on this very sunny morning, but the neoprene gloves and socks were a must. Otherwise, my vinyl wear for shirt and pants did the trick. An army of volunteers sitting in boats ready to spring into action lined the course. Couldn’t ask for better coverage. And such great attitudes. The constant cheers of “keepin’ it straight, you got this, you got this,” was downright energizing. A quick view of white capped Mount Washington around one river bend helped keep the overall mission in perspective too.
Hand off the boat and hustle to the bike transition. To dress warm or not to dress warm? The sun was beating down on us in the lowlands of Glen, but the climb into Pinkham notch lie ahead. All I could think of through this process was watching the temperature gauge on the Forester change mile after mile morning after morning whenever we approached Wildcat to ski the winter. The other side of that notch can be a whole other universe. But wow was the sun coming down hard on that pavement at the transition.
I opted for warm clothes. Fuzzy windproof vest and all. Just couldn’t chance it. My last few rides going into the race were cold. Couldn’t shake that feeling. Plus my food and extra gloves were in the warm vest. Who wants to change pockets and strategies that late in the game? 18 miles is a long way to freeze.
As soon as I hit the hilly Ledge neighborhood again I wished my bike had a lower gear. Something that could spin faster and lighter. What I really needed was more training and stronger legs, but the race was on and my bike is my bike. I got up out of the saddle and climbed. I flew down the hill on the way to Jackson. I finally eased off the speed and could swear I smelled my brakes begging for mercy. That would be the last downhill portion of the ride. Through the covered bridge, around Jackson Village, and off we went. Route 16 straight uphill into Pinkham Notch. Mount Washington and all that snow loomed larger and larger as the middle of the bike pack and I climbed higher and higher. All in all I couldn’t be happier with my bike time. I have always been slow on the bike but I handle hills well enough. This course favored the one thing I can do on the bike so I held my own well enough.
Bonus, the super sharp turn heading in and out of the notch is more sharp than steep. It doesn’t feel that way in a car. More of a combination at auto speeds. What I expected to be the worst part of the climb was actually pretty tame to end the ride.
Now on to the hike to ski transition. Remember the 30 seconds I didn’t mind spending unlocking my kayak. Well I ditched that theory and paid dearly for it on the hike. My warmest spandex have a rubber strip at the ankle that I turn up and off my skin when I ski in them. I locked and loaded my first ski boot without making the adjustment. I realized it before putting on the second boot but never undid the mistake on the first. Halfway through the hike up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail I could feel the burn beginning to dig in. I wouldn’t make the adjustment until we finally reached the hike to ski transition. Damage was already done and hurt like hell. Yet another lesson learned.
People passed me all the way up to the Hermit Lake Shelter 2.75 miles into the hike. I was out of energy. Amani’s stuff was crushing me. He was a champ flipping my bindings to the best position depending on the steepness of the trail, but his gear got heavier and heavier with each passing step. My Backcountry.com climbing skins were spot on. I didn’t slip at all. Grippy step after grippy step we just kept moving on. Once we hit the shelter by 12:20, I knew I had the 1pm cutoff in the bag. By 12:30 we were switching gear bags. One hour and 54 minutes after leaving the bike behind. Amani stayed below with ski patrol and the race director while I strapped my skis to my bag in place of Amani’s and began toe kicking my way up Hillman’s Highway. Minutes before Amani offered some words of encouragement, “That’s Hillman’s? That’s really steep. You have to climb that?” See #6.
Just over an hour later, I made it to the start of the giant slalom course along with someone’s polar bear of a dog. Very gutsy pup. The race coordinator informed me, “When you drop off the ledge your ski time starts.” Great. I really hope my wobbly legs feel like making that first turn.
They did. Barely. Lots of core twisting to get my less than enthusiastic limbs to go along for each shift in the ride. The snow was unreal. Zero ice. I mean 100% zero. Beautiful slushy spring softness made for a very forgiving course. Exactly what I needed. I pulled off the course just before the final gate to gather up Amani and his snowshoes. He was ready as ready could be.
Boots, skis, poles. Check. Let’s go. I chased Amani down the remaining bump filled 2.5 miles of the Sherburne Trail to the finish line. The occasional break let my continuously failing legs recover a bit. Once I hit pay dirt at the bottom, I collapsed like a gold winning Norwegian in Sochi. I finally understand what those cross country machines feel like when they do that. It’s something just beyond exhausted. Triumphant and “I am never doing that again” all at once.
The race consists of mostly teams, some solo men and even fewer solo women. You name the category, I finished behind just about all of them. But the time on the trail with Amani was worth giving up my decent positioning after the bike. Love getting up there with him. Believe it or not, it snowed up there Sunday morning before we left Joe Dodge Lodge. About 2 inches. Maybe we can hit the Bowl on our own clock this weekend while the snow lasts.
My apologies for the long recap. It’s hard to quickly summarize 6 hours and 40 minutes of alternating physical punishment, unbelievable weather, and fantastic family support. Can’t thank my support crew enough for all the behind the scenes transition work. This sunny, dry pavement, wild rapids, deep snow filled super day was an absolute blast. A dream come true. Thanks again to Heather and the kids for supporting me through yet another event. This one really tested your mettle and you killed it as always.