Saturday, May 1, 2010

Way Off Track

The 2009 Pemi Wild Ultra
What the heck were you thinking?” said a tiny little whisper inside my head during a fit of dream-like restlessness. “Yeah, you’re in way over your head this time, pal!” chirped the butterflies in my stomach as I tossed and turned just moments before my 3:15am wake-up call. From amid this symphony of doubt came a steady but sure voice of reason. “You’re ready for this. You’ve done all those long, hilly miles. You’ve raced over terrain as technical as this and you’ve hiked many of these trails already. On the other hand, the voice wavered, this is 12+ hours of running, on 33.3 miles, up over and down ten 4000 foot mountain peaks.” WHAM! The blast of the alarm clock sent a rush of adrenaline through my system. I bolted upright, in the pre-dawn darkness, and scarcely noticed that the voices had been silenced by the steady pounding of the rain. It was go time!

Ten of us stood in a rough semi-circle at the trailhead as we listened to our final instructions. With each dressed in various forms of rain gear, and our headlamps providing the only light in the gloomy 4:00am blackness, it was hard to make out the faces of this intrepid bunch. I recalled from our pre-race dinner the night before that one of the teams was composed of two Pennsylvania high school buddies reunited solely for this race. One had flown up here to meet the other who had recently moved to New Hampshire. Both were experienced ultra marathoners. These guys were likely the biggest threat. Along side them were the race director, an experienced adventure racer, and his partner, a seasoned mountain man, who clearly knew these trails like the back of his hand. Both were veterans, each having done this loop the year before. Next were a couple of local runners who happened to be friends of the race director. They had run some longer races and hiked a bit, but both of these newbies looked a little lost out here in the woods. They were my early pick to finish dead last. The final group was a younger couple. She was a member of the North American Wife-Carrying Championship Team. He was a hard-core, thrill seeker having just completed the “Vermont Death Race” - a race so brutally sadistic that you begin by having to chop a stump out of the ground and drag it around with you for the duration of the event. He was one of the few (18 out of 80) to complete the entire blood & guts course. My only hope was that he was still a bit tired from his recent ordeal.

Earlier in the week, Steve Wolfe (my partner in this adventure) and I had developed our race strategy. Jog the runable sections, power walk the climbs and survive the descents. Neither one of us had done anything remotely close to this. And, I put the likely hood of us actually winning this thing at approximately 50% or, about the same as our chances of crashing, burning & dropping out entirely. Given that we had no idea what to expect, we resolved to start out slow and shadow our more experienced competition. So of course, once the race began, we sprinted right to the front!

The rules of the race required that each teammate be no more than 100 yards from the other at all times during the event, so Steve and I took turns breaking trail. His headlamp was stronger than mine so he led for most of the early going. The 5-mile section from the trailhead at Lincoln Woods to the start of the first climb at Bondcliff was set on an old train bed. It was flat and easy, so we moved along at a pretty good clip with the Pennsylvania Boys nipping at our heels. At the bottom of the first climb we stopped briefly for a bio-break and to secure our jackets as the rain had ceased sometime shortly after we started. The Penn Boys went by us with a cheerful hello and we were happy to let them lead for a bit. A quick check of the watch told us we were ahead of our projected schedule and we headed up the first ascent. We were hoping to finish the entire 33.3 mile loop in ½ book time. In other words, one half of the time the guidebook says it should take for us to hike that distance. Even at ½ book time we’d still be out in these woods for nearly 12 hours.

On our way up to Bondcliff the canopy of trees slowly came into focus as dawn was beginning to break. Although we were primarily walking now, the steepness of the grade reacquainted us with our own heavy breathing. We passed the other team again about halfway through the climb as they paused to take some pictures. The trail grew rockier as we went and soon we were scrambling over stacks of boulders and jagged precipices. Now I know how this mountain got its name! Nearer the top, we were conscious of our newfound exposure as the breeze strengthened in direct proportion to the shrinking of the trees. And, even though we couldn’t actually see much beyond the cloud we were climbing through, we did get a sense of the space that surrounded us. We stopped for a couple of quick snap shots of the cliff face and scooted on down the trail, now completely above tree line.

We ran for a bit before the next rise in the terrain, hopping from rock to rock and along the stone lined pathway that wound from cairn to cairn. We were far enough ahead of the other team that we couldn’t see (or hear) them within our 200 yard cone of vision. Back into the trees we climbed a bit more until we got to the summit of our next peak, Mount Bond. At the top we made a slight navigational error. In our haste, we went straight over the top instead of banking to the left (as our map clearly showed us later) and we ended up in a thick growth of trees that couldn’t possibly have been the correct trail. We righted ourselves (or so we thought) and headed on down the mountain again until we abruptly came face to face with the other team. Ooops! Well, there went our brief advantage! The four of us found the correct way down and moved in unison together. 

Ahead, the course required us to do a short ½ mile spur trail out to West Bond to pick off one of the ten 4000 foot summits. So, we took a big swig of water, dropped our packs and quickly dashed off to our next destination. Running without a load on our backs for the first time all day we felt as light as feathers floating along the trail. The other benefit of doing an out and back was that we could get a good feel for where the other teams were. If we got out to the peak, and back, before we saw them we would know we had a lead of at least a mile. About halfway back we crossed paths with the Veteran and Newbie teams and both were still looking strong. We grabbed our packs, downed a couple of power bars and headed on to the next section of trail. We didn’t see the Couple Team before we departed and, as it turned out, we wouldn’t run into them again until later that night back at the condo.

The next few miles from West Bond to South Twin were some of the wettest sections of trail we’d encounter that entire day. Slimy, single-log footbridges, surrounded by deep puddles of muck marked where the trail used to be. Adding to the frustration was the growing sense that we would never be able to shake this other team. They were dogging us pretty well at this point - walking when we walked, running when we ran, but always staying well within view. I was beginning to think (and dread) that after 12 hours of racing, our ultra-marathon was going to come down to a sprint finish. Ugh!

Once we crested South Twin and started coming down the other side we felt a little gap open up between our team and theirs so we pushed a bit harder, which was quite difficult since this trail was the steepest so far. And, quite possibly the longest! We must have entered a time warp of some sort at the top of South Twin because this one-mile section down to Galehead Hut seemed to take forever. Making matters worse was the steady stream of water running across the rocks we were trying to descend. Very tricky indeed! One slip here and our day would be over. Once we got to the bottom we decided to continue past the hut and tag Galehead Mountain. That way, once we returned for a quick lunch break we’d be halfway done, mileage-wise. Again, we dropped the packs and dashed off for the peak on this ½ mile spur. Sadly, the summit was the most disappointing of the day, just a small pile of rocks at the center of a clearing in the woods. No views to be had, even on a good day! As we neared the hut on our return trip we passed by the Penn Boys. We were surprised they had lost so much time on the descent, but quickly determined that they must have already stopped for lunch.

At Galehead, Steve and I went about refilling our Camelbaks and having something a bit more substantial to eat. My 9:30am “lunch” consisted of a bagel with cream cheese, some beef jerky and handful of trail mix. After quickly scarfing down my food I changed into dry clothes and mentally prepared myself for the second half of our journey. 16 miles down, 17 miles to go! We had lost a bit of time on the descent from South Twin, but still had a realistic shot at breaking 12 hours. As we headed out we saw the Veterans & the Newbies coming in and, at this point, it was starting to look more and more like a two team race. We figured that the Penn Boys were probably already heading back down from Galehead hot on our heels. So, after our 12-minute break, we hit the trail again and headed for the toughest portion of the course.

As expected, the 6-mile section from Galehead to Garfield to Lafayette took its toll on us mentally and physically. It was just a constant stream of ups and downs. There was scarcely a section of flat trail in that whole stretch. And, what was flat was completely mud-covered. Definitely not runable. Thankfully, the clouds began to break as we neared the top of Garfield, so the hope for our first real views of the day helped to raise our spirits. However, from Garfield’s peak we could see just how far down and back up we needed to travel to get to the 5260 foot summit of Mount Lafayette. But, we knew that once we crested the highest point in the race it would be all (or mostly) downhill from there. However, getting to that stage was going to pose the biggest challenge of the day. Anyone who’s hiked this section of trail will tell you how taxing it really is. The path that emerges from the saddle between Garfield and Lafayette is a steady roller-coaster ride that goes up and over a seemingly endless series of false summits. Steve & I lost count after about 6 or 7. We broke through tree line at around 4500 feet and still had 2 or 3 more “nubs” to scramble over. It was about this time that I started getting noticeably fatigued and a bit dizzy. I soon realized that my mini-lunch from 3 hours ago just wasn’t cutting it anymore, so I took a breather to soak in the view and grab my bag of trail mix. I spent the last ½ mile up to the summit chomping away and felt worlds better once we got to the top where Lafayette opened up and presented us with a spectacular 360 degree view of the surrounding peaks and valleys below.

Picking our way across the ridge of Lafayette was quite a surreal experience. We had just spent the last 9 hours dragging ourselves up, over and around this killer course, slogging through the mud and barely seeing a soul (save for those we raced). But, at the top of this particular peak there were easily a hundred fresh-faced, clean-footed, day-hikers basking in the sun and wondering why we stunk so badly. But before I could answer that rather probing question, my attention was quickly seized by the most beautiful section of downhill single track that I had ever seen. It was laid out before my feet like an early Christmas present and I was more than happy to tear into it. WooHoo! I yelped on my screamingly fast descent that was only interrupted briefly to squeeze past the occasional dumbfounded trekker coming up in the opposite direction.

Steve & I flew past Lincoln & Haystack before settling into an easier (and more maintainable) pace as we dropped down below tree line for the final time. The trail from Haystack to Liberty certainly rivaled some of the earlier sections for sheer mud-ability and our time (not to mention our energy) got bogged down in the process. At one point, my shoes started to loosen on me and I could feel a couple of hot spots developing on my toes. A quick check of the feet revealed that the fun I had coming off of Lafayette had cost me some of my precious skin. I hastily re-applied the torn flesh over the newly raw areas, pulled on my slime-soaked socks and tied my trail shoes tight. But as I got up and turned to head down the trail, I heard voices coming from where we had just been. Could it possibly be that the other team was gaining on us? Were we slowing down that much? Wild thoughts haunted us as we made our way over Liberty and on up to Flume. If they caught us, could we stick with them? Steve & I tried not to consider that scenario and moved out of sight as quickly as we could.

We crested Mount Flume, skirted around the side of the peak and began our final descent of the day. With just 5.5 miles to go, the finish line was within our grasp. At this point, our sub 12 hour goal time was out of reach. But, if we hustled, we could still get in under 13 hours which wouldn’t be too bad for our first time out. Fortunately for us, the Osseo Trail coming off of Flume was built for speed. The flats and downs were packed, dry dirt and the steep sections had wooden steps built right into the side of the mountain. If those other guys were going to catch us they were going to have to grow some wings, because we were flying! Of course, what I failed to recognize was that Osseo must also have fallen into the same time warp zone as the trail down from South Twin. Because, even though we ran nearly the entire 4.1 mile section it still took us almost an hour to complete it. Yes, we were tired and a bit dazed but there’s no way we were running a 15 min/mile pace! Anyway, after what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached the old train bed and had just 1.4 miles to go. As exhausted as we were, we still managed to run (albeit slowly) the last portion of the trail. Along the way, we saw couples walking hand in hand, kids on bikes and joggers out for a quick afternoon jaunt. All of whom were oblivious to what Steve & I had been through and accomplished together. We reached the site of our journeys origin and paused to reflect on what we’d just done. A check of our watches told us that we’d completed the 33.3 mile loop in 12:53:04 - good enough for first place on the day. But, what was really important to us was that we had pushed our bodies to the limit (and beyond) of what we thought we could do and that anything now seemed possible!

We soaked our tired feet and frames in the cool, cleansing waters of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River. After a bit, we collected our tattered belonging and headed back to the condo to clean up, tend to our wounds and have a bite to eat. We returned to the trailhead an hour and a half later, with adult beverages in hand, to find that the other teams had yet to arrive. Then, almost two hours after we finished, we finally saw the Penn Boys stumble out of the woods. Apparently, the NH half of this 2-person team had turned his ankle coming down South Twin almost 10 hours earlier! So, he had to drag himself 20 more miles (on a badly sprained ankle), along some of the toughest terrain in the Whites, just to get to the finish. Talk about perseverance! About a half hour after that, the Newbies arrived, followed closely by the Veterans. Back at the parking lot, we each grabbed a frosty one from the cooler in Steve’s car and toasted our good fortune at finishing this monster day-hike all in one piece. As I sipped my drink I couldn’t help but wonder what the race director has in store for us next year. Whatever he dreams up, after today, I know I’ll be ready for it!


The Pemigewasset Wilderness Ultramarathon
aka: “The Pemi Wild Ultra”

By the numbers:
19,520 - feet of elevation gain & loss
11,227 - burned calories
276 - ounces of water/gatorade
33.3 - rocky, muddy trail miles
12 - electrolyte tablets
10 - 4000+ foot high mountain peaks
5 - teams of two
4 - granola/protein bars
3 - pounds of trail mix
2 - humongous blisters
1 - heck of a good time

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