2018 Untamed New England

2018 Untamed New England

The sealed cell phone was in his hand, ready to be opened. Kate had passed out from seeing the blood dripping down her face onto her hands, and Cliff was tending to her wounds, trying to gauge the likelihood of a broken nose. We had been flying down the railroad bed, trying to get to the bike orienteering course as fast as possible. It would give us a forced break where we could each get some sleep, and we’d been awake for 32 hours at this point. Kate cut the tracks a little too close to parallel while being towed. She crashed, hard.

I had a screaming headache, my hand brushed against the dent in my helmet from my crash earlier in the day. "I can’t believe you got up after that fall" was what Cliff kept repeating. I was trying to make sense of the situation through the migraine. Our team seemed to be in complete shambles this morning, and this crash was the last straw.

"Do I open it?", asked Cliff again, holding the phone. Evan and I looked at each other, knowing breaking that seal was an instant DNF. We all knew the right thing to do here, even if it meant ending on the second day. "Open it", we said, "Call medical."

48 hours earlier

"Permanence". The word glowed alone on the screen, as Grant continued to give us details at the pre-race briefing. This was his reminder to us that nothing we encountered on the course was permanent, and when faced with legs of the course that seemed designed to crush us, it would merely be temporary discomfort.

This of course came right on the heels of the news that leg 1 of the race, when revealed to us later that night, would be the hardest leg on the course. Evac options were few and far between, and if we got completely lost, we could just point a compass south "and walk up to 20 hours until you hit a road" to be extracted. Woah.

Start line, unsure of what were about to get ourselves into

Untamed New England 2018 itself was a reminder that things aren’t permanent. Since its inception in the mid-2000’s, it was widely considered one of the premiere world series races in the US. After the 2014 edition, Grant announced it wouldn’t be returning. Eric and I raced in 2014 as our first expedition race, and it chewed us up and spit us back out, mostly intact. We wanted more, and we were saddened to hear that there would no longer be an expedition race in our own backyard.

Fast forward to 2017, Cliff, Eric, and I were just returning home from a good showing at Raid Gallaecia in Spain, and we knew that we wanted to find a race in 2018 with Kate joining our roster. We fired up Facebook and just saw a post from the Untamed New England page - "[Tap tap tap]… is this mic on." We knew it was coming back, Cliff emailed Grant that night and we were signed up a couple weeks later. It was time to go back to Untamed for some unfinished business.

Now we were sitting in the auditorium at UNH, getting details about our transport to the start. We had all shown up to this briefing at 13:30 ready to race. Our bikes and gear bins had already been packed into UHauls, but we still had no idea where the race was starting, only that we were to head onto busses and we’d end up somewhere by 18:00 that evening to get pizza and our maps.

UNH auditorium - pre-race briefing

The busses headed north, and Evan knew about 2 hours in exactly where we were heading, Sunday River in Maine. Not only were we being treated to a great pre-race pizza dinner, but we were being put up in hotel rooms that night as well. I had been assuming we’d have to camp out at the race start, but a soft bed before spending 4 days in the woods was much better. After watching the course overview video, we were given our map packets and sent on our way. I felt really good after seeing the course overview, especially considering I wanted to cry after seeing the overview in 2014. I felt confident in each of the legs, and while the distances were long I knew we were capable of tackling them.

Kate and I immediately started going over the cutoffs, map layouts, distances, and route selections for each leg. It’s amazing how a few years of map navigation practice changes the time needed to mark the maps, I felt incredibly confident in our choices, and had the maps fully marked, with distances, clues, and alternate routes, in under 2 hours.

So excited to get our maps!

We did some final gear prep back at the room and had some good nervous laughter about what we had gotten ourselves into. Ideally we wanted to full course this race, but it was clear from the cut-off times, and from Grant himself stating that he believed only 3-4 teams out of the 45 could actually full course, that this wasn’t in the cards. Plans would have to be altered to be more realistic about our skill. We wanted to ensure we made every single cut-off except for the final one, which would likely cut one leg from our race. This seemed like a pretty aggressive goal, but doable if we did everything correctly. This meant we would not sleep until the first cut-off, giving us 40 straight sleepless hours to start. We were aiming for our most aggressive race ever, it would be interesting to see if it paid off.

We all hit the pillows and woke up at 05:00, doing the final gear prep. We were off to the start line, the base of White Cap, Sunday Rivers steepest peak.

Leg 1 - "The Kedakina"

17 mile trek

Day 1 07:00 - 17:15

This leg was split into 2 sections. The first was a light and fast run up and down the slopes of Sunday River for CPs 1-4, followed by a brutal pure bushwhack for CPs 5-9. 1-4 was actually tons of fun, we were allowed to leave our primary race pack at CP4, and essentially go as light as we wanted to start the race. We opted to wear our ultra vests through this section, just bringing water, some food, and emergency gear. While the routes didn’t seem to tricky in this section, Evan was able to streamline things even further since he had intimate knowledge of the mountain. He knew where there were trails between summits, and what slopes were the best for ascending (rather than just picking the best straight line route.)

Evan pointing out some hidden mountain routes

At this point you may be asking, where is Eric....

After competing in the 24 hour Get Stoked Rogaine in Virginia earlier in the year, Eric decided he wanted to shift his focus to rowing and take a break from adventure racing. It just wasn’t bringing him the same thrill it used to. As sad as that made me, I knew he was taking a hiatus for all the right reasons, so I had to shift focus to finding someone to replace him for Untamed. It’s hard to find someone to join an expedition race with 2 months notice. It’s harder to do it when the race has a reputation as being insanely difficult. And it’s nearly impossible when one of the first people to come to mind has never done an expedition race before.

But I was confident that Evan would want to come. In fact, after we asked him to join and think about it for a few days, his wife immediately said "you know you’re going to join them, you should have just said yes right away." We had introduced him to the team a couple years prior, he’d been to nationals with Cliff, and I had just finished pushing him to a breaking point at the Maine Summer Adventure Race. I knew he would be able to push through whatever Untamed threw at him, even if he didn’t believe in his own ability just yet. I knew he would also be nervous due to our team goal of pushing as hard as possible, aiming for a full course or 1-cutoff short goal in Untamed.

Leg 1 - directly up the side of Sunday River

So, we cruised through CP1-4 in short order, completing the stage in just over 2 hours. We swapped into our real race packs and made our way to the entry point to the backcountry, and started on CPs 5-9.

Heading up to the CP5 entry point

This section felt nearly flawless. While there were no trails on this 13 mile stretch, we were leveraging pace counts, altimeters, pure compass bearings, awareness of the ground contours, and small features like re-entrants to keep us on track. We kept hitting all the appropriate features on our way from 5 to 6, and felt like we were making extremely good progress. There isn’t too much to say about this leg, other than there were 2 spots where we got pulled a bit further south than we wanted to (just before CP6 and just after CP7) where we could have taken slightly better bearings, but we knew the mistake we made and adjusted quickly, likely losing no more than 30 minutes in the process. We made our way down to CP9 by 17:00 and started to prep for the next leg.

Into the unknown - bushwhacking through CP5-9
Human plinko... brutal bushwhacking

A side note here, I can’t possibly imagine being on this first leg after dark. We completed the leg in about 10 hours. It took some teams 30+ hours to finish. The terrain was so dense at times it was like playing human plinko, and seeing the surrounding terrain was required to make confident decisions about direction, which you couldn’t do at night. CP7 seemed particularly impossible without daylight, as it was nestled in dense brush on a mountain peak surrounded by 2 false summits. To all those teams who fought their way after dark, amazing job.

Kate and Evan cruising into CP4
Crushing CP1-4

Leg 2 - "Ancestral Headwaters"

31 mile bike, 31 mile canoe

Day 1 17:30 - Day 2 04:00

It was absolutely pouring to start this leg, which was the case for about half of the race. We quickly changed into wet weather gear and hopped on our bikes to go south, through Evans Notch. We were fortunate that Kate’s front brakes were working when we started this leg. At the check-in, a piston was misfiring in the heat, causing her front brakes to lock up when they were used. We were faced with the idea that we may have to completely remove the brake pads and tape back the brakes to prevent them from firing, but the cold weather solved the the problem. After all the gear issues we were plagued with in Spain a year prior, it was nice that things were working out.

We were making good decisions through this leg, and the navigation was sound. The idea was to try to get to the canoe put-in before we completely lost daylight. Fortunately the entirety of this leg was on roads and fire roads, allowing us to move quickly and consistently, and we got to the canoe put-in just after 21:00.

I was able to give my brain a rest on this leg, as we’d decided Kate would take over primary navigation on the water legs. She had lots of kayak nav experience, and was really sharp at keeping tabs on where we were on the water. This is an incredibly difficult task at night, especially with a river that was winding as much as the Saco. Cliff and Kate took lead canoe, and Evan and I followed. Two new pieces of gear I had picked up were paying off on this leg. I had purchased a pair of 5mm water booties so I could keep my primary shoes in a dry bag. They kept my feet warm and toasty all night, and gave really nice grip when I had to jump out of the canoe to hunt for checkpoints on slick rock.

Second was my LifeStraw Go. This is a water bottle with a built-in LifeStraw filter, allowing me to continuously fill up from the river while paddling, without waiting on iodine tablets to work. LifeStraw started sponsoring our team earlier in the race season, and this was one of the pieces of gear they sent to us before Untamed. It made a massive difference on the water leg, and I wouldn’t go into another race without it. I’ve been on the receiving end of dehydration while waiting for tablets to work their magic, and I’ll never have to do that again.

LifeStraw jerseys with my LifeStraw Go

Towards the end of this leg we were moving at a good pace and Evan signaled that he was getting a bit tired. We decided to secure the tow ropes and let him rest his eyes for 30 minutes or so while I steered in the rear of the boat. I followed suit and got to rest my arms after he had gotten a good nap in, and it was nice to stare up at the sky and let my arms relax while we cruised into the next TA. The canoe tows worked great as always, we had really locked in how to use them effectively over the last year, and we jumped onto land at TA4 right around 04:00.

Leg 3 - "Maze of the Ghost Chiefs"

80 mile bike

Day 2 04:30 - 22:00

As usual on the course, the start of this leg was pouring. We took our time getting out of TA, changing out of our soaking gear into something more dry so we’d stay warm. The sun was just starting to light up the sky as we exited the TA, meaning we could stash our headlights away. The leg didn’t look too difficult, but it was very long. We knew we wanted to make it to the bike-o section sometime mid-day, and we’d be able to nap there since the bike-o course required teams to go out relay style.

The leg was going well, and the sun was even starting to come out which was drying everything up. Then we hit CP 23. This CP was just off-road from a rocky fire-road we had to travel on. I hit a rock with my front tire while flying downhill, and it was loose enough that it twisted the tire to the side. It seemed like slow motion - my bike was going one way, my maps were sliding off my map board in another direction, and I was trying to salvage the situation but managed to go full head over heels, sliding on the ground and smashing into a rock as my bike slid down on top of me. I looked up to see a terrified Cliff, and jumped up from the ground right away. "Dude… are you ok, how did you get up so fast." "I’m fine", I said, I just needed a minute. I didn’t feel too bad, thinking it looked way worse that it actually was, and we continued on this leg.

Moving on the bikes

My head started pounding about 15 minutes later, and wouldn’t stop for a few more hours. And I’m not talking about a little headache, but this was a "I almost can’t think" type rolling migraine. I was able to focus, and didn’t have any concussion symptoms, but it put me in an incredibly foul mood because I didn’t want medical to pull me as a precautionary measure, and I felt stupid for taking such a silly fall. I had to stop a few times just to hydrate and rest, but we were able to keep pushing forward. This was by far my lowest mental point during the entire race.

We were within 40 minutes of the bike-o, and could almost taste the pancakes they were going to be serving. Then Evan and I heard a yell from behind us and looked to see Kate on the ground and Cliff jumping to her side. Kate cut the tracks a little too close to parallel while being towed, and hit the ground hard. She saw the blood coming from her nose and told us "I’m about to pass out from the blood…" Cliff helped her lay down and close her eyes, and he pulled the phone from the top of his pack. "Should we call in medical?", Evan and I looked at each other, and as much as a DNF would suck team health was too important. "Yes", we said. Then Kate, snapping to consciousness and realizing what we were about to do, stated loudly and clearly "NO, I just need a few more minutes, my teeth and nose are fine, just WAIT." Holy shit, nerves of steel on Kate, I’m 99% certain I could have requested a hospital bed at this point.

We took 5-10 minutes to drink, get cleaned up, wash away the blood, and of course take a picture of Kate next to the sign indicating that we needed to be careful on the tracks, and then continued on our way.

This sign was pointing the wrong way, would have been useful in the other direction

We rolled into the Abenaki Ski Area shortly thereafter and ditched our bikes on the ground. We decided that we’d do the 4 o-relays as follows: Evan (short/easy), Rick (long/easy), Kate (short/hard), and Cliff (long/hard). We heard it could take up to 45 minutes per leg on the course, so this was an ideal time to get checked out by medical, eat pancakes, and get 30 minutes of napping in before heading back out on the bikes.

In all, the bike-o was a relatively easy section, and really just allowed a forced break for each of us to get a nap in. We all felt incredibly refreshed with 20 minutes on the ground in the cabin, and hit the roads to TA4 / first cutoff.

Naps at bike-o section

The rest of this bike leg was pretty uneventful, right until the end. The trails to the southeast of Lake Winnipesaukee were tricky, but we only made 2 wrong turns that we discovered within minutes and corrected quickly. There was one fantastic downhill to Alton Bay at the southern tip of the lake, and I stopped to re-adjust the maps for our final hour into TA4. I happened to stop in front of a sub shop, and we picked up subs to carry with us for enjoyment at the TA. Again, everything went smoothly, and we cruised into the Belknap mountain range area. There was one creepy scarecrow setup in the middle of the fire roads leading to TA4, which we were happy to get past.

Seriously, some Blair Witch style stuff in the middle of nowhere at night

With about a half mile to go, Cliff stopped us and realized he had destroyed 3 spokes on his rear wheel. This wasn’t great, since the fire road was a technical and rocky, and it would push the stability of that rear tire close to "taco" territory. This means the wheel would have completely bent and we’d be out of the race. Being cautious, we walked the bikes all the way into the TA, making the first cutoff with plenty of time (21:00, cutoff was 6 hours later.) Relief set in as we hunkered down to eat and get some real sleep for the first time during the race.

Rest #1

2 hours

We ate the subs we had purchased at the corner store, and damn were they good. I was only going to eat half and save half for when I woke up, but a minute later I had wolfed the entire thing. We had tents for when we wanted to sleep, which gave reprieve from the damp conditions. We agreed we’d get 2 hours of sleep and then pack right back up and hit the trail. As we were settling in we saw a few other teams that were neck and neck with us head right back out on the next leg. We were confident that sleeping was the right move, as we were already pushing our sleep more aggressively than any prior race.

Just before settling in, Cliff got his bike checked out. We were told the next leg was mostly paved and flat fire roads, and we decided to tie off the broken spokes and hope that the tire didn’t taco during the next 70+ mile leg. Time would tell.

Leg 4 - "Na Wisoko Trek"

20 mile trek

Day 3 02:00 - 12:30

We woke up at 02:00 and quickly packed our tents. The sky had actually cleared up and it was a beautiful starry night. We got the maps for this section and it didn’t look too bad. There were 6 checkpoints to get, and we could do it in any order before heading to the next TA. There were 2 natural ways to take this section, doing a loop around the eastern mountains, and then either a) hanging north along the trail system to the western side and doing some backtracking (but it was all along well marked trails), or b) by cutting south and bushwhacking directly up the side of the mountain by CP D, then traversing the ridge up to TA 5.

We opted to stick to trails the entire time. It looked like by staying north we might add a mile or 2 to the trek, but we’ve learned that marked trails are faster, and these woods had a tendency to get incredibly dense.

We quickly bushwhacked our way to the first CP, and then started the climb up to the summit of Mt. Major to get CP B/C. This was a beautiful trek, we hit the top of Mt. Major just as the sun was rising, and it gave a spectacular view over Lake Winnipesaukee. There were a number of people waiting there to watch the sun come up, and we had someone take our team photo.

Cliff at Mt. Major sunrise
Gorgeous sunrise

We cruised through this section, and managed to catch and pass 2 teams on this eastern stretch who were sleeping on the trail. Our decision to sleep in a nice tent and sleeping bag, instead of hunting around in the dark for the CPs, seemed to be paying off. Evan’s legs were a bit sore so he started to tow off Cliff which was a really good idea, as we started moving much faster as a team. I was reflecting on the race quite a bit at this point, because we were in such bad shape 24 hours prior. I felt really good about how we had been progressing as a team, but also felt a bit disconnected. When I’m focused on the maps, 99% of my mental energy is being consumed. I’m constantly eyeing our pace times, altimeter, estimated route changes, and topography to make sure we’re on course and have backstops to any missed navigation. I’m also generally leading by 30-40 feet to scout out the trail. Unfortunately, that means I’m missing out on the conversations being had by the rest of the team. Cliff, Kate, and Evan were having a hoot in the back, and as much as I wanted to participate all the time, I knew it meant I wouldn’t be as focused on the task at hand. I talked to them about this, and they all said it was part of my team role and they totally understood, just like Cliff when he had to tow, or Kate when she was taking over the maps, or Evan when he was focused on pushing through his first expedition length AR.

We continued on the northern trail to go from Mt. Major to Piper Mountain, about 5 miles, and as we walked the ridgeline south to Piper Mountain we passed several teams who had decided to take the bushwhack route. They looked beat, and the first of the teams we passed said it was a tricky route that they had lost time ascending. Again, this reaffirmed our decision to stick to the trails, and to get a couple hours of real solid rest before hitting the trek.

Moving quickly on tow

The rest of this leg was easy once we got hit CP D, it was a straight shot north along the ridge line, which had some pretty spectacular views. Halfway back we crossed by a stream where Randy was taking shots of all the racers coming by. We got some really great pictures of us using our LifeStraws in the stream, and then continued on north and down to TA5.

LifeStraws kept us cool on the trek
Kate taking a sip from the stream

Leg 5 - "Panaomeska Passage"

72 mile bike

Day 3 13:00 - Day 4 00:15

We were running really short on water as we came into TA5, and opted for a quick transition to our bikes so we could head to the nearest stream. Unfortunately, Cliff had 2 tubeless tires that weren’t holding any air, so we had to take them off and put tubes inside. It took longer than we wanted since tubeless tires grip the rims more than normal tires, but we finally got it done. The extra time allowed us some rest to eat some lunch and air out our feet which were on fire after the long hike.

Feet are a funny thing, we’d been soaking wet for days, but it was a sunny and hot 20 mile trek through the mountains that made them swollen and deathly sore.

We started down the road and realized the first few "streams" were completely dried up, so we filled from a hose on a house instead. Things were going well at the start of this leg, we passed a couple more teams who were getting turned around in the maze of trails in the mountains, and Cliff’s bike was holding up well (even though the "paved" roads still turned out to be some rocky fire roads at the start.) About 5 hours into the leg we pulled out of one of the CPs to find 2 people sitting by their car with signs congratulating us. It was Evans wife, Emily, and her friend Elyse. They had driven up to watch us on the course and found us via our GPS trackers! The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as we were running low on water again and Elyse had a house right on the race course.

Visit from Emily and Elyse, looking happy to see familiar faces!
Familiar faces cheering us on!

It lifted our spirits quite a bit to see familiar faces on the course, it’s rare to have an expedition race so close to home, and I know it clearly meant to ton to Evan to have them come and see him on his first race. We all got a nice mental boost from this visit.

We continued on the bike leg, and the skies started to open up. It started thunder and lightning so much all the teams got paged on their GPS devices to "shelter in place" until the storms passed. We were near the top of a hill and waited to avoid being on high point while the storms rolled through. Once the worst of it passed by, we kept on moving until we got the the foot-o course around 20:00. At this point I was starting to get a bit woozy and thinking about home, as I tend to do when the sun first goes down. We quickly made our way around the course, and heard a chorus of "HEY CHAOS MACHINE!" Steff, Ricky, my mom, and my dad all drove up to see us! I teared up a bit, this was my 4th expedition race, but the first anyone in my family was able to see me in. Words don’t do their visit justice, it just gave me the energy push I needed to get to the end of the race.

Happy to see more family at the foot-o course

We only had 2 more CPs until we got to the foot section of this leg, and we cruised through it incredibly fast. I could tell that I was starting to fade and was going to need to initiate a full "system reboot" once we got off the bikes, as I was assuming we were going to hop right into the kayaks after this leg and try to get a jump on the next cutoff.

Trying not to completely lose my shit at the bike -> foot transition

At CP 50 we dropped our bikes and had to designate one of them for the future "bike and tie" leg, in which one team member rode a bike while the rest were on foot. We were fairly confident that we weren’t going to make the cutoff for that portion of the course, but still had to pick a bike. Mine was falling apart the least, so we flagged it and got the map for a short 3 mile trek to CP 51-53, where we would hit the next TA.

I was running on reserve fuel at this point, but fortunately I’ve done enough races I knew how to bring myself back to life. I could tell the team was slightly worried about me, but Cliff saw me in this state last year in Spain so he didn’t press too hard when I just said "I don’t need anything, I just need some alone time while we walk." I quickly drained two 5-Hour Energy drinks, several handfuls of gummy worms, and half a PBJ and just muttered "Don’t lose me" as we started to walk. My brain went dark, while Cliff and Kate took over the maps to get us to the TA. I thought we were in and out of this CP in under 5 minutes, but apparently it took me close to 20 minutes to transition, my brain was turning to slush.

I came back alive in about 20 minutes, just after Cliff had discovered the first CP. They jokingly called it the "Rick Reboot" as I went from a dead zombie to back alive. I took over the maps again and walked us the rest of the way through downtown Dover to the TA. As we got close, Cliff, Evan, and Kate started to get exhausted, and we made the team decision that rather than jumping right on the kayaks at the TA, we would hunker down and get 3 hours of sleep since we were so far ahead of this cutoff.

Rest #2

3 hours

It was disappointing to hear that there was no potable water at this TA, and even though we were next to a river, the water was brackish so it wasn’t potable. Cliff decided to load up all our CamelBaks and venture to a nearby bar to fill them up while I got our JetBoil going so we could cook some Good To-Go MRE meals and get some hot calories in our systems.

Word to note, the Herbed Mushroom Risotto is the best flavor of Good To-Go meals, they’re absolutely amazing. I ate an entire 1,000 calorie bag by myself before getting some sleep. Speaking of sleep, I was starting to chafe like crazy and needed to get out of my wet clothes, but it was also close to 65 degrees at night. I informed Evan that I was going to sleep buck naked, covering my sensitive bits, while slathering my body in Gold Bond to try and dry out. He was so tired I don’t think he realized what I was saying, but boy did it feel good to air everything out while getting a few hours rest.

Leg 6 - "The Piscataqua"

24 mile kayak, 3.5 mile trek

Day 4 05:00 - 12:45

I was the first up at 04:00 and was ready to go. My "sleep" was pretty weak due to the 5-hour energy dose I took around midnight, but we were in the final stretch and would hit the end that evening. Kate was going to take lead on this first kayak leg as it was on the water. We left just before 05:00 so that we would leverage the tides correctly while paddling upstream to the Great Bay.

Kayak put-in at TA6

The first 8 miles were downstream on the Piscataqua, one of the fastest flowing rivers in the northeast. Based on how quickly we knocked out that mileage, we knew it would be a fun ride to the finish later in the day when we would be riding the tide out.

Kate crushing water nav

The first tricky part was going past the Little Bay Bridge up to the Great Bay. We noticed a number of teams who had beached their boats right before the bridge, and were yelling at us that the current was incredibly strong and they weren’t able to make it. We felt strong after such a long sleep the night before and powered through the currents. Even with the tide helping us here, there were 3 major joining rivers we were battling in this cove which made traversal difficult, but we felt great that we had caught up to a few teams and passed them.

Strong currents under Little Bay Bridge

We continued upstream and the next tricky point was in the Great Bay itself. We were halfway to high tide, and we figured the tidal flats that were marked on the map would be deep enough to kayak over. Unfortunately they weren’t and we spent a good 30 minutes dragging out kayaks through silt and sand that occasionally would swallow us up to our waist. It was scary, and we were happy to make it over to the channel that would guide us upstream to the take-out in Newmarket.

Towing boats on tidal flats, brutal

Finally we hit Newmarket, and I was happy to get on land and be able to jump to a porta-potty. I had been having stomach issues on the kayak and was trying to purge my system. It made the morning a little bit less fun, but I started feeling better once we got on land. The next leg was a short 3.5 mile trek to TA7, but we were required to carry all the gear that we had kayaked with. The weather was humid and close to 90 degrees, so we knew it was going to suck. On the way, Cliff’s foot started to give out and I helped by carrying his pack for me.

Kayak put-in at Newmarket after 24 mile kayak

It felt pretty good to be able to do this on the 4th day of racing. I had changed one thing about my regiment in the last year of training, and it was adding Crossfit to the mix. Strength was not my strong suit, and the fact that I went from needing to be continuously pulled to being able to double pack on the last day of a race was a massive improvement. The work I put in was paying off.

Double packs on the trek to help Cliffs feet

Humorously, we noticed that a number of the teams that were close to us were running back down the road. We knew they had missed the next cutoff, and we were wondering why they would be running in the heat (and why they were slowing down to verify that I was "taking care of business" in the woods.) It turns out they thought we were chasing them and they didn’t want to give up the hour lead they had on us! We felt pretty awesome that these teams that we had looked up to over the years now looked to us as being in the same league, and were actually trying to outrun us on the way back to the kayaks, super cool.

We made our way to TA7, and were pumped to find Emily, Steff, and Ricky waiting for us to cheer us on! They were equally excited to hear that we’d be finishing up that evening. A note on cut-offs, in order to make the final cutoff of the race, we needed to be at this TA at 01:00 on Saturday, and we rolled in close to 11 hours after that. We knew early on that it was unlikely that we were going to make this, and only 6 of the teams that raced did. By missing it we ended up skipping a 40 mile foot loop (which in hindsight would have been impossible due to Cliffs foot, but more to come on that later.) We felt good about our performance to this point, only 12 teams in the entire race made it this far out of the 45 that started. Now it was just time to say goodbye to our cheering squad and go back down the road.

Leg 8 - "Matakan"

3.5 mile trek, 20 mile kayak

Day 4 13:30 - 19:15

This was it, we knew we were in the final stretch! We made our way back down the road to the kayak put-in, and it was a quiet march because it was so…. damn….. hot. It was close to 90 degrees and mid-afternoon - we couldn’t wait to get back to the water and actually cool off.

Heading back to the kayaks
Cliff and Kate, still in love after 4 days

We organized all our gear at the put-in, ate a bunch of food, and poured water all over ourselves because of the heat. Quickly jumping into our kayaks to finish out the race, Evan and Cliff accidentally left Evan’s 45L dry bag, with all his race gear in it. We didn’t realize it was on the side of the put-in and not in the kayak hatch! We would realize this mistake at the end of the race, and it was fortunate that we didn’t have anything left to do or we would have been in trouble.

Fried from the heat to start the leg
Cliff and Evan getting prepped for the final leg

We worked the tides correctly here. We put in at 15:15 and low tide was at 18:30, so we’d be riding the tide the entire way down to Kittery Point, ME. We told Emily and Steff that we would cross the finish between 20:00 and 21:00. The first 12 miles of this was backtracking to Little Bay Bridge. Given the high tide, we were able to paddle right over the tidal flats. Kate was getting fried by the head, and had me take nav for this last leg of the course. It was fun to do some water nav to wrap things up.

We got really lucky in the first hour of this leg, the lake was really choppy and windy due to some serious thunderstorms blowing through. The last place you want to be when lightning strikes is the only object in the middle of a giant bay, so we hovered close to shore while paddling in case we needed to shelter in place. Fortunately the winds were blowing the storm to the northwest of us, but still a little too close for comfort.

Hip was killing me, taking a "vitamin-I" break

There was one more CP to hit on a small island just before the bridge, and then we continued speeding towards the finish line. This was easily one of the most iconic finishes of any race I’ve ever done. We were absolutely flying on the river, taking advantage of both current and tidal waters, and were on track to completely this leg by 19:30 (about 4.5 hours.) The last few miles of the paddle were through small channels of the Piscataqua, dotted with fishing ships, lighthouses, and the grassy shore of Kittery, ME on one side, and Portsmouth, NH on the other.

Wrapping up kayak leg

Then we saw it, the finish line on Kittery Point, ME. We pulled in and docked our kayaks, dropped all the gear, and ran to the finish line. We did it, 4 days of racing on 5 hours of sleep and we had our best performance yet. Sadly we were so fast getting to the finish that Steff, Emily, and Ricky didn’t make it in time, and showed up about 20 minutes after we docked, but that didn’t matter to us, we were just excited to see them at the finish, even if it wasn’t when we actually finished.

The finish line existed - amazing feeling
Finish line at Kittery Point, ME

Post Race

Exhaustion was setting in, so after sucking down a celebratory beer and some pizza, we parted ways to shower and sleep. Steff drove me to my parents house, while Cliff, Evan, and Kate went to the UNH dorms. I went full hallucination mode at this point, and barely remember showering and passing out that evening. I just remember waking up in the morning at 6am to get ready to head to the awards ceremony. My whole body ached, and I had a terrible heat rash across my back, but other than that I felt pretty damn good.

Back at UNH with Steff, we met with the rest of the team and got ready to head to the awards. It was here we got a good look at Cliff’s foot, which was in really rough shape. He had gotten some sort of fungus between his toes which was the cause of the pain the day before, it was a mess of puss and trenchfoot, and there was concern he might have to head to emergency care to have it looked at. Fortunately, a full day of letting it dry out alleviated the problem.

The awards ceremony was great, they showed us all the videos they had been posting online each day. Their production quality was amazing, given that they were on a super time crunch to get them out to the public. We drank champagne at the table to celebrate, and cheered on the teams that made it to the top 10. We pulled down 12th place overall, which was the best finish we’d had by far in an expedition race, and was going to give us some good momentum going into the USARA National Championships in a month.

Getting chased by storms to the finish line

Usually after a race when we debrief, it’s to focus on the areas we really made mistakes and how to fix them in the future. This was one of the few races where we didn’t have any major mistakes the whole way through, and our focus was just on how to cut time in the future. The consensus was that we could probably shave 2-3 hours of sleep time off and try to make that final cutoff in the future. Aggressive for sure, but doable given how we performed this time around.

Overall, what a life-affirming race, and what a change from UNE 2014. While Grant remains tight lipped about when UNE might come back, you bet Chaos Machine will be at the start line again, gunning for a top 10 finish.

UNE 2020 anyone?

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