Tuckerman Inferno

This is going to be a long one! Mind you I'm now several months removed but this race is still fresh in my mind. These details should help those prepping for 2016 get an idea of what the race is like and how to prepare. Enjoy!

My #1 [competition] goal when I moved back was to east coast was to win the Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon, a race only tackled by a handful of individuals. Most competitors do the event in a relay format of either two or five people. To race it solo requires a portfolio of skills plus a little grit, and definitely some luck. The course is an 8 mile run, 5 mile kayak, 18 mile bike ride, 2 mile* hike/skin, and a 2 mile* ski back down. I use asterisks because it is usually more than 2 miles but due to inclement weather we only went as high as HoJos.

Going into this year's race I did my research. I dug into the archives for results, competitors, course options, and logistic help. Although I grew up in the valley, I was still green to this event, never having participated or really thought I ever would. I had no idea where the course went and how the staging worked. Plus, with the recent backcountry movement, ski gear had been completely redesigned for ski touring with light and fast equipment. There was a lot of stuff to dial in if you want to have a chance at doing well at the Inferno.

The first thing I did was start training. Training for the skiing was by far the easiest. I was already skiing several times per week. I alpine raced in three beer leagues for several week. I made a point to backcountry ski one to two times per week, focusing more on elevation gain upwards of 5,000 feet. I nordic skied a couple times per week, working on the cardio and leg strength. I worked on my biking on a trainer all winter, logging crucial base miles. I ran in every sort of condition imaginable and added in snowshoe racing to help keep the heart strong. Oh, and mix in a few masters swim classes, winter hikes with Squall, and a surf trip. Looking back, it was a solid block of training in February/March.

Leading into Saturday's Race I got one last skin/ski in at a closed down Cranmore. It was a gorgeous spring day and I just did a couple laps to keep the legs fresh. I took that Thursday off and on Friday I went to Great Glen and borrowed a kayak to test that afternoon on the recon run. I'm happy I made that decision because it let me get familiar with the staging area for the river transition as well as give me an idea of a line I'd want to take for the race. Since the water levels were so low (all the water was still tied up in the snowpack), there were plenty of places to get hung up on if you weren't careful. Luckily that night it stayed warm and the river level went up just enough to help with the shallow sections.

Friday night I went to Flatbreads to pick up my registration packet. It was a quick in and out and Hilary was even able to get our free pizza to-go. I just wanted to rest after sluffing around a 12' kayak all afternoon. We did find out that the course was going to be shortened due to weather. There would be no course down the Ravine or Hillman's which was an honest disappointment. It's the backbone of the race but with weather like they predicted we had no business being above treeline.  I went home, did a final pack and went to bed.

Race Day: It was an early start. The race started at 7am so that didn't leave much time to get all my gear staged. The kayak was obviously the most difficult because it's the furthest away and also requires a long walk in. I was up by 5am and out the door soon after. We arrived at the Bear Peak parking just before sunrise and it was still quite dark out. We shuffled the kayak all the way to the river bed which is about a half mile and difficult on snow/ice plus weaving through some trees. I put a Clif bar and water bottle with my gear (paddle, skirt, bike helmet, neoprene gloves, and jacket). With that taken care of it was now 6:15 and we had to go set up the bike at Glen Ellis Campground. The bike transition station didn't take long. All I had to do was to rack my bike and put my shoes and gloves next to it. I was out of there by 6:30. This left me a little bit of time to get in a mile warm up at Story Land and calm my nerves. Looking at the list of registrants, it was clear that the competition was strong, especially with $1k on the line this year. Quickly looking down the list was last year's winner - Josh Flanagan; elite triathlete Brian McIlvain who added SkiMo to his resume this winter; Ryan Kelly another elite triathlete from NH who is incredibly athletic; James Kovacs - 2011 winner; Lincoln Benedict, has lots of experience and seems like he's always in shape to perform well; and Grady Jackson, unknown to me at the time but he's fast.

At the race start I moved to the front and took my position. I opted to wear calf sleeves for warmth, as well as a long sleeve compression top with a tri top over it plus arm warmers, a fleece hat, gloves, and my tri shorts. It was the perfect layering for the day and the event. I was very nervous at the start. It was a long build up to this moment with a ton of training and so much uncertainty of how the day would go. 

The timing company had a countdown timer going which was a nice touch. At 7AM sharp we were started. The run begins by heading north up Route 16, a slightly uphill start. At 0.8 miles the course turns a sharp left onto Glen Ledge Road and begins a 450' climb. It's not too steep but it spread out the pack. I dropped to 6th but had Brian in my sight a little ways ahead on the downhill, with a sickly Chuck Wolfe coughing on my shoulder. I asked him if he was going to make it around mile 3 and I don't think he took too kind to that as he blew by me. I was fine with that. The leader, Ryan Place, was out of sight within minutes of the start and ran 5:17 pace. I surprised myself how fast I was running - 5:26 and 5:40 miles on the descent. When I got back to flat road I held a 6:30 pace which was right where I thought I'd be. 

Enjoying the sun but Chuck, please stop coughing on me! 

I came into the transition area feeling good. The kayak was a bit of a cluster because I was having serious issues clipping my helmet strap then I couldn't get my neoprene gloves on and gave up on my skirt after realizing that there was no way I could get it on my kayak with zero dexterity using my gloves. The river was calm so it wouldn't really matter anyway. The river had indeed rose a bit. Just enough to speed things along to a more respectable pace. I was anticipating a time in the 50s after yesterday's run but I never got hung up. I made sure to drink water and I ate a Clif bar that ended up floating in the growing pool of water inside the kayak. I stayed relatively warm but my legs didn't appreciate being crammed in the tight space. I passed all the Tuckerman on this leg which put me into the lead exiting the water. There was still a relayer in front though. 

The bike transition was easy. Volunteers took my kayak and paddle and I ran across the campground to my bike. I kick my shoes off, ditched my skirt, jacket, and gloves. All I had to do were put on my shoes which I had put cold weather covers on. I also put wind block fleece gloves on my aero bars which was a savior. I peddled out of the transition area feeling strong and raced to catch the other biker in front. After the flats I now had to bike up what we had just ran down - Glen Ledge, aka "the wall". This was a rough start to the bike. The weather up to this point had been semi-sunny and wind-free. That all changed towards the end of the Kayak when a front moved in. That initial climb was challenging. It's steep (>15% in spots) and dropped my speed into the single digits. It's the most difficult section of the bike so I just hammered through it and started the winding descent to 16. The roads were in good condition for that time of year, very little sand left which is always a concern. I turned left onto 16 and really had nothing to go off of in terms of how well I was doing. I thought for sure someone would catch me as I turned into Jackson village. Still no one. I had biked up Pinkham once in March but had absolutely no benchmark for or racing experience (lie, I did race a triathlon the previous September). Finally, not long after the Jackson loop, Erik Nelson passed me heading up Pinkham. I kept him in sight for most of the way. The weather at this point had deteriorated as predicted. A stiff headwind really made things punishing. My biceps were starting to cramp and my legs were certainly feeling the ascent. 

Suffering on the bike and of course there's sleet on the road.

The next transition station is at the Direttissima parking lot just before you reach the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. I had Hilary bring up my skis, boots, XC poles, and hydration pack so I had everything waiting for me. Unfortunately my calfs started cramping uncontrollably as I was trying to put on my boots. It took about 15 seconds before they calmed down. I was booted up and grabbed my gear and began running in my boots across the parking lot and over to the start of the Tuckerman Ravine trail. I dropped my skinned up skis down and then began a game of toe clip roulette. The boots I had were more geared for alpine skiing than touring. The toe inserts had no guides so stepping into my bindings was very difficult, more so given how worked my legs were. After another minute wasted I was in and began the climb up to HoJos. I had skinned up this trail a few times this winter so I knew it pretty well and also had a good idea of a pace I'd want to hit. 17-19min/miles was to be expected as long as I could reach the hut somewhere around a time of 40 minutes. I worked hard to hold a hiking pace up the trail. Fortunately the bad weather kept the crowds down but it was surprising how busy the trail still was. I politely asked for the right of way as I passed hikers. I had the lead with only one two relay teams in front of me but halfway though the climb Hilary came and passed me. She was running for the Wildthings all female team. I chased her for a bit and the she dropped me. I was still running scared and had no idea what I had for a lead but the thought of winning this thing really started to set in. I knew I would have a fast ski split. HoJos finally came into sight and I knew the suffering would soon be over. I made it to the Sherburne trail and no-so-gracefully pulled my skins off and fell over in the process. I think Brian was right behind me at that point but I had already locked in and pushed out of the start, skins in one hand, poles in the other, looking like an absolute Jerry. I sent it and just hoped that my skis stayed on. Semi-out-of-control, I bombed down the trail quickly passing (and startling) the Wildthings team skier, Suzie Carrier. The moguls didn't really show up until a half a mile in and things got ugly. I held on though and made it down to the flats in record time for my Sherbie descent. I wasn't sure which way to exit but skated up the bridge and making my way to the finish line. The accomplishment was thoroughly satisfying and I let it soak in. Brian and Grady came down shortly after and we talked about how wrecked we were and what a nightmare the bike was.

Jerry of the Day? 

There would be no sort of victory lap that afternoon. Hilary and I had talked about heading up to the Ravine but the weather was just ugly. Instead we opted to go get some food down at the Cider House and then headed to Wildcat for the dinner and awards. We had a lot of time to kill but I just enjoyed a few beverages and relaxed. The awards were great and it was a fantastic turnout for the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine. I ended up taking home the big check, a promise for a pair of custom Parlor Skis, and a pint glass. We also won $100 gift certificate to a local ski shop in the raffle. There's a 100% chance I'll be back to race every year I'm able.

Soaking up the victory with my training partner.

It was awesome to meet a group of such talented athletes that weekend. I came away from this event motivated to charge a little harder and hopefully add a few SkiMo races under my belt next winter. I learned a lot about this race and here are a few things I'd change next year:

Kayak a few times before the race. I pulled a muscle in my forearm that plagued me for several weeks. Need to be a little more prepped for that transition as well and be more familiar with my equipment. That would be an extra few minutes saved. 

Bike more! I strained my knees earlier this winter pushing it on the trainer so I had taken a lot of time off. I'm a strong climber on the bike but could still benefit from more time on the bike. Brick work especially which has helped tremendously in fending off cramps on the run in triathlon. 

Get new boots! My boots aren't suited for racing. They are heavy and uncomfortable when skinning fast. My skis were great but I snapped one and will need to handle that for next year. The time wasted getting into my boots and skis was also another minute+. 

And I learned it takes a big base of fitness and skill but also a bit of luck. I was healthy going into the race and in peak form. I wasn't the the fastest in any of the legs (the ski leg still stings) but I was steady and able to press the entire way. I can't wait for next year.

Conway Daily Sun Cover Shot, Finally!

Strava: Run | Kayak | Bike | Hike (Skin) | Ski

Results (PDF)