This winter there was a clear absence in Inferno-specific training. The past three winters I had been disciplined (motivated) and put in solid run miles and time on the bike trainer for at least six weeks leading into the race. This year was a combination of injury and lack of motivation. I cracked a rib in early January which deterred me from doing much of anything. I continued to ski because well, that's my job. When March rolled around I realized it was too late to squeeze in much training plus I went to Katahdin for a week to ski. Heading into the race I lacked confidence in my fitness so that meant changing my approach slightly. I had to make sure my equipment and transitions were dialed to make up for lack of fitness. And to be clear, I was fit from all the skiing but not sharp. You'd think that being my fourth time doing this race I'd have it figured out. Nope. See: 2018 Run vs 2016 Run Training.
Friday was a scramble:
- Work: Rent out 7 AT setups and mount/deliver 2 AT setups + gear to customers this weekend.
- Put tires on new bike wheels and tune my bike which had yet to leave the pain cave trainer.
- Drive to New Hampton (Thursday) to pick up a kayak but also needed a skirt, paddle, pfd for.
- Mount up new race skis.
Not to mention I had some new HOKA ONE ONE Tracer 2 shoes which I had never run in and all I wanted to do on Friday was put my feet up and RELAX! The good news was that I had all the right gear for the race and was ready for a preview paddle down the Saco with Josh Flanagan by 3:30PM.
We paddled the relatively low river and it didn't strike much confidence as the boat (14' Pyranha Speeder) felt tippy and difficult to steer. I guess that comes with only kayaking once a year! By the end of the paddle I felt slightly more confident but the important takeaway was that the river wasn't going to be tricky this year, the flow was easy to follow and there weren't any tricks other than be efficient (don't flip or or spin in circles!). After we staged our kayaks and headed to registration.
I was home and packed up by 10pm. It's a 4:30 wake up so sleep is never great leading into the race. Everything was smooth race morning. I set up my kayak near the river with helmet, skirt, PFD, paddle, and mitts and was off to the bike transition. That also didn't take much time and I headed to the race start to get setup for the run. Hilary was able to stage my ski gear which really saves a big chunk of time and stress. Driving up and back to Pinkham would be 30 minutes extra.
Warm up was short and it was great to connect with all the other racers and spectators before the start. I saw Kris Freeman at the start. He was my biggest concern for the race - he should be dominating this event but we'll get to that later. Next thing you know it was 7am.
The race started out well. We were all a touch overdressed and we felt it by the first climb. Kris and I settled into a comfortable pace while a couple teams took out the front. By the top of Glen Ledge we were both breathing hard and certainly warmed up. Kris tucked right behind me and held right there stride for stride while we made our way to 302. When we made that turn it was clear that he was going to hang tight and not waste any energy - smart for him as he could have easily started dropping 6 minute miles but with a little headwind it would have been a wasted effort. Instead, I just ran what pace I felt like I could hold on which was more like 6:30 pace and he tucked in behind me. I was working harder than I'd like for that pace and reflected my lack of running this winter. My left calf was also feeling tight which was concerning. Not much I could do at this point, just ride out.
As we passed Attitash the winds got worse but at this point it's just a mile to the Thorne Pond turn off. We made the corner and wrapped around the pond then weaved through the riverbank down to our Kayaks. Wish there was a water station set up, definitely would have been nice to get a drink before the 5 mile kayak!
The run / kayak transition is usually super slow. It's very hard to get the skirt on the kayak so after last year's assistance I made sure to line up help this year too. Shout out to my skirt B Lincoln who had me in and out faster than any previous years.
I was out on the river before Kris and tried not to look back. He is a STRONG kayaker and I knew he'd pass me... just not when. Honestly, I mailed in this leg. I knew that it would be wasted effort to try and hammer the paddling. Around mile 1 Kris blew by me - his stroke rate was 2x mine. Going into the race I knew that if I could stay within 5 minutes of him on this leg I would be in contention for the rest of the race. The rest of the kayak was smooth aside from leg cramp spasm. Not much you can do about those except try to relax and ignore. Landmarks continued to roll by and river rescue volunteers cheered me on. I knew I had done well on this leg. At the pull out my brother told me I was 3 minutes back on Kris. Damn. I ran to the bike and was looking forward to trying to close the gap.
Lincoln was back to help again and told me that I was having a good transition and that Kris wasn't far ahead. I did what I could to get out of there quickly but my chain started to fall off as my crank arms rolled back (need to fix that!). A few seconds later I was rolling out of Glen Ellis Campground. My hands were wet so I hadn't put my gloves on yet but knew I needed to do that sooner than later. I was able to get them on along 302 and really start hammering.
The Glen Ledge climb went well. I was reminded that my bike isn't geared for climbing but I just worked the granny gear and knocked out the climb to match my previous PR, passing a team biker along the way. The descent was wet but not slick and everything felt good. I was also drinking a ton of my water. I brought two gels and 20oz of sports drink. I took one gel on the top of the climb but lost the other one off the bike near the Rt 16 intersection.
I buzzed through Jackson and there were no other bikers in sight. My brother said that I was closing the gap and next thing I knew there were a couple bikers in view just a mile up from Jackson. It was hard to tell if they were racers or not.
A few miles later I learned once again from my brother that my gap was closing. Thirty seconds back from Kris. At this point I relaxed a little but kept grinding. The headwinds started to pick up and while I didn't have a computer on me (just used my GPS watch), I could tell that some of these gusts were knocking our speed down to 5mph. Kris was looking back keeping tabs on me all along the climb. I never closed the gap officially but felt good about my position heading into the skin / ski.
My transition off the bike wasn't the smoothest. I should have taken the liners out of my boots to make it easier to get in my shells. Kris and I stumbled together through the transition and eventually we left around the same time. Kris was on heavier gear - telemark boots with skis that aren't even light for for backcountry. I was still concerned because he's strong and could certainly power his way up on any type of equipment.
The Tuckerman Ravine Trail was FIRM which wasn't ideal for skinning. My quads were starting to cramp up and I was constantly looking behind me. This was where my head was at - fatigued to the max and just doing what I could to defend my lead. A couple teams passed me and while they were running, it still concerned me especially how slow I felt.
I had flashbacks to how worked I felt in 2015 when I had Brian MacIlvain hunting me down. Skinning scared but I was getting closer to HoJos and knew I could have a fast ski leg if needed. Once I passed the Raymond Path intersection I was confident I had the race in check. Deep in the race so much uncertainty.
I turned onto the Sherbie and was greeted with cheers as I continued up towards Hillman's to the transition point. Bad weather kept us from going any further which was an honest disappointment this year. I took the victory lap fast but in check. The last thing I wanted to do was blow out in the firm conditions. It was smooth and the new skis had incredibly sharp edges making it easy to navigate including hopping a few bare patches.
I came down the final stretch and skated over the bridge to the finish. It was a huge relief and honor to take my fourth consecutive TuckerMan title. I expected Kris to be a few minutes back but when the crowd started cheering it was Josh Flanagan rounding the corner. He had the fastest skin up and managed to catch Kris on the descent. Kris finished third and we recapped our races while watching other finishers come through.
This was a particularly satisfying race for me. In a way it felt like I was able to steal the win - while I lacked the training and discipline this year, I still raced smart and hacked together a couple weeks of specific workouts. My diet was pretty bad and certainly didn't skimp on shop beers either. I have a feeling there won't be margin for that in future Infernos. That said, I did upgrade bike wheels and had a slightly better kayak to "buy" some fitness. Next year I'm planning on putting together a more serious training block for not only the Inferno, but carry some base run fitness into the summer for more ultramarathons.