THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS AND I I HOPE THIS SERVES AS A GUIDE FOR FUTURE INFERNO ATHLETES
Like last year, this is going to be LONG. I changed a few things up with my training this year and no two Infernos are the same so it deserves a proper race report. You can find my report from last year here. So much is involved in competing in an event like this. Five disciplines, four transitions, and so many things can go wrong that it takes a tremendous amount of preparation to compete with the elites. It's remarkable how difficult the logistics were this year, even with the experience I gained last year. I've broken this report into segments to thoroughly explain what it's like to tackle this race with high expectations.
This year I didn't really shift the focus of my training around but continued to work on running which is the foundation of my training. The Inferno is 40%+ running if you include the hike, whereas biking and kayaking make up the rest with some skiing sprinkled on top. This winter was light on snow and allowed for excellent running conditions. I was able to log a lot of pavement miles and there's no substitute for running on a fast surface. It also helps to live up the road from one of the best runners in New Hampshire. Having a training partner helped motivate me in some of the worst running conditions you can imagine. I tried to run anywhere between 50 and 70 mile weeks but consistency was rare due to many factors - Skimo races, driving cross-country, and a bruised sacrum all hampered a few running weeks. That's fine though, I took advantage of low mileage weeks to give my legs a break or to tap into cycling on the trainer, hiking, and most importantly, go skiing! Last year I feel like I peaked too early with my biking, losing both motivation and fitness heading into April. This year I just tried to get on the bike a couple times per week and make the most of it by doing interval work. I'd pinpoint a couple workouts in particular that really helped prepare for the race. The first was running Glen Ledge, biking up and down Pinkham Notch, then running back up to Glen Ledge. Efforts like this get your legs prepped for a beatdown and will help stave off "lack-of-fitness" cramping come race day. I felt like I had adequate ski training (i.e. bootpacking) this year and skiing is never an issue. In hindsight, I would have like to have more speed work incorporated into my training. I was able to get on the track or at least replicate track workouts on flat pavement and that raised my cardio ceiling but still a lot of untapped potential. I'd also like to get my Kayak equipment dialed earlier including more lake paddling and I'll get into that later. All things considered, I was surely in much better shape than last year; however, there's always room for improvement. Oh, and I was 100% healthy heading into the race with no injuries but was on the fringe of feeling overtrained.
The day before the race is a logistical headache. So many things to keep track of and organize. Even with a list I still missed a few things. I piled up all my gear and separated into drop bags for staging areas, a bag for the bowl with warm clothes and any items I'd want at the finish, and another bag for a change of clothes since I wasn't planning on heading home. On top of this I still had to pick my bike up from the mechanics, preview the Saco, and register. Previewing the Saco by far takes the most work because you have to drop your kayak off, spot a car, and stage your kayak for the race (highly recommended to do it the night before). I met up with Josh Flanagan and Whitney Withington for our course recon and it went great. Forty-three minutes at a leisurely pace - the previous day's rain made the Saco enjoyable as it did all the work for you, unlike 2015. It's good to re-familiarize yourself with the course, get a feel for whitewater again (even though they are tame rapids), and make sure your gear is dialed.
After the Kayak I headed to registration and was out of there quickly. I still had quite a bit of work to do organizing my gear - everything from printing and taping numbers to my bike and skis, filling water bottles, laying out my clothing options, and getting a meal in. Hilary was organizing her stuff as well which made things very busy. And her parents came to stay but they were a nice distraction from the stress. We were in bed by 10 but realized that if we were to stage our bike to hike transition ourselves, we'd have to get up at 4:15 instead of 4:45. We made the decision to have Hilary's dad drive my truck up in the morning which was a smart call. I already felt sleep deprived from a couple restless nights so I needed every minute I could get.
We had packed most of our gear up the night before so it was a quick operation to get out the door by 5:15 with coffee and oatmeal. We headed out in I-formation, first to Bartlett to stage our Kayaks. we got there just before 6am and appeared to be the last of the elite to do so. I already had my kayak there so I just had to drag it into position near the river and layout my skirt, paddle, PFD, jacket, gloves, water bottle, and bike helmet. I made the mistake of leaving my skirt out overnight, more on that later.
We then drove to Glen Ellis Campground to stage our bikes. Here we pumped up our tires, I attached my bike computer, and clipped in my bike shoes like a triathlon transition. I left a pair of gloves on my aero bars and done the the bikes. It was now 6:20 and I stopped at Irving to gas up and use the bathroom. This turned out to be smart because there was only ONE bathroom available at the race start (WTF). I was at the race start around 6:40, a little later than I'd like but it gave me the opportunity to be thorough with my staging prep. I handed Squall off to my dad and changed into my running gear which included generous chafe stick application! I took a gel and was able to get in a half mile warm up before the start. Every thing felt rushed but it didn't allow me to get nervous, two minutes to start.
The start is at 7:00:00. They don't delay and certainly won't wait for a missing racer. Just ask Josh Flanagan who missed the start by 10 minutes and still went on to win it in 2014. And I guess you can ask Brian MacIlvain the same question, more on that shortly. We toed the line under the scaffolding at opposite Story Land and were off. It was no surprise that top relay runners were out in front, and Ryan Place set an impressive pace up Route 16 towards the Glen Ledge turn off. I settled into a moderate running pace, somewhere around 6:10. I noticed Kris Freeman pull up next to me but there were no other elites out in front. No point in pushing it since no one was gapping us. Then, out of no where, Brian passes us and says he missed the start because he was in the woods going to the bathroom! He ran a sub 5 mile in order to catch us. Impressive but also reckless in a four hour race. As we ascended Glen Ledge, Claton Conrad (I think) was cramping up on the climb. He's a great runner but was forced to an impromptu interval workout as he ran and stopped throughout the rest of the run. I tried to chat it up with Brian but he was focused and trying to put time on us since he had zero confidence on the kayak. The Glen Ledge hill is about a mile long and goes by fairly quickly. We topped out at the water stop and started the descent down to Jericho road. Once you get back on 302 (the second water stop) you head west and generally there are west winds to deal with. Brian had put 15 seconds on us at the point and Kris tucked in behind me and drafted me for the next 2.6 miles. He was working hard to keep up and said that he hadn't done any specific training for this race - you can't just swap cross-country stamina for running, it takes a few weeks to get back respectable run form - but he pushed on and I tried to keep Brian close. Around Attitash I dropped a gel and picked it up. I took it and caught back up with Kris and passed him as we approached the turnoff at Thorn Pond. This year we went clockwise around the pond to the Kayak staging area and at this point I was 30 seconds behind Brian coming in around 53:52 (about 35s ahead of last year's pace in a stiffer headwind).
As I pulled into the Kayak staging area, Kris was right behind me and I wanted to make up for my poor transition last year. Everything was going - jacket, skirt, PFD, helmet and I hopped into my kayak. I spent the next 20 seconds trying to get my skirt on the kayak but it was FROZEN since I had left it on the boat overnight in an attempt to stretch it out (making it easier to put on) but clearly that backfired. I struggled as I watched Kris shove off followed by Brian. Finally I got it on but I still had to put on my neoprene gloves and I was finally on my way after what felt like an eternity. I tried to catch up to Kris but he was gone. I watched his stroke cadence and he was moving fast. Brian on the other hand was much closer and before I knew it, he had flipped in the first rapids we encountered. I was honestly bummed out because it was going to be nearly impossible to recover from capsizing and Brian has the potential to win this race. Both mentally and physically - the water was frigid this year - probably in the low 40s? So it wouldn't have surprised me if Brian had dropped at the bike transition. As I paddled by I told him to stay calm and recover. Later I found out that he slipped and lost his boat downriver. Luckily it got hung up on a strainer but he was able to get to it and get back in the race. I saw another kayaker up in the distance so I focused on catching him. It makes a big difference to have targets on the water to give you motivation but also help with where and where not to go. Kris was out of site after a mile into the paddle and I just tried to stay positive.
At the second section of rapids I felt water go into my skirt and into my boat. I hadn't taken the time to adjust the velcro around my midsection and was paying for it. All it would have taken was a few extra seconds at the transition and now I was getting wet anytime water came over the bow of the boat. Fortunately there were only a handful of rapids and I was able to limit the damage to just a wet butt. I passed the unknown kayaker as we approached the first houses on the river (halfway point) and from there on I just tried to keep racing as it's easy to get lulled into slowing down with no one in sight. It was great to hear words of encouragement from spectators and water safety and that gave me a few boosts but I really just wanted to get this leg over with. There were a few more rapid sections which I looked forward to because it meant less paddling. My upper body wasn't kayak-fit so it was much harder work than I should have been. I made it down in under 40 minutes of moving time which was good but I was now three to four minutes behind Kris.
I pulled into the takeout and could barely stand up. It's the worst running hard only to sit for 40 minutes and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. My loose skirt dropped right off and I stumbled to my bike. I was having issues trying to get the neoprene gloves off too but I had plenty of time as I wobbled across the campground. I dumped my PFD and jacket, grabbed my bike, and hopped on. Probably the fastest transition considering so many elites changed clothes or put on additional clothes. But with cold hands it was difficult to slip my feet into my shoes which were pre-clipped into the pedals. As I approached the railroad tracks I put my gloves and and now started to focus on getting to Glen Ledge. It felt entirely different than last year when clouds and winter weather rolled in. It was sunny but the speed on the flats chilled me to the core. For once I looked to the challenge of the hills to warm up. As I started to climb Kris was no where to be seen. I'm not sure if I was expecting to see him though. It felt like he was so far ahead of me and that took its toll mentally. I slogged over the hill, but still five seconds faster than last year. I turned on to Route 16 and honestly thought that I had lost the race. It's amazing what being gapped does to a competitor. At that point I just kept at it but clearly some wind was knocked out of my sails. I started the Jackson loop and it looked like a recreational biker was ahead in the distance, it was the weekend after all. As I passed the Wentworth I could see that it was in fact Kris! I was reeling him in quickly and passed him just after we turned back onto 16. I thought he'd hang with me for a bit but as I looked back he was drifting out of the rearview. I was now in control and strictly focused on balancing a good effort while keeping in mind that we still had a lot of race ahead of us. I was getting cold during the fast sections, escalated by the headwind. My toes were cold and my water bottle nipple had frozen. The last hill is at about 14.4 miles, roughly one mile up to just past dead-man's curve. The bike is actually just 16.2 miles so i focused on grinding out the rest of the way to the Direttissima parking lot.
It was easy to spot Hilary's bag and skis in the parking lot and mine were right next to hers. I switched my footwear into some trail shoes, put on my pack, grabbed my skis and poles, and was gone. I only made it to the end of the parking lot where I had to stop and clip my vest then re-adjust my skis which weren't even attached to my pack yet. Putting skis in my home-made carry system is normally easy but with boots attached it was awkward and they kept scissoring. I should have left a quick strap on the tips but for some reason I thought that might slow me down at the hike to ski transition. I buckled a chest strap and was moving. We were instructed to follow the blue squares on the trail that connects to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. My legs were tired but not cramping and I was able to shuffle well until the steeper sections arrive. I warmed up quickly and was drinking a lot from my bladder. Once the trail started going up I had to resort to 10 fast steps then power hike. I used this approach for the next half mile where the ice appeared and I put on microspikes that I had stashed in my vest pockets. The trail was in great condition with mostly snow and rocks making for easy footing. I kept an eye on my watch and planned on arriving at HoJos around 35 minutes into my hike. I passed Hilary's mom at the first bridge crossing and then some of our other support crew shortly after (Lyndsey, Teddy, and Tim). It was a huge boost to see familiar faces along the way. I continued to dwell on how slow I was going and thinking that Kris was going to catch me - I honestly felt like I was hiking at recreational pace. At HoJos there was another big cheer and I knew that if I could get to the bowl first it was going to be tough to catch me. But that last section on tired legs is so difficult and I just kept moving. After the two steep sections with rock steps, I could see the bowl and it was stunning - picturesque with fresh snow with a contrasting stark blue sky. I hiked until I felt like I was at the transition area which had no delineation.
I took my pack off to access my ski boots. It's an effort to put my skimo boots on because you have to take out the liners, put them on, then step in. After that you have to wrap a loop around the upper cuff and rachet a cross strap over the top of the foot. I didn't bother zipping up the flap that protects the tongue from snow but I'm slowly learning that I need stop cutting corners. I put my pack back on and attached my skis. I was told something about the course being modified but I said I'd worry about that once I got to the top. At that point I wanted to make the most of a fast transition.
The bootpack followed orange flags up through the alders. Since only a couple people had been up it wasn't packed in very well, especially on the firm stuff where crampons would have been nice. It tucked back into the soft snow although the later skiers just went straight up the hard pack. At the top of the course they flattened out an area that could handle two skiers, maybe three and there was a volunteer giving out instructions. I was cautious and took my time to make sure my bindings were secure. I've learned from previous skimo races that there are times to push it and times to back off. This was definitely time to back off. I tried to enjoy the ski section as much as my legs would allow. The first three gates were soft and fun then the course traversed to the skiers left across the bowl and was very icy. I slipped out onto my uphill hand but didn't outright fall. I made the last few turns and went through the blue finish line which meant it was time to boot up again. I noticed that I had torn open a few knuckles when I put my hand down but didn't have time to worry about it. I saw Kris in front of me and I wanted to catch him. I chipped away and focused on each step. At the top of the 350' bootpack I caught him and we put our skis on together. He went first and I put my gloves on to stop the bleeding and prevent further damage. For my victory lap I tried to have fun but I almost fell in several spots, including having a ski pop off that I was able to grab in the process (my race skis don't have brakes and the leash policy isn't exactly enforced). I slid around the last few gates and was elated - I had defended my title and more importantly validated all the hard work I put in since the last Inferno. I had a crew there spectating plus all friends and relay racers. There were a lot of people to catch up with. I also waited for Kris to come down to congratulate him for his efforts. Clearly he was still in cross-country mode and hadn't built up to his normal run / bike fitness that he's known for. Brian, to my surprise, had battled back to finish 3rd place and Josh Flanagan was right behind him.
I put on some appropriate ski clothes and waited for Hilary to arrive. She was a little ways out of first and I decided to join her on her first run. She did great given the ski equipment she had to work with (heavier touring gear) and finished just eight minutes out of the first female, Jess Marion, an Inferno veteran. It was the longest effort she had put in to date and she executed the race perfectly given her level of fitness. She'll have higher expectations next year I'm sure.
We hung out a little longer watching other competitors come through. It was great to connect with so many people in a that atmosphere. The FOTR crew did such a good job handling all the transitions and legs of the event. My ski looked to be cracked and my legs were too beat to enjoy any sort of post-race freeskiing (i know, it sounds crazy but once you rest and recover it's not out of the question to go do some more skiing). Hilary and I hiked down to HoJos, skied what we could of the Sherbie, then hiked back down to the parking lot. We had to get our kayaks before we went to the Cider House for lunch then caught up with the Jackson crew to recap their race. We then headed up to Wildcat for the banquet and enjoyed a nice dinner with friends and family.
There were a lot of lessons learned this race and I'll try to outline a few of them.
- Bike transition:
- The Little Things: