Last April, on a whim, Kelly and I signed up for the Tuckerman Inferno. For those unacquainted, the Inferno is a pentathlon with solo categories, two-man team and five-man team categories. We entered as duo. I would lead off with an 8+ mile run (with over 400 feet of hill climbing). Kelly would take the second leg, navigating down the only recently thawed Saco River for 6+ miles, after which she would transition to the bike leg: 18 miles, nearly entirely uphill for a whopping 2000′ feet of climbing. At Pinkham Notch Kelly would tag me and I’d set off on the last two stages of the race, the trail run, followed by the ski race. The trail run consists of about 2000′ of hiking via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, before a transition to ski gear for the final 800′ or so of climbing before skiing back down to Pinkham. Check out the full course map, below.
But before all of that, we had to get all the gear and the people in the right spots. The logistics were less than straightforward. After much debate, we settled on a plan. We talked Shane into loaning us his Jeep for the day. Kelly would load her bike into his car, and drop it at the kayak-bike transition before proceeding to the run-kayak transition where should stash the key and wait for me to arrive on foot to start her first leg of the race. Meanwhile, I would take the Xterra, with our 14′ kayak, to the kayak launch, and drag the kayak over the snow for about half a mile to river. Following that, I’d drive to the race start, and park for the run. Upon completing the run and tagging Kelly, I’d go find Shane’s car, and drive it back to the race start, retrieve my own car, and drive to Pinkham to wait for Kelly to bike in. Kelly’s bike would be conveniently waiting for her at the transition, she’d arrive in Pinkham via bike and at the end of the race we’d drive the Xterra back to town, recover the kayak and Shane’s car and roll back to Denaro’s house for some serious napping. Easy, right?
After squaring away all of the aforementioned logistics, I settled in at the start area and started getting my my head in gear for the run. This consisted mostly of trying not to think about any of what was about to go on. The last time I ran 8 miles was probably in high school, and the most amount of running I’d done any time recently was a measly 4 mile jaunt down the pancake flat Minuteman Bike Trail out our front door. For that training attempt I ran in my Merrell Chameleon trail sneakers, and determined that they were way too stiff and heavy to do any serious running in. For the race, I opted for my Merrell Trail Glove ultra-light trail running shoes. To my surprise, I actually settled into a great pace and was able to hold my position all the way uphill for the first 4 miles of the race. The downhill, however was my downfall. My legs, which were conditioned for distance running, did not much care for the whole business of charging downhill for 4 straight miles in minimalist trail sneakers with virtually not cushion or support. By the time I stumbled into the icy transition area by the Saco River, my knees were in full revolt, and I had lost maybe a half-dozen places during the descent, typically something which I would have considered a strong area.
Either way, Kelly got off to a good start on the Kayak leg, and I staggered back to the parking area in search of Shane’s car. Unbeknownst to me, while I was fumbling with Shane’s low-on-battery-key fob and driving North on Route 16, Kelly was getting into a royal adventure on the frothing white water of the Saco. Apparently, just minutes after putting into the water, a fellow racer, forced her to take a sub-optimal line through a stretch of rapids, causing her to go under a low hanging falling tree. Unable to adequately limbo the tree, she was pulled out of her boat, breaking her paddle in the process. I honestly have no idea how she managed to retrieve the kayak, and the paddle, and climb out of the river with 3′ high snow banks on either side after taking a full body dunk in 32.5 degree water, but somehow she accomplished all this, before running back to the run-kayak transition in search of a new paddle. The course officials were unable to help, but a by stander informed her that he might have an extra paddle in his truck back in the parking area across the street. What luck! All she had to do was run across the street, find this guy’s truck, get the paddle, ran back to the river across knee deep snow and ice, and then back down the bank where the kayak was stashed, to continue the race. Honestly I might have given up. After all of this she managed not to be the last one out of the water, and in fact went on to make up significant lost time during the bike segment.
The bike segment starts with a mile or so of warmup, followed by an unrelenting ascent of the biggest hill I’d ever run up (the bike and run had some overlap), and a hairy 40 mph descent of said hill. After that brief respite from climbing, the bike route climbs steadily for miles all the way to Pinkham Notch. There was a lot of low gear action, from what I understand.
After the run leg, I drove up to the bike-hike transition, dropped my gear and then went in search of parking. I strolled back to the transition with just some food and water and made myself comfortable in the late morning sun. The bike-hike transition area was a fairly hilarious scene, as athletes rolled through, either done for the day, or heading onto the next leg of their race. I bore witness to all manner of exhaustion-produced profanity and mishap as racers swapped gear and started the second to last leg. By the time Kelly arrived, I was starting to worry that something had gone awry, but was expecting it to be more along the lines of how unspeakably arduous 18 miles of hill climbing on a bicycle is (that’s what pretty much all the rest of the bikers had to say upon arriving in the transition area). Instead she told me that the climb was brutal, but that she had been passing people the entire way up, and the real trouble came during the kayak leg. Finding myself inspired by her heroics on the Saco, I grabbed my gear and ran out of the transition area at at totally unsustainable pace.
After a few minutes, I settled into a speed-hike which I maintained for most of the rest of the hike. For the hike I wore my Merrell Chameleon’s with microspikes, and carried my skis, boots and helmet with my lightweight TNF resort bag, along with a hydration pack. I took 2-3 quick breathers but otherwise held a steady pace, making it from the Deritissma Parking lot to the foot of Hillman’s Highway in about an hour and a quarter. From there I switched to my AT boots for the final push to the top of the GS course. My transition was outright terrible. After both of the legs cramped up, I spent like 10 minutes getting into my boots, which are ordinarily slippers compared to normal alpine boots. I slogged up the well established booter to the top of the course and geared up for the final effort of the day. I spent maybe another 5 minutes messing with gear and catching my breath at the top of the course.
The ski run is unfortunately the only leg of the race where we were able to capture footage of any sort. We were supposed to have mounted a GoPro to Kelly’s kayak helmet, though in hindsight it may be better that I forgot to – God only knows what would have happened when she capsized under a tree… Any way, here are some unique stills from the downhill portion of the Inferno.
I have to admit that by the time I was skiing, my legs were totally shot. I took more than a few quick breathers on the way down the mountain – not quite what I was hoping, but my legs were threatening to strike, and I had to acquiesce. Maybe half an hour later, I straggled through the finish area, where Kelly was waiting. She helped me drag my gear back to the parking area and rounded up Xterrible, before we headed over to Wildcat for the award ceremony and some apres-race beers.
We finished toward the back of the pack, as seen in the results here, but I would argue not too badly given the kayaking mishap, and overall lack of preparation. Taking a closer look at the results, we can see that our transitions really killed us. Kelly’s kayak to bike transition was a full 10 minutes. That would have bumped us up one spot alone. I’m certain I wasted valuable time during my own transitions as well. It’s difficult to imagine a savings there pulling us up to the next rung, but if we subtract one kayak fiasco, maybe… O well there’s always next year!