Friday, April 17, 2015

Taming the Tuckerman: 10 Years Chasing Winter!

"What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals"
Henry David Thoreau

The grandeur surrounding Tuckerman Ravine is certainly no secret and is considered a right of passage for every advanced skier and rider in the Northeast.  It's the quintessential stepping stone into the world of high alpine (above treeline) skiing.

Friends of Tuckerman Ravine is a non-profit organization raising funds to promote the preservation and protection of fragile alpine environments on Mount Washington, NH. They were instrumental in building the foot bridge that connects the lower parking areas keeping people off the roads. Volunteer crews perform trail maintenance all while making improvements and repairs to avalanche boards.  They introduced a potable water supply at Hermit Lake shelter, communications system for the forest service, resupply first aid caches in the ravine, replaced the floors at Hermit Lake Shelter (HoJo's) and currently working on a project to replace the decking. They are truly dedicated to keeping recreational opportunities in the outdoors accessible and safe for the "enjoyment and benefit of all."

One of their biggest events is the most unique multisport racing experiences in New England.  The Tuckerman Inferno is the ultimate alternative to the customary approach to skiing the bowl. Nestled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire both solo elite and sport team relay competitors begin a multisport journey which I refer to as "Chasing Winter" through the Mt Washington Valley.  Leading off with an 8.3 mile run over Glen Ledge, 6 mile downriver paddle on the Saco River, 17 mile road bike to Pinkham Notch with 1700 feet elevation gain, 3 mile hike on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with 2000 feet elevation gain and a climb/ski on Left Gully in Tuckerman's Ravine. There are few multisport events that can compete on this scale in the Northeast.

Waters Teammates in Tuckerman Ravine for the 2006 Inferno, Mt Washington, New Hampshire 
View of northern flanks of Left Gully and the Chute

There are countless lines and three separate occasions have experienced near perfect conditions above the expansive head-wall lined up over The Lip, Chute Variation and Right Gully. Variable terrain and conditions on 45 degree slopes in all directions is not for the faint of heart. Catch the bowl in sunshine on bluebird day with low winds, when the firm, frozen snow-pack turns and beneath you lay smooth tracks in scratchy, loose corn which will be recognized from that moment forward as one of the finest runs in your life.  

Boot packing the GS course on Hillmans 2014 Inferno
Justin Deary and I have been members of the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine for 12 years!  What started as a small group of three turned into an annual corporate event for a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts at Waters Corporation in MilfordMA. Our enthusiastic band of colleagues have been committed to putting teams together in the event for 10 years. It is difficult to describe the sense of corporate pride we all share. Countless personal victories, measurable at any level of the competition the Tuckerman Inferno has been one of the most significant team building affairs I have ever been involved.

Group at Hermit Lake (HoJo's deck) 2012 Inferno
The last time I soloed in the event was Spring 2005 with some better training resulted in 11th in a field of 19 in 5 hrs 45 minute and that did include an ascent and ski down Left Gully.  A true completion of the entire Tuckerman Inferno which in recent years has been extremely difficult to put the race back in the ravine, conditions dependent. I do recall that the race was hard but it will never be as hard as 2003 as a rookie to multisport it took me 7 hours to complete the course in 17th last place. I could barely hike back out to Pinkham.

Coming back to the Tuckerman Inferno as a soloist for the first time in 10 long years was not going to be an easy task. Falling back on experience racing both relay and a long successful stretch in the Dynamic Duo division with multisport teammate Dave Mingori would be sufficient.  In 2014, I teamed up with 10 year soloist Justin Deary, that last year the Dynamic Duo division was offered. We won the division and were fifth overall! The secret was always finding teammates to compliment your skill sets.

Wild WATERS Teammate Dave Mingori 2006 Inferno

Wild WATERS Teammate Justin Deary 2014 Inferno

Stress fractures and problematic knee tendinitis kept me from running for more almost 8 years. A cortisone shot over Thanksgiving 2014 would send me back to the treadmill for 4 months of base building in preparation. Keeping workouts controlled on the treadmill to preserve the knee as long as I can with minimal impact.  The Tuckerman Inferno would be my first time running on road over 8 miles distance. I just had to get through the run and the rest of the race would fall into place.

My little "Tart" at the starting line to the 2015 Tuckerman Inferno!
(Photo Credit John Heden)

Run. It was the beginning of a HARD race day. I still faintly remembered how difficult leading off with the 8.3 mile road run would either make or break me. Waters Corporation entered three teams into the Inferno this year. My sister Elaine and her husband brought along an additional two teams. I certainly would not be alone, racing alongside countless family, friends and colleagues. Trying to pace myself with Chef Mike form Waters.  He was looking to break one hour which would have been my top end on the best day. I had him in my sights all the way over Glen Ledge but he turned on some serious afterburners on the down stretch and I had to lay off the speedy pace. I might have gone out too hard with thoughts of breaking 60 minutes. Turns out I cam across the Thorne Pond gate in 61 minutes and was not far off my target.  Transitioned into paddling gear early.  Finished the opening leg 16th out of the Tuckerman Solo Elites and 31 of 80 teams.

Chef Mike leading my way through the 8.3 grueling miles lay ahead!

Off to the races with a bright and early start from Storyland!

Top Secret! Half the cost of Power Bar Performance Energy Blends.

Finishing up the run with some Beech Nut Fruities.  Keep the fires burning bright!

Paddle. The Saco river section on the Tuckerman Inferno is merely a speed bump to the better conditioned triathletes. It threads together two of the primary cardiovascular legs of the event just long enough that your legs go cold. This is probably the most grueling variable.  Letting the legs go dormant for 50 minutes along its almost 6 mile length. Its my bread and butter of the competition.

Kayaks of all kinds hug the shoreline of the Saco River.
This section of the Saco is Class I whitewater with some long stretches of slack and meandering quick water between drops. There are two lengthy technical rocks gardens requiring multiple moves, negotiating your way through a boulder strewn path.  Another half dozen or so shorter drops, several of which catch the unsuspecting boater by surprise. One right at the beginning through a narrow, pushy channel and don't let your guard down for the double drop about 1/3 mile above the takeout.

Typical carnage on the Saco River during the Inferno!(Photo Credit John Heden)
For the second time in 10 years river levels at an absolute minimum with the snow pack still locked up in the higher elevations. It was a bone yard out there. Paddling super fast in shallow technical water and trying to stay deep. I must of scraped a dozen rocks and almost pinned broadside once was just brutal on my boat.  White Mountain Swiftwater Rescue sends out a team of whitewater professionals to maintain safety in the more problematic areas of the course.  They do a great job noting the majority of the river hazards.  Several markers along the course can be seen with plenty of advance warning alerting the paddler where NOT to paddle.

Making a strong effort downriver I noticed in the distance two paddlers in Wildwater boats about two miles from the finish .  None other than Elaine and husband Jeff.  That excitement drove me harder and ever closer to them entered double drop battling Jeff broadside through the rapid. Much to his surprise, I challenged his line with confidence and his big effort, valiantly defended my attack.  Still searching for the deep water line to pass Jeff I made my biggest error of the competition that day and completely beached my kayak into the shallows.  Forcing me to get out of the cockpit and walk across the gravel bar.

Some crucial mistakes cost me and settled for 2nd place finish in the paddle of 80 ~29 seconds outside of 1'st overall on the Saco. Moving into 15th position overall coming out of the water. Not bad for someone who just ran 8.3 grueling miles.

Look at all the rocks. It was a scratchy, bony mess out there.  My poor boat was screaming at me.
(Photo Credit Wiseguy Creative)

Bike. It was the start of a HARD bike leg. Coming out of the water and into transition with Astrid, Noelle and even my sister Elaine came over to have both a little pow wow..... Transitions can also be a big party.  I have a tendency to get carried away.  Lots of hugs and kisses, photo shoot opportunities! Getting back to business....  Biking into a continuous 20mph head wind up some 1700 vertical rise over 17 miles is just brutal! It started out fine.  No cramps and turning the pedals over satisfactory.  I just could not find the power to deliver a solid pace. I could not overcome the relentless elevation gains combined with the badgering headwinds. The running leg certainly zapped my pedaling power. The ride turned into more a tempo cycle and there were no cramps. I had to sit back and crank out the miles and prepared myself for the upcoming hike.

Coasting after plunging some 40mph down Glen Ledge Rd.
(Photo Credit Wiseguy Creative)
Hike. It was a HARD race day. Hiking a pack of skis is just HEAVY...  Skinning, touring skis was the most excellent choice this day. With the river low, typically leans to snow pack conditions being great.  Thus the epic struggle between seasons. Getting passed by three soloists all on Randonee equipment.  Snow pack was top to bottom.  Somewhat soft at the bottom but every gain in elevation, beginning to firm up. Taking all the weight off your back and getting some glide has a huge advantage over packing in your gear the old fashioned way.  Took me 60 minutes to get off the bike and onto my skis at the top of the Sherburne ski trail.  Which by all accounts was still steady and par for the course that day.

Even the Good Wife Astrid mentioned to me, "there were a lot of people skinning up the trail, you "should" think about getting those."  I was astonished but I am practical. Getting a setup like that for one race? I know enough people with AT setups it would not be a problem to ski tour at least one weekend every year.  Right Astrid!

Ski.  This year once again did not feature a race leg in the ravine. Always conditions dependent, we have lucked out with some quality descents down Hillmans and skiing out the John Sherburne Ski Trail is quite fantastic.  In many ways, bombing down the Sherbie is much harder than skiing  Left Gully. Skiing at 30-mph downhill after negotiating a 30 mile race course is just plain old insane and I barely survived another Tuckerman Inferno. This was the second best personal result of the day for me placing 6th of the 31 soloists.

Ripping the tastiest most difficult screaming lines ever!
(Photo Credit Wiseguy Creative)
Looking into the next turn.....Legs screaming at me!
(Photo Credit Wiseguy Creative)

30mph down the Sherbie.  What was I thinking!
(Photo Credit Wiseguy Creative)
I finished 10th place of 30 Tuckerman with a total time of 4 hours 14 minutes and 25th overall of 80. Comparatively, this was my best performance of any previous two solo attempts. Finishing 3 hours behind first place in 2003 and a much improved 90 minutes behind the winner in 2005. Falling back on the years of experience certainly helped advance my results as I was only 33 minutes behind the winning podium times in 2015.

Race Organizers are "Miracle Workers" when setting the GS Course on Left Gully!
Photo from Friends of Tuckerman Ravine

GS Course on Hillmans Highway during 2014 Tuckerman Inferno
(Photo Credit John Heden)

The Tuckerman forces the soloist to transition between 5 disciplines over the ~35 mile course and thus increases chances for error. Despite being more trained and prepared the 2015 Tuckerman Inferno certainly felt more difficult than ever before.  I do not think its ever going to be an easy race and surely rattles your body in ways you cannot imagine.

Hanging on super tight to the best support person ever! 
Do not forget to remind your support person how much you love them!

Noelle sporting some cool gear she gets right in the middle of post race festivities!
(Photo Credit John Heden)

We challenge ourselves balancing both mind and body in tests of endurance and skill. Extremely pleased breaking 7:30 pace on my first official road run in 8 years! Despite some costly errors on the Saco I am thrilled having just laid it on the line performing exceptionally well in the two most technical disciplines, downriver paddling and skiing the tight and twisted, bumped up Sherbie.  Approaching the top the ski leg in the Inferno is a wild card of variables. Stoked surviving that absolute bomb down the Sherbie. 2.4 miles in 5 mins 54 seconds!

Smiles like this are contagious and win us over each year!

A shout-out to my dear friend and colleague at Waters Corporation. Justin Deary kept the fires burning bright for years, generating lots of corporate interest and keeping in fine shape to continue his insanely long run as a 10-time solo Tuckerman!  His hard work reflects how easy it was me to transition, keeping the event a reality here at Waters.

Keeping up in good competition with Justin's pearly whites!

I look forward to keeping strong ties with the Friends of Tuckerman in hopes to continue participation in the Tuckerman Inferno.  My goal is to keep our participation at a three team commitment.  We keep coming back for more torture, misery, agony and all the glory that comes with competing and what we have truly become when achieving our goals in our effervescent attempt at 'Taming the Tuckerman.'

Waters teams have compiled some incredible results over the years. Multiple winning Dynamic Duos, ladies team finishing in top three on multiple occasions, fastest individual times in both running and paddling, fastest women hikers and climb/ski legs and several 5 person mixed teams finish in the top ten overall. Here is a look back at some photo highlights through years of chasing winter and racing the Inferno. The camaraderie alone keeps bringing me back year after year.

Work Hard, Train Hard, Play Harder

Founding Father of the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine - Legendary Al Risch!
(Photo Credit John Heden)