It was February 13, 2017. Maine was getting slammed with another big storm, and we had 3 feet of snow on the way. Dale’s classes were canceled, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get some training in for our adventure race. Bitter cold… snowstorms… rain… ice… darkness… it doesn’t matter. We train in the same conditions that we might have to face on race day. This particular afternoon, we invited our friend Victor Irwin to join in on the fun. Victor is one of the toughest people I know. He just came off a huge win at New England Fights, earning himself the Amateur Light Heavyweight belt in an impressive fashion. Victor trains with us regularly, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quit or complain. We call him the Polar Bear because he loves the cold, but Dale recently changed his nickname to “Care Bear” after an incident where Victor didn’t dress appropriately for a -17 degree jaunt in the woods in the middle of the night.
Dale and I spent 40 minutes shoveling out the end of our driveway and then used our Subaru as a snow plow to make our way out of our side street onto the main road. We picked up Victor, who showed up in cotton sweatpants and a smile on his face. We gave him the typical “are you sure you want to wear cotton pants and thin gloves after your last experience” look, and he smiled and said he was ready to go. We made our way over to the Wal-Mart parking lot since that was the closest place to the Bangor City Forest that we could park. Dale and I started getting our cross-country ski gear on, and Victor got into his snowshoes after we convinced him that post-holing was a bad idea (actually, I think Dale was encouraging the idea so he could see him suffer).
We took off, and boy was it slow going. At this point I think we had about 2 feet of snow, and it was still coming down with fury. We all took turns breaking trail, and let’s just say we got some work in. The wind was howling with fury, and we just kept putting one foot in front of the other. About three hours into our jaunt, Victor looked quite uncomfortable. We were in the middle of a field facing a terrible headwind, and due to the lack-of-protection from his cotton sweatpants, Victor’s… ummm… nether regions got really REALLY cold. He didn’t complain once and just kept moving. But boy did he look miserable!
The last hour was probably the worst in terms of breaking trail. To make things more interesting, Dale told Victor to take his snowshoes off and post-hole the last little stretch. He did it, and did it like an animal, and we made it back to the car all in one piece. In four and half hours we traveled a whopping 4.7 miles. Those weren’t easy miles!
Prepping for the Frigid Infliction:
When Dale and I decided to sign up for the Frigid Infliction, I went over to Joann Fabrics and bought some red and white pirate fabric (from the clearance rack of course!) so I could make my own flags to practice with. Dale would go out into the woods, hide the flags, and give me the GPS coordinates so I could put them on a map. I used a website called caltopo.com to put the checkpoints on a map that would look similar to the map we’d use during the real race. I watched lots of videos on navigating with a compass to make sure I was comfortable setting the declination, setting a bearing, and dead-reckoning from point to point. Multiple times a week I’d go searching for these flags, and I became very comfortable with my navigation skills. I knew I was much more prepared than I was for my first adventure race (the Bitter Pill, which is also hosted by GMARA and is awesome). I also spent a lot of time working on my cross-country skiing since it’s not my strong point.
The weekend before our race we went on a fun adventure with our friend Jed and his dog Lincoln. Bangor doesn’t have much for elevation training, so we went over to Grafton Notch to do an overnight snowshoe/camping trip up Baldpate Mountain. The forecast was calling for 40 degrees and rain. Ugh. We left on Friday and got to the trailhead at around 3pm. We knew we’d be climbing in the dark, but that didn’t bother us because we’ve done it so many times before. We climbed a slow, steady pace. It was very difficult to navigate because there weren’t any fresh tracks to follow, and the trail markers were difficult to see in the dark and fog. The snow was so soft that we would sink down with every step, sometimes up to our waist. Lincoln was a ball of energy and probably traveled 4 times the distance as us. We crossed over many moose tracks (and poo, which Lincoln liked to roll in), and it was so crazy how deep their legs would go down into the snow. We got to the lean-to late at night, and we made some hot food and had a little fire before passing out.
Dale had a miserable night because he forgot his sleeping pad and had a sub-optimal sleeping bag. We had breakfast and climbed to the top of Baldpate Mountain. It was WINDY and cold! I had to make sure I didn’t get blown over, and I had to be even more careful on the slick ice. Even Lincoln was feeling that wind chill. Our food rations were getting low, so my energy was low for the last few hours, but we made it back to the car just in time for Dale to go home and work an overnight shift. I think we did ten miles (hard earned miles) over the course of two days.
Aside from our outdoor adventures, Dale and I trained almost daily, practicing mixed martial arts, cross-fit style exercises, yoga, and anything else that seemed fit.
Off to Vermont:
The Thursday before the race, Shawn Freebern (one of the race directors) sent us an email with some updates. Due to record high temps this February, the cross-country skiing is expected to be quite difficult with trails icy up high and rocky down low. He said if we didn’t want to do any “downhill ice skating”, we could choose to replace the cross-country skiing leg with “post-holing”. In addition, despite the ridiculously warm temperatures the past few weeks, this is actually going to be the most frigid Frigid Infliction in history. The forecast I read said it was going to be a high of 0 degrees with a wind chill as low as -29 degrees. Yikes!
Shawn said it might be worth considering microspikes for the “post-holing” section since it’s so icy. Dale and I have never used microspikes… only crampons… so on Friday before we left, we stopped by Epic Sports to see what our options were. I ended up getting a pair of nanospikes since they’re designed more for running and aren’t as jarring on the heels as microspikes which have a little more “bite” to them. These nanospikes were a great purchase, and I know I’ll be using them a lot in the future. They were also an OCD girl’s dream because they matched exactly with the color of my boots!
We had a pre-race meeting on Friday, and Dale and I made sure to leave Bangor early so we could get a good night’s sleep. When we did the Bitterpill in 2014 we arrived in Vermont on the later side, and we lost out on some good sleep which probably affected our performance. We arrived at the Bolton Valley Nordic Center at around 6pm, went through our gear checklist, got our picture taken, and picked up our “goody bag”. I had it set in my mind that I wasn’t skiing on ice since I suck at skiing on anything slick, and I didn’t want to carry my boots in my backpack. Dale felt the complete opposite once he saw it start to snow as we left. We stayed at a wonderful AirBnB in Burlington that night, stuffed our faces with as much food as possible, and went to bed early.
We woke up at 4:45am. It was -1.2°F with a wind chill of -12°F. Dale and I had a big breakfast and drove over to Bolton Valley for our pre-race meeting at 7:15am. There was a lot of energy and anticipation in the Nordic Center. We left our skis in the truck, but at the last minute Dale finally convinced me to ski. Chris Yager (one of the race directors) ushered us all together to give us the details about the race. One thing I love about these races is that you don’t know what you’re getting into until they tell you right before the race starts. For this year’s race, there were 22 checkpoints and 4 bonus checkpoints. We got to choose whether we started with snowshoes or skis, and it didn’t matter what method we used to get the checkpoints as long as we got at least 5 checkpoints with snowshoes and 5 checkpoints skiing (or post-holing). Chris said “go”, and we all opened up our maps for the first time to figure out what our strategy was going to be.
We had at least 30 minutes to review our maps before the race officially started. I took my time doing this because I knew this was when my brain would be its freshest, and I wanted to get everything right the first time. When Dale and I did the Bitterpill, I crashed bad in the last stage. I wasn’t eating enough and my brain was fried, and I didn’t want that to happen again. Today we had a topo map of all the checkpoints (with not much for trails), and then a map of the trails of the Nordic Center. I figured out all the elevations of the checkpoints and wrote them down on the map so I never had to calculate them again, and I also transposed the checkpoints from the topo map onto the trail map. Dale encouraged me to take my time to make sure I got everything right the first time, since this would likely save us time in the long run. As I was doing the maps, Dale packed our bags and even put my cross-country ski boots on for me. We were trying to figure out where the best places for skiing would be. We decided the left side of the map plus the checkpoints on the ski trails would be our best bet for skiing, especially since there were two on trails way out that we could get to faster by skiing.
Well, this plan failed almost immediately. Our first checkpoint was #20. It looked like it was just off some of the ski trails, so we went on the appropriate trail and started making our way over. During this process, I completely forgot to grab checkpoint (CP) #1, which looked like it was on the way, right on the trail. I hadn’t marked it clearly enough on the trail map and didn’t realize I missed it until halfway through the race. I don’t remember what happened with CP #20, but I think I made a turn too soon, and we just decided to go for the next one since we could grab #20 at the end since it was close to the Nordic Center.
Next up was CP#5. This one didn’t look too bad since it was right on the river. We found a slope that was fairly safe to go down, and we started walking along the river until we hit a spot that matched with the contours and the shape of the river. The slope was very steep and icy, and we had to be very careful because things could have gotten bad quick if we fell off into the river, which was half ice and half running water. We had our skis with us, so we carried our skis in one hand and poles in the other. When we got sick of that, we tied our skis to each other’s packs and proceeded to snag our skis/packs on low-hanging branches every few steps as we bushwhacked. Ugh.
We couldn’t find checkpoint #5. We did some backtracking with no luck, and decided to move on to CP#6 which was also on the river. We kept doubting ourselves and backtracked quite a bit, but once we got down far enough we found CP#6! One thing I found interesting was that there was a team on the other side of the river, and I wonder if it was easier to spot the flags from over there (although I know I wouldn’t want to cross that river!).
After CP#6, my plan was to go up the hill until we hit a ski trail, and then take a slightly roundabout way to CP#17, 11, and 12. This didn’t bother me because I knew we could make up time on the ski trails vs trying to bushwhack a more direct route. Well… this didn’t go as planned either. The trail I intended to run into wasn't there, and I ended up in someone’s driveway. I decided to keep going southwest on what looked like a terrible excuse for a trail, and I had to take my skis off to get past the fallen trees and other obstacles. When Dale and I put our skis back on, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and went a little ahead to make sure the trail was going where I wanted it to. I waited for Dale for probably ten minutes and couldn’t understand why he was dilly-dallying so much. It turns out one of his ski bindings got ice in it, and he couldn’t clip his boot in. There were seriously no ski trails at all. I think we were carrying our skis more than we used them because the terrain was too steep or there were too many road blocks (fallen trees, rocks, etc.) We eventually found our way to The Ponds, which was right by one of the XC ski trails we needed. Yay!
Well… I learned the hard way that the backcountry ski trails we used weren’t really ski trails at all, especially when there’s barely any snow on the ground. We honestly couldn’t tell where these “trails” went or where we were supposed to go! Eventually we crossed over the river, and the trails turned into actual trails. We skied uphill, which really wasn’t much faster than walking, and we kept going up and up and up… until we found CP#17! This one was much easier to find since it was right on the trail. Next up was #11 and 12, which took a little bit of time to get to, but they were also easy to find and right on the trail. Our confidence was building now, and things were looking good since many of the upcoming flags were right on ski trails. We got #14 easy, and then there were a few others that we could snag easily on our way back to the Nordic Center before we changed into our snowshoes. There was a cluster of 4 or 5 more that we had planned on getting during this ski phase, but we wasted so much time in the beginning that I was afraid we weren’t going to get the 5 required flags for the snowshoeing leg. For the sake of at least finishing with the required 5 flags in each division, we hesitantly had to ski past a few easy markers and come back to them in our snowshoes.
We went back to the Nordic Center to switch into our snowshoes. The volunteers told us we were the only group to start on skis, and I was very surprised by that. We went inside to change our boots, and then we took off to get those easy flags that we passed by earlier. We had three hours left, and in a little over an hour we easily got CP#2, 3, 7, 8, and 19! We decided to keep going up for CP#13. Then we continued on to CP#22 which was off the trail and up the mountain, but we were already halfway up the mountain already. As we were getting ready to leave the trail to bushwhack to the checkpoint, we noticed some tracks in the snow that were going in the exact direction that we wanted to go. We followed this trail, taking note of the contours and elevation around us, and it led us right to the checkpoint. I was surprised at how direct the trail led to the checkpoint. I imagine if we did it on our own there would be track marks going all over! This checkpoint was by far my favorite because we were able to peek through an opening in the trees and enjoy a beautiful view.
My plan from here, with two hours to go, was to start heading back down the mountain, grab #16 which was right on the trail, and then go back to where we started earlier to get CP#1, #20, and #5 by the river. We could also search for #4 which was on our way to these. I figured this plan would be good because we’d be nice and close to the Nordic Center for when we needed to rush home for the 3:00 finish time (if we’re late, we lose points).
Dale had another idea. Why not snag BPC, a bonus checkpoint, since it was just higher up on the mountain we were already on? If we got this we’d get 3 extra points for one flag. This sounded like a great plan… minus the fact that we spent the remainder of our time looking for this stupid flag. We were so close, but we just didn’t have enough time, and there were tracks confusing us all over. The bushwhacking was terrible. You know when you get to higher elevations and the trees start turning into dense small conifer trees with a bare base and lots of dead prickly branches poking out from everywhere? Well that’s what we were walking through, and Dale referred to it as “prison bar forest”. We both got scratched up all over, and I think Dale got 3 rips in his jacket from those killer branches. Every once in a while, prison bar forest cleared up briefly so that we could attempt to walk up a steep, icy, treacherous slope. At one spot, Dale had a very close call. We were going down a steep icy section, and Dale grabbed a root to lower himself down with. Despite testing it with his weight the root snapped off when he moved, and he went flying backwards in the air and hit a tree behind him. Although the tree stopped him from going further down, his ankle landed a little funky. He was fine, but he said if he landed slightly differently he probably would have broken his ankle.
Although this was our snowshoe leg, we just attached our snowshoes to our packs and wore our nano spikes to make it easier to run on the trails down low (which would have been ideal for cross-country skiing, go figure). Now that we were on the slippery mountain slopes, we could have used something with more grip like micro spikes or snowshoes, but we didn’t want to waste the time putting them on (although this probably would have saved us time in the long run). It started to get close to 3:00, so we regretfully had to make our way down the mountain. It went slower than planned because the brush was so dense, and once we hit an open trail, we had 15-20 minutes to make it back to the Nordic Center. My legs were dead, and I tried with all my might to keep up with Dale so we didn’t show up late. We were cutting it so close that we had to bushwhack across the river to bypass a more roundabout route on the ski trails. We made it back at 2:58, with two minutes to spare! This same this happened to us in the Bitterpill, and I told myself I’d never let that happen again. But here we are…
Dale and I had a great time. We didn’t perform as well as expected, but we still felt like we did a good job considering this was only my second adventure race. There are a lot of things I would have changed in hindsight, especially that first leg where we wasted a lot of time on the river and trying to find ski trails. Our skis were a hindrance to us in that leg, and when we finally got on good skiing trails, we were in the second leg wearing our nanospikes. But how were we supposed to know the “trails” weren’t really trails at all? That’s another great thing about adventure racing. Something might look like a great plan on a trail map, but then you learn that those trails weren’t what you had pictured in your head. It would have definitely been beneficial if we skied the trails here before because we’d have a slightly better idea of what we were getting ourselves into.
One of our biggest goals during this adventure race was to have fun and not kill each other. During the Bitterpill I got really hungry, which turned into me being “hangry” (Dale ate my food, and we still bicker about it to this day!). My brain stopped working, I got cranky, and I even forgot how to use the compass. We had no idea where we were, and my thought process was “just keep going up until we get to the top of something, and then figure out where we are”. We got to the top of a mountain alright, but unfortunately the mountain I thought we were on was actually the next one over on the map. Both mountains had a river going down their backside, one of which had a checkpoint along it. Since we were on the wrong mountain, we also followed the wrong river down. Then we ran out of time and had to run back up the mountain and down the other side to get to the finish with minutes to spare (sound familiar?).
This year we planned our roles and strategies ahead of time. I was the navigator and had the altimeter (which was awesome! I’ll never do an adventure race without one again), and Dale was responsible for counting steps/distance and making sure I ate enough. At least every 30 minutes Dale would say, “How about you stop and grab a snack”, or “You should drink some water”. This was clutch. Honestly, him reminding me to eat kept me energized and happy, and my navigating brain felt great.
We definitely worked hard. Both of us had stiff backs and tired everything by the end of the race. Dale had a wipeout on his skis in the beginning of the race. I was ahead of him and didn’t see it, but he said he was skiing down an icy slope, ran across a tree, and fell right on his hip and had what he referred to as his mid-life crisis. He said he looked pitiful, just sitting there on the ground moaning like an old man saying, “I think I’m too old for this!” (he’s 37). Dale also bruised his elbow from some slips on the ice, and his face was a little numb from the cold, but it didn’t start bothering him until it started thawing out inside. I had one interesting “ouch” moment where my map gave me a bruise on my face (yes, my map). We were running/bushwhacking down the mountain at the end of the race, and there was a little stream we had to jump over. I don’t get along with streams very well, and my short legs don’t always jump as far as I want them to. This time I jumped over the river, cleared it (yay!), and then promptly slipped and fell on my face. I had my map clipped onto my chest strap with two plastic carabiners that my dad gave me as a freebie from his work. When I fell, the map dug into the snow in an upright position, and my chin smacked right into the carabiner. It actually hurt pretty bad. Thanks dad!
Dale and I traveled roughly 18,600 steps and 13 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of 8 hours. Out of 27 teams we got 25th place. We are not used to being in the bottom half, and that just shows how challenging this is and how awesome the competitors are. I don’t know many people who would intentionally get lost in the woods for 8 hours on one of the coldest days of the year. It takes a special breed to enjoy that, and that means every single person you’re competing against is a stud! I love that the bar is set so high because that is going to push us to get even better.
We took advantage of the showers at the Bolton Valley Nordic Center and changed into warm, dry, clean clothes (ahhhhh). Then we headed over to The Ponds (wait, I feel like I’ve been there before…) for an amazing buffet-style dinner. We sat at a table with some awesome people, and I wish I remembered all their names. Every single one of them was inspirational, and I hope to continue to live my life like they have.
Anyone who has done an adventure race like this will know that you form a very special bond with your teammate(s). Every team member has an important role, and if you can get hungry, lost, and tired in the woods with each other and still be friends after, you have a solid friendship. I feel very lucky to have Dale as my best friend and adventure race partner, and I know our relationship will only keep getting better (unless he doesn’t feed me and I kill him).
One thing that I think of a lot is how awesome the race directors and volunteers from GMARA are. It takes a lot of work to set up those flags and organize an event like this. I didn’t even think of this, but Shawn mentioned that they started setting up flags 3-4 weeks ago before the snow melted. Those poor guys were crawling through snow up to their waists to make sure we had a good and challenging experience. I can’t thank GMARA enough for all the time they put into their races. They do an amazing job and run a very organized race.
After dinner and awards Dale and I drove “home” to our AirBnB, ate more food, cuddled under the warm bed, and watched 40 minutes of Netflix before passing out. What a great day, and what a perfect way to end it.
Dale and I started a tradition at our last adventure race: eat lots of food the next day. After the BitterPill a few years ago, Dale searched for the “best diner in Vermont”, and we drove 40 miles out of the way to go to an awesome all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the Quechee Diner that was utterly amazing. This year, we decided to stay in Burlington and try out a local vegan restaurant. We went to a place called Pingala Café and Eatery, and it was AMAZING. Without even knowing, Dale and I ordered the exact same thing: French toast (with banana millet bread, berry coulis, cinnamon, fruit, ginger butter, and maple syrup) and Plant Power (a smoothie with peanut butter, spinach, banana, protein powder, and almond milk). I intended on getting a photo of our meal for this blog, but we ate it quicker than I could remember to get the camera out. We were still hungry after that and got a Burly Burrito which was also delicious. The café is in an old mill building, and we had a cool view of the river. I would definitely come here again!
After eating, we drove to the place we have been looking forward to all weekend: the massage lady! Three years ago I did a 10K with my mom in Burlington, and I won a gift certificate for a free massage. I planned to use it at my next adventure race, but unfortunately I got very sick for two years and had to put life on hold. I contacted the massage lady to let her know we were coming back into town, and she honored the gift certificate. Both Dale and I got a massage, and it was a perfect ending to a great weekend.
It was finally time to drive back to Maine. We drove to Portland first to pick up our crazy canine friend Lincoln, since we are dog sitting him for the next two weeks! Lincoln is a bundle of energy, and Dale likes to put a harness on him and have him pull him while he’s skiing.
Who’s ready to go back into the woods? We are!