A note to the men reading this: NEVER bet with women…they’re smarter than we are. They’ll sucker us, sandbag us…and we actually LIKE it!
The problem in this case stemmed from a bet made between me and my fianceé Susan regarding our results in the Sunday River Tough Mountain Challenge. After our training session for the Wildman Biathlon, we’d found that we run/walk up mountains at about the same pace. Susan’s a better runner than I am; a lot more experienced, a lot more stamina. I’m bigger and physically stronger, and faster in shorter runs. She did gymnastics way back when; I tend to fall over and trip over things. With the Tough Mountain Challenge being a mix of running, balancing, crawling, and just general self-abuse, it seemed like it played to our strengths, and took advantage of our weaknesses, in about equal parts. Which, in theory, means that we should come out with about the same finishing time, making it a perfect race to make a bet on.
And, as a newly affianced couple, it seemed like a perfect bet that the loser would buy the wedding rings. Since society unfairly assumes that the man will buy the woman an engagement ring (hey, I’m of Scottish descent; by custom, I’m supposed to try to find ways to cheap out!), I figured this was a good way to recover a small portion of my hard-earned money, as well as to justify a relatively expensive wedding ring if I found one that I really liked. Susan, of course, had her own way of looking at it; she was still jobhunting after getting her MSW, so from her perspective it would help her retain her dwindling savings. Clearly, we both had incentive beyond our normal native competitiveness to beat the other in this race!
Training for the event, however, was definitely a conundrum. How do you train for an event where a snowgun is blasting water in your face at hurricane force as you try to run up a slope? Or one where you have to run across a long, loose, bouncy net? Nobody has that kind of stuff around their house (okay, nobody who doesn’t work at a ski area, anyway). After long discussion, we decided that probably the best solution was simply to run in the woods, on and off trail, using the “obstacle course” nature of rocks, roots, slippery sidehills, and other natural disasters to hone our ability to adapt to whatever the psychos at Sunday River were going to throw at us on race day.
Now, here comes the “sucker” part. There are plenty of old warnings about “sleeping with the enemy”; and where I should have been working at saving all of my best secrets for running in the woods, I was teaching them to Susan as we went along. Because I’ve spent more of my life in the woods, I’ve had times I had to run with a pack on, without one on, you name it, and I’d developed some tricks; most particularly, a style for running downhill that may be the ugliest, most comical thing ever seen, but is pretty effective. Imagine a chimpanzee running down a hill of ball bearings, and you have the basic picture. Luckily, it’s never hit YouTube, yet. Anyway, being a coordinated sort, she picked up on it quickly, and started sticking closer and closer to me. Bad idea #1.
Then came the “sandbag” part. Susan, crafty soul that she is, enlisted some of my cycling friends to shame me into giving her a handicap. They kept pushing me to give her 10 minutes; I know she’s better than that, so finally agreed to 5 minutes. I figured…3 miles, a little over a minute and a half a mile…I should be able to be that much faster in a course that’s largely in the woods, right?
Our sporadic training completed, race weekend arrived. We got to Sunday River the afternoon before the race, and went out to pre-walk/run the course. At the start, it didn’t look so bad…it wasn’t THAT steep, and they only had a few of the Boyne Low-E fan guns out on the course. However, I’ve seen fan guns at work close up; even one produces a lot of water. This was going to be VERY interesting. As we wandered the rest of the course, it became clear that “not that steep” changed for the worse as we continued on. The “Suicide Sprint” was a sprint only in name; it was way too steep and way too long to sprint, much less run; it was reminiscent of some of the climbs at Wildcat. However, the next few sections looked like they might actually be fun…until the infamous Barker Pond net run. A few attempts at that landed me with a number of bruises and some wicked rugburn; clearly, solving that problem was going to be key to finishing the race well!
As is our usual routine the night before a race, we didn’t get to bed at 8 after a light meal of pasta with veggies and salad like we’re supposed to; let’s face it, we aren’t professionals, and this is about having fun. It happened that Sunday River was having a full-moon dinner up at the North Peak lodge with a full band, so we signed up. These events are held sporadically in the summer, and every Saturday night during the winter season, and they’re definitely different. A ride up the Chondola, a remarkably high quality dinner (ski areas aren’t always known for gourmet food, but one taste of the strawberry soup dispelled that notion immediately!), a wonderful blues band, and a good wine selection…yes, this is why we do these races. The more we race, the more food and wine we can enjoy!
Back to the hotel by 10, we still had time for a good night’s sleep. Because of Sunday River’s goal of allowing people to arrive comfortably in time for the race from a distance, and to include a barbecue/party at the South Ridge lodge as part of it, the race didn’t start until lunchtime. So, we had plenty of time in the morning to eat, wander around, look at the racecourse some more, get the butterflies in our stomach REALLY going…wonderful (of course, we COULD have been off having a nice, easy kayak trip). Oh, and Mother Nature had decided to bless us with a stunning, hot day; hmmm, maybe starting the race by getting a fan gun soaking wasn’t such a bad idea, after all!
We’d expected the start to be a free-for-all with everyone going out in a single group; this was the first year of this nutty event, so it wasn’t likely that there’d be that many participants. Wrong. With a limit of 200 participants, by the start of the race it was totally booked. Now, the path through the snowguns was about 8 feet wide; imagine 200 people, pummeled by water and wind, trying to negotiate a narrow maze like that. NOT a pretty sight. Wisely, the organizers decided on three flights; young guys, old guys, and women. That put me and Susan in different groups, but since they were timing each group separately, we’d be able to compare our actual times (unfortunately for me).
Start time arrived, and off went the first group. Watching them stumbling and sliding around in the first section didn’t do anything for my self-confidence; the butterflies in my stomach grew to the size of California condors. 5 minutes later, it was our turn; off we went. Now, as I said, I know more about what fan guns do than most people…and I still was totally unprepared for what happened. Literally, I was blind and disoriented. The guy in front of me went right off the course, tripping over the fence; he couldn’t see that the course turned left at that spot. Absolute mayhem; about half of us started laughing. In a painful way, this was silly fun, like kids running through a sprinkler…a BIG sprinkler.
As we continued up the hill, the race settled into a series of groans and curses; while it had seemed hard the day before, at race pace it was brutal. I’m sure the few really serious types at the front were flying, but for the rest of us it was an exercise in camaraderie; people were being polite, offering to let others by, commiserating about just how much the “Suicide Sprint” sucked; very much the same atmosphere that we’d found at the Wildman. A sense of shared doing, rather than just being focused on winning, made it perversely enjoyable.
And, my hopes for my woods running skills overcoming my lack of running fitness proved to be true. I actually had people laughing as I went by them in the downhill woods section; but hey, I was passing them! And, since I knew Susan was already on the course behind me, any time I could make up would be important, since she’d be better than me on the smoother sections. But, the net still awaited…
It’s hard to describe just how daunting that silly net really is. It’s long, sure…but more important, it’s just plain weird. If you’re on it by yourself, it’s loose, saggy, slack; sort of like trying to run through quicksand with big air bubbles coming up through it. But, if you happen to be on it with other people, it tightens up, making it easier to run on, until someone jumps at the wrong point and catapults you off the blasted thing. Based on my earlier attempts, I’d figured out that when it’s loose, my toes get caught, and I faceplant. So, as I approached and saw only one person on it, I decided to run it backwards. Yes, to treat it like a soggy ladder; it might be slow, but at least I wouldn’t end up sprawled on my face. And, in fact, it worked; there was one person on it ahead of me, and I rapidly gained ground and caught him near the end. I’d survived the worst!
Still, the mud crawl awaited. It’s a nasty, slimy, disgusting thing, with barbed wire over your head. And rocks. Lots of rocks. We pretty much all learned, as we started through it, to stay on our tiptoes and your fingertips; if you tried to crawl on your knees, it hurt. A lot. I’d prepared for it by wearing my goofy cycling time trial suit; I figured a one-piece would keep me from getting gobs of mud into places it wasn’t ever intended to be. And, it worked. However, what didn’t work was Sunday River’s method of securing the barbed wire; as someone ahead of me exited the pit, he stood up too early, hit the wire, and knocked it down onto the head of the guy in front of me. Scary moment; if someone hit that wire and pulled it, the poor guy was going to have some serious damage. But, the natural camaraderie I’d seen earlier in the race came through; another guy helped me get the wire off him, and other racers changed their lines through the mud to keep out of our way. A few seconds lost, no damage done, and we were headed toward the finish. One note: the organizers are planning a number of changes for next year’s event, and one is a dramatically different mud crawl; that same problem won’t come into play again (rumor also has it that the Barker Net may go away; I’m fully in favor of that!).
So, one final set of obstacles, and the finish line blessedly crossed. Time to head back up the hill and see how Susan was doing. A quick check of my watch for time, and I headed up. Slowly. Very slowly. It’s hard to imagine just how blasted tired a 20-odd minute race can make you…it seems like such a short time, but I was beat. Working my way back up, I got some interesting comments from spectators who had seen my backwards net run; clearly, I’d provided some amusement for them. I considered asking the organizers to pay me as the official comedian for the event…nah, no chance.
And, all too soon, there was Susan! I’d expected to find her coming into the net; instead, here she was, rising out of the mud crawl like…well, not quite like Venus rising from the waves. More like…nah, I’d like to stay engaged to her. Anyway, she was clearly WAY ahead of where I thought she’d be; she was flying! Adrenaline kicked in; as a competitor, I should have tripped her or something to slow her down, but instead I started running alongside her, shouting at her to catch the woman in front of her. I didn’t run beside her for long, though…I couldn’t keep up. My legs were shot, and she was moving. Moving so fast, in fact, that she caught the woman in front of her AND one more just at the finish line!
The race over, we rinsed the worst of the mud off and started comparing stories. Right across the board, they were almost identical. The start was nuts, the uphill run brutal. The “Trench of Terror” was a blast, as was running along the streambed and through the culvert. The “Slip/Slide & Die” was anticlimactic; I’d tried to slide and found it slow, she’d been smart and just ran it since it wasn’t that slippery. The Barker Net was horrible, the mud miserable, and seeing the finish line ahead was a blast of relief. The course had clearly lived up to the advance billing; it was truly a “tough mountain challenge.” Chalk one up for the PR people. As for our own little internal race, knowing that we were competing against each other was fun, but largely because we wanted it to be fun. If we’d taken it more seriously, cared more about winning, it wouldn’t have built on our relationship, it would have broken it down; instead, we’d just added to our shared experiences. We were done, we’d had fun, we had stories to tell, and there was a barbecue lunch awaiting! Life is good. And, there’s more to come; in a few weeks, there’s Stratton Mountain’s North Face Run To The Summit, and then the Shawnee Peak Challenge…crazy races for crazy people!
Oh, wait…our competition? Well, I’d finished in 25:34, 40th place overall…not bad! Susan, though, was the star, finishing 10th among the women; that burst at the end to catch and pass two runners had really paid off. And, along with that, was her time; 29:46. Or, only 4:15 behind me. So much for my platinum ring…but with two races to come, there are other bets to be won! Or lost…there’s that “betting with women” thing working against me…