by Paul Miller
Ten days before the 2023 Maine Summer Adventure Race, I knelt down on a board with a nail in it while working around the house. Why is it that the worst injuries are rarely AR related?! When I stood up the board came, too. I pulled it away, and the nail came cleanly out. So did a jet of blood. Then the pain. So. Much. Pain. I knew this may jeopardize the rest of the season so I went into RICE mode. I reached out to the Rootstock squad a few days later with an update and received 100% support. My knee got better every day, and I had two doctors give me the green light to race. So I packed my bags and made my way to Maine.
The night before the race, Nicki, Brent, Abby, and I - along with Heather and four-year-old Simon - gathered at Flight Deck Brewing to talk about our goals for the race. Our discussion centered on staying true to what we love about racing as a team: racing the course, pushing hard, and having fun along the way. We set the following intentions:
We discussed the mystery of the course, ways to leverage our individual and team strengths, and how we valued the time together more than the outcome. We ended the night setting up camp in a downpour.
The next morning Heather needed to report at 5:50 AM for her volunteer role. The early start made the pre-race bits feel relatively restful.
The race began with a short prologue, in the form of a “navigational quiz,” pulled (with permission) from Mark Lattanzi’s Squiggly Lines. Here, teams had to answer two written questions on interpreting topography. Even with our four minds combined, we got stuck in a vicious loop: we would count the contour lines and run to a volunteer to have our answers checked; they would say “nope” and hand back the page; and we would start the process over. We were in good company when we decided to pull the plug halfway through; it seemed like half of the teams lined up their bikes with us and waited out the fifteen-minute time limit Kate and Cliff had assigned to the prologue.
Early in the stage Brent saw the opportunity for some creative routing. He proposed using an adjacent road to move more quickly and pick off the CPs in the woods in a line on the way back. He passed this idea by the rest of the team as we were getting the early CPs and we all agreed. The decision seemed to pay off; when we returned to our bikes, it looked like we were among the first to leave on the next stage.
Back onto our bikes and into a paceline - this stage took us through downtown Bath by the shipyards and along a nice bike trail that paralleled the water course we would be paddling on the next stage.
We realized on this ride that the course was moving very quickly. We covered the first three legs faster than we anticipated, banking about two hours on our conservative course estimates. In our pre-race planning, we had decided that we would skip the two farthest-out paddle points, saving roughly 10k of kayaking and 1.5-2 hours of racing. We thought that the course looked to be too big and that at any other spot, we would end up dropping a bigger cluster of points. It was a gamble, leaving points that early - our strategy depended on other teams needing to drop CPs later in the race. As we transitioned to the paddle, we checked our math a second - and third - time, mentally computing rough distance and time estimates. Based on the maps we had, we held to our original plan and set off to clear all but two of the paddle points.
We ran into soloist Tom Martin at our first punch - he was getting ready to head for the two farthest out points - and crossed paths with Rib, Untamed, and Strong Machine in the cluster of points in the Androscoggin River. We had no idea what the other teams were planning, so we just focused on our own race and enjoyed the time on the water. It was a beautiful day, and the kayak was just plain fun. We were moving well, taking turns punching CPs, and learning that Abby is quite the sea kayaker, cruising through the confused tidal currents in a solo boat!
We then headed onto the beach and enjoyed a sandy run, which felt like something out of a much longer expedition race.
We arrived at the entrance to the sand bridge to CP 31 at 6pm. We had discussed this section on the previous bike leg, recognizing that there was a tidal window where we were allowed to cross to the checkpoint. We told ourselves on the ride that we would wait up to fifteen minutes; beyond that, we’d leave the point behind and continue on our way – still feeling good about the course being too big. The rules of travel said that you could cross to the checkpoint when the full sand bridge was exposed at low tide - around 7pm. The rules seemed clear, but with four academics on the team, we each found a different way to interpret them, and as we watched two-year-olds pad across the bridge during our beach run, we started to think we might be able to cross early.
Fortunately, the race directors anticipated our mental gymnastics and had volunteers run to us to let us know the sand bridge wasn’t open yet. Normally Rootstock takes any chance we get to swim, and we felt like these rules were written just for us at that moment. It was a challenge to stand still and watch little kids playing on the connecting sand after racing hard for seven hours, but due to permitting, we understood that we were not allowed to cross. As we waited out our fifteen minutes, Kate arrived to assess the status of the tide, and shortly after she released us (galloping) across the sand to get the CP.
This was a really special stage - one of the highlights of this course. Between the four of us, we’ve competed in every edition of the Maine Summer Adventure Race, and it was one of the most unique spots we’ve gotten to visit. Our thanks to Kate and Cliff for doing the work to get us there.
We got back on our bikes to head off for four CPs en route to the big overnight trek. We were feeling really good about our pace and our race, our bodies and our bikes. Our team synergy was working. In order to avoid an out-of-bounds road between TA3 and CP39, we had two choices: a long road ride-around or a 2+ km trail section, of unknown quality. We elected to do the trails, saving significant distance. This section required us to dig really deep. The trails were heavily overgrown, and hard to follow at times. We needed to lift and carry our bikes and physically shift into a higher gear in order to get through. We came out just over an hour later, back onto the road, and discovered two bike mechanical issues. We were able to deal with one of the issues immediately, and thanks to Matt Hayes, we fixed the second when we arrived at the next TA. During the hike-a-bike, I also realized that my gut was beginning to turn. Without missing a beat, Nicki grabbed my pack to give me a chance to recover. Despite the energy dip, our spirits remained high. Back on our bikes to CP39, we all laughed - the AR Gods had smiled on us; the course had definitely slowed down! At this point, we were feeling great about our strategic choice to drop the two paddle points.
We climbed up to CP41 and saw an incredible sunset. And then made our way to CP40 for the oyster shucking challenge - as a team, we had to shuck and eat one oyster or face a ten-minute penalty. No one on our team had ever shucked an oyster and because I can learn anything by watching YouTube… the team trusted me to apply my non-existent practical knowledge, under race pressure, while feeling sick, to not put a knife through my hand while doing the deed. With a little coaxing the oyster popped open and Nicki did the hard work of eating it.
As I was working on the oyster, the rest of the team was chatting with Kate, who was waiting for us at the point. She shared with us that there had been an error on the maps - the out-of-bounds road was meant for the next section - the overnight trek, not the bike to it - and all of the other teams would be able to ride through without having to deal with the physical hike-a-bike or the long ride-around. It took us a little while to appreciate the full implications of the issue, but we knew immediately that our race had changed. It was a hard moment, and it lingered.
We made our way up to TA4 by way of CP42, workshopping how to keep our focus on each other and the race. It was clear that our team needed to continue to focus on what we could control, but we were all having a hard time staying positive, knowing that our race strategy no longer made sense if the other teams had gained an hour on the course by bypassing the mapped out-of-bounds road.
We pulled into TA4 at dusk and made the transition to the long foot-O. We estimated the sixteen points would take us about 7-8 hours. We loaded up on fuel and headed into the night. Our heads were still not in race mode and we exited TA4 too far east and were immediately off trail. We practiced trusting our navigators who were remarking that the CP clue of “radio tower” and the topography of the plotted CP weren’t what you would expect. It was on a side hill, as opposed to the top of a ridge or high point. I was thinking about how, as a kid, my neighbor put up a radio tower and I had the chance to sit on the big red blinking light before it was installed. I commented that if we could see the light, we could just head to that. It took longer than we would have liked, but we eventually saw it and it guided us right to the CP.
The next 7.5 hours included very subtle terrain of swamps, small ridges, and cliff bands. While I had done everything that I needed to do, and continued to eat, my gut continued to turn on me. All I could do was follow in the footsteps of the teammate in front of me.
After focusing on my teammates' feet I came to a conclusion: watching someone walk in the woods reveals a bit of their personality. Orange shoes: couldn’t focus on the feet as there were too many map observations, navigation point conversations…a bit overwhelming. Red/Black shoes: very direct, goes through anything - a “let’s get this done” mentality. White/Grey shoes: every step with purpose, confident foot placements, no wasted energy.
As I descended into a pit of misery, Brent and Nicki’s nav re-focused and we continued to move efficiently. I found myself thinking that I wouldn't be able to handle hunting for a lost CP, and I’m grateful for their work that kept us on track and moving in the right direction.
At 2:15am, I asked for a moment from my team, went off into the bushes, and puked. Brent called out, “Is this a puke and rally? Or a puke and wither?” I responded: “Puke and rally.” I walked back to the team and said “Let’s go.” Knowing it would be awful, I reached into my bag, pulled out a fig bar, and worked it down. I’m sure magical things happened in the next few hours, and the team tells stories of a moose/bear wrestling match, certainty that we were in the movie Predator, bullfrogs, and a rowdy family of barred owls, but all of this was a blur. I was solely focused on hanging onto my team.
We continued to support each other, making sleepy conversation, checking in on the pace. At this time of night it’s very easy to slow down and not realize you’re slowing down. Brent turned to the team and asked “are we still racing? Or are we simply trying to get back?” I knew the question was for me, so of course the answer was: we’re racing. The challenge of racing between 3 and 4am is fighting the sleep monsters. The task of pace counting was lulling Abby to sleep, so my job became to engage Abby without distracting Abby. As we came out to the road that would take us back to the TA, we shuffled as much as possible, and did our best not to wander into oncoming traffic.
Getting into the TA helped us wake up, but not enough to remember the new passport. After descending a kilometer downhill on our bikes, we went through our post-TA ritual of “who has this, who has that” and promptly turned around after realizing we had left the passport in the paddle bag.
The final bike included eleven CPs. After spiking all the overnight points, the only one on this leg that really tripped us up was CP60. In true AR spirit, another team that had already found it offered some beta, which allowed us to find our way to it. We crossed paths with Rib, caught up, and shared a bit about each other’s races. As the sun came up, the final CPs flew by, and after 23 hours of racing we crossed the finish line.
The Maine Summer AR 2023 for the Rootstock squad was all about our teamwork. Since the conclusion of the race we have continued to check in, provide support, and deepen the care that our squad is all about.