Written by David Keppler Wednesday, 14 October 2015 00:00
After having to miss the entire mountain bike season due to a sprained ankle, I was very much looking forward to the Great River Challenge Triathlon in Northfield, Massachusetts on October 4th. Last year I competed in the inaugural running of this race and thoroughly enjoyed it. The event is an off-road triathlon with a paddling leg (5.5 miles up and back on the Connecticut River), a running leg (4 miles through the woods on the property of the Northfield Mountain power plant), and a mountain bike leg (7 miles up and down Northfield Mountain). This year I recruited a couple of new teammates to compete in the 3 person relay: Brad to do the paddle, and Kevin to do the run. I have raced with Brad previously and know that he is super fast in a boat. Kevin is a co-worker who I’d seen running a few times but, unknown to us all, is actually a trail running ninja. So, needless to say, I was pretty psyched for the race.
Sunday started clear, sunny and cool. Exactly what you’d expect in October in Massachusetts. Team TSTTW (Three Sheets To The Wind) met up at the registration tent about an hour before the race and came up with a fool proof race strategy: go as fast as you can and don’t get hurt. Pretty original huh? The number of racers had apparently doubled from the previous year; a testament to how much fun and how well run this race is. In the end about 75 people competed as either solo competitors or on relay teams up to 4 people strong. I have a feeling the number of competitors will only increase over the next few years as word of this exciting and challenging race spreads.
The pre-race meeting happened at about 9:30 where Dave, the race organizer, went through rules and clarifications about transitions and timing. The temperature was still quite cool but the sun was up and things were warming up nicely. I was just glad I wasn’t about to get into a boat on the river and try to paddle into the wind. Luckily, that’s what Brad is built for.
After the meeting we made our way down to the race start on the river. About 35 boats lined up between and behind the large orange buoys on the river, anxious to start paddling. After a few more clarifications about the river route, the countdown began and they were off. Brad had a great start. Unfortunately he started in a bit of a compromised position and had to make up some extra ground that the few boats in front of him did not have to deal with. Much cheering was bestowed as the line of boats quickly disappeared up the river. Brad had given us an estimate for how long 5.5 miles on the river might take him so Kevin and I did our best to stay warm and prepped while we waited. After about 40 minutes we started to see some boats coming quickly down the river. Kevin got ready for the transition and I watched for Brad to arrive. I didn’t have to wait long as Brad was in the top 5 finishers for the paddling portion and arrived within minutes of us spotting the first boats. He quickly jumped out of his boat, worked his way up the short hill to the transition area, and tagged off with Kevin who quickly disappeared up the road. I checked on Brad, who had freezing hands but otherwise was just tired and happy, and headed up to wait for Kevin to come out of the woods.
After the first transition, the run takes competitors up a short road and across the street to the Northfield Mountain Rec center which is where the rest of the day’s trails are situated. By the time I made it up the hill to the transition area, Kevin was already in the woods. We really had no idea how long it would take him to run 4 miles even though he had run these same trails back in high school while competing on the cross country team (an added bonus that I wasn’t aware of when recruiting him for the race). Due to the uncertainty of time frame I did my best to stay near the transition area while trying to also get warmed up for my leg of the race. Brad had done so well on the paddle and I got the feeling that Kevin was going to be quite fast on the run so I didn’t want to let them down.
Apparently the run is laid out in a similar fashion to the bike leg in that it entails a larger portion of quite steep climbing before a much shorter, faster, and steeper descent to the finish. Kevin was able to maintain a fast pace and actually came out of the woods in first place. He finished so quickly that I almost wasn’t ready for the transition but we were able to tag off and I set out on the final leg of the race.
Northfield Mountain is exactly that, a mountain, with a reservoir at the top used for power generation. There are great hiking/biking/skiing trails on the mountain as well as a paved road to the summit, and numerous carriage roads as well. The biking leg of the race is 7 miles long with about 5 of those miles being a climb up the side of the mountain. Having ridden the course before, I knew I was in for some heavy breathing so I just put my head down and pedaled as fast as I could. The first part of the course crossed a grassy field which, if we’re being honest, is one of my least favorite parts of the ride. For some reason the grass seems to suck all the speed out of my tires and it wears me out very quickly. Luckily, single track was a short distance away and I entered it alone, with no one behind me and, for the first time in a very long time, no one in front of me. The trails that they’ve cut through the woods for the race are classic New England single track with tight trees, roots, rocks and whoop-de-doos to spare. I couldn’t help but smile as I pushed through the woods and headed out on to the carriage road to begin the real climbing. My Rock Shock SID fork was eating up the bumps and the bike felt like it was rolling well (after the short bit of grassy field) so I continued to push on.
The carriage roads are hard packed dirt with a thin layer of stone in some parts so they definitely weren’t technically challenging but the amount of climbing is always a challenge. Just as you clear one climb and get a short respite, the trail heads back up hill. Always..up.. hill. After considering my position I had set a goal for myself: to be the first rider into the single track at the top of the mountain. If I could keep that position I had a good chance of hanging on to the lead or at least finishing in the top 5. Periodically I would check behind me to see if any riders were threatening, as I knew they would eventually. Fortunately, I didn’t see another rider until I was very much near the top, on the steepest part of the climb. At that point my lungs were burning and my legs were churning so I just continued to keep my head down and pedal. I knew I was being chased so looking behind me no longer served any purpose. After a few more turns and more interminable climbing, I came out on the cul de sac at the top of the mountain. The course travels around a stand of trees on a paved road and then funnels riders back into the woods for the best part of the course.
As I mentioned, the climb at Northfield is not technically difficult but definitely taxes your lungs. The downhill, on the other hand, is quite technical, very fast and exceedingly fun. It really is what makes the race for me. Fortunately I was able to meet my goal and was the first rider into the single track at the top of the mountain. I could hear my nemesis directly behind me but was able to keep a bit of a distance for the first part of the descent. The singletrack, as mentioned before, is rocky, rooty and actually has exceptional flow. Definitely everything that makes for a challenging and exciting ride.
I did my best to stay off my Avid Elixir brakes but did have to engage them once or twice early on to keep from shooting through a couple of sharp right turns. After the initial single track we once again were spit out onto a carriage road and that is when my chaser made his move. I couldn’t keep him from passing me but I made a pact with myself to do everything I could to keep him within eyesight the rest of the way down. I came close to catching him a few times but he always was able to recover and put a bit more distance between us. To be honest, it was probably a good thing that he passed me as I think it made me work even harder on the descent and I let things go a bit more than I am normally prone to. He was a better, faster rider than me but I pushed myself as hard as I could to remain within striking distance of his wheel.
I chased him for the rest of the race and we excited the woods about 15 seconds apart. I had been so focused on the opponent in front of me that it took me until we were coming around to the finish to notice that no one else had come within attacking distance of either of us. He crossed the finish line about 20 seconds ahead of me and I rode in for a very satisfying 2nd place finish. Fortunately, he was not in our category so my team actually took 1st place. We had the 2nd fastest overall time, by 20 seconds, and beat our next closest challengers (in our category) by 15 minutes. Needless to say we were very pleased with that result.
I was quite spent after my leg of the race so, after watching a few more finishers while I caught my breath, I made my way back to the car to change and to quickly devour some Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews. Love those things and they definitely help in the recovery process. Fortunately all of our equipment behaved, no one was injured, and we all ended the race with a smile on our face. Brad and Kevin did such a great job and we’re already talking about doing the race again next year. The Great River Challenge is a very well organized and well run race and I would highly recommend it if you can make it out to Western Mass in October. There was great food and drink at the finish (pulled pork, chocolate chip cookies, and beer from the People’s Pint) as well as some great prizes (classy glass mugs and even Ginger Libation from Katalyst Kamboucha) and everyone that took part had a great experience. Dave puts on a professional race and I’m sure it will only grow in popularity.
Anyway, thanks for reading and I hope your race season is going well. Keep the rubber side down.
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