This race turned out to be everything I was looking for, and more…”a little bit country, and a little bit rock n’ roll.” Only 57 athletes started the race, and I spent the majority of the race without seeing any of them. Yet, a tremendous level of camaraderie exists in races like this (I can’t tell you how excited and emotional I was to cheer on a fellow athlete as he came into T2 just minutes before the bike cutoff). If you are a triathlete looking for that next level of challenge, I can’t recommend this race enough. It’s bare bones, well organized, laid back, and intense all in one package.
So, what is it?
Sea to Summit 2.0 is billed as “the original ultimate adventure race.” It’s a long-distance triathlon that starts with a 1.5 mile swim, a 90+ mile bike (no specific distance, because there actually is no defined route), and a 5.5 mile run/hike up to the summit of Mt Washington. You literally go from sea (0 ft) to summit (6288 ft)…with a lot of elevation in between.
The race is unsupported. There is not a drop of water or food provided on the course. And, there are no course markings, or even a defined bike course for that matter. Get yourself from South Berwick, Maine to Wildcat ski area in New Hampshire by 1pm or your race is over (this cutoff was 30 minutes shorter than last years race).
The race starts at 5am sharp and, for those of you who know me, simply waking up at 3am was one of my biggest challenges of the day. It’s a 1.5 mile out-and-back swim…with one buoy. “You see that orange speck as far out as the human eye can see? Swim out to it, go around counter-clockwise, and swim back.” Like I said, bare bones. And, this bare bones approach is exactly what draws many of the athletes to this race. As Danielle Keaney, college athlete turned triathlete, explained, “I got tired of the commercialization of the races I was doing. I enjoy a more grass-roots approach, not a lot of whoop-la, just get out there and race.”
The swim is in an ocean tributary and is brackish water (part fresh/part salt). It fluctuates tremendously in temperature, depth, and current based on the tide. Which made things very interesting. The water was really warm and it was a deep-water start (just like Kona). You tread water until they say “go” and everyone starts in one mass wave. The swim was long. I must have been ¾ of the way out before I even sighted on the buoy, and on the way back the start/finish never seemed to get any closer. There was a reason for that…as we swam, the tide started going out meaning we were swimming against it on the return leg (it was a slack tide on the way out and offered no benefit). I felt really comfortable in the swim and thought my time was going to be fast. So, I was a little surprised to look at my watch and see my time as I exited the water. It turns out the lead swimmer was 20 minutes slower than last year. Great start to the day, 20 minutes extra on your swim, and 30 minutes less time to make the bike cutoff!
My bike ride was 92 miles with 6000 feet of climbing. 1500 feet of that was in the last 9 miles! I knew how fast I had to ride to make the bike cutoff, and the first 70 miles were great. The roads were good, the scenery beautiful, and I was crushing my time splits. At mile 70 I met my Sherpa (more on him later) and told him, “I’m not sure I have the legs for the last hills.” It turns out I was not the only one.
We had biked over 80 miles, climbed over 4500 feet, and now had 9 miles of pure hill in front of us. I have never seen someone get off their bike and walk in a triathlon…but, I did…and, so did the guy in front of me, and the guy behind me. Three hardcore triathletes walking our bikes.
These last miles were the hardest I have ever ridden. My legs simply would not work. I went from being thrilled I was going to make the cutoff, to questioning whether I could travel the last 5 miles in an hour. I even wondered if I was going to quit 2 miles from T2 (when you resort to walking your bike, you are in rough shape). I actually stopped 2 other times in the last few miles. Once to check my bike to see if my brakes were rubbing, or why my bike simply wouldn’t move forward. And, once I was delirious and stopped to pour water down my back, and spray it in my face…when my eyes starting burning I realized I had just doused myself with Gatorade, and had to repeat the process with water to wash it off…as I said, rough shape!
I rolled in to T2 with over 30 minutes to spare and went through the mandatory medical exam with the Race Director/Official to determine if I was able to continue. He declared me “in better shape” than some of the guys who came in before me, which made me feel good, or at least better.
I stripped my bike clothes off, put on some fresh clothes, and sat down to have a Coke before continuing on.
In my mind, I believed if I made the bike cutoff it would be “easy” from there! I’m an avid hiker, had trained on plenty of hills, and have climbed Mt. Washington many times. What I didn’t account for was my body was basically shutting down by then, and I never recovered like I thought I would. I spent the entire hike (4200 feet of climbing) nauseous, with my energy slowing seeping away.
Luckily, I met up with 3 other racers on the hike, and we decided for many reasons it made sense to stick together. 2 of them were a couple from Tampa, FL. When we asked where they trained for the hills, they responded, “we didn’t.” Welcome to NH.
Most of the hikers we passed encouraged us, and we reached the summit to a pretty decent cheering section. Many of whom I’m sure had no idea who we were, or what we were actually doing. We then got to cut the summit picture line, get our medals, and take a few pictures.
Because this race is unsupported, you are required to have a Sherpa. This is an individual who drives a car, transports all your stuff, meets you along the route to replenish food and liquids, and meets you at the summit to drive you back down.
Unfortunately, my local friends who I contacted about being a Sherpa had commitments they could not rearrange. I finally contacted the Race Director and he put me in touch with a “kid” (turns out he was 39, and just looked like a kid) who is/was thinking about doing the race next year and thought being a Sherpa would give him some good insight into what it entailed.
We emailed a couple times, talked on the phone once, but didn’t meet in person until the night before the race. It turned out that Kevin was the greatest Sherpa I could ever ask for (sorry Ron and David). When I told him the Gatorade story in T2, he grabbed a towel and poured water on it for me to wash my face and back. He was organized, laid back, and really got emotionally involved in my outcome (he even got his wife invested in me via text updates).
On the hike up to the summit, I ran out of water near the end. We were only about 2/10 of a mile from the summit. In any other context, 2/10 of a mile is an extremely short distance. When you have been moving for 11 hours, you are out of water, your body is shutting down, and that 2/10 is straight uphill over boulders it is the farthest distance you can imagine. I was really struggling and about to swallow my pride and ask my fellow racers if they could spare any water. I looked up to see Kevin standing there with a bottle of water in one hand, and a coke in the other. He had hiked down from the summit thinking I might run out of water…his timing was perfect, and it got me through that final push.
I went up to the race organizer, Jeff Donatello, after and said, “I don’t know if I should punch you, or hug you.” He said, “just hug me and we’ll call it a day.” Jeff and his very small staff were awesome. They keep everything very simple (there are no timing chips, your time is all recorded by hand on a clipboard), but there is beauty in simplicity. Not a lot of moving parts makes things easier (not to take anything away from the logistics required to organize a race of this magnitude.)
Perhaps Tim Tapply, a former pro-triathlete, summed it up best when he said, “Crossing the finish line at Ironman, with Mike Reilly screaming my name, was unforgettable. But, reaching the summit of Mt Washington, having started swimming in the ocean, riding across multiple states, and running up that beast of a mountain was life altering.”
The event was absolutely awesome. Overall I would highly recommend this race to anyone thinking about doing it if they get the chance. Everything went smoothly from start to finish. Jeff the RD really did an outstanding job organizing the event and keeping everyone in the loop as the date drew closer about what to expect. We all were also very lucky in that the weather for the event was perfect. Little to no wind on the bike, clear skies, low humidity. Truly a picture perfect day.
-- Specifics --
Day Before / Pre-Race Meeting
Everyone met at the starting point around 5:30 the night before. Jeff went over every bit of the race in detail. Letting us know exactly what to expect at every different stage of the race. From there we all hiked down to the swim start and went over water temps, current directions, swim exit strategies and how to best utilize the help of your sherpas.
Everyone was in the water around 4:50 ish and the 1.5 mile swam began right at 5am as promised. The water temp was perfect I would put it at around mid 60's. Actually here and there you would swim through a quick cool spot and it felt pretty refreshing. No need for neoprene caps or booties or anything like that on this day. The current was very mild and for the most part unnoticeable. Simple up the river down the river swim, no confusing turns or anything like that.
Here's where you treated to the first real taste of the whole adventure. The swim exit was quick climb up the side wall of the river. There was plenty of volunteers there helping you make your way and climb up over the tree roots. It was really cool and the scenery itself from being in the trail was beautiful. From there everyone put on some shoes and then ran a little over a quarter mile through the wooded trail up some logged stairs and into the transition field.
The course was very scenic and the 92 miles seemed to go by in an instant. The roads were in great shape and there was very little traffic except for the few times you would get passed by you or someone else's sherpa in a car. In terms of navigating the course I ended up mapping the suggested route into my Garmin Edge and used that to navigate and it worked fine. Stats for the bike course for me came in right at 92 miles and 5,102 ft of climbing.
T2 was in the parking lot of Wildcat Ski Mountain about 3/4 of a mile passed the trail head. Here your sherpa was waiting and had your hiking bag pre checked by the race officials. You were looked over quick by a nurse and the RD before getting the go ahead. Really it only took a minute or two and you were on your way. If anyone is wondering I used an Osprey Rev6 1.5L hiking backpack. It worked out perfectly. Held all the required stuff and then some if needed. I didn't even notice it was there to be honest.
Of course this was the highlight of the event. The hike was incredible. The first 2.5 miles or so was a combination of a very slow jog to a speed walk. It wasn't steep at this point but the gradient never let up. The entire hike itself is all rocks. It's not a dirt trail or anything like that. So you are basically just looking down hopping and jumping from one rock to another. Occasionally along the first part you would have to make some bigger leaps to cross little dips in the trail. Nothing crazy at all. Along this part you are treated to a few waterfalls and other forest views.
Originally the race was supposed to go up the Tuckerman Ravine trail the entire way but it was still closed at this point. Instead we ended up taking Lions Head. This is where things got interesting. As soon as you take the turn onto the trail you are basically going what feels like straight up. You are no longer running or jogging, you are bouldering from one giant rock to another. Twisting and turning your way up the mountain. As you start to come above the tree line you could definitely feel it get cooler but it felt great. The views from this part of the hike were breathtaking. We were lucky enough to have a picture perfect day with clear skies and very little wind. You could see out for what seemed like forever. Once over the face of Lions Head you start coming into what I believe is called the alpine garden. The steepness of the trail lets up a bit here as compared to Lions Head but you are without a doubt still going up a mountain. There were people everywhere cheering you on as you went passed. Before you know it you were at the road and just had a few more stairs and a small little pile of rocks to tackle before finishing directly at the summit sign and giving it a little love tap.
Hike stats for me came in at 5 miles even and 4,295 ft of climbing.
-- General Times --
T1/T2: 5-7 minutes combined