Adventure race in Calais utilizes unique format

Posted May 08, 2009, at 7:16 p.m.

The students enrolled in the Associate Degree program in Adventure Recreation and Tourism, offered by Washington County Community College in Calais, love a challenge. As part of their curriculum, they and the faculty spend time outdoors, climbing Katahdin in winter, whitewater canoeing, sea kayaking, technical climbing and other adventurous pursuits.

It’s no wonder then, that in 2006, two students, Jonah Bloom and Chelsea LeValley, originated an adventure race as a project to test some of their skills. It’s called the Downeast Adventure Race and last Saturday I went to Calais and saw this year’s race, which was an outstanding event.

I was greeted by Scott Fraser, a faculty member and the race director since 2006. The congenial instructor gave me a course map and explained a few rules. Soon, someone called him away to tend to some race duties. I went to the race tent to kill a few minutes before the 10 a.m. start.

At the tent I was met by faculty member Tess Ftorek, her husband Steve, and Sue and Dr. Bill Cassidy, the school’s president. He was handing out bottled water and welcoming everyone who arrived. I commented that it looked like there would be a good crowd of competitors and spectators.

He responded with, “From the inaugural race to today, the excitement and enthusiasm just continues to grow. What’s wonderful is that, regardless of the number of people who participate, it’s a community event. We couldn’t do this without everyone’s help.”

Cassidy said this as we stood beside a canoe, on the campus lawn. It was being filled as part of a food drive associated with the race, to fill local food cupboards.

While waiting for the race to start, I looked at the map and read the rules. The race would contain three basic transitions, through which the teams or individuals compete. The first 12.3 miles are raced on mountain bikes. Part of the way through, they all get off their bikes, grab a map, compass and a punch card from a race official. They race into the woods to find a spot that contains a unique hole-punch and punch their card. They run back to the official and he checks their punch card. If the hole they punched is incorrect, the competitors can decide to look again, or take a half-hour penalty. Then they get back on the bike to continue the bike leg.

The end of the bike race is the start of the whitewater canoeing. Racers change into wetsuits, grab a canoe and paddle 3.6 miles down the St. Croix River, through Class II whitewater in one stretch. At the pullout at the bridge to Woodville, New Brunswick, the canoeists carry the canoe to the next transition zone, leave the canoe and run 2.3 miles through Calais on the river bank to the final transition, a 2.9-mile paddle in sea kayaks. After that, they haul the boats ashore, and run a few hundred yards to the finish. The total distance for the race was a little more than 21 miles.

The competition was bracketed into unique categories with somewhat creative rules. There were three-person teams who must stay within 50 feet of each other at all times and complete the race together. There were four-person relays, one person for each event with a combined time; and there were individuals who completed the entire course solo. I got a pretty good idea of what was about to unfold: several races at once, on the course at the same time.

I met another student, Dana Marble of Waite, an older non-traditional student, who told me about his recent trip to Otter Cliffs in Acadia National Park with the other students. We talked about that for a while, then the race was a few minutes from starting. Fraser was giving last-minute instructions to the racers. I headed back to the truck to drive to a spot on the race course before it started to watch the mountain bikers come past.

I found the spot by following a van driven by the Dean of Academic and Student Affairs, Dave Markow. He had with him his young son, Jackson, and a student, Tyler LePage, who was filming the race for a capstone project for a fellow student in the race, Taylor Landry. Soon, there was plenty of action to film as the mountain bikers came up the hill and turned into the woods on the single-track trail. The trail was steep and narrow there, requiring some to push their bikes along.

In no time, they were past. This was early in the race and everyone was bunched up. I headed back to the truck and, instead of going to the orienteering phase, went to the banks of the St. Croix in the town of Baring, to find a spot on the river bank from which to watch the canoeing section when the racers came past. I kind of wanted to get there early, in case I got lost on the way.

Soon, Scott arrived on the bank a few minutes before the first team, the overall leaders of the race, came down the river. It was Team WCCC, made up of Tyler’s friend, Taylor Landry, Zack Warren and Ben Stevens. Ten minutes later, Team Slim Chance and The Can’t Hardly Paddle Boys; Stephanie Allard, Jon Wescott and Jim Malcom came through. With only the running and sea kayaking to go, it looked like Team WCCC had the race won.

Team Slim Chance still trailed at the canoe-to-run transition, but was making up time. I drove to the run-to-sea kayaking transition, down on Steamboat Street. Somehow, Team Slim Chance appeared first. They had passed Team WCCC on the run, and were now minutes ahead. They were pushing off into the river as Team WCCC reached the transition zone. Now, it was a race for the final two miles.

The crowd of spectators headed for the start/finish line on campus, waiting to see who would emerge up the bank for the final run. It was Team WCCC that came into view, regaining the lead from Team Slim Chance on the river. Team WCCC’s time was 3 hours, 37 minutes, 17 seconds. Team Slim Chance’s time was 3:38:54.

The first relay team was “4 Restless Middle-Aged Guys from Whitney’s Tool Shed,” with a time of 4:05:52. The fastest time by an individual was posted by Stephen Donohue, across at 4:27:31.

At the awarding of the prizes, totaling $2,000 worth of gift cards and hydration packs from area outfitters, Fraser thanked everyone who participated.

He said, “Although we at WCCC coordinated the race, there’s no way we could have pulled it off without everyone’s generous contributions of time and effort from the community at large. We would like to thank the sponsors, the volunteers, and you racers.”

There were a total of 39 competitors in this year’s race, including teams from New Brunswick Community College. If the event continues to grow, Calais could become the adventure racing capital of the Northeast.

I sure hope so. It will be fun just to watch the race.

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