FORT KENT, Maine — A photojournalist fantasizes about that one assignment, that one chance to capture the images of their dreams.
After more than two decades of photographing breaking news, natural disasters, politicians, features and events around the world, that day may have finally come.
This week, I was invited to be the official photographer for what could be the best kept secret in the world of extreme sports.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you: The Aroostook Dirty 30.
Born four years ago, the AD-30, as it’s known to its fans, is Maine native Kale Poland’s answer to those increasingly popular races like the Tough Mudder or Warrior Challenge in which runners negotiate a series of obstacles or challenges around a five or 10-mile race course.
Or, as Poland describes them on his website, races in which, “You pay your entry fee, get a T-shirt, eat some bananas, run with your friends, [and] then head to Starbucks for a latte after.”
The AD-30, he promises, is vastly different. And there is no Starbucks for 200 miles.
This year’s race begins in the predawn hours of Saturday morning in Presque Isle.
“There’s a big buzz around those other obstacle course races,” Poland said this week from the New Hampshire bike shop where he is a bike mechanic and all-around endurance sport guru. “People are like, ‘Oh yeah, I conquered this really hard race,’ but everyone finishes those races, so it really can’t be that hard.”
Poland, who last year completed a grueling deca-triathlon event in Mexico in which he swam, biked and ran the equivalent of 10 Ironman triathlons, developed his own race with a unique and arguably sadistic spin on it.
“I wanted to create something very hard that no one has to pay for,” he said. “But it was more like, if you join my race, you are part of a kind of family but a sort of messed up family.”
In it’s debut year, the AD-30 attracted just five runners and only two finished the course. This year he expects about 15 participants.
“Everyone had such a blast, and everyone in town was talking about it,” Poland said. “They saw these people running down the street with tiaras on, and more and more people started asking me what was up with this race.”
That’s right … tiaras.
There is no end to what Poland’s mind comes up with when it involves new and creative ways to put AD-30 runners through their paces.
One year, runners carried car tires for miles. Last year, they were required to run up and down Main Street carrying a large, plastic Frosty the Snowman.
“This year is going to be awesome,” Poland said. “Everyone racing is required to bring two bricks and a sledgehammer.”
Poland did not want to divulge exactly what AD-30 racers will do with those items, preferring to let them sweat it out before the 5 a.m. start.
And calling the AD-30 an “obstacle race” is an understatement.
“We don’t have check points or rest stops,” Poland said. “We have 10 pain stations.”
At each station, volunteers are on hand to act the parts of drill instructors as racers perform calisthenics, sprint up and down hills or whatever else comes to the mind of race organizers.
“It’s really non-structured,” Poland said. “Like, if someone gets too far ahead, we make them stop and do a round of moving rocks or climbing hills or other miserable stuff.”
So why on earth would anyone put themselves through a race that offers no medals, cash, or even a souvenir water bottle — only a hunk of rusty metal.
“Bragging rights,” Poland said. “If you finish, you have won, [and] the first person and last person across the finish line get the same thing — a rusty railroad spike.”
Most of the race, he said, takes place along the old rail bed in Presque Isle.
“It’s like, you finished this race, and you got nailed,” he said.
The AD-30 is a nonsupported race with entrants responsible for their own food, water and gear.
To date, less than 50 percent of those involved in the course finish.
And while Poland discourages even cheering for the runners, trash talk is encouraged.
“It really is a funny race,” he said. “At the start, we are all like, ‘we don’t want anyone to finish,’ but then you see the ones who really want to. We don’t show it, but we really are rooting for them to make it.”
While there is no entry fee, AD-30 hopefuls must submit a letter of intent, and they run the gamut from the philosophical to the confrontational.
“I have never turned anyone down for this race,” Poland said. “But people really need to know what they are getting into.”
With basically 30 miles and up to nine hours of hell, Poland could not be happier at the prospect of dishing it out again this year.
But for all his talk and threats, Poland is one of the kindest, most encouraging and humble athletes out there.
The first time I ran a triathlon, he was on the side of the road at a particularly steep climb in the cycling leg. As I huffed and puffed my way up, all I could hear was Poland cheering and clapping for me.
After it was done, he was among the first to give me a hug. I admire him for that as much as I do for his athletic abilities.
And despite how much he wants the AD-30 racers to suffer, he is not out to hurt anybody.
“We never make anybody do anything they really can’t do or do something that will cause an injury,” he said. “I feel I am very good at judging perceived exertion, and I like to be at the pain stations to see how people are really doing.”
Still, racers should not get complacent.
“It’s not a glamorous or sexy race, and it is brutally hard,” Poland said. “And if too many [racers] show up, I am going to make this the worst race known to man and weed out about half in the first 15 miles.”
This is among the most insane and grueling events to ever hit Maine, and I can’t wait to document it on film as I follow along on my mountain bike.
As for ever entering the AD-30?
Even I’m not that crazy.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.