NEK — Attitude. When the beginning of a 24 hours multi-discipline race involves paddling into a steady if not howling headwind, endurance athletes say attitude trumps athleticism and most everything else.

The headwind was just one of many challenges the 34 teams in this weekend’s Hard Fall Adventure Race faced as the 24-hour event began at 10 a.m. Saturday from Lake Willoughby’s North Beach. The wind gradually settled down, paddlers said, as they reached the middle, then the southern end of the lake, and when all was said and done 24 hours later at the finish point of St. Johnsbury School, the final team rolled in on their mountain bikes at 11 a.m.

Participants gathered in St. Johnsbury early Saturday morning and were then bussed to Lake Willoughby for the start of the event. It was held under the auspices of the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association (GMARC), and race director Chris Yager. Two-, three- and four-person teams were involved, with the latter two teams being the “premiere” category, according to the GMARA website. Paddling, climbing, orienteering and mountain biking were part of the weekend-long event.

Paddlers were wet and their canoes and kayaks weighted down with water as they completed the first phase of the race at South Beach. As John McKinnon of Lyndonville and partner Brenda Rose started out, “the wind was straight in our face – if you sat out in that wind it was hard to move,” McKinnon, a faculty member at Burke Mtn. Academy, said. “Brenda was in front, and was leaning back to get the front end over the waves. I wished I’d brought a bilge pump – I was bailing out water with my hands. Brenda is a crazy-good kayaker though, and I’m pretty sure she powered us down that whole thing. We were fourth or fifth boat off the water, in about an hour and a half.” As it was the wind died down considerably around the Devil’s Rock area of the lake, he added.

From Lake Willoughby, the course took athletes up Mt. Hor, then on mountain bikes to night riding at Kingdom Trails Association in Lyndon/East Burke, then more paddling from the Lyndon Town School area back to the area of the dam near the mill in St. Johnsbury, then the short bike to the finish line at St. Johnsbury School.

Some had to rough it to the finish line. Dave Connolly, in town from Arlington, Va. along with partner Kevin Leary of Alexandria, Va., and a contingent of supporters, had his mountain bike derailleur give out in the 20th hour of the event. “I could roll downhill – and push otherwise,” he said Sunday morning. “We were supposed to paddle until pretty close to the finish, but the river was a little lower, the paddle was taking a little longer than they thought, so we ended up having a little more biking at the end - which obviously wasn’t so good for us,” he said with a laugh. “But we decided, what the heck, we’ll just finish it [the course].”

This section of paddling involved four portages, McKinnon noted. “We started out at 3 a.m. [Sunday], and didn’t finish until 9,” he said. “They actually pulled other teams from the second portage and put them on bikes so they had a chance of getting back [to the finish line].”

Connolly said he and Leary do many endurance events in the Virginia area. How did they find the terrain in New England? “It’s surprisingly hilly down there too - it’s prettier here, but the challenge of the course is similar,” Connolly said. “They’re different kinds of forests, that may be the biggest difference. It just depends on where you are in the forest as to whether there’s a lot of underbrush, thorns, and things like that. We didn’t have any thorns today.”

Less a “timed” event, the Hard Fall is an event, McKinnon remarked, in which “time doesn’t matter for this. You get scored by the number of checkpoints you find in the woods, or on the lake and water…it’s a point to point course, and you had to get here by 10 today.”

Team Goose Adventure Racing, a four-person team in from Rochester, N.Y., may have summed it up best. Asked Sunday morning how they did, “we finished!” team member Rob Feissner said. Having done a number of 24-hour races, the biggest key is that “it’s not so much about athleticism as it is stupidity,” Feissner said with a laugh, adding on a more serious note that “perseverance and determination” trump athleticism in these extreme events.

Connolly agreed. “If it was truly [about being] athletic, we would’ve gotten here four hours ago,” he remarked.

A separate, shorter GMARC event, “Test Your Nettle,” was scheduled for Sunday in Westmore, Yager said. It involved just a foot and boat race, and started at the south end of Lake Willoughby.


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