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Lost in America The author learns it takes heart, guts and inspired map reading to conquer the Appalachian Extreme

June 16, 2003
June 16, 2003

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June 16, 2003

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Lost in America The author learns it takes heart, guts and inspired map reading to conquer the Appalachian Extreme

He was sick and scared and slumming with teammates who were
beneath him. Despite all this, Eddie Freyer did the selfless
thing. He dropped trou and took one for the team. ¶ More
precisely, Eddie received an injection of an antinausea drug in
his right buttock. Twelve hours into last month's Appalachian
Extreme, a three-day adventure race in Maine and New Hampshire,
Freyer had wobbled into CP6--the sixth checkpoint--feeling, in
the argot of adventure racing, like a soup sandwich. After
downing a Coke and a bowl of chili, he shuffled behind the team
van and vomited with such gusto that, according to my brother
Mark, "it didn't even touch his teeth."

This is an article from the June 16, 2003 issue

Freyer ralphed twice more over the next hour before
enduring--Injury, have you met Insult?--a bout of diarrhea. He
was now huddled in a sleeping bag as Dr. Mike Bell explained, in
comforting tones, the upside of an injection. A nanosecond after
the needle went in, Freyer went white as Wednesday Addams, then
emitted an eerie moan. His eyes rolled up in his head, his body
jerked in a brief spasm, and he passed out.

Kristen Bell, Mike's wife and the nurse who'd administered the
shot, recognized the episode as a "vaso-vagal faint." People
freaked out by needles (as Eddie is, he later admitted) sometimes
swoon after they get a shot. When Freyer came to, 10 seconds
later, he found himself gazing up at a circle of concerned faces.
"I remember thinking," he says, "Where am I?"

You're 79 miles into the Appalachian Extreme, Eddie. You're
racing with your old friends, me and my neighbor, Gordon Wright.
We three make up Team King Oscar--a name readers will surely
recognize as the Norway-based sardine colossus that sponsored us.
(If you've haven't heard of King Oscar, for God's sake don't tell
Gordon, who handles North American publicity for the company.)
Eddie, our navigator, is out of our league, having completed two
Eco-Challenges. Last year, racing as Team Marin (the California
county we call home), Gordon and I and a less proficient
navigator flailed around for three days, finding fewer than half
of the race's checkpoints. On Day 3, long after we'd earned the
nickname Team Moron, 41 hours into a section that the lead teams
completed in 14 hours, we busted out our emergency radio and quit.

"You might want to stick around for the party," race codirector
Tracyn Thayer had said as we glumly packed our bags. "You
know--to defend yourselves."

Thayer and her husband (and codirector) Norm Greenberg didn't
need any extra drama this year. Tracyn was pregnant with the
couple's first child, who was due on May 18, Day 2 of the race.
(Dylan Thayer Greenberg was even slower than Team King Oscar,
arriving 14 days late.)

Mark and his fellow members of our superb support crew--my sister
Gibby and her husband, John Ries--had waited 41 hours for us last
year, so you couldn't blame them for expecting little from us in
'03. Just before the race Gibby e-mailed us the five-day forecast
for western Maine. I was touched, until I realized that each
day's entry read, "Partly cloudy, 59/41, 60 percent chance of
getting lost in the woods."

After we'd breezed through check-in, providing proof of health
insurance and showing race officials our mandatory gear, Mark
deadpanned, "You might want to get their dental records, too."

It was my brother-in-law who noted that the beauty of the first
section, a 47-mile paddle on the Connecticut, was that "even you
guys can't get lost on a river." Nor did we. We came out of the
water sixth from last and immediately started picking off teams.
After the second section, a 32-mile mountain-bike ride from South
Lunenburg, on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, we were pleased
to find ourselves in 19th place.

That, of course, was before Eddie began noisily emptying himself
from either end. While he groaned through the night, our
competitors made up time--about eight hours' worth. We were
pushed back into last place, which, Gordon and I were fairly
sure, was where we would stay. Our navigator was a pale,
dehydrated shell of himself. Our race was probably over.

Or was it? At dawn Eddie rose from his sleeping bag, took a few
uncertain steps, burped ominously, then said, "Might as well give
it a try."

I thanked Eddie then, thanked him throughout the next two days
and am thanking him now for having the courage to keep going. As
the morning wore on and he was able to hold down a bit of food,
he picked up his pace. For an uphill, two-mile,
profanity-eliciting bushwhack over crosshatched deadfall of birch
and pine, our reward was CP8, atop 3,418-foot North Percy Peak.
More inspiring than the White Mountains arrayed before us was the
realization that Eddie was on the mend. By the time we'd
glissaded down the loose gravel from Dixville Peak and hit the
next transition area, at CP15, we'd been out for 16 hours and had
put six teams behind us.

Friendly and fiendish, Greenberg had spoken at the race briefing
of the "lovely off-trail riding" awaiting us in the section that
followed, a 40-mile mountain bike. The word trickling back from
support crews of the teams ahead of us was that it was a
navigational nightmare. Our plan: get a couple hours of shut-eye
and mount up an hour or two before sunup. Shockingly, we got a
late start (but a damned good breakfast). We pedaled out of the
transition area at 5:45 in search of CP16, probably the most
cunningly situated checkpoint in the race. Two nights earlier,
plotting CP16 on our race-issue U.S. Geological Survey topo maps,
it stared smugly back at us, an unlikely perch halfway up Mount
Kelsey and nowhere near any mapped trail, streambed or other
recognizable feature.

"There's got to be some trail or old logging road that isn't on
the map," said Eddie, who then sketched on the map a dotted line
where this hypothetical trail might be. An hour into our ride
Gordon spotted an overgrown, rutted track heading off to the
southwest. After talking it over, we rolled the dice on the fork
we later nicknamed Gordon's Y. Here, indeed, was the unmapped
logging road whose existence Eddie had surmised. It delivered us
directly to the checkpoint, a yurt from which a surprised race
official emerged. "You guys got here in two hours?" he said.

We had moved past six more teams. One bunch, a trio of
gimlet-eyed Army officers who'd arrived at CP15 after us, then
left before us, was still looking for CP16.

What few gripes I heard about this race tended to focus on
Greenberg's exacting navigational requirements. Dave Zietsma,
captain of the winning Team Schick Xtreme 3 Salomon, agreed that
it had been extremely difficult. "But that's Norm," he said. "One
of the things I teach in my Advanced Navigation class is, 'Know
your race director.'" Greenberg, says Zietsma, requires a
"certain level of intuition." Which was fine with us, because by
the time we hit CP16, Eddie was channeling Norm.

Walking by the hotel pool after the race, Gordon overheard a
member of a team we dropped. "That's bulls---," the guy was
saying. "We're stronger than those guys, but they get lucky and
find a trail that's not on the map, and they finish ahead of us."

Luck? Check our map, buddy. While you were shaving your legs the
night before the race, Eddie was crawling around in Norm's head.
Zietsma and his band of whippets got around that gnarly biking
section to reach CP21 in 7 1/2 hours. We finished it in 10 hours
and 52 minutes. Not bad for a sportswriter, a sardine pitchman
and a salesman who spent the race's first night spilling his guts.

We had so much fun on that third day that it stung only a little
to miss the cutoff for the final hiking section. (Only the
fastest seven of 24 teams completed the full course.) Our
alternate course called for another bike ride--20 miles on paved
roads to Gorham, N.H., where we boarded canoes for the chilly,
nocturnal, 24-mile paddle down the Androscoggin River to the
finish in Bethel, Maine.

Still ahead lay intermittent hypothermia and hallucinations. So
badly did I want to see man-made structures that, four hours into
the paddle, I began to imagine them.

Finally, there was my sister, asleep on the riverbank, wrapped in
a blanket, waiting for her team. Was Penelope this patient, this
loyal?

We shivered last year, too, and saw things that weren't there,
but such travails are more bearable when you are ticking off
checkpoints and passing teams. Where we finished this
year--11th--wasn't as important as the fact that we finished. It
felt good to cross the line and hug everyone in sight, except
Norm. It felt good to eat cold pizza at five in the morning, then
fall asleep in the bathtub clutching a bottle of beer. It felt
good, walking into that party.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM WIMBORNETHREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM WIMBORNE HAPPY TRAILS? The strain of three days of racing was etched onthe author's face.