Local team goes extreme in Untamed New England Adventure Race
By Zenya Molnar, Contributing Writer
Westborough – The pines were so thick he couldn's see through them with his headlamp on. It was nearly impossible to move in the darkness, even with poles for bushwhacking to create a trail through the woods. They could be in there for a mile, 10 miles, or two days. That is what was running through Sean O”Dowd's head as he and his teammates, Jesse Dimick and Cullen Franz, descended the 3,196-foot Big Squaw during one of the most challenging parts of the Untamed New England Adventure Race in June.
O”Dowd and Dimick of Westborough and Franz of South Grafton formed team Mason Dixon about a year ago and began training for Untamed New England, a four-day expedition race covering 200 miles in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness region in the Maine highlands. The three teammates met at Crossfit Prototype a couple of years ago when the gym opened in Westborough.
O”Dowd described the dynamic of the team as “friendly, collaborative, and driven.” He said that the same focused mentality carried over from the type of workout at Crossfit to the race.? Though raised in New York City, O”Dowd grew up paddling, hiking and camping among other outdoor activities, and therefore was pleased to discover adventure racing which combines his love for the outdoors and racing.
The preparation and training paid off when Mason Dixon placed 19th out of 41 teams. In the amateur bracket, they came in fifth place. O”Dowd was excited to finish so well in the amateur group.
“We ended up doing a lot better than we ever imagined,” he said. “We were hoping to not be last place, so second to last would have been a grand achievement.”
Untamed New England is comprised of several legs of hiking, paddling, mountain biking, pack- and whitewater rafting, canoeing, and ropes courses. Participants must complete the course using a compass and map to guide the way. A large part of the race involved wilderness navigation, which, according to O”Dowd, is “where the mental games begin.”
“[There were] no trails on your map,” he said. “You look at the map and there's a whole section of green. You don's know where it starts and finishes.”
The race course is not revealed until 8 p.m. the night before it starts, which leaves participants hustling to figure out their course of action for the next four days. The race started at The Forks in Maine where the Dead and Kennebec rivers converge. Team Mason Dixon “ended up doing 300 miles in four days with six hours of sleep,” O”Dowd said. “The adrenaline, excitement, the will not to die or get lost and wanting to just move kept me awake.”
The mental aspect of the race was harder than the physical requirements, which O”Dowd didn's account for until he was in the midst of the race.
“It definitely takes a lot of grit to get through it all,” he said.
Despite the difficult terrain, including summiting about seven peaks, some of which were over 3,000 feet, the team had to determine their own course and blaze their own trail.
“You'se in the middle of nowhere [and] you don's know where you are in those woods,” O”Dowd said. “You think there's a better trail, there isn's. You want to go back, you think you can find it, you won's. You have to trust the compass and go.”
Another challenge of the race is that participants, whose backpacks weighed an estimated 25-30 pounds, must be entirely self-sufficient with gear and food. You cannot stop to buy new gear nor elicit outside help. O”Dowd recalled one time when the team stopped at a diner and ate pancakes along the way at 6 a.m. after they had been biking for six hours. They didn's know exactly where they were, but had a good idea based on their map.
Team Mason Dixon also raced against professional Adventure Racing (AR) teams, such as ones sponsored by Columbia and Thule, and international teams from countries such as Canada, France, and Ecuador, since Untamed New England is an AR World Series expedition race. This means that top winners of Untamed New England qualify for the World Championship which will be held in Ecuador in November.
For those interested in joining adventure races, O”Dowd recommended searching online for smaller races. He described Untamed New England as the “most accessible” race and a “great place to start to see what the big expedition races look like.”
As part of his preparation, O”Dowd took orienteering classes which he thought was a good introduction to mapping and using compasses.
O”Dowd said the team accomplishment and the community support the team received were his favorite aspects of the race.
“People tracking us, cheering us on, sending trail mail??”those were the highlights,” he said.
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