NEWRY — Somehow, apparently among the race officials at the Tough Mountain Challenge, the joke started that the Sun Journal might have an office pool going.

There wouldn’t be many choices in such a contest. Only Regional Editor Scott Thistle and I are running the race, but the newspaper has a fairly large presence at the event. Rumford reporter Terry Karkos is interviewing other runners and officials for the main story, photographer Jose Leiva is collecting dozens of shots of competitors and photographer Amber Waterman is at the base in anticipation of an upcoming triathlon and taking in the madness.

Scott tells me he thinks I’ll have the advantage over him since I’ve spent less time on the planet, but I’m not so sure. The Lewiston editors don’t shy away from lengthy bike rides and jogs, and I’ve forgone quite a few summer evening expeditions in favor of my latest Netflix arrival. Ultimately, Scott and I won’t be in direct competition since the men’s race is split in two at age 34.

The starting official lists the obstacles we’ll be facing, and it seems to go on a bit longer than what was listed on the resort’s website. The course has apparently been tweaked in recent days, though the beginning remains the same. Dozens of eager runners dash forward, then immediately start floundering in the aptly named “Hurricane Alley” as point-blank snow guns drench the entire field.

The scuttlebutt before the race is that the top entrants include Ironman competitors, Marines, firefighters and other people who stay in top shape for a living. So I feel pretty good to be staying close to the top clump of runners as the course gently slopes upward, eventually scrambling over a jumble of snowboard obstacles.

Then it comes home that this is a ski slope, and a key reason for the Tough Mountain Challenge name becomes clear. The route sticks to an inexorable, energy-sapping climb that seems to go on forever. The Ironman competitors, Marines and firefighters disappear while the other fair-weather athletes and I start hiking.

The relief from the hill comes in a descent into a steep ravine, which has thick ropes laid out on the other side to assist in the exit. Another ravine comes soon after, and the way out is a clamber up a rock-strewn stream. One competitor tells me later that with the lack of water stations, he sucked the moisture from Hurricane Alley out of his shirt. I opt for the equally if not more desperate measure of scooping a handful of water out of the stream to quench my thirst.

From there, the course goes through a 30-foot-long culvert and again plunges into the woods. The trails there offer some more downhill relief, but it isn’t long before they once again begin to favor the slopes and I join the other runners around me in slowing to a steady march. The race is only 2.1 miles long, but the overall elevation gain is about 1,000 feet.

The course finally begins its return down the mountain, but even this is a treacherous route over numerous ankle-swallowing divots or rocky access roads. The soap and water on a makeshift slip-and-slide is unfortunately only slick enough to propel me a few feet, and I opt to cover the rest of it on foot.

The net over Barker Pond is meant to catch skiers who fall off the overhanging chairlift, and I’m fully convinced it’s also designed to be uncomfortable to punish anyone who doesn’t know how to sit down properly. The next stage of the challenge requires runners to get across the net by crawling, walking, or any other way that seems to work. It doesn’t seem to be amenable to any of these activities, and twitches crazily whenever someone else gets on board. When I finally get off at the other side, my vision is still reeling drunkenly.

Staggering on, the next obstacle is the mud pit, through which racers must crawl due to overhanging strands of barbed wire. Still feeling net-inebriated, I’m content to take it easy and slowly but steadily go forward on hands and knees, mud oozing over my forearms and legs.

Compared to all that, the final leg seems downright easy. An obstacle course of slalom gates is easily batted aside, a few waist-high hurdles require a careful but manageable jump, and even the ring of fire passes with little more than a wave of heat and a bit of smoke.

Just about everyone comes through the finish gate exhausted, covered in mud and bleeding from at least a couple of gashes. The line for an eight-capacity outdoor shower thins out as people realize the still-blowing ‘Hurricane Alley’ cleans you off quicker and more efficiently.

Perhaps there should have been an office pool, as the result is a barn burner. Scott and I are both right in the middle of the 124-strong men’s field. He finishes with a time of 31:36.39. I’m the next place up, but by less than a second: 31:35.97.

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Tough Mountain Challenge race results can be viewed at http://live-timing.com/report.php?r=20153&rp=392036.


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