When running around the block doesn’t cut it

Rockport racer takes on Mt. Washington’s tough spring weather

Posted:  Thursday, May 18, 2017 - 7:00pm
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MT WASHINGTON – More than three hours into the grueling pentathlon on Mount Washington, Jayme Okma Lee’s mental fortitude hit its greatest challenge. The final downhill stretch of the hike/ski leg should have taken 10 minutes instead, for her, it took about half an hour. Solidly in second place of the three female competitors, somehow she tripped near Hermit Lake Shelter, breaking the binding on one of her skis.

Okma Lee, of Rockport, competed against other New Englanders in the 8.3 mile run, 5.5 mile paddle, 18.2 mile cycle, and 3 mile hike and ski on April 8. Though she cannot remember how she learned of the fundraiser event, she met the challenge directly.

Weather conditions for Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine Pentathlon were ‘pretty bad,’ Okma Lee said. At one point, wind blew down Okma Lee’s husband, Bjorn, as he stood in a snowbank.

Cold, snow, and 30-mph gusts wreaked havoc on her efforts through the 35-mile course that even the day earlier wasn’t entirely determined due to changing conditions. 

“I think it’s just part of what this race is,” Okma Lee said while sitting in a Rockport cafe in May. “I like it because of the challenge of not knowing. There are so many variables to this race, with the weather, the course, and the transitions that complicate it. Sometimes you have to roll with it, take it as it comes. There’s a lot of mental fortitude.”

Movement had kept her warm, but when the binding break idled her, the cold seeped in and added to a growing panic. There was no way, in her ski boots, to retrace her steps down the hill she’d just skinned up. (To skin is to strap carpet-like material to the skis for tread in order to walk up the hill).

Instead, she was forced to configure a solution to her predicament. She found a way to keep her foot and ski together, though she basically slid down the narrow, windy, icy mogul-like path on her other leg. 

“It’s good practice,” she said. “Life practice. It’s like, now I have something to compare: ‘It’s not as bad as when that happened, so this will be OK.’”

Okma Lee not only competed in this year’s Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon up and around Mt Washington, she excelled where two other participants did not finish. Though Okma Lee does not know why the two participants dropped out, she considered unpreparedness as a factor.

“It’s challenging, what you wear, what clothes you put at each stage,” she said.

For her, the regret was of not having an extra jacket during her binding break dilemma.

Even still, with help from Bjorn, Okma Lee added or removed clothing three times and switched gear four times during the various transition points along the route.

Approximately 30 individual competitors and 30 relay teams competed in this event, which Okma Lee, who skied for Bowdoin College, said she could not have done without her years of athletic training. Since 2010 she’s been participating in triathlons, and participated in the St. George River paddle the week before.

One of only three female individual finishers, her overall time, four hours and 52 minutes, was faster than one male- and one female team, and nine of the 24 individual males.

Her times:  1:07:21 run, 35:56 kayak, 1:28:55 bike, 1:14:52 hike, :24:57 ski

Held annually, the Inferno challenge is a fundraising event to offset costs needed to maintain and protect the fragile Tuckerman Ravine region in the Mount Washington Valley. According to the History of the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine website, the nonprofit organization became established in the year 2000 through a four-person committee.

Since then, several pentathlon races have taken place, leading participants through communities and private lands, and across high-traffic areas where officials and chase cars cannot always follow.      

This year’s race profits, according to Okma Lee, will help fund a WiFi antenna for the avalanche safety team in this area described by Okma Lee as a mecca for backcountry skiers.

Of this pentathlon, Okma Lee is not one of those athletes to say ‘never again.’ Planning, training, and attending the event proved to be a major time and money commitment. However, participating again in the future would allow her to go up Tuckerman’s Ravine, which was closed this time due to the weather.

“It’s a fun race,” she said. “It’s well put together and I like the cause that the money is going to. It’s a nice combination of being really hard, but it’s more of a casual race. It’s more like a grassroots thing rather than like a big commercial production.”

Okma Lee, her coach Scott Layton, and others are organizing this year’s Megunticook Triathlon (formerly the Maine Sport Triathlon) during Labor Day weekend. According to Okma Lee, a shorter distance and a longer distance option will be offered for that run/bike/swim event.

Reach Sarah Thompson at news@penbaypilot.com