Embark photo — Mike Lynch
Saranac Lake resident Becky Sutter rides her mountain bike at Dewey Mountain recently. In the past year, Sutter has taken up adventure racing, a sport in which races can last 27 straight hours or more.
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SARANAC LAKE — In the past year, Becky Sutter has taken up the sport of adventure racing, a grueling competition that requires athletes to be adept in a wide array of activities from paddlesports to mountain biking.

Sutter, a Saranac Lake resident and a member of the math faculty at Paul Smith’s College, has competed in four races. The first three were about 12 hours long each, but the weekend of June 6 and 7, she competed in her first 27-hour-long competition called The Longest Day and Night. Set in the Catskills, this event started at dawn and required Sutter to traverse across the deep and scenic Platts Clove on a rope, tube the Esopus River and hike deep into the night on no sleep.

In adventure racing, individuals and teams are required to navigate through a predetermined set of stages within a certain time period. Each stage has checkpoints that participants must navigate using no more than a map and compass. The Longest Day and Night was broken down into six stages that included hiking, biking and paddling.

Sutter is a part-time member of the Berlin Bike team based out of Connecticut. She credits her teammates Ernie Lawas — another Adirondacker originally from Jay — and Ben Moore with helping her learn the sport. Both are excellent navigators, a key component to this activity.

EMBARK: A lot of people don’t know what adventure racing is. Could you describe it?

SUTTER: I like to tell people it’s like off-road triathlon. Generally, there’s some sort of water leg, whether it be a paddle or a swim. Last year we swam across a reservoir with our packs on. There’s mountain biking; sometimes there’s cycle cross and a trekking leg. The whole goal of the race is to find controls (or checkpoints) through each stage. In The Longest Day and Night, there were 19 mandatory checkpoints. Most of the top teams will get the mandatories, and you’ll try to get optional checkpoints to rack up points. So if you have three top teams that cleared the whole course, it comes down to how many optional points they got in that time period.

EMBARK: What skills do you need as a participant?

SUTTER: You have to be able to perservere. You have to be able to suffer. That’s the main thing. I don’t have really technical mountain-biking skills, but I would say, get your miles in on your bike. I’m not a really fast runner, but I do a lot of hiking and trekking. So I think if you’re not a navigator on the team, just having your basic endurance sport training.

EMBARK: Tell me about the Longest Day and Night race in the Catskills.

SUTTER: We started in New Paltz. We paddled on the Esopus River for three hours and then transitioned to our bike for about 50 miles, where there was a lot of hill climbing. Then whitewater came before the initial night trek. They actually put us on these big inner tubes with Class 3 and 4 rapids with our kayak paddles on the Esopus Creek. Then we had another ride at night for another ropes and foot section. We finished in 26 hours. They said the estimated distance was over 95 miles. But we clocked it over 100 for what we did.

EMBARK: You don’t get any sleep? What does that feel like at the end?

SUTTER: We did sit down on a trail at about 1:30 a.m., when we were with Team EMS. We all sat down, turned off our headlamps for about 20 minutes. Nobody said anything. I probably hit a wall at the final ascent to the foot section, and my teammates took my pack. My legs weighed 100 pounds each. I thought I was done.

EMBARK: What were you climbing when you hit the wall?

SUTTER: We were down in Platts Clove. We did a Tyrolean traverse. You strap into a harness and pull yourself over this ravine. There was a 50-foot drop. That was kind of scary. Then we did an ascent up this cliff. I want to say it was Overlook. When we got up to Overlook and were looking out, what a view. You could see Indian Head and just the Catskills; it was an incredible view. The sun was coming up.

EMBARK: How do you pace yourself in an event such as The Longest Day and Night?

SUTTER: I was just really following my guys, and they just worked off me. Ernie hooked up a tow system on his bike, and that’s something you do in adventure racing. It’s all teamwork, so he was towing Ben, and Ben was towing me. So I never got off tow on the bike because I would just slow him down. What that does is, it keeps you together as a team, but it also assists the weaker team member. In the paddle, which is my strong point, we towed. We had two-person sit-on-tops with three people. So we had to put all our bags and stuff into the back canoe, and I was front canoe. We towed our third team member and all the gear in the boat behind us.


EMBARK: What gear do you need to compete?

SUTTER: A lot. If you want to go light and fast, you need a good daypack. Mandatory gear usually requires a headlamp, rain gear, first-aid kit; then you need to have good shoes, and you have to have bike shoes, helmet, mountain bike, a paddle. If you’re smart, you have two bags that are fully packed. In a transition area, you drop one of your bags and grab a full one and throw it on so you’re not dealing with unpacking stuff and switching. In one year I’ve managed to fill a couple of gear bins with just getting stuff for races. And if you do a winter race, which we did, you have to have backcountry skis and snowshoes and, again, light winter gear.


EMBARK: You’ve done it about a year. What’s the most difficult stage you’ve had to do?

SUTTER: I would say the winter race. We had to posthole with our gear. You couldn’t have any support to stay above the snow. We had to keep our skis off, carry our skis, our snowshoes and our packs, and we had do about a three-kilometer saddle up over in Bolton Valley, Vt. That was to get to the next transition area. We were in first place. We were the lead team, so we were breaking trail. We were up to our crotches in snow, and that was hard. Then the second-place team just followed our holes and caught us and passed us and, thanking us politely, went on their way. So that was the first time I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest.

EMBARK: How important is to have orienteering skills?

SUTTER: When you’re finding the controls, you have to know exactly where you are and go get that control. You have a passport, and you punch it. At all times, you have to know where you are. The first race I did (which was with another team), we were lost for three hours because we overshot (our destination). There were two ridges, and we went to the second when we should have been on the first.

EMBARK: How has your team done so far?

SUTTER: My team, Berlin Bike, is ranked No. 1 in the nation, if you go to U.S. Adventure Racing Association rankings. I feel very lucky that I’m able to race with them. They race with two other females. When I’ve raced with them, it’s been second and third place. Team Innovate is second. They’ve got a lot of firsts but haven’t done as many races. It’s all about how many races you can do.

EMBARK: What are your teammates like?

SUTTER: Ernie Lawas and Ben Moore are just animals. Ernie is from Jay. He’s about 5-foot-7, 145 pounds, but he’s just nonstop. I was just in awe of his physical abilities. He was like a billy goat going up the sides of these mountains, carrying my pack and his pack, so he’s got 20 pounds on his body and he’s just skipping around. They both live in Bristol, Conn. Ben Moore, his wife — Kerri is their traditional female member. She’s taking a year off. She’s opening a business down there. They’ve been circulating different females with the team. The only reason I got in was I put my profile on a teammate finder. I said I was interested in learning. I’m really fortunate that such a skilled team decided to give me a chance.

EMBARK: What other events do you do? I know you do canoe racing.

SUTTER: I won the Wakely Ultra. It’s a run on the Northville-Placid Trail (in the Adirondacks) from Lake Piseco To Wakely Dam. It’s a 50k trail run. I did marathons. Then in 2003 I had major back surgery. My doctor said, “Find a new hobby.” And I don’t think it was adventure racing that he had in mind. So I really started cycling more, running less, doing more trail stuff. Then paddling was really good for strengthening my back. But I think paddling and cycling are the two things I do most.


EMBARK: What type of training do you do in the backcountry? I think I’ve heard you say you’ve run the Great Range before.

SUTTER: My friend and I ran it at night. That’s part of adventure racing; you’ve got to be able to navigate at night and feel confident in the woods at night and bike at night, especially if they send you out on any technical stuff at night. I try to get on the trails as much as I can, and you try to weight your pack with a lot more than you’d actually carry in the race. I always have 10 or 15 pounds of whatever in my pack just to weight it. But I run the Jackrabbit (ski and hiking trail in the Tri-Lakes area) and I do Haystack Mountain, and I do McKenzie Peak a lot.


EMBARK: What’s next for you? Any races coming up?

SUTTER: There’s another one coming up in New England and that’s called Untamed New England, and that’s 80 hours — that’s a three-day race. I’m going to volunteer. My team is doing it, but they have a different female. They’re using this other pro racer. I don’t think I could do a three-day race right now.