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Extreme wilderness race tests mettle, skills

Scott McNeil (left) and Joe Macey lugged a canoe from Moosehead Lake.

Photos by LUIS MOREIRA

Scott McNeil (left) and Joe Macey lugged a canoe from Moosehead Lake.

Rick Keilty is a seasoned single-day adventure racer. But the Watertown resident was admittedly nervous when he got the full rundown on his latest challenge, the 250-mile Untamed New England event in Maine’s central highlands.

“Part of the reason for doing this is the personal challenge, and part of it is to experience a real adventure,” said Keilty. “But after seeing the course overview video on Tuesday night before the race, I was actually scared of what we were getting ourselves into.”

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The remote region near Moosehead Lake has long been a choice destination for outdoor enthusiasts. But over four days last month, the rugged terrain was transformed into mission central for the adrenaline set, as 41 teams, including a number of sleep-deprived competitors from Greater Boston, battled for back-country supremacy.

Keilty and teammate Eric Wyler of Brighton were running — and pedaling and paddling — with top-flight international adventure racers. Teams from Canada, Spain, Brazil, Ecuador, Sweden, France, Paraguay, and Mexico, as well as the United States, descended on the hamlet of Greenville in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness region, about 300 miles and five hours north of Boston.

Rick Keilty (left) and Eric Wyler studied a map.

LUIS MOREIRA

Rick Keilty (left) and Eric Wyler studied a map.

“The location is fabulous,” said Grant Killian, director of Untamed Adventure Racing, which is based in Dover, N.H. “To contrast 21st-century life, with mobile phones and the Internet, and the next thing you know you’re spending five days just traveling under human power with map and compass, through areas that only the indigenous inhabitants around Moosehead Lake explored for centuries.”

The race was the brainchild of Dan Rinard, operations manager of the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Woods Initiative, which has placed 70,000 acres in the wilderness region under permanent protection.

According to Rinard, AMC wanted to “showcase the region and our Maine woods property as being accessible to lots of different back-country, nonmotorized recreation.’’ And Untamed New England, he said, “did a fantastic job.”

Killian said once the region’s largest single landowner, timber giant Plum Creek, signed off, Untamed New England — one stop on the global Adventure Racing Series — was on.

“Most of the racers have some kind of a caveman itch that they’re trying to tap into,” said Killian. “They have to find an adventure race like ours to explore that side of them.”

On the eve of the race, when the course was revealed to participants, Keilty and Wyler learned exactly what scratching that itch meant.

“Adventure races appeal to a primal desire to pursue the unknown and conquer your fears and worries in the face of continual adversity,” said the 26-year-old Wyler.

“So many things can go wrong during a race — you have physical problems, gear malfunctions, you get lost, you start hallucinating from sleep deprivation, you get overheated, you get cold, etc. Those all sound miserable, and they are at the time. But the memories, accomplishment, and camaraderie at the end of a race are second to none.”

The Untamed New England course featured five portions — canoeing, trekking, rappelling, mountain biking, and white-water rafting — that racers had to navigate on their own over four days, wrapping up on June 22.

“As the race director, Grant, stated in an early e-mail to teams, ‘If you’re not scared at the start line, you should evaluate why you’re here,’ ” said Keilty.

“That fear gave me motivation during the race. After we tackled a few of the legs successfully, it was a huge mental boost to prove to myself that I could handle the distance, danger, and complexity of the course.”

The course featured landmarks such as the Birches Resort and white-water outfitter Northern Outdoors, but the highlight was the natural environment, including Moosehead Lake, dense forests, precipitous hillsides, and the swirling waters of the Kennebec and Dead rivers .

“It was gorgeous, wild and unforgiving,” said John Macey, 33, one of three brothers on the Holliston-based Grit-N-Gears team. The abandoned Big Squaw Mountain ski area was so overgrown that racers had to trudge through thickly wooded trails that once entertained Maine skiers.

“This area, even in summer, boasts some of the most wild terrain for adventure racing, and the weather can take a turn from 80 and sunny during the day to 40 and raining hours later, making it extremely challenging to prepare for and to race through,” said the 28-year-old Keilty.

“Adventure-wise, we couldn’t have asked for anything more. In the first 12 hours we had canoed, trekked across two islands on Moosehead Lake, rappelled down a 300-foot cliff’’ on Little Kineo Mountain, “and bushwhacked our way back to our boats. That’s more adventure than most people get in an entire year, and it constituted only an eighth of the race we were going to experience.”

Holliston resident Brian Macey, 28, said Untamed New England also featured another omnipresent obstacle: blood-thirsty mosquitoes.

“Even with bug spray, they ended up on your face, in your mouth, and on any exposed flesh at the time,” said Macey, who also suffered a nasty gash on his leg during the rappelling section. “Or not exposed, since they’d find a way up your shirt. At times it was so unbearable we refused to stop moving to get food or check the map until we were in a less-infested location.”

The Grit-N-Gears members showed true grit, as they missed several checkpoints and wound up covering an additional 100 miles during the race, said the team’s leader, Joe Macey, 30.

Grit-N-Gears members (from front) Scott McNeil, Brian Macey, and John Macey hiked through the woods during the 250-mile Untamed New England race.

LUIS MOREIRA

Grit-N-Gears members (from front) Scott McNeil, Brian Macey, and John Macey hiked through the woods during the 250-mile Untamed New England race.

The team placed 33d, last among the finishers. But they finished.

“It was mentally satisfying to have given everything you had for four days and not quit, no matter how tough it got,” he said.

The team’s lack of experience with navigation proved its undoing, he said, but every member said they plan to compete again.

“We were rookies to the world of adventure racing, but we all enjoy the outdoors and have a persistent attitude about accomplishing goals we set both individually and as a team,” said Brian Macey.

“Nearly anyone can run on a taped-off trail with obstacles, but the elements of adventure racing seemed like a perfect opportunity to pursue the goal of challenging your physical and mental fortitude.”

Joe Macey said the team’s first adventure racing effort won’t be its last. “I want to improve our finish standing,” he said. “We are looking into other local races that may be 24- or 48-hour events to improve our skills for the longer races.”

For Keilty, whose team placed 30th, the race was the culmination of a “five-year goal.”

“Nothing puts you through as much challenge, pleasure, and suffering as this sport,” said Keilty.

“And the elation one gets when seeing a checkpoint, after bushwhacking up the side of a mountain for hours on end with nothing but a compass bearing guiding you, is simply irresistible.”

Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.

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