July 5, 2022
By Rebecca Ross, Field Reporter
Photos: Team Don’t Tell Mom by Rebecca Ross
For many racers, the goal of Race to Alaska is solely to make it across the 750 miles of ocean to the finish line. For others, it’s twofold: making it to the finish line and beating their competition. And now I know it’s the latter for Team Don’t Tell Mom.
Following the team’s tracker these past 17 days, I suspected their proximity to Team Let’s Row Maybe? was somewhat intentional. They wouldn’t be the first teams to seek the security and company of traveling in tandem. I had been eagerly anticipating their arrival in Ketchikan, expecting another meeting full of coy nonchalance and subtle, unspoken understandings. It wasn’t until I finally reconnected with Team Don’t Tell Mom that I discovered that I had greatly underestimated their uncompromising competitiveness.
They give each other one of those telepathic glances as they take time to consider their answer. Clare is the first to speak. “It was painful,” she admits and pauses before earnestly continuing. “Mentally, I was okay, but physically, it was painful. I will never do it again!” Mostly, I believe her, but there’s still a shred of doubt. We’ll see about that.
I restate the question for Leigh, quiet on her stool, “What about for you? What was the biggest challenge?”
Leigh takes a beat before responding, “I don’t know. There wasn’t anything too challenging. Physically and mentally, I felt fine.”
Really? I wondered, Was that mulling I had seen from Leigh just now, or brooding? Their reticence makes me hesitate to move on. I let the moment linger, hoping that they would elaborate. “Well…” Leigh picks back up, “The most challenging part for me was the competition. The first time I did the race with Damien (Leigh raced with her husband back in 2019), we were the only human-powered boat. We were doing our best and pushing hard, but we didn’t have any pressure. This time there was a lot more pressure—the pressure was constant.”
“Wait!” I blurt, as a sudden realization strikes me. “I know Clare is competitive, but Leigh, I didn’t realize you are too, and from the sound of it, maybe even more competitive.”
Clare nods in agreement, confirming my epiphany. This begins to explain the reason behind the 70-mile push the day before—nearly doubling their average. They wanted to ensure they widened the gap between them and Let’s Row Maybe?.
With remembered paranoia, Leigh confides, “When we camped for the night, I kept waking up and looking out of the tent—anxious that they were going to push through the night and beat us.”
Well, I thought to myself, that explains the 3 am text I got on Saturday from Clare that they were two hours away from the finish line. I had been caught by surprise. It was a stunning Hail Mary deviation from the original plan of arriving on Sunday. How did I not know Leigh is the ultra-competitive one? I sift through my memory to try and recall any previous hints of competitiveness from Leigh. Nothing came to mind except a pre-race Zoom meeting where Leigh demonstrated a subtle irritation regarding another all-female row team on the roster.
“I am really competitive,” Leigh repeats. Several times. As if I could forget after her shrewd calculations brought them to the finish nearly 17 hours ahead of their competition!
“But Leigh, how would you feel if you lost?” I ask. In previous interviews, I would have expected a nonchalant response from the understated Leigh.
“Oh, it would be horrible! I had to win because I had put in so much planning and preparation.” Her answer is delivered with a hard look that is final enough to stop any further blasphemous questions about losing. I now see why she had signed up for Race to Alaska for a second time—this race is right up her alley.
If one other human-powered, all-women team brought out this unyielding steel in her, I pondered, How fierce will she get if there are more human-powered, all-women teams in 2023? I certainly hope we get to find out.
Rebecca Ross, field reporter
Rebecca is a freelance writer and outdoor photographer based in Longview, Washington, who spends time backpacking, traveling, and summiting peaks.