Saturday, March 8, 2008
Pittsfield Snowshoe Races
It wasn’t until my lonely drive home on Sunday morning that I had any recollection or appreciation for what it was that a few hundred others and myself had accomplished this past Saturday in the hills of Pittsfield, VT. As in any endurance event, the race is more with yourself than that in which you run against each other. This time would be no different as I pushed my inner limits of mental toughness through the slush of Riverside Farm. A race that was challenging by far and enjoyable at best. A journey I will not soon forget.
I arrived in Pittsfield on Friday night to continue working as a member of the dedicated race staff. With a car full of 29 pairs of EMS snowshoes, I needed to unload them al into the Pittsfield General Store for those who are looking to score a pair of these loaners. One thing that makes our race so unique is the ability for individuals who have never done something quite like this before, the opportunity to partake in something above and beyond what they might not think possible within themselves. Is this not the essence of life?
As I worked in the store helping to check participants in and hand out loaner’s snowshoes, the rain began to lightly fall outside before turning to sleet and eventually snow. Yet another layer of snow was once again covering the ground during this never-ending winter in the Northeast. Last weekend the course was covered with 5-6 feet of powder. After the past weeks warmer temps and torrential rains, the pack was now down to 3-4 feet. Thankfully the nighttime snow was going to help us a bit as the course remained well packed and in excellent shape.
After your typical pre-race errands for Andy Weinberg, our spirited race director, I did one last check in town to make sure the shuttle was getting to all of our parking areas and bringing participants to the start. It seemed to be working quite well as we were grateful to Gramps for his donation. As the 200 or so participants, their families and friends, lined the soggy field for the pre-race briefing, whisps of breath were not the only thing rising through the air. There was also a bit of fear, excitement and adrenaline. We were all ready to go, prepared for the hell Jason Hayden had created for us and unsuspecting of what Mother Nature had in store.
As Andy let us go it was a surreal moment to look back through the meadow from the far side and see everyone strung out in one never ending line of adventurers. Fog had settled into the Tweed River Valley as temps rose into the low to mid 30’s. It was a nasty morning and the fog was freezing onto the tree’s making for quite the display of ice crust on everything. I tried running as hard as I could for the first 300 yards, staying in a fun filled 5th or 6th place before I gave up on it and started walking. I laughed childishly at my foolish stunt in trying to keep up with the likes of Paul Low and Leigh Schmitt. These boys are top athletes and its always cool to spend ANY time with them on the same trail even if for all of 12 seconds. But the moment of foolishness soon faded away as it was time to get to work. Up and over the meadow’s fence and into the woods where we were treated to our first insane climb.
The course, as designed by Pittsfield Local Jason Hayden, is 95% single-track trail used in our other races throughout the year. It also consists of what I considered to be 85% climbing with short and sweet descending sections. The 6.55 Mile loop boasted a torturous 1,700’ of gain on a collection of climbs where you would struggle to drag your foot forward late in the race. Early on I was truly enjoying the day, hearing the conversations of fellow racers, watching them smile and enjoy themselves. This is what makes it all worthwhile. The first section of the course is a series of winding long switchback, which finally dump you out onto a high climb which melts into an enjoyable traverse through a hardwood glade. At the end of the glade you make a final march uphill before turning into a 1.1 mile downhill run into the Tweed River Rd Aid Station.
The aid station was well equipped with snacks of all kinds. Chips, cookies, candy, fruits, apple cider, soup and a burning fire. It was hard moseying past the fire, especially on a cold and dreary day like today. From here the trail was littered with dropped M&M’s which lined the trail in a kaleidoscope of color. This was pleasant as we then began the switchback section, 32 of them, which led us into the “Magical Forrest.” Near the top of “Joe’s Hill” we entered into a forest so thick that it blocks out the sun on the brightest of days and is especially dark on days of inclement weather.
After more switchbacks through this enchanted forest, you emerge out into the open expanse of Joe’s Summit. On a clear day you can see 50 to 100 Miles north through the Green Mountain National Forest. At the very top of the hill is a monitors tent where our valued volunteer Kevin was sitting in wait for the second year in a row. His main goal was not only to ensure everyone made it there, but to give you the option of heading down hill with a sled or red saucer. This being my first loop of the day, I took a sled and crashed down the mountainside sliding almost all the way into the start/finish. To this day it is still the longest non-stop sledding run (.08 Miles) I have ever been on.
After a quick refill of my bottles and grabbing some treats I headed out for my second loop. My good friend Paul Kearney was just ahead of me in the meadow as I tried to catch up to him. Paul is training for his attempt at this years Vermont 100 Mile Run and is currently in some fine shape. I never caught up to him but enjoyed some short moments of various other competitors. As we entered back onto the hill, the fog was trying to lift as the winds picked up a bit and the temps rose. The freezing drizzle of loop one was now a light regular drizzle as accumulated ice came crashing down into the woods around us. I was soaked from head to toe, but enjoying every moment of the race. My concentration was on relentlessly moving forward to try and keep warm. I thought of it so much, that I mistakenly forgot other vital issues which plagued me on later loops.
Near the top of the first series of climbs I heard my friend Drew who was doing his part by hooting and hollering at as many competitors would listen to him. Drew is a master of antagonism and motivation. His style is both unique and undeniably useful. I love the guy to death as he always lights a fire in my soul. I tried to help La Sportiva Athlete Sara Montgomery motivate herself up the hill as she talked of dropping after loop 2. She mentioned the climbing was more than she expected and feared she couldn’t complete 2 additional laps. Although she was down and out, this amazing athlete continued to press forward on a course, which wanted nothing more than to give competitors their dose of Pittsfield Punishment.
I made my way down past the first aid station. The trail was turning into a sloppy mess of mud and slush. Think of a root-beer slush puppy and you have exactly what we were running through. My feet were soaked but thanks to my Injinji Toe Socks and a pair of EMS wool hikers, I managed to keep them warm and comfortable. The course was starting to crumble under the weight of over 100 still traveling over it. Postholes were starting to appear and it was increasingly difficult not to fall into a water bar. I found Joe Desena and followed him for a while as we approached the top of his hill for the 2nd time. This time, I opted to run down and found it to actually be faster!
Back at the start finish, I noticed the crowd was starting to get smaller. There wasn’t many competitors too close behind me and the meadow in front of me was empty as well. After refilling my bottles with Nuun, grabbing more food, I was on my way. As I continue my training for the McNaughton Park 150 Mile Race in Pekin, IL; I had no choice but to continue to push my limits. I would be all alone for more than 90% of lap #3 and as I headed through the field, the fog fell back into the valley and a steady rain began to fall.
Just beyond the groom’s barn, I started up the first climb. Not long into it, I felt both of my quads completely seize up. The force of the pull from the muscles in my legs was so tight, that it actually pulled my upper body forward. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t walk or move my legs and I was in a LOT of pain. I forced myself to stand up and tried my best to stretch the cramping muscles. The combination of cold rain soaked legs, frigid temps and my absent mindedness of a nutrition plan had finally caught up to me. For the next 3 minutes, muscle contraction was non-existent. I popped Succeed! S-Caps down my throat and hurriedly drank Nuun. Just when I thought it all was over, took one step forward and repeated the same process over again. I never panicked, just simply worked it out, and soon I was once again on my way towards the finish on the pursuit of another tough accomplishment.
Back up and around the mountain, through the switchbacks, down the luge on my feet and crashing into the Start/Finish the rain was now of what seemed like biblical proportions. It came down in buckets, which felt nothing short of miserable at a balmy 34 degrees. I ate as much as I could and drank fluids in an attempt to jump-start my body’s temperature gauge. I gave Dot Helling a huge hug and thanked her for coming to check the race out. She told me Paul was doing quite well and I was so happy to hear it. Paul is working harder than anyone I know to accomplish his goals as a runner and I am very proud to not only know him, but to know he can do it.
I threw on my shell jacket, exchanged for a new pair of gloves and balaclava and headed out for loop 4. I had been slowing down quite a bit and knew I was going to be cold and soaked in the driving rain. Hopefully I had done enough to bundle up for the last 2 hours on the course. The course was now home to torrents of water in the waterbars. Every stream I crossed saw my foot sinking into ankle deep mud and rushing snowmelt. It was dangerous, treacherous and actually kind of fun. I did everything shy of crawling up every uphill section, stopping many times to recollect myself and push myself further. One moment I felt like I could go no further, and the next I felt like I could go for days. It was an interesting mix if mental limbo.
As I made it to the aid station one last time, Joe was there again with one of the Candians. “Hey Sherpa! This guy is hypothermic, want to walk him to the finish?” I responded with a mumbled, “That’d be fine Joe except.. I think I’m not far off from his state of mind myself.” I was cold and starting to shiver. My muscles on the verge of tensing up once again. I was tired, hungry and the clock was still ticking. The three of us marched and stumbled together to the top of Joe’s Hill. I’ll never forget our Pittsfield Death March to the top this time around because I knew that I was doing well given the course and conditions yet.. I was 100% spent. As we got to the top, the Canadian Ironman headed down the hill while I talked briefly with Joe. And then, I bid farewell to Joe in the driving rain as I crashed my way downhill. I passed the Ironman after checking to make sure he was ok before I continued on to the finish.
At the finish line it appeared as though all but 6 people had gone home. There was still plenty of us on the course. Well.. sort of. Of the 59 participants that started the marathon, only 18 of us finished. The rest bailed at the half and many of those who started the half bailed to the 6 mile fun run. Fun run.. all three races were a fun run. I ended the race by standing in a shin deep river of snow, ice, slush and frigid water. I was soaked head to tow, cold and on the verge of hypothermia. After 7 Hours and 20 Minutes of moving forward, I was glad to finally take a seat as one of the 18 who went the distance.
I encountered many inspirational moments on the trail during the race. The most vivid I will carry with me all the way through this entire year. If you’ll continue reading I’ll tell you…
On Friday Night, The Alvorado family had signed up for the event. I fitted them both with a fine pair of EMS’s finest rental snowshoes and wished them well. Mrs. Alvorado had participated last year. Mr. Alvorado had never been on a pair of snowshoes in his life. On my way down Joe’s Hill near the end of my third loop, I passed them making their way down the hill themselves. They were soaked from head to toe, sitting on sleds in the middle of a snow encased mud hole of winter deluge. As they heard me coming, they turned to me with the BIGGEST smiles I have ever seen during a race. They were laughing like school children, enjoying the ride of their life and relishing in their accomplishment. This one single moment is what makes it all worth while, and really brings it home as to what its all about. They accepted a personal challenge, they met it head on, the endured Mother Nature, they partook and had an amazing time. They smiled all the way t the finish line.. and at the Lobster and Shrimp Feast many hours later… they were still smiling brightly. This is what makes the work all worth while, and this is what also makes it worth while to share a trail with such amazing people. Not just the Alvorados.. but the 200 other’s who survived the 2008 Pittsfield SlushShoe Race.