Enjoying an Old Fashioned Winter at Snowshoe Nationals

Trail runner Laura Clark shares her story from this year’s Dion Snowshoes U.S. National Snowshoe Championships, where she finished second in her age group in the 10K and 34th overall in the half marathon. Photos by Jen Ferriss.

Recalling those “When I was your age…” legends about blinding snowstorms and waist-high drifts, the 2018 Dion U.S. National Snowshoe Championships in Woodford, Vermont , lent credibility to what we had assumed were tall tales invented around a roaring fireplace. Blessed with 44 inches of snow (and still actively falling), the challenging routes recalled Western Massachusetts Athletic Club (WMAC) days of legend with everyone racing in train formation to break the path, taking turns at point.

But what a journey to get there! December brought three feet of promising “base” and in a burst of early season enthusiasm Nationals mastermind Tim Van Orden committed to a race directing ultra—spearheading six separate events over the span of two days – March 10-11: Saturday’s 5k, 10K and Kids’ Kilo and Sunday’s Team Relay, Half and Full Marathon. Not to mention course previews, separate awards ceremonies and get togethers. To heighten the challenge he designed five separate courses. As the countdown relentlessly continued, he found himself putting in first 40, then 60 and ultimately 100-hour weeks. And as the snow fell and melted, re-configuring the trails, he designed multiple courses depending seemingly on the time of day and the weather predictions. He has enough trail designs in reserve to host a race-of-the week!

As the February thaw gradually released its hold, winter dominated once more, frosting Prospect Mountain with an incredible amount of powder, enough to last well through April. To achieve his goal to make “absolutely the most beautiful snowshoe course ever,” he carved narrow, twisty singletrack through the Black Forest-like landscape. And naturally the majority of the narrow route was inaccessible to motorized devices, leaving Tim tunneling through in fisherman-style waders, achieving lactate threshold with every step. Through it all, he remained relentlessly smiling despite repeatedly setting multiple SKTs (Slowest Known Times) for his routes. And then there was the no small matter of making the site approachable. Visit Tim’s Facebook page and you can view the cavern-like parking area, the porta-potties barricaded by snow and the daunting roof clearing operations.

Normally in back-to-back events there are two, or at most, three choices. But here we were confronted with the same dilemma faced by Willy Wonka’s Veruca “I want it all…I want it now.” Saturday’s options were clear-cut for those pursuing Nationals status, but Sunday’s were murky: an intense 2.5-mile relay loop or a half or a full. While the first appears a no-brainer, after trying to get my sore body parts in gear Sunday morning, I was actually looking forward to the more leisurely paced half with no worries about letting teammates down.

I should, however, have stated my plan more concisely. I had started many races with twelve-year-old Solitaire Niles, now in her first year of serious snowshoeing. Because she knew I was targeting the half, she assumed I would be, like her, a 5K candidate. She was on the verge of bagging it, but fortunately managed to hook up with Theresa Apple who finished ahead of her last week. It was inspiring to see her cross the finish line, smiling from the accomplishment and praising the beauty of the final mile. She had gained so much confidence from overcoming her doubts and forging ahead.

We all should have had those doubts as we lined up for the 10 K Championship, undoubtedly one of the most challenging and scenic 10Ks ever. While there were some wide XC ski trails, they mostly seemed to be going up. Most memorable was the out of control, arm-flailing ziggurat-style descent from the top of the mountain. We enjoyed multiple wild rides down the extremely narrow single track, bordered by waist-high snow. It took some getting used to as your eyes were automatically pulled to either side when they really needed to be focused on foot placement. I’m not sure if this was an optical illusion because of the tunnel-like path and the extreme whiteness, but it took a while to become acclimated to the different perspective. At one point I stepped off to the side to allow a faster runner to pass and plunged waist-deep toward a hidden stream. At another, while careening around a corner, the backs of my snowshoes locked and I was unable to move. Luckily, after some frantic jiggling, all was well and I avoided having someone else crash into me. Not sure exactly what happened, but I suspect a partially buried twig was to blame. By that time all the twisting had begun to take a toll on my back—rather like I had pushed my body into an endless clothes dryer cycle.

The following day, I felt less pressure at the half marathon since I had no expectations, especially on such a difficult course. Mercifully, Tim was not able to completely clear the marathon course, so we were treated to multiple loops of the 5K route. Everyone breathed an audible sigh of relief. If I had had to attack two loops of the previous day’s 10K I never would have made it.

I know some dread multiple loops, feeling it lends itself to a “Where have I come from? Where am I going?” mentality. In a taxing event, however, I savor the reassurance that comes from the familiar: recognizing the route, spotting certain landmarks once more, and finally thinking “This is the last time I will have to pass this bridge or tunnel.” At one open area we were treated to an expansive vista and while pausing to savor it, I spotted a tall white house, way down in the valley below that I knew marked the lowermost trail. I must admit that was a bit discouraging, but it was still satisfying to focus on where I eventually had to travel. While I realize that the 10K was way more technical, I wonder if part of that difficulty came from the fact that we had no concrete idea exactly how much more was left. There is a lot to be said for mental preparedness.

I know some folks plan special birthday weekends centered around their favorite sport, but I was doubly lucky in that Nationals Sunday fell on my birthday without any pre-planning on my part. I was amazed at how quickly word got around and by my second loop I was serenaded by aid station volunteers and bystanders alike. I was especially touched that my buddy Solitaire and her Mom and Dad made a special trip out just to cheer me on. Better than champagne, Jen Ferriss de-iced my frozen water bottle and presented me with a squeezy applesauce to fuel my final loop.

And that is the best thing about doing something like this—the warm fuzzies from old and new friends and the “we are all in this together” feeling of belonging and accomplishment. I hope that next year, free from Nationals requirements, we will have the opportunity to tackle the half or the full without having to compete the day before as well!

See complete results here.