Snowshoe Nationals in the Green Mountain State

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 ATRA Newsletter.

By Laura Clark

While the Olympics is exciting, inspiring and fun to watch on TV, it is just that…watching.  If you are like me, I would really rather be participating than sitting on the sidelines.  And while our local Dion Snowshoe Series events do just that, I learned that the scope of a Nationals competition adds a unique flavor.  This year we celebrated our own home-grown Olympics at Prospect Mountain in Woodford, Vermont, with qualifying standards, multiple events and athletes from 28 states and eight countries.  Thanks to Dave Newell, race director, Tim Van Orden (pictured above), course designer, and Bob and Denise Dion, snowshoe sponsors, a small corner of our eighth smallest state hosted the largest United States Snowshoe Association Nationals ever.  Woodford, Vermont, is now on the map.

According to Mark Elmore, who conceived and hosted the first Nationals in Plattsburg, NY, in 2001, the Northeast is an ideal location because the population density — no mega cattle ranches here — ensures that reasonable travel time is possible for many athletes.  Plus, no matter what kind of winter the rest of the New England is experiencing, Woodford is getting snow, and plenty of it.  Last year, when the white stuff was scarce, Woodford had an ample supply through April, perfect for all those snow bunnies who would rather ski than color Easter eggs. This year was a different story, with Prospect Mountain boasting 63 inches a few days before the event.

But, before we get there, a few words about an unannounced competition.  We all know that every seemingly straightforward race is top-heavy with friendly rivalries, footnotes to the main story.  So it is with Annie and Sam.  All season long, my Annie has been flexing her studded tires, striving with all her might to beat Laurel’s Samantha to the parking lot.  This time Annie figured herself for a goner, as Sam had opted for the true Vermont experience at a local B&B while Annie was a lengthy commute away.  Still, to humor her, we fueled with one of the higher octane mixes, endured a lengthy sub-zero warmup and were on our way well before the proverbial rosy-fingered dawn.  And this time, refusing pit stops despite the whining of her driver, Annie won handily by six parking spot lengths!  I had met my obligations as a responsible car owner and was now free to concentrate on my race.

I was not sure I really wanted to though. I had examined the list of entrants in my age group and could peg roughly half of them.  The rest were wildcards.  Knowing I appear on the bottom half of the results sheet, I rarely get nervous, aiming for an enjoyable experience and a placement within my usual grouping of companions.  But, this was different.  I really wanted to stand on that age group hay bale, never mind the fact that it was cold and windy up there in the open.  I even tried visualizing the course before I fell asleep.  This was a mistake as I ended up with worst-scenario nightmares.  If we had had the same race as we did two weeks previously at the Woodford Whiteout, I might have squeezed by.  But, on this day, although the route was exactly the same, it was more entrenched, less flowy and blowy. We had the same steep hills, the same winding, snake-carved single track, but everything was easier to negotiate, favoring runners who were truly fast and not merely tough and persistent.  The Annie/Sam pursuit continued in human form as Laurel and I passed and re-passed each other with Laurel eventually edging me out by 53 seconds. Did Annie ever rub it in on the way home!

While I have run Freihofer’s Run for Women more times than I can count, that is a pure women’s event and not a divided female/male offering.  While most women were thrilled to concentrate solely on picking off same-sex rivals, I wasn’t so sure.  Although it is slowly evolving, trail running still features long men’s room lines and non-existent female queues, except in the final countdown minutes when guys head to the woods and the gals think about toilet paper.  I am used to running with men in my group.  In our local events, we tend to become complacent, knowing just where we should end up in the status quo.  The fact that I could recognize only have the entrants in my age group left me without a benchmark.

This year females were first up, followed by males.  As I watched the guys finish, I realized that they were similarly clueless, inquiring about my time and then comparing to see if they ran as expected. Later, I worked up my nerve and casually (who was I fooling?) wandered over to the results board.  I was listed fourth among the age group winners.  I thought the ranking was a bit odd, but figured I’d take it.  It was not until I hunted down the asterisk that I realized that only the top three counted.  Unreasonably, I thought that perhaps if someone decided not to accept, I would be the lucky runner-up.  Apparently, oxygen was still being shuttled off to my feet and not to my brain cells.

I had never understood Olympic athletes who failed to embrace the total experience as reward enough, and especially not those who griped at third place.  But I had always empathized with fourth place.  You are torn by the “Couldn’t I have tried harder/trained better?” question mark hanging in the air, mentally reviewing each moment to see if perhaps a few more seconds could have been squeezed out.  As I crossed the finish line, I was in full George Sheehan “no regrets” mode, later I had my doubts.  Coming in sixth or eighth still earns you top-ten credibility, but fourth, while infinitely closer to the goal, merits sympathy.  Eventually, I rationalized that in four years I would crest the 70-year-old age group, which this year was a shoe-in with only one other entrant.  That is, until my husband, Jeff, respectfully pointed out that everyone else would have moved up with me.  Oh well.

While some athletes skipped the closing ceremonies, many of us opted for the final day of fun, which included team relays where four-person teams each ran a 2.5-km loop for a 10K total.  This was basically a section of the previous day’s 10K, but negotiated “backward.”  Which meant that the route was familiar in an Alice-In-Wonderland style.  Sunday, too, brought typical mountain weather—snow, gusty winds, teasing snippets of sun that made the first round more difficult than the fourth tie-breaking loop.  High school cross country ski team members served as cheerleaders and course guides, adding a unique energy to our already tired legs. This was a great opportunity for local kids to show their stuff, and try as they might, some of our team members simply could not pass the nine-year-olds on various kids’ teams!

By far the most fun events were Saturday’s Kids’ Kilo and Sunday’s Uphill Run for maple syrup.  The photo below shows Solitaire Niles (yellow shorts) running next to Tim Van Orden and captures the enthusiasm of the next crop of snowshoers.  Solitaire had been coming to our events for years, sledding and playing in the snow while her brother, London, competed and now it was her turn!  You can just see the joy on her face.  Jeff and I direct two races in the Saratoga area, and after seeing these kids, are seriously thinking of our own kids’ event.  The uphill had a mix of ages and was one of the most fun things I have ever done.  My goal was not to walk, and I think I succeeded, but the grade was so steep, it was difficult to tell.  I crested, totally out of breath, and was forced to sit down for several minutes before my wobbly legs could support me.

While I didn’t score an individual medal, our Saratoga Stryders Women’s team did win bronze, so I achieved a podium stand after all.  And I believe I was the only one in my ancient age group to score a tri—10K, team and uphill.  Maybe next time I’ll go for a quad with the Citizen’s Race.