Monday, March 9, 2009

RR: Pittsfield Snowshoe Ultra

Friday, March 6, 2009
Pittsfield, VT - 10pm
52.4 Miles.... in the Snow.
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Eight of us stood huddled around each others cars on an unseasonably warm night in Central Vermont. At 10 pm the temperature still hovers near 50 and warm winds are howling through the valley town known as Pittsfield, VT. Six of us have plans to try and travel 52.4 miles on snow, what we were unsure of was how the conditions would play out. Two of us were only there to enjoy the night with us and we welcomed their company. As the clock passed 10, it was time to roll and we all started out walking down the snowmobile trail with our snowshoes in our hand. As we reached the first hill (one of many), it was apparent to us that snowshoes might not entirely be needed tonight. The warmer temps have melted the snow just enough to keep it sticky for us, though no less different than running through sand. The snowmobile trails here in town have been groomed all winter long and packed down by thousands of snowmobilers. It made for an immaculate surface. The only true obstacle we would entangle ourselves with during the night hours were the long patches of glazed ice that snuck up and out from the snow. From time to time, one of us would mistakingly venture out onto a patch and freeze frame, trying to figure out how to keep ones balance. As the battle began to become a losing one, we'd slide backwards down the mountain losing 3-10 feet depending on how long the patch is. It was quite a comic, yet hazardous, routine.

Our route for the first 26.2 miles (6,400' of gain) matched that of the 2007 Snowshoe Race Course. We followed snowmobile trails for all but 10 miles. The 10 miles off of the Snowmobile trails was run on South Hill Rd in Stockbridge Vermont. The road was a mushy dirty mess from the melting rays of sunshine. It was evident pretty early that snowshoes were not needed for this first 26.2 miles, a few of the boys opted to put theirs down at the support vehicle, others carried them back to our start/finish of each 13.1 mile loop and dropped them back in the cars then. Ray, Tom and I opted to carry ours all night. I carried mine on my new Nathan HPL #759 pack. In my pack was a jacket, extra gloves, hat and neck warmer. I was able to carry gels and S Caps! in the front waist pouches and boost in the top compartment. My snowshoes strapped snugly to the pack and I was all smiles as we travelled through the unusually warm night.

The moon shone brightly in the night sky as we made our rounds through the first loop. I twas so bright it could have been the sun. Winds howled at 25-30 mph from the south as the warm air bushed across our faces. South Hill is such an angry mountain with many temperature zones. Dying of warmth from the breezes one minute, we froze with cold breezes blowing off the snow in other instances. It was a crazy crazy night. As we looked up, stars filled the sky where the clouds were not. Tower cumulus clouds raced across the stratosphere from one end to the other. It was such a beautiful and surreal night and I was more than happy to be sharing it with 7 great friends.

A little more than halfway through the loop, we stopped to gather aid from Rik Robert's vehicle. We all ate things like trail mix, crackers, cheese, chocolates, and fruit. Some of the boys drank energy drinks and coffee shots from Starbucks. Anything to stay awake and keep moving, it's now approaching midnight and we still have a very long way to go. It's obvious that we are all at varying levels of fitness and want to go at various speeds. But the group does well in clinging together and waiting for each other at major intersections regardless of knowing which way to go or not. It's always nice when your group extends certain unwritten courtesy's to one another. It makes for a much more pleasant experience.

We march slowly up South Hill Road as the slick and soupy mud gets steeper and steeper as we go. Soon it flattens out, the winds pick back up and we meet at the top of the road before descending back into the happy valley once again. As we get off of South Hill Rd, we head back into the wilderness on local snowmobile trails. Our group spreads out and soon the trail of headlights bobbing their way down the hill side is every so evident in the night. Many of us have longed for this "ultra feel" for many months, and we're glad that it's back. I know that I am as various levels of euphoria begin t flow through my veins... I'm home again and I'm all smiles.

As we make our way back to the cars, it gives us all a chance to regroup. Some of the boys drop off their snowshoes and prepare for the next 13.1 mile loop of this first 26.2 miles of our adventure. Rik is feeling a bit under the weather and is opting to run the road back to his car, where he and Tim plan to wait for our arrival before heading home for the night. The rest of us eat, drink, continue to be merry and gather ourselves to travel back up and around the mountain one more time.

The clouds become less numerous in the night sky on this journey around and the moon begins to turn dark orange as it sets behind the mountains to our West. The winds begin to die and finally the temps drop to at or below freezing. As this happens, the once slushy SNowmobile trails are now solid crunchy icy and frozen rotten snow. We slip and slide, maneuver through puddles and deep mud puddles as our feet are now filled with frigid water. We make our stop at our aid station and bid Tim and Rik adieu as they take off for the night. We continue up South Hill Rd one last time as the group begins to slow a bit. It's getting awfully late, but this is why we are out here. To train at night in adverse conditions. I'll admit it, I was a bit bummed out, Bummed that we lucked out with the warm temps and lack of snow on this route. I wanted to do this entire journey in snowshoes, and I'm feeling cheated. We make our way down the frozen slopes of South Hill and Joe's one last time, and finish up at our cars.

We all pile in and head for the Aimee Farm to prepare for tomorrows Race. It's 4:45am. Adam and I decide to sleep in his car with a plan to wake up at 7am so we can get some breakfast at The Original General Store in town. Adam falls asleep quickly while I lay awake for about an hour longer, finally falling asleep around 5:30 and waking up at 6:30, one whole hour of sleep... OOoooo. We woke up to chilly morning air as the temps dropped into the lower 30's overnight. Amazing how cold you get when you stop moving. When I wake up from my nap I find that I've been shivering for some time and need to get some food into my stomach. We drive down to the store where I run into Jim Konopack and his dad. All of my old ultra friends begin to roll into town and it's so great to see them all once again. I miss this stuff in the "off season."

We all return to the start/finish area to pick up our bib's and goody bags. We pin our numbers to ourselves and wait for the start patiently. The race officially begins at 9am which gives us a little more than a 4 hour break in between each 26.2 mile session. This one however isn't going to be as easy as the first. 6.55 mile loops with 1,700' of elevation gain per loop all done on snowshoes. What ended up being an "get off easy" kind of night was about to turn into one white nightmare. The work was about to begin and 6 of us, were still toeing the line ready to take on the world. Jason Hayden, fill in race director, gave us our instructions as over 170 participants huddled around.


With snowshoes strapped on, I switched from my new pack to my new Nathan Elite 2V Plus waist pack. I noticed that Josh had moved his gear from his car to the side of the course, why didn't I think of that?! This kid came ready to race obviously, still unsure of how he was going to do. As I looked around I was proud to wish Zeke Zucker well, meet up with BIll Losey and smiled heartily at my 5 fellow travelers who were still geared up to do 26.2 miles more. We're tired, groggy and lacking sleep. We're hungry, spent, and all ready stiff and tight. It's going to be an epic journey. I'm most proud of Carl Asker, who has never been on snowshoes before. And Josh Robert who has yet to travel further than 13.1 on the instruments of snow destruction. And as I continue to look around.. the horn goes off and so does the race!

All of us "racers" took off into the first field. As each runner lifted their snowshoes from the frozen tundra, frozen bits of corn snow flew straight up into the air. It was interesting seeing everyone as we rounded the square field, I don't know when it began but there seemed to be quite the costume contest going on. It was comical at best. As we rounded the final turn we headed town the hill and towards the Tweed river. People passed us on the left and right as we were obviously some of the slower folks out there. The course is a mix of single track trails and snowmobile trails. The first half of the course was all climbing as we switch-backed our way to the top of Joe's where a Cabin Aid Station awaited us. And as always is at a Peak Race, the view from the top is exceptional.


After sucking down some cookies and half a banana, I left the top of the mountain with Josh who was still hanging with me.. or was I hanging with him. I had no idea at this point. I was starting to slow down all ready as the mountain tends to take quite a bit out of you, or maybe it was the 26.2 we all ready ran on rotting snow? Whatever it was, I knew we were in for quite a long day. It was Josh who said it best, "When you first came up with this idea I forgot to take into account what peak races were like. It's like trying to escape from a cereal bowl.. up on all sides." I got quite a laugh out of this analogy as we continued to tackle the ups and downs of the mountain and we made our way to the start/finish area.

During the second loop the sun continued to shine brightly as temps rose into the upper 40's. I was over dressed and sweating quite a bit. I was soaked actually. And I was slowing down quite a bit, only managing to run the easier downhills. I left Josh in the dust on the climb during the second loop, wondering if I would see him again. Adam was way ahead and Tom... Tom was smoking us completely. Ray and Carl were behind us and having a great time, smiling each time we saw them. But as I made my second round on the mountain a sharp pain began to form on the top of my left foot. I tried loosening my binding a bit and then my shoelaces, nothing was working and I resigned to the fact that as the day progressed it was just going to get worse and I'd have to deal with it.

During the third loop I slowed to a crawl and worked my way around the mountain mostly alone. Josh zipped ahead of me and at the top of the mountain I ran into Adam who was bonking hard core wishing he was at home. We both carried on down the trail before Adam took off on me. I would catch him and Josh back at the start finish and try to do the fourth lap together. But by then, it was obvious that we were all running different speeds if running at all. Myself, I had no run left as my foot was causing me to cringe and bend over in pain. I wanted nothing more than for this adventure to be over. I was tired, hungry and ready to quit. I had though of sitting down after 2 laps earlier in the day and here I was out there on a 4th. There was no debate, there was no question, only relentless forward progression. Josh hung with me on the final climb as we made our way to the top of Joe's one last time. When we got there it started to rain and the aid station crew had bailed on us all ready. Josh vowed to stay with me the rest of the way down the mountain, he was in no hurry and I was much appreciative of his gesture to end our magnificent adventure. After crossing the bridge and working our way back up the final hill to the finish, we saw Ray Zirblis coming in behind us. He was cold and ready to be done, he passed us and finished just ahead of us. We tried catching Adam but he ha us by 20 minutes. Tom lapped us all... and good ole Carl Asker came in not long after us. All 6 of us who started the 52.4 mile adventure...finished it.

I had no idea what to expect going into this adventure and I was surprised to see such a lack of deep snow in Pittsfield given the winter we've had in New England. I also really feel like I was cheated out of the opportunity to really do the entire distance on snowshoes, but I also won't complain because we all agreed that it would have been a completely different story if we had. It was interesting talking to folks who knew what we were up to. When they heard we did 26.2 at night they replied with, "So you're not doing 50 today." Like there was some written rule that we had to so the 50 miles consecutively without a break. I was kind of disapointed here too. But regardless of the disappointment, I'm proud of all 6 of us. We made it 52.4 miles in the snow, in March which is no east task. It's been hard training this winter as I'm struggled through quite a lull, but finally.. after this experience, after what we accomplished this weekend I can say... I'M BACK.

On to the McNaughton 150!
SJ