In the three months that I’ve been in Vermont, I’ve done very little exploring in the state. So when a qualifier for the US Snowshoe Championships was scheduled for Smugglers Notch Ski Area in northern Vermont, I thought this would be a great opportunity to get reacquainted with my home state.
After a few hours of pretty treacherous winter driving, I arrived at the Smugglers Notch Nordic Center where I was greeted once again by Eddie Habeck (see previous post). We chatted for a bit, and then it was time for me to borrow some snowshoes for the race. You see, I don’t actually own snowshoes. In all of the previous races I’ve done this year, I have borrowed shoes from either Bob Dion of Dion Snowshoes or from Dave Dunham’s personal stash. Neither Bob nor Dave were at this event. A new snowshoe company located in Vermont, called TSL was doing a little demo at the race, so I approached them and asked if I could borrow a pair for the race. They were kind enough to oblige me. The first pair they gave me were made of a very lightweight composite plastic with a unique binding system that involved a sliding plate that secured your heel to the binding. Within a few steps the backs of my heels were hurting. So I asked if they had anything else I could use. They offered me a heavier pair of aluminum shoes. The second pair of shoes had the same binding system but didn’t hurt nearly as much. I thanked them and ran quickly to the start line so as not to miss the race.
When I arrived at the start, the race director, Zeke, approached me and said “you look like you might be in the lead pack, so let me give you directions for the course”. For the next 5 minutes Zeke outlined no less than 20 intersections, turns and cutoffs. I was terrified, there was no way I was going to remember all of those directions. So I chose to remember what I thought were the key elements of Zeke’s discourse – Do Not cross the 3 hemlock branches stuck in the snow of every trail that you are not to use – except one tricky intersection near the end. I was thoroughly confused, but hoping that someone else would be leading and I would just follow them. Aside from the directions, I was concerned about something else Zeke had mentioned – The first 3 kilometers were almost entirely UPHILL – climbing 1,700 feet. This was going to hurt.
As I warmed up for a few minutes prior to the start, the backs of my heels began to hurt. There was no time to change shoes now and I didn’t have any other shoes to use anyways. It was either suck it up or drop out of the race. I decided to race. The worse that could happen would be two blisters on the backs of my heels. A little Dr. Scholl’s Moleskin would take care of that and I’d be back to training a day or so after the race. I only needed to be in the top 10 to qualify for nationals, so I didn’t need to kill myself in the race. Afterall, I had been fighting a pretty tough cold for the past week and a half, that was only made worse by the two tower races earlier this week. The decision had been made – Do only what I needed to do to stay in the top 10 and not hurt myself or make my illness worse.
The gun went off and I found myself in the lead. I was running very comfortably though, so I kept up the pace. When I arrived at the first of the long climbs I charged up at a blistering pace. I wanted to test my legs and lungs, both of which felt fine when I reached the top. My lack of training over the past two weeks (due to illness and tapering for the Empire State Building stair climb), must have allowed my body the full recovery it needed because I was flying today. Perhaps I’ve been overtraining these past few months and didn’t even know it. The backs of my heels were hurting, but I didn’t pay any attention to them, I was too busy enjoying my new level of fitness. The trail turned off of the cross country ski trail we were on into the woods on a single track snowshoe trail with about 18 inches of fresh snow in it. It was tough going, but I wasn’t getting tired. Eventually, we looped back onto a ski trail and began to climb steeply again. This climb lasted over a kilometer and I flew up without slowing at all. At the summit, I turned back to see who was behind me. I was stunned, there was no one there. The trail was visible for at least a quarter of a mile, and there was no one there. I guessed that I was 2 to 3 minutes ahead of second place at this point. Even though I still had over a kilometer, and 500 feet of climbing to go to reach the top of the mountain, I knew I had this one in the bag. It was going to be my first snowshoe victory, and it just so happened to be on the longest course (8 kilomoters), with the toughest climb (1,700 feet), and in the deepest snow (18 inches) that I have competed in. I was going to prove once and for all that raw food rocks and was now determined to push even harder and increase my lead to 5 minutes or more. The pain in my heels didn’t even register anymore, all of my energy was focused on pushing the pace. The last kilometer of climbing was faster than the previous two. I was running like a man possessed.
The twists and turns along the spine of the mountain were straight forward and simple. It wasn’t until the last third of the race that things became fuzzy. Out of nowhere a blizzard engulfed the area and produced white out conditions. For those of you that live in warmer climes, a “white out” is a sudden winter storm that produces so much snow that you can only see white – visibility is reduced to only a few feet in front of you. I was winding through the woods on a virgin trail when it hit. The markings on the trees were far enough apart that I couldn’t see them in the white out conditions, so I wandered aimlessly through the trees. My pace slowed considerably, and I had to zig zag back and forth to try and find the next trail marker. It took quite some time to get through this one particular area. I burst out into an open field, the wind was howling hard and blowing drifts across the trail. The snow was at least two feet deep at this point and coming down at a rate of 5 inches every 15 minutes. It was extremely difficult to keep up a good pace. Halfway through the field I passed a sign that read 7 kilometers, I had only 1 K to go. I started my final charge to the finish, I was not yet tired and wanted to widen my lead if possible. A few hundred meters later I came to a very confusing intersection. The main ski trail that I was now on was splitting in two and a single track snowshoe trail was creating a 3rd tine of the fork to the left. A yellow arrow pointed to what I thought was the snowshoe trail which was lined with pink tape, but there were 3 hemlock branches crossing the trail. Perhaps this was the trail that Zeke had mentioned that I was supposed to cross the bows, I wasn’t sure, but the arrows seemed to be pointing down that trail, and away from the nicely packed ski trail (well, packed is relative term, the ski trail had at least 7 inches of new snow on it). I made a quick decision and headed into the deep snow of the snowshoe trail. The pink tape continued down the trail and I was confident I had made the correct choice. That lasted for about 500 meters. The trail I was on was now beginning to head uphill, and I was certain that I should be seeing the finish line at the bottom of the hill only a few hundred yards away – it was nowhere in sight. For a moment I thought of turning around, but I had already gone too far, so I continued ahead, hoping that I would hit another trail soon that would take me down to the right and to the finish. Eventually it came. I barrelled down the trail and quickly reconnected to the main ski trail that I had gotten off of. I sprinted. The storm was letting up and the finish line was now visible a short distance away. I was frustrated and upset and I ran with angry determination straight to the line. Huddled about the finish were 6 race officials with several inches of snow on their hats, shoulders, feet and in some cases beards. They looked like strange snowmen.
After I caught my breath I approached Zeke and told him of the wrong turn I had made and how confusing the markings were, he apologized and informed me that I had gone 8.4 kilometers instead of 8, and smiled as he said “you should be happy you won considering the extra distance, that’s quite an achievement.” His attempt at levity had no effect, I was not happy.
Nearly 5 minutes after I had crossed the line, the second place racer was making his final charge to the finish. I was stunned. The wrong turn had eroded my confidence and left me thinking that someone might have edged me out as they tore down the correct trail to the finish. As the rest of the field trickled in, one thing was consistently being mentioned – they had all followed my zig zag tracks through the woods where I was trying to find the trail, and had all contemplated making the same wrong turn that I did when they saw my tracks leading that way, but had all decided not to cross the 3 hemlock bows. I was the lone idiot in the pack.
I waited for Eddie to finish, congratulated him and began walking with him to the lodge. That’s when I noticed that my heels were really hurting. Even though we often run through deep snow in a snowshoe race, it is common practice to wear running shoes. They fit in the bindings much easier and they are lighter in weight than boots. BUT, your feet get very wet, cold and numb. After 5 minutes in the lodge, the numbness was wearing off and my heels began to scream. It was one of those situations where the pain was so intense that I didn’t want to know how much damage I had inflicted. I was afraid to look. When the pain had increased to the point that I could no longer walk, Eddie convinced me to take my shoes and socks off.
In the words of Forrest Gump – “Stupid is as stupid does”. When I peeled back my bloody socks, there were bloody open wounds the size of half dollars on the back of each heel. What had started as blisters had worked their way through the entire epidermis all the way down to the dermis. I had literally worn off the flesh on the backs of my heels. No amount of moleskin was going to fix this. A nurse on staff at the center got me a first aid kit and we cleaned, bandaged and wrapped my heels. Putting my winter boots back on was an ordeal, but driving 4 hours home in them was nauseating.
Later that night as I was elevating my feet and checking the results online, I discovered that the man who came in second place (almost 5 minutes behind me) was 15th at the US National Snowshoe Championships last year. He was no slouch. Interestingly, he was about 4 1/2 minutes behind the winner and National Champion. Could this be my big break and a possible shot at a national title? I’m hoping the answer is yes. Let the healing begin.
Note to self: Next race, wear snowshoes that I’m familiar with.