Crave the Blizzard

Breakfast 7:00am – 3 hours before race start – 2 bananas

Less than 24 hours after having returned home from the Greylock Glen Snowshoe race, I found myself back on the road to compete in the 4th WMAC/Dion Snowhoes series race – Brave The Blizzard in Guilderland, NY

Upon transitioning from the winter wonderland of Vermont into New York’s more temperate Hudson Valley, a color flashed into my mind – Brown. Brown as in dead grass, leafless trees and leaf covered forest floors. Brown as in no snow. The only white to be seen were the sparsely placed, white washed colonial farm houses that decorated my morning’s drive.

I was considering turning around. My legs were pretty tired from the hills the day before, and I didn’t want to be running a trail race on frozen, uneven ground (a sure fire recipe for injury). Race Director, John Kinnicut assured me on the phone that there was sufficient snow to hold a snowshoe race. So I half heartedly forged on towards Albany. As I neared the race site, there was not a patch of white to be seen anywhere. I made a right hand turn into the elementary school parking lot and suddenly I was faced with a snow covered field. I sat in amazement for a second in my car before continuing on to the back of the school for parking. Lo and behold, there was plenty of snow behind the school as well, where the race would start and finish.

My CMS teammates Dave Dunham and Jim Johnson were just finishing their warmup as I walked towards registration. Dave told me that it was going to be a track meet out there. Super fast, hard packed conditions. Jim won this race in 2009, where he outclassed a very strong field by nearly two minutes. His streak of victories still unbroken this year, he hoped for another solid win on this flatter, faster course.

I did a brief warmup and spotted Justin Bishop doing some strides in the field. He looked fast. Justin is one of the top runners in New York State and a 12 time gold medalist at the Empire State Games in snowshoeing. He also holds the American record in the Snowshoe 400 meter dash – 66 seconds! If anyone was going to threaten Jim’s winning streak, it was Justin. I was disappointed that I would not be able to witness the epic battle that would take place between these two snowshoeing greats.

Brave the Blizzard is one of the largest snowshoe races in the country, so I was sure that there were a lot of other top athletes in the mix today. The Albany Running Exchange, which puts on the event, boasts over 800 members, many of whom are active in the racing scene.

Jim, Dave and I did a few strides in the field as we waited for the start. I informed them of Justin’s presence and gave them a quick rundown of his resume. Jim became a little anxious.

We were lined up in the field and John Kinnicut gave us some last minute instructions. He informed us that there were a few “bare” patches out on the course and that we would be bushwhacking upon leaving the field at the start and on the return to the finish.

Ready, set, BANG! We were off. Justin shot out like a rocket propelled grenade. I was an immediately distant second. Above the loud cluster-crunching sound of hundreds of snowshoes kicking snow into the air I could hear Jim Johnson’s voice. “This is the worst race start I’ve ever had!” Then like a rabbit he shot by me in hot pursuit of Justin. Jim had no intention of staining his winning streak with a loss at this race.

When I was a kid in the early 70’s, my parents would take us to the beach on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. On one such trip, they took their eyes off of me for a moment and then looked up to discover that I had walked straight into the ocean and was about to go in over my head. I was two. Not much has changed in the nearly 40 years since that incident. I’m still getting in over my head on a regular basis. Perhaps I’m just not that bright. Whatever the case may be, I found myself sprinting to catch up to Justin and Jim.

As we left the field I had closed the gap and was right on Jim’s heels, who was right on Justin’s heels. The trail ended abruptly and we burst into the woods. Red ribbons tied to branches led us on a circuitous route up a very steep climb. We jumped over downed logs, danced around exposed rocks, straddled saplings and got whipped in the face, arms, neck and shoulders by the recoil of branches bent in front of us. I put my arms up to protect my face, like a boxer. After a few hundred feet of literally ‘breaking trail’ we were dumped out onto a more traveled route. The snow had been chopped up by walkers and skiers some time earlier and had frozen into a very solid, uneven mine field of ankle twisting possibilities. Justin did not slow down. He is a large man with broad muscular shoulders and he looked like a steam engine, confidently and effortlessly demonstrating power, speed and efficiency. Had their been anyone behind me, their view would not have been as striking. The breakneck pace was taking it’s toll on me.

The trail came to a T. A strategically placed snowman blocked the branch to the left, forcing us to make a sharp right. Brown flashed into my mind again. The path ahead was barren of snow and presented us with a mix of frozen sand and ice. The cleats of our snowshoes could not penetrate this tawny concrete, so they delivered their force upwards into the balls of our feet. Justin slowed. I moved back into contact. The sound of metal cleats bouncing off of the unforgiving trail surface rattled in my ears. The hard ground rattled my bones. In the distance, a blanket of white comfort lay in wait. We surged towards it, eager for this cacophony to end.

For the next mile, the scene remained the same. Justin commanding the lead, Jim on his heels and me holding on for dear life. Ahead of us a set of wooden stairs interrupted the smoothness of the snowy trail. Justin and Jim powered up like antelope. I lumbered up like a bison. I had bitten off more than I could chew and now it was time to digest the consequences of my earlier choices. I could only hope that I had enough in reserve to stay in 3rd as I drifted back and away from the leaders.

Letting them go took the pressure off. I relaxed a bit and began to run my own race. Who was I kidding anyways, these two men were in another league. It was time to accept the facts and settle into my rightful place. I was feeling more comfortable now and was confident that I could maintain this slower pace and hold on to my position. Fifty meters ahead of me Justin and Jim were blazing away. Forty-five meters. Forty meters. Thirty-five meters. Wait a minute… was I catching back up to them? I checked my breathing, moved it into my diaphragm, relaxed and lengthened my stride, smiled and set out to reinstate my place in the lead pack. Within minutes I was only 5 seconds back. Jim heard me coming and turned around. He didn’t like what he saw. I heard him say something to Justin and then turn around again. I was now only 4 seconds back and gaining fast. Moments later I was on Jim’s heels.

We were coming close to the finish and Jim didn’t want another repeat sprint to the line like we had in Woodford a few weeks earlier. So he took off around Justin and made a break. Justin couldn’t keep up. For a moment, I thought about chasing after Jim but I was hurting again. The extra effort to bridge the gap had taken it’s toll, but now the seemingly indestructible Mr. Bishop was hurting as well. We hurtled through the woods with Jim quickly pulling away. Pressure was building in my stomach. My legs were teetering on the brink of failure. I was redlining.

Suddenly we were back on the bushwhack. The field and finish were in view. Jim had just cleared the woods and had entered the field. Justin picked up the pace as we headed down the steep grade through the trees. I got whipped hard in the face with a branch as I tried to keep up. I made a quick survey of the ground and then closed my eyes, lowered my head and charged forward.

As we entered the field, Justin was one step ahead. Jim was about 10 seconds up on us now and sprinting for the line. Justin opened up his gear box and pulled out his tremendous sprinting speed. I watched in awe, agony and defeat as he easily pulled away from the fastest gut bursting sprint I could muster. Seconds later we would be keeled over, breathlessly congratulating each other and sharing embraces. Jim had won by nine seconds in a time of 24:44. Justin took second in 24:53 and I posted a close third in 24:57. CMS teammate Dave Dunham would finish fourth, in 26:58.

All too often we predetermine our position in life and then act accordingly. Or we simply let others determine it for us and then do our best to meet their expectations, whether high or low. We set arbitrary limitations for ourselves and then view them as law. As fact. Any sensible person would tell you that a 41 year old Tim VanOrden, running 25 to 30 miles a week cannot compete with a 32 year old Jim Johnson running 80 miles a week… Or a 28 year old Justin Bishop, training hours a day for the World Double Decathlon Championships. Thankfully, I am not a sensible person. I have never accepted my place or rank as assigned. I always aspire to more. Nine times out of ten, I fail miserably. But it is that one time, when I rise to the occasion and beat the odds that makes it all worthwhile… and it reminds me that on any given day we are all capable of greatness – if we allow ourselves to leave our sensibility behind and risk it all for something we believe in.

Dare mighty things.

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” – Richard Bach

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