To say I was anxious about Nationals might be the understatement of the century.
This was my target event that I had been focusing on ever since I hired a coach last November, fresh off finishing my first ever 50K at the TARC Fall Classic. I had all this new found aerobic base and was finally healthy and tolerating training after a few years on the injury strugglebus. I spent four months turning that base into a boosted lactate threshold with plenty of leg strength and power for hill climbs. I had been wet, frozen, achy, and windburned as I faced the glory of winter training in New England when you don’t acknowledge the existence of this “treadmill” thing people keep mentioning.
A few weeks out, I was hitting my targets and nailing key workouts (4 miles at a 7:23 pace? Not bad for a 10 minute miler!). I was starting to think that I should reconsider my plans to be casual about racing this year (train hard/race casual is my current motto) and actually see what happened if I hit the race like I hit my workouts. And then, disaster struck.
I was doing mile repeats about a week and a half out from race day when I started to feel like my body was a sack filled with sand. I slowed and slowed and slowed. Every step was a struggle, but I had hit my goal 7:05 pace for the first split. So, stubborn as always, I started the next interval. And failed less than 4 minutes in. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air. Gasping, fish out of water, it was like breathing in a vacuum. Heart racing, I struggled my way home only to spend the night awake: anxious, clammy, and achy. I called into work for the first time in years and spent the following two days in bed. A week later, the Wednesday before Nationals, my blood pressure spiked at work and, again, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. At Occupational Health, we debated sending me to the ER. Deciding to wait it out, I once again went home to bed.
3 days to race day.
More than a little freaked out, I spent the remaining days hydrating, eating every colour of the rainbow I could fit into my meals, and going to bed at sunset. I was only 50/50 on starting the race, but I was going to go out to Vermont regardless to cheer on my friends, including my friend, Val, who had never been on snowshoes, but had said yes to coming out to race! I packed up everything I owned (including my blood pressure cuff and stethoscope to be safe) and hit the road Friday having woken to the news that Woodford, VT had been hit with over 40 inches of fresh snow that week. Resisting the urge to break out a tape measure to see how much of me would be above snowline, I pointed my Corolla toward the mountains.
Tucked into our amazing AirBNB snug, I spent the evening with my sister, Simone, Val, and our friend, Mo, organizing and reorganizing gear into various bags, taking in enough fluids to turn myself into a water balloon, and swinging back and forth between planning on racing and bagging. The problem was that, at the last minute, I had said yes to joining a 10K race team. For an extra dose of fun, Nationals had added a team category where the best 3 times out of team racers would be added together. Having given full disclosure that I’d been sick, they still wanted me to join the fun. So I could hardly not line up, even if I wasn’t particularly sure that I should be racing. Flawless logic.
Saturday morning dawned clear and crisp. Val and I headed over to the venue, Prospect Mountain, first since she was racing in the 5K which started a little over an hour before the women’s Championship 10K. Keeping busy showing Val how snowshoes work and trying to snag as many kinds of free goodies possible (Loved the Beet Performer! Who doesn’t want an endurance boost when they are faced with a death march?!), I managed to ignore my impending doom. Having already settled on my race strategy (line up last, start slow, try to survive, maintain sense of humor), I just had to try to stay as warm as possible until the gun went off.
Fifteen agonizing minutes past original start time, the 53 of us contesting the Championship course were lined up listening to the pre-race announcements: first 4K would be on groomed trails to the summit and then all hell would break loose on the singletrack, try not to get lost (you might never be seen again), snowmobile had died trying to get to the original aid station because of the snow and it would now be located at the 7K/9K intersection instead. I was where I had planned at the back of the pack and reminding myself of my plan. Start slow. Try to survive. Maintain sense of humor. Start slow. Try to survive. Maintain sense of humor. Gun goes off. And so it begins.
We set off through a tunnel of fans, family, and the men who would be racing after us. The click clack of hundreds of snowshoes slapping the trail almost drowned the cheering. Snow flew like a confetti send off as we charged past the lodge and off toward the climbs. I was estimating roughly a 1:30 finish time and quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm, moving steadily past racers over the first kilometer or so, stopping once or twice to help up some stumbled runners. I figured I was hanging somewhere in the lower third of the field and feeling largely okay. My breathing was skirting that fine balance between steady and heavy that categorizes a constant climb. Using short steps and targeting the best terrain, I moved up past walking racers, always hoping the next turn would show the summit 4K sign. Joining a group of 4 racers that were matching my target pace, we finally crested the summit into the wind. 6K to go.
This was were the real test was going to start. We had been warned of catwalk singletrack where the slightest misstep would sink you into the fluffy depths lining the trails. Charging down a stretch of groomed trail toward the first turn into the woods, I was already feeling unsteady. “Run loose. Let the trail guide you. Run loose. Let the trail guide you.” We plunged into the woods and quickly learned the warnings were true. Ahead of me, I saw women sliding left and right, sinking into loose powder with high-guard arms struggling to maintain balance. Start slow checked off the list, I switched to try to survive and maintain a sense of humor. The former was only marginally under my control at that point, but the latter became pretty easy slip sliding away down a mountain. This was FUN!
I quickly figured out that the women I was running with were far better and more bold descenders, but I picked them off one by one on the uphills (thanks Scott Traer for making me charge up all those training hills!), working to build a big enough gap so they wouldn’t close it when the trail turned downhill. Surrounded by a whiteout, hip deep in snow, I had absolutely no idea where I was on course. Surely we should have hit the 7K aid station by now? More twists and turns, more plunging descents and punchy climbs. I dug in for my pocket snack, wishing I hadn’t been counting on the missing 4K water station for hydration. How long had we been out on course? It could have been 30 minutes or days. My muscles from my waist down burned from the effort of keeping me upright.
Cornering on a mild downhill, a steep zigzag descent of an exposed ski slope showed the elusive aid station. Plummeting down the hill, I glanced back to see one of the chasers gaining on me with every stride. As we dipped back into the woods, buoyed by the cheers of Val and Simone who had spotted me near-falling down the hill, I put on a burst of speed up the next climb. Up and down and up and down. Try to survive. Maintain a sense of humor. I was surviving more or less. The sense of humor was getting a little harder, especially since, at this point, I had somehow gotten the J.G.Wentworth television jingle stuck in my head on repeat. “Call J.G.Wentworth 877-CASH-NOW.” Kill me now!
Before long, the 7K/9K aid station was back in sight. I passed it and my cheering friends. Only 1K to go? I could do this! Humor restored, I kept pushing on, into some more singletrack, looking forward to coming out of the woods with the Prospect Lodge and finish line in sight. Looking back, I couldn’t see any of the chasing group. For the moment, I was alone in the white. Suddenly, I was back out of the woods and heading back to where we had started. Only a quick loop around the field and I could go curl up and nap! The course marshall pointed me along the edge of the field: “Straight ahead and then go left!”
Um. Excuse me? Left?!!! Left isn’t the way to the finish line! Left is the woods. Left is more trails. Left is not okay! “He must be wrong?!” I thought to myself in agony. Maybe he uses Canadian left (my excuse for my tendency to be perpetually backwards with right/left matters)? But, no, back into the woods I went, cursing the SOB who thought this was an okay thing to do to people when salvation was in sight. Gone was the pleasure in the beauty of the twisting, looping, switchbacks. Gone was the joy of being outside and doing something ridiculous with friends on a beautiful day. Gone was my sense of humor. I wasn’t even checking to see if anyone was gaining on me. I wanted this slog to be over. I wanted a comfy couch, a blanket, and hearty soup. I wanted to be the person who woke up on a Saturday morning and made coffee and went back to bed. I wanted to be someone smarter than me, who wouldn’t have signed up, who would have bagged when it was an option. But, the slog must go on, and I finally made it out of the woods to the straightaway to the finish.
I wish I could say I had a finish line kick, that I moved up the ranks in the final meters, that I showed the crowd my heart to the last. But, I was cooked. Trying my best to look reasonably upright crossing the line almost two hours from our start, I shook someone’s hand and spoke from the heart:
“Never again… Until tomorrow.”
After all, I still had the Sunday 4x2.5K relay to race. And I had my sense of humor back.
A taste of the singletrack with excited commentary by the amazing Dr. Mo!