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Today, on this 33 anniversary of my entrance into the world, I will not wax poetic about the year as a whole, nor ramble on about what I plan to do in the coming year. I try to live every single day thankful for my life and my body that is capable of amazing things; my birthday (while full of cake, frosting, and awesomeness) is no exception. So instead I’d like to tell you a story about that one time I was specifically instructed to not go out and try to win a race, but I accidentally did anyway.
A little background information: The Endurance Society was created by Andy Weinberg and Jack Cary, two of the brains formerly behind the Peak Death Race. These two not only have a reputation for being amazing race directors, but have quite the following of loyal racers, many of which are mighty good friends of mine. For all of the above reasons and then some, I had been highly looking forward to racing the Endurance Society’s inaugural Frigus race. Frigus consisted of a 10K, 30K or 60K back country ski race, a 5K sled run, or a 10K, 30K, or 60K snowshoe race. I believe some people did a combination of all three.
After about a 2 hour drive on Saturday morning, we arrived at Blueberry Hill Inn & Ski Center in Goshen, VT with plenty of time to spare.
The sun was shining, but the temperatures were freezing; rumor is it barely warmed up to a balmy zero degrees before the race start. We checked in at registration in the warm, INDOOR ski center, which was bustling with pre race excitement and activity . There were familiar faces everywhere, more hugs from friends than I can count, and a handful of stern lectures wondering if I was REALLY up for a snowshoe race after a recent surgery. I assured everyone I felt great (I did) and even informed the volunteer at registration that I would be racing the 10K instead of the 30K that I had originally signed up for. I would behave myself.
We made our way to the port-a-potties (a hilarious feat in sub zero temps) and then to the car to gear up. Thankfully the parking lot was mere feet from the start line, so it was easy to leave everything in the car (though there was space in the lodge to store your belongings). Though I knew I would likely warm up fast once we got moving, I would much rather take the risk of being too hot than too cold. Thus I wore the following layers: cold weather running tights, cold weather Under Armor sweat pants, knee high wool socks, a sports bra, a tank top, a long sleeve Under Armor cold gear shirt, a long sleeve INKnBURN pullover, and a wind resistant SUGOI running jacket. Then of course, there was the neck gaitor, hat, and really thick mittens. I felt puffy and unwieldy, but I was NOT going to freeze, damnit!
On my feet I chose to wear my Merrell Proterra waterproof sneakers, gaiters to keep the snow out, and foolishly, a brand new, fresh out of the box, never been worn pair of snowshoes that I am currently testing. I don’t know why I insist on making such rookie mistakes like this on a regular basis, but I do.
We headed back to the ski center, where I made sure I knew how to put the new snowshoes on. In retrospect, that would have been a very important factor to have tested out BEFORE race day. One day, I’ll learn. One day.
Before I knew it, Andy was yelling in typical Andy fashion to get to the start line for a pre race meeting or he was going to start the snowshoe race without us.
We all headed outside and were given some pre race instructions. The 10K would be two loops of a 5K course. The 30K would be one much larger loop, that consisted of a two mile uphill climb, immediately followed by two more uphill miles that would “kick you in the face” according to Andy. I was both pleased and upset with my decision to back off to the 10K distance. We were assured that combined the race directors are both A.D.D. and O.C.D., thus the course was marked so well that if we got lost, it was our own fault.
And then just like that…we were off.
I immediately had no idea how to navigate in these new snowshoes. They were nothing like the pair of Tubbs I normally wear, so I tried to hold back a bit and let everyone go ahead of me while I figured out what I was doing. I clomped along like a new baby giraffe, completely awkward and unaware of how to use my legs.
Into the woods we headed. I slowly started to fall into a groove, and was able to run on the flat stretches. I passed a few people, but didn’t think much of it. About 5 minutes into the race, I realized I forgot to start my GPS. It wouldn’t matter much, because it failed to ever pick up satellites. I truly love being in the middle of nowhere (that’s not sarcasm, either. I love it. ) About ten minutes into the race, I realized I made a huge rookie mistake (this would be number two for the race, if you are keeping score): I forgot to blow air into my hydration pack straw, and it was already frozen solid.
Oh well, I thought to myself. I’ll just take the race easy, exactly as I had been instructed to. The previous week, when I asked my surgeon if I was cleared to race, he said yes, but warned me to take it easy, and “don’t go out there trying to win.” I laughed at him at the time, there was NO WAY I was going to win.
The sun was shining and despite the freezing cold, the course was absolutely GORGEOUS. I felt amazing and strong, and the sun on my face was exactly what I had been needing.
Soon we came to a split in the trail: 30K racers were to take a left, 10K to the right. Suddenly, it was incredibly quiet. I followed one guy who ended up unknowingly acting as a pacer for me. I felt fantastic and strong, so I made it a point to keep up with him. I ran when he ran, walked when he walked. Truth be told, I would have run/walked the exact same stretches, but it was still entertaining to play this game by myself. This guy was ahead of me, Geoff behind me, and NO ONE else in sight. I thought to myself, damn, we must really be running slow today, bringing up the back of the pack. But, I didn’t care. I was having fun.
The trail looped around the outside of Hogback mountain, with a few steep climbs. The climbs didn’t slow me down at all, but surprisingly the downhills did. At one steep section, I sat down on my butt, put my feet in the air, and slid down. A cold butt was totally worth not falling face first over my awkward snowshoes, plus it was kind of fun. After the downhill we had a decent stretch of relatively flat land, and I was able to run quite a bit. I was finally getting the hang of not only the snowshoes, but exactly where to put my feet when landing. Though the trail was packed, there were occasional gaps where the powder sank down a good two or three feet. These holes were just waiting to make a mockery out of my ankles, so I tried to avoid them at all costs. Further, my right foot kept pronating, no matter what I tried to do. It was an interesting battle of balance to stay upright.
Eventually we came around a corner and I could see the Blueberry Hill Inn, signaling the end of the first loop. My pacer friend turned left and started heading back out on the course for loop #2. I yelled up to him that I was pretty certain we were told to go back to the start line and check in before heading out again. I wasn’t 100% sure, but I personally was in no hurry, so I was going to go there anyway. Plus, I was so thirsty, I wanted to grab something to drink. I trotted up to a women holding a clipboard and checked in. I was in zero rush, so I decided to shoot the breeze. I asked her how far ahead the leaders were. “Oh they blew in through here a while ago, they were running really fast!” I wasn’t surprised I said, some people are just amazing on snowshoes. As I reached down to tighten my right snowshoe, I asked her “how far ahead is the lead woman?”
“You are the first women I’ve seen.” she replied casually.
As I was trying to process this, Andy (race director) came outside. “You’re winning!” he said enthusiastically. I still couldn’t believe it. I thought the reason no one was around was because I was SLOW, not because I had left everyone in my snow dust. I walked over to Geoff at the picnic table and told him I was winning. “GO HONEY, I’ll catch up!” he yelled to me. Instead, I knelt down and tried to drink water out of a giant cooler with no cup. Clearly, none of this “you’re winning the race” had sunk in. Pacer friend started yelling at me to get a move on and GO.
I headed over to the road, and then realized I needed to eat something. My cliff shot bloks were frozen solid. I asked a volunteer to reach in my hydration pack and grab whatever he could find. He handed me another package of frozen solid clif bloks. Pacer guy yelled again “get a move on kid!” and so I thanked the volunteer, took the bloks anyway, and started off back onto the trail. I put the bloks in my glove and hoped that my body heat would warm them up. And as I got ready to take a sharp right into the woods, I looked up to see the next female coming down the hill to check in from loop #1. The pressure was now on.
So here’s my verbose summary of lap #2: it sucked.
My race had immediately gone from a leisurely stroll in the woods to my inner competitive self screaming inside “MOVE YOUR FREAKING ASS, DO NOT LOSE THIS LEAD, DO NOT LET HER CATCH YOU.” I was dehydrated, my blood sugar was crashing, and I was tired. But I absolutely refused to quit.
Lap two also proved to be difficult in the fact that we had now caught up to the back of the 10K snowshoe pack, as well as the 5K sled runners, who started an hour after us. Passing on these narrowly packed trails was tricky, as it meant someone had to step off to the side into knee deep powder, snowshoes be damned. I came up upon a friend of mine (hi Beth!) at a really steep climb. She was struggling with some technical difficulties, and all I could think of was keeping my lead. I yelled up something along the lines of “I don’t mean to be an asshole, but I really need to pass you as soon as possible. I’m winning.” They let me pass. Whether or not they thought I was being an asshole at the time is still left to be determined.
At one point I also got nailed in the head with a sled by a guy who tried to pass me, but wasn’t quite fast enough.
My legs hurt with exhaustion. I was slightly dizzy and so incredibly thirsty. My body never left the anaerobic zone, I was gasping the whole time. I had managed to thaw two clif shot bloks, but eating them just left me feeling even more parched. I yelled up ahead to Geoff and asked if he thought it would be OK if I ate some snow. I immediately thought of all of the outdoor survival skills I had been taught, and remembered that eating snow is typically a bad idea. I rationalized there was no way, with maybe 1.5 miles left on this course, that eating one handful of snow would significantly lower my already sweltering body temperature. I was so HOT, but there was no time to stop and take off any layers. I never heard his answer, but I ate the snow anyways. I said a tiny prayer to the endurance gods that there wasn’t some sort of forest creature parasite in that handful of snow, and I pushed on.
I didn’t want to lose.
I honestly lost track of how many times I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was catching up to me. Multiple times, Geoff told me “you’ve got this in the bag” only for me to immediately shut him down and tell him to stop saying that. I always appreciate his enthusiasm and encouragement, but I have lost track of how many times I’ve lost first place that far into a race. I’ve never been good at pacing myself and typically burn out early on. But every time I looked back, I only saw the most recent people I had passed. No one was gaining on me.
We were finally coming into what I KNEW was the last stretch. “RUN, Heather”, was all I kept repeating to myself, “It will only suck for a little bit longer.” My right foot kept sliding around in my snowshoe, my ankle turning and causing me to trip. Each time I’d catch myself, and get a “good catch honey!” yelled up from Geoff behind me. Then, in the blink of an eye, I was face down in the snow. I didn’t just trip, I belly flopped so fast I didn’t know what happened. My calf locked up in a tight ball of a cramp, but my immediate fear was my stomach, as I had just had abdominal surgery two weeks before. I turned around with fear in my eyes and saw Geoff, with just as much fear in his eyes. I laid there for a good 10 seconds, waiting for the pain to hit, but it never did. I was OK. I got up and started shouting to myself out loud “PICK YOUR TOES UP, PICK YOUR TOES UP!”
FINALLY, we came around a corner and I saw that blue barn. One last look behind me…no other female racers to be seen. I had this.
I took off to the finish line, where everyone was cheering and Andy yelled something about the winner or the champion or something I don’t remember because I was still in shock. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I was handed a medal, a framed certificate, and the award for first place in all categories: a bottle of custom Endurance Society maple syrup. I LOVE racing in Vermont.
I freaking won. First place female. I’ve taken first place age group, and second and third overall, but I’ve NEVER won an overall title before. Until now.
After taking a few celebratory pictures, we went inside where I proceeded to drink about 5 large cups of water. I was so thirsty, I couldn’t even think about eating. But had I been interested, there was a huge spread of food, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chili, chips, cookies, and more. I took a little time to thaw out the straw on my hydration pack over the wood stove, and then we packed up to leave. As much as I wanted to stick around and see my friends come in from the 30K and 60K races, I was beat…and suddenly really freaking cold.
I still don’t know my official time or the overall results, but I will post those as soon as I find out.
In summary, this was a fantastic event, and not just because I pulled off my first win. The course was the perfect mix of terrain and difficulty, as opposed to the trend as of late in other events where racers are just sent to suffer brutal never ending climbs. And as promised by the A.D.D./O.C.D. race directors, it was impeccably marked and virtually impossible to get lost on. The swag was excellent: t shirts, stickers, and finishers medals to all, framed certificates to the top three in each category, and custom etched maple syrup from Sweet Retreat Sugarworks in Northfield Vermont.
The Endurance Society’s next event, Infinitus, will be held at the same location, the last week in May. You will have your choice of running an 8K, 88K, 888K (yes, you read that right), or a 48 hour or 72 hour option. I’m planning on running the 48 hours, we’ll see what my legs have in mind for distance. Registration is now open, with a discount available to all Endurance Society Members.
Lastly: this guy.
While post race he claimed to have taught me how to kick ass (I knew how on my own, thankyouverymuch) I will say that his constant support and encouragement means the world to me. Thank you Geoffrey for being the best race day Sherpa and running partner I could ever ask for.