Bomb the hills. Keep a steady canter. Nothing fancy here. Save the Big Move for the end. There’s no room for error in this situation. Wait. WAIT. Calm it down. They’re coming back to you. They’ve BEEN coming back to you. Steady Eddy, steady Eddy, steady Eddy. You know who Eddy is. He’s a good guy. Get to know him. Pay attention. Let decisions be made on instinct. You know what to do. This situation is familiar to you. Do not be timid when the real pain comes. It will only be momentary and then it will be over.
A thousand crazy things go through your head when you’re in the throes of a race. Especially when the race is in snowshoes, in Alaska and it’s for the National Championship. The situation I’d gotten myself into, that was causing me to give every ounce of mental energy I had, was a four-way battle royal for fifth place with 3 miles yet to go in the 2005 National Snowshoe Championships. Andrew Clark, Tom Borschel, Mark Churchill and I were locked in it together.
Four snowshoe racers from completely different parts of the country bent on beating each other. Down steep dales, up breath stealing hills, through thin undulating single tracks, the four of us held our own miniature last stands; attacks on our strong holds were repelled with the sheer determination to beat each other to the finish line. We were locked down and resigned to experiencing undue pain for fifth place because fifth place meant you are on the National Team and even in the relatively infant sport of snowshoe racing making the National Team is truly an honor.
The course at Kincaid Park was consistently hilly. The snow, though not deep, sank slightly with every step. One could dig in and get a decent grip to push off but it lacked a hard pack; there would be no “Sierra Cement” like at last years race in Squaw Valley. The temperature was in the mid thirties and there was little wind. The sun flashed through the clouds long enough to make everyone’s winter depression disappear for a while. Like the “Sierra Cement”, gone too was the altitude of last years race. This gave the course and the race a character befitting to a national championship; challenging to all competitors, whether you were a Colorado mountain goat or a Midwestern flatlander, yet giving no one any particular advantage.
The steady pressure from my competitors was wearing on me. I could not relax. Andrew Clark, dressed in blue, became a permanent presence in front of me while Tom Borschel dressed in Team Atlas gear camped himself on my back and would not leave the site. Mark Churchill, though, was making most of the action happen. He would surge strongly on down hills. If he fell back he’d pass me soon again. When I didn’t see him for certain stretches I assumed he had fallen off pace only to have him blow by me, snow flying off his snowshoes. I had not been this engaged in a race in a long time and I loved every minute of it. As exciting as this was, it was in sharp contrast to the scene I was involved with two hours earlier.
Victor Vilar and I waited outside the ladies bathroom at the Fifth Avenue Mall in downtown Anchorage. I’d met Victor the day before at the airport and we hit it off well. He was in Anchorage to race too, but being direct competitors didn’t get in the way of us becoming fast friends. As we stood listening to the mall speakers play a Phil Collins song, I realized both of us were staring intently at the woman’s bathroom. We had 10 minutes to travel 14 blocks to catch a van to the start of the race. We were waiting for our friend Maggie who was stuck behind a dozen tourists with full bladders who’d come to watch the start of the Iditarod dogsled race, the very race that had us in downtown Anchorage two hours before the start of the Snowshoe National Championships.
As Phil sang, “I can feel it coming in the air tonight/Oh Lord,” an older Native American woman standing in line shot Vic and I a dirty look, in a way signifying that we both looked like strange running garbed perverts trying to stare into woman’s bathroom. I looked over at Vic and said, “Hey Vic, we ummm… might not want to, uhhhh…be staring…you know, into the bathroom.” Lucky for us Maggie burst from the bathroom before the Native American woman had a chance to insinuate verbally what she was thinking internally.
The reason we had to hurry was that the van, driven by fellow snowshoer Cindy Brochman, stood a good chance of leaving us in downtown Anchorage if we were to be late. The day before, Cindy’s van had left Vic and I at Kincaid Park, site of the racecourse because we lingered around 15 minutes later than we should have. Stranded about eight miles from our hotel, Vic and I were surprised as we watched the van pull away while I frantically waved both my snowshoes over my head to grab its attention. Now, stranded in the cold, I was thinking at first – since Cindy is quite friendly and rather funny – that she was playing a joke on us.
“She’s just messing with us Vic, don’t worry.” I said.
“You think so?” Vic wondered.
“She wouldn’t leave us. She TOTALLY had to see me.” I replied.
“Well it’s been five minutes and I still don’t see her. I think she left.”
Vic stared off into the distant road that led back to the hotel, where some comfortable shoes and warm socks were waiting for him. And I then realized Vic was right, “holy crap, we were left behind.
I had a moment of slight panic. The mind is a fragile thing the day before a big race and mine started to gather up a domino effect of events that would lead me to perform terribly at the race. First, we would have to walk back to the hotel, which would totally kill Vic’s feet and tire us both out. Then, having missed the van to the hotel, we’d most certainly miss it to the Italian restaurant and thus miss out on the carbo-loading.
Vic and I would, out of desperation, have to settle for eating at the nearest food joint we could find. It would be a Taco Bell and I would eat three hard tacos and a Chimichanga, which would give me gas, a stomachache and the heaves the entire night. After more than two hours of restless sleep I would slump off the bed, stomach cramping and limbs feeling as heavy as wet logs, and try to track down some weak coffee and plain toast, the only two things I could rightfully choke down before the start of the race. Then, later, seconds before the gun would go off, I would look up to the sky and curse Cindy Brochman for having left Vic and I alone to fend for ourselves in the cruel Alaskan wilderness.
But of course we got a ride with a nice couple who were staying at our hotel. We got back, showered, changed, went out with our group in the van and ate overpriced spaghetti. Yet Cindy had made her point. Her van doesn’t wait for lollygaggers, which is what Vic, Maggie and I were trying not to be as we ran passed mall security guards and families looking for good deals at the Banana Republic at 10:50 in the morning. We were the last to arrive at the van but we were five minutes early. As Cindy fired up the ignition I glanced over at Vic and he gave me a look that said, “I ate Taco Bell in my nightmares too friend.”
We were lucky. Especially me, for I would need every single ounce of energy in the race.
Racing is beautiful because of the drama it creates; battling for positions against your competitors, fighting the body with the mind to get a little extra juice out of the system, creating a story line merely by going from start to finish.
It looks dramatic to the spectator but in one’s own head it becomes a full-blown soap opera. The words you say to yourself as you race would sound ridiculous in any other context. But what you have to say to yourself as you race to get through the race is almost as important as your training.
My head drama was playing itself out to its fullest at the end of the Anchorage Nationals. I had deeded fifth place to Andrew Clark though it really hadn’t been my choice. He’d gained 20 solid yards on me. With Tom Borschel’s snowshoes chomping at the snow loudly in my ears and Matt Churchhill a wild card that I could not count out, I, with half a mile to go, had to make a choice. I could keep running as I was, holding place and trying to stay relaxed while praying that Andrew would fade, Tom would drop and Mark would run into a moose and disappear into the woods.
Or I could pull out my last ditch, last gasp effort to get to the finish line. I knew my muscles would bunch and cord, seize and move, push and propel me forward with my exaggerated pendulum arm swing and hard drawn death sneer but it was far more important to make myself uncomfortable than hope my fellow racers would each respectively die off.
I finished sixth. Andrew Clark, who got me by ten seconds, is Canadian, so I was the fifth American and thus on the national team.
Although snowshoeing does not have quite the same clout of other endurance sports, I am extremely happy to earn the title of national team member. And, it’s a lot of fun. To travel to a place I wouldn’t normally think to travel to (Alaska in the winter!) and get thrown together with like-minded people who love sport, competition and playing in snowshoes in the winter.
The race went well for me but it was the people I met (Vic, Cindy, Maggie, Jim Graupner, and others) that really made exploring Anchorage one of the best experiences I’ve had. These truly are a great group of individuals who I plan on staying in contact with and racing again someday soon. I never would have thought that getting involved in snowshoe racing would bring me the opportunity to bond so easily with complete strangers from other parts of the United States. But it did, and it proves again that some of the best things in life come along when you don’t expect them to.