The Seventh Annual Northern Vermont USSSA Qualifier started off great with a temperature of 30 degrees and calm overcast conditions. By the end, however, epic Vermont weather challenged the racers as much as the twisting, turning course.
Race Director Zeke Zucker had successfully transformed the layout from the high school classical cross country races held the prior day to the 8 KM, 4 KM and kid’s half-KM courses. He was also busy trying to ‘resuscitate’ a 10,000ft natural ice rink from the ravages of prior mixed precipitation.
At about 10:00 a.m. light snow started falling, giving the central Nordic ‘village’ and start/finish area a perfect Currier & Ives look and filling the participants with extra energy. By 10:30 the snow was falling more heavily as seven 3 to 5 year olds lined up with proud moms and dads for their epic event. At the start command they went off like a shot and then decelerated significantly, as youngsters do, about 30 feet later. Still in all, everyone was a winner, and we didn’t lose a one in the thickening snowfall.
Minutes before 11:00 a.m. the participants in the Fun Run & Walk, and the main event, the USSSA 8KM Qualifier, were gathering near their respective start lines and the snow was picking up in intensity. The forecast had only called for snow showers and squalls in conjunction with the arrival of a sharp cold front.
The 4K course is a giant lollipop layout, which sported a modest climb for the first several hundred yards and then a sweeping stretch through mixed forest followed by classic Vermont meadows. The latter affords panoramic mountain vistas that are simply breath taking. Unfortunately, however, the low ceiling and limited visibility precluded any such visual distraction for the participants.
The 8K route (see start picture) was another story. The first 3 km climbs almost 700 feet, primarily on packed cross country trails, which sported about 3” of fresh snow cover. Shortly after reaching the high point of the course, runners veer sharply onto the second of five single track sections. They weave their way on a gradual downhill among Beech, Birch, Maple & Hemlock, and popping back out onto the wide cross country route a quarter mile later.
terrain begins leveling out, aside from some undulation and an occasional hill, with two more limited-length ‘slalom-like’ trail sections. Just after the 6K mark, the runners must once again do a 90 degree turn onto the single track for the longest, and last, narrow trail portion. Just before breaking out into the same scenic meadow mentioned in the 4K event, the runners weave among young Red Maples on the windiest and most-drift-prone section of the Nordic network. This presented a significant challenge to most of the long race participants.
Because of the overnight snow, the race director drove his grooming snowmobile around the outer perimeter to check the cross country portions of the course. Zeke dusted snow off directional arrows and the ‘don’t-go-this-way’ evergreen boughs stuck in the snow. The machine provided an easy-to-follow track.
The start is unique, with the two race groups standing 100′ apart and facing in opposite directions for a simultaneous start. Eventually all walkers and runners cross the same finish line coming from the same direction.
At the finish line the crowd waited in the rapidly collecting snow for the first of the finishers. That proved to be 12 year old Carter Glenn, who negotiated the 4km course in 28:36, with his eleven year old sister Jessica only 86 seconds behind. New Junior USSSA Competitors preparing to go National! 36 year old Cynthia, the mom, was less than a minute behind her, while David, the dad, appeared next towing 5 year old Anna in a pulk sled. This really put the family flavor in the event.
Just a minute after a 9th through 11th place trio of women crossed the end line, the first of the USSSA Qualifier snowshoers appeared. 39 year old Tim Van Orden of Venice, California and Bennington, Vermont (dual ‘citizenship’?) finished the tough, snow-laden course in 46:44, taking the overall gold (picture).
He said “everything went well and the course was very well laid out and marked,” but just before 7km he “got a bit disoriented.” In that drift-prone section the blowing snow had completely obliterated any sign of footprints, and he had to depend on the permanent orange snowshoe trail markers, several of which were concealed by the rhime snow stuck to the trees.
He eventually found his way to the meadow and the race-specific laminated arrows. (Director’s note: At about 7:00 p.m. on Saturday evening I was personally checking this and other trail sections and noticed that my snowshoe tracks were rather quickly filling with drifting snow. Oops! So on race morning I correctly surmised that Tim would likely win the race, so I gave him a detailed course briefing. My theory being that only the first runner had to find his/her way successfully around the course because the rest would be able to follow his tracks.
My advice, that on any trail section there are orange markers, ended up saving the whole day.) At the end of the last wooded trail segment he again got confused. The big black arrow marking the way was canted slightly to the left leaving doubt as to whether the course followed another single track or the almost-parallel cross country trail. Hemlock boughs clearly ‘blocked’ the single track route, but Tim crossed them anyway. Upon seeing no more arrows, he turned around and quickly got back on the course. Race Director Zeke Zucker, a gentle (!), understanding fellow, smugly reminded him that at the briefing, runners were told rather emphatically, “DO NOT CROSS ANY EVERGREEN BARRIERS.”
Moira Durnin, 57, took first woman overall. She cross country skied over ten miles through Smugglers’ Notch to get to the race, raced, won, then skied back home again. A first for any of the USSSA Qualifiers this year! Moira gets the ‘Think Green’ award! Can she ski to the USSSA Nationals in Snowbasin March 9th ?
Shortly after the 3rd-place finisher, Alex Sargent, 40, crossed the line, the Snow Gods opened the floodgates. An extended snow squall of epic proportions, with an intensity not seen in a decade, let loose. Runners and walkers reported that at the one hour mark it was a complete white-out (picture). From being able to follow the tracks of the runners ahead of them, the competitors were left to totally survive on their own. All tracks were gone and the zero visibility conditions obscured the well-placed arrows and boughs. Finish times were obviously affected because runners, and the last two walkers, simply had to stand and wait for the snow to let up!
Somehow all of the participants found their way back to the finish, sporting a significant amount of collected snow on faces, heads and shoulders. Because the temperature had dropped some ten degrees, everyone quickly moved to the shelter of the Teen Center Yurt, where heat, great consumables and prizes awaited.
Local businesses donated food, including awesome veggie strombolis from the Jeff. (Jeffersonville) Pizza Department, chicken wraps from The Cupboard Deli, to-die-for chocolate chip cookies from the Smugglers’ Notch Inn Bakery and Sweet Crunch Bakery. Fresh bagels, hard to get around here, were brought in from Sunrise Natural Foods and Grocery. Great age division and raffle prizes came from Beagle Outdoor Wear, Turtle Fur and the Smugglers’s Sport Shop.
TSL Snowshoes (picture), out of nearby Williston, Vermont, donated a pair of top-of-the-line snowshoes and provided demo shoes for many of the event participants. All of the tiny tots wore TSL and many of the 4km participants did as well. Most of the long race runners understandably had their own shoes but were carefully eyeing the great models displayed by TSL.
TSL (Tome Sport & Leisure) or ‘The Snowshoe Leader’ as some know them has just entered into a long term contract with Smugglers’s Notch Resort. It appears their participation in the Northern Vermont Snowshoe Race and Festival may have been the swaying factor in the sealing of the deal, further affirming the importance of these USSSA Qualifiers to the sport.
Six individuals, comprising three current, and three new USSSA members qualified for the National Snowshoe Championships to be held at Snow Basin (Utah) on the 9th of March 2008. Sixty eight year old John Pelton, a many-time finisher and age division champion at the Nationals, placed 5th overall at the Smugglers’ event.
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