Greetings, Striders! I am alive and well (then again, you may beg to differ on the “well” part after you read what I’ve been up to here in Vermont!). One thing you quickly find out after moving up here and try to go out for a run, is that you can’t get very far without encountering a hill. So many hills and such steep ones, I’ve begun to think back nostalgically at what I used to think were challenging hills and what was at the limit of my capability. (Think Mile 8 at the Cape Ann 25K in Rockport, but twice as long and twice as steep!) We’re still not talking Mount Washington here, but it certainly feels like it to an ex-Flatlander (native Vermonters would drop the “ex-” part no matter how long I’m here) like me.
Anyway, the choice was either to stop running completely or put one foot in front of (or more accurately, above) the other. A run I’ve grown accustomed to leaves our house at roughly an elevation of 1400 feet, and traverses 5 hills (I’ve counted them many times and have even named each one based on how much I dread them) down to the center of town at 600 feet and then back, over about 8 miles. I’ve often had to walk the last hill before reaching home (and hence I’ve saved my most hateful name for this backbreaker that I won’t share on this site), but each time I run up that final hill a bit further, I take it as a moral victory. (I use the term “run” very loosely–it’s more like a shuffle.)
So, now that I’ve done that for over a year, of course I felt ready to really embrace hill running here in earnest and found out about a series called Winter Wild. The series consists of 8 races held at area ski resorts throughout the winter. Think of all the discomfort of skiing without the benefit of a lift to get you up the mountain, and of course, the skis to get you back down (although there are divisions in which you are allowed to carry a snowboard up with you strapped to your back and ride that back down and another where you can attach “skins” to your skis and use those to climb the mountain.)
Some runners in the club will remember my attachment to YakTrax when running through the winter in Swampscott and I was told that those would do me no good on the ski slopes, where you need much more traction. Enter Kahtoola microspikes, which actually have blades attached to chains that you pull over your running shoes to give you just a little more chance you won’t slip and fall traversing ice and ungroomed snow at steep grades.
I missed the first race in the series, but the second was in my hometown of Woodstock, Vermont, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run up a mountain in the middle of winter in the dark in spikes I had never tried on before. Not sure what the weather was this past Saturday in the Boston area, but here, it was freezing rain, and just getting to the race was a challenge as my truck slid from side to side on the dirt roads that had not had the benefit of the sanding trucks at that early hour.
120 runners had registered for the race, but due to the icy road conditions, only 28 of us showed up, which meant I was guaranteed an age group award even before I gingerly stepped over the starting line. We started a bit late, more like 7:20 AM, to give the final runners a chance to make it to the starting line, as the sky was just beginning to turn a light gray from the pitch black when we first stepped outside. The race course was 2 loops up and down the mountain, appropriately named “Suicide Six,” for three miles in total. After the first few tentative steps, I got the hang of what the spikes felt like on snow and began to pick up the pace a bit. That is, until I started to hit the hills in earnest and ended up walking, thinking the “running shuffle” I had been attempting was only making me more tired and was probably slower than actually walking.
The long sought after downhills ended up having their own challenges, as we began our descent through a mogul field and the repetitive impact was very rough on my knees. I kept looking for patches of ice to avoid, but in the freezing rain, my glasses were fogging up and covered in drops. Trip 2 up and down was a lot like the first, but slower in both directions, and I finished in 43:40 or a pace of 14:34. Back in the lodge, we all tried to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that there were 27 others who risked icy roads and freezing rain for the opportunity to run up and down ski slopes in the dead of winter. My award was another pair of microspikes–anyone crazy enough to join me in the next race in the series? We could use you–27 is hardly a critical mass when you’re looking for confirmation you haven’t lost your sanity.