There’s no question Jonathan Vass is an endurance junkie. From ultra-running to randonee racing, he’s happiest when he’s working his hardest. Despite the fact that his primary sports are running and skiing, the most memorable event he’s taken part in involved his mountain bike.
Residence: North Pomfret
Family: Sweetheart, Stephanie; three dogs (“our crew”) Addie, Bootie and Lola
Occupation: Recycling consultant
Primary sports: Ultra running and skimo (ski mountaineering) racing
VS: How did you discover the New England Rando Race series?
JV: I bought Kilian Jornet’s movie A Fine Line and was completely hooked before I even tried the sport. Then I discovered Jonathan Shefftz and the New England Rando Race series. Last year was my first season and I went to five races, including two from that series.
VS: So you had no experience with rando racing before that?
JV: I grew up ski racing, including competing in Italy, but I wasn’t familiar with ski mountaineering racing. I did as much research on skimo as I could and then I bought the essentials: boots, bindings, skis and skins. I made do with the pack and clothing I had and just showed up for the races. Everyone was so friendly and inviting and other racers helped guide me with advice on racing, training, and equipment choices all season. Now I’ve got some better gear, including a racing backpack that allows you to go through the transition stages without taking your pack off.
VS: How do skimo races work?
JV: Every race is roughly 10 miles with some backcountry skiing, some skinning and some boot packing. There is usually a short course option, depending on your ability. The races start with us lining up together and placing our skis in the snow. You run a quarter or half mile and lock into your skis, which already have their skins on. Then you skin to the top of the mountain and ski down something treacherous, like the edge of a black diamond or something through the woods. The course is marked with little flags which are often very hard to find. At a certain point on the mountain you take off your skis, latch them to your pack and boot pack up at least 200 feet vertical. Then you put your skis back on and either skin a little further or ski down to a certain spot where you put your skins on and go back up and do it again. The races usually have three laps. It’s really exciting and it’s just such an amazingly diverse group of people. There are world class athletes and last year there was a woman who raced with her kids. Everyone shows up on different gear.
VS: What do you love about it?
JV: The racing is fierce, there’s no doubt about that, but the informal loose atmosphere is welcoming and fun right from the start. We gather outside for the rules and course layout and then sort of wander down the road together to the starting area. If you love to endure and suffer and have really cool gear, it’s a great sport.
VS: Let’s talk a bit about your ultra-running.
JV: I ran cross country in high school and college, but then I didn’t really do anything until 2006 when I happened to find a copy of Triathlete Magazine on the floor of our recycling facility. I hadn’t even heard about triathlons before, but I decided I wanted to do it so I got a coach and trained. First I ran the Vermont City Marathon and after that I did triathlons and unless I was sick or injured I finished in the top 20 percent.
All that training led me to the Ironman course in St. George, Utah. That course no longer exists because it was too difficult. Less than half the racers finished. I finished, but it was during that race – I remember the exact moment was at mile 16 of the run – that I decided that since people were telling me I was a great runner I should try ultra-running. I was done with triathlons and never looked back.
VS: And you switched right then and there?
JV: I went right in and raced the Vermont 50. This year I did the Vermont 100, but I had to drop out at mile 70 due to a pre-existing injury. I left in great spirts, though. It was a breakout year thanks to skimo. I finished fourth at the Twin State 50K in Windsor and ran an 8:35 at the Pinelands 50-miler in Maine which is a 10:17 pace. I look forward to doing the Vermont 100 next year after I get a few more ultra-races under my belt. This year I helped with the set up and clean up, as well as running. It was nice to be involved because it goes right by my house, so it was exciting to be part of it.
VS: How do you train for skimo?
JV: Last year I didn’t train at all. I was running 50 to 70 miles a week, but that was it. This year I’m doing a lot of uphill training, trying to increase my pace. I wear a backpack with weights in it and I’ve even worn some ankle weights. Skimo is an amazing sport and I really want to do well. I got left in the dust last year. It was really a learning experience for me on how to use the equipment.
VS: Tell us about your most memorable race?
JV: That would be the Mad River skimo race. It starts at Mad River and you go up Antelope and jump on the Long Trail and it’s just beautiful out there. You’re on the knife edge of the ridge, exposed to the elements heading down to Sugarbush North. It’s amazing to be out there in the woods. Then you come out and ski down to the bottom of FIS and then boot pack up FIS and ski down the edge of it which was icy, scaly and treacherous. Then we skied down to Slide Book, put our skins back on and skinned all the way up Sugarbush South and then skied down to the base. That was an amazing race and at the end they gave us each a free Sugarbush ticket for the rest of the day, which was really nice of them. Skimo races are really inexpensive and most resorts give us a pass for the rest of the day which makes them really attractive. I finished in the middle of the pack, but everybody gets something cool, often from skimo.com which is the main sponsor.
VS: Do you do other sports?
JV: If mountain biking was a religion I’d join it. The most incredible thing I’ve ever done was finish the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and earn a silver buckle. I ride my mountain bike a lot. I love my road bike, too, but I don’t get on it nearly enough.
VS: What is the appeal of these endurance sports?
JV: I love pain and torture. I’d rather be out there all day than just do an hour-long race. I’m an endurance junkie. If you’re going to train that hard, it might as well be for an all-day event. I think it’s more exhausting to do a sprint triathlon than to run 50 miles.