Posted January 24th, 2009
The start of the 2008 Pittsfield Snowshoe Marathon. Photo by Cronin Photography.
The Pittsfield Peaks Snowshoe Marathon is held each March in Pittsfield, VT. The event includes three races: a 26.2-mile marathon (four loops); a 13.1-mile half-marathon (two loops); and a six-mile “fun run” (one loop). The six-mile option allows novices to participate, which is important to race director Andy Weinberg. “We have plenty of people that come out and hike one loop without running one step. If you can hike, then you can snowshoe.” But that is not to say the races aren’t also competitive. Along with beginners who opt to hike, Weinberg says, “We also have some of the best snowshoe racers in the nation show up.”
For any level of athlete, snowshoe racing is a challenge. In the rapidly growing sport, the most common distance to race is 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). Depending on the depth of snow, that can feel like a half-marathon effort. Moving up, a half-marathon on snowshoes is more like running a marathon, while a marathon can feel like an ultramarathon. Then there are the hills to consider. At the Pittsfield Snowshoe races, you have to consider them to the tune of 1,800 feet of elevation change for each loop you plan to run. The course runs between the flat fields of Riverside Farm and the slopes surrounding South Hill, where it takes advantage of as many steep rises as possible.
Weinberg knows what is involved in undertaking this type of event as he is an accomplished athlete himself, having competed in ultrarunning and double and triple Ironman triathlons. He is a coach and aquatics director at Middlebury College and is passionate about getting people interested in outdoor activities. Even before moving with his family to Vermont from Illinois in 2008, he had become involved in starting a series of endurance races in both states. The events span the sports of trail running, mountain biking, and snowshoe running, and they are billed with unique and challenging hooks that are attracting a loyal following. (Two of the races suggest extreme adversity even in their names—the Death Race and the Funeral Race.)
One thing Weinberg can’t control is the weather, and when I took part in last year’s snowshoe race we were met with freezing rain, followed by a steady drizzle as the temperature rose. In the early morning, racers milled around to stay warm, gathering their snowshoes and assembling items they might need when passing through subsequent loops. We all headed to the start line and nervous energy turned to forward motion as Weinberg signaled us off.
I felt ready—or so I thought—to take on all four loops of the marathon. The course started tamely enough with a flat mile, but then suddenly had us clawing and wheezing up the side of a mountain for over an hour. At the top, the trail wound around pine trees in a quiet darkness that made for a nice recovery from the uphill work. Just as we started to recover, suddenly the edge of a steep downhill loomed, offering breakneck, out-of-control sledding downhill on either your own snowshoes or plastic disc sleds that were provided. I opted for the less-likely-to-break-my-neck option and used my snowshoes. Even so, before my legs woke up to the notion of kamikaze downhill running, I tripped and flew through the air. I realized how deep the snow was when I had trouble extracting my embedded knee from the snow bank I landed in. Continuing down a little more cautiously, I was impressed by the more courageous types flying by, and tried to stay out of their way.
At the bottom, I shook myself off from my inelegant descent from the mountain and started my second loop. After just a few steps back up the mountain trail, I was already feeling the grueling uphill. I met up with “Sherpa” John Lacroix of Newmarket, NH, who tried to keep my spirits up as I complained of wanting to turn around and drop out. “Keep going; it’s just a long day on your feet,” he encouraged. This helped get me through the rest of the loop, where I decided to end my race by taking the mercifully given option to drop down to the half-marathon. (Those who drop down are listed as official finishers, but aren’t eligible for prizes.)
Just as I finished my run, the rain that had been misting all morning started to intensify. There was a huge base of snow on the ground, so while the rain made things sloppy, there was no danger of it all melting. I hung out by the big bonfire to watch as Paul Low of Northfield, VT, charged into the finish to defend his title as the marathon winner. Also from Vermont, Aliza Lapierre of Williston won the women’s title. The two of them shared the finish with only 16 other marathoners who went the entire distance (about a quarter of those who had signed up). Lacroix, who took his own advice to heart, was one of them. A much higher number finished the shorter races.
The post-race party included a feast of lobster and shrimp, Long Trail beer, a video presentation, and the awards ceremony, including generous prize money to the top three male and female marathon finishers. Weinberg, his affable Midwestern demeanor meshing easily into his new home in friendly Vermont, treated the runners more like personal guests than nameless faces.
Aside from the poor weather, Weinberg ends the day happy with how it went, and he credits a dedicated group of volunteers who “did everything they could to make the event a success.” Specifically, he points to Jason Hayden, who “created an incredible course, as usual.”
For 2009, Weinberg hints that there will be a few small changes. “We will start and finish at the Amee Farm, which is just a few miles from Riverside Farm. This will give us more parking and it will be better for the spectators.” But be assured, the hills will still be there to challenge you.
This year’s Pittsfield Snowshoe Marathon races will be held on March 7, at 9 a.m. More information on this and other endurance events can be found at www.peakraces.com. Peak Adventures has also developed a social networking site, www.peak.com, where athletes can go to post personal and athletic resumes, pictures, blogs, training, and communicate with like-minded athletes.