Published on June 4th, 2014 | by Phyl Newbeck
Reader Athlete: Jessica Portmess
Primary sport: Running (road and trail)
Jessica Portmess has an impressive resume. She finished third in her class in law school, qualified for the Boston Marathon four times and was the first Vermont woman finisher in the 2013 New York City Marathon. These days, she’s setting her sights on some longer distances.
VS: When did you start running?
JP: I started running almost 15 years ago in ninth grade. I was doing track and cross-country in high school and had a very different relationship with running than I do now. I did it for the team aspect and the camaraderie and I had a wonderful coach. By the end of high school and early in college I had a love/hate relationship with running but in the last four years it’s just love. I appreciate it for a lot more reasons now.
VS: What are those reasons?
JP: One is the Zen state you can find yourself in when you’re doing long distances which is what I’d prefer to do if my legs comply. The other is you get to know a place through running. I’ve lived in a couple of cities and you really learn a place when you’re running in a way you wouldn’t as a motorist or a pedestrian. It’s a great way to experience wherever you’re living or visiting.
VS: How many marathons have you done?
JP: I’ve done four and I’ll do VCM in May which will be my fifth. The VCM was my first marathon and it was my favorite.
VS: How did you enjoy being the top Vermont woman in the NYC marathon?
JP: I really love that title although I’m not even sure how many Vermonters ran (Editor’s note: there were 26 women from Vermont) but to have that crown is really great. The NYC marathon was an incredible experience just from the sheer number of runners and spectators. You’re constantly surrounded by people running and cheering. It’s a great thing for the times when you need some motivation but I found myself really relishing the bridges because it would be silent and people were just plodding along. I hadn’t realized how many bridges there were; those are basically their hills. I know a lot of marathoners have their eyes on Boston but I’m from upstate New York so I had wanted to run New York City since I ran my first marathon. My father also ran, although at a different pace, so that was nice.
VS: Do you also have your eyes on Boston?
JP: I qualified for Boston and would like to run it just for the experience but I was thinking around NYC that I’d like to transition to longer trail races. The Vermont 50 is on my list. A 100-miler would be great but figuring out how to train for those distances is difficult. It’s much easier to block out time to train for a marathon than blocking out a whole day for a 30 or 40-miler.
VS: Do you prefer trail or road running?
JP: I prefer trail running. That goes back to the Zen idea. It’s easier to find that calm sensation when there are fewer distractions.
VS: Do you ski in the winter?
JP: I like to do what I call “uphilling;” skinning up and skiing down. I got into it in Colorado where sometimes we’d go to the backcountry but if we didn’t have as much time we’d just skin up a ski area. In Vermont I’ve skinned up Mad River but I also have an alpine pass there. I tried Nordic skiing for the first time this winter and found I was awfully uncoordinated but it’s fun to do with friends. It’s easier to get people to go Nordic skiing since it’s cheaper than alpine.
VS: You’ve been involved in a group called the Mountain Riders Alliance. Can you tell us about that?
JP: They spearhead efforts to develop skier/rider-owned and operated mountains like Mad River with a focus on the terrain and the ride experience rather than condominiums. I was volunteering and doing some research for them because I thought it was a cool organization but I haven’t been terribly involved in the last two years. One area they’ve worked with is Mt. Abram in Maine. It was a functioning mountain before they partnered with it but they rejuvenated the business.
These days I’ve gotten more involved with the Backcountry Skiing Blog. It’s a really big outfit run by Lou Dawson out of Carbondale, Colorado. He does honest technical reviews of backcountry equipment and trails, and they’ve let me have a sounding box although I tend to want to write about trail running equipment more than skiing equipment. The blog is equipment focused but it has been used for discussions about public lands and other things that have more political implications.
VS: How do you find time to train?
JP: It was much easier when I was in school but I’m finding that with a normal job it’s an effort. I think if you’re committed to it, you just make it work. This commute (Waitsfield to Montpelier) is the longest commute I’ve ever had. I used to run before work but now I just step away in the afternoon. You have to be willing to look people in the eye and say that you’ll be unavailable for an hour or so but it’s harder to make time.
VS: What other sports do you do?
JP: Mountain biking. I just got a new trail bike. I learned to mountain bike in Vermont doing downhill biking at Bolton Valley. When I was in college I worked for the Ski Rack and every weekend they’d run the lift at Bolton for downhill biking and I’d go with a couple of shop employees to man the tent but we’d get to ride so I learned on a downhill bike with a group of guys who were well beyond my skill level. That was my first introduction into the extreme sports world. I gave that up after falling on my head too much. I’ve invested too much in my brain for me to take that risk.