Snowgaine: 8th Time is the Charm
Hello, hello, hello, is there any snow out there?
I have raced in CNYO’s Snowgaine more times than in any other race, and it is never a race I have had any expectation of winning overall. It’s always a small field, but more often than not, it is stacked with Canadians who crush the course every time the snow is deep with snowshoes adding weight to racers’ feet. As this year’s Snowgaine approached, we expected more of the same, and we have joked over the years that we are racing to be the first Americans to the line, not to win outright. This year in Philadelphia we have had an amazing winter complete with three snowfalls totaling about four inches, so nothing different this year.
Still, we like to prepare, so Abby and I fill our bathtub with jello, don our snowshoes and high-step, precariously balancing an I-Pad with video of Touching the Void inspiring us to dig deep. We take ice baths and turn on the air conditioning when the house goes above 40 degrees. When the temperatures do plummet, we ice over our patio and do wind sprints and suicides in our microspikes. Anything we can to be prepared for the Canadian invasion. Anything to give us a chance to get our names inscribed on the famed “Broken Ski”, an iconic piece of Snowgaine glory.
Over the last month or so, reports out of East Pharsalia, New York included feet of snow, climate change be damned, and we packed our trusty snowshoes into the trunk, dug out our SOURCE insulated hoses and our warmest Thorlo socks, and began to taper for two eight hour days of snowshoeing, running, and crawling through the deep snows blanketing the woods and swamps of central New York.
And then it warmed up. And rained. And warmed up some more. By the time we pulled into the home base at the cozy Balsam Inn, complete with Confederate flags and signs encouraging artistic sexual harassment, the snow had dwindled to mere pockets of cover in the deepest nooks and crannies of the woods.
This year’s field was an exceptionally small one, with only ten teams taking to the starting line. For whatever reason, the Canadians chose to stay home, but there were still several good teams of orienteers and adventure racers to line up against including the amazing Charles Leonard who has competed in ALL 21 Snowgaines! We knew a couple of teams of orienteers and the duo of Jason Urckfitz and Lawrence Creatura would be our primary competition if all went according to plan. With memories of my cramping meltdown at the Winter Chill, we set off for a long day of running on trail and off.
Day 1: From heaven to hell
Until the end, the first day flew by. When we set off from the Inn, the weather was downright balmy with a warm 60+ degree breeze blowing through the woods. While part of the Snowgaine’s mystique is without question its typical winter wonderland setting, racing in t shirts in February was a nice experience. We set off knowing that the course was much too big to clear, and we targeted the south and east side of the course first.
For the first seven hours, all went well though the conditions changed dramatically part way through. The woods were beautiful, the creeks and marshes cold but magical. We moved well as a team, nailed the nav, and made a good decision to drop some low value points in the middle of the day, though we probably could have and should have dropped a couple more to maximize our score. As we approached the final two hours of the day, we had some decisions to make, and we had a brief powwow.
By this point, we had donned rain jackets and were trying to weather a literal storm that had altered the experience from downright beautiful to legitimately sinister. Four to five hours in, the temperatures began to plummet, and a few minutes of cautionary precipitation soon cascaded into torrential rain that stopped just short of turning to snow. As our bodies cooled, we found ourselves knee deep in one of the countless swamps we passed through during the first day, and as the rains steadily thickened the thunder and lightning rolled in, flashing and booming directly above us as we fought our way through 33 degree water, slowed by the swamps’ tussocks that for whatever reason had held thick layers of snow and ice whereas the rest of the course had let them go. We grimaced and tried not to think about how well lightning and water mix.
By the time we paused to strategize the last hours of the race and our return to base, John and I were chilled, and Abby might has well have been living in an icebox. I scanned the maps, did some quick distance estimates, and threw out the plan. No way we were getting to the best case scenario from that morning, but we could still take a shot at the points in the northeastern most quadrant. We would have to move, and we didn’t have much room for error, but I felt like we had a chance, and we could always bail on one or two of the six intended points if we needed to.
Off we went, I think all of us a bit low mentally and Abby especially unsure of the plan we
were pursuing. The first leg of this final push took us along the edge of a landfill. Unique experience, traveling along the border of a dump with trash and polluted water covering the ground.
“Inspired checkpoint,” I said at one point as Abby silently followed along and John grunted, all of us trying to breathe around the putrid smell of rotting garbage. It felt like it took ages to move beyond the landfill, but we found the control and moved on. We made good work of the next two controls. And then we had our chance to adjust. We still had an hour on the clock, and I felt like we had the time to bag two of the three remaining controls. Looking at the map, I decided we would nab the first of the controls and continue on for a lower value control just north of this first one. There was a mapped trail network we could pick up which would allow us to make quick work of the second control and dump us onto a road that would take us straight into the Inn.
Well, I probably should have changed my mind since we had bobbled that first control. It was our first slip all day, but we still managed to find the control in decent time, and I felt there was time. The trail network was a mere 100-200 meters away and then we could run the rest. We still had a good 45 minutes or so. So off we went.
And we didn’t find the trail.
We did find some orange flagging that clearly marked a little used route of travel. Must be the trail, I thought. We followed it. And then lost it.
By this point, it felt like the wheels were starting to loosen, but if we just moved and trusted the compass, we still might end up figuring it out. Alas, the happy ending I was now desperately trying to will upon us was not meant to be.
After several more minutes of wandering, I pulled the plug. I took us north, hoping to pick up the trail, convinced we had overshot the point and drifted west. We found a trail, though by this point nothing felt quite right. Regardless, it was time to run and it was clear to me that we would be cutting it very close.
When we popped out on the road, we discovered two more significant problems
- Abby’s asthma was raging, and she was in bad shape. The cold had decimated her lungs and she was struggling to breathe. We weren’t going to be able to move as fast as we’d need to.
- But that didn’t really matter, because we had only 20-25 minutes or so to cover about six or seven kilometers…and that was a big kick in the gut for me. Nearly two hours before, during my quick study of distances and the map, I had done my math. And it was wrong. I had not lined up the finish properly, and the way my map was folded, I wasn’t able to see it during the last two hours. I THOUGHT I knew where it was, and I THOUGHT my plan was safe. Maybe a bit risky, but 20-25 minutes to do a quick run back to the finish was reasonable if the distance was 3-4 km. No fun, but doable. Alas, my heart stopped when John told me it was twice as far back as I thought.
So, the wheels were now fully off, rolling away down the road toward the far-off finish. We set off grimly, Abby ready to leave me in East Pharsalia, I think, but mostly just focused on surviving. Thankfully we found ourselves further south than I expected on the road, confirming that something went terribly wrong on that last checkpoint despite my paying attention to the compass. Still, it was a long, cold, mentally exhausting slog back to base.
We rolled in 20 minutes late. Abby collapsed next to a heater and convulsed for half an hour. Had we bailed after the last found control or when things started to go south, we might have still made it back in time despite the added distance, but now we were faced with a one hour penalty for day two. And we didn’t even find the damned control to justify the penalty. Somehow, we discovered we had scored the most points for Day 1, but not by a wide margin. Jason and Lawrence of Untamed New England and Frank Boscoe and his teammate Tom Rycroft were not too far back either. With the lost hour we figured we had no chance to hold them both off for the overall win.
At least we got to sleep in.
Day 2: Magnetic swamps?
Well, John slept in, I think. A four month old will do that to you. Abby and I still woke up before our alarm despite staying up late to dot-watch Godzone. After a casual morning in the Super 8, we rolled into the start to find Barb and Mark waiting. Everyone else had set off into the woods an hour before.
Thankfully the rains had stopped, but Day 2 would present a typical Snowgaine day: snow flurries, sub-freezing temperatures all day, and there were even a couple of inches of fresh snow here and there from an overnight snowfall. The night before we had studied the maps very closely, exploring several different options, hoping to dial in our plan to maximize our seven hours and hoping that it would be enough to at least allow for a respectable finish.
We set off up the road and at the first checkpoint we found we had shaved off a few minutes from Untamed New England. We had virtually done the same points on Day 1, just in reverse of one another, and it looked we were now following them on Day 2. We figured that if we navved and moved well and could close the gap to a half hour or so by the end of the day, we MIGHT have a chance to somehow stay ahead of them in the scoring. They would need at least one big checkpoint if not two to catch us. Still, I had bobbled that first point, and for the second time I was puzzled as we wandered through marshy forest despite my paying close attention to my compass. “Damned magnetic swamps,” I muttered. We set off after Untamed still happy to have shaved off a few minutes.
But then the second point didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked and we lost the minutes we had gained. The third point was a downright nightmare, buried in a swamp that took some time to figure out and visualize. We didn’t make a mistake per se, but it did take some exploring before we truly understood where the control was hiding. Once we sorted it, we found it in quick order, though quick order included several very long minutes in deep, frozen water that left us all hobbling and cursing.
When we punched the control we were dumbfounded to find that we had made up 45 minutes on Untamed. This was all the motivation we needed, and for the rest of the day we played cat and mouse with them. We shaved off a few more minutes on the next control and then moved ahead as we elected to cross a beaver dam while they headed around a big lake. They ran us down on a road and some trails leading to the next distant control. We made another navigation move shortly thereafter once they punched into a control one minute ahead of us. They vanished through the woods while we elected for a slightly different route which allowed us to get in and out of the subsequent control before they arrived.
Such nav games continued for the next hour or so before they broke off for two points that would add a fair bit of distance before the finish. Their route would be largely on roads, allowing for fast travel; ours would be slower as a fair portion of our remaining route would include off-road travel. We diverged, and the final race was on.
As it turned out, we made it back to the finish first. They made it in several minutes later and within a few minutes of the cutoff. We both found two checkpoints on our respective routes, and they were the same value, as were our second day scores overall. With the difference in first day scores, this meant we managed to hold onto our lead from Day 1, and I don’t think we could have possibly scored more points considering our lost hour.
It was an exciting race physically and strategically, and our head to head battle with Jason and Lawrence was a lot of fun. It helped knowing we had a 50-60 point lead (that’s what we believed though we didn’t know for certain) as it put more pressure on them to find at least one extra control and perhaps two. And so our name will be forever enshrined on the Broken Ski…though I think they should include an asterisk:
*No snow, no Canadians…