On Saturday 2 February, it was a balmy four degrees above zero as we started the Craftsbury Marathon. Dry, cold snow and bomber tracks meant that almost any colder kick wax would work. Whether my body would work for the whole distance was a question.
In November 2014, I had surgery to repair a hernia and had to take 8 weeks off of physical activity to recover. It’s amazing how quickly fitness disappears during an enforced break. While I regained my fitness and returned to racing, for various reasons – including one DNF – I hadn’t completed a 50 km race, breaking a 25 year string of at least one per winter. Today, my goal was simply to finish.
We climbed out of the stadium past the ski center. Out of the woods, we looped around the rollercoaster dips and climbs in Murphy’s Field. The first time I raced in Craftsbury, back in dinosaur days, I had a yard sale fall on Murphy’s, cartwheeling and ripping a binding out of a ski. This year I avoided trouble.
As we turned back into the woods, I recognized the rolling trails that I’d skied on many times back in the day. Craftsbury’s marathon format has evolved over 38 years. This year, it was three laps of a 16.7 km course. ( I hadn’t been here since 2002, when the race was an epic point to point event. ) You could sign up to ski one, two, or three laps. Looking to get a monkey off my back, I signed up for the whole nine yards.
This year, the first five km or so were easy, rolling trails that take you to Elinor’s Hill. This looping, fast downhill through a farmer’s pasture ends with a cranking 90-degree left turn out on to Sam’s Run. Another flat kilometer led to the crux of the race course: a sustained 150 meter climb over the next five km. This was unknown territory, and I throttled back because I’d have to do it twice more. After a stiff climb through evergreens, the trail leveled off some as we wound across open fields with 20 mile views. Crossing a road, we finally summited in a sugarbush before turning downhill.
Back across the road, more downhill to Ruthie’s run, and a gradual climb back to the ski center. A boy maybe 12 years old came up alongside me, smiling and dancing past me up the hill without breathing hard. What’s it like to have that youthful gas again? He skied into the finish a few seconds before me with a big smile. One lap completed and I felt great, and I’d kept my heart rate in check. One down, two to go.
Around three kilometers into the second lap, four-time Olympian Kris Freeman blew past me, cutting a perfect line across the apex of a corner as if I was standing still. He would go on to win by 15 minutes.
Snow began falling as I summited the big climb and wended back to the ski center to complete my second lap. Waves of doubt washed over me as I left the stadium for the last time. My confidence disappeared. You can feel good for 30 km and then it all goes to hell.
Climbing out of Murphy’s Field, my skis slipped a bit. But it wasn’t the skis, it was the skier: with fatigue, my technique deteriorated. You asked for this, I told myself. Time to dig deep. I still skied the flats well, but I had to herringbone some climbs that I had previously strode. I caught a second wind, then I tired again. Then I’d feel better. Rinse and repeat.
Half an inch of snow fell, and the sharp new crystals slowed my skis down. The big climb seemed to take forever. At the feed station near the top, I said one of the volunteers, I must be last, right? And he replied Heck no, there’s still people out on Elinor’s Hill.
At that point, with seven kilometers left, I knew I could finish. When I crossed the finish line, I was wrecked. But it was worth it.
I remembered the rainbow I’d seen Friday morning. Indeed, it had been a good omen.
Twenty-five miles from the Canadian frontier, Craftsbury Outdoor Center is an iconic destination that everyone should visit at least once. Russell Spring Sr bought the Cutler Academy private school around 1976 and converted the dining hall, dormitories, and various outbuildings to a ski center with 100+ km of trails. In addition to skiing, Craftsbury offered summer camps for runners and scullers.
Much has changed since then. After 32 years of stewardship, the Spring family sold Craftsbury in 2008 to Judy Geer and Dick Dreissigacker, proprietors of the Concept 2 rowing machine company. Geer and Dreissigacker re-organized Craftsbury as a non-profit. What had been an awesome if somewhat backwoods ski center morphed into a state of the art facility that’s hosted multiple national championships as well as local races. In addition to their own trails, they groom the trails of the defunct Highland Lodge.