Enjoying an Old Fashioned Winter at Nationals
by Laura Clark
Recalling those “When I was your age…” legends about blinding snowstorms and waist-
high drifts, the 2018 Dion Nationals in Woodford, Vermont lent credibility to what we had
assumed were tall tales invented around a roaring fireplace. Blessed with 44” of snow (and still
actively falling), the challenging routes recalled WMAC (Western MA Athletic Club) days of
legend with everyone racing in train formation to break the path, taking turns at point.
But what a journey to get there! December brought three feet of promising “base” and in
a burst of early season enthusiasm Nationals mastermind Tim Van Orden committed to a race
directing ultra—spearheading six separate events over the span of two days: Saturday’s 5k, 10K
and Kids’ Kilo and Sunday’s Team Relay, Half and Full Marathon. Not to mention course
previews, separate awards ceremonies and get togethers. To heighten the challenge he designed
five separate courses. As the countdown relentlessly continued, he found himself putting in first
40, then 60 and ultimately 100 hour weeks. And as the snow fell and melted, reconfiguring the
trails, he designed multiple courses depending seemingly on the time of day and the weather
predictions. He has enough trail designs in reserve to host a race-of- the week!
As the February thaw gradually released its hold, winter dominated once more, frosting
Prospect Mountain with an incredible amount of powder, enough to last well through April. To
achieve his goal to make “absolutely the most beautiful snowshoe course ever,” he carved
narrow, twisty singletrack through the Black Forest-like landscape. And naturally the majority
of the narrow route was inaccessible to motorized devices, leaving Tim tunneling through in
fisherman-style waders, achieving lactate threshold with every step. Through it all, he remained
relentlessly smiling despite repeatedly setting multiple SKTs (Slowest Known Times) for his
routes. And then there was the no small matter of making the site approachable. Visit Tim’s
Facebook page and you can view the cavern-like parking area, the porta-potties barricaded by
snow and the daunting roof clearing operations.
Normally in back-to- back events there are two, or at most, three choices. But here we
were confronted with the same dilemma faced by Willy Wonka’s Veruca “I want it all…I want it
now.” Saturday’s options were clear-cut for those pursuing Nationals status, but Sunday’s were
murky: an intense 2.5 mile relay loop or a half or a full. While the first appears a no-brainer,
after trying to get my sore body parts in gear Sunday morning, I was actually looking forward to
the more leisurely paced half with no worries about letting teammates down.
I should, however, have stated my plan more concisely. I had started many races with
twelve year-old Solitaire Niles, now in her first year of serious snowshoeing. Because she knew
I was targeting the half, she assumed I would be, like her, a 5K candidate. She was on the verge
of bagging it, but fortunately managed to hook up with Theresa Apple who finished ahead of her
last week. It was inspiring to see her cross the finish line, smiling from the accomplishment and
praising the beauty of the final mile. She had gained so much confidence from overcoming her
doubts and forging ahead.
We all should have had those doubts as we lined up for the 10 K Championship, undoubtedly one of the most challenging and scenic 10Ks ever. While there were some wide XC ski trails, they mostly seemed to be going up. Most memorable was the out of control, arm-flailing ziggurat-style descent from the top of the mountain. We enjoyed multiple wild rides down the extremely narrow single track, bordered by waist-high snow. It took some getting used to as your eyes were automatically pulled to either side when they really needed to be focused on foot placement. I’m not sure if this was an optical illusion because of the tunnel-like path and the extreme whiteness, but it took a while to become acclimated to the different perspective. At one point I stepped off to the side to allow a faster runner to pass and plunged waist-deep toward a hidden stream. At another, while careening around a corner, the backs of my snowshoes locked and I was unable to move. Luckily, after some frantic jiggling, all was well and I avoided having someone else crash into me. Not sure exactly what happened, but I suspect a partially buried twig was to blame. By that time all the twisting had begun to take a toll on my back—rather like I had pushed my body into an endless clothes dryer cycle.
The following day, I felt less pressure at the half marathon since I had no expectations,
especially on such a difficult course. Mercifully, Tim was not able to completely clear the
marathon course, so we were treated to multiple loops of the 5K route. Everyone breathed an
audible sigh of relief. If I had had to attack two loops of the previous day’s 10K I never would
have made it.
I know some dread multiple loops, feeling it lends itself to a “Where have I come from?
Where am I going?” mentality. In a taxing event, however, I savor the reassurance that comes
from the familiar: recognizing the route, spotting certain landmarks once more, and finally
thinking “This is the last time I will have to pass this bridge or tunnel.” At one open area we
were treated to an expansive vista and while pausing to savor it, I spotted a tall white house, way
down in the valley below that I knew marked the lowermost trail. I must admit that was a bit
discouraging, but it was still satisfying to focus on where I eventually had to travel. While I
realize that the 10K was way more technical, I wonder if part of that difficulty came from the
fact that we had no concrete idea exactly how much more was left. There is a lot to be said for
I know some folks plan special birthday weekends centered around their favorite sport,
but I was doubly lucky in that Nationals Sunday fell on my birthday without any preplanning on
my part. I was amazed at how quickly word got around and by my second loop I was serenaded
by aid station volunteers and bystanders alike. I was especially touched that my buddy Solitaire
and her Mom and Dad made a special trip out just to cheer me on. Better than champagne, Jen
Ferriss de-iced my frozen water bottle and presented me with a squeezy applesauce to fuel my
And that is the best thing about doing something like this—the warm fuzzies from old
and new friends and the “we are all in this together” feeling of belonging and accomplishment. I
hope that next year, free from Nationals requirements, we will have the opportunity to tackle the
half or the full without having to compete the day before as well!