Doing the Old Soft Shoe at Altitude: The Turquoise Lake 20 Mile Snowshoe Race

By Adam W. Chase, Atlas Team Captain

Whenever I had any complaints as a child, my father would respond that whatever I was complaining about was good for me and would put hair on my chest.  He also used that saying on my sisters.

That was my introduction to the notion of: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  While this machismo saying has some genuine validity and applies quite aptly to my experience with distance snowshoe racing, I must confess that I have yet to sprout hair one on my chest.

I have learned from my mistakes as a snowshoe competitor and want to share those mistakes so that others may limit the amount of unnecessary suffering they experience with the sport. I say “unnecessary suffering” because there is always an element of pain that should accompany distance pursuits, whether on running shoes or snowshoes.  Nevertheless, the following account of my first Turquoise Lake 20-mile Snowshoe Race — which occurred on the first weekend in 1996, outside Leadville, Colorado — should serve to assist those planning snowshoe adventures by providing some insight into what not to do.

Tapped To Try Snowshoe Racing

I was coming off a relatively successful late summer and fall running season when I decided to get into snowshoe racing while the sport was in its relative toddler phase.  My racing season had included the Telluride Get High, a Colorado event that offers more than 10,000 vertical feet of altitude gain and breathtaking views from the three peaks over the 13,000 foot mark that line the course of approximately 30 miles.  I had also run the wet Seattle Marathon in late November.

My first snowshoe race came three weeks after the Seattle marathon.  It was a 10-K event and I was clueless about what I was doing.  I used snowshoes that had been express mailed to me the day before the race from a snowshoe manufacturer that wanted me to test their product under race conditions.  It was only my second time on modern snowshoes.  My first time was the day I proposed to my wife near the summit of a blustery Mount Elbert, the second highest peak in the Continental U.S.  She said yes, but we all wonder if the altitude that effected her judgment.

My introduction to snowshoe racing was relatively uneventful because it took place on a groomed course at a Nordic ski center and the weather was good. Running on pre-packed snow felt natural and left me with the impression that the snowshoes were mere window dressing that hindered one’s forward progress.  It was that naive sense of ease that moved me to register for the Turquoise Lake 20 Mile race.  Why not take advantage of my solid distance running base and jump into this event, which was highly regarded by local trail and ultra-runners?

Start Your Day with an Avalanche

Race day morning started in the dark. It had snowed more than two feet in the high country and not long into the drive to the race our packed car that carried my wife, our two friends, three dogs, and yours truly was stopped at a high pass that separated us from Leadville.  All traffic had been halted as a helicopter flew near the summit of an overlooking peak to shoot an explosive into the slope to start an avalanche.  Experiencing an avalanche up close is not something that many live to talk about, but those who do are sure to wonder at the magnitude of the power released in the chain reaction of rushing snow.  It was tremendous and exhilarating, and cast an ominous spell over the day.

The avalanche delay made it a close call getting to the start on time and forced me to change clothes in the car and guess as to the conditions.  As we neared Leadville, located over 10,000 feet above sea level, it became clear that the heavens had been generous the night before, depositing about 28 inches of fresh snow on the mountainous terrain.  The temperature was creeping up to about 5°F without accounting for the wind chill factor.  To warm our thoughts and raise our spirits, we blasted a Phish tape and sang along.

When we arrived at the race start I jumped out of the car and quickly registered for the race.  I did not have time to look at the course map, but figured I could always backtrack or follow the leader if I got lost.  With only moments left before race start, I grabbed a couple of PowerBars and stuffed them in a fanny pack that held a single water bottle.  I then strapped on my prototype snowshoes and waddled up for the pre-race briefing.

Shuffle Off the Buffalo

The Turquoise Lake race is organized by Tom and Melissa Lee Sobal, two Leadville residents who have helped shape the face of modern snowshoe racing. Tom has only failed to win a handful of the one hundred plus snowshoe events that he has competed in his years of racing.  Needless to say, he has won the Turquoise race every year since the first annual in 1989.  The Sobals races are designed to be low-key, with an emphasis on physical exertion without any glitz.  As testimony to that approach, the Turquoise Lake event is free to those racers who bring a healthy, homemade dish to share for the post-race feed.

The pre-race announcements included mention of the course conditions and the mandatory fluid and calorie aspects of the race: all participants were required to start with a minimum of 20 oz. of fluids and 350 calories of food. There were to be two aid stations, assuming the new snow did not prevent the volunteers from getting to the seven and thirteen mile marks.  There were cut-off points because of the danger of having racers on the course after dark, which fell around five in the evening at that time of year.  The goal was to have everyone in by 5 P.M., which was seven hours from the 10 A.M. start; just over 20-minute miles.

The race began with a nonchalant, “ready, set, go” from Tom Sobal, who assumed the lead that would be his throughout the race.  The bright and flashy colors of the athletic apparel surrounding contrasted nicely against the snow.  It was, however, a bit daunting to note the number of team uniforms and racers donning mounted shoes — racing flats that were riveted to snowshoe frames to eliminate the binding weight and the loosening that often haunts snowshoe straps.  These were some serious, sponsored athletes who really knew what they were doing and I had to swallow hard and wonder if I had gotten in over my head.

As we all started moving, the racers kicked snow into the cold morning sunrise, resulting in a playful cascade of sparkles.  As the group advanced, the continuous spray of snow made me wonder if some eye protection might have been a good idea.

Because of the heavy dump of fresh snow we were forced to tramp away from the starting line in single file. I fell into pace at about one third back from the lead in the line of approximately sixty competitors.  Like a bicycle peloton, we took turns at the lead where breaking trail was grueling enough that after only a few minutes the leader needed to be relieved.  It was common to hear happy chatter amongst the racers as the mass cooperated and repressed a sense of competitiveness, fighting the shortness of breath concomitant to racing at altitude.

After climbing through woods and clearing a wood rail fence with snowshoers’ gracelessness, the pack made its way to the crossing of the frozen surface of Turquoise Lake, which came approximately two miles into the race. The wind from the lake was dramatic and I could feel the chill bite.  I was wearing a pair of pants I had volunteered to test for snowshoe worthiness and, much to my chagrin, I discovered an unexpected defect.  The pockets, which opened at the hip for easy access, had filled with snow that I had kicked from behind as I pushed forward.  My pockets soon began to swell and the weight caused the pants to pull down.  To avoid embarrassment and melting, I had to constantly empty the pockets.

As the group progressed across Turquoise Lake, our turns at the lead grew shorter and the wind filled the tracks with snow in a matter of moments. I was only slightly amused at being forced to break trail when directly behind Tom Sobal’s lead.  This was the result of the difference in his six-foot-something tall stride and my double-step.  To further complicate matters, there were parts of the frozen lake that were slushy, causing the watery snow to stick to the cold aluminum shoes and freeze from the cold winds.  The result was a heavy load of caked up, clinging snow.  The fact that I was not wearing gaiters did not help matters and soon my wool socks were dangling with icy balls.  Woe is me.

 

The race really began when the lead group of 15 racers finally reached the far side of the lake. The pack broke apart as soon as we climbed up the steep bank into the woods and turned onto a wind-packed trail.  At about five miles into the event, I was feeling fine as we started a long and steady climb to Uncle Bud’s Cabin, the first check point of the course.  I was maintaining a consistent pace and became frustrated when I was passed by two snowshoers who were wearing some ultralight snowshoes and seemed to float on the snow.  This caused me to ponder the weight of my test shoes.  I knew that they were heavier than some of other makes, but I figured that the new design would compensate with added performance and durability.  Its a good thing that I did not know then that I would finish the race with both shoes broken due to design defects and welding failures.

At about mile six we started a steep climb on an out-and-back section of the course. I was running in the top fifth of the field, but was far enough back that the tracks were well cut in the fresh snow.  At times it seemed as though I was ascending a very long, white flight of stairs.  Perpetual motion was once defined to me as a Slinky on an escalator and I had to wonder if that applied in such cold and snowy conditions.

As I neared the turnaround point I was passed by Tom Sobal followed by a pack of four in hot pursuit. At the top of the climb, it was quite cold but the gorgeous views at the over 12,000 feet and the thought of a descent was comforting.  What was not comforting was the fact that there was no aid station.  When I reached the cabin and shuffled around until it became obvious that there would be no warm drink or cookies that my friend had told me about from a previous Turquoise race, I must say I was rather disappointed.

Tapping Out Or, Shuffle Ball Bonk

Instead of consuming the treats from the aid station, I made due with a rock-hard PowerBar.  Unlike some other, more natural food energy bars, which do not tend to freeze or harden in the cold, PowerBars get rather brittle when chilled.  Chewing was only half the battle.  Before I could chew, I first had to complete the Hudini-like task of unwrapping the thing, which is damned near impossible when your hands are in mittens and frozen numb.  The other blow to my sustenance plans was the fact that my water bottle had frozen up on  me because I had placed it right side up in the holster.  Little did I know, as a snowshoe rookie, that the squirt nozzle would freeze unless I placed it upside down to prevent the top from freezing.  I was reminded of an infant trying to get milk from a spent bottle as I only semi-succeeded in warming the nozzle to allow for some passage of liquid.

After dropping down a quick mile from the turn-around point, the course turned on to a cold straightaway stretch that was fraught with headwinds and no direct sunlight. The winds made for slow going as they blew fresh powder into the tracks of the racer ahead.  By this point my face was numb and my hands had lost almost all feeling.  I had consumed fewer than 250 calories and had drunk almost nothing.  I was, however, having a good time in such a beautiful place and in such fine company.

At about mile 13, just when my spirits began to take a turn for the worse, I reached a corner and saw aid station number one (which was supposed to be number two). I gladly accepted a cup of hot Tang from a kind gentleman who had ridden his snowmobile up a trail and built some shelter to protect him and his gas stove.  The hot fluids got my blood flowing again and I braved the adventure of opening another PowerBar as I strode away from the station.  I had to remove my mitten to help remove my wrapper and to make sure I stored it in a pocket (I have a pet peeve about people who leave energy bar and gel wrappers on trails and refuse to break my own rules).  It took me about a quarter of a mile to get my mitten back on my hand and I wondered whether the temperature had dropped or was I just losing dexterity due to the exertion and lack of nourishment.

The Tang and PowerBar probably fueled my progress another three or four miles and then I experienced my first bonk.  I started to get numb and disoriented and even went off course when I thought I say some tracks go into the woods and down a snow bank back to the lake.  When I discovered that I had made a wrong turn, I literally had to crawl back up the bank to get back on track.  My legs were barely responding to my mind’s commands and I can recall not really caring . . . about much of anything.  It was a rather existential experience, but not one I wish to repeat.

Mention Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.”

I was running on autopilot and had been out in the cold for more than five hours. By this time the temperature was hovering around zero, and was in the sub-teens with the wind chill factor.  I think it was the natural beauty that surrounded me that inspired me to finish the race.  All I had to do was to traverse a short portion of the lake and then descend the final mile down to the finish area.  The final miles came rather easy because I was too bushed to feel much of anything and my numb legs had stopped registering pain or exhaustion.  I would even say that I was enjoying myself, in some demented sort of way, at that point in the race.

The Finish and Hypothermia

When I reached the finish line I found my lovely wife and friends waiting patiently for me. They were cold and our dogs were frozen, but when they saw me, they probably felt balmy in comparison.  They led me into the warming hut where I took in warm drink to try to reduce my uncontrollable shivers.  It took about fifteen minutes and a close relationship with a space heater before I was able to feel good enough to think about replacing my wet clothes with a dry outfit.

It was at that point that I realized both snowshoes were broken. That explained the funny sound I had been hearing for the last five miles of the race.  I also became aware that my wool gray socks were now pink from a couple spots where my feet had been worn raw.  One advantage with numbness is that you do not have to deal with pain.

The potluck was delicious and the hut began to get warmer as finishers started to congregate and recount their day’s adventure. As it turned out a number of racers had turned back early because of the cut-off times.  I just sat there fighting off shivers feeling very content to be finished, warm, well fed, and in such good company.

Although my father was wrong about the chest hair, he was right about it being good for me. I went back to do the race again in 1997 and cut off almost two hours.  I brought two water bottles, put them in upside down, carried Boulder Bars that do not freeze, wore lighter snowshoes that I had run on many times before the race, and made sure that my pants did not have open side pockets.