Monday, March 7, 2011

Pittsfield Paradiso

My roommate, the amazing, irrepressible Jason Jaksetic, stumbled in at about 2:15 am last morning, completing the 100 mile snowshoe race exactly 62 hours from when he began, in blinding snow, suddenly gaining a new moniker, "the barn animal," but a wounded one as he let out the occasional agonized scream last night. Carrie Adams, Nebraskan, Spartan Race nutritional blogger, support team and Jason's good friend, and I excavated the ice from his boots and undid buckles, peeled off layers of wet technical gear as he stood shivering in his skivvies. She led him to a warm shower to reverse the early onset of hypothermia. Joe D, well versed in extreme endurance sports and having faced bad conditions many times over, accompanied him on his final lap. And even a jaded athlete such as he could only conclude that it was totally fucked out there.

But nevertheless, Joe D eats this stuff up. The course markings were obscured by the heavy snow and the groove pounded in by hundreds of citizen snowshoe racers a short time before was almost completely obliterated. Joe D had arrived a short time earlier, video cam in hand, and almost giddy, or as giddy as a gruff dyed in the wool Brooklynite can be. Jason headed up the barn bridge in a zombie like lope almost laying down for a nap right then and there, in poor shelter from the near blizzard conditions and mere feet from the warmth of the barn.

Joe D had spent much of the previous 24 hours contriving the mythology to build a Spartan Race legend. Barely half way into the hundred miles, Jason was delirious and physically spent. His ankles were swollen and he started to talk gibberish on the trail. If he continued, Carrie and I and eventually Jason himself agreed, he was on the trajectory to do permanent damage to his body or possibly to place his life in jeopardy. This was his first attempt at an ultra race with hardly a month of serious training. This one need not be the be all end all. At least five more races of this kind lay directly down the pike. Learn from this one. Move on.

But rest only caused his hypercompetitive juices to seethe and boil. I was relaxing by the fire that evening, hours after Jason's "final decision, " and there he came plodding down the stairway, risen again like out of some B-movie horror flick. Before it could even register, Andy the Undertaker, race director for all the Pittsfield ultra races, asks me if I'm going to snowshoe with him. Awoken out of my stupor, I say, yeah where are the snowshoes? Joe D having heard the news chimes in with facebook posts plausible in spirit if not completely accurate. "Jason, in a comeback move outrivaling Rocky Balboa's, has reentered the race. The rumor is that he slept in a coffin last night and feasted on cow's blood."

The night air was strangely soupy and warm. It felt as if I just entered a gigantic mouth, the enormous maw of the mountain. I hoped this didn't mean it was about to bite down and devour us. Jason, who I assumed would be in a severely compromised state was surprising difficult to catch. My senses were sharpened in the darkness and I occasionally caught a whiff of almond soap. And on tight switchbacks I saw his headlamp flashing several tiers above me, but all in all he was incredibly elusive. He was moving at a two hour lap pace through snow that had devolved into slush. He was averaging over three miles per hour and given the 1300 hundred feet or so of elevation gain, this was a respectable pace for a reasonably fit person on fresh legs doing a lap or two, and an incredible pace for someone rounding their tenth lap.

I summited at the bald peak of what has come to be known as Joe's hill, scooped a few handfuls of cold chicken noodle soup into my mouth from the now abandoned aid station and continued my vain pursuit. I finally was able to close the gap on the steep downhills, but only because Jason's knees had been pounded into submission. When I caught Jason it was at the start of a treelined chute, formed from a thousand snowshoe impressions, that pointed steeply downhill. He turned around to face me and said, "Hey Matt, watch this." He got down on his butt, lifted his feet in the air, and sledded down the chute for at least a hundred yards and I did the same. "I'm having fun again,"he said.

We started the second six and a half mile loop joined by one of Andy's former students from Illinois. Already feeling fatigued, I fell behind on the uphill. I felt it in the hips. Jason, experiencing no such limitations, would attack the steeps, letting out a roar, and plodding up them clearly possessed. A light rain shower grew heavier. I fell behind by a half mile or so, but then caught up once again on the downhill where Jason went for another ride. Revitalized, but more mindful of his limits, Jason took a nap in the barn. Joe D somehow reinterpreted the night into: "Jason completed several more laps last night and was found later passed out and convulsing in a chicken coop."

We slept in the barn, in fact, on a rainy night, and Jason woke up relatively recovered and revived….or, "Jason woke up in the coop severely pecked by some rogue chickens." He was in good spirits, but the course was a total washout. He waded through rollicking streams that didn't exist the day before. At one point he fell through a snowbank into over two feet of water, or, "He fell through a snowbank and slid fifty feet into the river and he is now hobbling through the course on broken snowshoes."

Carrie and I read the blog posts and had a good chuckle. We were half expecting the next blog entry to read something like this, "A tornado has lifted Jason Jaksetic off the course and into a strange land of munchkins, witches and flying monkeys. He snowshoed to the emerald city in search of new snowshoes. The wizard demanded domination over the rest of the mud race series or he would not be granted his wish. It was discovered that the man behind the curtain was Joe D himself who eventually relinquished a new pair of snowshoes. Jason clicked the snowshoes together three times and uttered, 'There's no place like Pittsfield, There's no place like Pittsfield….' "

The rain changed to a driving snow and Jason carried on heroically all the while with not much to goad him on except the supportive barking of Bella the sheep guarding Great Pyrenese dog and the sprites he would hallucinate flitting through the tree branches.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Snowshoe Carnival

We’re gearing up for the big snowshoe race. If you look up Pittsfield in Wikipedia, this is what we’re famous for, this and almost nothing else. Entry level is a six mile non competitive fun run, and just to put things in perspective, most normal snowshoe races are six miles at the most.

The mileage options grow exponentially from there, 12, 24, and a few twisted souls are embarking Friday afternoon for the 100 miler, possibly with confetti and C and C Music Factory blasting from the PA system if I have any say in it, and I’ll be there to shoot off the starting gun (which will be my thumb and forefinger and me shouting “boom.”) for that particular division.

A much smaller version of The Death Race will be taking place simultaneously. There is an air of mystery surrounding it. Even the farmers, Liz and Russell, who usually know all the gossip around the farm, haven’t got a clue. There is even some doubt that the race directors, Joe D and Andy the Undertaker, know what exactly will transpire. In fact, I’m pretty sure they don’t.

So we’ll attempt to learn from the past. Last year it was ten or so martyrs, chopping wood, wading through a frozen river carrying ten gallon buckets of water for a mile, attempting to push wheelbarrow fulls of split wood through three feet of snow, drinking a gallon of warm milk in a 33 degree pond while wearing a shirt laced with itching powder, attempting to push the Olympic wrestling captain out of a ring with a floor of snow, all the while enduring the heckling of Joe D himself. And though this was the so called snowshoe division of The Death Race, and the racers carried the appropriate equipment, they were not allowed to wear them once.

I marked the six miles of the snowshoe race last year, so I know from experience that it’s a relentlessly steep three miles up and just as steep down. It twists through confusing, dark, spooky pine glades in between. But despite this, or perhaps because of this, the whole event is a blast with bonfires, cheerful volunteers, food, cows, chickens, moose, and nearly 200 amazing participants. I’ll probably be up for 48 hours straight this weekend and loving every minute of it.