Running throughout the winter in New England can be bleak: the weather is variable (cold, snow, ice, wind chills well below zero degrees F), it’s impossible to dress appropriately for each run because of all the variability (If I’m being perfectly honest, I’ve been either overdressed or severely underdressed for every. single. run. this. year.), and motivation dips during the shorter days/long, dark nights that come with the season. Winter races – or if we are calling them by their true names, winter sufferfests – can be a great way to keep you on track if you have some loftier spring goals that you need to stay in shape for or build up to. When searching for one such race, I saw that the local group that puts on a series of trail races throughout the year posted about their inaugural mid-winter race: The TARCtic Frozen Yeti.
I’ve done frozen races before while living in Pennsylvania, in particular, The Frozen Snot out in Lock Haven, PA that intentionally schedules their event in the middle winter, hoping for the gnarliest of conditions. These types of races aren’t for the faint of heart, nor for the inexperienced. Admittedly, the first year I ran Frozen Snot I had no idea what I was getting myself into! Now that I have some frosty sufferfest experience under my belt, reading the race description for the TARCtic Frozen Yeti actually sounded like a fun time.
The race was held at the Hale Reservation in Westwood, MA – southwest of Boston. I had never run on the trails there, so I really had no idea what to expect in terms of terrain or conditions. My plan was to run it as a training run for a spring marathon, so I was open to suffering at a slow, “comfortable” pace, even if it took me half the day to finish – and it seemed like it might given that the required gear for the race was similar to lists I’ve seen on big mountain ultras where runners are trucking along throughout the night – for just 15 miles!
I arrived and parked in what I didn’t realize was the farthest parking lot from the start/finish area – whoops! It was entirely my own fault for not doing any reconnaissance before the race. Luckily, plenty of kind souls who were volunteering were ready and waiting to shuttle us to the lodge. As we rode in to Powissett Lodge – which would serve as the sole aid station/start/finish area – we saw along the winding road several of the 30hr runners emerge from the woods and duck back in, looking pretty thoroughly beat down. This was my first time at a race where people were over 70 miles, in the winter no less, and it was truly inspiring to see them continuing to push themselves onward down the trails toward the 30hr mark.
At the lodge, after checking in and receiving my bib, I noticed a row of folding chairs labeled “60-75 mile runners gear drop” that were completely empty. I took advantage to drop my small bag of dry clothes there, but I quickly realized after surveying the scene more closely that there were very few runners around the room. Another row of folding chairs next to mine labeled “75+ mile runners” were also quite barren. Two of the chairs had occupants: one, a woman dressed in cold weather running gear who appeared to look through me instead of at me, and her crew member silently patting her on the knee. This course was chewing up runners’ and spitting them back out violently. I put on my nanospikes.
I was able to catch a few fellow Trail Sisters at the start of the 15 miler before we were quickly ushered outside and told to “go!” The first half mile of the course is a paved road, all uphill. My ultimate goal was to run this race as a training run and to simply take it slow and steady. That being said, I wasn’t sure of the elevation profile prior to the race, so I figured taking this hill would be a good way to warm up. The first 5 mile loop of the course was full of hill play, gorgeous single track, and jockeying for position in the snow and ice to establish a steady pace. There was also a group ahead of me that missed a ribbon towards the end of this loop that almost sent them off course – quite literally, it was a cliff. I happened to hear them just in time to realize their error and look UP of all places, to see that we were supposed to go up and over a bit of a rock scramble. Sometimes it’s lucky to be slower 😉
I ran straight through the aid station to start loop 2, which I was told would be easier than the first loop. I’m not so sure that any of the loops were “easier” than any of the others, though, given that icy rocks and lots of ups, downs, and arounds feel hard all of the time. I was feeling good on this loop though, and mostly spaced out and simply enjoyed the trails. I didn’t see many people on this loop, so it was easy to just ease into my own pace and float away in my thoughts. The park is littered with lots of log cabins, and every time I saw one I would get excited that I was already back at the aid station. By the third or fourth Lodge of False Hope, I decided to try to ignore them. The fifth cabin was the aid station, naturally.
After a quick port-a-potty pitstop, I was off for my final loop. One of the women from the earlier near-cliff experience caught up to me (I thought she had been in front of me the whole time?). We leap frogged and chatted for 3.5 of the last 5 miles of the race, and she really helped pull me through some of the darker moments of that race, albeit unknowingly. She, however, wasn’t wearing and traction, and after a few solid falls right on her backside on some thick ice, she started to pull back. She was hurting and it was showing. She told me to go ahead and take the lead, and right when I did we turned a bend and we came upon the lead woman of the 30hr race! Seeing her still RUNNING at that point was a huge inspiration and motivation. I ran alongside her, told her what a total fucking boss she was (she was about to finish 100 miles with that loop), and as I passed she yelled to me “Get it girlllll!” She still had so much energy and was smiling. Maybe she was forcing it for my sake, but regardless it was what I needed. I dropped my pace by over one minute/mile and left the woman I had been running with behind. I powered over the last few hills and pushed toward the finish.
Small races like this are such a unique experience. While some might be annoyed that such events aren’t chip-timed with fancy medals, I quite enjoyed the low-key vibe at this event. The “finish” of the race was the back staircase of the lodge. There was a table that I leaned on to help take off my nanos (no traction inside the lodge!) and a guy with a clipboard half-opened the door to grab my bib number, which he relayed to another man sitting at a table just inside. They mumbled back and forth as I finished taking off my spikes, and as I stepped inside they handed me a small stuffed Yeti on a string with a ribbon on the back which read “15 MILE 3rd FEMALE”. I took it from him as he said “Congrats!”, thanked him, and went and sat by my bag in disbelief.
This isn’t humble-bragging. I’m not a fast runner, and I don’t really train to improve my speed, I simply enjoy spending time outdoors and on the trails. I ran 15.5 miles in 3:26, which is not earth-shattering. This is a call to all the women out there who are unsure if they can run that distance/run on trail/navigate on their own…there needs to be more women at these events. Maybe women felt this race didn’t cater to them in some way. And maybe the onerous is on the specific races to cater to women to get them to participate in their races. It’s certainly a complex issue with a complex set of considerations for a way forward. But I think gender disparity in any sport is two-fold: not only do women need an equal number of seats at the table, but for trail running we need butts in those seats. Increasing opportunity and growing the community of female trail runners are both required. I hope the small part I play can help at least our local community grow, even just by one woman.