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Snowing the Distance 

A Craftsbury race offers two courses: gourmet and grueling

For many years, the Craftsbury marathon was a ski race, pure and simple. A couple of hundred hardcore racers would show up every January for the privilege of covering 50 kilometers. Then, four years ago, race director John Brodhead had a thought: Since the race snaked past several of the Northeast Kingdom's finest inns, why not also offer a touring division -- one that would stop every five kilometers or so for a gourmet trailside snack?

Almost overnight the ski race morphed into New England's biggest winter sporting event, a station of the Vermont athletic cross, right up there with the Burlington marathon. You need to apply for a spot before the first snowflake hits the ground, and you need to line up your room at one inn or another well before that. It's a great scene -- and also a great exercise in comparative psychology. The perfect chance to compare two different ways of being outdoors in a Vermont winter.

At this year's race on January 31, half of the thousand people who'd gathered in the field outside Highland Lodge looked grim and determined -- that is, slightly demented -- as they shed layers of clothing and added layers of wax to the bottom of their skis. These were the racers, gaunt in their bone-hugging Lycra, preparing to flog themselves for 50 kilometers in repentance of some forgotten sin.

The other half looked calm and eager -- bundled up against the 3-degree temperature, chatting, pouring coffee out of Thermoses. These were the gourmet tourers, setting out for a 25-kilometer jaunt while chatting about the highlights of last year's menu: sun-dried tomato and gouda on an angel biscuit, followed a few kilometers later by butternut-squash soup spiked with maple syrup, followed by… You get the idea. They seemed happy, well-adjusted and rosy-cheeked.

It would be wrong to say that the groups divided solely along testosterone/ estrogen lines. It would be accurate, however, to say that three-fourths of the truly unsound-looking guys were in fact guys. I was one of them. But since my sweetheart was in the touring class, my head was divided; as I raced, I consoled myself with thoughts of her going on her well-fed way.

The racers started first, led by a gaggle of ex-Olympians and top college racers who sprinted up the first 4-kilometer hill because there was a hundred-dollar premium for the man and woman who reached the top first. In the world of North American Nordic skiing, $100 is considered big money indeed.

I huffed along with the middle of the pack, trying to remind myself not to go out too fast. It was bitter cold, and the skis refused to skim across the Styrofoam snow; their usual elegant glide was replaced by a rasping grab. The only benefit was that the extra work heated me up fast. Soon, in fact, I was sweating, just in time for the trail to turn sharply downhill and across some open fields, where blasting, bitter air turned all the sweat to rime ice that hung from every whisker.

At about 10 kilometers we came to a feed station. Out of the corner of my eye I could see chefs preparing some kind of soup -- pea with ham, perhaps, steaming in a vat. But of course self-mortifying racers had no time for that. For us was a Dixie cup of Gatorade tossed down without stopping, or perhaps a pouch of Hammer Gel.

In case you haven't tried it yet, Hammer Gel is one of several brands of energy gel that come in small tin-foil pouches. You bite off the top, squeeze the ounce of viscous fluid into your mouth, swallow some water and go. Because Hammer Gel was one of the sponsors of the marathon, they'd handed out brochures in every race packet. Therefore I can tell you that it "contains a long-chain matodextrin and a trademarked sweetener, Energy Smart." Not only that, but three branched-chain amino acids (L-Leucine, L-isoleucine, and L-valine). Anyway, here's what you need to know: "Hammer Gel exits the GI tract quickly and efficiently, making it readily available for energy production." Want some?

The race wound on and on. Because Nordic skiing began as a European sport, its distances are traditionally measured in kilometers, which is psychologically helpful. Your average Swede probably understands that "50 kilometers" is the same as "a really long ways." Whereas to your average North American, it sounds a lot like the boiling point of water, or maybe the amount of Pepsi in a movie-theater soda. Anything but 31 miles -- or, to put it another way, the distance between the big boxes at Taft Corners and the capitol in Montpelier.

As I said, the race wound on and on -- past tables with some kind of lovely chicken salad mounded on some kind of lovely bread, and past giant, chocolate-studded cookies, and past… well, on and on. Somewhere around 25 kilometers I began to experience the following thoughts: I hate this. This is an unbelievably stupid sport. Why am I so slow? Norwegians are imbeciles. I'm never doing anything like this again in my life.

Luckily, from long experience, I knew that these were not actual thoughts occasioned by being dog-tired and alternately sweaty and frozen. I knew they were mere physiological phantoms, signs that the Hammer Gel had exited not only my GI tract but also my bloodstream. And so I reached into my fanny pack for another pouch. This time I fished out a competing energy gel product, from the GU company -- "Banana Blitz." I tore off the top with my teeth and pushed the half-frozen wad into my mouth. I imagined its taste to be like when a mother chimp chews up some banana and spits it into the mouth of her very young chimp. Except it's much colder.

And, what do you know -- combined with a Fig Newton that adhered to the roof of my mouth and then flaked off in little sheets for the next 20 minutes, it was enough. My mood improved, my skis began moving faster, I started passing people. From the outside I'm sure I looked as crazed as before, but on the inside I was almost starting to enjoy myself.

It lasted till about 48 kilometers, when, just at the bottom of a long hill, I began to bonk in earnest -- run out of all the pasta and Gatorade and GU, not to mention will, that had been powering me along. Right at this point the routes of the food-tourists and the racers converged, and so suddenly the tracks were crowded with sensibly dressed and happy people with relatively normal body-mass indexes. They were making their way with contented shuffles toward the finish line, doubtless belching occasionally as their various repasts settled comfortably.

But I was too tired to notice anything more than that they were in the way. "Track," I yelled as I came up behind them, and they graciously -- nervously, maybe -- moved aside to let me crash through.

Finally the finish loomed, up on the postcard green at Craftsbury Common. I stood there catching my breath for a few minutes and watching other racers arrive. Some were truly spectacular -- beards with 6-inch icicles, bright red from frozen Gatorade. What a sport. At which point my wife appeared. She didn't tease me with tales of mountain treats. She just took one look at me and said: "You need a pizza." Now, that is love. Something that stays in your GI tract forever.

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Bill McKibben


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