When I was a little girl, at the first snowfall we would shut all the inside lights off, leave on the porch light and gather by the big sliding glass door to watch the flakes fall. As we did my Dad would recite from memory, Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I can still hear the rich and soft tones of his voice,
“Whose woods these are…I think I know.”
I can see big, fat fakes fluttering down from the black sky, swirling before finally settling into a soft pile on our back deck. As a child growing up in New Hampshire, winter was magical. My Dad would build an ice skating rink in the back yard, we’d go cross country skiing through the woods as a family, and dig out snow forts in the mini-mountains the plows left behind. Yet somehow, when I became an adult winter became inconvenient, dangerous, too cold, too long. I complained about winter. A lot.
Until I started snowshoe running.
It was like being a kid again. The first snowshoe race I ever ran was single track through deep, fresh powder while snow fell around us… at night. I loved how free it felt. How all the times and paces and measurements of road running were gone and it was just effort and nature. The woods and my breath. The snow and my feet.
“Why do you like snowshoe running so much?” My husband asked me as we dug into a hearty post-race lunch and celebratory beers after Saturday’s Snowshoe National Championships.
I was quiet for a moment, then answered.
“It combines all of the best memories of my childhood: my Dad reciting Robert Frost, my Mom reading aloud The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s all that feeling of wonder and imagination and magic. Combined with everything I love about running: being outside in nature and testing my physical and mental limits. It’s hard, really hard and not everyone will do it because it’s hard. But I like doing hard things.”
Maybe that’s why Saturday’s race came together the way that it did? Maybe there was a little bit of magic along with all the hard work?
This training cycle started back in January. After building a solid base for two months, I started in on speed workouts. My legs were coming back, my speed was coming back, my volume was building and I was feeling strong. Stronger than I ever had before as I mastered pull-ups, deadlifted and squatted during regular lifting sessions (something I haven’t really done consistently in the past).
All the training I’ve planned out for myself has been half-marathon focused. Weekends filled with half marathon goal-paced runs, with a few snowshoe races peppered in–most of which were cancelled due to lack of snow.
In the months leading up the Snowshoe National Championships, my focus was never on that race. It has always been on the half marathon I’ll be running in two weeks. I’m not sure there are many athletes who make the National Championships their focus. It’s usually something fun and different runners do to make winter training interesting.
I’d almost forgotten about the goal I wrote down two years ago in my running journal: Finish in the top three at the 2018 National Snowshoe Championships.
“What are you goals for the race?” my husband asked as we drove from Bennington, VT to the race venue at Prospect Mountain in Woodford, VT on Saturday morning.
“Oh I don’t know. I depends on the conditions it’s going to be slow. Depends on who shows up too. There’s some fast and fit women who could be there.”
I thought top five on a good day, top ten if the field was stacked with talent. I was coming off a higher mileage week (56 miles) and already had 40 in miles in my legs including a tough track workout going into the race. There was no taper. This would be like running a race pace effort workout at the end of a regular training week. But I’ve been nailing those race pace effort, so maybe I could nail this?
I found Amber Ferreira at the registration table and after getting our stuff settled we went out for a two mile warm up. I’ve been coaching myself during this training cycle, but I’ve bounced a lot of ideas off of Amber and picked her brain when it comes to training and mental preparation. She’s someone I admire and have really enjoyed getting to know.
Towards the end of our warm up the wind picked up and the snow began to swirl. Woodford, specifically Prospect Mountain got hit HARD by the snowstorm earlier in the week accumulating 40 inches of snow on top of the base that was already there. I’d seen the videos from earlier in the week of the race director, Tim Van Orden breaking trail in deep snow. I joked that Amber would need her goggles (she’s a decorated Ironman) since we’d be swimming instead of running.
Two miles later I felt loose, comfortable and strong.
As Amber and I rounded back into the parking lot, Tim gave us a rundown on the course: 4K “groomed” nordic to the summit, although 5 inches of fresh snow had fallen during the night “ungrooming” the trail. “Then,” he said with a glint in his eye, “the real race starts.” We would head into the woods onto the single track where the remainder of the race would take place. “One big loop,” he said.
I strapped on my snowshoes and headed out for a quick jog around a small section of single track. A few steps into the woods I stopped, “God, this is gorgeous!” In the woods the snow was deep, so deep-the trees weighed down and bent low. This was going to be amazing.
He will not see me stopping here, to watch his woods fill up with snow.
Lining up at the start I noticed several competitive women I’ve seen at past races were absent. But still, the women in the front-I’d never beat any of them-fast, strong women I respect.
Tim gave the command and we were all off, kicking up a puff of powder that clouded my view for the first 100 yards.
I fell in line about seven back, relaxed but wanting to stay out of the fray. Someone went down, bringing another girl with her. Most of us swung wide and picked up the pace. We made a small loop near the start area and then crossed the course and started climbing.
The snow was soft, snowshoes slip, slid. The most efficient way to run was right in line behind the person in front of you. I plugged away up the hill. About a half mile in we’d already divided into two groups. There was the leader and a trail of five women, a gap and then another group of 4 or 5 of us. I fell into the second group.
I looked up and could see Amber’s red singlet. “You should get up with that group of women,” I thought. “Can I run faster?” I checked in with my breathing. “Yeah, I feel good. I can go harder.” I swung around and passed the girl in front of me, working hard in the few inches of unpacked fresh powder. “Wow, passing is going to be hard work.” I thought.
I fell back into the single line of tracks going up the hill. As I did so I began to notice that if I simply ran a natural cadence, I worked so much harder than if I tried to match my stride to the footprint of the snowshoer who had gone before me. I did a shuffle step and started striding directly into the snowshoe prints, it felt easier. I plugged away up the hill.
Somewhere before the two mile mark, the women in the first group stated to come back to me. As I focused on each footfall I reeled them in. Passing one. Passing another. Passing another. I found myself right on the heels of another girl (who was second place women, Emily Renner). We churned past the women on our way up the hill.
Amber, who had been out of sight was getting closer. Amber is an incredible athlete and amazing competitor, she’s fast and a two-time National Snowshoe Champion. After taking a four months off to recover from adrenal fatigue, she’s been back at it building fitness. She is the caliber athlete I aspire to be like and the great thing about Amber is that despite being a fierce competitor she lifts up and encourages the women around her-probably what I admire most about her.
Even though I know she’s not in tip-top shape, just to be running with her built my confidence. She’s a fighter and I knew she would fight the whole race no matter what place she was in.
As we neared the summit of Prospect Mountain the trees became frostier, coated trunk to limb with snow. The wind whipped snow up into swirls, drifting it across the course. If this was “groomed nordic” what would the single track look like? I stayed tucked in behind Emily, focused on each footstep.
The three of us, Amber, Emily and myself reached the summit within a few seconds of each other and started the decent down the mountain. Slipping, sliding practically skiing across the powder. Whiteout all around, the world felt small and insular.
The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.
“Footprints. Footprints.” I kept repeating to myself. My focus so small, only on the next step. I didn’t think of the runners behind me and hardly thought of the runners in front of me.
Coming down off the mountain the three of us made a sharp turn into the woods and into waist-deep powder. My stride immediately changed as I plunged down into the powder with each foot step. There was no finding the footprints, only trying to stay upright. We collapsed together with the change of terrain and Amber stepped aside, letting Emily and me pass her by. She patted me on the back, “Go get ‘em,” she said.
The course switch-backed down the mountain, I reached down to the snowbank to steady myself at several turns and then thought better of it and swung myself around a sapling instead. I stumbled several times sinking into the powder, righted myself and got back to it. Around the four mile mark, Emily began to pull away, 30 seconds, then a minute. As we began to climb back up the mountain I could only see her between the turns.The boughs along the trail bent low with snow, the sky was white and close. I ran through the tunnel catching another glimpse of the her, before she disappeared again.
The woods are lovely dark and deep.
Fourth is good, I thought. I hadn’t seen the leader pull away and thought there was another girl in front of Amber. Hang on to fourth. Keep churning. Up the inclines I focused on the footprints, down the hills I tried to let it rip without falling.
We tucked in and out of single track, traversing the ski trail down the mountain. As we closed in on the five mile mark we burst back into the finish area.
From the top of the incline I could see the lodge, the finish chute and the announcer on the mic. “Could the course be short?” There’s no way Tim would make the course short. We can’t be done…or are we?” My mind played tricks with my as I descended down sharply turning switchbacks. I tripped, fell into the deep powder and struggle getting back up.
“WE HAVE ANOTHER WIPE OUT ON THE HILL!” the announcer called into the mic. “It’s our third place female Sarah Canney of Farmington, NH!”
“Wait! Third? What!?!”
I started back down the hill. “Just stay upright. Just stay upright.”
At the bottom of the hill was an aid station and sharp right turn back into the woods.
The single track started climbing, winding, turning parallel to the hill I’d just come down, except this time we were in the woods. I heard the announcer call out Amber’s name. “She’s right on me,” I thought. Between the trees, out of the corner of my eye I saw more women descending the hill: a flash of blue, a ponytail. “They’re catching me!” I thought they were 30 seconds, maybe a minute back.
“You’re losing it. You’re slowing down. They’re going to all catch you. Blow by you like you’re standing still. You’ll be back where you’ve always been.” In a split second the negative thoughts came rapid fire.
I walked a few strides. “This is so hard. Ugh this uphill. It’s so hard.”
“No!” my mind shouted back. “I’m a winner. Think like a winner.” I recalled a quote from the book, Finish First by Scott Hamilton, which I’ve been reading. “When you start to act like a winner, you feel like a winner…when you begin to take yourself seriously like this, other people begin to take you seriously too.”
“They might be right behind you, but you are HERE. Focus on HERE. One step. Footprints. Footprints. Footprints.”
And then the realization set it. I’m third. That’s what I wanted for this race, two years ago when I wrote it in my training journal this is what I wished for. A year ago this goal was out of the questions, impossible. It hadn’t even entered my mind as a possibility until it was happening.
As my focus got small again and I regained confidence, my pace picked up and I started striding strong. I felt alone again in the woods. Alone with the snow, the wind, the trees. It was peaceful. I relaxed into the effort.
I crossed back through the finish area, passing above the finish line and headed out the other side. A course marshal pointed back into the woods. “Straight across,” he said. “No one in sight behind you, you’ve got at least a minute.”
“Thank you!” I called. I needed that. I was closing in on 6 miles on my watch. “How much further?” The fatigue was setting in.
More winding, twisting single track through the woods, before popping back out on to the very first part of the course. I glanced at my watch. We still hadn’t run through that little bit of single track I’d warmed up on. “When was that coming and how were we getting there? Through the parking lot?”
The course wound back through the finish area, passing the finish line, passing the crowd of men lined up and ready for the start of their race.
The announcer called my name again. I was still in third. This was mine. “Stay strong. You’ve got this. Don’t let up.”
I saw my husband and he cheered loudly as I strode by, back out into the final section of single track. Up the knoll, winding, winding, twisting through trees.
Stride three feet, turn, stride four feet turn. Turn again. I popped back out onto semi-groomed nordic. “This is it. This is the finish. Give it everything you got.”
Back out into the finish area, past the group of guys waiting to start. They cheered as I rounded into the finish chute. Legs churning arms going. I felt like I was running in slow motion, but I was smiling. Smiling big. I was doing it. This goal I’d set two years ago. This improbable, impossible goal was mine to achieve. I was MAKING it happen. I strode through an the announcer called my name, “And our third female, bronze medalist Sarah Canney of Farmington, New Hampshire!”
I didn’t stride across the line. I came to an abrupt stop under the FINISH banner. I couldn’t go another step. I’d given everything I had. I bent over with my head in my snow-covered gloves. “Oh my god! I did it.” The emotion caught in my throat. “I fucking did it!.”
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.
At the beginning of the year I told myself, “If you want to be an athlete you have to think of yourself as an athlete.” I decided I wasn’t going to feel guilty about asking family members to come watch the kids so I could go to the indoor track or to go get a massage or go to the physical therapist. I was going to eat like an athlete. Sleep like an athlete. Recover like an athlete. Think like an athlete.
That shift in mindset means I’m doing all the little things: rolling, strength training, pre-run mobility. It’s a subtle shift that has, undoubtedly paid off. That along with showing up every morning when my alarm goes off. With a little over mile to go in Saturday’s race doubt started to set in, “Maybe I don’t belong here?” But at the beginning of the year I decided that I do belong here. I latched on to an Instagram post from Lauren Fleshman and on almost every run I recall it: A breakthrough is really just the final entering of a place you believe you belong.
Saturday was a breakthrough, a final arrival into a place I’ve always believed I belong. I’m excited for what’s next. I’m excited to get out there and grind and enjoy the journey. I’m excited for more miles and bigger goals.
“The path to victory is the path you’re on. It becomes a path to victory the moment you decide it does.”
Robert Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” 1922 at his home in Shaftsbury, Vermont which is the town just north of Bennington and Woodford, where the snowshoe race was… Magic.