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Trip down worth trip up

BAY KELLEY

This weekend, when I donned snowshoes for the first time and made a trek with Peter Fain and Sam Skrocke up Schallenberger Ridge above Donner Lake, I thought that I had affirmed my prejudices against uphill snow sports.

As I puffed and wheezed my way up a moderate incline, doing everything in my power to keep up with the Tigger-like duo, jogging at every opportunity, bouncing and laughing to their destination, I cursed their health and swore that snowshoes would never again grace my feet.

By the time I caught up with them at the peak, I was so winded that I couldn’t see straight. The splendor of the view, not really accessible in any other way than the backwoods path we took, eluded me as I struggled to settle my aching lungs.

The trip up, they assured me, is well worth the trip down.

I was skeptical. I mean, look at my company.

Fain is an ex-track star out of San Francisco State. Prior to our trip – at his house while we gathered supplies and fueled up – Fain discussed the physics of running with surprising depth. Although he hasn’t yet sent in his papers, he is only a stamp away from being a certified track instructor. His obsession (I use the term loosely) with running goes all the way back to his childhood when his mother once taped the LA marathon so that he could watch it. At a young age, let me iterate this point, he wanted to watch marathons on T.V.

A week ago, he participated in the Great Ski Race while downing ibuprophen to kill a lingering injury, and completed the 30 km course four minutes shy of the 2:20:12 course record set by Tom Sobal. It was his first cross-country race in snowshoes and he says that he sloughed off in the last few miles because he thought the record was 2:30:12 (because snowshoers start ten minutes after the skiers to avoid pileups and the times are listed according to the ski clock).

“It’s a big jump from 800 meters to 18 miles,” Fain said, explaining the change from his track and field specialty to marathons. “My track coach said that I was a distance runner that could run fast for a short time.”

And Skrocke …

Skrocke was more my speed, but still way above my ability level. Early in the afternoon, he explained that he participated in track during middle school, then took a seven-year hiatus from running. When he moved to the Tahoe area, he was inspired by the healthy lifestyles which, in turn, renewed his interest in running. He began to jog with his boss at the time and mentioned his interest in running a marathon. “Just do it,” his boss said, “one’s coming up in October.” After a couple of months of training, Skrocke completed the Tahoe marathon. Since then he’s been training with Fain and has been improving his times on long distance runs tremendously.

Then there’s me.

Fain and Skrocke were clad in workout clothes, basically cross-country ski garments that are light and don’t allow snow to stick as much, while I, with tremendous foresight, was sporting yesterday’s laundry. Fain, sponsored by Atlas snowshoes, was equipped with snowshoes, about 18 inches long and seven inches wide, that are riveted to a pair of running shoes. Skrocke, too, was wearing sneakers with his snowshoes and me, well, I’m looking clumsy as mud with a pair of Sorels and a wider variety of snowshoes.

While I was resting at the summit, I watched as Fain and Skrocke took turns jumping off a seven- or eight-foot ridge. Fain was conservative with his jumps while Skrocke, with his “snowboarding roots,” was hurling himself upside down and sideways off the bank. I became optimistic.

When I was adequately rested it was time to go down, and down was, as they promised, well worth the climb.

The form was simple: run (high knees), keep your weight on your heels (butt in) and get the snowshoe above snow level so that it doesn’t catch (toes up).

“There’s no room for getting lazy,” Skrocke said. “If you lose your form you can hit your ankles or knees, trip over your shoes and you get tired twice as quick.”

On the downhill, we bounded long strides until we started to enter into the woods, at which point we had to pick our line (as it were). The woods were clearly too dense for your average snowboarder or skier to navigate and, according to Fain, are inaccessible during the summer because of a dense underbrush, so the experience felt unique and singular … like a privilege I had earned. As we wove through the trees and over rocks, leaping several feet into waist deep snow, I realized that the exhaustion I had felt not 10 minutes before had completely subsided. By the time we had reached the base of the mountain, I was completely sold on the experience, and am anxious to do it again.

The analogy that I’ve devised for the occasion is that snowshoeing is to snowboarding what riding a bike is to driving. Snowshoeing allows you to see what’s happening around you, to stop and look without feeling like you’re somehow spoiling the experience. I realized that I did not cramp Fain and Skrocke’s style because there appears to really be no pace for snowshoeing … it functions in Tahoe time. While, generally, they keep a much faster pace than me, there is pleasure too in taking it slow.


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