Would You Like That on Sourdough? - Page 2Where It All Began
Created in 1990, a few years after Bill Perkins invented running snowshoes and sold the model to Redfeather, that race was organized and ruled by Sobal. The event ran for 20 consecutive years, and it was a dreaded favorite of trail runners, ultrarunners, adventure racers, roadies and anyone else up for serious suffering. The race started at over 10,000 feet, at the Sugar Loafin’ Campground in Leadville, and the entry form warned you, in a nutshell, that the epic event took no prisoners and you had better be able to take care of yourself out there in the cold.
Indeed, the single aid station typically consisted of a jug of water—ice, that is—sitting in the snow along the trail. Sobal did do a good job of rounding up a snowmobile crew to rescue struggling athletes like the guy who decided to race in shorts on a particularly blizzard-y day one year.
The course included two crossings of Turquoise Lake, often consisting of a thin layer of ice above a foot of slush on top of the real lake ice. A handful of steps without sinking through that first layer felt great, because most steps involved plowing through the knee-high slush. Nothing like getting across the lake and then running 17 miles with soaked shoes encased in snow and ice. Even a decent day out there involved a strong dose of what my dad, Mark Macy, calls “good mental training.” He should know—he has has been snowshoeing since the beginning and won the 100-mile Iditashoe snowshoeing race in Alaska a few times in the early 1990s.
Sobal won the 20-miler 75 percent of the time, and only one other person won it more than once. Sobal’s 2:54 record time in 1998, when he was 40, may not look that good on the aforementioned smart-phone app, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has bettered Sobal’s time for that distance and altitude on snowshoes. Hal Koerner, who has finished 122 ultras and recently set an impressive FKT with Mike Wolfe on the John Muir Trail, recalls Sobal’s glory days: “Besides Matt Carpenter, there really was no more dominant figure in his sport in Colorado. I was always amazed by Tom’s ability to push so hard in the thin air, and how his monstrous quads levitated above the deep snow.”
Seven-time XTERRA USA National Champion Josiah Middaugh, who has taken the “guy to beat in snowshoe races” torch from Sobal, reflects on his only attempt—a win—at the 20-Miler.
“It was a surreal experience to race against the legend Sobal in this epic event. I remember looking back at about mile 16 to see a hard-charging Sobal—and his flowing, braided, red beard that hadn’t been trimmed since the ‘70s.”
Other long snowshoe races in the Rockies have been few. A race up and down Mount Elbert, just outside of Leadville, ran from 1994 to 1996. My dad thinks it was declared the “High Altitude Snowshoeing World Championship,” though he and his buddies may have just been agreeing to a remark someone made at the starting line. Dad’s racing stories generally grow over time, but this one needs no hyperbole as the 14,439-foot summit is tall enough. Sobal recalls around 15 miles of snowshoeing with over 6000 feet climbed, and his fastest time—yes, he won all three years—was 3:28.
North of the border, several ultra snowshoe races have come and gone. In 2007, Dave Mackey of Boulder, Colorado, took home one of the largest prizes ever for a running/snowshoeing race when he earned a $12,000 diamond by winning the 300-kilometer Rock and Ice Ultra in Canada’s Northwest Territory. The following year, I borrowed Dave’s kiddie sled in an attempt to bring home a rock for the woman I wanted to marry but was smoked by Greg McHale, who lived up there and actually knew what he was doing in those conditions. Come to think of it, some of Greg’s splits on the week-long, self-supported stage race might have challenged Sobal, but I guess we’ll never know.