Romping & Stomping: a novice snowshoe racer throws his heart onto the field
|| story by Craig Popelars ||
Half way through the Romp to Stomp snowshoe 3k sprint-race, I saw him plain as day: a woodland elf. Actually, he could have been a troll, or perhaps a dwarf. Hell, maybe he could technically have been classified as a Cascadian gnome—it’s been years since my junior high days of Dungeons & Dragons all-nighters, so I’ll admit I’m a little fuzzy with my mythical creature identification. Whatever he was, there he sat with bulbous nose, stubby fingers, and a mocking glare to boot that said, “Hey buddy, these kind of hallucinations are inevitable when you hyperextend your anaerobic threshold.” The little bastard was right. I hit a lactic acid wall face first and was bonking big time. I would have been content to just curl up in fetal position next to my little Narnian friend, and perhaps swap my Clif Bar for some of his Turkish Delight, but I couldn’t give up. It was pretty apparent from the start that the Romp to Stomp out Breast Cancer is one race where no one gives up.
Two months before my hallucinatory gnome encounter, I convinced my 70-year-old father to accompany me on a business trip to Washington. I told him he could knock around Seattle and play tourist while I worked, and then in the evenings we’d hit the micro-breweries. Like me, he has a weakness for craft beers, and while our home state of North Carolina has a burgeoning beer scene, it still pales in comparison to the Pacific Northwest. When he agreed to the trip, I then sheepishly broke the news to him: “Oh, by the way, I’ve signed us up for a little snowshoe race while we’re out there.” The phone line went silent, but I knew he was there, and I knew he was game.
The couple days prior to heading for the snowy Cascades, Dad and I spent acclimating to Washington and preparing for the race by synchronizing our BMI (Body Mass Index) with our IPA (India Pale Ale) intake. As far as I know, beer doping has yet to come under the scrutiny of sports governing bodies, so thanks to the support of Pike, Elysian, Pyramid, and Boundary Bay breweries, our bodies were peaking at the perfect time. Not only were we ready to compete, but we convinced ourselves (after a few pints) that we could actually win the damn thing. “Damn right we can!” my dad slurred at Boundary Bay Brewery the night before the race. We were the Southern dark horses, and despite never having worn snowshoes or witnessed any significant snowfall, we felt compelled to channel the likes of famous snowshoeing stars who blazed the trail before us (Bruce Jenner, Charles Nelson Riley, Marcus Camby, Dorothy Hamill, and Larry Czonka). We were hell-bent on leaving the competition in our wake, choking on a rooster tail of snow that would leave them frostbitten and in awe of our athletic prowess.
The early morning drive to Stevens Pass was sublime—just another scenic reminder why I think the Pacific Northwest is, without argument, the most stunning and picturesque region in the country. Arriving at the Romp to Stomp site, we were greeted by a Mardi Gras atmosphere. There were swarms of pink-laden participants scurrying around, adorning crazy and questionable get-ups, all the while adjusting and testing out their snowshoes (loaned for the day by the event organizers) while techno music blared over the loudspeakers. Laughter was in the air and a smile was plastered on everyone’s face.
To be honest, I was overcome by the celebratory spirit that pervaded the event. I was also blindsided by the emotion that hit me when I walked among the crowd, occasionally spotting someone who visually and proudly declared in one way or another that she was a breast cancer survivor. Everywhere I looked I was reminded of my mother who passed away from breast cancer at 48, and of my mom’s sister, who roomed with her at Duke University Hospital, and who shared Mom’s same fate. And I thought of my dad’s mother, yet another life in my family claimed too early by breast cancer. Of course, Dad and I didn’t need to verbally acknowledge our emotion. We were manly men after all, and we could easily see it in each other’s watery eyes. I had one of those Grinch “ah-ha!” moments, realizing that perhaps this was more of a celebration than a competition. That became even more apparent when I executed a flawless face-plant after crossing my snowshoes as I approached the starting line. Nevertheless, it quickly dawned on us that we were about to be both romped and stomped by the local competition.
It’s like this: running in snowshoes is like having two cast-iron skillets strapped to your feet while some thug mercilessly punches you in the thighs over and over again. Dad and I are both rabid cyclists and swimmers, and in the last year I took up trailrunning, but none of that prepared us for running in snowshoes. The race leaders easily blew us off their backs fifty feet from the starting line. And perhaps we started off too strong trying to stay with them, because a quarter-mile into the course we were left for dead. I suddenly questioned if what I was doing could technically still be considered running. Either way, it was a race, so I left my dad to the wolves and pushed on at a pace that kept my heart perfectly lodged in my upper esophagus, and that positioned me just in front of a sprightly 13-year-old girl who I could swear was happily humming a Lady Gaga song as she ran.
I was at that point when I didn’t think I could keep the pace any longer, but somehow I ignored my inner elf, and kept putting one foot in front of the other. One more step. One more step. One more. One more. I thought about my mom, my aunt, my grandmother, and the women gathered at today’s event in defiance of a disease that they both embraced and valiantly fought. My pain became trivial and I felt my strides lengthening. I came around the corner and saw the welcoming crowd gathered at the finish. I ran faster and faster toward their embrace, realizing that we were all running toward the same destination. A cure might still remain elusive, but inherently the cancer knows that we’re gaining ground and that someday soon we’re going to catch it—and defeat it. Just before crossing the finish line, I looked back once more, concerned for a moment about my dad lost in the woods with that maniacal elf, and then threw my hands skyward in hope.
A graduate of Appalachian State University, Craig Popelars is a twenty-year veteran of the book publishing industry and currently serves as the marketing director of Algonquin Books. A swimmer, cyclist, mountain biker, and beer geek, Craig resides in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with his wife and daughter. He once resuscitated a pelican with mouth-to-mouth and the Heimlich maneuver after it had choked on a piece of saltwater taffy. Witnesses claimed the mouth-to-mouth wasn’t necessary.