Craftsbury Ski Marathon
By JoAnn Hanowski
In the heart of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont lies the sleepy village of Craftsbury and the nearby Craftsbury Nordic Center, home of the Craftsbury Ski Marathon. The race, held the last Saturday of January for the past 27 years, is the largest and oldest of the New England marathon races and is also a member of the American Ski Marathon Series, which includes 13 events – covering every weekend from January through March – across the country from Vermont to Alaska.
On most winter days, traffic into and out of Craftsbury includes mostly skiers traveling to the Craftsbury Nordic Center. However, on the last weekend of January for the past 27 years this sleepy little village bustles with color and excitement when up to 1,000 cross country skiers and their families come to town to tackle the Craftsbury Ski Marathon. Many of the participants come from Vermont and the remainder from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and New York. Most of the skiers are between 45 and 49 years of age and men are slightly more likely to participate (58 percent) than women (42 percent).
This region of Vermont is a working landscape of family farms, woodlands and sugar woods. Its geographical location, safely between the steeper terrain of the Green Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the east, provides rolling hills with open fields and both boreal and hardwood forests. It is this nicely undulating terrain, with both open and forested areas, that make this region of the country ideal for cross country skiing.
This variety, plus picturesque red barns and pastoral views, make the Craftsbury Marathon unique among marathons of the American Ski Marathon Series according to race director John Brodhead.
Brodhead should know. He has been the race director for every Craftsbury Marathon to date. He commented, “Putting on the marathon each year is probably the most stressful experience of my lifetime. The week before, I swear to myself that I am not going to ever do it again. A week later, after reading the cascade of appreciative emails, cards and online feedback, I start looking forward to another year.”
Although the terrain here is not steep, the skiing is challenging. The marathon’s website suggests that participants have an intermediate-to-advanced skill and fitness level to compete in the 50km event. They are not kidding. There is a training plan on the web site to help skiers get in shape. In addition to the stamina required for the long but skiable climbs, skiers need to negotiate equally long downhills, some with un-forgiving turns that can send the timid skier into the sugar bush.
Having skied marathons mainly in the Midwest, I was surprised during my first Craftsbury Marathon that skiers were checking their speed on the first downhill of the race. I followed their lead and snow-plowed and was happy I did, as we approached a hairpin turn at a pretty good speed. The turns are even more challenging for later-starting racers who must negotiate the snow berms that develop on each corner.
The Craftsbury race has used at least three different courses over the past 27 years of the race. Course changes have been made to accommodate unusual snow or low amounts of snow on the point-to-point course.
I have skied the marathon four times, and have sampled each of the three different courses. My first Craftsbury marathon was a skating race held on a 17.5 km loop due to a big snowstorm the night before that dumped three feet of snow on the course. I have completed the classic point-to-point course twice, and a classic race that completed two loops of a 25km course at the Nordic Center. The race organizers have responded well to changing weather and snow conditions over the years in order to hold the best and safest possible race.
Unlike most other ski marathons that offer both classic and skate events on the same or sometimes slightly different courses (like the Mora Vasaloppet in Minnesota) the Craftsbury marathon is a classic-only event. In the first 20 or so years, the technique (classic and skate) alternated each year. However, race organizers settled on an all-classic skiing event starting about eight years ago.
When snow conditions are right, the course has been a true “point-to-point” event starting in Greensboro, VT, and finishing in Craftsbury. The first 25km of this course is narrower and has more technical skiing than the second 25km, which is within the Craftsbury Nordic Center trails system. The Craftsbury trails are wider and have more forgiving uphills and downhills than the first 25km of the race.
Brodhead’s worst race experience came just last January. The Northeast Kingdom and most of Vermont had received near record amounts of snowfall from November through January and near-perfect race conditions existed on the course the week prior to the race. Then disaster hit, in the form of an overnight ice storm with freezing rain and sleet, making skiing on the first part of the course pretty sketchy. The skiing improved when skiers were within the trails of the Nordic Center.
Due to last year's nightmare, Brodhead has decided to make his race director experience less of a migraine. The organizers have decided to switch the race to a 2 x 25km loop for the 2009 event. The exact race course and start have not yet been posted on the marathon website, but will likely use the trails at the Nordic center which are more accessible for grooming and are more “sustainable” in terms of retaining snow.
A point-to-point marathon course is becoming a rare commodity amongst the races of the American Ski Marathon Series. Of the 13 races that are part of the series in 2009, six are true point-to-point races (Noquemanon in Marquette, Michigan;, City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley, Idaho; Mora Vasaloppet in Mora Minnesota; American Birkebeiner in Cable, Wisconsin’ and the Tour of Anchorage in Anchorage, Alaska). At least two of the races in the series have abandoned their point-to-point courses (the Pepsi Challenge in Biwabik, Minnesota; and the Finlandia in Bemidji, Minnesota).
Brodhead and race organizers are also adding a 5 x 5 relay for the 2009 event to attract more individuals; they will continue to have the popular 25 km touring event. The tour is unique among North American marathons in providing delicious home-style food from local inns at the aid stations. It is common for entire families to participate in this fun tour.
Racers that arrive the evening before the race can take advantage of the ubiquitous pasta feed. In addition, all racers are treated to an after-event lunch of delicious chili, cornbread and greens. Age-group winners are awarded locally crafted pottery and all participants are entered into a well-supplied raffle of prizes. Seems that few folks go away empty-handed.
If you are interested in participating in the Craftsbury Marathon, plan your travels early. The event is open to 1,000 skiers and that cap has been reached in the past. The closest airport is in Burlington, Vermont, about a 90 minute drive from Craftsbury. The race offers a shuttle service from the airport on Friday and Saturday.
Limited lodging is available at the outdoor center. The lodging is simple, but comfortable, and several rooms and cabins have been remodeled in the last year. You can choose a room with a shared or private bath and double or twin beds. The center also offers apartment-style accommodations and private lakeside cottages. Room prices include three wholesome, healthy, hearty, all-you-can-eat meals made with fresh local produce.
Additional lodging in close proximity to Craftsbury includes Stowe and Morrisville, Vermont. A wide array of lodging choices, from simple hotel rooms to over-the-top luxury hotels, is available in the Stowe area. A great variety of food options are also available in Stowe. Morrisville, on the other hand, has more reasonably priced and modest hotel rooms and food choices.
Although the point-to-point course will not be used for the race this coming year, I would suggest staying on and skiing this truly classic trail. Shuttle service is available from the Nordic Center. Just remember to check your speed on those downhills.
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