by Laura Clark
The above emblem is probably all you need to know to get the rough idea: a wasted skeleton, still clinging to his sword (or in this case, trekking pole) crawling to the summit of the Staircase of Death. Speaking of which, I did not make that up. That is the actual name of one of the climbs we encountered during the Endurance Society’s Frigus expedition at Moreau Lake State Park located in upstate New York, at the edge of the Adirondacks. Doubly scary, as these were only the foothills.
You may well ask, what is a frigus? The term, derived from Latin, is exactly what it sounds like: frigid, bone-chilling temperatures that penetrate through your modern wicking layers down to your very bones. But wait, the translation also implies a threatening cold shudder produced by fear. And rightly so. With a single 15K loop featuring just shy of 2400 feet of elevation gain, the three-loop marathoners had plenty to fuel their apprehension. One would naturally assume that an athlete not opting for the 5K version or the single 15K loop would address such an undertaking with a protective shield forged from hours of training runs. But there is more to it than that, as Race Director Andy Weinberg points out, “The sword is pointed toward the skeleton as the battle is within.” One 15K run would get you a finish, but two? Not so much. The posted options were 5K, 15K or Marathon. No middle ground. Continue forward beyond the 15K and you were up against the sword.
Mental struggles aside, we had the Polar Vortex to contend with, facing 5-degree temperatures at the start. I briefly toyed with the idea of wearing my parka instead of my jacket and even threw it in the car, until the bright, sunshiny day convinced me otherwise. When training for the event in similar conditions, I stuck my handheld bottle inside my fleece jacket with no success, so this time I went with an insulated bottle. The bottle was fine but the nozzle froze, along with my zippered pouch containing most of my snacks. I did OK until the final few miles when I bonked. I was familiar with this part of the route and knew I could mentally hang in there, although it was painful to be passed with the end in sight. It didn’t help that I made the same wrong turn I always take, avoiding the sharp right to the exit in favor of the easy out to the road. I have failed to execute this turn in all four seasons, even with winter’s snowshoe prints clearly indicating the correct path. I have proven myself a slow learner.
Lately, I have been noticing just how many folks seem to be carrying trekking poles. Previous to this race, I had dismissed them as being relevant to hikers with heavy packs or perhaps sky mountain runners. But not any more. All along, I had been trading places with another 15ker. He was faster on the ups, but I had the advantage on the downs, at least until I encountered a butt-slideable portion. He wielded his poles expertly and flew fearlessly down the hill. Thinking back on the experience, I should have realized I was in trouble when so many athletes proudly brandished their spears. I stood out with my minimalist approach.
The day was so beautifully sunny, the mountain views so inspiring and the downhills so much fun that halfway through I deluded myself into thinking that I could perhaps make it through another loop. But the second major climb convinced me otherwise. It was so long and so steep that I was forced to assume the stance of the frigus skeleton, crawling, stopped in motion from toe-hold to hand-hold.
The highlight for me was the trek across the frozen lake, past the brave huddles of ice fishermen. As a kid, I had skated on frozen ponds and smaller portions of snow-cleared ice, but I had never skied or snowshoed from one edge to the other. Even though the ice was obviously safe, the few sun-warmed slushy spots took an act of faith. There, from a distance, I could see the beach house and the finish line folks, but like a mirage in the Arctic desert, they never seemed to get any closer. Time stood still. It was so peaceful out there, with no need to pay attention to my feet, that I could simply take in the beauty of the day and the satisfaction that comes from the combination of physical and mental effort.