Norwich athletes test their heart,
determination on 100-mile snowshoe race © March 19, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich students Kevin Durgin, Dan Valdo, Peter Bue and Johnathan Brecht prepare for the 100-mile snowshoe race.

photo by Stefan HardNorwich students Kevin Durgin, Dan Valdo, Peter Bue and Johnathan Brecht prepare for the Peak Snowshoe Challenge in Pittsfield, Vermont. Other racers were Thomas Hathaway, Renat Fatkulin and Prof. Ray Zirblis.

What enters the mind of a young man as he runs on snowshoes up and down steep hills, through woods and fields, for 100 miles? Does he have cosmic thoughts about his place in the universe or ruminations about relationships or career goals?

None of the above, according to several members of the Norwich University community who ran or attempted that distance during the Peak Snowshoe Challenge in Pittsfield, Vt., on a weekend in March 2010. The event attracted dozens of athletes from across New England, most of whom attempted a mere 26.2-mile marathon or a shorter, half-marathon.

A close-knit group of seven people, however, established their own goal of a 100-mile ordeal. All were from Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college. Three young men—all hoping to become Navy Seals—went the distance.

“Lot of things run through your mind and at the same time you think of absolutely nothing,” said Renat Fatkulin, 21, an international studies student from Torrington, Conn., who finished the race. Their thoughts are not on hot showers, a big meal or a warm bed, but the here and now—the pace, the trail ahead, other snowshoers, the icy surface or newly discovered pain.

“I figure if I can do this race, I can do anything,” said Fatkulin, who hopes to train in underwater demolition.

“I just kept wondering why I was doing this, and then I tried to keep positive and then I just kept thinking about finishing,” said Dan Valdo, 20, a criminal justice student from Hackettstown, N.J. “Mainly, I thought about putting one foot in front of the other.”

Norwich Prof. Ray Zirblis begins a snowshoe endurance race in Pittsfield, Vermont.

photo by Stefan HardNorwich Prof. Ray Zirblis starts the long endurance race on the evening of Friday, March 5, 2010.

Valdo and Fatkulin crossed the finish line at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, 37 hours and 48 minutes after the start. The competitors had 42 hours to finish, and started on Friday evening, 16 hours before the regular marathon.

Around 8:30 a.m., Kevin Durgin crossed the line in a sprint. Durgin, 21, of Windham, N.H., who is studying computer security, said he just tried to fight “boredom and loneliness,” on the trail, especially during the two nights.

He couldn’t conjure up any helpful mental diversions, but did manage a physical distraction: “My feet were killing me.”

Durgin described the Friday-night trail as, “frozen hard-packed snow in really rough mounds.” As a result, he rolled his ankles while running, causing severe pain. “On Saturday, the sun came out; the snow got softer, and I was able to pick up speed.”

The course required 15 trips around a 6.67-mile loop, each completed in two to three hours. Cadets and other participants grabbed power drinks, fresh fruit, cookies, chocolate bars and peanut butter-and-jam sandwiches at folding tables set up outside the Peak Races athletic center, a barn just north of the rural village.

Inside the barn were several cots for catnaps, which the three cadets took advantage of both Friday and Saturday nights—for an hour or two.

While nights were cold, snowshoers could not have asked for a nicer Saturday. The sun was out and temperatures climbed into the 40s. Most competitors stripped down to single layers of fleece, even T-shirts.

Among the Norwich group was Ray Zirblis, a history professor and ultra marathoner, who serves as sort of a mentor and coach to several students who compete in runners’ races of 50 miles or more when the ground is bare.

Zirblis, who had decided not to snowshoe the full 100 miles, was a godsend for Fatkulin, who broke a strap early on Saturday. During a mid-afternoon stop at the barn, after 53.5 miles, Zirblis removed his snowshoes and handed them to Fatkulin.

With Janis Joplin and the Doors blaring from the center’s sound system and the smell of grilled hot dogs—celebration for mere marathoners—Zirblis offered Fatkulin and Valdo words of encouragement. He checked to make sure they had headlamps, and reminded them to hydrate properly.

“This is nothing special. You can do this. You two are working together beautifully,” he said as they headed off for the second half of their ordeal.

When they arrived 18 hours later, according to Fatkulin, they sat exhausted around a smoky campfire awaiting Durgin’s arrival. They showered, ate breakfast and took a nap in the barn before heading back to Norwich’s campus for classes on Monday.

“Mentally I felt great, but physically it destroyed my toes. ... Also my knees were swollen, my ankles were swollen and I had blisters in the back of my ankle,” said Fatkulin.

Valdo, who said he was aching for several days after the event, paused on whether he would again consider racing 100 miles on snowshoes.

“I have been telling people I would never get on snowshoes again. But I probably would,” he said.

Durgin’s opinions were more set.

“One time was plenty,” he said.