Tom Sobal has no health insurance. He lives with his wife in a remote cabin in central Colorado, 10,000 feet above sea level. He pays no income tax (his earnings aren't high enough), and he hasn't cut his hair in 10 years. He is tall and lean and impervious to the elements. And when he has a pair of snowshoes strapped to his feet, no other snowshoe racer in the country can run faster.
This is the eighth winter in which Sobal, 37, will compete in snowshoe races throughout the U.S. Over any distance, in any weather, through any depth of snow, he is virtually unbeatable. In his career Sobal has entered more than 40 snowshoe events, ranging in length from five kilometers to more than 100 miles. He has lost only twice.
"It's my passion," says Sobal, his fingers foraging meditatively in his scouring-pad beard. His words are well spaced and even toned. "At our home it's winter almost year-round. And I don't just live in a snowy spot, I live with the snow. I run in it, I bicycle in it, I shovel it. I understand why the Inuits have so many words for snow—it feels different every day. And I've learned to read the snow: hard, smooth, deep, icy. When I'm running I know where the fastest spot on the trail is, and I know the best technique to use. It's given me a big advantage in snowshoe racing."
His wife, Melissa Lee-Sobal, an accomplished snowshoe racer herself, calls him the scientist of snowshoeing because of his extraordinary understanding of the vagaries of snow. Shortly before each race Tom examines the course, prodding and testing it at various points. He looks for sections where his shoes will float atop the powder, spots where he might break through the icy crust, shady areas that will offer better traction, and smooth places where he can easily accelerate. He memorizes dozens of details, then returns to the start and awaits the gun.
The snowshoes that the Sobals (and just about all other competitors) race in bear little resemblance to the unwieldy oblong contraptions made of wood and rawhide that most people associate with the sport. Modern racing snowshoes are made of lightweight aluminum and brightly colored plastic. Developed in the late '80s, the new equipment has sparked the rebirth of an ancient activity: In Siberia archaeologists have found evidence that snowshoeing goes back more than 6,000 years.
According to Ed Kiniry, president of the Tubbs Snowshoe Co., which is based in Stowe, Vt., and sponsors the Sobals, sales of high-tech snowshoes have in-leased eightfold since 1988. The National Sporting Goods Association recently reported that snowshoeing now has more than half a million participants. Competitions have also proliferated. Seven years ago fewer than a dozen showshoe races were held annually in the U.S.; today there are more than 50.
Despite all that, nobody has figured out a way to beat Sobal. His final big race last winter, the eastern regional championships of the Tubbs 10-km Series, held in mid-March in Waterville Valley, N.H., was a typical Sobal performance. Soon after the start, he rushed to the front of the sack. Sweeping over the snow with gazellelike grace, his strides long and buoyant, he appeared to be moving in slow motion while actually cruising at a clip of six minutes per mile. His face was perfectly impassive: mouth rigid, breath scarcely visible. Even Sobal's hair, which descends to his navel, was composed, trapped in two tight braids that swung like pendulums as he ran. The only sound accompanying him was the steady thwap, thwap of his snowshoes slapping against snow, each footfall lofting small chunks of ice into the cold morning air.
The three dozen other competitors seemed clumsy in comparison. Some pounded the snow arrhythmically, some gasped for air, and some wore expressions that suggested they had just bitten into something rotten. One kilometer into the 10-kilometer race, it was obvious who would win.
Long before he tried on his first pair of snowshoes, Sobal was in the habit of winning races. He grew up in Gary, Ind., and it about the age most high schoolers are taking their driving tests, he ran in his first marathon. He didn't get his driver's license (he still doesn't have one), but he fell in love with running—the longer the race, the better. In the past 20 years he has won dozens of ultramarathons.
In 1986 Sobal decided to move to Colorado, and he spent several months bicycling around the state, looking for the ideal homestead. "Leadville's extreme altitude fascinated me," he says. He rented a tiny cabin outside of town, a mile from the nearest neighbor and, at the time, well beyond reach of the telephone lines.
One thing he hadn't counted on, however, was the severity of Leadville's winters. "My first winter out there," he says, "I was thoroughly depressed. I had a Midwestern attitude—every time it snows, you have to get right out there and shovel it down to the bare ground. And you can't do that in Colorado—you'll go nuts. When it was still snowing heavily in April, I decided I had to get out of there for a while."
He spent two days hitchhiking—Sobal's usual method of long-distance travel—to reach an ultramarathon in New Mexico. There he met Melissa Lee, also an experienced ultra runner, and soon afterward he persuaded her to come live with him in Leadville. They married in 1991.
It took Melissa awhile to warm to Tom's austerity. "The first two years we lived together, we didn't even have a refrigerator—it's a game for him to see how little he needs," she says. "One time I bought a blow-dryer for my hair, and he had a fit. He still thinks that if you own more than one plate per person living in a house, that's junk—you have too much stuff."
Melissa, 39, is a massage therapist in Leadville's hospital. She drives to work. Tom, who works as a bike mechanic and ski tuner at a sporting-goods store in Leadville, bicycles into town no matter how severe the weather.
When the snows came during Sobal's second winter in Leadville, he was unable to dispense with running on trails. "First I tried cross-country skiing," he says, "but that didn't work well on the rugged paths around our cabin. I borrowed a pair of old, heavy snowshoes, but that was no fun. Then I tried a pair of the lightweight aluminum shoes—and my whole life changed. It opened up all this terrain I thought of as a big barrier in the winter. I put the snowshoes on, and the barrier was gone, replaced with a big playground."
A few weeks later Sobal entered his first snowshoe race, a 10-kilometer run in Boulder, Colo. He won it easily and decided to enter the 5-km competition held an hour later. He won that, too.
Upon returning to Leadville, he established his winter training regimen: snow-shoeing 40 miles a week; running 30 miles on plowed roads; mountain biking (with studded tires) daily; weightlifting; and, of course, shoveling tons of snow. Six years later Sobal still follows this program. "Every day, he gets up and he's excited because he's going running in his snow-shoes," says Melissa, who has also won several snowshoe races. "I don't know how he stays so motivated."
Perhaps it's because he is so successful He has entered—and won—three marathon-length snowshoe races. In one of them, a competition in Duluth, Minn., in 1992, he suffered severe frostbite on his face (the windchill was -51°) and, at the 21-mile mark, fell and broke a rib. In winning, he also set an unofficial record of 2:59:23 for the race. A few years age he entered a 109-mile snowshoe race across the Alaskan tundra. Pulling a 33-pound sled and running through the night, he finished in a race-record 23 hours, 50 minutes.
For all his victories Sobal has little to show but a nice collection of trophies and some free gear—snowshoe races have just started offering a little prize money. The Sobals' combined annual income, says Tom, rarely exceed; $10,000. Yet both Tom and Melissa say that they are deeply happy. "I love where I live," say; Tom. "I love my lifestyle. I wouldn't change a thing—except, maybe, to have some faster snowshoers come along. It would help me determine my limits. And it might be fun for a change to chase someone else instead of having everyone chase me."
Michael Finkel, who writes often about the outdoors for Sports Illustrated, tried snowshoeing but will stick to skiing.