NEW YORK — On any given weekday, Tina-Marie Poulin can be found ensconced at her desk in Christie’s International Real Estate’s Rockefeller Center offices, so colleagues undoubtedly wouldn’t have recognized her charging the rolling hills in last month’s World Snowshoe Invitational in Myoko, Japan.
A relative newcomer to the sport, she still managed to cover the single-track course of 15 kilometers — 9.3 miles of two-feet-deep ungroomed snow that zigzagged through woods and then straight up sizeable inclines and then straight down — fast enough to finish fourth. Four also was the number of whiteouts — the weather condition where extreme snow makes the horizon disappear completely, eliminating any reference points — that Poulin faced at the Feb. 13 race. That potentially disorienting condition was something she had not considered until the race director casually mentioned it the day before. “I asked him if we were going to walk the course, and he said, ‘I don’t think so, not safe,’” Poulin recalls. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘Because of whiteouts and avalanches.’”
If that wasn’t enough to rattle nerves, the organizer also told her, “Now, don’t be worried because there is a search and rescue team scattered throughout the 15-kilometer course,” Poulin says with a laugh. “Up until that point, my intention was just doing well and placing well. Then it became ‘Let’s put everything in perspective. Maybe this will be a race of survival.’”
How a Barnard graduate from Skowhegan, Maine, wound up storming through an international snowshoeing showdown is a story in itself. A proven runner, Poulin has competed in marathons, duathlons and triathlons, and ranked among the top 10 women three times in the Empire State Building race up 86 flights of stairs. Two years ago she happened upon a one-mile snowshoe race at Sugarloaf in Maine. “I did it by a fluke. It was a race up the mountain at night and you had to wear a head lamp because there were only torches along the course. I figured it would be similar to the Empire State Building thing and it would be a good workout. And then I won it,” she says. “I knew nothing about the sport but decided to see if there were more races.”
There were, and after a strong showing at the U.S. nationals last winter, she set her sights on Myoko. Training in New York City, however, proved to be another task, especially last winter when snowfall was minimal compared to recent months. Abundant as the flakes have been this winter, Central Park’s more spacious grounds — Sheep Meadow and the playing fields — are cordoned off at this time of year. So Poulin would run with her snowshoes on her hands for 1.5 miles from her Midtown apartment to get to the park, where she would snowshoe 30 to 50 laps in a small pocket before racing back home without the blades on her feet. Needless to say, pedestrians snapped to attention. “People always looked confused or amused when they saw me,” she says. “If it ever comes up in conversation, someone will say, ‘That’s a sport? Really? The tennis racquets you wear on your feet?’”
Unlike most of the racers, who are sponsored athletes, Poulin has a full-time job and paid her own way. Another point of difference was her inclination to check out the art galleries in Tokyo after taking the 14-hour flight to get there. When the race director casually mentioned how a number of other competitors had spent the past week getting themselves acclimated to the altitude, she thought to herself, “Oh great, I’ve been hanging out in Tokyo checking out Japanese modern art while everyone else has been training in the mountains.”
In what sounds like prime material for a “Saturday Night Live” skit, all the athletes first connected on the seven-hour overnight bus trip from Tokyo to Myoko. “They intentionally made the bus trip longer so that the foreign athletes could sleep through the night. They did that by making lots of stops — like an hour-long one in a 7-Eleven parking lot. They would stop, say something in Japanese and all of the Japanese athletes would get off the bus. The first time it happened, I thought, ‘I hope I am not supposed to transfer buses,’ but all of the other foreign athletes were sleeping, so that’s what I did.”
Self-deprecating as she is, Poulin has already mapped out her next challenge — the U.S.A. Mountain Running Championships at the Cranmore Hill Climb on June 26. At the urging of her only other fellow U.S. competitor in Japan, Joe Gray, the mountain runner of the year for the past three years, Poulin has signed up for 7.7-kilometer race even though she has never done a mountain run before.
But Poulin hasn’t given up on snowshoeing and aims to win next year’s world championship. In a Ginza boutique before last month’s race, the beguiling New Yorker spotted a Kelly-esque handbag made from a collage of different shades of soft Asian silk, and promised herself she would treat herself to it if she won in Myoko. “But since I didn’t win it, I didn’t get it. But next year — I’ll get that pocketbook.”