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."