Thursday, March 15, 2018

One Step Closer - 2018 Snowshoe National Championships

I've been snowshoeing off and on for years now - finding it to be an amazing way to embrace the winter and gain some strength in the snowy months.  It's a goofy sport, but one that prepares you well for spring-time races while you're working your butt off and having fun.  This winter was basically a bust in terms of opportunities to do winter sports - I only got my xc skis once, and only got on my snowshoes three times.  My studded shoes got plenty of miles as I was running on icy trails more than I liked.  However, with the Snowshoe National Championships in Vermont this winter - I guess I was going to race no matter how unprepared I was.

Hearing about the 40" of fresh powder that fell on the course in the days prior to the race only made me feel even more unprepared - I used to love the 'true snowshoe races' where we had to slog through fresh powder like this.  The more strength it took to run, the more fun I had - but a total of 2 hours on snowshoes this winter, I knew I didn't have the strength and technique to enjoy the fresh powder.  

Preparation before the race involved having Bob Dion replace the broken cleat on my snowshoe - it had broken on my 3rd snowshoe run of the season, two days prior, as I ran on the 3" of snow that fell in Western Mass.  Once fixed, I warmed up a bit and headed to the start.  My parents were there, so my mom kept me company and listened to my nervous pre-race chatter.  

(Start of Women's 10k race)

The race went out fast, as always, and I did my best to not fall too far behind.  Immediately, I got tangled with another runner and we both fell down.  I scrambled to get up, as runners climbed over us and passed us.  What a way to start this race...uugghh!  

Luckily, I felt strong and quickly regained most of the spots, settling in behind several former US Snowshoe Team members.  My ultimate goal was to finish in the top 5 and make the US Snowshoe Team, so my hope was to pace off them.  As the course climbed up Prospect Mountain, I felt good and moved up into 3rd place.  We were on wide groomed ski trails, so it was all about strength which I certainly had!

Nearing the top of Prospect, two girls working together caught me and passed me - I did my best to latch on but couldn't.  "Ok, I'm still in 5th place - transfer position, still on the US Snowshoe Team.  Just keep doing your thing." I crested the mountain and was excited for a little recovery and some downhill so that I could find the speed to hold my position.  I was passed again, and my heart fell a bit.  But, the trail quickly turned into deep powder single track and I started catching the 5th female.  "Ok, keep your head in the game - this is the terrain that you love!"

(Kicking up some fresh powder in the 10k)

I passed back into 5th and was smiling like a fool on the downhill single track.  It was slow-going - so deep that I was, at times, walking downhill.  Here's where my minimal on-snow preparation came into play, as I wasn't able to efficiently negotiate the deep snow.  The 5th place female passed me again as soon as the trail opened into some flat running.  As the trail hit another single track section, I lost complete contact with the 5th female as I struggled to make progress through the powder.  Hitting the wide groomed trail, another 2 females passed me.  I wanted to cry, there was no way I could catch up and make the team now - I felt like a complete failure for daring to believe that I was good enough to finish top 5.

The last 3k of the course, another few females caught up, but they were all folks like me had limited on-snow preparation and were just enjoying the trails.  We worked together through the single track, ultimately I found another gear in the last km or so and surged enough to gap them.  It took me over 90 minutes to finish the 10k (well, more like 11+k) snowshoe race, and I had finished in 8th place (but with 1 Canadian ahead, I was 7th in the US Championships).  I felt wrecked, one calf muscled seized so much that I could barely walk to my car.  It wasn't until I got home that I realized that my previous best US Championship 10k snowshoe finish was an 8th place finish - so while I struggled out there, I had taken one step closer to making the magical top 5.  

(Nearing the finish of the 10k)

I slept hard that night, and wasn't sure I would be able to get up and do it all over again (times 4) on Sunday, but it was the Snowshoe Marathon Championships and of course I wanted to run!  Luckily, on Sunday morning my calf was fine, my legs didn't feel sore, and I was ready to rock (power of positive thinking perhaps?).  

The snowshoe marathon felt like a small family reunion - as we all prepared for the race, it was many faces that we see at ultras all the time so we were all gabbing and laughing.  I mean, it makes sense - who else would think that a marathon on snowshoes was a good idea?!?  

We learned that the course has been changed (thank goodness) so we didn't have to do the 10k course 4 times.  Instead, we had to do the previous day's citizen's race 5k course 8 times.  Not that much better of a solution, but at least things would be more packed out by later laps.  The marathon start was the complete opposite of the 10k start - mellow, relaxed, no one really vying for the lead.  However, quickly, the lead men took off and I was running alone.  I enjoyed the loop, and basically zoned out to just take in the joy of snowshoeing.  Lap 1 complete, lap 2 complete, I was running alone and embracing the solitude.

(Brian, on his way to winning the Snowshoe Marathon National Championship)

After lap 3, the half marathon racers started on the same course, so I had folks to catch as I worked my way through the field.  I appreciated the company and the incentive to speed up and catch another runner.  After a lap of this, I caught up to Jessica Northan and settled in behind her - she was rocking the half marathon and running at just the right pace for me.  Nearly two laps flew by with her, before she pulled away for her finishing kick.  

At that same time, I caught Bob Bolton, who had previously lapped me with Brian but was now bonking hard.  I encouraged him to stick with me - and give me company for the rest of the lap.  It was great to share some miles with him (as he's usually so fast that we don't run together).  After he finished, I only had 1 lap to go...and Brian offered to run the last lap with me!  It was an amazing treat to share some miles with Brian - but either way, I was pleased that I felt strong and ran consistently throughout the race.

(Crossing the finish line as the Snowshoe Marathon National Champion)

Crossing the finish line, at 4:25 (my fastest snowshoe marathon, but it was a short course)...I was pleased that I finished 1st place and earned my first National Championship title.  At the last Snowshoe Nationals I attended, the longest race was the snowshoe half marathon and I finished 2nd place.  This year, I took one significant step forward - finishing one place higher in both the 10k and 'long distance' races.

(Brian and I, Male and Female Snowshoe Marathon National Champs)

My goal is still to earn a spot on the US Snowshoe Team - perhaps next year is the year?  Until then, I will be pleased that I continue to improve and that I am finally able to call myself a National Champion.

The local paper, Bennington Banner, had a story on the Snowshoe National Championships here. 

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