Thursday, March 6, 2014

Quick Snowshoe Season - Kickoff and Wrap-up

With minimal snow until February and snowshoe races getting cancelled due to lack of snow, I almost didn't get an opportunity to snowshoe race this winter, again.  With the Snowshoe National Championships taking place in Southern Vermont, it seemed a shame to not participate in that race - but without a qualifier race I wouldn't be able to.  I've been excited about the Snowshoe Nationals ever since I heard they will be held at Prospect Mountain Ski Area - I have been racing there (cross country ski racing that is) for as long as I can remember.  Now that I think of it, I think I even tried snowshoeing for the first time when I was at Prospect in college and there was a snowshoe demo going on.

Luckily, the weekend before the Championships, there was a 'last chance' qualifying event - and it happened to be the Massachusetts Snowshoe Championships also.  So, on Saturday morning I drove out to Pittsfield State Forest for the Curly's Snowshoe Race.  I was hoping to run smart and conservatively - the goal was to qualify for Nationals. 

I warmed up with friends, enjoying the amazing and welcoming feeling of the western Mass snowshoe community.  As one of the traditions of this fun-loving group of people, they have developed the 'targets' which they have one male and one female per race wear (it's a reflective vest with a target on the's supposed to literally make you a target for folks to try to catch).  It's a type of hazing that they do for fun...and for the first time this weekend I was asked to wear the target.  Go figure - I don't race snowshoes for 3 years, and they welcome me back with the target!  It's all part of the fun!

(Enjoying some single track, sporting the target)

The race went out fairly frantically, which is typical for snowshoe racing.  Maybe it's just that snow flies everywhere for the first 200 yards...but snowshoe race starts always feel so chaotic.  Anyway, I fell into a good rhythm behind about 10 guys.  About 1/2 mile into the race the trail widened and went up a good climb - and I surprisingly ran past the group of guys I was with...pleased that my strength training was paying off.

I settled in behind Ken Clark, but quickly asked to pass him as my climbing legs felt good and there was more uphill.  I gapped him by about 15-20 seconds and enjoyed the twisty-turny single track downhill to the 1 mile mark.  After a few quick turns on snowmobile trails, I took a wrong turn, and Ken caught back up.  He fell into step behind me for the next mile, before he offered to set the pace.

(Ken and I, locked in step)
Now, Ken and I have run numerous snowshoe races together - his sets an incredibly even pace, so I when he offered to set the pace I stepped aside and let him take the lead.  As he went by, he encouraged me to stay with him.  I followed his instructions, and followed his lead.  At times I would be right behind him and cutting back my stride to not overtake him in the single track, and would be itching to ask him to let me take the lead for a bit - then I would remember that I was racing the Jones 10 Miler the next day, so I needed to hold back, especially since there were no female ahead of me so I wasn't fighting for a place.

So, I let Ken set the pace, giving him encouragement every 1/2 mile or so just to be sure we kept the pace up...but in general I was running fairly comfortably.  After about 3 miles the trail went past a frozen pond, and I took the opportunity to look up, think about the moment, and realize that I was having so much fun!  Ken must have laughed as I exclaimed to him 'I forgot how much fun this is!  I don't know why I stayed away for so long!'  Somehow in the years of minimal snow and tough winter weather, I had missed the opportunity to snowshoe much for about 3 years...and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this goofy but challenging sport that often takes you to some beautiful snow-covered vistas - I was glad to remember the joy of the sport and the community.

Now, my race didn't go without some drama.  After mile 2, I began to notice that it felt like the middle strap in my left snowshoe came loose, but I didn't look down to see...I figured it would be ok.  After mile 3, it was incredibly loose but with another guy only a few seconds behind Ken and I, I just tried to ignore whatever equipment malfunction I was having.  By mile 4 I finally glanced down to find that my shoe was completely untied!  At that point we were 1 mile from the finish so I decided I could just do my best to control the snowshoe and get to the finish.  It was pretty crazy at time - and resulted in numerous kicks to my inner calf due to the unsecured snowshoe!

(Trust me, there's joy in those eyes!)
So, at the last mile to go, I glanced back to see that Ken and I had gradually pulled away from the next guy back.  I was feeling great and it felt like Ken was starting to tire - I was really cutting back my stride and almost called to pass him.  But, I was determined to remember that I was racing the next day...and that I certainly didn't want to put in an effort to pass Ken when he had done all the work for us over the last several miles.  I stuck behind him and enjoyed the ride to the finish.  It was a good thing I didn't pass him - with 1/4 mile to go he put in his finish surge and I had to really pick up the pace to stay behind him!  We crossed the finish line 5th and 6th in the race, and I had finished 1st female to claim my Massachusetts State Snowshoe Championship and qualify for the National Snowshoe Championships next weekend.  Moreover, I had renewed my love for snowshoe running - only regretting that several poor winters had made me forget!

Fast forward a week, the bruises on my inner calf were still visible and painful, and I was heading up to the Snowshoe National Championships at Prospect Mountain Ski Area.  I was excited to finally be here, looking forward to having my mom there to cheer me on (it's been a while since she's seen me race), and really excited to represent my team, Western Mass Distance Project, in the team competition.

The pre-race was a blur of warming up, seeing friends (including my friend Tim, the blond-haired pretty boy who ran cross country with me at Clarkson), scrambling to get to the start, and finding my mom for a quick pre-race hug.  I lined up about a row behind the starting line - I know I start like an ultrarunner, not as fast as most folks.  Before I knew it, the gun went off, and a crowd of 140 females surged forward to start the 10k snowshoe race.  It took a moment to take that in - I had toed the line with about 140 females, all doing a snowshoe race, it was just incredible! 

(Women's race start)

As expected, the race started out fast and furious.  Far ahead, I could see that Amber, the eventual champion, immediately gapped the field.  I could see that there was a chase pack of about 20 females, I was clinging to the back of that pack.  On the first climb, I passed a few folks and felt great!

The first few kilometers of the course looped around the start/finish area, and the crowds were tremendous.  It was amazing to pass a wall of sound, picking out my name as folks encouraged me along, and realize how many folks were out there supporting a snowshoe race - it still blows my mind!  I was certainly amped up from the crowd support and the excitement of the race. 

However, after about 2km, the course went out on the trails, and wouldn't return to the start/finish area until we had less than a kilometer to go.  I knew the course climbed for the first half, so I was excited to use my strength to hopefully move up the field.  However, my body just seemed to shift into 'tempo mode', and unfortunately it wasn't responding to being pushed any harder than that.  I got increasingly frustrated as two ladies ahead of me alternated hiking and running the uphills, yet I never closed the gap enough to pass.  Something was wrong, my body wasn't racing.

We crested the top of the climb, and I was amazed at the view of the mountains in the distance.  I smiled, and enjoyed the trails as we tumbled down the side of Prospect Mountain.  I was passed by a few ladies on the downhill, as they more aggressively attacked the downhills - and my legs, stuck in 'tempo mode', just happily jogged along.  I was truly battling - my head was so frustrated that my body wasn't performing, yet my heart was so happy to be here and taking in the moment.  I did my best to listen to my heart.  I played games with myself, such as every time we dropped onto a ski trail I would try to guess which one we were on - hoping to motivate myself to run faster to see the next corner, in case it would give me a clue.  Having skied every inch of this venue for years, this was a fair game to play - and certainly entertained me.

(Cresting the top of the climb at Nationals)

With about 1km to go, the trail dumped us out to the top of a downhill slope, and the course 'slalomed' down the slope.  I laughed as I thought about how it was so much easier than the many times I've skied down this slope - I didn't even see any mattresses tied to trees (you know, to 'protect the trees' from the damage of skiers slamming into them)!  It was fun, and I enjoyed kicking up snow, falling down the ski slope, and getting closer and closer to the finish line crowds.

At the bottom of the slope, there was a small loop around the start/finish area before we crossed the line.  With someone closing in behind me, I was able to motivate my body just enough to hold her off.  Ultimately, I finished 17th overall (but with 2 Canadians ahead of me, I was 15th in the US Championship), which was certainly a respectable placing.  However, I would be lying if I didn't say that I was a bit disappointed - I know what a strong performance feels like, and this most certainly wasn't it.  While I was pleased to have finished as well as I did place-wise, I wish I had 'had it' on race day to see what I am really capable of.

(In this moment, my head was winning the war)

Luckily, I couldn't wallow in my frustration and disappointment too long, because I was surrounded by folks who had exceeded expectations and done really well.  My teammate, Ashley, had finished in 3rd position!  The two of us, along with Dawn and Danielle, represented the Western Mass Distance Project, along with Dion Snowshoes (which we all use and love) to finish as the 2nd fastest team there!  I was proud to have contributed to that effort, and very relieved that even on a good day, my time wouldn't have moved us into 1st place.

(WMDP, Danielle, Dawn, myself and Ashley, 2nd fastest snowshoe team in the US)
At the end of the day, I was very happy to have finally participated in the Snowshoe National Championships.  I am proud of my friends who raced well!  I enjoyed seeing so many friends and taking in the amazing community of people.  And, I was excited to share the day with my mother, who hadn't seen me race in years (perhaps not since my last collegiate ski race, which was at Prospect!).