Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Snowshoe Nationals and the Lead Up to It
Photos by Dave Dunham, courtesy of Jim Johnson
At the beginning of the winter my number one goal was a top 5 finish at the National Snowshoe Championships. I finished 7th, but I'll take it. Snowshoe running has always been a form of training that I have thoroughly enjoyed ever since I started doing it in the winter of '03-'04. Dave Dunham and Rich Bolt brainwashed me that winter, and I haven't looked back. As much as I have enjoyed training on snowshoes, I really hadn't raced that much, but with Nationals being in the east this year, I decided I would step up and race a little more. With the advent of the Granite State Snowshoe Series, it was a lot easier to get to more races and not have to travel 5+ hours every weekend.
My racing had been going well all winter (with the exception of Pooh Hill) and things looked to be shaping up for Nationals. After my win at Sidehiller, I felt pretty fit, and was looking forward to more races, but the lack of snow from mid-January on hindered those ambitions.
The lack of snow altered my race schedule more than my training, as the higher elevations around Conway had more than enough white stuff. I was able to continue my practice of getting a 2-3 hour long run in the mountains on snowshoes every weekend. I implemented these thinking that they would give me a big boost for Mt. Washington. Little did I know that I would need every bit of that strength to tackle the Nationals’ course.
The altered race schedule also got me into a little bit of a pickle injury wise. With the lack of snow at the Kingman Farm race, I opted to do the USATF-NE Indoor 5000m race the same weekend instead, to avoid hurting myself by running on icy trails in the dark. Unfortunately, I managed to wrench my ankle on the indoor track on the first lap! I tried to shake it off the best I could and managed to run another 25 laps on it, and ran a 15:50 5k. The minute I stopped though it swelled up. My cool down consisted of 10 minutes of walking as I couldn't put much weight on the swollen joint.
The next week saw me just try to run easy to get the swelling down and make sure that I didn't hurt myself any more. I stayed off the snow and stuck to the roads to avoid wrenching it any further. The one exception was the nice hour plus run I did up and down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to check out the fresh snow in Pinkham Notch.
Sunday, February 28th brought the DH Jones 10 Miler in Amherst, MA, the first race in the USATF-NE GP. I had been looking forward to this racer all winter, as it would be my first real fitness test after a solid start to the winter. I was hoping for an optimistic sub 53 minute run. I went out conservative in the first few miles, then picked up the effort as I ran with Ryan Carrara for a little while and really worked the hills in the middle of the race. My 5 mile split was a little slower than I would have liked (27:16), but I was feeling strong running in around 15th place. I was hoping to do some damage in the second half. Right after the 6 mile mark I must have done some damage to my stomach, as I got the worst side-stitch of my life. I tried jogging it off, then walking it off, but the sharp pain wouldn't relent. I was forced to the roadside, bent over, clutching my mid-section. I was finally able to start walking again, and then jogged. I considered jogging to the finish, as my race was shot, but I started to feel better just before the 7 mile mark. I figured I could run hard until the stitch came back. Luckily it didn't. I was able to run the last three miles in 5:30, 5:20, 5:24. The last 2 miles are significantly uphill, and I managed to pass about 30 people from the time I was clutching my side to the finish. I was especially pleased with the last mile, as last year I ran 5:36 for the same mile while racing someone. The final result wasn't what I was looking for, but I got something out of it.
The ankle didn't seem to flare up during the race, but it certainly wasn't any better after. I called Jean Brauel, massage therapist, to see if there was anything she could do to help speed up the recovery. Luckily she was able to fit me in on Tuesday and work on a bunch of tendons and ligaments that I didn't even know I had. She also worked on my core muscles to try to fix any lingering tightness that I had left from Sunday's race. My ankle had much more range of motion, but my core was really sore on Wednesday. Luckily that went away before the 7+ hour drive to Syracuse on Friday.
Friday's drive marked my longest road trip ever, but luckily the Focus SVT and the Recaro seats were up to the challenge. I picked up Pete Mallett, who was running in his first Snowshoe Nationals and second snowshoe race ever, in Manchester and we headed west. Upon arriving in East Syracuse, we met up with Jim Johnson and did a quick 40 minute run to shake the cobwebs loose. The ankle was still stiff, but it could have been worse.
We awoke Saturday morning to 20 degree temps, which are usually good for a snowshoe race. We assumed the course would be frozen solid and would lead to fast times. We forgot about the fact that it was supposed to warm into the 40’s by the 11:30 start. The junior 5k and women’s 10k race were also before the men’s 10k, which chewed up the course before we stepped foot on it.
Lining up at the start it was pretty obvious that this course wasn’t going to be easy, even if it were pancake flat, which it wasn’t. The snow had been churned up during the previous races, and it was warming up by the minute. During my last minute strides I thought about gutting it out the best I could and used the strength I had amassed throughout the winter and last fall while training for Bay State.
After the horn went off to start the race, the snow started flying and I found myself blinded by the spray of the guys in front of me. I started on the front row, but did not get a good start. I weaved my way through the crowd as we headed into the woods where I was hoping to find some firmer footing. Fat chance of that.
The course started out wide, with plenty of room for passing, that was assuming that you could stay upright long enough to keep moving forward. I picked my way through the pack in the first mile to the point where I was almost on the back of the lead pack, but I couldn’t quite close the gap. I kept the hammer down despite the fact that my heart was in my throat and we hadn’t even hit the hardest parts of the course yet. I tried to run hard and relaxed as we made our way downhill towards the second mile. At this point I was starting to lose sight of the leaders and I was passes by Fred Joslyn, a 2:23 marathoner. Snowshoes are the great equalizer! I tried to hang on to him as long as possible, but he was pulling away on the wide “groomed” trail. As we approached the second road crossing I caught one guy who was starting to fall off the leaders and passed him before we got into the single track. At this point Dave Dunham told me I was in 7th, about a minute back of the leaders. I knew I wasn’t going to make up that time instantly, but I knew the big climbs and the single-track were coming up, two disciplines I excel at.
As I entered the single-track, the pace slowed, but the effort level was still there. I kept the hammer down knowing that I would have a chance to make up some time on the guys in front of me in the twisty stuff. Sure enough, I spotted Fred and Jarod Scott just ahead of me on one of the switchbacks. That motivated me to keep pressing on to get onto their coattails.
After the first section of twisty bits we were dumped out onto another wide, chewed up ski trail. Fred and Jarod took off again and I just kept moving at a steady clip. The first single-track section climbed for quite a while, but I knew there was more ahead. We kept climbing and descending numerous hills on the ski trails, all the while I was inching up on Jarod, who had fallen behind Fred a little ways. When we hit the big climb, I wasn’t too far behind Jarod, Fred or Greg Hexum in 4th place for that matter. I kept the hammer down on the climb trying to make up as much time on those guys as possible. This is where those long snowshoe mountain runs were starting to pay off. I closed the gap to Jarod by half, but he started to pull away again on the down side. My ankle was in the back of my mind on every downhill, but I still ran pretty hard anyway.
Entering the last single-track section I made a last ditch effort to try and close on Jarod. I knew the final climb was going to be brutal, but I figured I needed to be really close to pull off any type of pass there. I got the gap to Jarod down to about 20m before we came out in the field, about ½ mile from the finish.
The final downhill was loose snow that had been postholed by 100+ snowshoes that morning, and it was interesting picking a fast line that wouldn’t lead you to falling or ending up in the neighboring woods. At this point I said screw the ankle and flew down with reckless abandon. Jarod managed to open enough of a gap that I could almost touch him on the final climb, but it was too little too late. The final hill was as steep as Upper Walking Boss at Loon, but I managed to run every step of it. I crossed the line in 46:42, about 4 minutes behind winner Josiah Middaugh of Vail, CO, and only a minute and a half out of 3rd place.
I did not make my goal of top 5, but this was a very strong field and I think I raced as well as I could of considering the problems I’ve had with the ankle over the last couple of weeks. This was the kind of race where shear strength and guts ruled over raw speed. That is what I need to do well at Mt. Washington. Certainly a step in the right direction.
If you thought the weekend’s fun ended there, you were wrong! I was able to talk a group into running the 4x2.5k relay on Sunday morning, despite the fact that most of us were toast or a little hung over. Jim Johnson (14th on Saturday), Matt Russell (10th) and I were game to run as the CMS-Dion team. We were hoping to have Rich Bolt (15th) or Pete Mallett (35th) run for us, but Rich was committed to the Atlas mixed masters team, and Pete had enough snowshoe racing for the rest of his life after a rough race on Saturday. We were able to pick up Kelly Mortensen (9th) who is a sub 2:20 marathoner for our 4th guy.
Jim elected to run the first leg for our rag-tag bunch. The loop turned out to be around 1800m, with the first leg and the fourth leg being slightly longer to accommodate a separate start/finish area from the exchange zone. Jim got out pretty well from the start, running with a guy from Ithaca college until they disappeared into the woods. We couldn’t see most of the loop, but saw Jim emerge with about a 5 second lead over the Ithaca guy. Jim tagged off to Matt, 7:30 into the race, and Matt took off like a bolt. Once again while he was in the woods we had no idea how big our lead was, or if we had one at all, but Matt came out of the woods WAY ahead of the second place guy. Kelly ran third for us without anyone really pushing him. It seemed like a long time before he came out of the woods, but I think we were just nervous more than anything. Kelly didn’t seem to lose anything to the second place team. I ran the final leg, hoping to get in a hard effort. I knew we had a huge lead, but I never jog once I have a number on. I hammered the course as hard as I could. I felt like I was running the 400m on the track. I knew the race was short, so I figured even if I died it wouldn’t be a horrible death. Running the last leg gave me the distinction of running the second half of the finishing hill that we ran yesterday. Jim tried to “encourage” me by telling me that the other team was right behind me. I kicked it into high gear up the last pitch to grab a gold medal for our team. We beat the second place Ithaca Bombers by 53 seconds. I was also pretty happy with my 7:32 split, especially with the additional big hill.
It was a good weekend of racing against some national-class competition. I had a pretty good race, but I know what I need to do to get to the next level to compete for a US team spot at Mt. Washington. Things seem to be on the right track.