A street in the old city where they were setting up the red Bull Crashed Ice course. And I thought snowshoe racing was a niche sport.
Jess and I arrived Friday afternoon after a quick 7 hour drive, including a quick stop to the beautiful Vioux Quebec, the old city. There was a lack of snow north of the White Mountains all the way to Quebec City, similar to our drive from Minneapolis to northern Wisconsin last year. It was pretty dark when we finally arrived, but you could see that there was plenty of snow on the ground and would make for some good snowshoeing.
Saturday morning we woke up to 2 degrees F air temperature, but beautiful, clear skies. After some breakfast in the cafeteria Jess and I headed out and skied some of the trails while the 25k and 42k ski races were going on. We were able to poach some fresh powder (if you can really do that on XC skis) on some of the non-race trails that hadn't been groomed in a week. We only went for about an hour as I didn't want to wear myself out before the race and Jess had been sick all week, but we had fun and it peaked our interest to come back next winter.
A little last minute, pre-race training
After another trek to the city and back, I headed out with Judson Cake in the afternoon and we ran the first 3.7 miles of the course. It was good to run this section as the first 1+ mile was fairly flat and a mix of ski trail and one-snowmobile wide singletrack. Much of the course had been groomed by a snowmobile, which was supposed to be singletrack. The area received a lot of rain Thursday night, which caused the course to crust over, hence the need for grooming. It made for fast conditions, which are not my strong suit, but I knew there was A LOT of climbing, so it would make it a fair course for everyone.
Sunday morning we awoke to cloudy skies and some fresh snow. It was hard to tell how much we got overnight due to the flat light. I was hoping for a foot, but it was only a dusting. We had breakfast at 7:30 and the race wasn't until 10:30, so I had some frosted mini wheats, orange juice and two cups of coffee. I was a little jittery before the race and the coffee wasn't helping! I headed out for a warm-up with Tim Van Orden and Amber and Danny Ferreira. We ran the last 1.7 miles of the course to see the one small hill and the finish approach. Most of the loop was snowmobile groomed and fast. The one hill was nowhere near as big as the two other climbs, but it was a mile from the finish and I knew it would be tough after 5+ miles of snowshoe racing.
After going back to my room and changing into my race gear, I was still nervous doing some strides, but once we got on the line my heart rate went down and I calmed down as they went over the final race instructions. That NEVER happens to me. I'm usually pretty high strung until the gun goes off, but I was calm and ready to go. I'm glad I was ready to go as the leaders shot off like bats out of hell! I wasn't really surprised, but sub-6 minute pace hurts on snowshoes. I got off the line good and was in about 10th place as the field started to get strung out. TiVO's GPS had him around 5:35 for the first mile, and I was a little ahead of him. I knew I was going a little too fast, but surprisingly, I felt comfortable, so I went with it. My goal was to keep the leaders in sight when we hit the first big climb, and let my fitness and climbing abilities do their jobs.
When the trail tilted up I started to close the gap on a few guys, including 2-time US champ Greg Hexum. Greg let me by part way up the climb and latched on as we slowly caught a few more guys. This climb was a burner that kept getting steeper the higher you went. The downhill on the other side was fast. I could see a few guys a ways ahead and my goal was just to not lose too much time to them and not lose any spots, hoping to gain back some time on the second big climb. About half way down Greg went by me and told me to stay with him, which I somehow managed to do. The down was a little too fast and non-technical for me. My abs were sore already! No cramping, but I was taking a beating.
After 3.7 miles of running we passed through the stadium area and started the second big climb. This one was almost as long as the first one and a little steeper. I passed Greg on one of the lower slopes, but I couldn't see anyone ahead. I kept hammering the up hoping to find someone dogging it after the fast start. I still didn't see anyone as we crested the summit, but I hammered the down, which was much more technical and was able to keep Greg behind me until we dumped out into the stadium area again.
Right before we hit the stadium, we popped out of the singletrack and I spotted a guy right ahead of us. Greg and I could both smell blood in the water and Greg went by me and quickly closed the gap as we headed into the last 1.8 mile loop. I couldn't go with Greg, but I tried like hell and slowly closed the gap on the guy ahead of us, who I thought might be Italian, based on the blue and white shirt he was wearing. I just kept thinking "catch the Italian, catch the Italian" those last few miles. I hoped that I could make a final push on the remaining hill, but I was completely gassed. I was still running hard and fast, but I didn't have another gear. I knew I was in good shape, but a lack of snowshoe racing this winter left a little to be desired in the dig-down-deep department. I still put my head down despite the fact that I lost sight of both Greg and the other guy on the last downhill. With about a quarter of a mile to go we dumped out onto a wide ski trail and I could see Greg and the "Italian" guy about 100m up on me. Gotta love a second chance. I could see Greg motoring away, but I thought the other guy was staring to come back, so I kept pushing. I had the gap down to about 50 meters before we went up one last little hill right before the finish. I sprinted with everything I had, but couldn't quite catch him. I was spent after I crossed the line and spent some time with my hands on my knees as the volunteers handed me a finishers medal and some water. I spent much of the weekend trying to speak as much French as I could, but I had been thinking about the Italian guy so much the last few miles that when the volunteer handed me water I said "Grazie", which is Italian for thank you! I guess I used up all the available oxygen in my legs and not my brain!
Overall, I was pretty happy with my 7th place finish. It was good to put all the hard work and volume that I have done since Christmas to good use. I really felt like I raced smart and pushed myself to the limit. I would have liked to have finished higher, especially as Greg was 5th, only 17 seconds up on me. The winner, David Le Porho, is now a 2-time world snowshoe champ, 2nd place Eric Hartmark was the 2011 US champ (2:19 ahead of me in QU, 2:55 ahead of me in WI last year), 3rd place Stephane Ricard is an elite triathlete from France, 4th place Antonio Santi of Italy is a former winner of La Ciaspolada, the largest snowshoe race in the world (6000+ finishers!), Greg Hexum is a 2-time US champ (1:32 ahead of me in WI last year) and 6th place was not actually an Italian, it was Canadian Joël Bourgeois, a 2-time Olympic steeplechaser. To be that close to those guys is an achievement in my book, especially for someone with a 4:35 mile PR. I love snowshoe racing!
Besides the racing, Jess and I had a really good time in Quebec. The people were really friendly despite my limited knowledge of French, and the staff and volunteers at the Foret Montmorency left no stone unturned in putting on a high quality event. And a big thank you to Daniel Des Rosiers, who put the whole event together. Most of all, a big thank you to Bob Dion and Dion Snowshoes for his support of my racing over the years. I've been snowshoe running since 2004 and have only worn Dions since I started. The 121's have been great in all conditions in racing and training, and Bob stands behind his products. Jess and I are looking forward to going back to visit Quebec City and do some skiing or mountain biking at Foret Montmorency.
My Photos: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3499772095757.161702.1315312930&type=3&l=34c6991a7a