Snowshoeing in Florida

Yes, you read the title correctly – I snowshoed in Florida yesterday with a hundred other winter sports fanatics. Of course I’m referring to Florida, Massachusetts, just south of the Vermont border on the high Green Mountain plateau. It’s an oddly named town, as it sits at an elevation of over 2,000 feet and registers the coldest temperatures and greatest snowfall in Massachusetts. Not many retirees living up there.

This being the third race in the WMAC snowshoe series (and my 3rd snowshoe race as well), it attracted all the usual suspects. There was the legendary Dave Dunham, several members of the infamous CMS (Central Mass Striders) team were on hand, and the ARE (Albany Running Exchange) showed up with an entire van-load of racers, including Josh Merlis who had won the race in Guilderland, NY on the 6th. This was the deepest field of snowshoe talent that I’d seen.

As I was beginning to warm up, a man in his late 40’s stopped me in the parking lot. He told me that he had seen my jacket at the last race and went to my website. Shuffling through a bag he had next to his car he pulled out a few bananas and an apple to show me. “It makes sense” he said, “I’m going to try eating a lot more fruits and veggies and see what happens.” he added. I chatted with him for a bit longer and then continued my warm up. It’s difficult to know how much of an impact I’m having on this journey. I often wonder if people just think I’m crazy, especially when I turn down the free doughnuts, homemade chili, hot chocolate and stacks of pancakes that usually follow these races. It only takes one person to approach me and tell me that I’ve affected them somehow to keep me going strong on this lonely road.

Two days before the race I began to feel a little off and could only many to struggle through two 2 mile runs with great difficulty. The day before the race I was feeling a little better and did a longer run, but much slower than my normal pace. I was hoping that I’d be 100% by race day. As I discovered half way through the race, I was clearly not.

The snow was what skiers refer to as “sugar snow”, small hard granules that don’t stick together and slide very nicely on eachother. It’s the kind of snow that makes for very fast runs down the slopes. It’s also the kind of snow that gives way under foot every step of the way in a snowshoe race making the effort similar to running in deep sand with snowshoes on – not something I’d advise.

My goal leading up to this race was to take the lead from the start and hold on for as long as I could. Ideally this strategy would have me win the race, but the main purpose was to learn my pace. I wanted to test myself early in the race to see how long I could endure a faster pace before breaking down.

The bell went off and I blitzed out of the start. Dave Dunham was right next to me. We were neck and neck, leading the field through the first 150 meters on a wide snow covered road. I picked up the pace to move into the lead, but Dave picked it up as well and we remained side by side as we entered the more narrow single track through the woods. I couldn’t go any faster. We were less than 300 meters into the race and I was already exhausted. I knew that I’d never be taking the lead in this race, so I tucked in behind Dave. My breathing was eratic and strained, my legs felt sluggish, but I kept up. Four racers had formed a chain behind me, with the rest of the field drifting away. The course featured several short, steep climbs and a few very long climbs. Dave was pushing the climbs hard. He would charge up each hill on the mushy snow, he was trying to lose us. I stayed right on his heels, but I was paying the price. The hills were turning my legs into sludge and I was in trouble.

Approximately one and a half miles into the 3.3 mile course, we came to a long steep climb. I tried my best to relax into it and just push forward, but I could barely pick up my legs for each step. I turned around to see the 4 racers still in the train behind me, they looked fresh. So I stepped aside and let them all pass. I stood on the side of the trail for a few seconds watching them all snake through the woods with their brightly colored spandex outfits. It looked like a festive parade, and now I was just a bystander. I started walking up the hill. Even that made me nauseated. I finally reached the top of the hill, the train in front of me was gone from sight, they were well ahead of me now. Fortunately, we were all well enough ahead, that I couldn’t see anybody coming up behind me. My goal now was to stay in 6th place. I was being optimistic.

I trotted through the woods for a good five minutes when I realized that my heart had slowed down significantly and my legs were feeling revived again. So I picked up the pace a bit – still felt ok. I crested the top of a little hill and a very long steep downhill appeared in front of me. I love downhills. Not because they are easier to run than uphills, because they are not, running downhill on snowshoes is actually quite dangerous. It’s very easy to catch a tip on a branch, tree or frozen crust and go down, but even worse is the possibility of “post-holing”. The increased weight and speed of a downhill descent reduce much of the snowshoe’s ability to keep the runner on top of the snow. Often you will hit a pocket of very deep snow that has blown over fallen logs or rocks. It appears flat from the surface of the snow, but it hides a very dangerous topography below. With three times your body weight coming down on each downhill step, it’s easy to punch a hole straight down to the bottom of the snow and in between rocks and logs – post-holing. Your momentum then continues to carry your body forward with great speed and inertia, all while your leg is now jammed into a hole a few feet behind you. It’s the perfect recipe for a broken leg of the worst kind. Despite this danger, I am an absolute madman on the downhills. I hold nothing back and do not break my speed. When I reached the bottom of this very long downhill I must have been moving well in excess of 20 miles an hour. An object in motion tends to stay in motion and that’s exactly what I did. I carried my speed as long as i could. I was refreshed. Another reckless descent put me within close sight of the 5th place racer. With newfound hope I bore down on him and caught him within a hundred yards, I was flying. Another quarter mile and I was closing quickly on the racers in 4th and 3rd place who were still running together. A slight decline in the trail gave me just enough of a crazy-man advantage to catch them. The trail had started to turn up again, so instead of passing them I tucked in behind them and waited for the next downhill to make my attack. A hundred yards ahead of us I could now see 2nd place Josh Merlis, who had won the previous race. Judging by his side to side bobble, I knew he was hurting. Slowly over the next half mile we reeled him in. I was still waiting for my downhill to make my move, But it never came. We burst out onto a snow covered road with the finish only 300 meters away. Josh had 5 seconds on the three of us who were now running side by side fighting for third place – or possibly second if our kick was strong enough. Alas the finish was a gradual uphill and it quickly brought me to a hobble as the other racers slowly edged me out. I would settle for 5th, just a handfull of seconds out of 2nd place. Dave Dunham had easily won the race.

Dave joined me for my post race warmdown run. During the run Dave revealed to me how tough he thought the course was. He said he was dead out there and when he saw the train of 5 people behind him in the beginning he thought he was doomed. Perspective is an amazing thing.

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