Since snowshoeing has become such a staple of my winter workouts, I thought it only natural to start entering local snowshoe races. The Western Mass. Athletic Club (WMAC) has a winter race series, with races held in VT, MA, NY and NH. The first race of the series happened to be in my backyard – Woodford, VT.
Since the warming of the climate has softened the New England winter over the last 15 years, Woodford is one of the few places in the Northeast where you can find consistent snow throughout the season. It’s a high plateau over 2,000′ in elevation that rises up from Bennington and the Valley of Vermont. Winter there is a full month longer than the already long 4 month winter in the valley below. I have been blessed to have this winter wonderland only 8 miles from my house and I’ve been snowhoe running there almost every day.
Dave Dunham, one of the top mountain runners in the country (I’ve blogged about him in the Mt. Washington and Cranmore races), encouraged me to enter the race series. He told me that it’s a great way to stay sharp during the winter months, and that many of the top mountain runners take up snowshoe racing.
So I showed up at the race with my big old snowshoes that my dad has been lending me only to notice that almost all of the 100+ racers there were using smaller racing snowshoes. After a brief conversation with Bob Dion of Dion Snowshoes (Locally made just down the road from Woodford in Readsboro, VT), he offered to lend me a pair of racing shoes for the race. I was ready to rock.
During a brief warmup with Dave Dunham, he informed me that Josh Ferenc and Greg Hammet were racing today. Greg is a top mountain runner and snowshoe racer and Josh was 3rd last year at the US Mtn. Running Championships and runs a sub 30 minute 10k. During a warmdown with another racer I was informed that Dave Dunham was the US snowshoe champion a few years back. This was not a “local” race, this baby was stacked with talent.
We lined up at the start. It was 18 degrees. Dave told me that the conditions looked fast and that we’d probably be running 7 minute miles. That sounded awfully fast to me, so I thought I might just hang back for the first mile to see how I feel and just let the top dogs go. After all this was my very first snowshoe race, what right did I have trying to stay with such an elite field of racers.
The gun went off and a snow-dust cloud erupted in front of me. I could barely see as I lurched forward to get a good position in the mass start. Unlike a foot race where it is relatively easy to maneuver around other runners in the starting mayhem, in a snowshoe race you have to contend with all the snowshoes that surround you and the snow being constantly kicked into your eyes. It’s very easy to trip or be tripped. The middle of the pack is not a place you want to find yourself in if you want to have a good race. So I managed to dodge the runners around me and I headed to the side of the trail. The snow was deeper there, but at least I could see better and I could accelerate. The lead group of 4 was already well in front. I pulled up and around the main crowd and started my pursuit of the lead pack. A half mile into the race we came to a long steep uphill which slowed most of the racers down significantly. This is where I made my move. Taking shorter strides and increasing my tempo I started to gain on the man in 4th place. A few hundred yards further, where the windy and narrow single track began I had caught him. I could no longer see the Josh Ferenc in the lead and Dave Dunham and Greg Hammet were barely visible in the woods ahead. I was feeling strong and wanted to pick up the pace but the trail was very windy and too narrow to pass. I feared that if I went into the deep snow on the side of the trail that I might fall or run into a tree, so I just sat on the heels of the racer in front of me not knowing what to do. If I were the aggressive type I probably would have just told him to get out of the way, but I’m thoughtful and considerate and didn’t want to inconvience him. After about a mile of tailing him, the racers ahead were long since gone from view and well ahead of us. The man in front of me finally turned around and said “do you want to go by?” I said “yes” and quickly moved passed him as he stepped aside. I picked up the pace significantly. At one point I came to a poorly marked 4 way intersection that had me stopped for a good 10 seconds as I tried to figure out which of the equally trampled trails was the right one. I thought of waiting for the man behind me to catch up so that he could assist me, but then I noticed an orange ribbon on a branch above me about 8 feet high – not where you are looking when you are navigating tricky terrain. Angered, I charged forward eager to make up for lost time. The snow was a bit harder on this part of the course and it allowed me to run even faster, so I did. With about half a mile to go, I could see the blue shirt of Greg Hammet ahead of me, so I picked it up even more. As we came into the final quarter mile straightaway we were neck and neck. It would come down to the final sprint to the finish. Dave Dunham was visible as well now about 200 meters ahead of us. I sprinted as fast as I could, but Greg beat me to the finish line. I finished in 4th place. What an awesome race, and a great learning experience. I’m hooked.
My strategy next week: Get a better start. Run with the Big Dogs.