The Ups and Downs of Snowshoe Racing

What goes up, must come down. The competitors in the Curly’s Record Run snowshoe race in Pittlsfield, MA this past weekend might rephrase that statement as: what goes up, up, up and still higher up, must come down, down, and very quickly down. Standing at the registration table, the air was abuzz with talk of the 700 foot non-stop climb a mile into the race. Now had this been a mountain running race, such a climb would be seen as insignificant, but snowshoeing is not running. The weight and awkwardness of the shoes combined with the challenge of running on snow make snowshoeing infinitely more exhausting. The week prior at the race in Florida, MA, a hill of only 80 feet had laid me to waste, so naturally I feared for the worst.

During a short warmup with Dave Dunham, he informed me that a very tough crowd of athletes had assembled. Top mountain runner Tim Mahoney was again on hand. National Showshoe bronze medalist and All American mountain runner Ben Nephew was there. New England standout triathlete and snowshoe racer Matt Cartier had also been spotted in the crowd, and well, then there was Dave. Dave is first and foremost a mountain runner. He’s a legend in the American mountain running scene, for his ability to tirelessly   grind away at a solid pace on never ending uphills. This course was designed for racers like him and everyone else in the race knew it.

Curly’s Record Run is named in honor of Albert “Curly” Voll’s record setting downhill skiing performance on the Shadow Trail in Pittsfield State Forest back in 1944. Curly doesn’t race anymore, but he was kind   enough to blow the starting whistle to get the race underway. From the start, the strategy of the other top racers was clear – get to the hill with a solid lead on Dave Dunham in hopes of providing just enough cushion to hold him off on the monster climb. Dave is not a crazy downhill runner, he prefers the ups. So to beat him to the top of the hill, or to even   be close to him at the top of the hill meant certain victory for a fast downhill runner. The course started climbing almost immediately, and Ben Nephew and Tim Mahoney jumped out into an early lead. I stayed back a bit with Dave Dunham and Matt Cartier. A mile later when the “hill” came into view, it was clear that Ben and Tim were already beginning to tire. A hundred meters into the climb Ben stepped aside and let us pass. Dave took off and I couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t long before he passed Tim and took the lead. Tim was about 10 seconds ahead of me on the climb and was keeping a steady pace. I didn’t want to go after him and risk dying as I had the week before, so I kept the gap and made sure that he didn’t widen it. After nearly a mile of constant climbing we reached the top, exhausted. Dave was so far ahead that he was no longer visible. I was very excited that I had made it to the top of the hill in third place, because my forte was yet to come. Tim picked up the pace on the rolling course on top of the mountain and widened the gap a bit. I couldn’t hear anyone behind me so I stayed where I was, trying to get some strength back in my legs. That strength would be absolutely necessary to safely navigate the steep pitch of the Shadow Trail at high speed. It was after all a downhill ski run, and could prove quite dangerous if one got out of control. A left hand turn brought me to the top of the Shadow Trail. I could see Tim Mahoney about 15 seconds ahead of me, so I let it rip.

The trick to fast downhill running is to let yourself fall under control. You let gravity do the work for you as you guide your feet to the next safe landing. But with twists and turns, trees, rocks and logs to jump,   that’s not always an easy task. I must have been going 25 miles an hour, as each step carried me about 20 feet down the trail. In no time I was blowing by Tim as if he were standing still. I couldn’t see Dave in front   of me, but I had every intention of catching him and renaming this trail “Tim’s Record Run”. That thought lasted about two minutes, which was the amount of time it took Matt Cartier to pass me as if I was standing still. He must have been doing 30. I’ve never seen anyone run downhill that fast. I was demoralized. Even though I kept up my blistering pace, part of me was already beginning to settle in to 3rd place. It’s funny how the mind does that to you.

Somehow, I managed to make several high speed log jumps and arrived at the bottom of the hill safely. Matt was no longer in sight. With about 1.5 miles of flat and bumpy terrain left in the race a little voice popped   into my head. “You beat Matt on the flats and ups already, you can do it again”, it said. The voice was right. I shifted into high gear and went after him. The sinuous twists and turns through the woods made it difficult to see anyone in front of you, but I knew he was there somewhere, getting closer with each stride. Then suddenly I saw two sticks planted in the snow next to the trail, that spelled “YI”. These sticks would have gone unnoticed by most in the race, but they were of special significance to me because I had placed them there before the race. On my warmup before the start, I had gone backwards on the course from the finish to a point 4 minutes in. I chose to mark this place as my point to begin my finishing kick. I found two sticks of interesting shape and placed them next to eachother in a way that I’d easily notice – the “YI” formation. My adrenalin rushed as I now saw the familiar sticks, the end was near, no holding back. I picked up the pace, and braced against the nausea in my stomach. Two minutes later I burst   into the small field containing the finish. Dave was now visible as was Matt. I had gained considerably on them, but they were too far ahead to catch in the ever shortening sprint to the finish. I did not settle for 3rd place. I earned it.

Ten minutes after the finish I was invited to do a warmdown with Dave, Ben and Tim. Dave is a man of many lists. One of these lists contains the names of every town in Massachusetts. His goal is to run in each of these 350+ towns. Well it so happens that this race was near the intersection of four towns that Dave had never run in, so we set off on a long easy snowshoe run to help him check them off. Wait, did I say easy? Scratch that, the course that Dave had plotted on some online mapping site had us running up a logging road that climbed over 1500 feet in one solid stretch. This mind you, was taking place shortly after getting pummeled by a hill half that size at race pace. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful trek and I enjoyed the company and conversation. At the summit of the Taconic Range we were presented with a gorgeous three state view of MA, NY and VT. We stopped to reflect for a moment next to a small lake as well, where a state forest sign informed us that it was the highest lake in Massachusetts at 2,150 feet in elevation. It was beautiful. The warmdown took well over an hour. I was spent. Dave on the other hand was planning to knock off two more towns on his 3 hour ride home north of Boston. Dave is no ordinary human being, he is the stuff legends are made of.

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