Learning Curve

The Horse Hill 7k Snowshoe race was to be my third official race attempt, and my fifth run overall with the snowshoes on. After the way things went at Sidehiller my confidence was on the rise. Training runs were feeling better and better and it seemed as if I was getting the hang of it. Instead of smoothly gliding through the trails and working my way up the field, I fell repeatedly,  damn near got a snowshoe where the sun don’t shine, and ended up getting Dunham’d (again) at the finish. I think some of that may need further explanation.

The day started off with so much promise. Felt great early that morning, got to the race with plenty of time for a warm-up, and then it all went down hill. My pre-race jog time disappeared once I realized that I had forgotten to switch out the cleats on the snowshoes the night before. It’s not much of anything to change them, only I had never done it before so I wasn’t exactly familiar with the process. I don’t have a separate pair of deep cleats, but my Dion back country snowshoes have deep cleats on them so it was just a matter of transplanting them. For those who don’t know, the 121′s are basically just smaller version of the back country hikers. This is an important detail because I soon realized that in my haste I just switched cleats from one 121 to the next. Damn.

Finally done, I swept the pile of snowshoe parts onto the car floor and was off and running to the start. For a warm up, the two minute jog would have to suffice.

The start was a little intimidating with over a hundred runners all lined up on the glorified single track trail. Once the gun went off the air was filled with snow being kicked about and it was a struggle to just to see where I met step down. To either side of the trail there was a bit of a slope so you didn’t want to stray too far to the sides. The snow was deep and the pace was going to be slow (for me at least).

All confidence was lost about a quarter mile into the race when we hit the first hill. It was far larger than any hill I’ve run up in a long time. Or at least it felt that way. For certain I had never tried running up a beast like that in snowshoes. For the next 3.75ish miles, I was in survival mode.

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Course map, according to my Garmin. Twisty enough for ya?

Perhaps that’s why the next seven minutes or so of running featured not one, not two, but three different full on collapses by me. It was just at the end of January where Scott Graham and I were talking about racing and falling and he uttered words that echoed in my head: “You’re time will come. There are only two types of snowshoe runners: those who have fallen and those who are going to fall.” Those who are going to fall…those who are going to fall… Damn, he was right. It seemed strangely coincidental and oddly prophetic that I would fall so soon into my very next race after hearing that warning.

Stunned a little embarrassed, I picked myself up and attempted to get going before I got trampled or tripped anybody else up. I immediately thought: Now that I’ve fallen I can go on… and before I could finish that that thought I was down in the snow again. This spill was a little more awkward and it felt like I nearly got a tree branch in the nether regions.

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Elevation, also courtesy of my Garmin.

Runners started to fly by me and I just let them go. Better wait a few seconds before the coast is clear to get going on the single track again. I turned around to see the branch that nearly pierced my keister and saw that it was in fact my own snowshoe. Good Lord. There I was, a grown man in the woods that almost got his own snowshoe stuck up his ass. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it had the deep cleats on it! No one should get cleats of any size jammed there, let alone the deep ones.

After falling twice in the first mile I started to think ‘okay, that means at this rate I should fall down eight times total for the race’. It’s not good when you set the acceptable amount of falls so high. Before I could finish that thought i fell again. Incredible. But I was still on track for only eight spills during the race.

Now I had had enough. I got up, set my focus and hardened my determination. From here on out I would be all business. The terrain never got any easier and I was going to have to rise to the challenge. The whole course was unfamiliar territory to me, and taking a look at both the elevation and a satellite map of it after, I can see just how crazy it all was. No wonder it was all so slow!

Unfortunately things were so spread out that there really weren’t many runners ahead pulling me forward, and nobody behind threatening to pass either. Out in front, so close but yet still so far out of reach, was the speedy Melissa Donais. She was one of the runners that flew by me on the second spill, and also a measuring stick of sorts for me in these races. She crushed me at Whitaker Woods but only finished just in front of me at Sidehiller. Perhaps today was the day that I took her down.

Since the terrain was all single track and non-linear, you really had to pick your spots to pass. At least you do when you’re a novice. Perhaps I was thinking about it too hard because all of a sudden I was right up on Melissa and stepped on the back of her snowshoes. There’s really no excuse for that when you’re not running in a pack. It was amateur hour in the woods. Luckily neither of us fell. I apologized, she let me slide, and then I was off trying to chase down the next guy.

There was nobody really catchable, at first, but that was okay because concentrating on my form and not falling was enough to get me through. After what seemed like forever but in reality was only five minutes, I did start to reel somebody in. Just when I was about to roll up on him, he stopped at an intersection, waited for me to get a little closer, and then asked which way to go. I said ‘to the right’, pointed, and just flew by. For some reason I felt bad about that. Is there some sort of gentlemen’s rule where you let the person go first? Not sure about the subtle nuances about off-road racing  yet.  I was fine with it mainly because had I stopped I felt like there would’ve been some type of discussion (albeit brief) about it when there was no need for it.

Finally, after all of that effort, all of that climbing, all of that falling, I had made the last climb, flew down the last decent (which was the first ascent) and was within sniffing distance of the finish. My tired mind couldn’t process anything beyond the thought of crossing the line and collapsing somewhere warm. Little did I know that I was about to be Dunham’d yet again. There it was, karma coming around to get me, all because I ate his damn cookies after the Whitaker Woods race. Dave snapped off a couple of pics and shouted encouragement as I passed by. The nerve of that guy! I wanted to say something witty but could only muster vague grunts, and possibly something along the lines of ‘ah, you got me again’. Then Dave replied “yes, you got Dunham’d”. It was pretty funny to hear him say it, but it also made it seem more real. I need to get faster!

Narcisi Dunham Horse Hill

EJN getting Dunham’d, courtesy of Dave Dunham.

My legs and lungs burned as I willed my way over the last hundred meters or so. Seeing the line come closer and closer was a relief that I’ve only felt in full or half marathons. Result: 21st place and 45:00. I’m pretty sure I passed the line in 44:57 or so, but who’s counting? Nacho Hernando won it in 33:03. Nacho is a legit guy, and although he’d beat me in any distance over any surface right now, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be a whole twelve minutes behind him in a half marathon on the roads. He beat me by twelve minutes here in a four mile race! How crazy is that? Snowshoe racing is a different world.

Shortly after I crossed, Chris Dunn came up to me and uttered perhaps the most encouraging phrase I had ever heard: “Now that was a real snowshoe race!” Thank God someone was able to verify that for me. I don’t know if I could handle anything any realer than that at the moment.

Unfamiliar with getting Dunham’d? Check out the last paragraph in this entry.

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