Snowshoes are like those tennis racket things, right? You RUN in those?!
Two weekends ago I raced in the United States Snowshoe Association’s National Snowshoe Championships in Cable, Wisconsin.
Driving up to Wisconsin’s Northwoods is always a welcome break from Chicago city life, but I have to say: the bare ground did not inspire great feats of snowshoe racing! Even in Cable, host to the Birkiebeiner just two weeks earlier, snow cover on the race course showed plenty of thin spots. However, we woke up on race day to four inches of fresh snow and more falling. New snow and the moderate temperature made for perfect conditions with a backdrop suited for a national championship showdown!
Lining up at the start got the heart pumping. Lots of good lucks and handshakes passed around (apparently everyone knows everyone in the tiny snowshoe racing community). The race director didn’t mince words as we toed the line: he welcomed us to Lakewoods Resort, announced this was the second largest nationals field ever, and started the race!
A 10K snowshoe race is nothing like a road 10K nor even some of the hillier trail runs. Snowshoe running is a different beast entirely and every race is different based on terrain and snow conditions.
Nevertheless… Buoyed by my win at the Jan 29th Illinois qualifier race, I went out hard – failing to recognize the both difficulty of the course and the caliber of my competitors. After a couple of rolling hills (a recurring theme – see above), my enthusiasm was soon tempered! The course soon cut through a large culvert under Highway M over to the 4K loop on the south side of the road. A quick check of my watch at seven minutes led me to reconsider 1) my pace, 2) my fitness, and 3) the midwest-flatlander stereotype. As I wasn’t in a position to address anything but my pace, easing up a bit led me back out of oxygen debt as I settled into the race.
Approaching the culvert again I was feeling a little better, only to have my spirit crushed on the far side by Killer Hill #1.
The field continued to thin out as we traversed the rollers on the north side of Hwy M. At about 6K the course crossed the start/finish and I was cheered on by fans and by the knowledge that a mere 4K separated me from the end of my torment.
Thinking “more than halfway” proved overly optimistic as Killer Hill #2 unwittingly lay ahead. Rounding a blind corner, I felt strong enough to exclaim “you’ve got to be kidding me” (rather than an expletive) as I scaled the cliff-face on hands-and-crampons.
More rolling hills and long winding switchbacks at forty minutes provided an opportunity to glimpse the leaders and ponder how far I had yet to go.
Finally hitting some familiar terrain indicated I was on the final stretch with no more massive, unexpected climbs. I even found the motivation to catch the guy I had been tailing for 5K. A zig, a zag, and a nice decent to drop into the finish chute: 27th out of 115 men. Not quite my goal, but a great first nationals!
The post-race activities did not disappoint either! Many of the male racers hiked back out on the course to cheer on the women’s race. This had the added perk of actually taking in the scenery – the fresh snowfall on the northern Wisconsin landscape was stunning! (Somehow I’d missed that!)
The award ceremony and banquet was everything you would expect from a sport most people have never heard of: lots of camaraderie and an absence of big egos. I’m proud to say that Team Atlas was well represented on the podium, but the Dion Snowshoe Team (title sponsor of this and the next four national championships) had many strong finishers and by far the best cheering contingent!
Despite the announcement that next year’s championship race would be in Frisco, Colorado (starting at 9,100 ft), I’m already thinking about snow!