Well, I finally broke three hours! Just didn't think it would come in a snowshoe race, or a *half* marathon--or that I'd be so proud of that kind of time for a "mere half"! But hey, this one was a KILLER, and it was my second ever in this category (both in the space of three weeks)! Based on a trail map, it looks like we ascended from the trailhead at about 1,050 or 1,100' up to South Hill at 2,065, then back down. Then we repeated the whole thing again. So you can break the half into four "quarters"--up to the summit, down to the finish area, back up to summit, back down to finish. All on a lollipop course with a short "stem" where the only common section is the first and last half-mile of each loop.
The climb ranged from steep to gradual, and the descents got to a be a bit hairy at times and I really had to concentrate on foot placement and braking, occasionally letting faster descenders go ahead and making sure I didn't lose it as I felt myself "skiing" (I *don't* ski, and once dislocated a shoulder trying to learn, also in the great state of Vermont!). The only real flat sections were brief sections of maybe half a mile at the top/bottom of each loop on this "lollipop" course. Generally, the snow was well packed down, and a little soft on top as it was a few degress above freezing.
What can I say, I haven't done a road marathon or any kind of comparable all-out effort for that period of time for like five years since I switched to ultras--a lot different than a lower intensity effort for a longer period. The first loop on the climb I saw my heart rate was hitting 160 and then creeping up to like 168 on steeper sections, as I was in the middle of a "conga line" of about 7 guys. I found it mentally exhausting to be sucked into other people's pace and stepped off to allow them to pass, deciding I couldn't keep that pace for another 10-11 miles. In the end, I think it was a good move, as I settled into a pretty even effort in the 150-160 range the rest of the race, stepping it up the last couple miles downhill and the flats toward the finish to break three. It was a struggle, but I was real pleased to make it and be able to finish strong! I felt like my legs were going to fall off! And mentally I found snowshoe racing on steep single track is RELENTLESS. In terms of the sheer combination of effort and concentration it requires to keep moving forward with some semblance of coordination and efficiency! You have to focus on every step, even more than in normal trail running and even more than on technical trails.
Based on quickly studying previous year's results, I told Esperanza to expect me somewhere between three and four hours total, finishing the first of two identical loops somewhere around 1:30-1:45. As it turns out, they had changed the course somewhat (apparently making the downhills a little steeper, and probably cutting some distance as I came up with more like 12 miles on my Garmin--but I'm not complaining!). Folks who did it last year were all reporting faster times, as apparently the snow conditions were also better. Anyway, she had time to go back to the inn for breakfast after watching me start, get back to watch me come through the first time and take more pics , go back again to surf the web, and then return for the finish!
The scenery was beautiful, as we were in a pine forest, at times dense like in one very cool section called the "Labyrinth," and we topped out on a hilltop with an aid station with a gorgeous view looking down toward the town and the start/finish at Amee Farm. The village of Pittsfield is in a narrow valley with steep peaks on either side. Very quaint and New Englandy, and only about 10 miles from Killingston ski area.
The half started simultaneously with the full marathon (four loops) and one-loop 10K "fun run". The 100-milers (of which there were four) started at noon the day before and were still going. Still no official results so not sure on finishes but I think there were like 75 entered in the half, 55 in the 10K, and 50 in the marathon, something like that. Many of the l0K "fun run" folks were local college or high school runners and the 10K'ers yellow numbers stood out. But it was hard to tell easily who was in which distance out there, as they simply hand-wrote "half" on numbers that were otherwise identical to the marathon. So my "conga line" experience had a mixture of all three distances. Many were out there just for a good outdoor experience, and there were quite a few using poles (including a few of the faster folks).
Unfortunately, you couldn't focus on the scenery at all, as you really had to zero in on your footing and effort. The snow alongside the trail was 2-4 feet deep and a few times I fell sidewise into it before I would right myself, and there were lots of close calls, including on one of the narrow "bike planks" crossing little streams you had to swiftly cross.
Generally speaking, I seemed to be strong on the climbs, and could hold my own or gain ground or pass folks. While I'm usually good with trail descents, my lack of ski experience meant I was afraid to open it up on the steeper downs, and some faster ascenders would zoom by me as I stood aside on the single track to let them pass. Definitely something I need to work on, as none of the trails I trained on this winter had sections that steep (the Catskills did, but that was pure hike!). Also, the descents were a little gullied, so you had to do some high-steeping too, though I did find the going better and was a little less gunshy the second time through.
I knew after I left the start/finish aid station at 1:28 at the end of loop one that if I could hold pace I could break three hours. With my less breakneck pace on the long up section till we reached the "summit" the second time around (the third quarter of the race), I saw I only had like 35 minutes to make it back down--the same section that had taken me like 36 or 37 minutes the first time around. In the end, pushing those downhills, and then cutting loose on the last mile of more rolls and flats with a few last short hills, somehow I did the last quarter of the race like in about 33 minutes. Good thing I was eating and drinking regularly and popping Endurolytes every half hour as I was right on the verge of cramping and bonking!
Neither of the last two people I'd been jockeying with and who passed me on the last big downs was in sight, nor was there anywhere nearby behind me to push me. But by then it was all about seeing the finish and knowing there was one last swithback up to the finish area and calculating whether I could make it under the three-hour mark! Very pleased when I saw I had it in the bag and could back off ever so slightly! Beside the 5th place showing on the computer screen at the finish for males 40-49 (for all I know out of 5!), I saw I was in like 28th place overall. But again, no official results posted yet.
I've got to say, the event was a blast, and it was a lot of fun meeting new people. In the end Lisa from our list didn't go (scared off by the weather, or maybe with too much work!). Despite nasty forecasts in previous days, the serious rains held off till Sunday, and even the marathoners only got sprinkled on, unlike a couple previous years that were nasty from what I hear. For the half it was cloudy, mid to upper 30s, and the sun even briefly peaked out from behind the clouds (sorry, Lisa!).
The folks we met were other runners staying at the Swiss Farm Inn, just 1/10 of a mile from the start (how sweet!). The owner Roger, himself a trail runner, was up by 5AM to make us breakfast for the 8AM start--awesome! Then he and his wife Joyce did a great dinner for all of us, and the "world's best breakfast" (as they call it without much exaggeration) this morning before we all took off. Wonderful! Got to hang with a bunch of nice folks from the Albany area and Connecticut who are part of the WMAC scene, and then a bunch of younger folks from Manhattan and Queens. Yep, city folks doing a snowshoe race and meeting for first time in Vermont--how cool!
Also met some nice folks from Toronto at the Casa Bella inn down the way where we had dinner a delicious Italian dinner the night before. Part of a large contingent of Canadians who come down for the race. Also, the Snowshoe Challenge is part of a series of "extreme" events put on by series organizer Andy in that area, including a 53 mile trail race (with shorter options) in June, the Death Race Lisa did last year (and a winter version of it was taking place during our event with guys hauling wood and rocks up the mountain!), a multi-challenge Spartan race, etc.
What are you guys waiting for? They even rent snowshoes for the race! I'm definitely going back. Maybe for the marathon next time! Though I frankly couldn't have imagined going out for another loop, let alone two, as spent and wasted as my whole body and mind felt after that one! Snowshoe racing will rock your world!
And to think I used to wonder why I'd read those articles in running magazines about what great "winter cross training" snowshoe running can be! Cross training my %&^*!