Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Peak Snowshoe Challenge 2013

Running the Beaver Creek Snowshoe 10k was one of the best training decisions I've made this year, because I learned so much from my first-ever snowshoe race and that enabled me to truly have a fabulous time at the Peak Snowshoe Challenge half marathon this past weekend.

The first change I made was to buy a different set of snowshoes: Redfeather Vapor racing shoes, which are SO lightweight, and shorter than the camping/hiking snowshoes I wore in the 10k. I got terrible blisters on my heels running the Beaver Creek race, and I think it was due to the longer snowshoes' weight pulling down against my heel with each step. The Vapors ended up being perfect for the Peak Challenge in Vermont...so lightweight that I'm considering running the full marathon next year. (You'll notice in the photo, Gus thinks they're pretty sweet too.) I also opted to wear full-calf gaiters in the Peak race (rather than just the Dirty Girl trailrunning gaiters), as I think that keeping the snow out of my running shoes helped keep my ankles just dry enough to avoid blistering. Beaver Creek was a great learning experience, enabling Peak to be a lot more fun.

But enough about technical issues: on to Vermont!

I arrived in Boston the Thursday before the race, and enjoyed dinner with one client, and breakfast Friday morning with another, before hitting the road and heading north. After a tasty lunch (and sampling a locally-brewed beer) at the Barley House in Concord, NH, I made my way to the Amee Farm Lodge in Pittsfield, VT, site of the race. The 100-mile racers had started on the course that morning, and many had already completed two or three loops of the 6.5-mile course by the time I arrived. I was hoping to see Rebecca Hansen but it turns out, my timing was almost perfectly off: she had just completed one lap and headed back out onto the course for another, about 20 minutes before my arrival at the start/finish. As I needed to meet up with a friend in Middlebury before Rebecca would be due back at the start/finish, I left a note on her drop bags to cheer her on and let her know I'd see her in the morning. I then hiked around a bit to try to get a sense of the course. One thing was certain (and the photo shows it!): I would not have to worry about the cold, which had been one of my concerns about doing a race in Vermont. Instead, it looked like mud might be a problem!

The course is a fairly straightforward 6.5-mile loop: About 0.5 miles of that consists of a short out & back between the start/finish, and a circular 6-mile loop that is run counter-clockwise. After crossing a creek (a bit scary the first time across, but not a big deal after that) the course goes uphill for about 2.5 miles (some stretches were quite steep, but these tended also to be short). At the top, there is a lovely clearing with few trees to block the view in all directions. (The tallest hill in this image marks the summit.) After that, the course meanders down, switchbacking down the hill toward the river. Then it's back across the river to the start/finish, and out for one more loop (if you're doing the half-marathon, as I did) or 3 more (for the marathon) or 14 more (for the 100-miler.)

On Saturday morning, the mud, blessedly, had been covered overnight by a bit of snow. The air was crisp but not freezing, and the start/finish was soon packed with more than 200 snowshoe racers. I was on the lookout for Rebecca, thinking I'd head out on the course with her if she came into the start/finish before my race began, but I didn't see her. That ended up working out fine, as there was something very exciting about starting the half marathon with SO many other racers. Down the hill we went, through the woods, and across the bridge. The trail through the woods here was wide enough for the speedsters to get around the rest of us, and once we started heading up the hill, everyone seemed to be speed-hiking the trail at the same conservative pace anyway. One truly awesome runner was getting into the spirit of things by dancing up the hills; clearly whatever she was listening to on her iPod was more motivational than the rest of us commiserating about how steep some of the uphills were!

The temperature was perfect: cool enough to prevent our getting overheated on the strenuous climbs, but warm enough that my toes didn't start to feel numb until the end of the second loop. The course is mostly forested (as in this photo) with a few sections that are very, very densely forested, just before the summit. Overhearing the conversation around me, many of the racers seemed to be snowshoe newbies like me, which gave the race a great spirit of camaraderie and adventure.


Almost on cue, just when I was starting to wonder if we ever would make it to the top, the trees parted and the summit appeared! The views from the top were beautiful, and I remember the skies being clearer than they appear in this photo. I guess reaching the top made me feel very "sunny," despite whatever was actually going on with the weather!

The descent started out as a fairly gradual downward pitch, and over the next couple of miles incorporated some very steep sections. I'd overheard one of the 100-milers at the start/finish say something about having taken an unplanned glissade through a couple of the switchbacks in the middle of the night, and indeed I did come across the telltale marks where a snowshoer took an unexpected sled downhill. There were a couple of muddy stream crossings in the downhill section, but for the most part, the trail remained in good condition, the snow a bit slushy but abundant enough to provide good footing, and not much ice. After the effort of the climb, it felt great to descend, and before I knew it I was back at the bridge, crossing the stream to head back to the start/finish, then start my second loop.

A raging bonfire drew an enthusiastic crowd of 10k racers (who were done), and other runners who wanted to take a break and eat something before starting the next loop. Again, I can't overstate just how friendly this community race was. It was hard to distinguish between people who'd been friends for years and those who'd just shared a conversation on the trail, so many people were standing around chatting between loops. I grabbed another handful of almonds and dried cranberries to fuel my next loop, refilled my water bottle, and was off and running again. I noticed there was a lot more conversation on the trail during the second loop, with a lot of talk about having gone out too fast on the first loop. I was actually feeling pretty good on this second climb, having been a little anxious the first loop and confident that, with just one more climb to go, I could get the job done.

Not far up the trail, who should I run into but Rebecca! She was on her seventh or eighth loop, but you would never have guessed it for how strongly she was making her way up the trail. We hugged and then chatted as we climbed, and I continued to be amazed that this runner from almost-flat Florida was climbing so well... and on snowshoes, no less!

I'd have been happy to hang out with Rebecca on the trail the rest of the afternoon -- and hopefully one day we'll get to do that -- but she was insistent that I keep up my pace, as she was slowing down a bit. We snapped a photo, hugged again, and I took off. Though my legs were starting to fatigue due to the climbing, the second loop actually felt easier mentally, as I knew once I reached the densely-forested section, I was nearly at the top.

I crested the summit in a pack of four or five other runners, and we let out a cheer as we headed downhill once again. This section of the trail truly flew by, and I couldn't believe it when I was once again at the bridge, getting ready to cross the creek with just half a mile to go. The Peak Snowshoe Challenge is a beautiful course, with friendly people, and I will likely do it again next year...perhaps the marathon distance. It's so much fun, after all, why deprive yourself of spending the whole day there?!

Happy snowshoeing...and see you on the trail!
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