This vintage photo pretty much sums up the image that pops into my head when I hear the word "snowshoe." I think of snowshoes as those old-timey devices that allow one to take a pleasant walk through the woods without sinking TOO deeply into the snow. Fast? Nah. Lightweight? Hardly. But fun? Sure, yeah. And anything that gets me out onto a trail, whatever the weather may bring, is a welcome development in my book.
So when I learned that the Beaver Creek Snowshoe Race Series was hosting three races this year, I didn't expect to cover the 10k course very quickly, but it sounded fun, so I sent in my registration. Little did I know, a truly fun adventure awaited me.
The crowd assembling around the Beaver Creek start/finish yesterday morning was a friendly mix of little kids, older folks, and everyone in between. Speedy racers lined up in front, while old friends out for a snowy hike assembled toward the back of the crowd. It was clear from the conversation I overheard that many of those toeing the line in Beaver Creek that day were race "regulars," having participated in the series for years. I definitely felt like a newbie, though the broad range of ages, snowshoe models, attire and apparent levels of fitness was reassuring. As 11:00 approached, a 1k kids' race started (and nearly as quickly, finished) and then, the whistle blew and we were off!
For this race, the 5k racers and 10k racers run together for the first 2 miles or so. The frontrunners on low-profile, skinny snowshoes took off quickly, not to be seen again. Those of us running at a more relaxed pace (and, many of us, on bulkier equipment) made our way with the crowd, first up a short hill on the creek-side park, then a short downhill, and at last, uphill again... for a long while. After about 1/2 a mile, the course narrowed from a wide, park-like walkway to fairly steep single-track trail. It would've been tough to pass anyone at this point, but no one seemed to complain, as all of us breathed heavily in the cold, crisp air, moving ever upward in short strides. The switchbacks brought us up, and up, and up, through tall aspens.
It was near mile 2 that the course really became fun. The 5k runners broke from those of us doing the 10k, and headed back to the start/finish. The rest of us headed into the woods, and up an ever-steeper trail through the trees, in deep snow. With the dry winter we've experienced on Colorado's Front Range this year, it was heavenly to wade through knee-deep... then hip-deep snow. As the front-runners climbed the switchbacks above us, the rest of us followed, pacing ourselves over steep terrain. It was a beautiful, wintry monochromatic beauty: dark conifers, the white and black of the aspen trunks, and all around us, an abundant white blanket of snow. The only color of the scenery came from the bright blue Colorado sky.
Near mile 3, the singletrack opened up onto a wide, winding snowcat trail and continued to climb. The Beaver Creek staffers did a good job of keeping the skiers and the snowshoers separate, but at the same time it was nice to hear the cheers of skiers passing by as we shared the trail. Near the top of the snowcat trail, a water station refreshed us all before we descended down some more gorgeous singletrack.
The next several miles were a nice mix of climbing and descending through the trees, and deeper snow than at anywhere else around the course. Near mile 4, the woods opened up onto a broad, open glen where we pushed our way forward through hip-deep powder. Here, it was an advantage not to be a front-runner, as I imagine they must've worked hard to break trail through the powder. A snowshoe novice, I was experimenting with how to descend inclines on snowshoes, and unfortunately tripped myself as I stepped on one snowshoe with the other. No problem! The powder was deep, soft and forgiving, and the cold snow refreshed me after getting so hot on the long inclines of the first three+ miles.
As I finished up the powder glen and back into the single-track trail in the forest, I noticed an odd phenomenon: whenever I sped up, the runner in front of me increased her cadence too. If I slowed down on an incline, she too slowed to a walk. I couldn't figure out what was going on, and then it occurred to me: "Aha! She thinks we're racing!"
I guess this shouldn't have come as a surprise: by definition, having paid our entry fee and agreed to run a measured course within a particular amount of time, we were participating in a "race." But competition was so far from my mind that it completely surprised me to find this other runner making an effort to stay ahead of me. Funnier still was when I got even closer to her, and overheard her telling the runner just in front of her:
"Pick up the pace! Pinkie's closing in on us!"
At first I didn't know what she was talking about, then I realized (looking down at the pink long-sleeved top I was wearing) she must've been referring to me, and the fact that I was managing to gain some distance on them with each downhill stretch. Look out! Here comes Pinkie!
These last two miles were gorgeous: all beautiful singletrack through aspen groves. The snow grew a bit thin and muddy in the last mile, but that hardly mattered, it was such a beautiful day. The final 0.2 miles were, once again, on the broader park terrain, and as quickly as that, the race was over! It was definitely a winter morning well spent, with beautiful scenery, good company, challenging terrain, and gorgeous weather. I could not have ordered up a better experience for my first snowshoe race, and encourage anyone who hasn't given snowshoe racing a try to strap on some snowshoes and give it a go.
Let it snow... and see you on the trail!