For a lot of us, running in the winter can be a challenging undertaking. Shorter days, cold weather, ice, and snow transform a straightforward, daily outing into a tedious affair. Conditions can be strenuous on the body with risks of strains or worse injuries at every bend in the trail. Winter can also be demanding psychologically even for the most motivated runners. When I used to live in Portland, Oregon, I would get up in the dark to run in the rain on slushy, muddy trails, then head to work before finishing my evening again in the dark and rain on a second run or the commute home. I did this pretty religiously for three years straight and it about broke me. What I have realized in hindsight is that winter was not so much the issue, rather was the persistent need and commitment to running regardless of conditions or season.
This winter, I have made a conscious effort to switch things up and be more mindful of not just slogging out the miles on dicey trails and roads. I have started backcountry skiing, which allows for fantastic access to the high mountains and some hard-earned downhill excitement. While the Front Range does get a fair amount of snow, the peaks also get hit hard with wind making skis not always the most adequate tools to roam the hills. For that reason, I have also been getting out a lot on my snowshoes. To me, snowshoeing is to skiing, what scooters are to bicycles–generally less efficient, awkward and kind of silly-looking. In the right conditions though, they can be very practical, fun, and certainly provide one heck of a workout. I am also fortunate to have some excellent snowshoe trails available in close proximity at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. That and the fact that running on the racquets pleasantly reminds of time spent in Alaska has had me engaging in the activity a fair amount these past couple months. I was therefore excited to take part in the Sourdough 30k snowshoe race, an event organized on my backyard trails with plenty of slogging and friendly banter guaranteed.
I woke up late the morning of the race, chugged down a coffee, and swallowed toast, eggs, and a bowl of cornflakes. I do not like being rushed through breakfast, but living in close proximity to the start made my early morning organizational skills a bit too casual. I quickly found race director Kevin Lund at the Sourdough MRS trailhead and gave him my release form. A good crowd of about 70 people was already gathered and ready to run either the short course to Brainard Lake Trailhead and back (11.4 miles) or the long one which included a lollipop loop on the north Sourdough for 30k round trip. Geoff Roes was still debating which distance to run in his first comeback race after nearly two years off. Given his natural ability on the racquets and experience, I figured he could win either one. I have a fond memory of Geoff winning the Chuckanut 50k several years back, beating 2:18 marathoner Mike Smith (on the creek no less), after having spent the winter doing little more than snowshoeing around Nederland. That type of talent does not go away and I was particularly happy to see Geoff on the start line.
The first couple miles of the race are gradual uphill, on good, hard-packed trail. Even on a decent track with light racquets, it can be difficult to find a good rhythm on snowshoes. The slightest acceleration sends my heart rate and breathing through the roof, while walking is not really efficient for such a shallow uphill grade. So, I fall into this awkward clickety-clack plod, paying attention to lift my feet up enough so as not to catch a cleat in the snow. I settle in behind my friend, Jeff Valliere,who I know is running the short race and another guy with waxed mustache, who I am not sure which distance he is running. Regardless, anyone sporting that type of facial hair has to be taken seriously. I feel sluggish from a big week of training and trying to digest my breakfast, but keep the duo in sight nearly to the first aid station (the short race turnaround point). I cannot hear or see anyone else behind me. Both come charging back at me, so I am now alone, leading the 30k race onto the northside loop. Truly, though, I never quite feel alone on snowshoes. The clapping of shoe on board accompanies each stride. Snow frequently flicks up to my neck, tricking the mind into a chilly pattern of thinking you are being followed. And, well, I am being followed. How far back the next person is I have no clue. A couple of miles from the aid station, heavy trail usage dissipates, leaving place to a less tracked path through the snow, covered by a recent layer of slippery sugar. The quick, early pace, deteriorating snow conditions as well as some short, steep uphill grunts have me wallowing through this section. I eat a couple of mouthfuls of snow to help ingest a gel while trying to keep up a decent moving pace. Despite my low energy, this is my favorite part of the course, having a remote feeling and enchanting quality to it.
Once back on the hard-packed trail, everything feels easier and I finally start to hit my stride without extra effort. The trail is churned up from all the racers, but it does not feel difficult to run anymore. I figure that if I just keep moving, even relaxing the pace a little, it is doubtful that I will be caught. The last few miles are the most enjoyable for me of the whole day with gradual, fast downhilling all the way to the finish. I am not surprised to see Geoff come in right behind me. Had I known we were close, it would have been nice to run it in together. We enjoy a couple of beers in the unseasonably warm weather at the finish line. I am ecstatic for him to run well and feel his full health coming back. I love everything about this type of event with the community, atmosphere, and camaraderie being a big part of why I enjoy running races. Kevin Lund and his elves have put together a wholesome, fun, and challenging event to keep us honest in our training and share some good moments on the trail. I am thankful for that and something a little different to keep the fire burning during the winter.