Snowshoe Racing: My Off Season Challenge

Last December I was flipping through the latest issue Trail Runner magazine, and came across a listing of National Snowshoe Association snowshoe races. The first race on the 2015 schedule was in a small town in northern Wisconsin, near where my grandfather lives. I learned that this 10k in Minocqua, WI could qualify me for the National Championship Half Marathon. I was long overdue for a visit up north to see him, so this felt like a good excuse for entering the race. I had been back country snowshoeing for several years and the idea of running on snowshoes seemed really hard to me. But as a trail runner this is what I go for - a challenge. Moose Tracks 10k race start

I registered for the Moosetracks 10k in Minocqua, WI, and bought my racing snowshoes. I had about 3 weeks until the race to train, but southern Wisconsin hadn't gotten any snow yet. I had zero opportunities to try out my snowshoes, except for the one time that I ran around our yard on the frozen grass, just to know what it felt like to have the things on my feet. I was also injured during December and I knew that I wasn't going to be in the best shape, but I was confident that I could at least be competitive in the race.

Moose Tracks 10k - January 4

It was 4 degrees with a windchill of -12 when the 10k started at 11am, I counted my articles of clothing: 14! There was 5 inches of fresh powder - nice conditions for downhill skiing or snowboarding - but super hard to run in snowshoes. Racing snowshoes are smaller than back country snowshoes and don't hold the weight of your body above the snow as well.

I went out with the leaders and tried to stay at the front of the pack. The snow was so fine that the stampede of racers whipped up a huge snow cloud making it hard to see and got snow down my neck gator. Only a half mile into the race my muscles were screaming and I quickly realized I was going too fast, but we were already into a single track stretch. I would have had to get off the trail to let racers pass, or suck it up princess and do my best to go with the flow of traffic. I sucked it up. Since it was so cold, my snowshoes glided under fluffy piles of snow making the weight of lifting my leg really heavy.

The course was two laps of a 5k loop. The second loop was much better than the first because the snow was packed down by the racers that came through behind me. That's the problem with being at the front of a snowshoe race on fresh snow - you are using your energy to stomp down the trail while trying to move fast. Once the trails were easier to run, I was actually able to really enjoy the beauty of running through the woods blanketed in snow. I felt like a woodland creature bounding through a deep forest. I finished 3rd, the second place woman beat me by 15 seconds. I left the race feeling pretty good about the whole experience and I was now qualified for the National Championship Half Marathon.

Pretending not to be nervous before the Half Marathon.

I ran a really good 50k a few weeks before the half marathon. This boosted my confidence for the snowshoe race, maybe a little too much. We had snow that I could have trained on, but I didn't bother. The two nights leading up to the half marathon I spent away from my kids. This was the longest I had ever been away from Mischa, my 15 month old baby. The extra sleep was amazing and I am going to remember this for racing in the future.  Sleeping away from my family won't always be possible, but getting to bed at 8pm instead of my usual 11pm certainly is.

My race started at 9am and the weather was great, 25 degrees and overcast. But there wasn't a whole lot of snow in Eau Claire, WI where the Championships were held. This fact would make the trails much easier to run for everyone. The half marathon was the last race of the weekend, so the course was packed down by the 5k and 10k events held the day before.

Focusing on a hill.

There were 68 racers from 16 states. This was a small, but serious group of snowshoers, almost all more experienced than me in the sport. I was counting on my trail running skills to save me.  I went out near the front of the pack. I knew there was a quite a bit of double track, so I didn't worry about getting stuck behind racers going too slow. The leaders went flying out at the gun! I got a sinking feeling that I was way out of my league. I stuck to a steady pace, focusing on the clickety clack of my snowshoes slapping on the crusty snow. This course was two laps of a 10k, so I would assess my situation at the halfway point.

Around mile 5, I was ready to start passing girls. Passing on single track is a big commitment on snowshoes - cruise up behind the racer ahead, announce my desire to pass, accelerate past my opponent, continue accelerating while not showing my urge to stop and lay down in the snow, once ahead of the racer try to recover my heart rate and return to a sustainable pace. I did this to three women. This put me in 5th place, where I stayed for the rest of the race. Once I got a strong lead on the girls behind me I focused on just finishing the dang race.

Racing alongside snowshoe legend Jim "Braveheart" McDonell.

Running hills on snowshoes is not something I enjoy, but maybe with more training I could learn to like it. The fact that I didn't put any training in before this 13 mile race really destroyed my calf muscles. The race was one week ago and I am still not able to walk down stairs straight - I have to walk sideways which is hard when I am carrying the children.

I was the 5th woman over the finish line. This earned me a silver medal in the open division! My mom was there at the race with me and when I crossed the finishing mat and they announced Jonnah Perkins, 31, from Black Earth Wisconsin, our 5th place female, I could see tears welling up in her eyes. This race was not the hardest race that I've competed in, but I think that she was proud of me for finding a new sport and going for it. As we left the race to make our drive home she said, Jonnah, you are a national silver medal holder in the sport of snowshoeing.

The Hunter and the Hunted

I spend 5 to 9 hours a week training. Whether I'm running, spinning, or doing other conditioning, I have this solitary time alone to think, and I use these hours to prepare myself mentally for racing. I enter some races just for the training opportunity - mostly shorter distances, but for longer events - marathon and above, the plan is to try to win. I have yet to take 1st place in any race, but I have quite a few 2nd and 3rd place finishes. I have been trying to decide for the past few months whether it is more stressful to be pursued by runners from behind or to be in the agonizing position of trying to catch the girls ahead of me. On the top of the mountain - it took me over an hour to make it to mile 6.

Last week I took 3rd place in the Sean O'Brien 50k in Malibu Creek State Park. This is a more competitive race than I have ever been part of, the course has a lot of elevation gain and is more technical than anything I had ever run. I was confident that I could finish the race, but I wanted to know if I could compete on a higher level. Going into it I decided that I was going to place top 5 - winning was ideal but not likely since I had no experience with the course and was coming off of an injury.

I spend a lot of time running alone in long races. The runners fan out and I can really dig in and do my own thing. When I hear foot steps on my tail I am always relieved to see a guy. In competitive running, the boys race the boys and the girls race the girls. That means that men are my friendly, supportive allies. In all of the ultra marathons I have raced, male runners have helped me stay focused and kept me company. In a 50k last July, once I knew I was in second place, I asked for help from a group of dudes to keep me going strong. Two ran ahead of me and three ran behind to keep my pace faster than I would have done alone. At Sean O'Brien, one of my racing fellows even cued me into how close the girls were behind me.

The Sean O'Brien 50k course is an out and back - we ran 15.5 miles and turned around and ran back to the start/finish line. This means that the entire first half of the race was a reconnaissance mission for the second half, when the race really started. From a strategic point of view this was great. I could see which parts of the course would challenge me and plan accordingly. It also put me face to face with my competition. I counted how many girls were ahead of me (2) and saw how close the girls were behind me, and if they looked like they were hurting or not. But it was soul crushing to fly down big descents only to know that I would be climbing those same hills on my way out.

SOB 50k course and elevation profile

Going into the race, I had no idea how my legs would hold up to the elevation gain - with 6200 feet of gain and loss, my quads and hamstrings would work harder than they ever had. Two miles into the course, I knew there was a hill that would take me all the way up the mountain - about 1500 feet in 3 miles. Climbing is not a strength of mine, so I planned to speed hike a lot of this. I had my new Ultimate Direction running pack so I would carve off time at aid stations - all I did at each of the six stops was eat a few potato chips, drink mountain dew/coke, restock water, and get the hell out of there. The week before the race I outlined a strategy and mostly stuck to it:

  • Run my own race until I get to the first aid station on the top of the big climb (mile 6.8) - prioritize efficiency over speed getting up the hill. Keep my head down and don't worry about anyone ahead of me.
  • Once I pass the first aid station, move fast to establish myself as a leader.
  • Get to the turn around at mile 15.5 in 2hrs and 40min or less (if I ran even splits, this would bring me across the finish at the same time as the 2014 winner).
  • After the mile 20 aid station, focus on catching girls ahead of me - if possible.
  • Save some energy in case of an emergency.
  • Finish in the top 5 girls.
  • Complete the above without needing medical attention.

Climbing alone.

I followed through with almost all of my plans. I ran and hiked that first big climb several girls back from the front, but I put myself in third place at the first aid station. I stayed in 3rd for the rest of the race - I wasn't able to catch anyone ahead of me, but holding onto 3rd felt like enough of a challenge. The oppressive fear of the pack of girls coming up from behind me felt stronger than the hunger for chasing down the competition ahead of me. I made it to the turn around point in 2 hours and 32 minutes but my splits were not even. This was a good pacing guideline though because it helped me get a good lead. I planned on bombing down the big descent at the end of the race but my quads were gone, my left hamstring was cramping, and my right leg wasn't lifting off the ground very well. I went down at a humble 9 minute mile pace. While I was polishing off the final up-hill switch backs with two miles left in the race, I spotted a girl a few hundred feet back. I could feel my blood pressure rise and goose bumps covered my skin - I ran for the finish faster than my half marathon pace - right around 7 minute miles.

Racing makes me feel alive like an animal in nature. Although I am not running for my life, I feel a primal drive to evade my competition and a deep longing to run down those who are faster than me. Once we come across the finish line, we are friendly and compare stories from the course, but within the parameters of the race I am a hunter and I am prey.

Off the Trail

Living in Wisconsin, the trails I run are either through woods or prairie - or the boulder fields at Devil's Lake State Park. It's pretty hard to loose the trail without noticing. For the last three years I have been coming to the Sedona area to escape winter, and do some warm weather running. One of my most underdeveloped trail running skills is having a sense of direction, so it's no surprise that every year I get completely lost on at least one of my runs. Trail or dried creek bed? Trail.

The terrain in the Coconino National Forest around Sedona is strikingly different from the thick woods and open prairies of southern Wisconsin. Much of it is bare and exposed with cacti and low, scrubby bushes. Pines and oak grow thick in the canyons. But that's the problem - it all starts to look the same after a few miles. A creek bed looks an awful lot like a trail and so do paths stomped out by local runners and hikers. If you are looking down at the rocks or up at the view, it's easy to wander off of charted trails.

Three years ago, Jesse and I drove out west for the first time. We were both getting into trail running and I had a marathon in Death Valley National Park so we decided to check out the area. We camped in the cold Oak Creek Canyon, and spent days running trails and playing with Paavo. I was completely unprepared for the labyrinth of unmarked trails and dry creek beds. On my first  run, I relied on verbal directions from Jesse and ended up miles off course. I left for my run in early afternoon with plenty of time to get back before dark. At the top of Brins Mesa I trotted along the edge of a rock out cropping that had clear foot prints and mountain bike tire tracks. A half hour later I was wandering down a chilly creek bed and the sun was going down really fast. I only had a hand held water bottle with no room for a phone. I kept thinking I saw a trail just ahead only to find more of the same looking rocks. Eventually I turned around and made it back to the truck just before sunset - I was scared and cold.

Trail or dried creek bed?  Dried creek bed.

Last year my mom brought my 3 month old daughter and me to Sedona for a long weekend. We needed some quiet time and sunshine after a bitter cold winter in Wisconsin. I was out of shape and dying to get back on the trail. My first run out I took a wrong turn and headed up a dead end trail. As the path narrowed I kept thinking if I could just get up a little higher I could see where I was. Eventually I was using both hands to climb a canyon wall. When I reached the top, it had been over two hours since I left Mischa and I really needed to get back to her. All I could see was another tier of canyon that looked the same. Climbing down, I was shaky and anxious to get out of there, not sure I could remember which rock and dirt and path to take. That run lasted twice as long as planned - I got back to our apartment exhausted and stressed from being away from my baby for so much longer than I had planned.

Jesse got me an Ultimate Direction running pack for Christmas. Now I can carry my phone, maps, snacks, and extra water. I was sure this year I would not get lost - I would understand my course and pay attention to the trail. I even took a picture of the map with my phone to reference if I felt turned around. First day out, I was on the last leg of my run when I took a direction from a chatty hiker who told me about a pass that would give me some cool views. Yeah, sure. Let's do it! I headed up Cibola Pass and found the landmark barbed wire fence she told me to watch for. Then the trail went cold - where did it go? I followed a narrow path that went up to a plateau then another. I decided that if my legs are getting scratched by cactus and brush or I need to use my hands to climb or my butt to scoot down on, I'm off the trail. For some reason I kept going. I came out onto a beautiful, flat rock that dropped away on three sides. I knew I would be late getting back to the trail head to meet Jesse and the kids so I had to check in.

I held out as long as I could before calling Jesse. When he answered, there was a long silence. I could see him rolling his eyes and holding back his playful annoyance. 'You ran this exact stretch two years ago. Just take Jordan Trail back to Soldiers Pass - it's just over a mile.' Jesse has an incredible memory for maps, trails, and geographical details that most people wouldn't remember for more than a few minutes. 'Yeah, I'll just backtrack and get back to the last place I remember, cool. See you in about 15 minutes.' I feigned confidence that I would be able to differentiate one dusty path from another.

As I stood there on the edge of that rock, I waited for my fear of heights to kick in - it never did. I sat down and dangled my feet over the edge and looked at my watch. I would give myself three minutes to enjoy the silence before racing back to the truck. I know that I will go off the trail again, but now I appreciate the experience of being lost. Part of the adventure of trail running far away from home is finding your way back.

The Humility of Dropping Down

Every serious runner has to face the reality of not being ready for a race. It happened to me for the first time last month. I plan my training around races so I register as far out as I can - this keeps me motivated and inspired. In September I ran my first 50 mile and it was awesome. I went into the event hoping to finish and I came out 6th female overall. I went home and found my next 50 mile - Sean O'Brien 50 in Malibu Creek State Park on February 7. Our family was planning a road trip out to California anyway so this was my chance to run an ultra outside of Wisconsin. Jonnah on Appalachian Trail

In November, Jesse and I drove the kids down to North Carolina to stay in a cabin near Asheville. After the farm season wraps up we like to get away and enjoy full days of no work, and a lot time with the kids and on the trail. The Appalachian mountains are AMAZING to run. If you get the chance, I highly recommend you give it a try. With hundreds of miles of single track just minutes from our cabin, Jesse and I took turns running while the other hung out with Paavo and Mischa. I ended up running over 40 super vertical miles in 4 days. During my runs, I felt some strain in my calves but I attributed this to not running very many hills leading up to the trip. Turns out, my calf muscle was pulling way from my shin bone - medial tibial stress or more commonly known as shin splints. What!? I had just come off of a season of good races - how could I get shin splints now?

The trail crosses a river in the Pisgah National Forest.

After exhaustive internet research I concluded the following: I needed to rest until the soreness went away. When I returned to running I should increase mileage gradually. That is not what a runner training for a 50 wants to hear. I was planning on being competitive and I needed to get my miles way up. Upon the advice of my chiropractor (completely amazing man - you know who you are:)) and physical therapist, I started doing runs longer than 5 miles a few weeks ago.

This last week I ran over 40 miles pain free so I think this means I'm back in the game but my race is in 12 days. This is about the time I am supposed to start my taper, not the when I should be putting miles on. I don't know why it took me so long to realize that 50 miles is not in the cards for right now. I guess as a runner I am hungry for challenges and this ambition can blind me from seeing the obvious right choice. The cool folks at Sean O'Brien dropped me into the 50k event. When I whined about it to my husband he reminded me that 50k is still over 30 miles and that the course is super challenging. I guess I can look at this as a lesson in listening to my body. But that's hard when so much of running hurts.

Just because it'ts not 50 miles doesn't mean it's not really, really hard.

We are heading out west in a few days and I will have glorious trails and tons of free time. I am going to skip my taper and indulge in the trails outside of Sedona - keeping in mind to back off if it feels wrong.