Center Sandwich, NH is hard to find. Well, not really, but it felt like the other side of the universe, even though it only took me a little over two hours to get there. After a few minutes of thinking I would never get there, I finally arrived about 55 minutes before race start. I grabbed a potentially towable, certainly jerky parking space almost on the walkway to the Center Sandwich Library and headed to registration.
The mood around registration was somewhat comical. On top of the fact that it was cold—even cold for a snowshoe race—the official word on the course change was out. Due to Monday's monsoon, the snowpack in the woods was not suitable for racing. So, instead of the allegedly groovy course over the hills and through the woods past grandmother's house (literally), the course was laps around the fairgrounds. Three laps to be exact. The three laps brought the total distance to 5.2 miles, which according to my math is longer than the advertised 4. That being said, Paul, the race director, did a fantastic job of creating an interesting and fun course out of nothing. He found/made some good singletrack and even found a hill. Granted, that hill saw us running to the top of the leach field, but it still counted as a hill. Even though it wasn't the original course, which would have been fun, I have to admit that the lack of major climbs and fast surface really suited me. I was able to find my rhythm and stay in it. Well, as best you can in a snowshoe race. The singletrack sections felt like running in sugar. One section was sugar over a swamp, and with each lap it got browner and browner and browner as more swamp bubbled to the top. Running in brown sugar is hard, too.
At the start, I thought I lined myself up fairly conservatively: third row. But, as Paul gave the command for the race to start, the vacuum sucked me right out. After 400 meters, I looked up, and I could still easily see the front runners and was near the front myself. "Whoooaaaa, big fella!" A couple people went by me, but I just stayed relaxed. And, surprisingly, quite comfortable. Admittedly, going into the race, I was a touch nervous how I would feel after feeling kind of flat and tired for the second half of the week. I spent a good twenty minutes on the foam roller on Friday night, and I felt shockingly frisky on my warm up. OK, let's keep rolling...literally.
Going through the swamp singletrack, I did the second most athletic thing I have ever done in my life. (The first being when I caught and tracked a Norwegian skier from UVM on a hill during a cross country ski race in college. It was EPIC.) There were three other racers right on my heels, when I tripped on something unseen. I knew that there was a 100% chance that I was going to get trampled and cause a massive pile up. As I was going down, I somehow managed to roll to my left out of the singletrack into the "soft" snow. I looked up as the three runners went by unscathed. It was just like in the movies, when the hero nearly gets run over by a truck, rolls to safety, looks up intently and watches it speed away. Just like that. At the finish, the guy who was right on my heels at the time ended up finishing just behind me, and all his oxygen-deprived brain could come up with was "Hey, you're the guy that went down on the first lap. Man, that roll was awesome!" Or, at least that's what my oxygen-deprived brain heard. But, trust me, it was indeed awesome.
After the fall, I managed to get up and get back on the train. The fall happened so suddenly, it didn't throw me at all. I went through the first lap in 12:40. Because I'm a runner geek, I was so tempted to hit the split button on my watch. I refrained. On the second lap, I just stayed steady. It was nice to be a bit spread out after the first lap because where the new snow had drifted across the course, it was like running through a cold smoke screen. Every time the runner in front of you hit the fresh drifts, it was cold enough to sting your face. My split for to laps was 26:12, a 13:32. "Hmmm...I could break 40:00. Hmmm. Wow. Really? Let's do this."
Just before the close of the second lap, I passed a couple guys, and started to close on a third. I really wanted to run the last lap hard and not back off. Heading around the field that made up the first section of the lap, I feebly passed the aforementioned third guy. I stayed ahead for a bit, but he was a bit stronger in the singletrack, and he passed me back and pulled away a bit. Going into the final swamp singletrack, I caught another runner and stayed just behind him the whole way. I wish I'd been able to get him before the singletrack because he was going a touch slower than I would have liked, but not slow enough that I could get around him. Plus, I was in the hurt locker at this point. It's hard to run at that pace on snowshoes for that long. I passed him just as we came out of the singletrack, and the runner who had caught us also tried to go by me. I put in a short surge just enough to put him behind me for good. In the last stretch to the finish, there was a close to 90° turn that gave you good opportunity to scope out the competition behind you. The guy in front of me did just that, and I thought, "If you're looking, I got you." I put my head down and opened it up. Apparently, he did the same because I never got any closer. I didn't look back at the turn because I really was focused on the guy in front of me. (That's a really good racing sign for me.) I said to myself, "If anyone's going to catch me, they're really going to have to earn it." No one did, and I finished in 30th place in 39:21. A 13:09 last lap that really hurt, and a 7:34 per mile pace, which is shockingly fast for me.
Overall, this was my best race so far. (So far.) Certainly, the course and conditions helped, but I raced well. Simply: I'm getting into race shape. My place was worse than at Pooh Hill, but the top end of this field was much deeper, since this race was also the qualifier for Nationals. The top end of the field was fast...really fast. (Speaking of fast, congrats to Kevin on his second win of the season.) In order to qualify for Nationals, you need to be in the top 5 of your age group and be a member of USSSA. Going into the race, I figured I had a really, really outside shot of qualifying, but it was a moot point. The race is in Syracuse, and I have a work commitment that same weekend. So, even if I did qualify, I couldn't go. With that in mind, I decided to save the $30, and not become a member of USSSA before the race. But, looking at the results, it appears I finished 4th in my age group (35-39, since it's based on your age on 12/31/10) and would have qualified. Cool. Oh well, maybe next year.
The madness continues next weekend in Exeter. Apparently, this course is all singletrack, so it should be a lot of fun.
Great photos of the race from Jamie Gemmiti.