Monday, March 4, 2013

Snow Shoe is Good Shoe

"Holy crap that was tough."

It's been awhile since I've said that after a race.

This past weekend, I headed three hours north with Spartan Jim to Joe DeSena's back yard in Pittsfield, VT for PEAK's Snow Shoe Challenge.

This is the same Joe DeSena that co-founded the Spartan Race Series and the Death Race. The same Joe DeSena that completed the Vermont 100, the Lake Placid Ironman and the Badwater Ultra… all in one week.

The snow shoe challenge itself offers four different distances for those willing to step foot on Joe's mountain to test their pain tolerance: 10K, Half-Marathon, Marathon, and a mind boggling, 100 miler.

I'm convinced that they offer all of these different distances, so that most of the participants, especially the newbies, pick the half-marathon. Who wants to do JUST a 10K, but who's crazy enough to do a marathon? Forget the 100 miler. Nobody in their right mind would do that. Key terms being "in their right mind."

I of course, being a newbie to snow shoe racing, decided on the half-marathon distance. I seriously didn't know any better, and thought that this was a common distance. How hard could 13.1 miles on soft, white, fluffy snow be?

It did, however, take Jim weeks and weeks of arm twisting for me to finally give in and go with him. I was so hesitant (i.e. cheap) to go that I didn't even bother buying a pair of snow shoes, since I couldn't justify paying $200-300 for a decent pair of racing snow shoes for just one race. I was just relying on the good graces of Ben Nephew to come through.

I've always heard of Ben Nephew, and his racing accomplishments, but I never knew he was such a classy guy. I should have known better.

A week before the race, Ben, a good friend of Jim's, said that he would let me borrow a pair of his snow shoes. Ben was also heading up there, but to try to win the marathon.

Jim and I arrived at the race site around 6:45AM on race morning, and waited until the Pittsfield General Store opened up at 7AM to get some last minute supplies.

The general store is absolutely fantastic, and stocked with some of the best stuff around. I highly recommend checking it out if you're ever in the area, but just be ready to buy a lot of goodies.

Through Jim's Spartan connection we managed to get front row parking about 20 yards from the starting line at 7:30AM for what was originally scheduled to be an 8AM start.

The new start time for the half-marathon was now 8:30AM, which was a huge relief, since I still needed to register, relieve myself, find Ben, and then figure out how to use snow shoes.

I've only seen Ben in racing photos, and when I finally met him in person, I didn't realize that he was about my size. Very unassuming and an upstanding guy in real life. We quickly exchanged hellos and he pulled out a brand spanking new pair of racing snow shoes from his bag of tricks.

"Are these OK?" he asked.

"Hmmm, yeah," I responded.

I gladly took them and ran off like a giddy little school girl, and tried them on in the warmth of Jim's car.

It took me about 10 minutes to figure out that I was putting them on wrong, and another 10 minutes to figure out that I was still putting them on wrong.

It wasn't until about 8:15AM that I finally got them on correctly and ready to race.

While waiting for the start signal, I noticed that Junyong Pak (local 2:30ish marathoner and Toughest Mudder champ), was also gearing up for the half-marathon. My chances of winning the race went from 1% to about 0% in an instant.

Joe DeSena even made an impromptu offer of a Spartan season pass to anyone that could beat Pak. Good Luck!

Fortunately for me, this was also Pak's first snow shoe race and he too looked like he didn't know what he was doing. Perhaps he'll get attacked by a polar bear somewhere out on the course.

A few days before the race I had asked Dave Dunham and Mike Quintal for some snow shoe tips. They simply told me: don't overdress, don't start out too fast, and don't do not have fun.

Have fun. Checked!

I definitely wasn't nervous and it didn't feel like the start of a race to me. Everybody there was pretty laid back and almost resigned to their fate. Like cattle being led to their slaughter.

I think I wasn't nervous because I had no idea how long it should take me to complete this race, other than Jim telling me that it should be around your average marathon time. So I guess anything around three hours would have been decent for me, but I didn't let it play into my mindset throughout much of the race.

That's the one lesson that I learned from my failed attempt at the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile trail race: Don't set a time goal when you race something completely different for the first time. Just focus on finishing!

That and the fact that I didn't know what I was getting myself into.

To make sure that I didn't start out too fast, and get in everyone's way, I decided to start in the back of the pack with Jim.

We were finally off shortly before 8:30AM, and then we all came to a screeching halt.

There was an early bottleneck as everyone got onto the single track trail leading out from the start.

Let's try that again.

And we were off!

I stayed with Jim for the first half mile or so, telling him that I was just going to hang back and see how I felt and try to figure out these weird contraptions on my feet.

It wasn't long before I caught up and hitched myself to the back of a ten-person train as we started up the first of many climbs over the first three miles.

Like in trail running, I could have simply told the ones in front of me that I was passing on the left and they would have let me by, but being a newbie, I was hesitant to do so, fearing that I would pass them, exert precious energy doing so, and then hold them up later on.

I decided to just bide my time and take it easy for now.

During this time, I got use to walking in the snow shoes and mainly paid attention to my gear to make sure that there weren't any wardrobe malfunctions that would cause me issue over the span of the race.

The caravan soon thinned out to just four as we climbed higher and higher up the mountainside. Two miles into the race and we were close to 1000 ft of total ascent. There were points on the climb that I just stopped looking up, since it was pointless. We had at least another mile to go before we reached the summit.

We finally came to a clearing that was wider than single track, so I made my move past the four in front of me, and then started walking again.

Another god damn climb.

I looked at my Garmin and the total ascent so far was reaching 1500 ft.

(it's just one hill, twice)

It was nice, however, to finally move freely and without fear of tripping over someone else's snow shoes or get poked in the face by their hiking poles.

It almost felt like I knew what I was doing.

The snow shoes appeared to be functioning as they were supposed to, and I wasn't experiencing any unusual pains other than the burning in my calf muscles, which was expected with all of the slow climbing.

Also, my hips and hip flexors felt like they were ready to explode from my waist. Fortunately, I had spent the previous week strengthening my core and hips in order to work out some IT band issues that had been making my road running difficult. The hip exercises were definitely now helping me deal with the imbalance that you get while running with snow shoes on this type of terrain.

Surprisingly my IT band felt fine, and I was hoping that something like snow shoe running would help me get to the bottom of my IT band pains. They say that running on uneven terrain can help alleviate IT band issues. Could all this suffering to the top of a mountain in Vermont be the cure to a pain free road to Boston? Perhaps.

The few of us still strung together through three miles finally came upon an unmanned aid station, but all of the spigots on the water dispensers were frozen shut. I wouldn't be surprised if Joe DeSena himself had glued the spigots shut. So naturally I just grabbed a handful of potato chips and continued up the mountain.

I picked up the pace, and when I say I picked up my pace, I mean I went from a 20 minute mile to a 15 minute mile.

I could now see the overcast sky above me and the peaks of the surrounding mountains around me. I was nearing the top. Finally.

The top of the summit is marked by Joe's log cabin, which is basically an unheated shed where Joe spends a few nights a week pushing his body to its limits.

It had taken me an hour to get to the top. I figured that it would take me much less time to get back to the bottom for the start of my second loop.

At this point my Garmin showed 1500+ ft of ascent and only 400 ft of descent. The finish of the first loop was 1100 ft somewhere below me.

Oh boy.

I had plenty of energy to spare, but I still had to be careful with one more loop to go.

I cautiously picked it up as the descent came faster and steeper. I was still not as sure footed as I wanted to be in order to really start running.

It was around mile four that I took my first GU. I wanted to get ahead and stay ahead of the bonk curve before it was too late. A death march out here would not be fun.

I was starting to get into a nice rhythm when all of a sudden I came upon a very steep drop. Unfortunately, I did exactly what I would have done during a trail run: take a flying leap and continue on at the same pace. I tried that here and nearly paid a dear price.

After the jump my left snow shoe landed flat and suddenly slipped out from under me. My right leg bent back in a very awkward position under the weight of my body. I knew I was in trouble, but it was sheer luck that I didn't tear every fabric of my being on that fall.

I paused a moment. Not moving an inch to make sure that I didn't do any major damage. That was too close.

I decided not to do any more jumping, and played it safe the rest of the way down the mountainside.

I was beginning to pass others in the half-marathon, but was also passing others in the longer races, which didn't really make feel that warm and fuzzy inside.

Some of the these people had been out here for over 24+ hours, and here I was zooming by as fresh as the Prince of Bel-Air.

I was thankful, the whole time that I was out on the course, that Jim didn't talk me into signing up for the marathon or, god forbid, the 100 miler.

I safely made it back to base camp and checked in with the timers for the completion of my first loop in a time of 1 hour and 42 minutes.

While gorging on some more potato chips, I told the volunteers that I was going to hang out here as long as I could to ensure that I negative split the course.

I saw Ben Nephew come in and go right back out for his third loop of the marathon race. I guess he doesn't like potato chips.

Seeing Ben go back out at full speed inspired me to wipe off my greasy hands, eat some more chips, and follow right behind him.

There's something about looped courses that makes you not think straight. You can feel like crap the whole time that you are out on the course, but once you come back in at the end of a loop, you get a resurgence of energy and want to go back out there for one more. I guess this is the equivalent of being a junkie jonsing for one more hit. Just one more...

I was finally feeling confident in my snow shoe running abilities, and chasing Ben gave others the illusion that I was right on his tail in the marathon race. Yep. I'm only two laps behind him and going half the distance.

Out and up I went once more, but this time I was armed with a dangerous load of confidence.

The packs had thinned out a lot at this point, so that gave me long stretches of de-virginized snow to run on.

I confidently yelled out, "on your left!" each time I came up on anyone in my way.

I was really hustling back up the mountain now. I knew what to expect, where to take it easy, and when to drop the hammer.

My Garmin slowly ticked away the total elevation gain so far: 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000, 2200, 2400, 2600...

About 500ft from the top of my second and final ascent I ate the chia bar that I had bought at the general store earlier that morning.

Within a matter of five minutes of taking my last bite, I felt the most amazing surge of energy I've ever felt during a race.

These chia bars are for real!

I was hitting a 10 minute pace on some of the steepest sections of the course.


The people I passed were truly impressed and told me to keep it going.

I blasted to the top and checked my Garmin as I went by Joe's log cabin: 2 hours and 30 minutes. I managed to do the second ascent about 15 minutes faster than the first.

This was when I started thinking about possibly breaking the three hour mark.

30 minutes to cover a downhill 5k? I can do this!

I passed a few more people over the first mile of the descent, but then my left heel started to feel some pain.

It was one of the things that worried me before the race. Snow shoe gear rubbing in the wrong places.

Something wasn't right, but being inexperienced, I didn't know what. I even stopped and checked out my snow shoes, and everything looked fine.

I continued on for about another half mile at my breakneck pace.

And as fast as the recent surge came on, it quickly went away.

By mile 11 I was resigned to a walk that would soon turn into a death march.

Part of it was that I didn't want to do any more damage to my heel, knowing that a pretty bad heel blister would make the next four weeks of Boston training a disaster.

All of the people that I had passed earlier were now passing me.

"On your left!"

I gladly stepped to the side and let them through.

The three hour mark came and went at mile 12.

The same feeling of desperation that I felt at Rocky Raccoon washed over me.

The only difference was that I wasn't going to give up with the finish line less than a mile away.

I mustered all of the energy that I had left, blocked out the heel pain, and made my way back to the finish with some dignity.

I crossed the line in an unofficial time of 3 hours and 27 minutes. I didn't care. I finished.

"Holy crap that was tough."

(a thousand words)

Post Script

I got up early the next morning, drove out to mile 3 on the Boston Marathon course with Sully and Cody, and proceeded to run 23 miles at 6:50 pace.

More importantly, pain free.

I think this snow shoe race was exactly what I needed to kick my ass back into gear.

It's been awhile since I last wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, and those 13.1 miles in snowy Vermont did just that.

According to, I ran the Jones 10 Miler the previous weekend with a calculated VO2 Max of 57.

I need to be 60+ if I want to PR at Boston in six weeks.

I'm pretty certain that I'll be able to find that extra 3 points of VO2 by digging deep and pushing myself outside of that comfort zone, one more time.


  1. Actually laughed out loud at a couple points, and loved the whole writeup. A great debut in a new event isn't even mildly surprising, well done as always J!

    Dumbfounded by 23 @ 6:50 the next day, your ability to recover is at superpower level.

    Heal that heel, you've got great things to do in SIX weeks.

  2. Great race recap, a very entertaining read!

  3. Nicely writeup! And just finishing a half for your first snowshoe race is crazy impressive...I've thought about a snowshoe 5k at times, but even that seems far on snowshoes!

    If you come run the Danvers5k one of these weeks you'll get to know Pak pretty well. He runs hard but has a lot of fun with week he offered a guy a 6 minute head start at the 5k, the loser had to eat a bag of Tea leaves. (Pak didn't have to eat the tea.)

    Then 2 days after he ran <2:40 in the sauna of Boston 2012, I decided to take my shot at beating him (he was running with his puppy and I thought he would be tired out from marathoning in that heat). Even with all that working against him, I still could only hang for 1 mile. The dude's an animal.