Thank you Hannah Clarke

Thank you Hannah Clarke

Monday, February 23, 2015

Snowshoe racing. Yep that's a thing!

So I heard of a weird and crazy thing happening in the next town over, called a snowshoe race. Let's think about that for a second.



Yep, it's basically a perfect combination of awkward footwear, keeping warm by any means necessary, and high risk racing with lots of falls. 

I had been thinking of getting to the snowshoe race on the weekend but I decided not to because I was busy with lab work, Popeye's chicken, bowling, and then out at the bars until close. I woke up though (a direct result of the fried chicken) about an hour and forty minutes before the race start, and it was a beautiful day. Plus I don't believe in hangovers. I tried calling a friend who was going, but they didn't answer so I did the logical thing; ate two Clif bars and started to run toward Westbrooke. 

To give a bit of context, that morning wasn't too cold (maybe -15C), but it had snowed the whole night before and as a result the roads and sidewalks weren't properly plowed. I figured that the run was probably about 15km, but that someone going to the race would pick up the guy who is running along the side of the road with snowshoes tied to his bag, right? Wrong.
This is not the face of a guy who may not be happy with his choices

People tell me frequently enough that I'm "crazy" when I tell them of some of the stuff that I do outdoors. This time I thought that I was a bit crazy or stupid too. I realized that to get to the race with no help I had to run at basically my race pace because of the snow. This sign was probably the best thing that I could imagine:
..but I still had a couple of Kilometers..
I got to the race just on time to sign up, but not with enough time to have a bathroom break that I desperately needed. Seriously that chicken.
When I got to the start line, the race organizers was just explaining that some crazy guy had run all the way from Queen's University, and was just in the bathroom so the race would start as soon as he was out.  I realized that there wouldn't be time for the bathroom, so I just got to the start line in time to hear the end of this. I raised my hand and let him know that I was there and the race could start. This was when I knew that I was in a good place - all of the racers (about 50) gave me a round of applause. It almost made the explosive pain in my gut go away. Almost. It did however give me the confidence to be quite assertive at the start of the 6.5km long race. Which looks exactly as funny as you hope it does.

I'm the guy in the white sleeves and green vest slotting into second place. I realized immediately that this was an ambitious thing to do, and if we hadn't been running through farm fields I may have actually pulled off to hide behind a treeline and relieve myself. One guy who I definitely knew to watch out for was my friend (who didn't answer his phone) Derek Snider, a very accomplished runner (having competed and raced internationally) and skier. He's also a pretty nice guy, so when I heard him come up behind me I just got right out of the way. This left me in third place, amazed at the pace of the guys ahead of me, and concerned about the real snowshoe racers behind me.

A snowshoe race obviously must follow a trail of some sort, so there was a very skinny trail packed through the bush. This is pretty hard to navigate on snowshoes, but you definitely want to stay on the trail, otherwise the more snow you're fighting through the harder it will be. In my rush to make it to the start line on time, I put my shoes on the wrong feet, which meant that the binding release was on the inside of my legs. Now, I either have massive calves, very little coordination running in snowshoes, the trail was too skinny, or some combination of all of these but I kept charlie horsing my calves on the snowshoes, causing some pretty serious brusing, and of course loosening of my snowshoe bindings. 
Bruised calves and fantastic PJs
I had fun being in a race situation again, and it was nice to be assertive and own that third position in the race. There was a guy trailing me, but I was in 3rd and the next closest person behind him was too far back to catch us-as long as nothing bad happened.
I talked a fair amount to him, trying to figure out what snowshoe racers were like and what other sports they do. After some fairly one sided conversation he asked me if I did ultra marathons which are basically day long races on your feet. I told him that I did if I felt like it, but not officially (planning on doing one this weekend). I was promptly informed that he's an Ironman Triathlete, and he does ultra marathons too. I guess that these snowshoe racers are pretty hard core!
I tested him by accelerating my pace a few times, and found that I could create a gap between us quickly enough, but I wasn't interested in holding that pace if I didn't have to (remember I had run an hour and a half in the snow just to get to the race). So I held down third place and enjoyed talking at my fellow competitor. I was too tired for my heart rate to go high enough to get me to the point of breathlessness, and I was enjoying what I was doing. No pressure, right?

Looking the part of a guy who's falling asleep in this one (thanks Robby Breadner for emailing the photo)

With just over a kilometer to go, I felt my left snowshoe completely come loose, but I figured that for that distance, I could get away with kind of dragging my left foot, and may still keep my podium finish. After a minute of foot dragging, we were caught by 5th place, and another 30 seconds or so later I totally lost my snow shoe. It was pretty sad, but I had to stop and re attach my snowshoe with my cold hands, and watch the other two run towards the finish (we probably had 800m till the finish). I still came in strong once I re-attached my snowshoe, with a good race smile on my face.
(thanks again Robby Breadner for the photo)
The race was a great experience, I was shocked that there were so many people taking part, and was more than happy with my 5th place finish - if I had wanted to win, I should have taken it more seriously; I went for the fun and enjoyed not being too competitive (and doing well) at a race where nobody knows me. One thing that struck me was just how challenging it is to run in snow with snowshoes. It's tough to balance, it's insanely hard on the calves, and the quads. Just so that everyone is aware, I have since built up a tolerance for Popeyes, so I can exercise and eat it, please don't judge. The real moral of the story here though is that sometimes we all have to do things and if you push yourself really hard, you may find a new sport or do something that you never really thought that you'd be able to do. Now I've got the taste for these races, and I've done more since.
Keep posted for more updates!

The person who caught me at the end of the race and place fourth was Lindsay, Derek's girlfriend and another very fast runner. Yep I got chicked, and I was lucky to have stayed ahead of her so long anyway!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Compasses, maps, and initials all day long

I'm sure that most athletes who have an almost unhealthy focus on a seasonal sport get into a routine in the off season that can seem a bit mundane at times. We all crave that exercise and competition, or even just something to do until it's time to compete in our respective sports again. For me, I just can't wait to ride bikes, my strategy as such is to book myself up entirely for every weekend until bike season is upon us again, and I have varying success in my endeavors. Last weekend I tried out for the Nordic ski team, but it's a very small, pretty elite race squad, and I'm quite new to the sport, so that was a flop. This weekend however, I had the opportunity to take part in an orienteering race through the snow.

A cool landmark in the race, I wonder how long it's been stuck for? (Brad Jennings Photo)

The concept is simple, one hour before start we are all given maps - this race spanned farm fields, forests, canals, creeks, ponds, swamps, rivers, drumlins, hydrolines, and even a university campus. The race format is teams of two, navigating in our own chosen order to try to make it to all of the 20 checkpoints and back in 3 hours. There are only 2 ways to get penalties - being late (penalty of 10 points per minute past the given 3 hours), and losing your punch card (penalty of 100 points). The 20 checkpoints in the race were worth anything from 20 points to the biggest which was worth 70 points, with their value assigned based on how far from the start finish that they are, how technical the terrain was that they are in, and how hard they are to find. Seems simple, right? Right. 

Measuring distances so that we can count steps and get there precisely

My buddy Kelsey and I were team Gnarvest, and friends Matt and Nichola joined as a co-ed team called Matata Hakuna. The race started off pretty well, and almost all of the teams went to checkpoint number 1 first. Then Kelsey and I deviated from the pack and ran straight down a steep ridge to start searching for checkpoint 3.  After number 3 we were the first to make it to checkpoint 20 (worth the most points) and as such I left a yellow C + K unavoidably close to the checkpoint as a calling card. This was a trend that I somehow managed to uphold for 5 of the 20 checkpoints, though admittedly the initials got smaller and smaller. 

Team Gnarvest - also did I mention that I"m always somehow #31? (Brad Jennings Photo)

We got a bit mixed up and lost in the northern boundary of the map for what seemed like forever, but eventually got our bearings and got up to checkpoint number 5, which was inside a massive cedar tree. This is where things went bad for us
"Hey Chris, pass me the punchcard"
"Dude you had the punchcard"
"You're right, Uh oh."
Now we were on the hunt for a white punchcard in the snow, which could have been anywhere as we had run probably 2km since the last time that we punched it. We gave a solid effort of backtracking and scanning the ground, desperately looking for the punchcard as the other teams kept finding checkpoints and filling in theirs. Eventually we just had to call it and get back on track, we figure that we could just punch the map, and if we went really really fast we may be able to still cover a lot of ground.

We may have screwed things up, but at least our uniform was on point
(Just had to get rid of the turtle necks) (Brad Jennings Photo)

This extra pressure brought Kelsey and I to another level of speed (our fastest km in the 3 hour, 20km race was 4:18 on snow and ice) and focus, using the compass and map to pinpoint our next destination with surprising accuracy.

Teamwork and interpretive dance (Brad Jennings Photo)
With Matata Hakuna, teamwork never looked like so much fun (Brad Jennings Photo)

Teamwork was necessary in a lot of different ways during this race; and we did a great job working together. When the bush got too thick we would leapfrog and point a bearing to a tree if we couldn't keep a straight line, re adjusting as we went. Kelsey even helped me up some of the icy hills (his shoes have carbide spikes in them, where mine do not), these were fun times because we got to hold hands and run up hills together <3.  We crossed over frozen water, through the locks north of Peterborough, over tall barbed wire fences, through thick bush, and back to Trent University to be the second team back, managing to get to all checkpoints with 11 minutes to spare. Being the second team back, we got to cheer our friends in.

Kels and I aren't that cute

After the points were tallied (and our 100 points were deducted), it was quite close, but Kelsey and I came out on top with a 10 point lead over second place. Matata Hakuna explored their way into third place for the day, and we all felt pretty great. We worked hard for it, and it was pretty sweet to get to do such a fun race like this, Sure we got soakers, and it was a bit frustrating sometimes being unable to find the checkpoint or being too far off, but we didn't give up and were the only team to get to every checkpoint. Afterward we had a massive sushi lunch at an all you can eat sushi place in Peterborough, and I can't think of a better ending to any story.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Early winter Adirondack trip

I'm sure that everyone has a couple of friends that tend to get them in over their heads. I mean we always have a crazy good fun time, and it's always worth it, but lots of lessons are learned along the way. There was of course the last Adirondack trip, or the impromptu obstacle race, and now backpacking in the snowcovered Adirondacks again. It was another one of those Thursdays, you're not quite sure what you're doing this weekend and you get the call. We had been thinking of doing a trip to the Adirondacks, but there's that transition season between when it's cold, but still traversible with regular gear, and when there's enough snow that you an grip the mountain side again. That window in between is just icy, and not ideal for a big trip.
Luckily for us, the Adirondacks were just getting tons of snow, and conditions were prime for a winter camping and backpacking trip in the mountains. My friends came up Friday night to Kingston and did the responsible thing of going to a party and being DD. After a late night, we got up quite early that morning and headed straight for the border in Kelsey's new car. The border guard was less than impressed with the vomit all over the side of the car (by-product of being DD), but I guess that really wasn't a good enough reason to keep us out of the country.
Cleaning off the side of the car upon arrival just outside of Lake Placid
The first day of hiking we managed 3 different mountains, and had fantastic conditions. Sure it was quite windy at the top, and the fresh snow led to a soaker only an hour in for me, but at least it wasn't too cold to manage!
Nicer conditions when you're still in the tree cover
Hanging out in these winds at the tops of the mountains was fun, but cold!

Coming down these trails was some of the most fun and hard to control hiking/running that I had ever done. The goal is always speed, and the trails are so steep that running down the hills ends up being almost like freefalling down the mountain, planting your feet where you get the opportunity to steer yourself and slow down a little bit. Then having a big pack loaded on your back puts you a bit off balance, so it's all about calculated risks and trying to keep up I guess! 

Walking up the creeks made for extreme danger of soakers

the trails that we had planned to tackle to get up the summits of the mountains had a general trend: they were partially frozen creeks. The area that we were is a conservation area in the mountain range, so as opposed to cut a lot of nice big trails up the mountains, some trails follow creek beds. This makes for the added challenge extra steep and unpredictable trail, as well as the odd wet foot hole. But the views were always worth it.

Stretching it out on the mountain top in front of the stunning scenery

After a couple of different mountain climbs we were all still smiling, not really wearing out too much yet, and Kelsey mentioned how we had had such a great, relaxed day. Matt reminded him that we had been almost running through snow for about five and a half hours, wow, time flies. 

We hunkered into a "lean to" for the night, and I wasn't sure what I was expecting. I knew what I was afraid that a lean to would be, but surely it wouldn't be so bad. 
Cute, right?
And with a view! 
We were starting to get cold after close to 8 hours of hiking in the snow, stopping only to eat chocolate bars, and this didn't seem like a very warm place to be. Luckily I had some dehydrated food and Jack Daniels to warm me up.

It turned out that I was sorely unprepared for the sleeping part of winter camping. JD led me into a false sense of warmth, but my sleeping mat had a hole in it which didn't help, and my sleeping bag was a 3 season bag, plus I only brought stuff that keeps you  warm while you're running, and a flannel shirt. We hunkered in for sleep around 6pm, and got up at 7:30, which is a long time to be in the cold without moving. Precautions that one must take when they've sunken a boot into water, or are doing crazy endurance stuff is to make sure that the boots are not a frozen block in the morning, and to do the same for your water bladder. This means that inside my sleeping bag was me, my boots, and my water bladder. Outside my sleeping bag was the great outdoors, and something like -20C.

By the time the dawn came up I had waited patiently, contemplating every possible piece of gear that I would bring to the next winter camping trip - or just to go bury myself in the snow for the night. I got us up a the crack of dawn, and we got ready to make some oatmeal and get moving. Unfortunately we forgot the oatmeal, so it was another day of eating chocolate bars, my favourite!

We walked down to the nearest creek, broke through the ice and started filling our bladders with water for the day. my hose froze in a couple of minutes, so in order for e to have access to water that day, I had to keep the whole bladder inside my coat next to my body. Once we got moving, it took several hours, but my right foot stopped being so numb! This was a bonus.
Watch the ledge! Cool canyon that we hiked alongside in the morning.

It took us more than 40 minutes to hike to the sunlight, but it was a beautiful clear day!
The thing about such a wonderful, clear day is that it is inevitably cold. And windy. It was so exciting to actually see around me this day, and not have whiteout conditions, and the 100km/h gusts at the top of the mountains were something that I hadn't experienced either.
Kelsey leaning into the wind, Matt looking the other way

Bros on the top of a mountain

Looking forward (we climbed this steep stuff for an hour)

Looking back (so steep of a slope that the trees aren't really in the way of nice pictures)

I seriously enjoyed this trip, and the frost bite and lost toenail are a small price to pay to be introduced to such a great winter passtime. I've invested in some proper stuff to camp with and backpack in the winter, and next time, I'll be ready!