Thank you Hannah Clarke

Thank you Hannah Clarke

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Adirondack super awesome shred gnarliness: the path less traveled

Adirondacks March 2015 from Matthew Farquharson on Vimeo.

Different people have different tactics for getting to through the winter, I'm all about embracing winter for a period of time, then forcing it out of my life. One way I like to do this is give it a good wrap up weekend; "Hey winter, let's have fun one last time, then see you in November, okay?". I decided to plan a trip in the Adirondacks and invite all of my friends! Matt. I love you buddy.
I got confirmation that I had a travel partner at noon on Friday, while gorging myself at an all you can eat buffet for students, Matt was coming and he'd be at my place around midnight.
Around 1:30 Matt showed up, we finalized our route plans, and went to bed at about 2 (I was too excited to sleep actually) and we woke up at 5:30am to get an early start on a big trip (Noonmark Mountain, Dix Mountain, Beckhorn, Hough Peak, South Dix Mountain, East Dix (Gracie) Mountain and Macomb Mountain on day 1, followed by a massive hike around Elk Lake to the next range where we would do Pinnacle Mountain, Blake Peak, Mt. Colvin, over Elk Pass to Nippletop Moutain, then Dial Mountain, and Finally Bear Den Mountain before a big hike out to the car.). We didn't look too hard but it seemed to be something like 2 20km days and about 13 mountains or something. Time to sleep.

The first mountain (Noonmark Mountain) was 75% incredible, the whole way up was really nice and challenging, but once we were about 3/4 of the way up, we were above the ceiling (in the clouds), and couldn't see much. We quickly found out that down could be a lot more fun, and started running and jumping to a slide on our bums (or I even penguin slid on my stomach once or twice). This was like going down a waterslide, except for the fact that there are trees and cliffs around, but it was fun and significantly less effort so why not?

We made quick distance along the valley to the next mountain range, where we started climbing Dix Mountain. This was a complete wall to climb, but once we could get to the top we were able to hike along the dagger's edge of the range, the problem was that there had been so few people using these trails that they were very hard to find.
Matt climbing up Dix Mountain, we did this steepness for about 45 minutes. 
I managed to spot some faded snowshoe tracks, and we began our treck from Dis Mountain to Beckhorn, then across to Hough Peak, and eventually South Dix and East Dix. Getting along the razorback of the mountain proved tougher than we expected for a few reasons. Firstly, it being so late in the winter, we figured that we didn't need snowshoes because it hadn't snowed recently. What we didn't foresee was that nobody gets that far out and does the trails so that we were sinking into the snow up to our knees or crotch or armpits. The next problem was that because the prevailing winds always come up one side of the mountain and down the other, you end up with a snowdrift effect that piles snow taller than the trees, and out past where the cliffs and rocks are. This made for precarious walking, as it was a pretty snowy storm, and if you stepped to close to a buried tree, the snow wouldn't support you at all and you could be up to your armpits in snow.
The struggle was real here (and in the video at the end of this post). 
Hiking along the ridgeline was pretty awesome as the cliffs dropped off on both sides, but it was a bummer that there was so much snow that you couldn't really see out. It was a slow going, with lots of crawling just to keep on top of the snow, or to duck under the limbs that make the tops of these trees, and by the time we hit the turnoff where we would go to East Dix Mountain, we decided to do the responsible thing and get over Macomb Mountain so that we got to shelter on time before it got too dark.

Look how skinny these trees are, they're the tops of trees!

When we summitted Macomb, the trail just stopped. We couldn't even find the faintest trail at all. Upon looking at the map, I realized that we had definitely continued along the Dix Mountain chain, and were actually way out on East Dix mountain. We ended up there because we mistook a fork in the trail. In the summer there would have been more forks than there are because nobody had blazed these trails, so we went much too far up another mountain, and now had to get to the shelter for the night as fast as we could before dark. It was hard to see trails in the light when you're not near the well traveled paths, and it was starting to rain. We never got up the elusive Macomb mountain.

Cliff? What cliff?
We found a lean to just as it was getting dark, and after about an hour of running/hiking in the rain.  Thank you Lillian Brook for giving us a dry spot to sleep. I guess that you can't really trust maps in the winter so much, because you're at the mercy of whoever has blazed the trails before. We were pretty relieved to get to the lean to and start boiling water and re-hydrate our space food. I was sitting in my sleeping bag mixing my packet of dehydrated food and boiling water that I realized what my greatest fear would be: if the whole mixture somehow opened while in my bag. Which happened about 20 seconds after this thought occurred. I may have had water and pad thai all over me, but that night's sleep was the best one that I can remember in a while, bundled up in a 3 sided log cabin with a roof over my head. We slept from 8pm to 7am, ate some oatmeal (we had to share Matt's breakfast because I thought that he said he was going to bring me one too), and hit the trail.

Ready to leave our snowed in accommodations

We got out for a long day and started to work our way around the southernmost bit of our route, out past Elk Lake and then wrapping up north west toward the Blake Mountain Range. It was precarious just like the day before, sinking feet in the snow all of the time, which led to a nervous mission-impossible style of hiking, trying to be light on our feet even with the heavy packsWe got about 14 km from where we started and the trail just stopped. Judging by the map however, there would be a trail intersection in less than 1km, so we decided to trudge through some seriously deep snow. How deep? I don't actually know, because if you're walking on pure snow you typically only ever sink to your crotch. I did however see the tops of what would be ~8ft beech trees sticking out from the snow, so I like to imagine that we were in snow over our heads. Went went over a small mountain pass this way and then the trail stopped. 

It took us more than a half hour to go about 700m. And the there was no trail, just signs where the intersection should be. Our options were clear: hike 4 more miles to up two mountain peaks to where we THINK there would be packed trail again, or turn around, and hike 15km back to where we started, and another close-to-20km back to the car over the Dix range again. Given that we couldn't even guarantee that the trail was packed in 4 miles (and that that would take about 8 hours maybe), and that we only had a couple of CLIF bars left, we turned back. Close to 9km later we were back on trail that was hard enough to run on, still 5 or 6km from where we had woken up, and more than 6 hours into our day, which started at 8am. This meant that it was time to run. We set a good pace along the trail, with a fast walk up hills and inclines, and running flat sections and downhills. Our next trail decision came when we got to the fork that would be either taking a trail straight up Dix Mountain, or going a slightly longer route up Hunter's Pass. Either way, we were more than 30km into our second day of hiking, with limited food, limited daylight, and weather that was getting colder. Matt was a big advocate of going straight up and over Dix, we thought that we could back down in the valley on the other side in an hour and a half. Dix mountain broke us. It took more than 2 hours just to reach the summit, and the trail was TOUGH. 

The higher we went, the further from the top we seemed, worn out smiles
Matt had gotten into his every man for himself mode. We were no longer singing songs (which is fair because we were going up a mountain and that requires a lot of breathing), but the banter back and forth had stopped, and it was a stone cold process of walking, crawling, and sinking through the snow. I could also tell that something was wrong because I could take it easy for a minute and still catch up to him. I'm never faster than Matty up a mountain. After more than an hour of silence (mixed with my mumbling about stupid snow and having to swim through snow to get up a mountain) Matt looked back at me and said that he was cold. Sure, it's the winter and it's quite cold and windy, but the trail was very steep and I wasn't cold at all, the poor guy had bonked, and had no blood sugar left. We stopped and shared the last CLIF bar, getting colder but re energizing at the same time, and kept going. We were climbing a bit of a razorback up the mountain, summitting Beckhorn before continuing up Dix, allthewhile with cliffs on both sides, and only somewhat sheltered by the trees from the wind which prevailed from our left. Finally, we were completely exposed and had made the summit of Dix Mountain, which was a dangerous mix of icy rocks and a lot of wind. 

The way down Dix gave us both the energy to keep trucking, sliding down wall that took us 45 minutes to climb the day before was pretty awesome, like a dangerous icy waterslide that lasted 5 minutes. I set the pace across the valley as we ran back to the car, and just as it was getting dark, after 11 hours of hiking, we got back to the road. It was 19 combined hours of hiking, and about 74km in 2 days, I'm glad that I've got great friends to push myself and find new places with, and that when things go went bad, we manged to make the right call and get out of there, even if it involved 48km in one day in the Adirondacks. Thanks for the support buddy, we'll get that whole route in the summer.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The faces of snowshoe racing

It all started with a crazy run to a crazy event on a morning that I felt pretty rough, but it was beautiful day, so why not? After an unlucky snowshoe loss near the end of the race, I was left just off the podium. The next week I had a chance to snowshoe race in Gatineau at a pretty big event, and was rewarded with a silver medal (the participation medal looked pretty great too). Now was my chance to get a good sleep, not eat fast food that would cause me to wake up in the morning and get out of bed, and to win. For the third week in a row, there was a snowshoe race!

I was thinking of trying to run to the race, I knew that I had seen the “Odessa” sign not too far from Kingston whenever I’m driving but, but upon checking the real distance it was 40 something km, and the race started at 10am. No way.  I managed to hitch a ride with this awesome man named Jack Judge; a true northern guy. The man was 63 years old and had just completed his first 100 MILE race in the fall. These winter multisport athletes are a pretty impressive bunch. Anyway, we got out to pretty much nowhere in particular when I saw a big red barn and a bunch of cars parked nearby. A very Canadian venue for a very Canadian sport. 

Mark Robinson photo

There were a lot of people at the event, it was great to see some people that I had raced with and who train in obstacle course racing at the Alpha gym, as well as a lot of people from around Ontario. This snowshoe racing is such a great community with an awesome draw, with a friendly atmosphere and great organizers it's a great challenge for anyone from an elite athlete to a person who just wants a challenge, and I appreciate the mix! 

The race was essentially a 6 and a bit km course shaped like the letter q; with about 2km out, a 2km loop, and 2km back. Right from the gun I ran with intent to win and led for the first km or so, until just before the course got into some tighter forest trail, where Charley Murphy (who knew the course and has been winning these things for years apparently) took his opportunity and flew by me. I figured that he was just going to blow up and I'd pass him again at this pace, but after a little while running behind him I just couldn't keep the pace. 

Confidence in first place (Mark Robinson photo)

The first thing that I do when I lose first place is to stubbornly stick to the leader until they either blow up or I realize that it wasn't a fake burst of speed. The first thing that I do when I realize that first place faster than me is look back to where third place is. And so beings the game of cat and mouse. 
Getting the fire ready for soup and keeping tired athletes warm (Mark Robinson photo)

John Bartello, a very fast obstacle racer from Toronto was back in the trail, not far back enough that I couldn't see him, but far enough back that I wasn't too worried about being caught. It's a real mind game, as the trail twists through the forest, or if you hear something behind you, you have to judge how close they are, keep calm, keep pace, and not fall. I was relieved by cheering on those who were still running the first 2km out, giving high fives as I ran my final 2kmI managed to keep ahead, and came in for another second place finish for the second weekend in a row. I couldn't help but think that for the second weekend in a row, the guy who was expected to win did so, and I was second place, but I tried! 

The following photos are a great sequence captured by Mark Robinson, of all things I'm thinking near the end of a race:
Focus. Don't fall. 
Don't give up.
Look up. Am I following a trail?

A photographer. Better smile.
That smile sucked. Better cheer.
Cheering is exhausting. 
Focus. You're close to the finish. 

Done. Time to not do anything. (Grace Vanderzande photo)

The awards after the race around the bonfire were great, and I was happy to have such great soup and be in good company. Flanel is a good uniform in the off season I think?

Thanks Derrick for the great event (Grace Vanderzande photo)

Monday, March 2, 2015

Snowshoes round 2!

After my near success in the snowshoe race the previous weekend, combined with the fact that reading week (a week of no school) had just started and all of my friends were training in California, I decided that it was time for me to go to Ottawa to train hard for 4 days, support my friends in their ski race, have fun in the city with friends, and try another snowshoe race. This time to win. Truthfully I had no plans of where to sleep, or how to get around, but I had a ride to Ottawa and a lot of friends in the city so I could make it work, right? It was too cold not to.
Friday night we got in and I stocked up on the necessary supplies for a weekend of training and unpredictable living situations.

Chocolate, tuna, bananas, rice. Yep, athlete's diet!

This whisky was delicious. 

The snowshoe and ski races were on Sunday, and this time I was taking things seriously and putting in a training block (lots of training in a short amount of time), so I got out to the trails twice on Saturday and familiarized myself with what I thought would be the course. I ended up doing a massive extra loop, but I did the course too, and upon reviewing the maps at home I was straightened out. The course started and finished in a windswept field then got into some pretty technical, twisty and hilly trail for about a kilometer or so. The course then went across another wind swept field and up a hill that got steeper as you went up (I remember very clearly). The next part of the course was pretty standard trails until a steep hill of about 60m elevation gain and a wild 1.5 km run out to the finish zone.

I got to the race start and after watching my buddies do a ski race in -36°C it was my turn to run 10km on snowshoes. And this time I wanted to win! It was hard to judge proper layering for this type of event, but I settled for 2 turtle necks, some wind proof tights, and a Gore-Tex shell. I was told that if I wanted to win I had to keep my eye on this older guy who was probably going to win. Didn't seem so bad, but here’s what I've been told about Dave McMahon: he was one an Olympic athlete in Biathlon (skiing and shooting is a pretty badass sport to be very good at), he has also married an olympic athlete, he trains about 3 hours a day, he runs a snowshoe race series and two snowshoe group workouts every week, he owns and runs multisport company, he coaches, and that he's a really nice guy.

It would be less embarrassing for me if you just muted this video..

I saw a big Gatorade water cooler right by the start line and decided to go get a drink, as any nervous athlete would right before a race. I swigged down cup in one gulp and there was something seriously wrong. It wasn't cold. It was salty. It was hot chicken broth. 
Surprisingly, it wasn't actually that offputting, but I didn't get more. 
I looked around at  some pretty intense people at this start line and asked the guy next to me whether he'd been in a snowshoe race before, the response was a little intimidating
"Yeah, I was 12th  at the world championships a couple of weeks ago! But my hamstring hurts today"
Oh. So that's how it is.
As one would expect, Dave went hard right from the start, positioning himself in first place through the technical bit, and I stayed right on his heels, thinking that to win, I'd have to stay in second position for the first bit at least, right?

Thanks Dave for posting this photo

Once we were out of the technical area the world championship guy blew by us and I was forced to make the same move; trying to stay in second place for as long as I could. As we crossed the windy field area, I noticed that this new pace  was getting us ahead of everyone else.

"Push a little harder and we won't have to worry about them again!" I yelled

I regretted that in about 2 minutes when I forced myself to slow down, unable to keep the pace up the next hill. Well shoot.

When the trail flattened out again, I was back with a vengeance, and by the bottom of the gradual downhill section I was leading the race. I had mixed feelings about this, maybe it was a bad move, it was pretty early to assert myself as the leader in a 10km race, especially with these world class competitors, but hey, I was feeling good. I had a few minutes of trying to suppress panic, even though I knew that I wasn't actually choking, the combination of the cold and the double turtle neck gave me the feeling that someone had their hands clenched around my throat, and I grabbed the shirt and held the neck out from my adam's apple to try to calm down. I did not however get passed.

The last time I raced with a turtleneck I just took it off... (Thanks Brad Jennings for this photo)

I maintained first place until we got pretty close to the start finish, when this guy just came blowing by me. I was pretty upset about this, the crowds were everywhere and this guy was taking my glory. The audacity. I figured that he probably just wanted to lead going into the second lap, and that he'd surely blow up at that pace, until he went straight for the finish line cheered on by the crowd. That jerk was only doing the 5k race. What a softie.

I led into the technical section and Dave was back on my heels, and we were just far enough down the trail that we could still look back and see 3rd place, (who was another guy, not the world championship guy), but I didn't think that he'd catch us. By the time we got to the big hill near the end of the lap, I was feeling confident, but not about to waste all of my energy on the uphill, which is where I was passed. I ran the rest of the race out and finished second place, beaten by a man who truly new how to race properly.

Proper podium gear. I do best in flannel! 

I asked for some advice after the podium from Dave, saying that I was thinking of doing more of these races, and he had some very encouraging words for me. Apparently I was quite fast down hills and on flat sections, and he described to me how to run up the hills properly (I had just been walking with long strides). He told me that I would "keep the pace" well. I asked what pace, expecting him to say his weekly snowshoe race series pace, but he told me that I would be competitive in a world cup. That was the first time anyone had ever said something like that to me, and I don't think that I'll ever forget it. All just because I tried a new sport and decided to give it a second chance!