Saturday, November 15, 2008

Snowshoe tips

Running on snowshoes has been around as long as people have been strapping on the big “tennis racket”-style snowshoes. Racing has changed over the last few years as lighter and smaller racing snowshoes have been developed.

The first step is to find a pair of snowshoes that work for you. I’ve tried many pair (20 or more different kinds) and some are better than others. For fast road runners, the best bet is to get the lightest pair available. I like the Dion racing snowshoes and the Atlas Dual tracs. I also race quite a bit in an old pair of Tubbs 10K’s. I like the Tubbs because I direct mounted a racing flat to the snowshoe. That way I never have to worry about the straps coming loose during the race. Dion has loaners at the WMAC races and you can test out a few different pair before deciding on what you want to buy. Make sure you contact him in advance so that you have a pair reserved.
dd in the Atlas bumble-bee uniform

What should you expect in at your first snowshoe race? Expect a range of runners from expert racers to others just out for a hike in the woods. Snowshoe races attract a full assortment of ability levels. You should seed yourself accordingly on the starting line; if you aren’t going to place in the top ten, don’t get on the front of the starting line. The start areas tend to be narrow and the courses themselves are typically single-track trails. Poor self-seeding could have dire consequences for you - you'd be forced to start too quickly and others would have to run around you. Usually during a race if you need to pass you can just say “on your left” and slip by. Other times the runner in front may just step off to the side to let you by, but there are some times when your only choice would be to go into the deeper/less packed snow to the side of the trail if you really want to pass. There is no rule that you are required to slow up or move over to let someone by, but my personal philosophy is to let anyone by who is faster than me. Having said that, there are occasions when I haven’t yielded the trail. Last year at the Brave the Blizzard I lead the race until about ½ mile to go. I did not give up the lead without a fight, forcing (the eventual winner) the runner to go into deeper snow and speed up to get by me. If he had tried to pass at a mile into the race it would have been a different story.

The next thing to consider is what to wear. It's very easy to overdress for snowshoe racing. I've seen runners in all assortment of gear, from shorts and a t-shirt (really!) to a parka and a balaclava. Usually, something in between is suitable. You should consider the wind, sun, and air temperature when choosing your racing outfit. Also keep in mind that racing in snowshoes is a very hard effort, you will work hard at 10 minute miles! Tights, gloves, a hat, and long sleeved t-shirt are almost always enough to remain comfortable. It's a good idea to dress in layers for heat retention; at the first sign of overheating, you can remove a layer. Remember: It's better to be a little cold than too warm. I bought a pair of biking tights that are thick in the front and vented in the back. I wear them the other way around when using them in snowshoe races. You tend to kick a lot of snow up the back of the tights (and up the back of your shirt if you don’t tuck in).
I don't usually wear gaitors, but they might be good for deep powder. Instead I wear a neoprene sock (a thin water resistant type) and that keeps my feet from getting cold. A common runner mistake would be to wear tights and running socks which leaves a small area of the lower leg/ankle exposed. That can lead to some really cold spots and possibly even frostbite. There is also a tendency to kick yourself in the ankle bone with the edge of the snowshoe, this especially happens in the later stages of the race as you tire. Having at least some coverage on the ankle can minimize the damage.

dd under-dressed for a SS race

Training for your first race should include at least some time on snowshoes. Other than the obvious change in surface, snowshoe running differs from trail running or road running in distinct ways. You'll find that you have to sustain a somewhat bowlegged stride in order to avoid thumping your shoes together. It also takes a few miles on snowshoes to learn how far back you can kick - if you kick to far back, you’ll end up with a very sore butt! My first two seasons, I found that just doing a 1- or 2-mile warmup prior to the race was sufficient to get the proper feel for running in snowshoes. I usually do a mile or two on the road then switch into my racing gear and do another mile or two on the course. Typically I will go out/back over the last section of the course. This gives the added advantage of knowing something about the race surface, terrain, width of the trail for passing, and turns you might miss when tired. Sometimes I will put a stick out next to the trail to mark ½ mile to the finish line. This can be very helpful when I’m running out of steam and I’m not sure how far I have to go. Also warming up in the snowshoes gives you the opportunity to tighten the straps a few times. They should be tight to the point of being very uncomfortable, that is the only way to ensure that they don’t come loose while racing.

Keep in mind that everything takes longer in the winter. It takes a lot longer to get to the races, especially in bad weather. Most of the races on the WMAC schedule are in somewhat remote areas. Some of the roads are dirt and the surface may be packed snow. Getting dressed for the race takes longer, changing damp layers takes longer. Also, don’t put your snowshoes on until AFTER you have visited the porta-john. I found out the hard way how difficult it is to turn around in a confined space with big snowshoes on my feet. A folding camp chair is great to have so that you can sit down outside of your car and put your snowshoes on. Very few of the races have indoor facilities for changing. You definitely should bring dry clothes and a towel for after the race and plenty of extra layers just in case.

When racing, be careful to not get into trouble early. Snowshoe racing is similar to mountain racing in that respect. If you go into oxygen debt it can be very hard to recover. Courses can range for very fast to a slog. I’ve done 6’s for 10km on ice with a dusting of snow on top and I’ve done 15 minute miles in 2’ deep wet snow. You really have to adjust you pace for the conditions; don’t worry about how fast you are going just worry about the effort. There will be times (like the climb up the mountain at Curly’s record run) when you are barely making forward progress but you are maxed out. Don’t be tempted to go faster than you are able to maintain. At Hallockville a couple of years ago, some of the guys blasted out on the very fast packed first mile. The course then went to unpacked single-track. Soon after, a couple of those guys were standing on the side of the trail. One swore to never snowshoe race again. I’ve found snowshoe racing to be a lot like mountain racing (especially on some of the mountainous courses). You have to have a good mental attitude going into the race and during the parts when it really hurts, which can be the entire race.

"conga line" at Hallockville


Jim Johnson said...

Great stuff dd... very informative and now I have no absolutely no excuse if I am without the proper gear or unprepared in virtually any way...

I also think you look strikingly familiar in that Atlas bumble bee suit...was that you in the Blind Melon video back in the mid 90s?...

s p running said...

Thanks so much, this is great. Hey, do you remember I once won a pair of snowshoes at Northfield Mt. trails run a few years back... thanks for them, DD!

Anonymous said...

Do you think that the Atlas Race snowshoes would be better than the Northern Lites Elites snowshoes in wet, mushy type snow?