I headed up on my own, I wanted to take a couple of stretch breaks and also get to Sandwich NH very early in order to keep my back loose. I was one of the first people to arrive so I got a nice spot in the sun and got in the back seat to stretch out my back. The sun was nice, but I had to keep the car running to not freeze in the 2 degree temperatures.
The parking lot filled up quickly and it looked like a record field would turn out for the first qualifier in the East region. Paul K puts on an excellent race but the (relatively) remote location has kept the field small. Prior to this year the record turnout was 61. Sidehiller is the only race that is part of both the WMAC and Granite State series, so it looked like there would be a great field on hand.
I was surprised to see my teammate Eric Morse show up, he'd been injured lately and hadn't done snowshoe racing in a number of years. We gathered up a big CMS crew and some others and headed out for a hilly 3m warm-up. I changed into my racing snowshoes and helped Dave Q adjust his snowshoes (he wore my Atlas dual-tracs). Dave was doing his second snowshoe race ever and seemed fired-up. We headed out with a big group and did another 10 minutes of running on the course to check out a little of the beginning of the loop. We'd be doing 3 loops of the 1.7 mile course. It looked to be very fast and very flat, there was only one little hill when you climbed up onto the leach field. The surface was solidly packed and icy in spots. This was not my type of course, but you gotta go with what nature gives you.
Paul gathered us up and gave some last minute instructions ("keep the flags on the left" was one of the instructions that wasn't entirely followed, by the last loop many of the flags had been trampled....gotta cut those tangets!). The leaders shot out and before the first turn at about 200m in, I was in about 15th. There was a little bit of heel clipping (well, more like a "flat tire" with someone stepping on my shoe) but for the most part it seemed to be a very clean start. There was plenty of room to pass on 90% of the course and I wasn't in a super-rush as it was over 5m of racing.
Eric Morse blew by me at about 400m in and Jim Pawlicki began to pull away. I felt like I was moving well and did my best to keep Eric in sight. The single-track section was my best running and Eric went from 5 seconds up to being a step in front. He quickly gapped me again when we hit the groomed ski track but I passed another guy (Acidotic?) but could hear footsteps right on my heels. Eric was 4 seconds up as I passed through lap #1 in 11:07. I was really surprised at how fast it was. Before the race I mentioned to Dave Q that my guess was about 6 minute pace for the leaders and around 7's for me. I figured that to be just under 12 minutes per lap, so I was definitely faster than expected.
I continued to try to keep Eric close and moved into 10th place during lap 2. Again I closed on him on the single-track but this time I kept even when we hit the groomed. I snuck a peek behind me at a 90 degree turn and saw Danny Ferreira and Steve Wolfe on my tail. Damn! Not only did I have Morse beside me I had Wolfe ready to pounce. I was not confident in my speed so I pushed ahead of Eric and hit the end of lap 2 in 22:39 (11:32). I had hoped to run negative splits, but that was already out the window. Now I knew I'd need to pick it up if I wanted to be tops in the 40+ (and possibly hold on to a top 10 finish).
I tried to relax and work hard at the same time, I kept thinking "get to 4 minutes to go and pick it up". Steve had other ideas as he passed me on the climb up to the leaching field. I was pushing just to keep contact and could hear footfalls behind (and thought Eric was still on me...but it was Danny). I closed on Steve and thought about trying to go around him before the single-track but when I saw the line of people I figured it might be easier to let him lead the way. The first person we nearly ran down was a girl wearing headphones who didn't hear us call out. I did no more calling and concentrated on breathing. Steve would call and most people would move but many got right back on the trail and I nearly fell a couple of times trying to avoid them. Such are the hazards of loop courses.
We hit the groomed section and I checked my watch. 3 minutes to go! I was hurting pretty badly and just tried to hold on. Then on one of the little climbs I sensed Steve slowing just a tiny bit. I decided to go all out and also used a lapped runner to make it harder for Steve to go with me. As he went around her on the left I hammered as hard as I could on the right and pushed for the top of the hill. Steve said something like "good job" or some sort of positive note, but I knew he'd also be hanging on for the final kick. It was then that I realized this wasn't the final little bump before the finish. I was worried that I'd gone too hard too soon. I crested the final part and could see the finish clock. Just then Danny flew by like I was standing still. I couldn't do anything if I wanted to, but wasn't all that concerned as he wasn't a master. Then it got ugly as I "went to my arms" and tried my best to kick. I glanced back and Steve was closing fast (if it were a little longer to the finish I would not have held him off). I hit the line in 34:04 (11:25 final lap) and then hit the ground. I was wheezing and couldn't stand up for about a minute (even then I was pretty dizzy). Steve had definitely pushed me to my limit. Any race you can walk away from and say "I ran as hard as I could today" is a good race.
Eric came in soon after followed by Jim P and then Dave Q. CMS had a great day! The younger CMS guys headed out on snowshoes while us old guys hit the road again for another 3m. My back felt good but my foot (plantar fascia) was a mess. If it isn't one thing its the other. Oh well, no one said it would be easy.
So, now I've qualified for Nationals and the goal will be to get my foot and back to allow me to race about 10 times in the next 5 weeks. Nationals should be a blast! There will be a great field, no way I'm going to finish 6th this year!