Friday, February 22, 2019

Snowshoe Canada 2019 Canadian Championships 10k Snowshoe Race - Sunday, February 17th, 2019

You know how I did ok at a little snowshoe race a couple of weeks ago? Yeah, the high-intensity effort must have deprived my brain of oxygen, so I went and did something dumb.

Pfft - as if that required oxygen deprivation.

With my own personal pair of Dion racing snowshoes having arrived - in spectacular Canada Post fashion - the day AFTER the race, I was eager to have an opportunity to actually run in them. While there was another race in the Eastern Ontario Snowshoe Series (of which the Winter Goose Chase is a part), it was 180km from home and up until a few days beforehand looked like it might just turn into a trail run instead due to lack of snow.

Which would rather defeat the point.

I had, however, found another race on the same weekend that had better odds of having snow: it was being held at Craigleith Ski Club in the Blue Mountains, it was slightly closer to home (~150km), and it didn't start until 1pm. It also had a 10km option (as well as a 5k), so would make the trip more "worth it" than the 8km at Ganaraska.

One small snag: it was also the Snowshoe Canada 2019 Canadian Championships.

Hm. Did I really want to go embarrass myself way at the back of a field of elites?

I think we both know the answer to that.

Might as well own it, right?

Still, I hemmed and hawed a bit, only signing up on Thursday the 14th (happy Valentine's Day to me?) for the race on Sunday the 17th. I took Friday completely off - not even a lunch walk - because my right foot has been a bit sore since I tweaked it while running the Royal Rec trail on Sunday the 10th, but then ran twice on Saturday the 16th because 100 in 100 is still a thing. At least I talked myself down from trying to get a quick run in before we left for the race, and my shoulders - which has both given me grief Tuesday through Thursday due to pushing a neighbour's stuck vehicle up our street and spending 90mins shoveling ice-crusted snow out of my mum's driveway - had eased off.


On the less-bright side, I got almost no sleep the night before the race due to being woken up several times (cats are jerks), and my foot didn't exactly feel amazing when I rolled out of bed. We were a little late getting on the road, after taping up my foot/ankle and fussing over last-minute odds and ends, and then the trip took longer than we'd been given to believe.

Though it was quite pretty, driving through the Grey Highlands

Passing an outcrop of the Niagara Escarpment in Beaver Valley
I totally failed to get any shots of the beautiful Beaver River sparkling in the sun!

Driving along the south shore of Georgian Bay

We arrived at Craigleith - with me a full-on bag of nerves - a little bit after 11am, at which time kit pickup was scheduled to begin.

Um, starting to get a wee bit nervous now..

Problem was, we couldn't find the North Lodge which was to act as race headquarters. Parked in the additional parking area beyond the South Lodge, I finally ended up having to call the resort to find out we needed to go back out to the road and drive past the main ski resort in order to get there. I feel like that's something that could have been included in the directions on the website, but what do I know?

Oh, those stairs are gonna be AWESOME after the race..

We quickly found the registration room - with a sign stating kit pickup didn't start until 11:30am, so we were actually among the first despite the full parking lot - and I got my swag bag and map. I noticed that since there were 2 separate maps for 5k and 10k that it wouldn't simply be a 2-loop race.


Our kits included a small bag of chips, a packet of hot chocolate for later, a voucher for a free hot chocolate at the lodge's cafeteria, a granola bar, a single-serving pouch of Stoked Oats (the exact same flavour I'd had for my pre-race breakfast in the car on the way up!), a certificate good for a month's membership at a Collingwood fitness club, and this awesome Snowshoe Canada / Craigleith etched glass mug.

The awards were awesome, too - miniature traditional snowshoes.
This is literally the closest I would get to them, though.

So, I figured I'd have a look at the map and see what might be in store for me.


Um, what? "Follow Bruce Trail to big rock" - this will be on the BRUCE FREAKIN' TRAIL

I have "run" on the Bruce before. It's technical, often very narrow, and quite often skirts around the sides of near-vertical faces where one false step will have you tumbling and plummeting - if not to your death, at least to your extreme pain and injury. 

So this would be my fifth snowshoe run ever - my second in my own Dions, and only my 3rd in that model of snowshoe - and my second race. 

I wondered if I'd actually make it to the finish..

I'd also learned that this was actually the 13th year this race had been held at Craigleith - while the Canadian Championship moves around each year, the Craigleith Switchback Challenge was an annual tradition. This was the second time in 3 years they were hosting the Championship race, but I figured that with the long history there would likely be some families and non-racers on course. Which was true, but they all seemed to be doing the 5k option like sensible human beings. You know, the one that doesn't involve the Bruce Trail.

There was one other minor detail: while the name "Switchback Challenge" should have been a clue, noone had warned me before race day that the "significant climb up the Niagara Escarpment" at the start of the 5k and 10k routes translated into a 500ft elevation gain in the first kilometer.


With the temperature hovering around -8c but the sun making it feel much warmer, I finished my flaily dynamic warmup and figured I'd better get out for a bit of a trot to see how everything felt...what with it being my second time in my snowshoes and all (the first having been ~5k during the winter storm on Tuesday the 12th; 5 days prior), and having needed to make an adjustment to the hook-and-loop arch straps to shorten them up so they would have enough contact to stay done up.

So far so good..

Ok, snowshoes - I know we hardly know one another, but we're going to have to work together today.
I sure hope I can rely on you, as it's not going to be easy out there.

With 15mins to go before race time, I had one last wee and downed an Endurance Tap, because what could possibly be more Canadian than snowshoe racing fueled by maple syrup?

I had another in my pocket, along with a small soft-sided water bottle, the map, and my phone.

We were called to the start line for pre-race announcements, while I vibrated with nerves...and a little with the cold, too, as it was much windier by the start line than over by the lodge!

Pre-race announcements by the race director

My sweetheart stayed with me almost right up until the horn sounded

We were told that the 5k - which would follow the yellow flags - would start a few minutes behind the 10k, which followed the orange flags. All turns would be signed, and many places would be marshaled to ensure fair play and noone would get lost. Just after 1pm, the signal was given and we were off.

Well, I haven't fallen yet, so we'll call that a win.

Did I say off? I meant UP.

See that forest? That's where we're going.

I think I actually ran about 30 seconds out of the first kilometer

Around the corner past some friendly spectators and volunteers

After hiking directly up a ski hill, you finally reach the Switchback snowshoe trail for which the race is named.

As you can see, it's quite well signed

No, I don't know about you, but I generally expect switchbacks to be built in such a way that makes a steep hill approachable. These - while less vertical than the mountain itself - were definitely not runnable by someone of my poor talent and fitness.

There were several people in microspikes out on the course as well, though noone would qualify for awards unless they wore snowshoes

See if you can spot the people on each of the next 2 switchbacks far above

While I huffed and puffed and zipped down my jacket all the way to mid-chest, I wondered if it would be possible to safely run these on the way back down without going arse over teakettle and tumbling down the hill. It sure didn't feel like it as my legs groaned with each upward step.

There were lovely views over Georgian Bay, though.

As I neared the top - and steepest sections - of the switchbacks, the 5k leaders began to blast by me at a run. I tried to give an encouraging word (in between gasps) to each of them; their strength and fitness was amazing to see!

Both courses still together for the time being

Oh, Hosanna - I believe I've found the top!

More than thirteen minutes to complete the first kilometer - with my ears popping no less than 3 times along the way - but I eventually emerged on top of a ridge where some friendly folks hung out by a brazier and directed traffic.

Everyone was super encouraging!

Taking a left turn, I found myself on a lovely, flat, sun-lit trail along the edge of the ridge.

Now THIS I can handle!

The wind was very chilly up there, though, so I ended up having to zip my jacket back up a bit to stay warm.

I actually got to run a bit, though, with the Bay off in the distance to my left

Rounding a right-hand curve and cresting a small rise, I came to the "Farm Road" section of the course - a flat straightaway that had me heading away from the Bay.

Well-packed and runnable, so I did.

At the end of the Farm Road the 5k and 10k courses diverge, with the 10k heading onto the Bruce Trail.


So far it's just narrower, but still flat - good deal, keep running!

The 5k course - as far as I can tell - remains on the ski club's snowshoe trail network.

Yellow flags on the other side of the tree, with yellow rope as a barrier between the 5k and 10k courses

I loved the "Enchanted Forest" trail sign, and soon found it to be entirely descriptive of the stunning woods by which I was surrounded.

Ooh, a little downhill!

Sunshine on snow makes everything look so magical

More downhill through pine forest

I swear I actually did run!

You emerge into a stand of saplings, where the trail crosses some tiny streams or springs.

Still well-packed trail and runnable

Just mind your step..

Next thing I know, I'm standing at the top of basically a cliff, with arrows telling me to throw myself off it.

I literally stopped dead here and said "You've gotta be effin' kidding me"

Had I looked closer at the map, I'd have noticed a section called "Rope Hill". What that means is an approximately 20% grade slope on the wall of a ravine with steel pickets driven into the ground and a rope (actually a garden hose) strung between them.


There was no running happening here. Unsure if the hose would support any weight or if it was simply intended to be a fence, I carefully picked my way down by hanging onto trees and trying to jam my cleats securely into the snow with each nerve-wracking step. I finally made it safely to the bottom of the ravine, where a small stream seems to flow in warmer months.

So very beautiful

The trail got a bit narrow and death-to-the-right-ish.

Looking back at a narrow little wooden footbridge that almost tried to vault me off.

There was little time to admire the lovely scenery, as I now had to climb the opposite wall of the ravine.

Oh, goody.

I was a little more than 3km in, and it was at this time the 10k leader came bombing down the other way as he headed toward the finish. I'd later find out he broke the course record, but it certainly did nothing for my confidence.

As I trudged up yet another hill

I could have sworn this was supposed to be a snowshoe RUN

After another lung-busting ascent, I found myself on the top of a rather bald knob of land.

It only feels like I've climbed up above the treeline.

A brief look behind me yielded the most incredible view of the entire race.

Georgian Bay framed by the Blue Mountains

Then, just to keep things interesting, it was back down another ravine wall.

I'd get down faster if I just threw myself off the side, but there are rather a lot of trees to hit on the way down.

It flattened out a bit, then I came to the bottom of the final climb up to the Loree Forest

If you look carefully, you can see the dark-clad runner behind the gentleman in blue, coming down the side of the peak from right to left

This hill

I moved aside to let the fast people by, including a fellow in microspikes out for a run on the trails with his dog who passed me as I climbed to the Loree Forest loop.

He was much quicker on the ascent than I was.

Just before the top, you pass a really neat rock.

The "Big Rock" mentioned on the map

From there you do a counter-clockwise loop - the only portion of the course that isn't an out-and-back - on a fairly flat plateau.


Finally able to make a bit of time, I passed the fellow with his dog, only to have him fall into step a few feet behind me.

Beautiful view of Georgian Bay through the edge of the Loree Forest

While the trail was relatively flat, it's still snowshoe running, which is HARD AS HECK. I was starting to get a bit gassed and asked if my new companion would like to pass. Thing is, he was wearing headphones and didn't hear what I said, so asked me to repeat myself. 

Which is totally easy to do when you're gasping for air and trying to keep running

I managed to bark out "DID YOU WANT TO GET BY?", only to have him say no - my "pace was perfect" and he was just "out for an easy run". GAH! My legs and lungs desperately wanted me to drop to a walk to get my heart rate under control, but I couldn't be sue he'd hear me if I said I needed to slow I just pressed on.

While still trying to save a bit of air to thank the wonderful volunteers for being out there for us on a cold day

Toward the end of the loop the trail gets very narrow, and between that and my fatigue I started to get clumsy - I painfully clipped the inside of my left ankle with my right snowshoe, then did so again a moment later. Headphones guy had no trouble heading me yelp when I did so, and asked if I was ok - I just kept running, determined at this point that I wasn't going to let anything slow me down (any more than my already glacial pace).

No passing here.

Views for days

Reaching the end of the loop, I was surprised to see some people still on their way up.

Holy crap - I'm not last!

I tried offering headphones guy a pass as I knew I'd be taking the steep descent from the Loree Forest carefully, but he said he was fine in behind me. Reaching the stream at the bottom of the ravine, though, I stepped aside to take a photo of the little wooden footbridge over the stream and let him by.

It was just so pretty.

Now just over an hour into the race, I also pulled out my Endurance Tap packet and emptied it into my face, washing it down with a few sips of water - I knew it was going to take me more than the 90mins I'd estimated to finish this, and I hoped some fuel and hydration would help me stay on top of my game so I could do so safely. I had been drinking a bit, but not nearly as much as I usually would due to the technical nature of the course and the high intensity of the sections I was able to run.

Headphones guy ditched me solidly as we climbed back up to the bald knob.

I was able to run the flat top of the bald knob and a bit of the descent back down to the first ravine, taking in the view over the Bay one last time.

If you're going to get your arse handed to you, you might as well enjoy the scenery along the way.

Back down to the first stream and over the tiny footbridge, I hoped I'd be able to hustle through the final few kilometers so Tanker wouldn't worry too much about me.

Still grateful to all those who went ahead and packed the course down so nicely.

I knew I only had one more major climb to go before I'd be back to the Farm Road and then the downhill to the finish, so I tried to move efficiently. Thing is, that one major climb is a doozy.

Might as well try to climb a snow-covered wall.

When I reached Rope Hill, I knew I'd just have to trust the garden hose to take some weight. With my right hand on it and legs creaking in protest, I hauled myself up out of that ravine.

Reminiscent of Creemore

Above Rope Hill, there was still climbing to be done - a small pack of ladies with microspikes came wandering the other way, cheering me on and telling me I only had one climb left to go. I thanked them and got on with it as best I could.

Still so very pretty.

With much puffing and gasping, I slowly ascended the winding trail through the forest. 

Still having fun!

The final upslope through a stand of hardwoods saw the sun come back out from behind a bit of cloudcover, bathing the forest in brilliant light.

Ooh, there's that root I tried not to trip over on the way down..

At long last, the trail flattened out as I neared the Bruce Trail gate.

Almost out of the singletrack, and able to run again!

Hard left at the volunteer course marshals, I rejoined the 5k course once more.

I did manage to gasp out my thanks to them!

Looking up the Farm Road, I could see a small group up ahead running. I wondered if I could catch them..

They're just tiny specks in the distance here, but I think it's obvious I aspire beyond my miniscule abilities

I was actually catching up as I reached the turn onto the flat trail along the ridge above the Switchback Trail, taking advantage of the small downslope as I ran along.

There were lots of other trail users of all kinds out

Back to the brazier, then a right turn to hit the switchbacks toward the finish.

It's all downhill from here!

I was pleased to find that - while it felt dangerous as heck and I had to be careful - I was able to bomb down the switchbacks at a run, and was hopeful I could make up some time as I was already past the 90mins I'd told Tank I expected to be on course. I wound my way down, passing the group of runners (who turned out to be wearing microspikes, not snowshoes - I never saw another 10k snowshoe runner) as I did so, and trying to avoid a little boy and his mom who were just out hiking in winter boots and were cutting across the switchbacks. Since the little boy would sometimes emerge just ahead of me, it was a tricky business making sure I didn't mow anyone down as I hurtled along at breakneck which I mean I absolutely would have broken my neck had I tripped and fallen.

I can only speculate that trying to keep all of these things in check is how I managed to blow the final turn with ~300m to go to the finish. I wondered if I'd gone wrong as I couldn't see any flags, but then again I didn't remember there being any on the ski slope we climbed at the beginning. I mumbled something aloud about "Where are the damn flags? Anyone seen the orange flags?", but stupidly kept running along.

I think this sums it up nicely.

I bailed down a black diamond ski run with all of the grace of a collapsing building, rounded a curve, and saw a completely unfamiliar-looking ski lodge.

What the actual..?

I'd passed a fellow and his young daughter on microspikes on my way down the ski hill, so turned back uphill and asked if he knew where the North Lodge was. He said he didn't, and neither did anyone else I asked as I began to hike back up the steep slope.

This damn thing right here.

Pulling up Google Maps on my phone, I discovered I'd ended up at the wrong effin' resort entirely - I was at the Alpine Club, and needed to get back to Craigleith. The only way to do so was to hike back up.

And I don't mean just a little bit, either.

As I finally made it up to and across the traverse across to the proper freakin' ski club, a ski patroller at the bottom of the switchbacks yelled to me that I was doing great, and she'd been watching me. I wanted to scream something about YOU COULD HAVE TOLD ME I WAS GOING THE WRONG DAMN WAY, but I had no oxygen with which to do so as I immediately began to run down the CORRECT ski slope toward the finish.

Managing to snap one last pic looking out over Georgian Bay as I did so.

Apparently Tanker spotted me hurtling down the slope, capturing this image of me on my way to the end and the hill I'd just run down in behind me. 

I didn't figure I'd get any extra credit for the additional 3/4 of a kilometer I'd done

At long last, my poor destroyed legs carried me to the bottom of the hill and across the finish line.

Hardest. 10k. EVER.

Official time: 1:42:04 @ 10:13/km
8/8 W19-39 - 13/17 Women - 33/39 O/A (43 entrants)

Great googly-mooglies, that was tough! My lungs felt like I'd smoked a pack of cigarettes; my quads, hamstrings and calves were shot from the aggressive climbing and bombing descents; even the small intercostal muscles in my ribcage were sore from all the gasping and death whistling; and my left ankle was horribly bruised and had a small chunk taken out of it.


I had my arse thoroughly kicked, not just by the course but by the competition - I hadn't expected to do well, but I had no idea I'd be racing against the likes of Sasha freakin' Gollish! I was quite angry at myself for my miserable bugger-up at the end, as well. All told, I spent most of the rest of the day quite grouchy about what had transpired.

So I decided to drink my complimentary can of cider from race sponsor Thornbury Village Brewing out of my new mug

At the same time, though, I would absolutely do the race again - even if I was dead effin' last. The jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery and incredible views were wonderful, and it feels great to have accomplished something that challenged me to my limits. I am quite pleased with the effort I put out, and my ability to recover from the steep climbing and force myself to run even when my heart rate and breathing were pushed to redline. The organization, volunteers and vibe of the event were fantastic, and with some more experience at running in my snowshoes I might be able to make a better showing...or at least not blow a turn.


With the perspective of a few days - and now that my legs are finally starting to come to rights - I can see that this was far from a failure. It was insanely difficult and perhaps a bit beyond my meagre talent, but the most rewarding things I've ever experienced have all held a tinge of fear and uncertainty. 

And at least I know my sweetheart will always be waiting for me at the end.

So, you can take this report in either one of two ways: either a cautionary tale about getting yourself in over your head, or a challenge to try something that scares you.

Wanna come play?

Many thanks to Craigleith Ski Club, Snowshoe Canada, and all the wonderful volunteers and sponsors who made this happen! To the ski patrollers on course, though - I'm very, very glad I didn't have to put your first responder training to the test.