Race Report: The 2018 U.S. Snowshoe Nationals 10k by Ben Nephew

How much snow would you like?

My history with U.S. Snowshoe Nationals literally goes back to the beginning in my hometown of Plattsburgh, NY. The inaugural nationals were in 2001 at Beartown ski area in Plattsburgh on a bitterly cold and windy day. Dave Dunham destroyed everyone for gold, Jeremy Wright won the silver, and I dove across the line for the bronze. I continued to be very active in the local snowshoe racing scene for the next few years, and also attended nationals in 2004 at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe and in 2006 in Bolton Valley, VT. Other than 2001, 2004 was my best year, with an 11th place finish in a stacked field at altitude. Like this year, 2014 nationals were at Prospect Mountain, which began my recent string of bad luck with snowshoeing. My training had gone well in 2014, but I came down with a chest infection the weekend of the race and did not perform well. Last year, I planned on racing the Snowshoe World Championships, which were held in Saranac Lake, NY.  Again, I was sick the weekend of the race with the flu and bronchitis. This winter, the North American Snowshoe Championships were in Saranac, NY, 20 minutes from Plattsburgh. I managed to make it to the race healthy, but a course mismarking sent a few of us off course, resulting in a disqualification. The silver lining was that I had a good race in terms of a fitness test, competing well with several strong snowshoe racers, including Tim Van Orden, the RD for 2014 and 2018 nationals, who won the master’s bronze at World’s last year.

After that DNF, I was just about to bail on snowshoe racing entirely, but the idea of nationals at Prospect was quite motivating. Despite my poor 10k in 2014, I managed a decent leg on our Central Mass Strider (CMS) team for the 4x2.5k relay where we took 2nd, Tim sets amazing courses, and the event was the most competitive snowshoe race I’ve ever seen. In 2006, our CMS team had won gold in the relay at Bolten Valley. While there was going to be a relay this year, it was on the same day of the half and full marathon, but there was now a team division for the 10k championship. I initially was going to race with CMS, as I didn’t think MPF RNR had enough runners going, but I then realized that Matt, Cole, and Jay were racing. I decided to make it a full weekend of abuse and signed up for the 10k and the marathon. With 40 inches of recent snow, it was sure to be interesting racing. The general layout of the 10k course was a 4k climb, another climb at around 6k, and miles of serpentine deep woods singletrack in second half of the course. We were fortunate that the women had packed down the course ahead of our event, but the course was still rather difficult, to put it mildly.

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The start was surprisingly mellow, and I settled into a line somewhere in the top 10 as we began the unrelenting 4k climb to the top of Prospect. I focused on Cole and a few guys just ahead, and the long climb seemed to be putting everyone in their place, with not much movement. Somewhere around 2k, as we were all redlining, TiVO blasted by, marching right through the field. It was a truly impressive move; my heart would have exploded if I had tried to follow for more than a minute. I did manage to gain on Cole and pass a couple of runners toward the top, and tried to stay with Cole’s long stride on the first big downhill after the summit. I had better luck once we dove into the tree tight singletrack through the trees. The snow was so deep that I was hitting the edge of the track with my thighs and hips on the turns. By the time we got to the next climb, I was able to pass Cole, who stayed right on my back. At this point, the race was becoming very spread out and I could only see Cole and Eric Sambolec. Cole had beaten me at the North American Championship, and Eric had been right behind me. Even with the course tracked out, it was still soft and absolutely exhausting to race. Even though I couldn’t breathe and my heart was going to explode, I kept thinking:

This course is a magical winter wonderland!

At 7k, there was the showcase zig-zag downhill to the finish area, and I used all my trail skills to try and close the gap to whomever might be ahead of me. I finally spotted TiVO as we entered the next singletrack section. With all the turns and the dense forest it was hard to tell how far ahead anyone was, but since I had not seen TiVO for 5k, I took it as a sign of progress. With my GPS not working, I had no idea how much further I had to race, and I was a little concerned as we ran far past the finish into another grinding singletrack section. It was like the Prospect Triangle, I thought I would never get out of the trees. There was almost no time to recover on this course, and in addition to my legs burning so bad I thought my tights were going to melt, I was tired of simply breathing so hard.

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I knew we must be somewhere in the last 2k, so I tried to find some way of increasing my effort for a strong finish. This was not “emptying the tank.” The tank had been emptied a long time ago and been jettisoned. I was in some sort of snowshoe zombie state. We passed by the finish once again prior to a final evergreen singletrack maze. At some point, I thought I was hallucinating that TiVO was cheering me on through the pines. I swear I saw and heard him, and then he was gone like an ageless ghost. I decided to go fully anaerobic in case I really was that close to him, and sure enough, Tim let me by a few turns later. We were both hurting, I was just hurting slightly less at that point. I was fortunate to not get caught by a hard charging Eric, who also passed Tim. The three of us represented the master’s podium with only 45 seconds between us. We were all absolutely spent at the finish, with TiVO slurring his speech. I’ve never run a harder short snowshoe course, not even close. Matt had an awesome race to finish 4th in 1:04, I was 7th in just under 1:10, and Cole was 10th in 1:11. In addition to the master’s win, I was satisfied to be less than a minute behind Zach Miller. I could not have expected much more. Click here for full race results. 

Race preparation is always a sort of puzzle or recipe, and with a time consuming job and a busy family, I have to be more and more creative. This race is a good example of this necessity. Here is my recipe, it probably doesn’t pertain to everyone’s tastes, but modify as needed:

  1. One supportive wife. More on this in another article, but a happy wife is a happy life, and I’m happy that she is happy that I run, well, most of the time…

  2. 50 pounds of Aido. This ingredient can be processed in a hiking pack or ski stroller, both provide a robust strength training stimulus. We also have some good conversations. His brain is a magical place to be; I really need to get him in the magnet.

  3. Many days of Eastern Mass Bill Koch (EMBK) XC Ski Team practice with the family. When we had good early snow, there were many km’s of groomed trails at Weston ski track. However, there were many Wednesdays and Saturdays doing laps on a 1.5-2k loop. I did not keep track of how many loops I would do, but it is amazing how they can make quality snow there. While it did get old at times, it was inspiring to see the dozens of kids out there all killing it at practice.  I had one hill workout of two hours of pushing Aido up and down the one 50 foot hill on the course, and refer to the effort needed to climb steep hills as Aido power. I think I’ve spent more time on snowshoes this winter than any other winter, in large part because of EMBK practice. I wore my EMBK hat during my race with pride.

  4. Cybex Arc Trainer workouts at Tufts. Hill strength is supremely important in SS racing, and some days even I don’t feel like going outside, or have time to get out to run. I set this thing on a 20% grade and go at it for an hour of steady effort or alternating hard and easy minutes. The distance never seems to make sense, and it doesn’t track vertical distance, but I do produce a 2-foot diameter pool of sweat and burn as many calories as the suggested total daily intake for most humans.

  5. Many late nights of step ups on the basement stairs watching Chopped, collecting ideas for future meals. I’d do this for 45-60 minutes, with several hundred for each leg, increasing the number throughout the winter. On many days, this was the only time I could fit something in. Last set, best set.

  6. Regular core work with Gav. I’m not good about doing core work by myself, but a strong core is a wicked advantage on a course like TiVO designed at Prospect. My goal is be as good at leg lifts as Gavin. There must be some sort of lever in there.

  7. Functional fitness artisan, organic, free range shoveling, snow fort building, and sled jump building. In case you were not aware, we got a lot of snow in MA this year. We don’t have a snow blower or hire a plow, and I spend hours piling all the snow on one side of the driveway for snow forts that last a couple of days.  It is the thought that counts. If you do any shoveling, I highly suggest wearing Microspikes, it takes a ton of strain off your back.

  8. Inspiring teammates. It was awesome to see everyone do so well at the World Snowshoe Championships last year, Cole’s strong race at the North American Championship this year, and to feel obligated to race well for a team score at Nationals. I am continually amazed at TiVO, who is now 50 and has been dominating masters snowshoeing for years. We should all want to be as fit as TiVO when we grow up.

 Just a little fort we built this winter...

Just a little fort we built this winter...

In addition to the race, it was an awesome weekend catching up with teammates and friends old and new. I do miss the ratio of race/social time at these shorter events. Thanks to TiVO and his team at Prospect Mountain Nordic Ski Center, Bob Dion (Dion Snowshoes) for his continuous support of snowshoe racing, and Joe and Elizabeth for room, board and dog. Congratulations to everyone who raced or volunteered, it was a weekend to remember!

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