Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Beyond the Edge of Reason

As I lined up with some 25 hearty runners, some 4,000 miles from where I was supposed to be, it wasn’t hard to question the sanity of this endeavor.

The thermometer here dipped to below bitter all week, dropping to -44 on Friday, and -40 on Saturday morning. I knew racing under such conditions was somewhat whacky, but the Birkie was semi-cancelled and I had to do something to keep from going more crazy.

After some last minute instructions, the race officials informed us that the reading at the university trails was -32 F. No doubt this one would hurt.

The two lap course wound through the UAF ski trail system, with about half of it on packed ski trails and half on narrow, single track snowshoe trails that ranged from well-worn hard pack to very soft, rough, and unstable snow. Right away, I jumped into the lead group as the first kilometer was on a 12 foot wide ski trail. Then we cut into the single tracks and I was suddenly in 2nd place, perhaps too much too soon. Chad and Kevin are still in their 30s and quite capable of 33 min 10k. I just tried to hold it steady and keep in contact, but within a couple minutes the pace was too much and I was thinking about letting Kevin by. Suddenly that became moot, as I caught an edge on the narrow track and tumbled down. By the time I got up they had 30-40 m, and they weren’t going to come back.

Meanwhile, masters runner Simon (a very talented Brit who doesn't train that much) was just a few meters back, so I got into a new rhythm by 2k and just tried to keep from going too anaerobic. However, the next three kilometers were the toughest, with lots of hills and a kilometer of broken trail.

Although the Arctic freeze bit into my face over the first kilometer or two, forcing me to adjust my balaclava every minute or so, nothing else was cold. No doubt I had dressed well, with 4 layers of pants and 6 layers on top, in a combination of polypropylene and lycra. Relatively warm but it did feel somewhat restrictive.

At the end of the first lap (22:57) Simon had dropped back and I could no longer hear him, while Kevin was in sight at times, but far ahead maybe 45 seconds.

From beginning to end, the 2nd lap was easier. I didn’t want to strain, but would stride out on the occasional downhill section. I was actually warm by then, and if anything I felt too confined with too many layers. But there was no time to drop a layer. I was battling on the hard slope of oxygen debt as I wound through the forest, alternating between stunted black spruce in the boggy areas and white birch on the hills, hoping to hold on for a few more kilometers.

Snowshoe running can feel a bit like running in a swamp in slow motion with these awkward contraptions on your feet. I could feel my energy reserves waning, but no one was behind as I made the last climb with less than a k to go, which allowed for a 46:43 finish, enough for 3rd overall.

It wasn’t the Birkie, but the Classic good cardiovascular outlet to prepare the upcoming races, which feel like an afterthought.


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