2008 USSSA Nationals – View From the Back of the Pack

So just where is Ogden, Utah? I’ve found myself asking a similar question each of the past 4 years, with the answer always being the same: Why, that’s where athletes from all parts of the country attach snowshoes to their feet and strive to exceed that day’s personal best on a 10k snow-covered race course … that’s where the USSSA Snowshoe National Championship are in 2008!

And where are the USSSA Snowshoe Nationals? It’s were winter athletes see familiar faces that they haven’t seen in days … or weeks … or months … or since last year’s National. It’s where friends shared a meal and caught up on the past year … reminisced about epic battles … and eyed-up present competition.

Ogden also happens to be about an hour north of Salt Lake City, just off Interstate 15, at an altitude some 4300ft. higher than my Parkside neighborhood – a 5min. walk to the Pacific in San Francisco. To the west, the Great Salt Lake, and to the east, the Wasatch-Cashe National Forest / Mt Ogden / Snowbasin Resort.

And as I came to realize, not only the area, but the town too, was one of contrasts and pleasant surprise. Driving down the main street of Ogden – Washington Blvd. – late FRI afternoon, expecting that the Hampton Inn would look little different from the completely booked Marriott serving as the event hotel, I drove right past the old building on the corner of 24th and under the ‘It Pays To Live In Ogden’ sign spanning the street before realizing my mistake and heading back towards the center of town.

Upon entering the building, I immediately realized that my error was only driving related, because I found myself in the lobby of this recently renovated ‘historic’ hotel building being assisted by the friendliest staff imaginable. From my upper story windows I could see the sunset reflecting off of the gold-gilded statue of Maroni atop the Mormon Temple and the bright lights of the Salomon Center – “one of the 10 man-made adventures of the modern world”. And next door, somewhat consumed by the modern Eccles Convention Center is the ‘historic’ Peery’s Egyptian Theater.

You’d never guess that the Xterra Winter World’s or the USSSA Snowshoe Nationals were happening by walking the streets of Ogden, asking locals, or walking through the lobby of the Marriott. Fortunately I came across 2 familiar snowhoer faces – Cindy Brockman and Laurie Lambert – in the Marriott lobby, who told me about the ‘Secret’ $20- Event Pasta Dinner that I chose to forgo in favor of a local culinary adventure. Down the block and around the corner placed me back in the late 1800’s and in the center of Ogden’s dining district – ‘Historic 25th Street’.

After a false start at a Greek restaurant challenged at serving an order of humus & pita bread within the 30min. cutoff, I walked further down the street to the Artisan Grill which treats the famished like their closest friend and creates food to match. Guilt-ridden during the all too short walk back to the hotel and convincing myself of the need for an early morning workout in the hotel gym, during my elevator ascent to the 7th floor, I had far less problem falling asleep, as head hit pillow, than waking at 4:30AM in this 1hr. earlier time zone.

Not knowing what to expect at the Snowbasin Resort and the Xterra Winter World’s, as my memory-lasting experience with Triathlons was Wildflower in central California – an all weekend event equated with Woodstock by youngish athletes whose parents were yet-to-be-born when the countercultural blizzard shut down the New York Turnpike in the middle of summer – and not yet registered for Sunday’s National’s, I opted for an early start AM/SAT on the 30min. drive into the mountains.

Overnight mixed precipitation in Ogden equated to slush-covered roads in the mountains and some 4in. of snow on the Snowbasin slopes above the Base Lodge at 6,450ft. Driving into the parking lot just after 8:00AM – the start of registration and 2hr. before race start – I was surprised to see very few cars. Fears of long registration lines, already on the wane, were completely dispelled when I walked into the main lodge, registered for the USSSA Nationals, and picked up a Press Packet in less than 5min. Recovering from that surprise, and realizing that I had close to 2hr. before cheering on snowshoe friends at the Xterra start-line, I decided to wake-up in the dining area.

Coffee sounded good and the cafeteria menu looked great. So, in another 5min., I was through the food line and check-out with a large, steaming hot coffee, a great looking melted swiss & mushroom scramble, and side of sausage. This was about the time that it began registering that this wasn’t the typical Downhill Day Lodge – real tables and upholstered chairs, huge chandeliers hanging from a massive log beamed roof structure, floor-to-ceiling multi-paned window walls overlooking the ski slopes – and the food was great. A trip to the lower level restrooms before leaving the lodge only added to the surprise. If the stone floored, oak paneled, granite counter wash area wasn’t enough, raised panel oak door enclosed toilet rooms with gold plated fixture hardware were the substitute for generic stalls.

While skimming through the Press Packet at the dining area table during breakfast, I discovered that of the 3 – CA / NV snowshoers qualifying at the ASC Snowshoe Challenge at Donner Summit who mentioned little more than that they were competing both in the Xterra Winter World’s and the USSSA Snowshoe Nationals, two women – Emma Garrard and PattyJo Struve – were pro-racers with athlete bios, and Emma and amateur-racer Ross McMahan were in the combined Summer & Winter World’s ‘Fire & Ice’ competition.

Learning from the very helpful Xterra staff that their weren’t any great spectator areas on the course to view all 4 race stages (10k Mtn Bike / 5k Snowshoe / 5k Run / 2200ft.Ski Mountaineer ascent / descent), I decided to watch the downhill mountain bike on snow start and take the Wildcat chairlift to the highpoint of the final stage mountaineering ski ascent. What better place to cheer the surprisingly small field of 60 racers than at the top of the final ascent section, especially since each racer had to do this section twice before the descent to the finish line.

I was on the Wildcat chairlift as the race announcer began calling out names & numbers of the first finishers in the 10k Mtn. Bike – it sounded like 6 Men’s Division cyclists finished within 1min. of each other in just over 20min. (the apx. 18mph is faster than I average on my road bike and I call myself a ‘cyclist’). Snow flurries began as I rode the chairlift to its 7,750ft. summit – a light, springtime snow similar to ‘sugaring’ snows marking maple sugaring season in northern New England. With clouds continuing to stack-up on the 5 peaks over 9000ft. forming the resort slopes, and winds gaining force on the ridge, I decided to strap-on my snowshoes and hike below ridgeline to look for the best viewing vantage points and keep warm in the lightweight cotton and poly clothing that was sufficient an hour earlier and 1,300ft. lower.

I must have been hiking around on these upper slopes for 45min. before I saw the first of the Xterra / Snowbasin race staff and learned from them the exact course route. Then within another 30min., the first skiers (yes, that’s plural!), 4 Men’s Division Pros, were on the uppermost climb section and only seconds apart. When it was over, all 4 racers finished in just under 2hr. with under 2sec. between 1st place Brian Smith (1:58:29) and 2nd place Josiah Middaugh, followed by 3rd place Nicolas Lebrun another 9sec. back and 4th place Michael Kloser 1min. off 3rd (1:59:57).

It was just under an hour later when I saw the first familiar faces – Ross McMahan(2nd 30-39M / 2:51:30) followed a few minutes later by Emma Garrard (5th Women’s Pro / 2:58:16). After Ross and Emma circled and ascended the uppermost climb for the second time and began to slalom to the finish line, I began my snowshoe run / slide / walk to the lodge along the course cheering on the final 15-20 racers only to find out at the transition area that PattyJo decided to DNF the ski mountaineering section in favor of the Nationals on SUN.

After a late lunch, I decided that I’d at least go around the apx. 6k, predominately groomed, first lap of the snowshoe course. While still on the flats along the perimeter of the parking lot, I met up with Jim and Karen Meskimen returning from skiing on the Nordic trail system. Then at the juncture where the trail turns away from the pavement, I met up with USSSA Director Mark Elmore as he was placing additional trail markers – 5ft., blue, bamboo poles topped with blue discs for lap #1 and green discs for lap #2.

While talking with Mark (and repetitiously repeating to myself the new-found info: ‘blue-on-the-right’), CA / NV snowshoer Sylvester Coons appeared from the parking lot having just registered for National. In deference to my lack of training, we did a brisk uphill walk / downhill run around the ‘blue’ course while Sylvester (considerably younger, very much faster, and at training peak) told me about the European snowshoe races that he’d competed in this past winter. Just 2 weeks earlier he was at the 10k European Snowshoe Championships in Grau Roig, Andorra.

A course so steep, that when certain he was off course, Sylvester looked skyward in despair, only to realize it went straight up at a grade so steep that the only safe way to look back was between your legs. Then the following week he was at the 6k Swiss Snowshoe Championships in Grimentz – at 3,000ft elevation gain in 3k that’s something in the order of a 30% grade. Compared to Sylvester’s 3 snowshoe races in as many weeks, I had only a couple weeks of NordicTrak training / compared to the Xterra athletes, 11 of them completed all 4 stages in less time than my 10k at the ASC Snowshoe Challenge.

Fully accepting my fate on SUN, I met up with Jim Graupner for dinner at another attentive 25th Street restaurant, Bistro 258. Fortunate for me, as I learned that daylight savings time clock changes were in order for SUN. So I got to the race on time – along with 90 other snowshoers / 6 having competed in the Xterra Winter World’s on SAT. The day was postcard beautiful (unlike the previous day’s windy, overcast, intermittent light snow conditions). Colder overnight temperatures did much to firm-up the softer snow conditions. The field of 5 Juniors (down from 14 in 2007) – 2 Junior Men / 3Junior Women – were off at 9:00AM, with the fastest Junior Men’s / Junior Women’s times being posted by Zachary Rivers (30:21) and Alyssa Smith (39:32).

With only 45min. between the start of the Men’s and Women’s 10k races, there was little chance for either group to be cheering spectators for the other, while the possibility existed for a few Men’s Division front runners to be racing uphill towards the Start / Finish while Women’s Division runners were racing downhill after the Start. Somehow it all worked out, with Josiah Middaugh, the day after finishing 2nd in the Xterra Winter World’s, finishing 1st in 45:54.

The next 4 finishers, who along with Josiah, make up the 2008 USSSA National Men’s Team, all finished within the next 1.5min., with Greg Krause, 6th in the Winter World’s, finishing 4th in the Snowshoe National’s. As a result of course design and my running at a considerably slower pace, I saw the first 20 runners heading back from the ‘blue’ 1st lap as I was approaching the beginning of that laps only single-track section. Then as I was on the return section of the 1st lap, I first saw all 34 Women’s Division runners as they approached the first uphill / switchback section, and then as I approached the parking lot and headed towards the ‘green’ 2nd lap, I saw the next 15 Men’s Division runners heading towards the uphill Finish. In each case, familiar faces offering / receiving encouraging cheers in passing.

To the credit of Mark Elmore and both the Snowbasin & Xterra staff, at least traveling at my speed, the trail marking was excellent and staff were posted at every groomed / single-track trail transition or crossing. Other than the runners themselves, these staff members were the cheering spectators offering encouragement to every snowshoer who passed. Occasionally, looking through the trees, I’d see Edward Jeanette and possibly Richard Busa ahead of me on this 6k, 1st lap. Since both appeared older than me, I knew that if not in the actual results, certainly in the handicapped results, I’d be in last place. On such a beautiful day, on a great course through some beautiful wooded and open-field country, I had no problem accepting the inevitable.

Surprised that I hadn’t been passed by Women’s Division front-runners before I reached the water station at the start of the predominantly single-track, ‘green’ 2nd lap, I decided to face the inevitable with courage, shed both hat and outer-layer jersey, down a few cups of water, and fill my now empty water bottle, before setting out on the final 4k. Despite rising temperatures, the snow remained firm.

The ‘green’ soon dropped (literally) off of the groomed trail in a series of cascades and off-camber terraces to wind around trees alongside a small stream before a gradual uphill climb brought it to a staff-monitored groomed trail crossing at about km 7. Within sight of this crossing, I heard the 1st place women runner, Keri Nelson, closing distance. Looking back, I then stepped off trail to let her pass. It was 3-4min. later on a thinly wooded flat section that I stepped aside for 2nd place Lindsay Krause and within 1-2min. allowed 3rd place Sarah Raitter to pass at the beginning of a long, gradual downhill into a flat, opened field. It was fun keeping up with her stride for stride on the downhill, but immediately resuming my slower pace on the field section.

At the beginning of the one steep single-track climb on the 2nd lap, I saw Edward Jeanette for the first time since the end of lap #1, hiking up the second half of the trail. It was on this uphill section that 4th place Sarah Gall, 5th place Sonja Wieck, Karen Melliar-Smith, and Laurie Lambert passed me. To my surprise, by the bottom of the long downhill ending at the groomed trail along the parking lot, I’d caught and passed Edward. I’d promised myself a fast-paced, below 155bpm heart rate, hike for the final 1k to the Finish. I fully expected that if Edward didn’t run past me before the uphill to the Finish, he would come alongside me on the hill and we could walk across the Finish together. In the end, he finished apx. 30sec. behind me – handicap adjustments reversing our finish by that same time gap.

The Women’s Division finished in the order listed above. Of the top 5 finishers making up the USSSA National Women’s Team, Keri Nelson, 7th in the Xterra Winter World’s, finished 1st with a time of 57:05, both Lindsay Krause and Sarah Raitter finished in under 1hr, and Sarah Gall and Sonja Wieck finishing just seconds over the 1hr. mark.

A nice thing about a leisurely 10k jog along a snowshoe course is that it affords considerable time to observe course design, snow conditions, surrounding scenery, passing runners, with more than sufficient time to reflect on past and present races, as well as, the sport itself. And one thing can be said for a 10k: it’s just a day race – from registration to awards with the occasional lunch, over in just a few hours. Some few national contenders travel whatever the distance, while the field is filled by those making it a day trip. What makes the USSSA Snowshoe National’s special is that half or more of the membership travels the distance every year not just to race for an hour (or two), but also, to visit with old friends and make new ones, explore new regions, and maybe just for a few days escape to a world ‘as pure as the fresh driven snow.

Whether your 1st, or your 4th like me, or your 8th USSSA National, I hope that everyone had a never to forget, great time. And for those who sometimes wish that the playing field was leveled at least once in their life, below are the handicap results based on handicap data from the oldest trail race in this country – The Dipsea in Marin County, CA.

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John Stauffer