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Wisconsin’s Whitetail Ridge Qualifier a Wild Winter Ride

This year the Dion Snowshoes USSSA National Championship Race will be in Wisconsin, and the lone qualifier race in this snowshoeing state belonged to Whitetail Ridge on January 8 located in River Falls, in the western part of the state right along the Minnesota border. The temperature was at its coldest so far in the early 2011 winter, bitterly cold at zero degrees with a wind chill of around 12 below for the ten o’clock morning start. The Whitetail Ridge Snowshoe Challenge, which hosts off-road cycling on the same course as the 10-kilometer qualifying race during the summer, was very challenging on some parts and technical on others.

Since this was the only Wisconsin qualifier for Snowshoe Nationals, this race saw a lot of population from north-central Wisconsin (a hotbed area for snowshoe racing) traveling three hours or more to qualify along with seeing some Minnesota residents making the short trip across the border. They saw a modified start for the second edition of this race (which debuted in 2010), as a small starting loop made through deep sugary snow gave racers about a minute to spread out before heading onto the single track through the woods.

The start was blinding and quad-burning, as fresh snow being kicked up by dozens of racers’ snowshoes made it nearly a complete whiteout as finding footing through the madness was guesswork (see picture of the start, courtesy Adam Speer for photos). But this gave the opportunity for the faster racers to be free and clear of most of the field once the single-track began, and although the single track was winding and technical, it was hard-packed and faster going.

Shortly after a mile, the course climbed a steep hill that led to an open field section that was anything but fast. It took several minutes to churn through the deep, sugary snow that lay ahead that really worked the quads, calves, and hips to the max. This led to more single track in the woods with winding, technical paths and short, steep hills to traverse. There were two more open field sections that were shorter and a little less difficult with more woody sections interspersed before an open straightaway finish led to the original starting line.

The best man on this day was St. Paul’s Kelly Mortensen, 39, who was able pull off a time of 48:12 on this difficult course. He actually kept himself close in a tight pack of four men in the front, and made his move from fourth to first just after the halfway point. “My plan was to go 30 to 35 minutes ‘easy’ and I decided to make a pass and go for first at that time, around the 32-minute mark.” He made his move in the second open field section, but still enjoyed other parts of the course. “I loved the hard-packed single track and the fields where you had to work a little bit. I was glad that the whole race wasn’t like the start with the sugary powder. It makes it hard as there’s no easy line to follow.”

Mortensen plans to do a couple other races that are qualifiers in Minnesota this season. “I plan to go to Duluth next Sunday, with my wife and co-worker so they can qualify too. It’s my first time doing this one (Whitetail Ridge). I want to be strong at Nationals – I’m turning 40 this year and I want to be competitive still.” Mortensen was ninth overall at the USSSA Nationals in 2010 and will surely be very competitive again at Nationals in Cable in 2011. He has a great chance to be tops again in his age group as he jumps to the 40-44 category this year (see picture of Mortensen with his award).

Edgar’s Michael Wenzel, 23, led for a good part of the race but fell to second in 49:06 after being passed by Mortensen. Wenzel was running his first official snowshoe race and fared really well on his Atlas brand. Closely following was hometown favorite Jim Felling, 32, still residing in River Falls after attending the university years prior – he was close on the heels of Wenzel finishing in 49:13.  Fourth place overall went to current college (University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire) freshman Jeffrey Quednow, 19, formerly of Westboro (see picture of him choosing his footing), in 49:48. Rounding out the top five behind that four-pack of runners was Kronenwetter’s Kris Borchardt, 31, with a time of 53:15.

Farmington’s Rebecca Sauber, 35, was the overall female winner in the 10-kilometer race, and also qualified for Nationals. She had a comfortable margin of victory, winning by a couple of minutes in her first ever snowshoe race. She is a professional mountain biker and actually was familiar with the course because of that other outdoor sport. “The course was good – I knew the course from biking (in the WORS series). I just bought snowshoes 3 weeks ago for training – it is very fun.” Her husband Lonie helped get her into snowshoeing. Sauber is also fit from running a lot of mileage and had completed a marathon recently. She’s planning on racing the Minneapolis Snowshoe Shuffle later on in the year, where she is sure to further sharpen up her skills in her new sport.

Second place for the women was Minneapolis’ Emi Yasaka, 33, with a time of 1:02:10. Phillips’ Kristi Speer, 29, was a few minutes back in 1:05:39 with West Lakeland’s Kristin Miller, 48, following shortly behind in fourth place crossing the line in 1:06:31 (see picture of Miller and her racing style). Eau Claire’s Kelly Wonder, 35, rounded out the top five for the women with a time of 1:10:01.

In the 10-kilometer race there were 64 total competitors, 46 men and 18 women, a good number of them now USSSA qualifiers.  There was also a 5-kilometer race and the overall male winner was Doug Johnson in 35:51. The overall female winner in that race was Sarah Heil in 41:13.  There were 25 total competitors in the shorter race, with 14 men and 11 women participating. Including all races, there were 91 total competitors at Whitetail Ridge on the second Saturday of January.

Two people were tough (and crazy) enough to run the 10-kilometer course twice, and this was overall 20-kilometer winner Keith Wilson and runner-up Ross Jilk. Wilson completed the course with a winning time of 2:15:24 and Jilk crossed the line at 2:30:18. This was definitely a long time to be out in the elements, but they were able to finish the extended race long after everyone else had time to warm up inside the lodge with many different kinds of chili and other treats available free while awaiting the awards.

The awards were personalized round clay plaques with detailing of the race and with age category. First place in each age group received the plaques, and these were broken down by age groupings of five-year increments. Jim “Braveheart” McDonell also gave away his personalized awards for snowshoe racers that participated in six or more of Braveheart Snowshoe Series races in 2010. The series will continue this year – it is billed as the biggest snowshoe series in the Midwest, and he has Dion Snowshoes, Wintergreen Northern Wear, and Adidas as sponsors this year. His awards were circular crosscuts of wood with the person’s name and miniature wooden snowshoes on the face of the plaque.

A short history of this trail, and race, shows the enthusiasm going into this snowshoe race.The race actually grew out of a club in River Falls called, Kinni Off Road Cyclist (KORC). Paul Marietta, one of the race directors, gave this account. “We are a bunch of mountain bikers who build and maintain the trails up at Whitetail. The trails were originally made by my good friends and fellow snowshoers/bikers Rick Cleary and Fred Johnson. Rick, Fred and I are all avid bikers now, but all of us started as runners. We also all dabble in ultra running. Anyway, we had a pretty good trail system off the kinnikinnic river in River Falls, but it was only about four miles. Once Whitetail Ridge started getting further developed by the KORC club, we all joined.

We suggested hosting a trail run to help fund the club, a non-profit, then adding the snowshoe race was the natural progression. It follows the mountain bike trails pretty closely. We cut out some of the newer trails, but added more field sections. We were worried there was too much single track without passing lanes. For a while after the big snowfall we were on cloud nine. It was taking us hours just to get through one loop because it was over our knees. The big rainfall took so much away and crusted everything up. That made us all nervous. Luckily, a few inches came down throughout the week to help the course. It even added some powder in the fields.”

For many racers, this was the first step of a successful season that they hope will conclude with a great personal race at the National Championships, which will be held on March 12th in northern Wisconsin just around 130 miles northeast of the state’s lone qualifier in River Falls. It is expected that the Nationals course will be challenging, and snowshoe racers got a good taste of this at the Whitetail Ridge Snowshoe Challenge.

The 2011 results for this race are available at http://www.snowshoeracing.com/results2011.htm and at http://www.kinnioffroad.com/snowshoe.html, where you would also be able to browse the 2010 results.

United States Snowshoe Association: www.snowshoeracing.com – results available and a listing of the qualified racers for the National Championships.

Comments or thoughts about this race or story? E-mail kris.borchardt@ingenixconsulting.com.

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