River Falls Qualifier Sans Snowshoes Sees Several Falls on Slippery Course

It is a rare occurrence when there is little or no snow on the ground in early January in Wisconsin, and due to this uncommon situation this led to a snowshoe qualifying race (for the USSSA National Snowshoe Championships in Frisco, Colorado next month) being changed to trail race, minus snowshoes. The first 10-kilometer qualifier race of three this year in Wisconsin belonged to Whitetail Ridge on January 7 located in River Falls, in the western part of the state right along the Minnesota border.

The temperature was very mild on this day in the early 2012 winter, around 32 degrees and sunny with a slight western wind. For comparison, last year on race day it was 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 icy on most parts of the course, which led to treacherous footing on many of the small hills, quick turns and technical sections of the course.

Racers were cautioned ahead of time to be careful on the course, with suggestions of Yaktrax added to shoes for additional traction along with screws being inserted into the soles of shoes to help for grip too. Since a lot of racers may not have expected such icy conditions on the well-treaded course, a lot of runners slipped and took hard falls (including the author). Whoever fell though got up and kept going, knowing that they would have to sacrifice speed for safety. Plus for any chance to qualify for Nationals, one knew that they would have to keep going and move towards the finish line.

The very edges of the trail were covered with a bed of frozen leaves, but even trying to run on the fringes of the trail was somewhat unsafe as ankle-turning holes and rocks were hidden among the leaves. Keeping your center of gravity low and gripping onto trees among the many twists and turns of the trails became commonplace, especially whenever your momentum had you going too fast to slow down before one of the many icy turns. Overall, most racers had to run a little slower and more careful than what they would have liked to avoid another sure fall.

The start was in an open field, giving racers a chance to be spread out a little before entering the single track about a minute into the race (see picture of what the starting/finishing area looked like with the lack of snow available for any possible snowshoeing). The single track in the woods (besides being hazardously icy) was winding and technical, and it was hard-packed and faster going, especially versus last year’s deeper snow (see picture of race start with the lack of snow available for any possible snowshoeing, photo courtesy Barb McDonell). There were a couple open field sections that were mostly free of ice, which allowed for some faster running.

Times this year among the faster racers were a little over 10 minutes faster when compared to last year’s times when snowshoes were on. Even though the course was perilous, some racers were overheard afterwards saying that this type of race was fun and exhilarating. It was definitely an adrenaline-charged event on the mountain biking trails where small biking bridges were crossed and downed trees were hurdled as well – with no snow cover every obstacle on the course could be clearly seen. A final open finish led to the original starting line, curving around the barren field where the start was held earlier.

The best man on this day was Burnsville’s (Minnesota) Kyle Donovan, 25, who was able to breeze the course in a blazing fast time of 36:11 thanks to being able to scout out the course the night before. He saw the dire need for better footwear, needing something better than road racing flats, to gain the most traction. He selected a pair of cross country spikes he owned that were able minimize any possible slipping on the ice due to the longer spikes and lugs on the bottoms of the shoes that generated maximum grip. His shoe selection strategy worked very well as he was minutes ahead of his closest competitors.

Coming in second place again this year was hometown favorite Jim Felling, 33, residing in River Falls after attending the university years prior – he was just short of three minutes behind in 39:06, also torching the course in breaking 40 minutes. These two racers broke from the rest of the pack early, and were soon out of sight on the single track in the woods. One would think that their times would be nearly impossible to run with snowshoes on at a complete 10-kilometer course, so it’s definitely nice to be able to quote these times as what you were able to qualify with for the National Snowshoe Championships.

Third place overall went to Minneapolis’ Mark Brose, 43, crossing the line in 41:10. He was in a heated battle with a fellow Masters runner from Minnesota and was able to just hold him off. This was Woodbury’s Rob Class, 51, just three seconds behind Brose in 41:13, fourth place overall. Rounding out the top five behind the first four runners was Kronenwetter’s Kris Borchardt, 32, with a time of 42:50.

Woodbury’s Jim “Braveheart” McDonell, who finished sixth overall in 44:30, saw several people fall around him within the first mile and he was able to counteract the slipping and sliding with his Yaktrax placed over his shoes. It was the perfect occasion for using any resources like this that would help gain extra traction. Other people had ¾” spikes screwed into their shoes which also worked methodically well.

Hudson’s Megan Westhoff, 34, was the overall female winner in the 10-kilometer race, winning by a couple of minutes over her closest female competitor. Westhoff placed 10th overall in the race and rushed through the course in a time of 46:35. Second place again for the women this year was Minneapolis’ Emi Yasaka, 34, with a time of 48:38, taking 12th overall. Maple Grove’s Lisa Trainer, 52, was also able to get under the tough 50-minute mark, finishing third among women and 14th overall taking down the course in 49:40.

In the 10-kilometer race there were 30 total competitors, 22 men and 8 women, a good number of them now USSSA qualifiers. There was also a 5-kilometer race, with 10 total competitors in the shorter race. Last year, there were 91 total snowshoe racers but because of the lack of snow, it unfortunately led to a much lower turnout (less than half with 40 racers) for snowshoe enthusiasts at Whitetail Ridge on this first Saturday of January.

One of the race directors, River Falls’ Mike Most, elaborated on the race course, “in the first part of the week I knew this would be a trail race. We posted on our website that people should be using Yaktrax or shoes that had good traction. We kept people off of one bad section that was really icy.” He thought that the attendance was still good bearing in mind the conditions, “we’re considering the turnout was good because of the lack of snow”.

Mr. Most applauded the local mountain biking group, “it’s great to have six-plus miles of single track (of mountain biking trails to use) right in town. The Mountain Biking Association is a good group and a town resource.” Most is part of that biking group and it was his first time helping with this River Falls race, in its third year as a snowshoe event.

After competing, racers were able to warm up inside the lodge with many different kinds of chili and other treats available for free while awaiting the awards ceremony. The awards were personalized round clay plaques, made by local potter Matt Howie, 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. But these weren’t the only prizes given away after the race.

Jim “Braveheart” McDonell again also gave away his personalized awards for snowshoe racers that participated in seven or more of Braveheart Snowshoe Series races in 2011. His series will continue this year – it is billed as the biggest snowshoe series in the Midwest, and he has Dion Snowshoes, Wintergreen Northern Wear, Thorlo Socks and Silent Glide Canoe and Kayak as sponsors this year. Braveheart quantified, “we had 80 people in the series last year in our second year, and I’m hoping for 100 this year. This will definitely get us more sponsors with these numbers.”

His awards were triangularly cone-shaped crosscuts of wood with his signature blue-and-white Braveheart snowflake logo glued onto the face of the plaque, plus a stamped insignia of his Braveheart Series on the front. He undoubtedly worked hard on producing each of these wooden trophies, stating that he spent fifteen hours each for all sixteen pieces to be given away to lucky avid snowshoe racing participants in Minnesota and Wisconsin – much appreciated, Braveheart, for all the handcrafted hard work (see picture of Braveheart displaying his trophies).

For many racers, this was the first step of a successful season that they hope will conclude with a great final race at the National Championships, which will be held on the Frisco course in Colorado. It is expected that the Nationals course will have lots of snow (being in the Colorado Rockies at elevation), but snowshoe racers who ran the snowless trails at the Whitetail Ridge Snowshoe Challenge will have to wait at least another weekend to practice in specificity for it (see picture of one snowshoe aficionado’s license plate for wishful thinking for a snowshoein’ race on this snowless weekend).

The 2012 results for this race should be available at http://www.snowshoeracing.com/results2012.htm and at http://www.kinnioffroad.com/snowshoe.html, where you would also be able to browse the 2010/2011 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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